Friday, May 29, 2015

As the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party in the Lords girds its loins for battle…

…we should, perhaps, say goodbye and thank you to five of our Peers who have retired from the House of Lords in the past month under the terms of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014. In order of their declaration of retirement;

Lord (Colin) Sharman retired with effect from 30 April. A former Chairman of the ‘Big 4’ accountancy firm KPMG, he wasn’t terribly active in the House in recent years, but could be relied upon for critical votes.

Lord (Andrew) Phillips of Sudbury retired (again) with effect from 7 May. I say ‘again’ because he took leave of absence in 2006, intending never to return, but clearly realised that his annoyance at both Labour and Conservative efforts to reduce our civil liberties was good enough cause to return. Brave enough to disagree with even Paddy Ashdown on the floor of the House, Andrew spoke strongly against cuts to the legal aid budget and ID cards, and was an expert on charities and the law. Outside the chamber, he was probably most renowned for being Jimmy Young’s ‘Legal Eagle’ for more than a quarter of a century. Personally, I’ll miss him, although, as a near neighbour, I’m hoping that he won’t be a stranger.

Lord (Michael) Sandberg retired with effect from 8 May. A former Chairman of HSBC, he added business acumen to the Parliamentary Party although, again, he was relatively inactive in recent years. Given that he is 87, that might well be excusable…

Lord (William) Goodhart retired with effect from 15 May. One of the original SDP grandees, he fought Kensington in the 1983 and 1987 General Elections, as well as in the 1988 by-election, and Oxford West and Abingdon in 1992, when he got within 3,500 votes of victory. He went on to hold a number of frontbench positions in the Lords, including that of Shadow Lord Chancellor.

And finally, Lord (John) Roper retired with effect from 23 May. A former Labour MP who defected to the SDP in 1991, he served as our Chief Whip in the Lords until 2005, before going on to be Principal Deputy Chairman and thus Chair of the House of Lords European Union Committee, in 2008. In recent years, he was a regular attender at ALDE Congresses, where his knowledge of how Europe works was very impressive, even if his skills were underused. In a situation where opinion is not necessarily supported by knowledge, his modesty regarding his own knowledge meant that it wasn’t utilised by our delegations to its best effect.

I am confident, however, that as far as is possible, they will not be lost to public life altogether. We should be grateful that they contributed as they did to both the Party and to Parliament.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

To the Arctic Circle and beyond: Day 5 - in which our voyagers retrace their steps...

The Norwegian Air Shuttle flight to Bergen leaves Gatwick at 10.50 a.m., which is all very well if you live in London, especially South London. It isn't so great if you live in Suffolk but, luckily, Ros's term-time flat in London was available to us, so an early, but bearably so, start as we headed back to Norway.

I don't use Gatwick very much, but check-in and security were rather straightforward, and the South Terminal was crowded but not overly so. We grabbed breakfast and headed to the gate for our flight.

Nice, eh? A bit strange, but very Scandinavian...
Norwegian offer free wi-fi throughout the flight (an unfamiliar but welcome facility), so the journey passed relatively easily and we arrived in Bergen on time, grabbing a taxi to our hotel. It was our first reminder as to just how expensive Norway is - you always find yourself mentally exclaiming "how much?" with a slightly panicky air of disbelief - but we arrived at the hotel, checked into our room (with a balcony, no less) and made a reservation for some traditional Norwegian fare - there may have been reindeer and fish involved.

I checked the Hurtigruten website. The MS Trollfjord was making its way south towards Bergen and was on time. Things were beginning to look up...

Dinner was... interesting. Excellent food, service of a decidedly amateurish streak. But then, Norwegians don't really tip - they assume that people get paid a proper salary - so some of the incentive is missing. Wesselstuen is a rather traditional sort of place, with an emphasis on the food, rather than the ambience. However, that suits me just fine, especially if there's reindeer on the menu.

Replete, we had a brief stroll around the town in bright sunshine before heading back to the hotel for a good night's sleep...

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

To the Arctic Circle and beyond: Days 3/4 - and just when you're about to give up hope...

