Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Unless anyone knows different... a first tonight in Cambridge(shire and Peterborough) as a PCC prospective candidate is selected

Tonight found me having to deal with a bit of a diary clash, as two major commitments coincided - International Relations Committee was meeting in London from 6 p.m. until 8, whilst the members' meeting for the Cambridgeshire PCC selection was scheduled to start in Cambridge at 8 p.m. Given that I work in Ipswich, there was always going to a problem, but fortunately, International Relations Committee is civilised enough to allow the more distant amongst us to dial in.

So, only detouring home to pick up the last minute postal ballots, I set off for Cambridge, and dialled into the committee meeting in time for its scheduled start. The problem was, I was on a train in West Suffolk, where mobile reception is, and I'm being diplomatic here, patchy. It would be honest to say that I did miss parts of the meeting...

But I got to Cambridge easily enough, found the venue for the meeting, and found a corner where I could resume the call. So far, so good.

And, at 8 p.m., the sole candidate was invited to address the gathered throng. I've known Rupert Moss-Eccardt for some years, but never really seen him 'politick' and, I have to say, he does seem to know his stuff. He spoke knowledgeably about early interventions, restorative justice and all of those other good things that Liberal Democrats get shouted at about by the 'hang 'em and flog 'em' brigade, i.e. Labour, the Conservatives and UKIP.

Questions from the audience were thoughtful, and received equally reflective answers - a lot of crime and punishment issues can be addressed through a variety of early, targeted interventions that might have no police involvement at all. Rehabilitation of offenders through training and education, for example, would go a long way towards reducing reoffending rates.

An hour passed, and it was time for the final ballots to be cast, and the count to start. Luckily, it didn't take too long, and I was able to declare that Rupert had beaten 'reopen nominations' by one hundred and six votes to seven, with four spoilt papers. I think that such a result might reasonably be described as overwhelming...

So, Rupert is, we think, the first Liberal Democrat prospective PCC candidate to be unleashed on an unsuspecting public. I wish him, and party activists across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, the very best of luck with the campaign ahead...

Sunday, November 22, 2015

So, what did a liberal bureaucrat get up to at the @ALDEParty Congress?

Whilst Ros was campaigning for the Vice-Presidency, I had work to do too. After all, I'm not the best 'minder' in the world, having been fired during her Party Presidential campaign for a tendency to stop and chat to people, rather than making sure that she got to where she needed to be. And besides, I have my own role, that of Council member and occasional diplomat, seeking compromise where possible and offering organisational enlightenment when process is discussed.

At Party Council, in the discussion about changing the internal procedures so as to withdraw voting rights over the European Parliamentary election manifesto from non-EU member state parties, I got up to note that, where aspects of it impact directly on them, enlargement, for example, we were potentially denying them a voice. And, whilst I understood the motivation underlying the proposal, I did want to remind Council of the inherent risk.

In the resolution working group, I tried to bridge the gap between the pacifists within our delegation, who were trying to insist that a military response to Islamic State should be the last alternative, and those delegates who felt that diplomacy was impossible. I noted that, whilst direct diplomacy with IS was well nigh impossible, talking to those countries who could stop the flow of black market oil trade, for example, was certainly worthwhile. I like to think that I was able to broker a compromise between the two sides of the argument.

In the debate on a new development aid policy, I successfully agreed an amendment with the movers from LYMEC (European Liberal Youth), adding provision for support to tax administrations in developing countries both to enable them to increase available resources but also to help in the fight against global tax evasion.

So, all in all, a fairly successful ALDE Party Council and Congress for the house bureaucrat, and with the prospect of a working group to look at future changes to the Statutes and Rules of Procedure, I can see how I might have a future role.

Oh, and yes, my wife became a Vice-President. Actually, it was a pretty good three days, wasn't it?...

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The newly-elected Vice-President of the @ALDEParty is... Baroness Ros Scott!

At the end of three days of intensive campaigning, it came down to a rather nerve-wracking final hour of the thirty-sixth Annual Congress of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE). Hands had been shaken, delegations lobbied and speeches made, and all that was left was the minor matter of the actual voting.

