Saturday, January 31, 2015

@AamAadmiParty - might they be an Indian liberal party?

There was a conference taking place at my hotel, and the restaurant was full for breakfast, and so, when I was asked if I would mind sharing my table with someone else, it would have been churlish to refuse.

And, as you do, we got talking, the young man and I. He asked why I was in Delhi, assuming, not unreasonably, that I was probably in town for business, so I explained that It was merely a jet lag stopover on the way to Mumbai to visit family. He works in Bangalore for a big, international IT firm - I won't name it just in case - but was in town to meet with local campaigners for the Aam Aadmi Party, the newest big thing on the Indian political scene.

Aam Aadmi, which is Hindi for 'common man' sprang from a people's anti-corruption movement three years ago, and calls for action against corruption in politics as well as society at large, devolution of power from the centre and community building. It does sound vaguely familiar, and indeed the party is considered to be centre-left.

The fight against corruption is very much an issue amongst the emerging middle class and, especially, young people, who see it as a way to improve India's prospects. And, given the endemic levels of corruption in Indian politics, only a new political force is likely to have the motivation required to change things.

My young breakfast companion was rather enthusiastic, emphasising that they don't get big corporate donors and that funds are raised predominantly from supporters (still sounding a bit familiar, isn't it?). They call for a radical change in the way India is run, and I was beginning to tick some of those philosophical boxes that you have when you're testing out potential new members of ALDE and the Liberal International.

And so, with my International Relations Committee hat on, I explained a little about international political families, and how forming links with like-minded parties in other democracies might be useful - access to training, new ideas, campaigning techniques, policy making, all of the things that new political movements can struggle with.

It was a lot to think of, I admit, but you should never miss out on an opportunity to spread liberalism or, at the very least, internationalism, so perhaps a message might be conveyed to someone of influence in the party as something to consider.

And, who knows, liberalism might have a genuine champion in India one day...

If attempting to catch your flight, do not, I repeat, do not, try this yourself...

Onwards to Mumbai, on the 13.30 IndiGo flight from Terminal 1 at Delhi Airport. So, naturally, one should aim to be the airport well in advance, right? And, if travelling in a city you don't know particularly well, you would make sure of your route first, wouldn't you?

I am not a huge fan of airports, so I left my hotel at 11.15 after a leisurely breakfast (of which, more later), allowing an hour and a quarter to get to the airport, with the intention of arriving an hour before flight time. It was one of those days, however, when everything seemed to travel in slow motion, and it was 12.35 by the time I reached Delhi Aerocity to catch the shuttle bus to the domestic terminal. Ten minutes until close of check-in (45 minutes before departure) so still hope maybe?

That hope was quickly extinguished, as I was confronted with an elderly bus with a missing driver, so my ten minutes was down to three, with the bus ride ahead. As it turned out, it was a circuitous bus ride and it was 12.57 when I reached check-in. With the air of a condemned man, I approached an IndiGo staff member who pointed me to check-in zone G, where I could be helped. I was not optimistic...

And then, to my surprise, hope. An IndiGo staff member saw me, brought me to the right desk, bypassing the queue, to a man who looked at the booking on my iPhone. It was 12.59. Without batting an eyelid, he said yes, printed off a boarding pass and handed me back to his colleague.

The world then became a blur, as the queue for security was ignored, my briefcase was placed on the screening belt and I was escorted to a seemingly express gate for personal screening. I was then led to my gate. From arrival to gate in ten minutes, in India of all places, and a flight caught against the odds. And, at the end of it, an exit row seat with extra legroom (which I hadn't paid for).

And so, I am in Mumbai, in another hotel room. Next stop, Eagle's Nest...

Friday, January 30, 2015

Adventures on the Delhi Metro

I could imagine that arriving in a strange city at 6.35 a.m. could be quite stressful, especially one that assaults the senses as Delhi does, with its noise and its poverty. And, even though I am a relatively seasoned traveller, particularly in India, a sleepless night on an aeroplane is not the ideal way to start a trip.

Having booked a hotel some way from the airport, and not being too keen on local taxis - let's just say that the traffic is diabolical, the driving slightly worse - I had decided to try the Metro system, something the locals are quite proud of. So, what do I think?

Well, as a first impression, it lacks a certain something, i.e. ticket machines that work, although a very polite and helpful young man did sell me a token for the Airport Express to New Delhi Railway Station, for the princely sum of 100 Rupees (about £1.10) - very cheap by international standards. It isn't really designed for people with luggage though, as they insist on screening your bag and making you pass through one of those metal detectors.

The train, however, is clean, quick and, surprisingly, rather empty. Mind you, the fare is extortionate by local standards. In just twenty minutes, the train speeds into the centre and, if that had been all that I had to do, it would have been fine. However, I still had two more rides, in the middle of the morning rush, on the equally clean, but rather cheaper and busier normal metro lines.

Stopping only to purchase a 19 Rupees ticket to Rithala, at the end of the Red Line, I then had to join a long queue to pass through security (not very serious but time-consuming, nonetheless). Despite that, the Yellow Line train to Kashmere Gate was pretty quiet. It was there that things got a bit more lively, as the connecting Red Line train was much busier. It had, however, emptied out by the time it arrived at Rithala, where I learned that the locals haven't really got the hang of letting people off of the train first. Confronted with a wall of people, I was obliged to force my way through them, running a few of them over with my luggage in the process.

