Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Nine more years of @GreaterAnglia - a reason for cautious celebration?

I am not an uncritical user of our railway system. As someone who actually likes travelling by train - I am known to travel a long way in order to travel a long way by train - I have a pretty good idea as to what I expect, and am quick to tell the various train operating companies if I'm not happy.

So, now that we know the fate of the East Anglian rail franchise until 2025, what do we have to look forward to in mid-Suffolk, courtesy of Abellio Greater Anglia? The list of goodies includes;
  • an hourly service to Peterborough for connections to the North, Midlands and Scotland (currently every two hours)
  • an extra morning service to Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge
  • wi-fi on all trains
  • new rolling stock, rather than the hand-me-downs that we usually get
We may also get;
  • an extra train per hour to London and Norwich from Stowmarket - there will be three trains an hour between London and Norwich, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they'll stop at Stowmarket
  • more services at Elmswell, Needham Market and Thurston - if the new trains are sufficiently quick to allow the Peterborough trains to stop at local stations more often
So, all in all, not bad. Longer, faster trains, more trains, nothing much to complain about there, especially with Suffolk growing faster than the country as a whole.

There are some regrets though. There will be four trains a day linking Lowestoft with Liverpool Street, but none linking Bury St Edmunds to London (which at least keeps it out of easy commuting range). There are no proposed new stations - Claydon is getting close to the point where a new station might be viable, especially with all the new housing springing up in what I would describe as the "Gipping Corridor" between Ipswich and Stowmarket.

It would also have been nice if there had been some Ipswich - Stansted Airport services, instead of just the proposed Norwich - Stansted Airport ones. Why not alternate trains from Stansted?

There is also the question of catering. I have almost reconciled myself to never again having the joy of a cooked full English breakfast as my train crosses the Stour Estuary at Manningtree but will the new rolling stock have a buffet car? That isn't entirely clear yet.

In terms of technology, Abellio have been pretty good. I rely upon their app, which works well and reliably, offering mTickets on key routes, and one hopes that they will expand that to all routes, meaning that we aren't tied to stations with ticket machines or open ticket offices - Needham Market, for example, has neither, and you obviously can't buy advance tickets from the train guard.

There is already talk of automatic refunds under the Delay Repay scheme, and given my regular failure to make claims when I could, that would be worth something to me.

The fly in the ointment, if you like, is Network Rail. Abellio struggled with ageing rolling stock and that, combined with equally ancient infrastructure, tended to mean that, when things went wrong, they went horribly wrong. The new trains will improve reliability no end, but unless Network Rail can deliver their end of the bargain, we will still have nagging doubts over the ability of Abellio to get us there when it really matters.

So, interesting times ahead on our local railways. I've been modestly impressed with Abellio whilst they've operated the chart franchise and its extension, and if they can make the new franchise work, they'll make our lives just a little easier, given how much both Ros and I use them. Fingers crossed...

Monday, August 29, 2016

This may be one of the things that hips were intended for...

I mentioned Eva Ayllon yesterday morning, so here she is, singing Ritmos Negros del Peru, accompanied by Inti Illimani Historico...

Perfect for those hot summer nights we so rarely get, eh?

Brexit: is it really worth risking the economy in order to meet a target that didn't make sense six years ago?

The news that there is significant pressure from within the Cabinet to choose restricting migration over access to the single market is a sign that, perhaps, this is not about our place in the world, it is about making sure that the world has no place in the United Kingdom.

Six years ago, when the Conservative policy of reducing net migration below 100,000 per year was announced, I was somewhat unimpressed, and I wasn't alone. The failure to take into account that, to some extent, it was linked to a figure you couldn't really control, i.e. those choosing to leave the country, and that migration from fellow EU member states wasn't negotiable were merely two of the more obvious flaws.

In fairness to them, and that's pretty much where fairness ends, by withdrawing us from the European Union, they'll have solved that problem (sort of), ironically just at the point where non-EU net migration has reached nearly 200,000 per year.