As I have previously noted, ALDE has a quirky voting system - first past the post with a twist - the twist being that voters must vote for as many candidates as there are vacancies. This can potentially lead to a situation whereby you are obliged to vote for a candidate you don't like much, simply to make up your slate. Failure to cast the right number of votes leads to the rejection of all of your choices - an unwelcome problem to have.

The first vote was for the Presidency, with voters given the choice of voting for Siim Kallas or Hans van Baalen. I had thought that it might be close, with both sides throwing caution to the wind in their attempts to persuade voters, but in the end, van Baalen won by a very clear margin indeed.

What did that mean for the Vice-Presidential race? Firstly, it meant an extra vacancy to be filled, meaning that there would be six winners, not five, as van Baalen was already a serving Vice-President himself. However, it meant that voters were faced with having to pick an extra candidate to support, although more prescient delegations had probably given the matter some thought anyway.

The next complication was the means of voting, an electronic voting pad which required each of the six votes to be cast separately, which offered boundless opportunities for confusion. However, eventually, the voting procedure was complete, and I took my place in a small room away from the congress hall with my fellow observers, one for each campaign.

It quickly became clear that there had been significant numbers of spoiled ballots - seventy-one out of four hundred and twenty-nine. Voters choosing the same candidate more than once, or not casting all six votes, meant that I was wondering, "Have our voters got it right?". The numbers were announced for each candidate, each observer confirmed their acceptance, and I took the opportunity to offer our thanks to the Returning Officers and to Didrik de Schaetzen, who had co-ordinated the election on behalf of the ALDE Party secretariat, for their efforts, before we returned to our candidates.

Then, the announcement, with the results simultaneously screened for the Congress to see. Ros had won fairly handily, getting 73% of the valid votes cast, and coming third overall. Elected with her were Marcus Löning from the FDP, Germany, Ilhan Kyuchuyk from the MRF, Bulgaria, (probably the first Muslim Bureau member ever), Timmy Dooley from Fianna Fáil, Ireland, Marta Pascal from Convergencia, Catalonia, and Fredrick Federley, from Centerpartiet, Sweden.

The campaign was over, a victory had been gained, and a future unlocked. We took the International Office team off for a glass of champagne to mark the result, but mostly as a small thank you for the work that they had done to make it possible.

I am very proud of Ros. She ran a campaign which was true to her values, stuck to the issues and was about doing things rather than being things. I have every confidence that she will do the Liberal Democrats proud during her term of office, and that she will, eventually, leave the ALDE Party stronger than it was when she arrived. And that, when all is said and done, is what politics is all about.

As for me, it seems that I am a (Vice-)Presidential consort again, at least for two years. For Saffron Walden, read Vilnius, presumably... it could be a lot of fun...

Friday, November 20, 2015

@ALDEParty Congress: "she thinks I'm crazy, but I'm just growing old..."

It has been a whirlwind day in Budapest, as the campaigns for the Presidency of ALDE and five, perhaps six, Vice-Presidencies, reach a crescendo. Various delegations have requested a few minutes to hear and question Ros, from the formal - the Joint Nordic meeting - to the more informal - LYMEC around two tables on the mezzanine landing.

Amidst all of this, the resolutions have been argued in the working groups, fringe meetings have been held and old friendships rekindled. Strangely, this has been an event where a number of old colleagues from my days in IFLRY have come together. Some of them have gone to greater things - Defence Minister in Slovenia, Education Minister in Denmark, that sort of thing. Perhaps I could have been a contender?... Perhaps not.

There is, however, a clear difference between the bureaucrat who was for Ros in 2007 and 2008, and the 2015 version. Eight years appear to have the equivalent stopping force of a heavy-calibre weapon, so I have to be smarter, rather than faster.

Luckily, the campaign team have been marvellous, as our International Office have thrown themselves enthusiastically into the fray, handing out leaflets, introducing Ros to potentially friendly delegations, and negotiating support. And, thankfully, people have been as friendly as one could hope. Nonetheless, nothing is being taken for granted, just as Ros took nothing for granted in 2008 against Lembit and Chandila.

But time is running out for the various campaigns, with the poll itself just fifteen hours away. Key delegations meet in the morning, with a late-breaking hustings meeting scheduled for 8.30, so sleep is called for...