I did get to my hotel, however, and was checked in by 9.30. So now my game plan is a gentle nap, followed by lunch. The afternoon will sort itself out, I guess...

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Hope? Yes by all means, but don't get carried away...

I read the piece by Maelo Manning the other day with some interest and found her thoughts on the question of hope intriguing. She is, of course, right - when times are hard, as they still are, giving voters a prospect of better times ahead is a means of convincing people that short-term pain will lead to long-term gain. There is, however (and you just knew that I was going to say that, didn't you?), a catch, in that such hope has to be based in reality.

Frankly, I fear for the Greek people. The decision of the incoming Syriza-led administration to unpick significant chunks of the agreed package of reform will frighten the markets - the Athens stock market is already in severe crisis. And, whilst the attractive option is to tell the markets to go screw themselves (that's a technical term, you understand), the fact that government spending is already dependent on the funds supplied in exchange for those reforms will inevitably lead to a gap between income and expenditure. You can, naturally, fill that gap by increasing income through taxation (slow and by no means guaranteed) or, more likely, through borrowing. So, let me ask you this, would you lend money to Greece right now? Could you be confident that Tsipras and his colleagues wouldn't renege on the debt? I wouldn't be.

You might say, "Ah, but Europe couldn't allow such a thing to happen, a deal would be cut, surely?". And yes, it is possible, but given the sacrifices that the likes of Estonia, Latvia and Slovakia have made to reform their economies, why should they give the Greeks an easy ride? And what message does it send to others if the Greeks do get to keep their bloated public sector and relatively generous welfare provision, neither of which they can afford?

But the message is equally true here. I won't bother with the Greens, as their economic policy is verging on laughable, but Labour's talk of cutting the deficit whilst apparently not making any cuts that will upset people is equally absurd. Saving the NHS by giving it more money is merely a short-term fix unless we are going to use that window to reform it in a sustainable way (Liberal Democrats please note...), and ring-fencing key budgets only means even greater pain for the remainder of the public sector if an aim to eliminate the deficit by 2020 is to be credible.

No, there will be more pain, more "blood, sweat and tears" to be endured over the next five years. The possible reward is an economy that can be sustained, a welfare system that protects the vulnerable and a public sector that delivers what we need, rather than what we desire.

Time for another journey - London to New Delhi via... Helsinki, obviously...

I am an inveterate traveller. In some ways, the actual journey is almost as anticipated as the destination, especially as I do like to find less obvious ways of getting from A to B - London to Pula via Stuttgart and Zagreb, or London to Copenhagen via Brussels and Hamburg, to name but two trips in the recent past.

So, having decided that a trip to visit my family was overdue, I searched for airfares and, taking into account convenience of flight times, airline reputation and so forth, I came to the conclusion that the best option was, somewhat unexpectedly, Finnair.

And yes, I had considered British Airways (too expensive), Turkish Airlines (nasty arrival and departure times in Mumbai), Lufthansa (expensive and not that convenient), Ethiopian Airlines (awful connection in Addis Ababa) and a raft of others, but Finnair, whose flight arrives in New Delhi at 6.35 am and departs again at 10.40 am, offered that optimal combination of comfort, timing and affordability.

So, I'll be on a British Airways flight out of Heathrow Terminal 3 in an hour or so (it's a Finnair code share flight as they're both part of the One World alliance) and I'll be back soon enough. Don't worry, I won't be silent whilst I'm away...

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Kathy Pollard calls out Suffolk Tories on Ipswich congestion

According to the East Anglian Daily Times, Ben Gummer, Ipswich's MP, and Mark Bee, leader of Suffolk County Council, think that cheaper parking in Ipswich is the answer to revitalising the town. Kathy Pollard, the former leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Suffolk County Council, has her own thoughts;
So the Conservatives believe that cheaper parking is the way to revitalise Ipswich town centre! Why aren’t they promoting public transport as a more environmentally friendly option to get into town? Why don’t they re-open the Bury Road park and ride site, which has stood empty for the last four years?
It was an incredibly popular service and passenger numbers were increasing. Liberal Democrat councillors fought hard to save it. We surveyed hundreds of people who used the service for work or leisure. Many shoppers told us they would visit Ipswich less or not at all if it closed. We challenged the Conservative run County council who had failed to consult both passengers and local businesses.
Conservative councillors have made a number of unfortunate decisions since then which have adversely affected Ipswich park and ride. The first of these was to replace the separate Martlesham and London Road (Copdock) services with one end to end service. Not only does this cause endless confusion for first time visitors, but it also leads to long delays when there are traffic problems at either end of the route. This has resulted in a big drop in people using the service to get to work. 
In addition, when there were separate services the buses used to loop round the town centre. This meant that passengers could get off and on at the same stop. It was much better for people with mobility problems – another group who weren’t consulted. If you wanted to get to the hospital or the railway station you got off one park and ride bus and onto the one headed in that direction.
Finally fare increases have discouraged family groups. When we ran the County council we charged one fare per car load. Now if there are more than two adults in the party park and ride becomes an expensive option.
So Messrs Gummer and Bee show us your green credentials! The Bury Road park and ride terminus building, the car park and the approach roads are still there. Just re-open it. Park and ride is a great service. Support it!
Quite right, Kathy! 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Suffolk Liberal Democrats gather in Pinewood (no, not that Pinewood...)

The most likely outcome of the General Election will be another coalition Government, Liberal Democrats were told at a conference in Ipswich at the weekend.