What is does mean is that they've written off easy access to the single market, as you can't really imagine the Visegrad Group (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) accepting any deal that doesn't include freedom of movement. They've also indicated that Northern Ireland is disposable, as you can't envisage a soft border with the Republic of Ireland either (perhaps they can, presuming that the Irish will be willing to act as auxiliary members of Border Force). And the Irish are now beginning to wonder whether or not to join Schengen...

You can already sense some discomfort in the agricultural sector, which risks being cut off from a significant market whilst being unable to obtain the Eastern European workforce upon which parts of it are so dependent.

Of course, the likes of David Davis and Liam Fox are of the view that we can replace our European market with those of Brazil, the United States and the Commonwealth, and this is of course theoretically true. One might muse aloud whether or not you can make good deals when you've weakened your negotiating position so much, and doing deals in countries where you might not be able to rely so readily on the rule of law might not be awfully attractive, but these people have had years to work this stuff out. They are, we are assured, bright people.

And there doesn't seem to be any thought being put into the question, "why do all these people come to the United Kingdom in the first place?". The fact that there are clearly jobs for them to do, jobs which the locals either can't, or won't fill, appears to be overlooked by these great minds, who have clearly not been in too many restaurants, bars or sandwich shops lately.

They're not displacing the locals either, as unemployment is low in relative and historic terms, and the introduction of a national minimum wage (and now the national living wage) means that wages are not obviously being driven downwards either in those sectors most reliant on migrant labour.

Perhaps they could check their local hospital, or GP surgery, where migrants are filling those roles that we simply don't seem to be able to fill ourselves.

Let us be frank, the target was stupid in 2010, it was stupid throughout the Coalition years (and trust me, even though the Liberal Democrats thought it was unworkable, they hardly had to do anything to undermine it) and it is stupid now. But if the Conservatives think that achieving it is more important than the state of the economy, then stupid doesn't come close to covering it.

Ironically though, if they do drive the economy off of the proverbial cliff, they will heighten the prospect of achieving their goal for, if the economy is weak, there won't be the jobs and opportunities to attract migrants anyway...

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Why Labour's troubles should act as a warning to all political parties...

If you're a political activist, as most of the people reading this probably are, and not a member of the Labour Party, there is an obvious temptation to look upon the internal strife as Jeremy Corbyn and the Parliamentary Labour Party do battle and order stocks of popcorn. I started political life as a democracy activist rather than a party member though, and it's rather more complex than that, I suspect.

You see, a vibrant democracy requires a range of credible options for the voter, and if Labour do destroy themselves, it removes one significant option for the electorate. Yes, those Labour voters might opt for the Greens, or the Liberal Democrats. Some, many, would vote for an emerging Corbynista 'Socialist Party', others for some new 'Social Democrat' option. But, with 'first past the post', such a fragmentation of the left and centre-left would risk one-Party rule from the right for a generation.

All very interesting, but conjecture nonetheless. What we have learned, should we wish to, is the vulnerability of political parties to an influx of members whose views might not sit comfortably with those of the Parliamentary leadership, or of the voting base of the Party generally. We've also learned that political parties are vulnerable when process is weak or erratically applied.

There is no doubt that Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party was rooted in a breakdown of the relationship between constituency Labour Parties and their MPs, caused in part by that influx of new members last year. Admittedly, the naivety of some Labour MPs nominating a candidate they never supported in order to allow a contest was simply staggering. One must assume that said MPs didn't realise what the membership were minded to do given the chance.

And that membership hasn't fundamentally changed since then. Indeed, if you're young, and rather more idealistic than I am, the idea of a socialist leader of an erstwhile socialist party seems, not unreasonably, attractive. Throw in a £3 fee for the right to take part, and you can see the issue.

Actually, I don't see a problem with offering a reduced rate for new members. In the Liberal Democrats, we've traditionally offered a £1 introductory rate for Liberal Youth. The problem, perhaps, is the inability of the Party to filter out those whose aim is to undermine it, those who have seen the turmoil as an opportunity to subvert the cause that is the traditional Labour Party.