Thursday, November 19, 2015

@ALDEParty Council: I've written my Liszt, I'm checking it twice...

Alright, I lied, there was always going to be a pun...

Council has met in both halves of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in my relatively short time back in ALDE, and it will be nice to be on the banks of the Danube after so many years (alright, it isn't blue, but it is fairly deep). But there is business to attend to and, as I may be the only Liberal Democrat who campaigned for election to our Council delegation on the basis that I would... attend Council and discuss the administration of ALDE (bloody radical, eh?), the only way you'll ever know is if I preview it. So, here goes...

Meetings of Council that take part within the Congress agenda are seldom exciting by comparison, and this one is no exception. However, there are some potentially interesting items on the agenda.

The two membership applications offer ALDE a route back towards relevance in Eastern and Central Europe, as Liberalisok, the Hungarian Liberal Party, and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats Party, from Romania, are both up for consideration. One of the prime reasons for us being here is to encourage the liberal forces is what has become a very nationalist, conservative country to rebuild after a very difficult period. As for the Romanians, the defection of our previous member party to the European People's Party was a blow, and any credible pan-European political party really needs a presence there.

The statutes are up for debate too. The past few years have seen a number of significant changes to the structure of ALDE, with the emergence of an individual membership programme and a more active Gender Equality Network. In the wider European political environment, the emergence of common candidates for leadership roles makes demands on the political parties too.

Whilst Congress is responsible for the statutes, Council has to deal with the mechanics of it all, and so we'll be looking at voting rights for the individual members, resolution submission rights for the Gender Equality Network, as well as electoral procedure rules. In terms of the wider European issues, the process by which a common top candidate for European elections is on the table, with the means for adoption of a common electoral manifesto also to be discussed - not something that we in the Liberal Democrats have ever really cleaved to.

Of course, we'll be looking at the finances, including the increasingly innovative ideas for fundraising emerging from the Bureau and the Secretariat, and quizzing the Bureau on their activity over the past six months.

But, in the background, the intriguing will be constant, as the two Presidential and ten Vice-Presidential candidates, including our own Ros Scott, campaign for support. Don't worry, Liberal Bureaucracy will be covering it all...

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

@ALDEParty Congress - the policy debates (1)

This year, I've decided to write my review of the ALDE Party Congress in sections, given my decision to publish it here rather than at Liberal Democrat Voice - I can write at greater length and cover more ground. Having set the scene yesterday, I start with a summary of some of the policy resolutions up for discussion...


Reclaiming Liberalism: a liberal response to digitalisation

This rather lengthy resolution springs from a seminar held earlier in the year and can be broken up into six elements;
  • maximising the potential of digitalisation - creating effective regulatory environments, promoting a competitively priced, fast and open internet and fostering a business environment that supports innovative new industries
  • digitalisation of the public sector - modernising the delivery of services
  • trust and security - making the internet a place where privacy is protected and security services covered by proper oversight 
  • copyright - a cross-border harmonised system which "balances the inherent value and appreciation of creative and artistic content with consumers rights in the digital age"
  • digital literacy, skills and inclusion - an inclusive digital economy in which citizens and businesses have the necessary skills and can benefit from e-government services
  • digital single market - calls for further deepening of the Single Market
Controversy factor?: (out of five) - hard to see who would object to this

Reclaiming Liberalism: shaping a modern liberal policy for economic justice

Another lengthy motion, unsurprisingly, and again stemming from the series of seminars held earlier in the year, this is made up of four elements;
  • defining principles of economic justice and equality - the push for open markets, less state bureaucracy and fair global rules, the provision of social safety nets and more investment in research and development, education and projects that create jobs
  • advancing global growth and prosperity - reforming international trade, concluding TTIP and completing the Single Market
  • liberal perspectives on debt policies - measures to tackle tax evasion, tax fraud, tax havens, corruption and money laundering, a common policy for fiscal prudence across Europe
  • the future of the European economic and financial systems and bailouts - a common resolution mechanism for dealing with insolvent banks, an insolvency mechanism for countries and more "favourable" insolvency rules and financial and taxation frameworks
Controversy factor?:  - TTIP might be popular in liberal circles, but isn't without challenge.