Baroness Ros Scott, who lives in Suffolk, said that the mould of single party Government at Westminster had now been broken. 

Addressing a packed audience of Liberal Democrat councillors and volunteers, she said;
In the early months of the coalition government commentators predicted it would last just a few months. They were wrong. Let's not forget the difference that Liberal Democrats have made. The party has been able to deliver on many of its promises - including cutting income tax for the low paid and giving extra help to children who most need it."
There was also a lively question and answer session with Parliamentary hopefuls Grace Weaver from South Suffolk, James Sandbach from Suffolk Coastal and Jon Neal from Central Suffolk and North Ipswich.

They answered questions on a range of subjects from Trident to fracking and affordable housing. David Chappell, the Prospective Parliamentary candidate for Bury St. Edmunds also sent a video message from Saudi Arabia, where he is currently working. 

The conference was organised by Suffolk Liberal Democrats as plans for the general election campaign begin to take shape. Party activists and volunteers discussed local issues and how to take the party's national message to the doorsteps of Ipswich and Suffolk.

"Needham Market rail passengers need better information", says Cllr Wendy Marchant

Commuters are waiting at Needham Market railway station for trains which will never arrive because a new information screen has not been installed, according to district councillor Wendy Marchant.

She said when engineering works are in progress, which cause services to be cancelled, passengers are left in the dark. Rail replacement buses are often provided but they run through the High Street and don’t stop outside the station so many passengers do not use them, Mrs Marchant added.
This has been going on for some time, I went down there Saturday and there was no information about replacement buses. There was a poster with small type which would have been very easy to walk straight past which was up along side several other posters.
She added that in September she was promised a Customer Information System would be fitted to help passengers.

A spokesperson for Abellio Greater Anglia said “more prominent” signs were being displayed when replacement buses were running.

He added;
We’re grateful to Councillor Marchant for her continued interest in this matter, and we are planning to arrange a follow-up meeting between one of our local managers and the councillor to discuss the progression of these further improvements.

The rise and fall of Liberal Democrat blogging - it isn't getting any better...

This time last year, I was idly browsing Lib Dem Blogs and found myself thinking, "it's all gone a bit quiet in here". So, I had a look through the archives and produced a table showing the number of active blogs, taken on 26 January in each year as follows;
  • 2006 - 55 (I joined the next day...)
  • 2007 - 107
  • 2008 - 222
  • 2009 - 186
  • 2010 - 231
  • 2011 - 235
  • 2012 - 230
  • 2013 - 177
  • 2014 - 127
So, with a General Election just 101 days away, you might expect the greater interest in politics to create a bit more of a buzz. And, the number of Liberal Democrat bloggers on the aggregator yesterday was (drum roll, please)...

** 109 **

That isn't encouraging, I must say. Yes, Twitter and Facebook are easier and more immediate, but they perhaps don't offer the same platform for ideas that a blog does.

And then I wondered, perhaps there might be fewer bloggers, but they're more active. So I checked;
  • 2006 - 55 blogs produced 48 posts; 0.87 posts per blog
  • 2007 - 107 blogs produced 63 posts; 0.59 posts per blog
  • 2008 - 222 blogs produced 46 posts; 0.21 posts per blog
  • 2009 - 186 blogs produced 87 posts; 0.47 posts per blog
  • 2010 231 blogs produced 105 posts; 0.45 posts per blog
  • 2011 - 235 blogs produced 91 posts; 0.39 posts per blog
  • 2012 - 230 blogs produced 97 posts; 0.42 posts per blog
  • 2013 - 177 blogs produced 51 posts; 0.29 posts per blog
  • 2014 - 127 blogs produced 40 posts; 0.31 posts per blog
  • 2015 - 109 blogs produced 44 posts; 0.4 posts per blog
So, there are less of us, and we're quieter than we once were, which feels to me to be an accurate reflection of the Party generally, a bit loathe to put its head above the parapet for fear of being shot at.

But, at a time when there are more noises, coming from more directions, it is a little disappointing that we appear to be conceding the field...

Monday, January 26, 2015

How faithful do you have to be to a party's policies to be a member?

I see that the position of Alex Carlile as a member of the Liberal Democrats has been brought into question by one of my former colleagues at Liberal Democrat Voice, following his signature on Lords amendments intended to bring back the 'Snooper's Charter'.

Having spent quite a lot of time examining the voting records of Liberal Democrat peers, it has to be said that, whilst his overall voting record isn't brilliant - he does do other things, it should be noted - he is not a frequent rebel against the Party whip. And yes, the right to privacy is core to the beliefs of liberals, but so are many other things - equality, freedom, internationalism and, perhaps more relevantly here, freedom of association.

I am reminded that every political party is formed of a coalition of interests, and that, to succeed, getting more people involved and attracting more voters, some of whom might not have defined themselves as being liberal or socialist or whatever, is key. We don't insist that our voters agree with every dot and comma in the manifesto, so why do we get upset when some of our members disagree with individual planks of our policy?

After all, if a political party is to be a group of purists, how does it change and develop policy? Are those seeking change to be cast into the outer darkness if they are challenging a point of principle to be worshipped as though a holy relic?

Political parties do not, in my experience, spend a lot of time investigating potential new members for ideological purity, nor do they spend a lot of time debating ideas - there is too much campaigning to be done for that - but one would be reasonable in assuming that new members agree broadly with your message and, most importantly, with more of it than with any of the other choices out there.