We are relatively lucky in the Liberal Democrats, in that because we rely on an activist-led ground war for campaigning, the link between activists and MPs/candidates has to be a strong one for it to be successful. Troublemakers or rebels can be spotted before they can do serious damage (hopefully). And even with 17,000 new members, I would be surprised if there were much risk of the nature of the Party being fundamentally changed.

100,000 new members is a different matter though. I'm pretty certain that our processes would struggle with that, relying as they do on Local Parties to vet their new members. In the Internet age, you may very well have never met them before they join. And, of course, in cyberspace, nobody can be certain that you are who you claim to be.

So, it might be worth watching what happens to the Labour Party over the coming months. I wouldn't gloat though because, should the worst befall it, there is no certainty that what emerges from the ruins would be comfortable for the rest of us...

Of quail eggs and Afro-Peruviana...

A quiet summer passes by, and with it come opportunities to broaden the mind. That has meant that it's been a bit quiet here at "Liberal Bureaucracy", but I am intending to return to the blogging, if only because it is a chance to keep people abreast of what I'm up to.

Yesterday, I learned a new skill, peeling hard-boiled quail eggs. we're entertaining today and, as usual, Ros has been busy in the kitchen preparing. There are, however, certain jobs that get referred to me for reasons I don't always understand. Peeling the quail eggs was one of them. Now, I'll be honest, I'm not a huge fan of hard-boiled eggs. The scent of one is enough to put me off, but since Ros asked nicely...

What hadn't been considered, however, was that I don't recall ever peeling an egg. And so, I found myself learning the process from first principles. So, for those of you confronted by such a task in the future without any previous experience, here is what I've learned;
  • having fingernails is a help - you can delicately lever off bits of shell
  • tap the rounded end in order to start the egg - it's easier than if you start at the pointed end
  • quail eggshells are a rather pretty pale blue
  • patience is a virtue - you can rush it, but the end product won't look any where near as good as it might
Peeling twelve quail eggs took quite a long time, but I didn't have anything pressing to do otherwise, and, by applying what I learned, it did get quicker as I went along.

So, what about Afro-Peruviana? Well, having stumbled across a band called Inti Illimani Historico, I was looking for them on YouTube when I discovered that they had made a live album with a singer called Eva Ayllón, of whom I knew nothing. She's really rather good, and I am currently hooked on the album, which was recorded at the Café Torres in Santiago.

As a practising bureaucrat, I had a working assumption that I had no sense of rhythm. Or perhaps, as a middle-class mixed race kid from the Zone 4 suburbs, I just hadn't found mine. I'm beginning to wonder if I haven't found it...

Friday, August 05, 2016

The MP is coming to town. I wonder if many people will find out?

We've had an e-mail from the office of our new MP for Bury St Edmunds, Jo Churchill. Apparently, she is touring the constituency next week, visiting towns and villages, and offering an opportunity to meet her in an informal setting. It is, you may be surprised to discover, the first we've heard about it, but it is nice that she is coming to one of the smaller, furthermost corners of her patch.

A poster has been sent, which can be printed off and used to publicise the event. Well, we only have one noticeboard, and the leaflet doesn't actually say where she'll be - we've had to suggest a venue as one hasn't been arranged.

And so, I graciously volunteered to adapt the poster to add the venue details, print it out, walk to the noticeboard, and put it up, which I have done. A nice piece of work on PagePlus, if I say so myself.

It's just that I'm not confident that she'll draw much of a crowd. You see, apart from the poster, there has been no other information, and she's coming at 11.10 a.m. on a Wednesday. Most of us have jobs, and so will be at them. And, unless anyone other than the Parish councillors sees the notice (and it is a very nice notice), how will they know to attend?

The Conservatives don't campaign much in our village. Our County Councillor has never delivered so much as a leaflet since he was elected outside of election time, has never canvassed the village to our knowledge, and tends to avoid us as though we have some sort of contagious disease. Our former District Councillor lived fifteen miles away, and tended to treat us as though we were slightly uppity peasants, with the audacity not to be grateful for an occasional visit.

