Wednesday, April 20, 2016

European Selection: starting as I mean to go on...

I am a cautious soul, something which comes with being a bureaucrat, I guess. And so, having got my head around being a Returning Officer again, my first thought was to read the rules and work out how the proposed schedule fits into the rest of my life.

My first thought was, "I really need to talk to the Regional Executive.", as they appoint a shortlisting committee which is subject to my approval (I am tasked with ensuring that it is properly reflective of the Regional Party's membership). The Regional Executive is expected to appoint the shortlisting committee in a window that opened on 6 March and closes on 30 April. Given that I was only notified of my appointment on 3 April, my first problem was apparent, in that there could already have been a nominated shortlisting committee in place.

So, being an organised sort of person, I contacted the Regional Chair to see if they had done anything about this, only to be told, in no uncertain manner, that the Regional Party had other, more pressing, concerns - I can't help but agree that the London Mayoral and Assembly elections are rather more obviously important just now.

However, this does mean that I can fulfil the obligation laid down by paragraph 5 of the not actually finalised European Selection Rules, i.e.
"The Returning Officer must brief the Regional Executive(s) on the selection process before the appointment of the shortlisting committee."
I have left a message with London's Regional Secretary, Peter Ramrayka, hoping to set something up, and I guess that I ought to collect some data on the Regional Party, in order to be able to make a proper judgement as to the representative nature (or otherwise) of any proposed shortlisting committee. I'm also going to have to read the regional constitution in order to ensure that the correct procedure is followed when proposing the shortlisting committee's membership.

What all of this means, of course, is that the London selection process is already behind schedule. It's retrievable, no doubt, but just squeezes the timetable a touch.

This could be fun, couldn't it...

Monday, April 18, 2016

European Selection: the first order of business for the Returning Officer

The disadvantage of my increasing distance from the Party’s central bureaucracy is that I don’t really know what they’re up to. This may be a good thing in some ways, but advances in administration do happen without me and unless you may an effort to stay ‘in the loop’, there is a danger that you act on the basis of obsolete guidance.

Accordingly, I’ve asked the Senior Returning Officer for the European selection (he co-ordinates stuff and deals with issues that transcend individual Regions, amongst other things) whether or not the Rules have changed from 2012. I’m led to believe that, as far as I’m concerned, not much has changed but we’ll see about that shortly.

In the meantime, and assuming that these bits haven’t changed, what am I expected to do as Returning Officer?

I will;
  • Support the shortlisting committee through the selection process
  • Protect the interests of members
  • Ensure the fair and equal treatment of candidates
  • Ensure that the selection rules are followed
I am also required to brief the relevant Regional Executive on the selection process before the appointment of the shortlisting committee (can I do that via Skype?).

So, it looks like my first task is to contact the Secretary of London Liberal Democrats and find out when they next meet. I wonder who that is these days?...

Sunday, April 17, 2016

"Speed, bonnie bus, like a bird on the wing"...

It still wasn't very nice as I left Inverness (again). At least it wasn't raining as hard as it had been for the most epic part of my rail adventure, involving two trains, a ferry and two buses, one of which might not actually exist.

The railway line to Kyle of Lochalsh is another of those well-known railways to nowhere, passing through a whole lot of nothing on the way to a ferry port which lost its raison d'etre when the bridge to Skye was built. Admittedly, the 'whole lot of nothing' is insanely scenic, but you do wonder how such a line survives even now. I'm not convinced that the number of fare-paying passengers really justifies keeping it, but as the sort of person who can think of little finer than gazing out of the window of a moving train, accompanied perhaps by a nice cup of tea, I am grateful to the powers that be for funding it.

The train rolled into Kyle of Lochalsh at 11.30, leaving me less than five hours to get to Mallaig, the furthest extent of the West Highland Line. The obvious route was via the Armadale-Mallaig ferry, but how to reach Armadale?

