Sunday, January 31, 2016

All quiet on Creeting St Peter Footpath No. 1...

It's been a mostly dank, drizzly sort of day in Mid Suffolk but, as the saying goes, not rain, nor snow, nor gloom of night shall deter the bureaucrat from his ten thousand steps, and so I set off into the irritatingly persistent drizzle to buy a loaf of bread and the Sunday paper. The advantage is that I can cut across country using one of the parish's many footpaths.

There is, however, a slight glitch, in that the routes of a number of those paths were disrupted by the small matter of a four lane trunk road that was carved through the middle of the parish in the 1970s, by-passing Needham Market and Stowmarket. The A45, now the A14, divided the village from its church, and obliged the County Council to create diversionary routes to allow villagers to get both to church and into Stowmarket. There weren't many people here anyway, and they could fairly safely be ignored.

Admittedly, given that virtually everyone around here drives these days, it matters little now and the footpaths are generally quiet. Thanks to our conscientious local farmers though, most of them are pretty well maintained.

Originally, footpath 1 ran from the centre of the village, near the Parish noticeboard, in a westerly direction, and it still does, but as it expires on the wrong side of the A14, those heading for Stowmarket are diverted south across the road bridge and then parallel to the A14 before rejoining the original route.

Once you've put the traffic noise into the back of your mind, it's a pleasant enough walk, slightly downhill at first before crossing a minor stream and rising back up to the access road for Brazier's Hall and the Creeting Lakes sports fishery. From there, you follow Mill Lane into Cedars Park, cut through using one of that estate's many footpaths/cycle lanes, and there's Tesco, with all of life's modern conveniences.

And, once you've got your head around the concept that it's nowhere near as far as you had thought, you can focus on the scenery...

If Liberal Democracy has the answers, perhaps we should be asking questions...

I was discussing something on the internet today, and someone noted how useless a particular organisation was by way of an argument against a thought of mine. And indeed, said organisation may well be useless - I've never encountered it and am unlikely to do so. But then I thought, "hang on a minute, we're supposed to be a political party. If an organisation is useless, why aren't we wondering what we could do to make it better?".

I have always struggled with the concept that success in politics comes from opposing things. Yes, opposing stupidity, or callousness, or ineffectuality is a thoroughly worthwhile thing, but it's only half of the task of a politician or of a political party. The other half is to offer the people something better.

Now, that doesn't mean creating new laws, or new structures, or new anything, unless of course, it does. What it might mean is running things better, or differently, or providing greater access. Such things are not necessarily easy, but they're right and, if you've given it enough thought, and sought to achieve buy-in, you might actually make people's lives just a little better in the process.

So, in response to my colleague's unhappiness regarding the utter uselessness of said organisation, I replied;
"Not a failure of concept, a failure of mission goals and delivery, I'd suggest. Who sets their criteria, who designs their guidance, who sets their goals? And, if we want to be in government, that will be us."
It seems, these days, that politics is about scaring the public into supporting you by raising fears of what the other lot have done or will do, even when what they are doing is entirely coherent with their beliefs. If Liberal Democracy is so worthwhile, we should have the courage of our convictions and start offering people something positive.

Perhaps we could start by applying some of our oceans of policy?...

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Another sunny day in East Cambridgeshire...

Three weeks ago, Ros and I were in Bottisham, where a by-election caused by the resignation of the recently elected Tory councillor was the impetus behind a well-organised campaign to win back a seat we had lost last year.

At the other end of East Cambridgeshire though, a County by-election had been called due to the unexpected death of the Tory councillor, coincidentally in a division part-held at District level by Lorna Dupré, the Regional Party's administrator and now leader of the Opposition on East Cambridgeshire District Council. Naturally, having been invited to come and help, it would have been wrong not to turn out on what looked like being a rather grey, wet day.

Fortunately, the sun broke through, and it had become a much nicer day by the time we reached our meeting point, in the village of Sutton, where Lorna lives. The task for the day was to do some canvassing in Little Downham, which makes up about a quarter of the County Division. Me, I had some walking to do, occasionally interrupted by other tasks, which seemed sensible, given my ongoing steps target.

There is nothing finer than walking around villages on a sunny day, and I was getting quite into things, discovering the local bus route - three times a day, Monday to Saturday, connecting Little Downham with Ely - and spotting the railway line between Ely and Peterborough at the eastern end of the village.