You might think that the MP's tour might be a reason to put out a leaflet. After all, even if people can't meet her, they will at least know that she came. But no, nothing so far, and, to be honest, I don't expect anything, although I stand to be corrected.

It is not for me to offer a Conservative MP any advice, but if you really want to meet your constituents, it is probably better to give better notice, come at a time when people might be around, and use the opportunity for some cheap publicity. I can assure you that if we had a Liberal Democrat MP, I'd be making damned certain that the entire village knew they were coming.

And sadly, I won't be there either, as I'll be at work, as I usually am at 11.10 on a Wednesday morning. That's a pity, as I'd be happy to welcome her to Creeting St Peter. Perhaps she might come to one of our coffee mornings. Second Saturday of the month, in the Church Room at the end of The Lane, more than decent tea, some very good cake, and some excellent company...

Thursday, August 04, 2016

In which your correspondent encounters the bizarre and the fanatical...

I'm a pretty reasonable sort of guy, I like to think. Not prone to excess of any kind, willing to consider a reasoned argument, even if I don't necessarily agree with it. Right all of the time? Hardly, indeed, I tend to make a virtue of uncertainty. After all, there are known knowns, unknown knowns and unknown unknowns, to erratically quote Donald Rumsfeld. Generalisation is unhelpful, even as a handy debating tool.

And so, when someone popped up on Caron Lindsay's Twitter feed today, stating that they had zero respect for Sunni Islam, I felt moved to respond. Alright, I was a mite confrontational, in the way that a slightly irritable bureaucrat can be...

But let's be honest here, respect is a two way street. No, you don't tolerate violence in the cause of religion, but we have laws to deal with that sort of thing. And, in the same way that I wouldn't say that all UKIP members are racists (some of them might be, but that doesn't mean that they all are), it is hard to credit that the many Sunni that I've worked with, done politics with or otherwise interacted with are out to get me. I did live in inner London for the best part of two decades, after all.

And yet, there are people out there, people with followers, who believe that every following of the Sunni version of Islam is a potential murderer. Either that, or they aren't devout in their faith. And all because they can quote a relatively obscure part of a 1300 year old document, written at a time when might was right and life was generally short and brutal, that suggests that killing your enemies is a good thing. Well, in an environment where killing your neighbours to preserve your access to food and precious resources was advantageous, you can see why a religious text might say that. After all, a deity whose followers survive is more likely to be worshipped than one whose followers don't.

But curiously, we've all moved on a bit since those days. We've found that working together means that instead of burning your resources in conflict, you can pool resources, trade them amongst one another, build relationships based on trust. And followers of the various faiths move with society, albeit usually a few steps behind, adapting the practice of the faith to suit.

I am probably seen as a wet apologist for liberalism by the zealots. I tend to think of myself as someone who believes in keeping the channels of communication open, and in treating my fellow person with a bit of respect. Sadly, the world now offers far more scope for the provocateur, the seeker of scapegoats, through social media. It turns out that these people are not alone, that their echo chamber is a lot bigger than we might hope. And the problem is, they care more. Their passion to build walls, to expel what is different from their communities, to pull up a drawbridge, drives them, and sews the seeds of mistrust in our society.

I hope that our society is better than to fall for that. I fear that it is not...

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

So, a better walrus having been built, how am I getting on?

Readers will recall that I had declared my battle to shed two stone (28 pounds or, for those of you of a metric bent, 12.8 kilos) in weight won. Of course, the challenge is to keep it off...

Or, alternatively, you can attempt to do more.

And, so, I've kept up my 10,000 steps a day regime, generally watched my calorie intake, made a few changes to my habitual diet. Nothing dramatic, all seemingly sustainable. It seems to work and I've now lost 16.2 kilos, or 35 pounds.

I'm still more walrus than gazelle, although frankly, I'm never going to be a gazelle. I have, though, lost four inches around the waist, regained virtually all of my collection of shirts that I've purchased in moments when my taste has deserted me, and exposed a slightly more confident persona. It's all good, as they say.