There is a bus from Kyle of Lochalsh to Broadford, on Skye, which conveniently leaves the slipway, near the station, at 11.50 a.m., and so I headed there to catch it. I found it easily enough, a little thirty-seater operated by Stagecoach, and sure enough, it made its way over the bridge and onto Skye. Soon, I was in Broadford, which is the second largest community on Skye, after Portree. This is not saying an awful lot, but it has all of the key things that you might need, including a bus stop. It even has the Isle of Skye Candle Company, which offered an opportunity to do some minor gift shopping.

According to Traveline, there was a bus to Armadale Pier, run by Maclean's Coaches. There was, however, no mention of it on the bus stop, and the company website indicated that there was no summer timetable. I could, however, ring them for information, so I did, only to get a voicemail message which indicated that I could leave a message, which I did. It also indicated that the bus stop was half a mile away.

And so, I trudged through the rain, suitcase trailing behind me, until I found the designated spot. I was not optimistic but, at almost exactly the appointed time, a slightly stretched pale blue minibus hove into view, which I flagged down, somewhat to the surprise of the driver. It was the mysterious number 601 bus to Armadale Pier.

I stopped for fish and chips (don't tell anyone) at a rather cute little cafe next to the port office for Caledonian MacBrayne, who run most of the ferry services in the West of Scotland, and did a little more shopping, before buying my very reasonable ticket to Mallaig.

Mallaig was wet (just for consistency's sake) but, having stopped for tea as an alternative to being rained on, I was fortunate to board the train just before the heavens opened with particular ferocity - not a good omen for the train journey ahead. However, I wasn't to be disappointed, for the journey to Glasgow is a sensational one. My personal high spot was, just as we left Rannoch, a stag decided to display himself close to the track, immediately followed by a rainbow.

The last part of the journey is a bit of an anti-climax (if you choose to do the journey, do it in the other direction, is my advice), but I did get to my hotel in Glasgow early enough to have a truly marvelous steak and Gruyere baguette, possibly a marker for the culinary treat to follow the next evening. For I was heading south...

European Selections: could these be the most open ones for a generation?

Being a European Parliamentary candidate for the Liberals and then Liberal Democrats has seldom been easy. Before the advent of list elections, it was not until the 1994 elections that a Liberal Democrat was elected (there were two of them – Graham Watson and Robin Teverson). And so, when list elections were introduced for the 1999 European Parliamentary elections, European selections began to really matter, and not just in places of traditional liberal strength.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceWith as many as eleven candidates to be elected in some Regions, achieving 12% of the vote across a European Region would probably be enough to get you elected, should you be lucky enough to be on top of the list. Indeed, with the use of the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, in some Regions, electing two Liberal Democrats was a possibility (South East, for example). The selections really mattered, and were fiercely contested as a result.

There was a small catch though, one which only began to emerge in the course of the next selection, which took place in 2002. The incumbent MEP had a huge advantage, with a budget to issue annual mailings to members (some of which were conveniently timed to go out just before the campaign phase) and a profile that made it hard to envisage them being defeated in a selection contest.

As it turned out, it wasn’t hard to beat them – it was impossible. And with the curious fact that, as a pro-European political party, we tend to underperform in regional list elections (and one could go on for hours about why that is), it meant that other applicants were contending to be the ones that didn’t get elected (unless the incumbent subsequently fell under a bus post-election). Interest began to fade, to the extent that, in 2012, there wasn’t much interest in candidacy. Indeed, in the East of England, where I chaired the shortlisting committee, there were so few applicants that they were all waved through to the membership ballot.

This time, it will be different. There will be no incumbents, and few of the ex-MEPs are expected to run (there are exceptions, I’m led to believe, but I don’t have any firm knowledge and, as a Returning Officer, I don’t see why I should promote them anyway). So, there is every possibility that new names may emerge and end up as Liberal Democrat MEPs. That means, potentially, more competition, on the basis that “it might be you”.

There are other factors in play too. The Party is far more conscious of the need to have more diverse candidates than it was in 1997 – gender was considered, but not ethnicity, for example. The evidence of the Spring Conference in York is that the mood of the Party has become more determined on that front.

So, as a Returning Officer, I expect to have a rather tougher job than I might have had in, say, 2012. How much tougher is, I guess, up to the membership…

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Want to be a Liberal Democrat candidate for the 2019 European election? Not on the approved candidates list yet? You need to move fast!