However, such fun can't go on forever and, mid-reverie, my phone rang, with instructions to return to the car. Gathering with the team, a photograph was taken, envelopes returned, and we headed back to Suffolk.

Lorna has a genuine chance to win on 18 February. We lost by about 250 in 2013, and with Lorna's strong support in half the ward, and no Labour or Green contender, it may not need much of a swing for her to overtake her Conservative rival. It would be nice to think that, should she do so, we will have made another small contribution to the Liberal Democrat recovery in a county where we have done well in the recent past.

And the fourteen thousand steps I managed today won't have done the 'Building a Better Walrus' project any harm either...

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Viva La Revolución! A day of Cuban bookends...

It's been a rather pleasant day, all in all.

I don't, as a rule, have an awful lot of business in London these days, but the need to sort out our visitor cards for our upcoming holiday in Cuba required my personal attention, so I was up bright and relatively early to catch a train from Needham Market on an idyllic winter's morn for the journey to the big city.

Abellio Greater Anglia having graciously supplied not one but two trains on time, I made it to High Holborn, where I was made to feel very welcome by the staff at the Cuban Embassy, and it wasn't long before I was heading off for my next engagement, lunch with an old friend, Daniel Brown, near his office at Canary Wharf.

Daniel and I go way back, nearly thirty years indeed, to our days in the Brent and Harrow Young Liberals, and we were Treasurer and Secretary respectively of the Young Liberal Democrats of England, immediately after the merger of the Liberals and the Social Democrats. But you know how life is, families and work and everything else gets in the way, and suddenly you haven't seen each other for, really, is it that long? So, lunch was a wonderful opportunity to catch up.

But Daniel was working, and time was limited (not unreasonably), and so we promised to do this again, and I headed back into Zone 1 to see my younger (taller and rather better looking) brother over a beer. Kirk very graciously produced children (the lovely Natasha, the equally lovely Imogen, and the surprisingly bouncy Lucas), presumably so that I didn't have to (this is a joke, by the way...). Later, our father joined us for a catch up, which was nice.

Next stop, Westminster, for a bite of dinner before the last engagement of the day, at the residence of the Cuban Ambassador, to celebrate Cuba's National Day, the anniversary of the birth of Cuba's revolutionary hero, José Martí, who was born on this day in 1853. We were greeted by the Ambassador, who seems very friendly, before a leader of the Cuban community here in Britain made a stirring speech to commemorate the 1959 Revolution, with much 'Viva-ing' to follow.

The band played some suitable music, and we mingled a bit at an event that one might describe as a bit 'Corbynista' but a lot of fun. I think that we're going to enjoy our trip...

Sunday, January 24, 2016

I am my own real-life tamagotchi...

So, four weeks into this 'walking around vaguely purposefully' thing and, much to my surprise, I'm still managing my ten thousand steps a day. It seemed like quite a lot when I started and, unless I make the effort, it still does.

I can pick up an easy thousand or so walking from Ipswich station to my office, and another thousand back in the evening. Walking for half an hour around the town centre at lunchtime is another four thousand or so, and I can pick up two thousand or so in my office, photocopying something, making coffee, fetching a glass of water, that sort of thing. The extra two thousand requires more thought though.

So I've taken to looking for those extra steps if I can. If I'm early at Stowmarket station, I can walk up and down the platform for ten minutes or so, which helps, and I get in a few more steps by doing the same at Ipswich on the way home. And, if all else fails, a T-shaped loop around my village, walking to each of the three edges of its built-up area, is about two thousand steps (much to my immense surprise).

All of this is measured by the Fitbit app on my iPhone. It also sets me a target for drinking water, something that I'm not particularly good at as a rule. However, it does seem to act as a prompt, and water is supposedly good for me, so I'm making sure that I drink the required amount each day.

So, so far, so good.

Interestingly, one unexpected side effect is that I look for household chores to do that require me to take some steps - laundry, restocking the logs next to our wood-burning stove, loading the dishwasher. And, this weekend, going to the supermarket.

Creeting St Peter doesn't have a supermarket but, fortunately Cedars Park has a largish Tesco on its edge, even more fortunately at the Creeting end, so I walked there yesterday and today, slightly disappointed to find that it's only three thousand steps each way. The first half of the walk is through the fields, and it is a bit muddy at the moment. However, today's walk was improved somewhat by the sight of an egret at fairly close quarters.