So, we had returned to Suffolk after the disappointment of having our trip cancelled and, out of curiosity, I had a look at the Hurtigruten website to see if they had availability for the voyage on the Saturday out of Bergen. They did, a surprising amount of availability.

I called my new friend at Hurtigruten, Andy, the Senior VIP Consultant (we're not VIP's, but I think they realised that they had screwed up). I said to him, "I see that you have availability for Saturday. Is there any chance that we could cut a deal so that we get one. I can get us to Bergen in time if necessary.". He responded favourably, although he would have to put it to management the next morning.

It was agreed that I would call the next morning...

Gatwick to Bergen, surprisingly reasonably...
Ros was in Harwich, attending a board meeting, when I rang Andy again. "Good news!", he said, "Yes, we can put you on the Saturday sailing, we'll give you your journey at the original price plus a 20% discount.". That was good enough, and so I booked new flights to Bergen for the next morning, rearranged our original flights home and organised new hotels. And then, I texted Ros to let her know that we were back on.

Down to London that evening - we hadn't unpacked, which made life easier - we anticipated, slightly wearily, the journey ahead...

Monday, May 25, 2015

Alright, I've been away. So, where have I been?

Readers with a long memory may recall that, on polling day, I fled the country, possibly never to return (well, you never know, do you?). I was bound for Oslo, for a meeting of the ALDE Party Council (here's my report, since you ask...).

What I didn't mention was that my plans involved staying on in Norway for a few days and, initially, all went well. I enjoyed a scenic train ride through the snow-covered centre of the country, travelling from Oslo to Bergen via Finse (the highest mainline railway station in Europe, I'm told).

Ros was waiting there to meet me, and we had the afternoon and most of the next day to see Bergen, meeting Svein, one of her former colleagues on the North Sea Commission, and his partner. And yes, the weather in Bergen wasn't great, but the company was good and we were rather enjoying ourselves.

Which, as you might have feared, is when things started going wrong.

Ros has always wanted to take the Hurtigruten (the coastal express ferry) up the Norwegian coast from Bergen to Kirkenes, on the Russian border. And so, I had booked us into a suite on the MS Finnmarken, scheduled to leave on the Monday evening. It was at the point that we returned to our hotel to meet Svein for some afternoon sightseeing that the hotel receptionist noted that there appeared to be a problem with our ship.

Svein kindly drove us to the harbour, where it was confirmed that the sailing had been postponed due to a mechanical failure. We were to report to a hotel in the city, where things would be explained and arrangements made.

"We're sorry, but the Finnmarken won't be sailing tonight. Repairs are being made and we expect it to sail tomorrow. In the meantime, we have arranged accommodation for you here, and meals will be provided.", said the Hurtigruten representative. "The ship will make up time and you will arrive at Kirkenes as scheduled."

That wasn't entirely the point, given that the whole idea was to enjoy the journey but...

The next morning, we awoke, only to receive the news that the repairs to the Finnmarken had been successful, only to uncover another problem, this time with one of the propellors. We weren't going anywhere, at least, not soon. We were offered a full refund and flights home so, after some discussion, we opted to head back to Suffolk.

I will not bore you with details of our return but, back in our cottage, it was time to regroup...

The adventure is over, for the time being. Now, the hard work begins...

In retrospect, leaving the country on 7 May has begun to look better and better, especially given the result of the General Election. Unfortunately, my employers take the rather conservative view that, in order for my salary to be justified, I have to come in and do some work occasionally. And so, I am back.

Today has been a day for catching up. I've got a Local Party Executive Committee meeting on Thursday evening, so a report has had to be written and accounts drawn up for the year to date. I've done that, so I'm alright so far.

Laundry and shopping have been done, the garden tidied and progress on this year's building work has been ascertained (so that's what a death watch beetle looks like...). The house is still standing, so that's alright too.

So, I'd better catch up on events over the past fortnight or so...

Saturday, May 09, 2015

@ALDEParty Council - what message should Liberals bring in answer to anti-immigration EU-sceptics?