It is hard to believe that, if all goes well, the advert seeking applications for consideration as a Liberal Democrat candidate for 2019 will go live in less than eleven weeks. Yes, less than eleven weeks. How do I know this? Because I've got the schedule, and I'm one of the Returning Officers (London, for those who didn't read yesterday's post - and it disappoints me how many of you don't hang on my every word...).

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceGiven that so many of our members only joined the Party in the month after the May 2015 disaster, they are only now becoming eligible to attend a candidate development day and gain approval (strictly, if I recall correctly, you need to have renewed your membership to be eligible to attend such a development day, although you can submit the paperwork before then). So, for all of those keen, probably young, people, time is of the essence.

However, regardless of your age, or length of membership, if you want to be a European candidate in 2019, you perhaps ought to start thinking about it now. Yes, I know that there are Police and Crime Commissioner elections, Assembly elections in London and Wales, and Parliamentary elections in Scotland, plus local elections in scattered locations across the English counties, and I would be the last to suggest that anyone should lose focus on those, or even the European referendum that follows but, if you do want to be a contender, a small investment of time spent coming up with a strategy that will guide your moves over the months to come might help you achieve a good result.

If you aren't on the approved list, the earlier you get your application form in, the better. Regional and State Candidates Chairs will need to organize development days, and the more notice they have of likely demand, the better, for you, and for them. Remember, a development day is not that easy to organize, or prepare for, and you may only get one shot at it to meet the deadline for this selection (you can, of course, have another go in time for the Westminster selections that will follow).

So, contact Candidates Office at Party HQ, ask them to send you the forms and make sure that you fill them in and return them promptly. My fellow Returning Officers and I look forward to welcoming you to the wonderful world of European candidate selections...

Friday, April 15, 2016

I, the Returning Officer for the aforesaid Regional List...

And so, it can, apparently, be told. A schedule for the selection of our European Parliament regional candidates lists for 2019 has been agreed, and Returning Officers are being appointed.

There will be those of you who might think that this is all a bit premature, especially given the small detail of the referendum on 23 June, and you may well be right. However, any advert isn't due to be published until after that, so in the event that there is a vote to leave the European Union, not so much effort is wasted. It is, I think, probably better to be prepared on the basis of optimism.

European selections have been a thread of activity during my time as a faceless Party bureaucrat. I ran my first one in 1989, and have been involved in every round subsequently. In 1997, I was Returning Officer for the South East region, when seventy-two applicants came forward for what turned out to be eleven places on a list and, eventually, two seats in the European Parliament. It would be fair to say that it wasn't an easy selection, but I was lucky enough to have a shortlisting committee who were a joy to work with.

I was back in 2002, which was rather easier, and then 2007, a selection made simpler in many ways by the fact that I met and proposed to Ros in the middle of it. It would be fair to say that both shortlisting committee and the candidates encountered a more generous than usual Returning Officer...

By 2012, I was in a new Region and a new role, as Chair of the East of England shortlisting committee. It was a very straightforward job - we never met, and agreed to wave all of the applicants through to the all-member ballot.

It won't be that easy this time. We will surely do better than we did in 2014 (it can't possibly be that bad, can it?), which means there is the potential for gains in regions such as London, the South West and the North West. Without incumbents, contests will be, potentially, far more open, making the job of Returning Officers rather more challenging.

And so I'm back, from Outer Space, in my newly appointed role as the Returning Officer for London. I'm looking forward to working with a new shortlisting committee, and to meeting a bunch of interesting candidates. I'm probably a gentler Returning Officer than I once was, and it could be fun. Time to start preparations, I suspect...

Friday, April 08, 2016

Heading south, with an interlude for social interaction...

It was still pretty miserable in Thurso, but I had seen as much as I was ever likely to, and so I was out on the lunchtime train. The Flow Country was still pretty majestic, even if it wasn't the sort of place you'd fancy being caught out in. And so, as I headed south, I passed the time glancing out of the window, as you do, drinking tea as supplied by the actually not bad trolley service.