My first challenge is looming large though...

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

@NeedhamFC blow as cold as the January weather...

Gloves? Check. Hat? Check. The scarf my mother knitted for me whilst I was at university? Check. I was properly kitted out for a night of passion and high drama at Needham Market's very own 'Field of Dreams', Bloomfields. It was, need I say, pretty cold.

Having walked from the station, it seemed that I might not have picked the most attractive game of the season, and as the visitors from VCD Athletic don't have many fans of their own, it was soon apparent that the good people of Needham Market had opted for a night in front of a warm television.

The Marketmen have recovered after a torrid first quarter of the season, and stood just above the drop zone at the beginning of the evening, albeit eight points clear of 21st placed Farnborough, and with VCD Athletic deep in trouble in 23rd, this looked like an opportunity to open up real daylight between themselves and the bottom four.

And, early on, it looked promising, with Needham dominating possession. The catch was that they weren't creating chances against a team whose defence looked as brittle as their away record suggested. And, as the first half wore on, the visitors began to come into the game more. At half-time, it all looked fairly even.

Both sides had clearly been given a good talking to at half-time, and the second half started rather more brightly. You just had the feeling that, with both sides low on confidence, the first goal would be decisive. Sadly, it was the visitors who scored it, although if the linesman had had the option of a video replay, he might not have been too pleased with his decision-making.

From there on in, Needham pressed rather ineffectually and were caught on the break with a somewhat fortuitous second - I can't believe that the away striker, Lheureux Menga, really meant to toe-poke a lob over the keeper, but there you go - before wrapping things up with a third which belied the rather scrappy football which had proceeded it.

So, 0-3 it ended and, whilst the result was disappointing, what is worse is that it has given hope to all the teams in the relegation battle.

A chance missed by the Marketmen, I fear...

Monday, January 18, 2016

Missing the point, and possibly missing the target, but still...

I've had a somewhat frustrating day at the office. And, given how it started, that wasn't a phrase I might have expected to type within twelve hours. But, you ask, why?

It has been a trying year in some ways, doing a job that, in truth, I might not be entirely suited to. Don't get me wrong, I can do it, and perform at an acceptable level in the process. But, perhaps, it isn't the most effective use of my skill set, and it runs somewhat contrary to my view of the world (a mostly optimistic one). That's how life is sometimes.

But, this morning started well. I was productive, focussed, almost inspired to achieve my goals. Indeed, I was making good progress until my manager wandered over and passed on some news. It was as if someone had let all of the air out of a child's balloon, for a missive had come from on high that more statistics and reporting were required. Why? Because our targets for the year are in jeopardy. The apparent solution? Take us away from our work to review why we might not meet them. And that, in a nutshell, explains why bureaucracy is a dirty word.

There has been one benefit, admittedly not one that is intended. I have developed a sneaking regard for my increasingly put-upon manager, whose desire to manage us as individuals is swamped by the increasingly volume of data that she is expected to gather, analyse and report. She appears to see her role as one of removing obstacles that stand between us and achievement, and of developing our skills so that we are more effective. It will, I fear, never catch on...

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceAs our year end approaches, the concept of crisis management mutates into managing to cause a crisis, as senior managers begin to realise that, if their targets aren't met, they will be criticised. And, as they have no direct impact over key statistical measures, it becomes time to look as though they are managing the situation. As the real problems are long-term in nature, and difficult to resolve, quick wins are sought, primarily by harassing more junior managers to focus their attention on specific goals, regardless of their relative importance.

Me, I'm just a minion, increasingly expected to follow specified, rigid process maps, complete vast amounts of records to vouch that I have done so and deliver more for less, regardless of the holistic cost. I have nobody to devolve responsibility to, but I do know that I can only achieve what I can with the resources available. I am, ironically, where the sophistry ends.

And, because I am a sanguine kind of person, I shrug my shoulders, gather and present my data, and go home at night without fretting about it or taking it personally. If I was in a position of authority, however, I might be wondering what effect I was having on those of a less resilient ilk...

Sunday, January 17, 2016

A bureaucrat wanders on...

