Saturday, September 17, 2016

A soft-spoken bureaucrat makes an unexpected departure from the schedule

You know how it is. You're minding your own business, catching up with some old friends, when, out of the corner of your eye, you notice that something isn't there. And so it was today with the Constitutional amendment F14, which was intended to introduce a structure for generating party strategy and reporting on its subsequent delivery.

I am, as previously reported, the Secretary of the Party's International Relations Committee. And what I had noticed was that, in the list of new committees, the proposed new Federal International Relations Committee did not appear. Oversight or deliberate strategy I know not, but I did feel that a few polite words from a genteel bureaucrat might be helpful.

Naturally, an entirely uncontroversial constitutional amendment was never going to attract a lot of cards, thus making the prospect of my being called rather higher than usual, and, sure enough, as Mark Pack was called to speak, I was asked to standby. There was a small, nagging problem though. I had no speech prepared.

This does not, traditionally, end well.

But, ironically, a speech that I didn't prepare for is the one that I have preparing for most of my political life. I have always believed that having a strategy is one thing, holding those responsible for its implementation to account is quite another. The proposals require those empowered to report back to us, which requires us to gently prod them if we feel that they aren't doing their job well enough. How could I not support that?

I did rather promise that the missing committee would not seize the opportunity not to participate in the reporting back although, given that my prospects for re-election to the committee are probably rather slight under the new 'One Member One Vote' system for electing our internal committees, it may turn out to be a commitment without personal consequence.

And so, dear reader, I got away with my unusually spontaneous intervention. Who knows, I may do it again one day...

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A new Leader in the Lords... some thoughts from a close observer

So, the count took place, with both candidates and the outgoing Leader present, under the close watch of the Deputy Chief Whip, Christine Humphreys, and I was able to declare the result as being;

Dick Newby 59 votes, Robin Teverson 44 votes

Close, but no cigar, for the former MEP, but it was no disgrace to pick up more than 40% of the votes.  I wouldn't be surprised to see him take on a leadership role in the future.

Dick Newby has been on my radar for more than three decades now, from his SDP days. He, like I, has a Civil Service background, he was predominantly a back room influence but now has the challenging job of leading a Group which is not always easily led.

His first task will be to persuade someone to come forward to assume his former role as Chief Whip, a job which some might say is a bit harder than that of Leader. After all, how do you instil discipline into a group of people who are there for life and who have done or been most things already? Not so much enforcer as persuader.

I will have to get used to a new Leader too. When I first started seeing Ros, Tom McNally was into his third year as Leader. I tended to refer to him as the 'Glorious Leader', at first as a mark of respect, and then, as we got to know each other, out of warmth. Indeed, I still refer to him as 'Glorious Leader' when we occasionally run into each other, adding the suffix 'Emeritus' in deference to the fact that we have had a new Leader since.

Jim Wallace hasn't been in post anywhere near as long as Tom was, and we haven't had as much contact - my relocation to Suffolk makes me a relatively infrequent visitor, and there don't seem to be as many gatherings of the Group and spouses as there were - but he seems nice enough.

And so, we wait to see what a Newby leadership brings. The Group will evolve, and almost certainly shrink too. There are a number of members in their eighties, who may not welcome many more years of service, and with replenishments at the mercy of Theresa May, who I don't think is likely to be generous, the burden of opposition will fall on those who remain. Luckily, the recent intakes of new blood are keen and sharp.

Me, I'll be an occasional visitor to Whips Office, as and when circumstance brings me to Westminster, and I'm sure that Ros will keep me up to date with those stories that she can share. And I wish Dick good fortune. He'll bring his own thoughts to the role, and I'm confident that he'll do everything he can to make the Liberal Democrat voice heard in the Upper Chamber...

Liberal Bureaucracy - ballot counter to the nobility

So, I'm on my way to the big city, on an unseasonably warm September day (it's apparently 33 degrees Celsius in Brentwood as I pass through on the train), to perform one of my more enjoyable roles, that of Returning Officer for the Liberal Democrat Peers, although, in strictness, I'm not the Returning Officer, the Chief Whip is. There is no forelock tugging required, which is good, because I'd have to look up what a forelock is, and it's probably not in the Liberal Democrat guidance for Returning Officers anyway.

