Thursday, April 30, 2015

@jennirsl is unhappy about the lack of women in politics. She's notnecessarily right about the cause.

In this morning's Times, Jenni Russell writes interestingly about the lack of women in modern politics. And, naturally, she is critical of political parties for their lack of progress in this aspect of candidate selection. Apparently, women are less likely to be approved and less likely to be selected when they do compete.

I can't speak for the other political parties but, unlike Jenni, I do know how my own party's processes work and, I have to tell her, as far as the Liberal Democrats are concerned, it isn't about approval or selection, it's in some ways worse (or at least, more difficult than that). My experience is that, in the Liberal Democrats, women are as likely to be approved to go on the candidate list as men - indeed they tend to perform slightly better - and as likely to be selected to fight seats, even winnable ones, as their male counterparts.

2015 won't be a great year for Liberal Democrats, with everyone expecting us to lose seats. And yet we have women candidates who have taken over from retiring male MPs, and we are optimistic that some of them will win. But, we are reminded of 2010, when exactly the same thing happened, under very much more promising circumstances, and what happened? They lost. in South East Cornwall and Harrogate and Knaresborough, to name two. In target seats, where we really thought we could win, like Derby North and Truro and Falmouth, women candidates lost. And in held seats, like Redruth and Camborne and Richmond Park, good women MPs lost.

So, we have an apparent problem at the sharp end, when the electorate, uncontrollable and unfathomable, made the decision not to elect some women - not really something that political parties can control.

We do, also, have a problem at the initial stage of the supply end. Women don't come forward in anything like the same numbers as men - the ratio was about 1:2 in my days as a candidate assessor and member of the English Candidates Committee. To be honest, I have no idea why and it's hard to envisage how one might easily find out. However, the answer to that question is essential in determining possible solutions.

Jenni's solution is a simple one - quotas. But, if you don't have willing applicants, even quotas won't offer a real solution, especially for smaller parties without safe seats. The life of a Liberal Democrat PPC, especially one in a target seat, is a tough one. You wouldn't get me doing it. Indeed, because of my wide experience of our Party, I have huge admiration for anyone willing to do it, especially given the high risk of defeat.

So, I invite Jenni to dig a little deeper. Indeed, I'm perfectly happy to help her do so, because the fact that she cares enough to express her view, in print, somewhere where lots of people will see it implies that she wants to be part of the solution. Unless, of course, she just wants to beat political parties with a stick...

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Far from the campaign trail - we're on the road to Bognor Regis (Town FC)...

Ten days ago, along with an astonishing 971 others, I was at Bloomfields, the home of our plucky little non-league football team - the Marketmen of Needham Market - as they played out an incident-packed, and ultimately indecisive, 2-2 draw against fellow title contenders Harlow Town. That meant that the last day of the season would see Needham Market travel to Chatham Town, knowing that a win would see them promoted, regardless of events at Harlow, where Thamesmead Town were the visitors. Any slip up though, and a win for Harlow would condemn the Marketmen to the lottery of the playoffs.

So, a nervy ninety minutes or so in prospect it seemed. Clearly, nobody told the team, as they put the Chats to the sword, romping to a three-nil half-time lead before eventually coming out as five-nil winners. It was tough on Harlow Town, worthy adversaries all season, although some of their rather foul-mouthed supporters whose expletive-laden chanting both at pitch side and in the bar afterwards was out of keeping with our genteel town won't be missed should they fail at the play-off stage.

And so, next season sees the relative footballing big time hit sleepy Needham Market, with teams that people may have heard of looking at a map wondering, "Where the hell is that?". And yes, compared to Dulwich, or Lewes, or Harrow, Needham Market is very small, but visiting teams can expect a warm welcome, friendly locals and a decided lack of aggro. We just don't do that here.

It also means the end of Preliminary Round FA Cup games for the time being - Ryman League Premier Division teams are exempted until the First Round of the Qualifying Competition, which will ease the burden on the squad in the early stages of the season. Best of all, it makes the prospects of reaching the First Round proper that little bit more realistic - dreams of Portsmouth or Luton Town coming to Bloomfields will be slightly less fanciful.

So, Wingate and Finchley, Kingstonian and Burgess Hill Town, Canvey Island and Metropolitan Police, prepare yourselves for the Marketmen. Let the adventure begin...

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Creeting St Peter - @jemnicole1 has a leaflet put through our door...