Alright, we lost and the Conservatives won. A referendum on our membership of the European Union beckons and UKIP, plus a chunk of the Conservative Party, can be counted upon to campaign for us to leave. Labour can't be counted upon to make a pro-European case and the Liberal Democrats need to develop a more nuanced stance than simply being in favour of Europe as it is (not one of Nick Clegg's finest moments, might I suggest?).

So, the European Liberal Forum event on confronting the far-right and Eurosceptics was a potential source of ideas and I attended with some enthusiasm.

After some introductions by our hosts, Giulio Ercolessi spoke about the importance of treating people as individuals, as opposed to groups of, and within, minorities.

Han ten Broeke made another appearance, speaking about the Dutch experience. He believes that the VVD advances stem from an acknowledgement that telling people that they should be more tolerant is not good enough. You need to understand where the people are, and you need to be in government. That means, potentially, compromising on your principles in order to gain power. in the Netherlands, that meant drawing the far-right populists into government, forcing them to compromise. For such people, compromise is deadly, making them 'just like the rest of us' and thus neutralised. You need to bring them out into the open, rather than forcing them underground.

He noted that, in Britain, the Liberal Democrats had taken responsibility, yet had been unfairly punished. However, generally, the public like political parties who take responsibility. He accepted that, for many liberals, this is an uncomfortable stance, but it works.

Yousuf Gilani is a Venstre local councillor from Drammen, and the winner of the 2014 ALDE Committee of the Regions President's Award. He spoke of his background, coming as he does from a family who came to Norway from Pakistan in the 1960's.

He emphasised the importance of building bridges between communities. He had organised a protest in Oslo against Islamic extremism, with a huge turnout from the Muslim community to demonstrate their opposition to such extremism, inspired by the experience of his daughter.

Johanna J├Ânsson MP, the Swedish Centerpartiet spokesperson on immigration and integration, was next up. She noted the difficulty that mainstream Swedish opinion has had in dealing with the far right Swedish Democrats. How do you discuss immigration and integration without providing succour to such people? As a result, politicians and the media have chosen to duck the issue or raise potential tightening of the immigration regime.

Support for the Swedish Democrats is highest amongst those who feel threatened by the changes in society, technological and cultural. The campaign against them is dominated by accusations of racism and xenophobia, which merely reinforces their sense of alienation.

Johanna felt that the best solution is not to communicate through the media, but to take a more 'face to face' approach. She is travelling the country, meeting those who are worried about change, explaining how the immigration system really works, and about what happens. She wants people to exercise their brains, not their hearts.

We need to have a clear vision for our society, to explain how migration fits into that and what we need to do to make things work for as many of us as possible. That does not mean including the Swedish Democrats, as Han ten Broeke advocated, it means taking them on.

Delegates then intervened, talking about the issues of identity and integration. I spoke about my background, and about my family's migration. I firmly believe that we have to do something about those communities who have effectively become 'ghettoised' and isolated from our community, our civil society and our values. That means, as liberals, reaching out to them, expressing how our values offer them opportunities that isolation denies them.

Mid Suffolk - the results...

Well, as Treasurer of the Mid Suffolk Local Party, I had set my goals fairly low for the campaign, with the hope that we might retain our deposits in Bury St Edmunds and in Suffolk Central and North Ipswich. As for the District Council elections, my fear was that we would be swept away by high turnout.

Firstly, the Parliamentary elections. Given the calamitous performance across the country, retaining both deposits is something of a pleasant surprise, even if the results are awful.

In Bury St Edmunds, David Chappell came fifth with 3,581 votes (6%), down 20.4% on our 2010 performance, when we came second. In Suffolk Central and North Ipswich, Jon Neal came fourth with 3,314 votes (6.1%), down 18.8% on our 2010 performance. I am grateful to them for their willingness to fly the flag under difficult circumstances.

On Mid Suffolk District Council, we lost two of the six seats we were defending, Ringshall, where we were defending a majority of just 20 with a new candidate, and Claydon and Barham, where the incumbent retired. Wendy Marchant and Mike Norris survived in Needham Market, although Mike only scraped in by eight votes. In Rattlesden, Penny Otton came home fairly comfortably and John Field topped the poll in the the two-member ward of Bramford and Blakenham.