Creating a competitive labour market for the Twenty-first Century

Courtesy of ANO (Czech Republic), and Venstre (Denmark), this resolution calls for action on a range of aspects. The focus is on the role of Member States, rather than on European Commission inspired activity, perhaps reflecting a slight skepticism of 'big Europe'.

Controversy factor?:  - surprisingly acceptable perhaps, given that the movers are more economic liberals than social ones.

Sustainable use of maritime resources

Another Venstre resolution, this time supported by Svenska Folkpartiet of Finland, it calls for seals to be recognised as a maritime resource to be used in a sustainable manner. Does this mean that they can be killed for food?

Controversy factor?:   - killing seals? I really don't think so.

Policies on the development of European bio- and circular economies

Keskusta (Finland) are in favour of open and fair markets, investment in blue bioeconomy (aquaculture, fishing and tourism) possibilities and clean drinking water.

Controversy factor?:  - Finns in favour of the environment. Who would have guessed?

Towards a truly global fight against tax heavens - proposal for an inclusive UN body to combat global tax evasion

The spelling error aside (it did entertain me...), this resolution from Radikale Venstre of Denmark calls for exactly what it says on the tin.

Controversy factor?:  - the United Nations? Really? Nobody is likely to be that bothered though.

For a comprehensive TTIP agreement

The economic liberals of the FDP (Germany), VVD (Netherlands) and Venstre (Denmark), as well as LYMEC (European Liberal Youth), have come together to call for a rapid conclusion of the TTIP agreement.

Controversy factor?:  - see above.

Next time, I'll look at the various Foreign Affairs resolutions...

It's not looking promising in the Bolivarian Republic

Inflation officially at 68.5% (that is, what it was when the Central Bank stopped publishing the data last December - it may be as high as 700% now), a chicken costing $219 at the official exchange rate, the gold reserves being sold off to pay maturing debt and national GDP thought to have fallen by about 10% this year - not perhaps the ideal circumstances to be fighting an election in if you're the governing party.

And it gets worse. The First Lady's nephews have been arrested in Haiti and extradited to the United States on charges of conspiring to smuggle cocaine, the economy is almost entirely dependent on oil exports, and the Organization of American States has signaled concerns about the legitimacy of the election arrangements, calling for international observers to be invited. 

But yes, Venezuela goes to the polls on 6 December, with President Maduro declaring that he will “not hand over the revolution.” That outcome, he warned, would force him to govern “with the people in a civil-military union.”. In other words, the opposition might win the vote, but they might not gain power.

And they'll have to go some, despite being as much as 20% ahead in the opinion polls. Constituencies have been gerrymandered, the press censored, opposition leaders jailed, voters bribed and there are fears that polling stations will be arranged to maximize the pro-government vote.

ALDE has called for democratic elections and a peaceful transition, something that I think most of us could support. Watch this space...

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

@ALDEParty Congress - so, why Budapest?

Normally, I would attempt to come up with some kind of pun linked to the country the event takes place in. Sadly, there is little humorous about the politics of Hungary, where European liberals gather this weekend. Indeed, the purpose of holding the ALDE Party Congress there is to provide some support to the liberal forces that remain there.

Once upon a time, Hungary had a lot of liberals, with the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) holding ninety-three of the 386 seats in the first post-communist Parliament, and FIDESZ holding another twenty-one. But, alas, FIDESZ discovered that conservative nationalism was more electorally acceptable, and the Free Democrats went into coalition with the Hungarian Socialists, leading to a rapid decline and eventual extinction.

There are some grounds for slight optimism, however, in the formation of the Hungarian Liberal Party two years ago. Running as part of a left-wing coalition, their leader, and former leader of SZDSZ, Gabor Fodor, won a 'party list' seat in the 2014 elections, and in a by-election earlier this year, an independent candidate, Zoltan Kesz, was elected in something of an upset, causing FIDESZ to lose their supermajority in the Parliament - preventing them from amending the constitution alone.

So, with any luck, our gathering will offer Hungarian liberals some moral support as they seek to rebuild. Me, I'll be offering moral support of a slightly different sort...

Taking a deep sigh, and finding something else to do...