So, we're now twenty-one days in to this walking thing and, so far, so good. I've managed my 10,000 steps every day, and am averaging over 11,000 (just in case, you understand).

Today, I walked to our nearest supermarket which, given that we are in the countryside, is a gentle half-hour stroll across the fields, along Mill Lane, over the A1120 into Creeting Road East, before cutting through part of the Cedars Park estate to arrive at our local branch of Tesco. In the sunshine, and with some villanelle to listen to on the headphones, it was reassuringly pleasant.

I didn't need much, the Sunday newspaper, a loaf of bread, some ham and some cheese for the week, and it wasn't long before I was heading back.

The funny thing is, this is becoming vaguely habit-forming. I've taken to arriving a little earlier for my train in the morning and using the time to walk up and down the platform. I perambulate around my village in the evening after work if I'm a little short on my steps (it's about 2,000 steps if you walk in a T-shape to each of the three edges of the village). And, of course, Ros is being very supportive.

So, the bureaucrat wanders on. I'll be tidying my wardrobes next...

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Are we replacing management of people (which is difficult) by management of production units (which is easier)?

I was talking to someone I know (who will remain nameless) about the increasing bureaucratization of their job (which I won't specify) and it began to dawn on me that they experience similar problems to those that I have in my corner of the world, and it got me thinking - are we dumbing down the management of public services in particular to a point where we have lost control of the impact of the delivery of those services on those most affected by them?

When I started my career, at a point when the computerization of services was still a radical prospect, I was trained in the key aspects of my job in a classroom environment, alongside similar people, and was then encouraged to deliver those services, using my discretion to judge how best they could be delivered, with an element of sampling to check that the outcomes I was delivering were in accordance with a) the law (and we were pretty hot on that) and b) the quantity and timeliness of the delivery.

Yes, the quality of the management data wasn't very high, but what that meant was that, if you were a manager, you really needed to work closely with your staff to get the best out of them, passing on your experience, supporting them when you needed to, training them when new situations arose.

The main concern of central management was to make sure that you answered the post within a reasonable time and that all the required jobs got done. How that was managed was not so important, in that the outcome was what mattered.

Over time, that has changed, to the point where how things are done is more important than the outcome, and the importance of measurable results has become heightened. In short, a 'tick box' culture has taken over, with process mapping and standardized instructions replacing discretion and personalized risk assessing. As long as you have carried out the specified actions in the specified order at the appropriate time, the failure to achieve an outcome which might be defined as desirable is entirely excusable. The fact that, in doing so, you might have missed something otherwise obvious, or delivered a sub-optimal result, is therefore less of a personal problem than it should be - "I've done everything that I was supposed to do, so how can this be my fault?"

Individual contributors (and there's a depersonalized piece of management jargon that deserves putting down) quickly learn that a key part of their job is to document that they have carried out the specified actions in the specified manner and their process becomes almost mechanized. Fine when you're manufacturing widgets, perhaps not so good when you're a social worker, or any number of professional roles in the public sector dealing with vulnerable people.

So, why do this? Well, if you assume that the best of any cohort have highly developed informal systems to ensure that tasks get done, based on the experience gleaned over time, informal risk assessment and innate ability, you still have to deal with the rest. And the catch is that individualized management of people is difficult. They're all different, for one thing, with a spectrum of personalities, motivations, intellect and circumstances. So, it might be easier to design a process and make everyone do it the same. That way, you ensure that everyone should reach the same basic level of capability, thus protecting you from risk in the event that something goes wrong.

And, if you have a group of people who just aren't much good, this is easier than training them one on one, or disciplining them if they are genuinely irredeemable (and some people just aren't equipped to do the job they currently have). The problem is, the organisational scaffolding that supports your weakest links serves to constrain your high-flyers - they have to fill in the same forms, record the same activities, even if they do nothing to improve performance or enable greater output.

Worse still, by imposing such a straitjacket on your brightest and best, you tell them that, despite their apparent ability, you don't really trust them. You also deprofessionalize your people, because if all they're doing is following a process, they will know that virtually anyone can do that with enough practice.

The outcome? A public sector which loses the ability to apply discretion when it would achieve better outcomes than those resulting from a slavish adherence to process, a deskilling of those who deliver the services that grease the wheels of society and a steady deterioration of the human link between government and those it is supposed to serve.