Elsewhere, Keith Scarff came up eighty-eight votes short in Stowmarket South, having lost by sixty-five on a much lower turnout in 2011, and Doug Reed lost by ninety-five in Elmswell and Norton.

On a personal note, I didn't contest Stowupland ward this time. However, there was a sting in the tale for the not so local Conservatives when Keith Welham beat Jemma Lynch by 103 votes to take the seat for the Greens.

So, how does that leave Mid Suffolk District Council?

Prior to the election, the Conservatives held twenty-two of the forty seats, with three Condependents to be counted upon, with six Liberal Democrats, four Greens (plus a reliable Independent, the wife of the Green group leader), two Suffolk Together, one Labour and one 'proper' Independent. Now, we have twenty-nine Conservatives (plus Charlie Flatman in Eye), five Greens, four Liberal Democrats and Gerard Brewster, the Independent from Stowmarket South.

So, goodbye Suffolk Together and farewell to the Labour Party in Mid Suffolk, both swept away by the Conservative tide and a massively increased turnout.

Our membership is already up since polling day, and the work begins now for 2017 and the County elections...

@ALDEParty Council - the urgency resolutions working group

So, I was minding my own business at last night's welcome reception when my pocket buzzed. Checking my e-mail, I was slightly surprised to find that not only were there urgency resolutions - seven of them - but that one of them proposed an asylum and migration policy for the European Union, courtesy of the FDP, and that they would be debated at 9.30 this morning.

Having told Robert Woodthorpe Browne, chair of our Party's International Relations Committee and delegation leader, that I would attend, I went back to my hotel room, read the resolutions and made a few notes for use in debate.

After a hearty breakfast, I arrived at the Council venue and took a seat. Vedrana Gujic, President of LYMEC (ALDE's youth wing), opened the meeting and we were under way. Resolutions on Greece and the Eurozone, protecting the European Single Market, mineral waste dumping in Norwegian fjords and the release of political prisoners in Russia, Belarus and Azerbaijan were pretty uncontentious. However, there was some debate on whether or not to push for visa-free access to the European Union for Ukrainians. Personally, I tend to the view that moving on this demonstrates to the people of Ukraine that we believe them, and want them, to be part of the European family, and is a good thing.

It was at this point that I realised that I was, in fact, the delegation. And therefore, given the absence of policy support, I will accept that the views expressed by me on behalf of the Party may not entirely reflect Party policy. However, offering visa-free access is a liberal thing to do, and I'm happy to stand by my support for it in this instance.

The next resolution was the controversial one. Springing a resolution on asylum and migration policy on an ALDE Council meeting with just twelve hours notice is unacceptable, and whilst I accept that some of the elements of the resolution did fulfil the requirements of the use of the word 'urgency' - strengthening Frontex, allowing asylum seekers to apply at embassies of European Union member states overseas, for example, suggesting that a points-based system was sound without considering the impact on Schengen and non-Schengen States is unduly hasty. I called for amendments to the resolution that would allow Congress to discuss the matter at greater length in Budapest in November, allowing us to consult with our members at home.

There is an acknowledged acceptance that the current Dublin system for allocating refugees is broken, and we need to replace it with something better. However, dumping refugees on communities that cannot cope, or who need to develop strategies for integrating them, risks creating pockets of isolation that generate future problems for both the community and those seeking to become part of our wider society. I intend to raise this with Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary to seek their input prior to the meeting in Budapest.

Finally, we discussed the situation in Macedonia, where the current government has been accused of massive levels of corruption and other criminal activity, up to and including murder. If passed by Council, the resolution now calls for the government to resign in favour of a transitional administration bringing together all political forces in the country and to impose personal sanctions against those individuals responsible otherwise.

Next, the round table on liberalism and fighting the extreme right...

Friday, May 08, 2015

ALDE Council Fringe - The Future of Liberal Europe

Earlier this evening, Tom Nuttall, who writes the Charlemagne column for the Economist, moderated a round table debate in Oslo's Litteraturhuset (Literature House).