When I ran for the District Council in 2011, one of the things that exercised me about my Conservative opponent's campaign was her claim to be local. Given that she lived, and continues to live, in Eye, a mere fourteen miles from Creeting St Peter, and eleven miles from the ward boundary, and both the Green candidate and myself actually lived in the ward, it did rankle somewhat.

So, having finally received a leaflet from this year's Conservative candidate, Jemma Lynch, I am not entirely surprised to see her described as "the local choice for Stowupland and Creeting St Peter". If only she lived in Stowupland or Creeting St Peter, instead of Needham Market, which is the case. In fairness, Needham Market does border the parish, I think, but her declared commitment to our community is somewhat puzzling given that I've never seen her in our Parish before.

I suspect that the Green candidate this time, Keith Welham, whose home looks out onto the Green in Stowupland, and who has served as a Parish councillor in the village for some years now, might object too. 

However, looking at Jemma's priorities for our communities;

"Ensuring that our views regarding the proposed developments in Stowupland and Creeting St Peter are adequately represented."

Like her predecessor did with Poundfield Products? Or with the proposed Business and Development Park? I do hope not.

"Providing strong, proactive local leadership, seeking to support the local community."

Leadership? Support? Aren't those mildly contradictory? And how is she going to be proactive given that her only likely contact with the wider community will be attending the odd Parish Council meeting?

"Working closely with our local PCSO to ensure that residents continue to feel safe, assisting where possible with community policing."

We feel safe here, Jemma. Given crime rates here in the village, and the fact that the Parish Council interact directly with Mid Suffolk Police - they either attend all Parish Council meetings or send a report (their attendance record was, as I recall, rather better than that of your predecessor) - your generous offer isn't likely to change much.

"Endeavour to empower the local community with tools to ensure that our environment is cleaner and greener."

As Conservative-run Mid Suffolk District Council did by charging to empty litter and dog waste bins, or Conservative-run Suffolk County Council by abandoning the local Nature Reserve at Fen Alder Carr and leaving its future in the hands of a village with just 260 residents...

To be frank, I am less than entirely impressed by what looks a bit like a cut and paste, somewhat impersonal missive which seeks to sweep under the carpet the poor performance of her predecessor. 

On the positive side, a Conservative did manage to find the house - by accident, I suspect - although they clearly didn't want to talk to us.

So, hardly a temptation to vote Conservative. I wonder if the Greens have anything better to offer...

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Far from the campaign trail... is decent politics to be drowned out by the vilest common denominator?

The news that Jack Monroe has quit Twitter due to homophobic abuse is just another depressing event in what has felt like a descent into a world where too many of the voices you hear are unpleasant ones.

And no, I don't want to suggest that people who disagree with me are unpleasant. Yes, some of them are, but they can't be categorised as simply political opponents. But, below the line in virtually every newspaper, there seems to be a never ending stream of vile abuse towards anyone and everyone who dares to put their head above the parapet to espouse a view that they believe in.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice But, and let's face it, such people are hardly discouraged from their belief that rudeness and crudeness are perfectly acceptable ways to treat their fellow human beings. Journalists who write snide comments picking on the imperfections of politicians, politicians who lie about their opponents or wilfully misrepresent them, members of the public who express a view that all politicians are 'in it for themselves', regardless of whether they have any evidence or not, all of them debase our political culture.

And it's worse in the case of such politicians and journalists, because they know exactly what they are doing. By encouraging the likes of Guido Fawkes to do their dirty work for them, or by ridiculing anyone who expresses doubt or hesitation, or even does a little free thinking, they send out a clear message that it is open season on the naive, the thoughtful, the non-partisan. No wonder that politicians attempt to control how they are presented - a foolish notion in any event, but perhaps understandable.

Indeed, I now find myself wondering why anyone thinking of entering into politics would even think twice. Why set yourself up to be abused by the stupid, the evil and the callous when you could live a quiet life, have a decent career and travel entirely under the radar? You and your family get a private life, nobody except your boss expects you to justify yourself and, eventually, you get to enjoy the fruits of your labour without hassle or insult.

There is an obvious problem, I accept. If everyone who has feelings opts out of politics, you leave it to those more fanatical, less caring of what others say or think. One shudders to think of the likely outcome of such a turn of events.

To make matters worse, such behaviour is now targeted at public figures generally. If you are a celebrity, one might at least hope that the financial rewards make up for it (they probably don't), but for those in public life generally, it is another disincentive to serve the wider public. I suspect that the current Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, is avoiding the internet and social media, given her decision on whether to prosecute Greville Janner or not. I don't know whether or not her decision was the right one, but she will have weighed up all of the evidence available before making the decision not to proceed. She will, however, be being abused by people who haven't seen the evidence, and wouldn't care even if they had. And they will be encouraged by the attitude of the Fifth Estate.