And, of course, because the changes are sustainable, there's still potential for more weight loss. I am still carrying poundage that really isn't doing me any good, in the key places that men shouldn't, i.e. around the major organs. But the walking has become a habit, the calorie counting an intellectual exercise, and the prospect of some serious clothes shopping has been an incentive.

So, the work to build a better bureaucrat continues. Wish me luck!

It's just one Liberal Democrat thing after another at the moment...

I seem to be popular, and thus busy, at the moment, thanks to my beloved Party. First the by-election, which took up most of May. Then, the aborted European Parliamentary selections - we were just five days of publishing the advert when the process was finally abandoned just days after the Referendum. Next came the snap General Election that might never be, and the job of Senior Returning Officer for my Regional Party. And now that that's pretty much out of the way, I've got the International Relations Committee to take care of.

That isn't all, of course. I have my responsibilities as Treasurer to the Mid Suffolk Local Party, and as Chair of the County Approval Panel, as a member of the ALDE Party's Financial Advisory Committee and, closer to home, as a Parish Councillor.

It all takes time, and effort, and energy. And, as I get older, it gets a little harder to find time, make that effort, preserve that energy.

And yet, without my contribution, the burden of making a political party work would fall on an even smaller number of people, all of whom have lives, jobs, other responsibilities. It seems churlish, if one is really serious about building a meaningful civic society, not to do what one can to support it.

Of course, there are professionals who hold the whole thing together. Not as many of them as the public, and even seasoned political activists, might think, and they are often taken for granted or even abused by people who should know better. I've never wanted to be one, probably for that reason. I prefer my amateur status, and with it the ability to say no, even if I don't do that very often.

It never ceases to be amaze me how much of the Party's processes rely, as a result, in the goodwill of those willing to give of their time for a cause which can be decidedly ungrateful. Returning Officers, Regional Party Executive members, Secretaries at every level, all utterly unglamorous but necessary, and often delivered by people who have plenty of other roles to perform.

And, as politics becomes more confrontational, and the stakes get higher, the demands on the Party bureaucracy grow. More process, new process, more challenges, less patience. Less tolerance of individual limitations, more demands on less resource. Was it ever thus?

Ah well, back to work, I guess...

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

What's so bad about Taylor Swift and Pokemon Go anyway?

It has to be admitted that, whilst I am aware that modern culture exists, I'm not exactly a devoted follower of current cultural events. I prefer villanelle and string quartets over more modern alternatives, and as I watch very little television and listen to even less radio, much talk of bands or genres passes over my head, undisturbed.

However, I do read my newspaper, and Twitter is an endless source of enlightenment, and so the existence of Taylor Swift had come to my attention. If you had asked me to name any of her songs, you would have had me at a loss, I admit, but I had at least heard of her.

I was waiting for my hair to be cut a week or so ago, in a local barber shop, and the television station being broadcast on a large screen was playing Taylor Swift videos in chronological order. As there was a lengthy wait, I was thus exposed to a cross-section of her work. And, whilst I still don't see me buying any of her music, I could see the attraction. She sings of girl meets boy, of teenage heartache and all of the things that I dimly remember of the early eighties - awkwardness, confusion, impossible to express desire to name but three.

And, unless I'm very much mistaken, those emotions never go out of fashion, so the market for her music is an obvious one. She can sing, she apparently writes and performs her own work, and the tunes are vaguely catchy and hummable, all of which seems to be a good thing.

Pokemon Go, on the other hand, is proving to be a useful adjunct to my fitness regime, as one has to walk around in search of monsters and supplies and to hatch eggs. The fighting bit I'm not so sure about, but it seems to provide additional motivation for me to get out and about. The only downside is that I appear to be surrounded by young people unfamiliar with 'outside'. Ah well, it may at least have some effect on the general lack of Vitamin D in our youth...

So, there you go, a bureaucrat has been offered a window into the twenty-first century. The view looks inviting enough, so maybe I'll stay...