You'll pardon me for saying this, but I can't help but feel that none of those outcomes are intended for delivery. But then again, I am a rather liberal bureaucrat... 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

ALDE Party delegation - squeezing fifteen into six is just as difficult as it looks...

Following our not so glorious General Election result (think Charge of the Light Brigade but without the same level of survivors...), the Party has had to do a lot of thinking about what next and how. This, naturally, is way above my pay grade as a Local Party Treasurer. However, it has had effects that most members wouldn't see, and just as many probably won't care much about. As a member of the International Relations Committee though, I am suddenly confronted with one of them.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceYou see, our right to delegates on the ALDE Party Council and to its Congress are linked to the number of votes obtained at the most recent General Election, and the loss of votes has had a deleterious effect on our numbers, down from fifteen to six on Council, and from sixty-two to thirty-two at Congress. Luckily, we don't elect our Congress delegation. Unfortunately, we do directly elect our Council delegation, or at least, eight members of it. Our dilemma might be beginning to dawn on some readers...

In 2014, we elected eight members of the Council delegation through a vote of Federal Conference delegates and, most generously, enough of you voted for me to enable me to serve a third term. To complicate matters, none of them was the Chair of the International Relations Committee, who represents the Federal Executive on our delegation, and who really ought to be there.

The other seven places are nominated by the three State Parties, Federal Policy Committee and the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG) - somewhat helpfully, the State Parties all failed to nominate anyone.

And so, a resolution of this problem is required and, in a fit of enthusiasm, I volunteered to draw up a paper for International Relations Committee to discuss and, hopefully, adopt.

This is proving somewhat harder than I expected. Balancing gender, ethnicity (and yes, I fully intend to do that) and the State Parties is a challenge, but how do you address the historic role of Federal Policy Committee, or include the Party President, or ensure that the delegations aren't London-centric?

So, with the next meeting of the International Relations Committee approaching fast, I can see how my afternoon is going to look... 

Saturday, January 09, 2016

And I would walk ten thousand steps, and I would walk ten thousand more...

Alright, so I've taken to the 'walking around with vague purpose' thing, courtesy of my Fitbit app, and yesterday encountered my first obstacle. The lifts in my office building failed on Thursday afternoon, and whilst walking downstairs is alright, if surprisingly hard on the knees, walking up to the ninth floor is a mite tough for those of us of a more walrusish figure.

I made it up there to start work, but with the lifts still out of order at lunchtime, the prospect of my regular early afternoon stroll was, how might I put it, uninviting. But needs must, and one shouldn't balk at the first fence, so I bravely plodded downstairs and walked around Ipswich at a modestly brisk pace.

Returning to the office, the lifts still weren't working, so I dragged my weary body back up nine flights of stairs, without stopping for breath and emerged triumphantly, if in need of oxygen, at the ninth floor landing, slightly pleased with myself.

But, another 'ten thousand step' day had been safely completed, and all was well...

Today offered a slightly different challenge, however, in that Ros had agreed to go to Bottisham, in East Cambridgeshire, to support our team there in their by-election campaign. As I am not allowed to actively campaign, I left Ros to do some canvassing and instead went for a nice stroll around the village. It's quite a large one, and so I was able to cover quite some distance, stopping occasionally to admire the architecture.

And so, a thirteenth consecutive day with ten thousand steps in has been negotiated. Apparently, I have now walked as far as emperor penguins do when heading for their breeding grounds...

Sunday, January 03, 2016

A gentle stroll in a soggy countryside...

Not even my best friends would suggest that exercise and I have an ongoing relationship. I am mostly deskbound in the workplace, and whilst I have occasionally taken to gyms at moments of wild enthusiasm, such activity is usually short-lived, sporadic or both.

However, needs must, and as I aspire to travelling the world in my eighties, drinking the occasional gin and tonic in exotic, faraway places, it has gradually dawned on me that, in my early-fifties, it might be wise to improve the odds that I will make it that far in a state that allows me to get on the aeroplane.

The catch? I still hate gyms, filled as they mostly are by people who are younger, fitter and have a taste in music that bemuses me at best, irritates at worst. Is it really necessary to play endless club/dance music by artists that I've never heard of? Apparently, in Ipswich at least, it is.