No, it's been a deeply depressing General Election campaign, and whilst I know that there are plenty of good, decent people campaigning for what they believe in, nobody is covering that...

Mid Suffolk: so much for Rural Labour then...

You can tell that I live in the country, as my Twitter feed is filled with candidates telling me about their campaigning in small villages across Suffolk (well, except here in Creeting St Peter, of course). Labour candidates have been particularly active - after all, they aren't going to win in places like South Suffolk or Suffolk Coastal. At least, were they to do so, we'd be looking at a landslide that would make 1906 look close.

More practically though, one might assume that if Labour were such credible contenders, there would be an upsurge in the number of Labour candidates in places like Mid Suffolk. Well, if Mid Suffolk is anything to go by, the Conservatives need not lose too much sleep.

There are forty seats up for grabs in Mid Suffolk, and nobody has a full slate, no, not even the Conservatives. Admittedly, they give a free ride to so-called Independents in some wards (yes, we know that they're Conservatives really in most cases), but even so, they are missing the odd candidate. By comparison, Labour are running just eight candidates. Yes, eight, which may corroborate suggestions that, outside London, the Labour Party is something of a hollow shell compared to earlier decades.

Surprisingly, UKIP haven't done much better, given their claimed membership surge, with just eleven candidates. Given their success in the 2013 County Council elections and the 2014 European elections, I had expected better. Perhaps their surge is over...

The Greens, on the other hand, have managed twenty-seven candidates, which is a very good effort indeed. I'm not expecting them to make much in the way of progress, given the higher turnout generated by the General Election, which should favour the larger parties, but it might be a stepping stone to a decent showing in 2017 if they do it well. Admittedly, I don't see much evidence of much work across the District, but they are at least trying.

The Liberal Democrats have managed eighteen candidates. It isn't easy persuading people to be even paper candidates when the Party is as unpopular (in relative terms) as it is, although the response on the doorsteps is not hostile if and when you get there, I'm told. That is, perhaps, one of the prices of being in government...

There are also three independents, two candidates from Suffolk Together (which appears to be melting away) and one candidate who appears not to have a description.

Finally, there are two lucky people who can sit out polling day, as Rachel Eburne has been re-elected unopposed in Haughley and Wetherden for the Greens and Matthew Hicks likewise for the Conservatives in Worlingworth.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Creeting St Peter: the candidate doesn't even knock once...

So, nominations have closed for both the District and Parish Council elections and Creeting St Peter will go to the polls on 7 May accordingly. Yes, I know that there is a General Election, and that we'd all have to vote anyway, but the chances of a Parliamentary candidate coming our way is rather less than nil - the Conservatives sent us a leaflet for the wrong constituency in 2010, after all - so the real interest is in people who might have to come here whether they like it or not.

In 2010, the District Council ward - Stowupland - drew four candidates (I was one of them), a Conservative, a Liberal Democrat, a Green and a Labour candidate. This time, we're down to a Conservative and a Green.

The Conservative candidate, Jemma Lynch, hopes to replace the outgoing Conservative, Caroline Byles, of whom I have written so many complimentary things (that may not be entirely accurate...). She describes herself, somewhat evasively, as a single parent from Suffolk (well yes, you do need to have a qualification to run here), although she really cares for our communities. Odd, really, that she should choose to represent one that she has no obvious connection with, despite the fact that the Conservatives are only running one candidate in Needham Market, where she lives. On the other hand, she does live rather closer to the ward than Caroline did (not exactly difficult, admittedly).

According to her Twitter feed;
Well, Tuesday came and went, and no sign of Jemma was there to be seen. I was disappointed, I admit, as, having no dog in this particular race, my vote is rather up for grabs - and yes, I will vote. She has now promised to come back on Saturday, but as I'll be in Needham Market for the big match, we may miss each other again...

The Green candidate is Keith Welham. He does actually live on the patch, indeed, he's a Parish councillor in Stowupland, so he should be reasonably well known. What he stands for is anyone's guess, as the rather poor quality leaflet that came out majored on planning issues - important in Stowupland, certainly, but hardly relevant here in Creeting St Peter. I did try to persuade the Greens to have him pay us a visit, but they don't seem that bothered thus far.

So, whilst I have a vote, it seems that nobody really wants it.