Liberal Democracy has been good to me personally. I've met fascinating people, done interesting and, occasionally, useful things, I hope. I met Ros, who has made my life better in a whole bunch of ways. The past week has been deeply dispiriting though.

It would be foolhardy to describe those aspects, on either side of the argument, which have depressed me most and, to be fair, there have been participants on both sides who have led me to wonder whether or not I am the right sort of liberal to be at home here, or perhaps, an acceptable enough liberal.

And yet, one hesitates. I am deeply fond of my Local Party, for all its idiosyncrasies, and I enjoy what I do at a European level. I like to think that, all in all, my contribution is a useful one, and that I serve those who I represent to the best of my ability.

But my confidence is shaken, rather then bolstered, so perhaps it is time to take some time out, particularly from the online debate, which seems to have taken a turn for the rather less pleasant.

Don't mind me, I'll shut the door as I go... 

Monday, November 16, 2015

An evening of being Ros's stunt double...

I am, as most regular visitors to this blog know, a bureaucrat rather than a politician. My usual place is where I'm least likely to be noticed - House of Lords correspondent for Liberal Democrat Voice, for example - but, tonight, I found myself in the role of guest speaker for the AGM of Ipswich Liberal Democrats, with the task of talking about the EU referendum.

Luckily, Ros knows vast amounts about this stuff, and had given a really good speech about it on Saturday night, so I blatantly stole the core content, embellished it with a few laughs, and delivered it as my own. Alright, that's a bit of an exaggeration but Ros's knowledge, and the dinner table conversations we've had, have left me pretty well briefed.

I know the Local Party in Ipswich pretty well, and the venue, in Christchurch Park, was a gentle stroll from my office, and so I was in good time for the business element of the evening. Surprisingly few arms were twisted to fill the various Officer roles, and my turn came soon enough.

And, actually, it seemed to go well enough- people laughed at the jokes, the debate was lively and the questions were really good, challenging and thoughtful - something that I love about Liberal Democrats. We talked for about fifty minutes before a few of us adjourned to the nearby pub for a swift pint and a few tales from our past.

All in all, it was a fun evening, and if I had to do it again, I probably would. So, thank you to my Ipswich colleagues for inviting me, and I hope that you enjoyed it...

Sunday, November 15, 2015

@ALDEParty Congress - the Vice-Presidential Race

I was going to write this for Liberal Democrat Voice but, to be honest, given what's going on over there, it hardly seems worth bothering. At least here, anyone who is interested can pick it up...

A week ago, I wrote for Liberal Democrat Voice about the contest to replace Sir Graham Watson as President of the ALDE (Alliance of Liberal and Democrats in Europe) Party. I had meant to follow that up with a piece about the race to fill five, possible six, Vice-Presidential slots, but you know how things go, you get distracted, or busy, or both. However, time now permits, so here goes...

It has, in past years, been unusual to have big fields for ALDE elections, but this year is different, with ten candidates for the five places currently available, and they're an intriguing collection.

Raoul Boucke is the D'66 (Netherlands) candidate, as Lousewies van der Laan is term-limited (ALDE Vice Presidents are permitted three consecutive terms). He's the Chair of his Party's Belgium & Luxembourg branch, and was fifth on the Party's list for the 2014 European Parliamentary election.

Timmy Dooley, from Fianna Fail (Ireland), ran for a Vice-Presidential vacancy in 2014, losing out to Angelika Mlinar (NEOS, Austria) and Hans van Baalen (VVD, Netherlands) in an unexpectedly tight three-cornered contest. He sat in the Irish Senate from 2002 to 2007, and has represented Clare in the Irish Parliament since then. He is currently his party's spokesperson on European Affairs.

Fredrick Federley is one of the Centerpartiet (Sweden) MEPs, taking up his seat last year. He had, previously, served eight years as a member of the Swedish Parliament, and is now Second Vice Chairman of his Party. He may be the only candidate to have an acknowledged drag persona, and is closely linked to Siim Kallas's candidacy for President.

Antanas Guoga is possibly the most intriguing candidate ever to run for the ALDE Bureau. A Lithuanian-Australian businessman, he played the World Poker Tour with much success for a number of years, before getting involved in the Liberal Movement of Lithuania, for whom he now sits in the European Parliament. He is known as Tony G, and had a reputation as being a 'bad boy of poker'.