Fortunately, I live in the countryside, surrounded by gently rolling landscape, with nothing more threatening than the odd low-flying pheasant. And, on a sunny day, there is little finer than the walk north out of the village along Creeting Lane towards Stowupland. And so, I've taken to going for walks, with the intention to accumulate at least ten thousand steps a day. During the week, I walk around the centre of Ipswich, carrying out routine tasks like banking, buying groceries or making small, but necessary, purchases.

When it's dry, this is fine. But on a day like today, with driving, cold rain, and a log fire to sit in front of, it is very tempting to put the steps off to another day. And, knowing my levels of willpower and focus, once I get into the habit of deferring the walk, it probably won't happen and bang goes another good intention.

And so, with Ros off on a family errand, I steeled myself to go out into the rain and wind. The wind was a southerly, which at least meant that the rain was at my back as I headed towards Hammond's Corner (no, I have no idea why it's called Hammond's Corner, I just know that it is...). It wasn't too bad... really. Turning for home was another matter, however. But in my sensible jacket and cloth cap, I was sufficiently protected from the elements and beat my way back to the village.

Strangely enough, it is quite satisfying to have overcome my natural inertia and achieved the day's goal (11,829 steps as I type this), and perhaps I might stick to this long enough for it to become habit forming...

Yemen: a chance for us to do some good in the world?

Whilst the West is obsessed with the 'Syria problem' and the rise of Islamic State (or whatever we're calling it this week), elsewhere an equally appalling slaughter of innocents is taking place.

Yemen has been a cauldron for decades, sometimes simmering relatively gently, then bubbling fiercely, but mostly beyond the gaze of outsiders unless its a slow news day, or a particularly noticeable atrocity is carried out. Marxists versus the rest when it was North and South Yemen, tribe against tribe, Yemen offers a kaleidoscope of opportunities for those seeking to forment uprisings against the administration of the day. As Captain Carrot said of Klatch, in Terry Pratchett's 'Jingo', Yemen isn't so much a country as an argument.

But, it now offers another outlet in the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for dominance in the region, resulting in a pretty one-sided war of annihilation between the rebel Houthis and the Saudis, whereby the Saudis bring death from the skies upon a population with no means of fighting back. And nobody appears to do anything to stop them...

So far, there hasn't been an outpouring of refugees similar to that from Syria, mostly because there aren't many options for escape. Crossing the seas off the southern coast means dodging Somali pirates who still operate in those waters, with the likelihood of landing somewhere not very stable even if you make it - Eritrea or Somalia, anyone?

As a result, there doesn't appear to much impetus to do anything. And yet, people are dying in droves. So, why doesn't the United Kingdom, or the European Union, do more to restrict the suffering of the Yemeni people? Sponsorship of a conference to bring together the different parties, calls for a cessation of aerial bombing, a United Nations resolution, something that might give the people some respite?

We're a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council, the European Union aspires to a role in world diplomacy. Yemen might be a good place to use that to some effect...

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Thoughts from the Train - public versus private?

I spend quite a lot of time on trains, some of it entirely voluntarily. After all, I like trains. Berlin to Bratislava, Brussels to Copenhagen, Stuttgart to Zagreb are just three of the journeys I've made in recent years. And, when Ros was Party President, we spent a lot of time on trains. So, I do understand a bit about our railway system, and about how other ones work.

And, as my own local franchise is currently in the bidding phase, it is of keen interest to me how the system works.

So, as we're in that week, once a year, when fares go up and people grouse about it, the claim is that the best solution is to renationalise the whole system (as proposed by Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party), either piecemeal, by not renewing franchises when they expire, or as a 'big bang'. Frankly, the 'big bang' option is a financial absurdity, so it isn't worth serious consideration.

Curiously, I find myself in a position where I don't really care who runs the trains. What I care about is the level of service and affordability, not the label on the train. So, what are the pros and cons of the current system?

On the plus side, once a franchise is granted, government can't interfere too much. A contract to supply a certain level of services is agreed, and it is up to the train operating company to meet that requirement within the financial package offered at the time of the bid. If subsidy is needed and thought desirable, then the government provides it. If the service is expected to be profitable, then government receives a share of the expected profit. So far, so good. The operating company has an incentive to do better than that, either by attracting extra custom above and beyond that predicted in the initial tendering process, or by charging more.