As for the Parish Council, there are three applicants for five places, saving us the cost of an election at least. Steve Ashcroft and Sue Lawson are relative veterans from my time as a Parish councillor, whilst Machala Peecock, who lives two doors away, replaced me when I stood down. That leaves two vacancies. Despite the apparent retirement of the Parish Clerk, I am not tempted... Well, not yet, anyway. I will be curious to see how they are handling the finances though...

So, with about a week until I get my postal ballot, I'm not actually sure what I'm going to do with the District Council one. Will either candidate care enough to try to persuade me?...

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Far from the campaign trail - a goldfinch comes...

A goldfinch... but not my goldfinch...
I was sitting in our conservatory on Sunday morning, drinking tea, when I looked out at the bird feeder planted in the middle of the lawn and noticed a somewhat unusual looking bird with its beak searching for a free snack. "What's that?", I asked Ros, our household nature expert. She peered at it, slightly myopically - we both have eyesight which is less than optimal - and mused.

Luckily, the wonders of the internet allowed me to establish that it was, in fact, a goldfinch. Goldfinches are quite attractive, with their red faces and yellow wing flashes, and I haven't seen very many previously. That said, now that we feed the wild birds, we have a rather more lively garden, with plenty of birdsong to add a little cheer even on the dullest morning.

It is one of the pleasures of rural life, in that you do have time to stop and stare, to absorb the change of the seasons - the oil seed rape is beginning to flower, turning whole fields into adverts for the Liberal Democrats, the hedges are beginning to blossom and life generally is becoming greener, with the promise of a good harvest to come.

Apparently, there is a General Election campaign going on out there somewhere, although it hasn't really come to our village yet...

Friday, April 10, 2015

Far from the campaign trail - a night at the opera... in Needham Market?

I have, in the past, extolled the virtues of Needham Market, with its predominantly Georgian high street, a splendid non-league Tier 4 football team and a gratifying support for genuinely hard-working Liberal Democrats. I have not, and it is remiss of me to have thus failed, mentioned its opera house until now.

The Barrandov Opera, the vision of John and Carol Dearlove, is probably the smallest opera house in the country, with three brief 'seasons', one in April, another in September and the third in the run-up to Christmas. Up and coming talents perform a selection of arias and other operatic works for a small but devoted audience. Dinner is included in the (astonishingly reasonable) ticket price. After all, how much would it cost to get to, say, London, let alone the cost of tickets and dinner?

But I digress. Ros and I met up at Needham Market station, on a glorious spring evening for the short drive to our destination, with little idea as to what exactly we might expect. What transpired was a remarkably intimate night of music, song and pleasant conversation, all hosted with flair, charm and sparkle by John Dearlove himself.

Bass-baritone Darren Jeffery, mezzo-soprano Helen Sharman, soprano Dušica Bijelić and tenor Joshua Mills, accompanied by Peter Bailey on the piano, performed everything from Britten to Bizet, Verdi to Wagner to an increasingly appreciative audience, mingling with us in almost an 'opera in the round' manner. It was quite splendid.

So, if you weren't convinced as to the utter wonderfulness that is Needham Market previously, perhaps now that you know about this jewel in the cultural life that is the Barrandov Opera, you might pay us a visit...

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Far from the campaign trail - a happy 10th birthday to @suffolkgiving

My days are, for those who know me in a more professional capacity, not merely an endless round of tea drinking and paper oscillation. I do have a life which balances my work, to mangle another PR catchphrase.

This evening, for example, I was at an event to celebrate the tenth birthday of the Suffolk Community Foundation, an organisation dedicated to supporting good works across the county and which not only raises funds in its own right but also administers endowments on behalf of donors both corporate and individual which give grants to a range of causes.

It is a bit 'great and good', as one might expect, but then Suffolk can be like that. And, whilst I occasionally joke about having become a member of the country gentry, it isn't really a role that I naturally inhabit. I do, however, give what some may see as a generous amount each year because, for one thing, I can afford to, and for another, I am rather fond of my adopted home and want to put something back into it.

I have, at various events over the past few years, met a range of outstanding individuals and groups who do incredible work for the disadvantaged and vulnerable, either picking up where the public sector has left off, or offering resources or opportunities that would not have existed otherwise. And if, in some small way, I have helped to enable them to do so, it gives me a sense that life is not as wretched as some might suggest.

You could, if you like, consider it as the 'Big Society' that was apparently such a fashionable concept five years ago but is mentioned only in passing now.

In a rural county like Suffolk, it often requires relatively small sums to make significant changes to the quality of life of the citizenry, and the Suffolk Community Foundation does much to enable local communities to empower themselves. Since its official launch in 2005, it has handed out £10 million in grants and has a similar amount in its endowment funds - it is a key player in the charitable and voluntary communities.