The panel, made up of four liberal politicians from Austria, Estonia, the Netherlands and Norway, were asked to respond to the reference in Nick Clegg's resignation speech, in which he noted that European liberalism is under threat.

Trine Skei Grande MP, Leader of Venstre, our hosts, spoke about the importance of being relevant in national politics. We need to renew our policies in the light of technology and its potential impact on our civil liberties. She was (politely) critical of the Liberal Democrats, noting that we appeared to have forgotten the things that had made us successful in the first place. Trine believes that you should go into government with a clear set of goals and promises and stick to them (she apologised to Lib Dems for having to say that). She was very critical of Nick Clegg, saying that you can't tell the people that they are wrong, that we must go back to our strengths - representing people, 'pavement politics', connecting with people one at a time.

Urmas Paet, former Foreign Minister of Estonia, and now a member of the European Parliament, talked of three risks that liberalism faces - the economy and household income, impacted by free movement of goods and services, the digital economy and trade agreements, security - where fears over migration from outside the EU may challenge the future of the Schengen zone and bring about a further increase in support for populist, nationalist parties, and privacy - how can we balance personal freedoms with the need for security.

Han ten Broeke, VVD's Foreign Affairs spokesman, felt very sorry for Nick Clegg, suggesting that it was very brave to go into government. He had hoped that the coalition would continue, ensuring that the United Kingdom does not turn its back on Europe. He was of the view that we must decide whether we want to be entirely true to our principles or whether we are willing to exercise real power.

For example, if voters believe that freedoms is under threat, so how do we address the concept that freedom is security?

Angelika Mlinar MEP, NEOS (Austria) espoused a view that the voters are always right - I fundamentally disagree with that - and we have to address their concerns, regardless of whether or not we agree with them.

Han ten Broeke also noted that, for the first time, foreign affairs has become a major issue in Dutch politics as voters begin to fear the outside world. Liberals are uncomfortable talking about security.

Urmas Paet disagreed with Angelika, as he felt that, actually, some people ARE wrong. Estonians are not shocked by events in the Ukraine, for example, given their history and geography. Europe is very diverse and has a lot of variety in its views.

Ever willing to seek wisdom - that rather seems to be the point of coming to these events, I suggest - I asked the panel what our priorities should be, and their unanimous answer was that we need to rebuild from the floor up.

So, there you go, Team Cockroach, there are some marching orders...

Lest we forget...

The sun is shining here in Oslo, although a brisk wind is bringing in some rather less attractive cloud. And, as I sit here, on the edge of the battlements of the Akershus Fortress, it is perhaps appropriate to send condolences to those who have lost their seats today, and to those whose jobs have suddenly disappeared - researchers, agents, constituency staff.

All of them have given their best for our Party, for its beliefs and for liberalism, and regardless of what we may think of the past five years, they did it for what they thought was for the best. Many of them are personal friends - one of the hardest parts of being in a party such as the Liberal Democrats is the sense of family that we engender.

And to the volunteers up and down the land, whose enthusiasm never failed, and the candidates in hopeless causes. You didn't have to put your heads above the parapet, but you did anyway.

Thank you to you all, you deserve our gratitude...

Alright, it's virtually all over. It's been horrible. We're not dead though.

The War of the Triple Alliance, in which Paraguay fought, and lost to, the combined forces of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, saw the male population of Paraguay reduced by 70%. As a Liberal Democrat this morning, it feels a lot like that at the moment. And, of course, it isn't over yet. There are still local elections to be counted and it would be naive to expect any encouragement from those.

So, what now? What can, or should, Liberal Democrats do?

Firstly, don't panic. Yes, it's bad, yes, it's awful. There is no consolation sufficient to shelter behind. But, despite everything, something like 2.5 million voters still turned out to vote Liberal Democrat, even after five years of cuts, of having to make and defend some very difficult positions. That is a base upon which we can rebuild.