So, how much of your party's policy should be supported in order to remain a member? 70%? 80%? 99%? And what is essential? After all, there are key Labour Party figures that believe in allowing the market into public services, Conservatives who support European integration (up to a certain point) and Liberal Democrats who are sceptical about Europe.

Yes, lobby individual representatives if you don't agree with them. Tell them why, remaining courteous. But if it's an offence to disagree with things that matter to you, do bear in mind that, one day, it might be you facing the mob. And please don't come to me for sympathy - it will be in short supply...

Be afraid, be very afraid?

So, who, or what, am I supposed to be scared of this week?

Well, obviously, Greeks bearing gifts for one thing. Syriza's triumph in yesterday's election means that the Eurozone will experience a massive loss of confidence, plagues of locusts will sweep up through the Balkans and the European Union will then collapse.

Or, more likely, someone will point out to the new administration that, if you don't pay your debts, nobody will lend you any money. Talk to the Argentine government about what that means, why don't you? And without more money, you can't fulfil your promises. Oh, and by the way, take a look at Francois Hollande and his renunciation of austerity - because that worked so well. I'm guessing that this will not end well.

I should, it seems, also be afraid of a Labour/SNP coalition, according to David Cameron and Grant Shapps. Now that the SNP have said that they will vote in certain matters only pertaining to England, or England and Wales, we can look forward to the constitutional vortex that will be a political party with no policy on non-Scottish, non-federal matters having to make decisions on the basis of the consequential impact on Scottish services. It might be an extremely effective way of persuading the English that they would rather cut the Scots adrift, but with oil at under $50 a barrel, that might not be great timing.

That said, the sheer fascination of watching what happens when a Labour/SNP coalition have to cut services, get tough on welfare and savage local government would be huge, whilst at the same time ghastly for all concerned. Also, the rapid disenchantment of those people who apparently believe that the Labour Party is going to undo all the cuts of the past five years will be massive. See, we told you that it was difficult, and you didn't want to believe us.

We would also find out just how left-wing the SNP are (or aren't), which will come as a shock to a number of people.

It was once said that there is nothing to fear but fear itself. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that there is little to fear but fear spread by politicians with nothing positive to say about their own policies. There are 101 days until polling day...

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

International Relations Committee meets. Nobody gets hurt.

So, having worked out which day we were actually meeting (it wasn't yesterday, it seems), I made sure that I was in good time for a prompt 6.15 start, and was pleasantly surprised to find that there were a number of us from beyond the M25 present.

But you don't care about that (well, not much, anyway), so let's get on with the report...

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
We opened with a presentation by Martin Horwood MP, outlining what the key international themes are likely to be - there won't be any great surprises, you won't be shocked to hear - including Trident, FGM and international development and the good the United Kingdom is doing around the world, saving lives, fighting disease and educating children. In truth, it is unlikely that international affairs will be at the heart of the election campaign generally, especially given that immigration is seen as a domestic policy issue, but we will have a good story to tell, which will emerge over the coming weeks. We did make some suggestions in terms of possible emphasis, and I was keen to note that our international development work, enhancing democracy and nurturing economic growth, will create political stability and a resultant fall in demand for military intervention.

There was a brief discussion about Spring Conference, and the increased level of interest amongst the diplomatic corps - perhaps a sign that they think that we might be relevant in the post-General Election environment, who knows? The cost to AOs and SAOs of holding fringe meetings was noted with some dismay - it would be nice if the benefits of a lively fringe could be nurtured, but one does understand the limitations of finance.

Next came the reports from relevant bodies, Liberal Youth, whose international work is really impressive, from Liberal International British Group, and the Liberal Democrat European Group, from the ALDE Gender Equality Network and, last but by no means least, from the International Office itself. Harriet Shone reported on work done in Bosnia and Serbia, as well as in South Africa and Botswana, passing on skills in terms of the mechanics of campaign organising, and on LGBT issues and how to address them.

Finally, we discussed the difficulties surrounding the forthcoming ALDE Council meeting, scheduled for 8/9 May, in Oslo. We aren't expecting a huge turnout from our delegation, due to the clash with some General Election or other on 7 May, but we will have a presence - I'll be there and I certainly won't be alone. There was a brief mention of possible review of ALDE's membership fee structure, and we also gave some thought towards submitting more resolutions for ALDE to consider - we've been a bit reactive, rather than proactive, in recent times.

So, there you are, my first formal report, not ninety minutes after the meeting ended. I can't guarantee that I'll be as prompt in future, but one can only try...

The day I met Linda Lusardi

As The Sun appears to have withdrawn the topless women from page 3, today seems like a good day to reminisce. I am, after all, an old man these days...

There was a time, when I was young, when I used to travel around London for fun. Hard to believe, I know, but there you are. I could tell you how to get from just about anywhere to anywhere else, in short, a bit of an anorak. So, when an event was organised that involved travelling the Tube network, getting a card stamped at various stations and perhaps winning something - most of the details of this story are pretty vague, I'm afraid - I wasn't going to miss out.

To make things more interesting, celebrities were promised, not that this was terribly important to me. And so, I found myself at a central London station, Piccadilly Circus if memory serves, where one of the celebrities was Linda Lusardi, one of the most famous Page 3 girls of her era. By this stage, I was being helpful, rather than competitive, and found myself trying to protect her from a rather over-eager audience.