Today, I'm counting the ballot papers for the election of the new Leader of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party in the House of Lords, because, although with only two candidates it is effectively a first past the post election, they rather like to have some external validation. I also come cheap, as I never claim expenses...

The contest is Dick Newby versus Robin Teverson, both of whom would be capable of doing the job, so no fears there. If Dick wins, the Parliamentary Party are in the market for a new Chief Whip, if Robin wins, there might be a vacancy for a Liberal Democrat Chair of one of the House of Lords EU Sub-Committees, as he chairs Ros's old Energy and Environment Committee.

So, I'd better get on, I guess. My quills are sharpened, the parchment is rolled, we're set to go...

Monday, September 12, 2016

Has Dermot Murnaghan forgotten what his job is?

It's a personal rule of thumb that, if a television or radio show includes the name of the presenter, it's intended to be entertaining rather than informative. So, the Morecambe and Wise Show was funny, Weekend World was serious news.

And so, the Dermot Murnaghan/Emily Thornberry exchange over the weekend merely serves to reinforce my theory. Giving the Shadow Foreign Secretary a pop quiz may have seemed vaguely humorous, but it was hardly news. Was it sexist? Possibly, you'd have to ask young Murnaghan that (and actually, why shouldn't he be held accountable for his actions?), but it is an unproven charge.

I suspect that if the tables had been turned, he might not have done at all well either, but it's all a distraction from the things that matter.

For in allowing Emily Thornberry to look vaguely sympathetic, the opportunity to quiz her on such issues as Syria, the next Secretary General of the United Nations, nuclear proliferation, has been overshadowed. And, funnily enough, that's what I assumed Dermot Murnaghan was for.

Her job is to hold the Government to account, and it's rather harder to know whether or not she'd be any better than Boris Johnson if we only get to hear whether or not she can identify the Foreign Minister of Japan. And, even if she can, it isn't that important, as they do change, even as the policies of the nations they represent remain constant(ish).

So, poor form, Mr Murnaghan, try harder and remember what it was that got your name 'in lights' in the first place...

Sunday, September 11, 2016

You appointed them, Theresa, so they're your responsibility...

When, as the newly appointed Prime Minister, Theresa May appointed Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis to lead on Brexit, there were those who suspected that this was a cunning ploy to deal with an inevitably unworkable outcome to the Referendum. And, perhaps, this will turn out to be correct one day. Frankly, I doubt it - one of the modern traits in British politics is the urge to selectively use information to support your preferred outcome regardless of the weight of evidence, and I don't think that Theresa May thinks like that.

Regardless of how you voted on 23 June, however, one must admit that putting the supposedly true believers (judge for yourself how faithful Boris is to anything) in charge made sense. If you want Brexit to work, enthusiasm and a philosophical belief in the necessary stance on sovereignty are surely a must.

So, having campaigned against our membership of the European Union for so long, and yes, Boris, you're excused from that (again), and having had all of that time to consider how our withdrawal might work, they're off and running. It isn't going terribly well so far.

Liam has accused British industry of being lazy, David has indicated that membership of the Single Market is unlikely, and on both occasions, their comments have been disowned as being merely a personal opinion. Well, I'm sorry, Theresa, but that simply isn't true. As a member of the Cabinet, speaking on a subject in their portfolio, their opinion must obviously be an indication as to what they want to do. You might not like it, but you gave them that responsibility.

Either they're lone wolves, in which case they aren't suited to collective Cabinet responsibility, or you do have a plan for Brexit which you don't want to tell us about. Admittedly, whatever plan materialises will upset virtually everybody - Remainers and Brexiteers alike - so silence may be a temporary virtue. But either way, you have a problem.

So, here's a new question for you, Theresa. How many times do you have to deny a Minister before they either quit in frustration or you have to let them go? At least Boris is behaving thus far... Probably...

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Why journalists are not exactly the best people to report news...

Pog the pig - was her behaviour
a touch rash(er)?
Here in Suffolk, we do like our pork. The pig industry is a key part of our agricultural sector, especially in the sandy heathlands both to the east of the county near the coast, and in the west of the county, in the Brecks. And, because pigs are kind of cute, we've had a Suffolk version of the Cow Parade, called "Pigs Gone Wild", thirty-nine decorated pigs dotted around Ipswich, throughout the summer.