I had just passed through Dingwall though, when I checked my Twitter feed to discover that one Caron Lindsay was leafleting in Munlochy. "Where on Earth is Munlochy?", I wondered, so I looked at the map function, only to discover that it really wasn't that far away.

And so, I called her, if only to see how she was getting on, and found myself invited to have dinner with the Lindsay family, at their rented holiday cottage on the Black Isle. Naturally, two arch political observers had much to talk about, as we put the world to rights or, at least, the Party, and it was nice to meet Bob, who I've heard a lot about but had never met.

I should also note that I got to meet Hazel, who has become quasi-legendary in dog owning Liberal Democrat circles. Offering her the gravy from my plate appeared to go down well, so I guess that I'd be a welcome visitor in future.

All in all, a very pleasant evening. But tomorrow would see the most complex part of my journey...

To Inverness... and beyond!

It was raining when I reached Inverness, a cold, heavy rain falling from a sullen sky. Not so much "Welcome to the Highlands!" as "The Highlands, you're welcome to them...", but I was heading further north, much further north.

I like trains, as regular readers will be aware. It's not about locomotives or rolling stock - that has little attraction unless it offers something I might personally enjoy - but about the journey. And the four hours and eighteen minutes that it takes to get to Wick, at the furthest extent of the Far North Line, takes you through some of the remotest country served by train.

And is it remote! The relatively gentle country of Ross-shire yields to increasingly rugged country, where sheep are fewer and the lambing is just starting, before you enter the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland, a truly bleak, if majestic, place of bog, covering 1,500 square miles.

Colin Rosenstiel tells me that, in years past, the train used to divide at Georgemas Junction, with one part reversing before veering off to Thurso, whilst the other half continued to Wick. Nowadays, with only two carriages, it serves Thurso first before reversing back through Georgemas Junction and on to Wick.

I had planned a brief explore of Wick and arrived to find that it was still raining. Not a promising start, but it wasn't destined to get any better. Caron Lindsay, who spent some of her younger years in the town, tells me that it has rather lost its way, a shadow of its former self, and that seems pretty accurate, although there are few places that benefit from rain and low cloud. I was somewhat relieved that I only had just over an hour...

It was raining in Thurso too but, having checked into my hotel, I needed a good walk, and so went to explore. Like Wick, it seemed that most people had deserted in search of somewhere more pleasant, but I doggedly walked around, looking to see what might reward further exploration in the morning.

After a decent night's sleep, I returned, guided by the hotel proprietor towards 'Caithness Horizons', a relatively new museum housed in the old Town Hall. It has an interesting exhibition on the nuclear facility at Dounreay, not too far down the road, but the highlight is a twenty minute video on Caithness highlighting the unusual countryside - well worth a visit if you unexpectedly find yourself that far north. Remember, it's seven hundred miles from London King's Cross to Thurso by train.

But I had miles to go before I slept, and I was bound for Inverness again on the lunchtime train...

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

A night on the Caledonian Sleeper...

Ros is away for a week on business and, rather than join her and (to be honest) get in the way, I thought that I'd go for a train ride. And so, on Sunday evening, I reported at Euston Station to catch the 20.57 departure to Inverness (as you do).

It has been a very long time since I rode a sleeper train, so I was intrigued to find out what the experience is like. So, here are some thoughts...

The first class lounge at Euston is alright, no more, no less, although I'm sure that the cookies are very nice. It's simply somewhere to sit whilst you wait for your train, with free soft drinks and a bar (which isn't free, or even particularly cheap). But, as your berth isn't available until about half an hour before departure, it's better than hanging around the concourse, especially whilst Euston is being redeveloped.

You head for the train as soon as the berths are available and, as you've booked in advance, you know where to head for. There will probably be someone to check you in, take down your choice of breakfast if you haven't pre-booked it and explain the various bits and pieces.

The sleeping berth itself is a bit austere (although they tell me that the new rolling stock, due to be introduced in two or three years will be rather less spartan). Your bed is already made up and if, like me, you've booked a first class ticket, you get a nice bag of Arran Aromatics goodies, including a pillow spray for those of you who like that sort of thing.