It is perhaps a sign of the times that men were rather keen to get very close to her, and it became clear that the security was non-existent, and so I found myself attempting to get between her and the crowd. It was quite scary, and she was clearly distressed by the attempts to touch her. I have to admit that I felt rather sorry for her, as it couldn't have been nice to be crowded by a bunch of strangers. Luckily, rescue was soon at hand, and she was taken to a safe place.

I have always thought that it must be terrible to be a celebrity in some ways, with the sense of depersonalisation and and that you are, somehow, public property. It must be worse still, if all you are to some people is a naked body to be ogled.

The end of Page 3 in its current format is, therefore, probably a good thing, even if it is only a small drop in a vast ocean of objectification of men and women. But, perhaps, by taking it out of the mainstream, it might make some people think a little harder about the issue in future...

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

I've had a comment, and I don't know what to do with it...

I moderate all comments on this blog. Not because I intend censor anyone particularly, but because I have legal responsibility for it, and like to know what is going up on it. I also have standards, as outlined in the sidebar. One thing that I don't encourage as comments irrelevant to the subject at hand - they're confusing, and nobody really reads them.

Yesterday, I got this;
Procedure By Which conservatives Could Control  Parliament 
If UKIP is Lucky, UKIP could get, perhaps, get five to ten seats in Parliament. Do not forget, the public still regards UKIP as a one issue party. To gain control of Parliament UKIP and (and friends) should form a new conservative party with a platform that is close to that of the existing Conservative party, omitting, of course, policies that are objectionable to conservatives. The purpose would be to make a bed that would be easy for conservatives to slide into, including the eighty percent of the Conservatives who left Conservative associations. UKIP and the conservatives should then form a political association in each parliamentary district. UKIP could merge with the new party, thus getting rid of the one issue problem.  
Every one who would have worked to form the new, conservative, party should be prevented from joining the new party for a period of time to prevent the impression that UKIP controls it. 
The two or three conservative parties should hold a primary election to determine who runs as the Parliamentary candidate, with the losers to help the winner. The cost of forming new associations can be raised by local contributors. It is suggested that the new conservative associations and the political party be controlled by the lowest level of conservatives, such as teachers, small businessmen, solicitors, professionals etc. If the above procedure can not be completed  in  time  to get candidates elected to Parliament, the new party must  wait  until after the  election  and  hold  a  petition demanding that the elected MP resign. Note: an MP represents every person in his district, not just members and supporters of his party. When the petition reaches fifty percent of those who voted in the prior election, the conservatives will be morally justified in demanding their MP"s resignation. Then the new party could run their candidates  in  the  following by elections.
To select a candidate, a local  association should  advertise  for applicants or the position of candidate for  Parliament, then  select   the   best  applicant  by using rigorous tests, including, most importantly, psychological evaluation. psychological evaluation is an absolute necessity as the psychological evaluation is the only way to tell who is honest and who is a con-artist; members of the public cannot. Testing could be required of the association officers, committee members and delegates, etc. 
The platform, selected by new party associations, should be some what  vague in order to facilitate integration the platforms of the new associations into one platform. It is suggested that self forming cliques of those who are honest and trust worthy be formed; then form self forming cliques of those who have political skills and capabilities, within the first described clique.
The corruption in Ukip is a cause for concern. Information about the corruption may bee seen on the following websites:
John Newell

I've tidied it a bit to make it a little easier on the eye but, otherwise, this is as it was posted. I've not accepted it against the original piece you linked it to, as it has absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter, but have decided to bring it to a wider audience anyway.

It seems that Mr Newell is quite keen on this idea, posting it in other places too. I only problem is that, how can I put this, Mr Newell, I don't care. I'm not a conservative in any sense other than fiscal, and don't see much credibility in your proposal.

But thank you for playing, and for providing more evidence that UKIP supporters are, to put it politely, not necessarily on the same playing field as the rest of us.

Are Labour beginning to fret about the Greens?

I don't follow vast numbers of Twitter feeds, predominantly because it gets harder for me to pick up the important bits as the volume of posts gets bigger. I do, however, follow two of my local Labour PPCs, Jane Basham in South Suffolk, and Deborah Sacks in South Norfolk. Deborah is an old university colleague from my days at UEA, and another North London emigre in rural East Anglia.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceJane, on the other hand, I first encountered when she ran as the Labour candidate for Suffolk's Police and Crime Commissioner. She very nearly won, something of a miracle given just how conservative the county is. Since then, her Twitter feed has become a distillation of what grassroots Labour activists are thinking, and very entertaining it is too.

In the past week, I've noticed that there are an increasing number of anti-Green posts, mostly retweets from others, but nonetheless, attacks all the same. The record of the minority Green administration in Brighton (if they're a minority, how have they remained in control?), the impracticality of their policies, the risk that a Green vote will let the Tories back in, all are fair game all of a sudden.

And I am reminded that Labour really don't like competition for what they see as the progressive vote that should be theirs, even if, in recent years, they have given people little reason to have faith. Civil libertarians have been let down by authoritarians such as David Blunkett and Jack Straw, and had, until the Coalition, found a home in the Liberal Democrats. Now, anti-austerity supporters are discovering that Labour have no intention of undoing the 'evil' cuts carried out by the Coalition, and so whilst Labour are probably hanging onto the former Liberal Democrat voters they won in 2010 and 2011, they are now losing some of those who thought that they were an anti-austerity party.