Mitja Horvat is the Chair of the International Committee of the Modern Centre Party of Slovenia, one of ALDE's newest member parties, and one of its MPs. An academic previously, he lectured in Administrative Law at the University of Ljubljana.

The first Bulgarian to run for the Bureau (to the best of my knowledge), Ilhan Kyuchyuk is a member of the European Parliament, representing the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. He's the youngest of the candidates, just thirty years old (which makes me feel rather elderly). If elected, he may well be the first Muslim Bureau member too.

With Alexander Graf Lambsdorff standing down after two terms, the FDP (Germany) are fielding a known quantity in Markus Löning. A Vice President of ALDE from 2005 to 2011 and the safest of pairs of hands, Markus is Chair of Liberal International's Human Rights Committee and was Germany's Commissioner for Human Rights between 2010 and 2014.

Marta Pascal Capdevila has been nominated by Convergencia (Catalonia). A member of the Catalan Parliament since 2013, she is her Party's spokesperson on the Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee.

The only member of the Bureau seeking re-election, Karin Riis-Jorgensen, from Venstre (Denmark), served three terms in the European Parliament from 1994 to 2009. Her husband is currently the Danish Ambassador in Rome, having formerly held the same position in London.

And finally, the Liberal Democrat, Ros Scott. Ros has served in the United Kingdom's House of Lords since 2000, holding a number of portfolios before, in 2008, she was elected by a vote of all Party members to become Party President, chairing the Federal Executive during the two year period when the Liberal Democrats entered the governing administration for the first time in peace time since 1929. Subsequently, she became a member of the European Union Select Committee in the Lords, and currently chairs its Energy and Environment sub-committee, which also includes agriculture and fisheries. She is also married to a member of ALDE's Financial Advisory Committee (that would be me...)

The voting system is a slightly unusual one, with voters having to cast as many votes as there are vacancies, with a first past the post basis determining the outcome. And, with the drama of a paper count now replaced by the (hopefully) quiet efficiency of a computerised voting system, the result should be known by 12.30 p.m., London time, on Saturday.

A serious speech for a serious day in Saffron Walden...

One of the tasks that has fallen to the Parliamentary Party in the Lords since the demise of so many of our MPs in May has been to pick up the slack in terms of providing speakers for Local Party events. Ever willing to do what she can, Ros had volunteered to travel to Saffron Walden this evening to be the guest speaker at the Local Party's Annual Dinner, and I tagged along to do some minimal navigating and keep her company on the hour-long drive in each direction.

As she noted in her initial comments, there are two types of speech on such occasions, serious and anecdotal (the Lords is a rich source of anecdotal humour). On this occasion, given events in Paris and Beirut, she said that it was appropriate that she had opted for something more serious. She talked about events in Beirut, in Ankara and in other places, acknowledging that this was a difficult time for liberal values.

And then, it was onto the referendum. Ros touched upon the likely dates for the referendum and the impacts of possible events. The move to enfranchise sixteen and seventeen-year olds, for example, would delay any referendum if successful, as arrangements would need to be made to get them onto the electoral register. Elections in France and Germany might impact on the timing, as voters there might take a dim view of the extent of concessions that might be necessary to keep the United Kingdom in. And, a point which has been much overlooked is the timing of the United Kingdom's Presidency of the European Union, i.e. the first half of 2017. Could you credibly hold the Presidency and a referendum simultaneously?

She then turned her attention to the mechanics of Brexit. The rules are clearly laid out, in that withdrawal from the institutions is immediate, and that the EU rules apply for two years afterwards to allow for the necessary transition. The catch is that the process is widely interpreted as excluding the withdrawer from those deciding upon the various steps. And why should the Commission and the Parliament make it easy? By making it as difficult and painful as possible, they would dissuade others from taking the same path.

She ended by noting how, in difficult times such as these, international co- operation was more vital than ever, that working within the rule of law to combat terror was the only credible way forward for a liberal society. Liberal Democrats stand strongly for such a message, and it's up to us to convey that belief.

There were questions to follow, which Ros handled with her usual aplomb, and the applause seemed warm and genuine. But it was getting late, and we had to get home, for there is much to do, and little time...