The trick is getting the franchise agreement right, which tends to be where government falls down. When National Express walked away from the East Anglian franchise, having made a thoroughly awful job of it, they were able to do so on rather beneficial terms due to the weaknesses of the agreement. Frankly, I would have barred them from even bidding for a franchise for at least a decade, but then I haven't forgiven them for stealing my breakfast service...

On the down side, fares have gone up faster than inflation, primarily because government deliberately allowed them to, and capacity hasn't kept up with demand on a number of routes, partly because the train operating companies have to rent rolling stock, rather than own it themselves.

Railway historians will tell you that government ownership is not, in itself, a panacea. One of the things that caused British Rail to perform so badly was the fact that, in government hands, the temptation was to interfere, to cheesepare, to meddle in the proper running of a railway for reasons of politics rather than efficiency or demand. Throughout the fifties, sixties and seventies, our nationalised railway became something of a joke, one that was only really funny if you didn't have to use it. Politicians denied the railway the funds it needed to renew by restricting fare increases in the search for popularity whilst failing to provide alternative funds to allow investment in infrastructure, rolling stock and services.

It need not be so, and I'm sure that those who call for renationalisation have only the best of intentions. But government isn't generally very good at running things where the customer has a choice. We don't approve of paying the sort of salary to someone in the public sector that they could earn in the private one, thus we don't necessarily attract the best people. Innovation and responsiveness to customer demand tend to be sluggish as the various levels of decision-making have to be gone through. And, in truth, if you're going to cut budgets as this government is doing, the temptation to substitute public support with higher ticket prices is awfully tempting, especially if you've promised to ringfence other spending areas.

In my view, sensitive franchise agreements is the key. Incentivise the train operating companies to increase passenger numbers and split the resultant profits, link infrastructure investment to regional policy (assuming, of course, that you have one of those as opposed to a phrase to be repeated when you need to convince people that you care, even if you don't much). Next, allow local government or public bodies to bid for franchises too. If they can do it better, they should be allowed to. And, ultimately, Government shouldn't be afraid to run a franchise itself, if that is the best option.

And one other thing. The Government should be pushing for an opening up of the railway market across Europe. If State-run and controlled entities such as Nederlandse Spoorwagen (Abellio) or Deutsche Bahn (Arriva) can run trains here, we should be able to run services there on an equal basis. There should be a genuine market in providing passenger services, both national and international.

In the end though, sometimes, you just have to understand that running a service costs money, regardless of where that money comes from. In the case of the railways, it either comes from the State, or it comes from the customer. And, if it comes from the State, it comes from the taxpayer anyway, regardless of whether or not they use the service. The question is, how efficiently can you run it, and what are you willing to pay for?

"I am top of the league, yes, I am top of the league!"

It has never happened before, and it may never happen again, but, for a few days, I have been top of the Liberal Democrat Voice Fantasy Football League. And, so that the moment is preserved for posterity, here is the proof.

Creeting Gentry FC didn't get off to a fantastic start - I wasn't paying enough any real attention to it for the first few weeks. But, since I cleared out the passengers in week six, it's been pretty much non-stop improvement. Astute use of my bench bonus in week seventeen, brought me into the challenging pack, and a fortunate choice of captain in week nineteen was the final lift I needed to go top, by a single point.

As we all know though, it doesn't matter how big a margin there is, as long as you're on the right side of it...

All I have to do now is stay there. It isn't very likely...

Friday, January 01, 2016

Simon Danczuk: a knave, or just another victim of a capricious media?

In the forty-eight hours since I posted this piece, there has been a deluge of further revelations from Simon Danczuk himself, his two ex-wives, the recipient of the text messages and miscellaneous 'passers-by'. In light of these, it is hard to retain much, indeed, any sympathy for Mr Danczuk, who appears to be a pretty repellent individual. But the principle that everyone deserves a fair trial remains a valid one, and I still believe that people who suffer from mental health issues deserve the support of their employers as far as is possible - MJV, 3 January 2016

The front page news in the Sun that Simon Danczuk, the Labour MP for Rochdale, was caught sending text messages of an unwise nature to a seventeen-year-old who had applied for a job in his office is just the latest in a series of bewildering events in the life of a man easily described as controversial.