For the Greens, life is easy. They can wave the anti-austerity banner, knowing that it will gain them votes and supporters, in the certain knowledge that they won't actually have to take responsibility at any stage. In fairness, some of their activists genuinely believe that austerity is unnecessary, and that taxing the rich until they squeal is viable in a global economy where capital is highly mobile, but they aren't going to form a government.

And given the diet of statements from Labour politicians saying, "this cut is unacceptable and unfair, and we wouldn't do it", an expectation has been created that Labour will somehow preserve services without raising taxes very much and reducing the deficit at the same time. Anyone who believes that is pretty naive, and the Greens now offer an alternative for such people who increasingly believe that Labour can't.

So, prepare for more red on green attacks if Green polling numbers remain significant, as Labour realise that, without a positive agenda of their own, even the so-called "35% strategy" is vulnerable. Their only consolation is that the Conservatives appear to want to revert to picking on the 'enemy inside', thus driving moderates away.

It's going to be a grim four months...

Good on you, @ChukaUmunna...

I note that there is some fuss about Chuka Umunna's decision to walk out of an interview with Dermot Murnaghan yesterday morning on Sky, having decided not to put up with being ambushed on the question of Eric Pickles' letter to Muslim leaders across the country.

You can argue legitimately about whether or not the letter was the right thing to do, and I would expect that those who have read it (I am not included in that category, I admit) to have a view on it. On the other hand, it would be nice to see a little integrity on the part of those asking the questions.

For example, if you invite someone into a studio to answer questions on subject X, a well-organised politician will prepare, read up on party policy perhaps, as well as the news reports on the matter. They may even check what other parties are saying on the subject. At least, they will do if they want to provide the audience with meaningful answers. So, when you ask them about something completely different, you shouldn't be surprised if a sensible politician says, actually, I don't know enough about that to give you a proper answer. And yes, it could be just evasion, but it could be plain honesty - something that you, the media, keep telling us is good.

So, asking a Labour spokesperson to answer a question about a letter he hasn't seen is, effectively, asking him to give you an unprepared, ill-informed answer, so that you can attack him later. And I have a little more admiration for Chuka Umunna for deciding not to play.

Dermot Murnaghan, you might think that it makes good television, but you're wrong, it's just another nail in the coffin of decent politics in this country, and yet another reason why more and more decent people decide that, if that's what it's about, they would rather find some other way of contributing to their community.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Dear @normanlamb, thanks for your e-mail. Could I bring the transgender community to your attention?

It was very nice to get an e-mail from the Minister of State for Health, especially so soon after we met in Saxmundham, And I couldn't agree with him more that we should, as a society do more, if we can, to reduce suicide rates in this country.

Which brings me to the transgender community. I understand, from friends, that the suicide rate, particularly amongst young transgender people, is very high, far higher than that of the population as a whole. They are often poorly treated by the NHS, due in part to a lack of awareness but also due to insufficient resources to deal with their quite specialised needs.

It would not cost much to change that, but would make the world of difference to those who are vulnerable and, often, isolated. Ensuring that they receive treatment within the guidelines set out, enabling them to be treated overseas if that helps - the cost differential need not be that great - would prevent the needless waste of human life that delays and/or denial by medical professionals sometimes provoke.

I don't know too much about my friends amongst the transgender community, and have only a hint of their day to day experiences, fighting for the treatment they need. They will doubtless have a list of more specific suggestions that would be appreciated, and I hope that they will be given an opportunity to put them to you and your colleagues in the Department of Health. But it strikes me that we could do something that helps them and achieves your laudable goal at the same time.

Just a suggestion, Norman, but I would be grateful if you could think about it...

A red, red robin comes bob bob bobbing along...

Ros has taken to feeding the birds, now that we don't have neighbours - they had cats - and one robin in particular has become pretty bold. So, as I left the house this morning, here it was, seemingly waiting to be fed...

I am a sucker for small, cute wildlife, so I went to the box where bird food is kept, and scattered some across the patio.

Eat well, my little friend...

Saturday, January 17, 2015

@Suffcross (Suffolk Crossings) jump the gun on level crossings in mid-Suffolk...

I don't, as a rule, attend a lot of public meetings - it's a pain to get home from them as a non-driving village dweller, so a taxi is inevitably involved. And, to be frank, if they are full of people who have already made their minds up, they don't tend to enlighten me much - I can surf the web and find out what I need to know.

And this is only the people in the hall...
However, having seen the signs in Stowmarket, apparently announcing the closure of the two major level crossings in the town, and being aware that there didn't seem to be a lot of hard information out there, I was keen to turn up at the Stowmarket Community Hub yesterday to find out what, if anything, was actually happening. I wasn't alone...

The meeting had drawn an audience from every community with a level crossing - Mellis and Needham Market, Old Newton and Haughley, plus plenty of people in Stowmarket itself, all keen to express how important their crossings were. They filled the hall, spilled out into the corridors and out of the building altogether. I was glad that I had come relatively early... It was very impressive, and a credit to the organisers.

There was only one problem, in that there appeared to be no firm evidence that any such closures were in the offing.

The meeting chair, Rosie Carter (I think that that's correct but apologise if it isn't), a local resident and someone who had, apparently, campaigned against closure proposals in 2000 (I didn't live anywhere near here then, so can only take her at her word), opened the meeting by explaining what the Suffolk Crossings campaign was about, a response to proposals to close level crossings across Suffolk but, in particular, on the main line between Ipswich and Norwich. There was, according to her, a secret list of crossings that would be closed, a list that Network Rail would not comment on.