They've been popular too, with children taking a particular interest in such pigs as "The Great Piggish Bake Off" (a pig painted to look like a Victoria Sandwich), and "Sir Bradley Piggins", in cycling gear with sideburns. Even Abellio Greater Anglia, our local Train Operating Company, has sponsored "Hamlet".

And so, when a pet pig called Pog escaped from her home in the town this week, it was a great hook for a story. The Sun's headline was;
ROAD HOG! Giant 300kg pig goes on the rampage through housing estate after escaping from nearby farm
Scary, eh? That's forty-seven stones worth of bacon prowling the mean streets of Ipswich, attacking small children, damaging vehicles, causing traffic accidents. For, after all, rampage is defined as;

violent or excited behavior that is reckless, uncontrolled, or destructive.

The Daily Mail was slightly less apocalyptic;
Pig weighing 47 STONE causes havoc when she escapes from her home and runs wild around village
which does go to show that Daily Mail reporters don't get out much - Ipswich is a 'village' of over 130,000 people. But the havoc thing is pretty scary, you'd certainly want to keep your kids off of the street, wouldn't you?

The Daily Telegraph clearly doesn't want to alarm the retired colonels who make up its readership, leading with;
Police called after massive pig goes on the run in Suffolk
which just about covered the level of local concern. You do need a police officer to keep an eye on things just in case.

Luckily, we can rely on the Ipswich Star's coverage, which got it just about right;
Surprise over actual pig gone wild in Newbury Road, Ipswich
The actual story was that Pog had escaped from her owner's home (not a farm, for the benefit of The Sun) and gone for a gentle stroll. Her owner had come out to make sure that nothing stupid happened and, as an observer noted, “She was very happy, she wasn't going home any time soon. But she was under control, the owner was very very good.”. And then she went home.

Now, I accept that, in the generality of news reporting in this country, a humorous little 'local interest' story isn't terribly important. But we rely on journalists to bring us information, and millions of people absorb what they read and often assume that what they read in their newspapers is accurate. And this story reminds us that, increasingly, newspapers don't supply news, they supply entertainment, plus opinion, propaganda and untruths designed to promote their own agendas.

That's important, especially in the context of political reporting, which colours how we, the voters, make our choices. It certainly affected the result of the EU referendum, and it continues to shape the debate about what sort of Brexit we end up with. After all, what does motivate the collection of foreigners and tax exiles that own much of our national Press? Is it our best interests, or theirs?

And the drift towards opinion masquerading as reporting is a problem for us too. Often merely reflecting the personal prejudice of the author, there is seldom any opportunity to challenge such arguments, and little effort on the part of editors to remove egregious lies. That may be down to the cutting of editorial staff, sub-editors and fact checkers as surplus to profit-making requirements, but it again impacts on our body politic.

I'm a great believer in an informed democracy, where voters make choices based on a range of choices, armed with facts. The media have a critical role in that, but if you can't trust them, and their agenda is pursued covertly, we have a problem. Journalists risk becoming lobbyists, as opposed to reporters. 

The story of Pog the pig demonstrates another weakness of our media - an increasing lack of accuracy. How often do you hear people at the centre of stories remark that the reporting gives a wholly misleading view of an incident? Has the need to sell newspapers become more important than relaying the facts?

I am a pessimist about the British media. In truth, I'd probably be a pessimist about the media in most of the Western democracies. Of course, even our media are better than that which exists in too many countries where censorship or repression of journalists is commonplace, but in a society where freedom of expression is justly placed on a pedestal, it would be nice if the profession showed just a little bit more respect for the ethics and responsibilities of their trade...

Friday, September 02, 2016

At last, the good people of Hadleigh will get a local County Councillor again...

In 2013, the Liberal Democrat-held County division of Hadleigh was lost. Our long time County Councillor, David Grutchfield, had retired, and a replacement candidate wasn't really selected early enough to establish themselves in time. Combined with our general unpopularity at the time, it was always possible that the seat would be lost and, sure enough, it was.

The new councillor was Brian Riley, a Conservative who'd been around for a while. He'd fought the seat in 2009, and lost by less than 100 votes. And, for a while, it went as you might expect. Until, that is, he decided that he was going to emigrate to North Carolina.