What seems so strange about the affair is that, given his clear passion for campaigning on behalf of those abused in childhood, he should not see the contradiction in behaving as he did towards a young woman.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice The Labour Party has, in suspending his membership, done the only thing that it can do, given the way an unsympathetic media treat such matters. After all, to be seen to dither on what appears to be an open and shut case leads to day after day of hostile coverage, as Liberal Democrats have learned in recent times. It merely allows 'senior figures' to comment, often unhelpfully, for or against the accused and, given that most such people rarely know how their organisations' disciplinary processes work, they mostly act to make matters worse rather than better.

However, the formal suspension out of the way, what matters next is what the Party leadership do.

Mr Danczuk appears to have been in difficulty for some time. The failure of his marriage, reported through the particularly distorting prism of the tabloid media, has been a car crash, and as both sides seem to have thought that disclosing the minutiae of their personal lives is the best policy, it has merely snowballed into the sort of reality show that entertains a particular type of audience. Let's be honest, little has changed in that sense since the era of 'penny dreadfuls' and public hangings.

At some point, it might have been better had wiser advice been given and taken to deal with the matter behind closed doors, but many of us are wiser after the event, aren't we?

He has been very honest about the impact of events on his emotional health, and perhaps he feels that, by talking about it openly, he can better face things. I have to admit that I don't think that it's working for him. But he is clearly in a bad place, because either the most recent events are a reflection of his true self, in which case he isn't fit to hold public office or, hopefully more likely, they are a symptom of his problems.

I sense that he needs support, and that is where his Party should come in. MPs in neighbouring seats can chip in with his casework, the Constituency Party leadership can help with his local office, and he can be given the time and space to sort himself out. Meanwhile, the disciplinary hearing needs to be processed quickly, fairly and tactfully, protecting those involved and punishing appropriately if punishment is due.

We had a similar experience here in mid-Suffolk with David Ruffley and his well-documented mental breakdown in 2010, and the period he took to deal with his problems was dealt with quite smoothly, albeit that his story ended badly (and deservedly).

I fear that it won't end well for Mr Danczuk, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the matter. In a political environment where weakness is ruthlessly punished, even if he turns out to have been foolish rather than something more sinister, opponents both within his Party and beyond won't hesitate to use this as a stick to beat him with.

The lesson that some might usefully learn is that people are complex, and that sometimes they fail, or are flawed. And perhaps in understanding that, and dealing with politicians as the people they are rather than as your prejudices label them, we might get a better politics.

So, welcome to 2016...

As those you who know Ros and I on Facebook may have noticed, we saw in the New Year somewhat more dressed up than usual (certainly for me, at any rate...), at the Pier at Harwich. And yes, it was very nice, and I didn't drink too much champagne, and behaved like a moderately sensible person (but not too sensible, after all, there are standards to be maintained...).

It was nice to see that a lot of people seemed to be enjoying the New Year come in too, including my far-flung family, who cover twenty-one time zones. Indeed, I spent some time this morning online with my cousin Kim, in Auckland, catching up on family affairs, which was nice too.

Apparently, New Year's Day is a day for resolutions - I will do this, won't do that, you know the drill - but I don't have any in mind this time. Given my fairly catastrophic failure rate for resolutions in the past, that's probably a good thing.

But 2016 will be a busy year, with the wedding of my stepson Jamie to his partner Bethany scheduled for the autumn, and Ros off to who knows where in her capacity as an ALDE Vice-President (I may have to accompany her, you know, because...). Work will doubtless be busy, because it should be, and even though we don't have council elections here, planning for 2017 is already underway, so there'll be more liberal democracy to do.

The new country for the year will be Lithuania, as the Spring ALDE Council meeting will take place there. That will be country number sixty in my effort to visit more countries than I have had birthdays. Compared to the likes of Jonathan Fryer, however, I am a mere amateur...

So, 2016 beckons. With a likely European referendum in the autumn, it is unlikely to be dull politically, even if the tension caused by the closeness of the polls will be unsettling, both personally and for the British economy. As an investor, albeit on a small scale, I am risk-averse for the most part. The future status of the United Kingdom within the European Union wouldn't necessarily encourage me to invest. I can only hope that I am in a minority in that respect.

Time then, to buckle up for another rollercoaster of a year. Let's just hope that the result isn't as grim for my beliefs as 2015 was...