There were, somewhat surprisingly, two representatives of Network Rail present, who had been invited to explain the position of their organisation. So, starting off by explaining that there was no such list and that they hadn't even started doing the preparative work required to draw up proposals for consultation on any possible closures rather challenged the whole raison d'etre of the campaign.

The problem, it seemed, was that the 'Norwich in Ninety' campaign requires a whole lot of infrastructure changes in order to achieve its goal, and as it is now endorsed by the Government, by both Norwich City Council (Labour led) and Ipswich Borough Council (also Labour led), the Liberal Democrat MPs for Colchester and Norwich South, local media, Chambers of Commerce and others, there is pressure to deliver.

It seems that the existence of a list is based on a piece on David Ruffley's website where he lists where level crossings might have to close. Unfortunately, he had listed all of them, without any basis of fact, and was assumed to know something. If only...

But people were angry, understandably. They had been told that their level crossing was to be closed, by people they trusted, and they weren't going to have two strangers from an organisation they don't trust telling them otherwise. So, the fact that there would have to be consultation, and that diversity impact assessments would be required and that public safety, the environment and community impact would all have to be taken into account made little impact on people who had already accepted that something bad was going to happen to them.

So, where are we?

Upgrading the main line between Ipswich and Norwich will require level crossings to be reviewed, as the proposed line speeds will be increased, impacting on the type of level crossing required and, in the case of level crossings that are public footpaths, potentially requiring footbridges - you need much better sight lines for trains travelling at 110 mph than you do for trains travelling at 90 or 100 mph. So, yes, level crossings will be reviewed on both safety grounds (as is already the case) and whether or not an alternative engineering solution would be better.

There are no specific proposals. At the moment, Network Rail is consulting on its Route Study, looking at what might be needed to allow more traffic on lines throughout the Region in order to meet increased demand - double-tracking at Haughley Junction, a passing loop at Witham, extra platforms at Ipswich. Once that is done, and the plan is finalised, then work will start on the infrastructure requirements. Part of that will be a review of level crossings which may, but only may, lead to proposals that may lead to the closure of crossings, and alternative arrangements will be put in place.

So, we'll see. There is no doubt that local people will have to pay close attention to what is happening, but there is no need to panic yet in the absence of any proposals. And, frankly, it will take some time before anything happens anyway.

What I found rather sad was that there was a willingness to believe the worst of an organisation whose staff had come to a meeting of their own volition, to try and explain to a somewhat hostile audience that they had been mislead. Having read the relevant documents, especially those highlighted by Suffolk Crossings, I conclude that, if you assume that authority is lying to you, you could get very angry. But if you aren't willing to entertain the possibility that the people making the claims aren't actually correct either, you might be lead to fear an imaginary spectre. And anyone making decisions on that basis may have cause to regret them later on...

Friday, January 16, 2015

Chest x-ray all clear... I aten't dead yet!

I rang my doctor's surgery today, as it was the sixth working day after last week's adventure in NHS care. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't worried about the outcome (after all, what's the use of worrying?), but family and friends were asking (I love you all too...). The result - I have a chest, there are no unexpected presences or absences, and I can resume coughing as I see fit. There is no suggestion that I should return and have anything else done, or administered, so I had better get on with it.

A fellow work colleague has suggested some time in a hot, dry climate, which sounds very inviting. However, I am bound, in less than a fortnight, for a hot, polluted climate, which may not be very helpful.

I'd better pack some cough sweets...

A night out with Norman Lamb in Suffolk Coastal

Having been invited to attend a public meeting in Saxmundham last night, organised by the PPC whose selection I managed a few months ago, it seemed churlish to refuse, especially as the guest speaker was Norman Lamb. And besides, it's always helpful even if all you are doing is boost the numbers.

James Sandbach, for it was he who organised the event, lives in Saxmundham and had promoted the event locally and, it became apparent, very effectively too, as the chairs that had been set out quickly filled and extra chairs had to be fetched - I vaguely remember a David Steel story which included that line - as interested local residents streamed through the doors, filling the hall.

It had been arranged that Norman, who was coming from London, would be picked up at Ipswich station, and conveyed by fast car (fast being an entirely relative concept here in rural Suffolk) to the meeting. What perhaps hadn't been allowed for was that it takes about forty-five minutes to get from Ipswich Station to Saxmundham and so, as the start time for the meeting approached, I was detailed to await Norman's arrival outside, in the company of the Press (BBC and the East Anglian Daily Times) and a small group of protesters campaigning to 'save mental health services in Norfolk and Suffolk' some of whom were clearly there to be seen by the media and who left when Norman arrived - perhaps if they listened to him, they might be better informed?

Norman Lamb, answering questions
Time passed, and James kicked off the meeting in the expectation that Norman would make it before he ran out of speech and, just in the nick of time, a car pulled out and Norman leapt out of it. Stopping only to give a brief interview to the BBC, he strode into the meeting to be introduced by James and spoke to the assembled audience without notes before taking a series of pre-written questions from a cross-section of the audience, including quite deliberately, some from those of the protesters that had actually decided to take part (I know that because Julia, James's wife and a local GP, and I selected them).

He got through a lot of questions, and got a pretty good response from an audience which was anything but hand-picked, including Liberal Democrat activists from at least four constituencies. All too soon though, the entertainment had to end, and Norman received a thoroughly well-deserved round of applause from most of the audience (you can't please everyone, can you?).