You may also have pre-booked dinner, which you can eat in your cabin or, if you're not anti-social, you can join your fellow passengers in the lounge car. The notion of sitting on sofas, drinking single malt whisky and making conversation is obviously quite attractive, so it's usually quite crowded at first but, again, your first class ticket is your friend, as you get priority if it's full.

Dinner is microwaved - none of this 'having a proper chef' like they do on Hungarian operated Eurocity trains - but they've chosen well, picking options that survive the process well, and using Scottish ingredients to make the meal an introduction to Scotland.

The prime attraction though is the whisky list, with an impressive range of blended whiskies (for the love of God, why?) but, more importantly, some outstanding single malts. I went for the Balblair 2003 Vintage from Edderton, described as "full bodied, with notes of oranges, lemon, honey and spice". Don't ask me to confirm that, but it slipped down the throat like a song.

Do make sure that your mobile phone and other electrical stuff is as fully charged as possible. The only available charging points are in the lounge car and, on this journey at least, they didn't work anyway. Bring one of those gadgets that will charge your phone if you have one.

Sleep is surprisingly easy. Admittedly, I can sleep just about anywhere, but the background noise isn't too bad at all, and with no announcements to disturb you, and the train pretty steady, most people should be fine. The train was decoupled at Edinburgh Waverley at about 5 a.m. (it's broken up into three parts - Aberdeen, Fort William and Inverness - and extra carriages attached) and I never noticed.

I woke up at about 6.30 a.m. - we'd just left Blair Atholl - to a rather more bleak landscape than the mid-Suffolk one that I'm used to. It was also raining out of a sullen grey sky.

Breakfast is, in truth, a bit of a disappointment. Microwaved pork and egg isn't going to float the boat of this carnivore but, perhaps one day, they might solve that problem.

But, at just after 8.30 a.m., the Caledonian Sleeper pulled into Inverness. It was still raining and I went off on search of the final first class perk, the Caledonian Sleeper lounge with its free coffee and, most important, showers. What isn't made clear is that the lounge is outside the station, which means crossing the street. It isn't signposted in the station at all, and the sleeper host didn't seem to know where it was either.

It's very nice, with good hot showers and very drinkable coffee. And, as it doesn't close until 10.30 a.m., it makes a good resting point for your onward connection. I had one of those, at 10.38 a.m., so it worked out rather well. I was able to recharge my iPhone and iPad too.

So, all in all, a pretty good experience. £180 for a first class ticket sounds like an awful lot, but given that you get a 500 mile rail journey and a bed for the night, I actually think that it represents pretty good value. And yes, I'd probably do it again if the opportunity arose.

Friday, April 01, 2016

"Building a Better Walrus" - this is not, I repeat, not an April Fool...

Another month has passed, and a surprising number of leaflets have been delivered. After all, if I'm going to be walking around, I might as well do something useful. And thus, my ten thousand steps have achieved each day - forty-three consecutive days since my mid-February food poisoning glitch - and my nearly two litres drunk.

My work colleagues are beginning to notice now, and some of the more exotic elements of my wardrobe are coming back into play, all of which is nice.

Ros has, as is her way, been incredibly supportive, calorie counting our meals, accompanying me on my late night village walks, and generally being supportive.

So, what has happened in March? Well, despite a weekend at Spring Conference, where I ate delicious but hardly calorie conscious pork-laden breakfasts, I've lost another 2.4 kilos, making 9.4 kilos in total. For those of you who, like me, still think in imperial measures, that's just shy of a stone and a half, or twenty-one pounds, putting me very nearly three-quarters of the way towards my target for the family wedding in early October.

Interestingly, young Dr Pack approached me in York, suggesting that it was somewhat brave of me to blog my progress as I have. I have to admit that, up until then, I hadn't given it any conscious thought. This, perhaps, says much for our relative personalities, and campaigns experience - the difference between a campaigns professional and a professional bureaucrat?

However, I'm kind of committed now so, until next month, this is twelve-thirteenths of the initial walrus, signing off...