So, happy birthday, Suffolk Community Foundation, and many happy returns for the years ahead...

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Tax, especially domicile and residence, can be quite taxing, it seems...

The increasingly bewildering debate about non-domiciled individuals and their taxation has dominated the past twenty-four hours or so. Bewildering because, for the most part, those doing the arguing only have a vague idea as to the technicalities involved. Now, before anyone jumps to the conclusion that I'm being somehow patronising, I should point out that this part of the UK tax regime is pretty complex, as are the implications. So, perhaps a little context would help...

I'll start with the simple stuff. If you are domiciled outside of the UK for tax purposes, then any income you receive outside the UK is only taxable in the UK if you remit it to the UK. That doesn't mean that it isn't taxed, necessarily. It may be taxed in the country it arises in, depending on their tax regime. You might reasonably assume though that, if it is worth paying HMRC a chunk of money to retain your non-domiciled status, there is a financial advantage in doing so.

So, in simple terms, the abolition of non-domiciled status, assuming that everybody stays where they are, would raise additional revenue. How much depends on where the money is held, how much there is, what is earned on it in terms of income and how much tax is already paid in the jurisdiction concerned. Remember, if tax is deducted abroad, and there is a Double Taxation Agreement in place, that tax is deducted from the liability in the UK. For the record, the UK has Double Taxation Agreements in place than virtually any, if not every, other developed nation.

So, that's the tangible, theoretically measurable stuff. It is complicated by questions of capital appreciation, outright evasion and banking/corporate secrecy, but the latter is less of an issue than it was, due to increasing international co-operation and transparency.

The intangible is, of course, how abolishing non-domicile status would impact on the behaviour of individuals. There are those who will argue that removing tax advantages may lead to some individuals establishing tax residence elsewhere - it probably will if the incentive to do so is strong enough. But, just as it is difficult to work out the fiscal benefits in terms of potential revenue gains, it is impossible to calculate how many high wealth individuals might up sticks and leave, or the fiscal impact of them doing so.

In truth, the retention of non-domicile is as much a principle as it is potentially a revenue raiser. If you are driven by a desire for equality of treatment, then abolition is probably a given. If financial prudence is your priority though, you might (and I only say might) want to look elsewhere.

It is perhaps a truism, but nonetheless, getting elected is one thing, governing is quite another. I fear that, in the ongoing debate, that concept has been somewhat overlooked...

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Technology really can be your best friend sometimes

I have been somewhat distracted of late. The unexpected loss of an uncle in Mumbai, combined with a pre-planned break, meant that I was absent for a fortnight in total, covering the initial stages on a General Election campaign. As a result, I don't really feel attuned to what's happening around me, which in itself feels a bit odd.

Nonetheless, life goes on. So, what have I been up to?

Last week was about travel, but the week before was all about family. I've already covered the key events in sufficient detail, but having reflected a little, I should note how technology has made life in the diaspora slightly less isolated.

My family is just one of untold families who, for economic opportunities, have left their homeland and scattered across the globe, leaving an older generation behind them. In the past, distance made personal contact difficult and expensive, and with international telephone calls expensive and unreliable, it was difficult to keep in touch, both actually and emotionally. If a loved one at home died, or was seriously ill, you needed to be wealthy and extremely well-organised, if not a bit lucky, to be able to return home in time.

Now, with Skype and Facebook and all of the other media that enable easy contact at low, or no, cost, you can share experiences across the globe in a way that we are in danger of taking for granted. So, when I was sitting at my computer seventeen days ago, I got a message from my cousin, Kim, in Auckland, telling me that my uncle, in Mumbai, was in hospital and then, soon afterwards, that he wasn't going to make it.

Thirty years ago, that would have meant finding a travel agent, organising a visa via the High Commission, finding somewhere to stay, getting currency, all of which would have involved journeys to do things in person, assuming that you could find out what you needed to prepare.

Now, I was able to book the flight online, pay for it with a credit card, arrange a hotel, tell everyone what I was doing and how, all in less than an hour. Yes, it wasn't cheap - immediate, last minute arrangements seldom are - but it was easy enough. Meanwhile, in London and Toronto, Auckland and Boston, similar arrangements were being made and within sixty-five hours, everyone had arrived in Mumbai.

It is, on reflection, quite remarkable, and a reminder that whilst we may be far apart, technology offers us, and every diaspora community, the means to maintain those connections of kin and community that are so core to our very being...