It was a bravura performance, and I suspect that those people who had come to the meeting with an open mind will have concluded that, whilst they might not agree with him on every point, Norman genuinely wants to achieve better outcomes for patients suffering from all kinds of ill health, be it physical or mental, and that equality of priority for mental health funding is something that he has, and will, work hard to obtain.

Much kudos must also go to James and Julia, who put an awful lot of work into organising the event, and to Marian Andrews, who chaired the meeting. Hopefully, people will spread the word about the event and perhaps speak kindly of Liberal Democrats and, in particular, James. He will have a tough struggle to keep the yellow bird of liberty flying in Suffolk Coastal, especially given our poll ratings nationally, but it won't be for lack of hard work and imagination.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

@greateranglia find another way to shred their reputation...

I am a fairly patient soul as a rule, and a tolerant one much of the time. So tolerant, in fact, that I tend not to seek compensation when Greater Anglia fail to convey me to my destination in a timely manner if the problem has been caused by an infrastructure problem (I know, I really should, but it's such a hassle...). However, last month, after I turned up at Liverpool Street, bought a ticket and then discovered that they had cancelled the next train to Stowmarket due to a train fault, I collected a 'Delay Repay' form, completed it, inserted the ticket and sealed the form so that it formed an envelope - that's what the instructions say - and posted it to Norwich for my refund.

Abellio Greater Anglia promise a response within ten working days, and so I wasn't surprised when it took longer than that. However, I received an e-mail confirming receipt of my application, and waited for the formal letter with the Rail Travel Voucher that would follow.

Yesterday, I received a letter from them, asking for the original ticket. "Funny,", I thought, "I know I made sure that it was enclosed.", so I picked up the phone and rang the Customer Services Helpline. On getting through, I explained to the operative (I won't name her, she'll probably get into trouble if I do) that I had indeed enclosed the ticket with my application.

It transpired that this happens quite often, as the gum holding the form closed isn't very good, and tickets fall out in transit, a problem that Abellio Greater Anglia know all about and haven't done anything to solve. It was suggested that, in future, I should staple the ticket to the form but, on this occasion, my application would be processed as though the ticket had reached them which was, I suppose, kind of her.

It isn't the first time that this has happened to me, but on the other occasion, I assumed that it was my fault. I won't in future... And, due to the cynicism of their management, I am far more likely to claim compensation in future, regardless of the cause of the delay.

In the past, I have been quite sympathetic towards Abellio Greater Anglia, given the shortness of the franchise, the almost total unreliability of the infrastructure and the age of the rolling stock. And, whilst in some respects they are much better than National Express ever were, it seems that their managers are equally willing to 'nickel and dime' the travelling public. I fear that this will come with a price...

@BaronessRos responds to the consultation on the Local Government Finance Settlement 2015/16...

It gives me great pleasure to publish here Ros's thoughts on local government finance and, more generally, on the Conservative Party's view on localism and accountability...
I am writing in response to consultation on the Local Government Finance Settlement 2015/16 and the statement from the Local Government Minister Kris Hopkins MP on council tax and parishes.
The Minister has invited views on “whether the highest spending parishes should be subject to the same referendum principle as the rest of local government” and “whether town and parish councils whose failings have been highlighted in a Public Interest Report should be included”.
As a Liberal Democrat it is my strong belief that far too much power remains concentrated in Westminster; ours is one of the most centralised countries in the Western world and that has to change. Only by returning power to the communities, villages, towns, cities and regions of England can we drive growth, improve public services and give people the freedom to run their own lives.
To this end parish and town councils are an important part of our local democracy and I was heartened to see the Minister reiterate this in his statement. Much has been done by the Coalition Government over the course of this Parliament to empower communities and parishes and I want to see this continue.
However I simply do not believe any parish or town council, irrespective of size, location, budget or activity should be required to hold a referendum on increases to their precept.
This is unnecessary interference by Government and only serves to convey a lack of faith and trust in those people elected to serve on parish councils to improve their area and make locally accountable decisions. From my own experience parishes are closer to local issues than anyone, and work hard to engage with local people about how they can improve their area using the precept, communicating and justifying any (usually small and modest) increases accordingly. Indeed I remain supportive of removing the requirement to hold local referenda for council tax changes completely.
I also cannot support the notion of applying referenda principles to parishes with a Public Interest Report. I would much rather see a system whereby the parish sector takes the lead in helping parishes who have experienced difficulties, with action by Government as an absolute last resort. I would urge you to explore how this might be achieved with bodies such as the National Association of Local Councils, who I know are committed to high standards of governance and financial accountability and sector-led improvement.
I also wanted to comment on the situation regarding council tax support funding, which I know is causing real problems for parish councils up and down the country.
It simply cannot be acceptable that funding being provided by Government to parishes, via billing authorities, is not passed on to them. I would strongly urge the Minister to step up his efforts to resolve this issue as I know the number of councils not passing on funding to parishes is increasing.
This is likely to have an inevitable knock-on effect on local services and the parish precept, which I am sure the Minister does not want to see happen. I am also concerned about the overall impact such funding shortfalls will have on localism and community empowerment, especially at a time when Government and principal councils are encouraging more partnership working within local government, as well as devolution of services to the local level and parishes.
In conclusion I do not support the extension of referenda principles to parishes and urge more action to ensure council tax support funding is passed on to parishes.
Ros ScottBaroness Scott of Needham Market