Second, we are in opposition. Even if the Conservatives come in search of our support in the Commons, we are better off out of it. There are going to be more cuts, more pain, and voters are about to discover what Conservatives are capable without having Liberal Democrats to restrain them. Personally, I hope that those on the left whose vitriol did so much to undermine us in Conservative-facing seats dwell on the outcome and learn the lessons. I'm not optimistic.

Next, policy. What are we actually about? We need a positive vision for our country, rethinking the very concept of the nation state (devolution, Europe), about what government is for (form and function).

We also need to decide if we are going to play the political game in the same way. Is 'looking like a party of government' something that works for us or against? For the record, I'd say that it doesn't - the media don't like us and never will. Our social media campaign was extremely good, and if there was a positive from the campaign, that (and fundraising) was it. We need to focus on our message and our ideas and talk about beliefs.

One last thing. Whilst the Conservatives will have a majority in the Commons, the position is very different in the Lords. One hundred Liberal Democrat peers will find themselves in a key position until, presumably, the Conservatives appoint enough Peers to change that. They'll need at least one hundred though. In the meantime, they represent an opportunity for us to hold the Government to account. It will be interesting to see whether the Party's approach towards our Parliamentary Party in the Lords changes.

And now, I'm off to face our European sister parties. At least they'll be sympathetic...

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Creeting St Peter: it's too late @jemnicole1, your predecessor sold the pass on the Business and Enterprise Park...

In her leaflet, two weeks ago, our Conservative candidate assured us that she would
Ensure that our views regarding the proposed developments in Stowupland and Creeting St Peter are adequately represented.
I should, therefore, not have been surprised when, last week, it was announced that outline planning permission had been given for a proposed Business and Enterprise Park on the edge of our Parish. I was even less surprised when, in the East Anglian Daily Times report, the current ward councillor, Caroline Byles, popped up to say;
Initially I was very against this development. But after reading papers I have come to the conclusion this development is needed.
It would possibly be a mite cynical if I were to note that Ms Byles lives fifteen miles away from the site and is unlikely to suffer in any way from the increased noise and light pollution, loss of views and congestion caused by both the construction work and the three thousand people expected to work there.

Soon, all this won't be fields...
So much for Jemma's commitment then, given that residents of the Clamps Farm group of homes will have this on their doorstep, and that the gap between Stowmarket and the village will be halved. Worse still, with the site expected to be transferred from Creeting St Peter to Stowmarket, it is hard to envisage what benefits will accrue to us.

It is probably fair to say that local Conservatives have little interest in the voices of Creeting St Peter residents, except on the rare occasion that they want our votes. And yes, it is true that none of the other parties have made much of an effort here either, but as I expect to hear from my councillors rather more than once every four years, I feel that I have every justification for expressing dissatisfaction.

I wonder how the Greens are getting on in Stowupland...

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Far from the campaign trail - a European detour on the road to wisdom

Never let it be said that I am unwilling to help, and I have always been happy to go to meetings so that you, gentle reader (yes, Jennie, I know that you don't see yourself as gentle but...), don't have to. And so, today I am off to Brussels, as I have a meeting of the ALDE Party's Financial Advisory Committee to attend tomorrow morning.

I have served on some very obscure bodies in my time, but the Financial Advisory Committee is probably up the most obscure. It isn't mentioned in the statutes of ALDE, its membership is decided upon by the Bureau and its minutes aren't published. It has no authority of its own, acting in a consultative capacity only and files no reports, at least, none that I am aware of. In short, it is a perfect home for shy and retiring bureaucrats like myself.

This may be about to change, however, and it might just be that I am, in part, responsible. In November, at ALDE Council, there was some discontent about the apparent absence of ethics and transparency guidelines for fundraising. Except, of course, that my colleagues and I had actually written some, a point I was only too happy to volunteer. Not only had they been written, we had actually requested feedback.

The feedback has now come and all of it has come from member parties in Northern Europe - perhaps a sign of better organisation? It tends to be focussed on enhanced transparency and greater consultation and, whilst my impulse is to be supportive, there are questions of practicality to consider.

So, I really ought to give this some thought. Over a nice dinner, perhaps... or a beer...