Fair enough, you might think. He moves, stands down from the Council, and a by-election takes place. Oh no, not Cllr Riley. He decided that he could continue his duties, corresponding with residents by e-mail and coming back to Ipswich for just enough meetings to avoid disqualification.

It was, as you might expect, the cause of some outrage. The Conservatives came under pressure to do something about him and, eventually, he was expelled from the Conservative Group. It didn't deter him though. He carried on, collecting his allowances, seemingly oblivious to local opinion. The ruling Conservative Group could still count on his support, so both sides were content enough.

Meanwhile, the Conservative Group was increasingly splintered, with two factions emerging, one around then Leader Mark Bee, the other around Colin Noble, who went on to seize control. And, having only won in 2013 with a majority of three, the loss of Haverhill Cangle to UKIP in May this year meant that their working majority relied to an unhealthy extent on Brian Riley.
And now he's gone, resigning just before he would be disqualified for failure to attend meetings, and causing a by-election just eight months before the scheduled County Council elections next year. In his passing, he has added to the money wasted on his allowances.

This time, we have an established candidate, current Mayor of Hadleigh, Trevor Sheldrick, and a bit of momentum with our newly-increased membership. We'll be giving it our best shot, and if the good voters of Hadleigh can be persuaded, the Conservative notional loss of their majority will become a real one. We're the most likely contender to gain the seat, we have a record of delivery.

So, fingers crossed, eh?

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Brexit: why I worry about what comes next...

I'm an optimist by nature. And whilst that tends to help if you're a Liberal Democrat, there is a risk that one is blinded to the underside of politics. Being reasonable in the face of the irrational may help you to remain calm in the face of provocation, but reasonable involves measured, nuanced messages and an aversion to sound bites.

The EU referendum was, as it turned out, not a place for the reasonable. Saying that there are positives and negatives to our membership of the European Union risked being shot by both sides, and it did become a rather unedifying contest. It would be fair to say that I wasn't as engaged as I might have been, as a result. I did have the excuse of a local by-election, which took more out of me than I had expected, but nonetheless, I wasn't as active as I might have been.

But anyway, those of us who felt that, on balance, our membership of the European Union brought more advantages than disadvantages lost. And yes, a small piece of me despairs that our country has changed in a way that will only emerge over time, some of the worst has emerged already.

We have sent a message to the world that we aren't keen on foreigners, that they are at fault for the state of our country. And some of those who campaigned for Brexit never intended that or, at least, claim that this wasn't their intent (and yes, Tim Montgomerie, I'm looking at you), but I'm afraid that it is the conclusion that many have drawn.

For those who voted for Brexit probably weren't racist on the whole. The catch is those who were now think that they're in the majority. In other words, they've won. But they're probably not finished. They have other fish to fry.

After all, Theresa May has promised to reduce net inward migration to below 100,000 per annum and eschew freedom of movement as part of any package relating to access to the European Single Market. That works both ways, in that our people surely can't expect to have the same rights to move to a European Union

In other words, less people leaving the country, thus even more people prevented from coming here - any net migration figure is dependant on those leaving the country too.

That suits the racists, especially as it will doubtless make it even harder for people from non-White countries to get those all important work permits. UKIP will doubtless start agitating to restrict the number of Muslims coming here, and a country thought to be threatening to minorities is a less inviting choice.

If the economists are right, and growth in the United Kingdom stalls, unemployment will start to rise, and there will be those who will call for foreigners to be sent home. After all, they'll be holding jobs to the exclusion of native British, which would never do. The fact that they will doing jobs that wouldn't otherwise be filled is neither here nor there, they will be the 'other' that must be removed.

And yes, crops will go unharvested, our elderly uncared for, patients untreated in the absence of the migrants who currently do these things. I'm sure that those who voted for them to be excluded will happily take up the slack.

The country will become a bit meaner, a bit more insular, a bit more populist, a bit less tolerant.

I may be wrong. I hope that I am. But it will take the engagement of the reasonable, the tolerant, the rational in order to resist such a trend. And in the face of a new post-fact politics, a stand at the barricades may prove to be too unattractive. For modern politics increasingly leaves no room for those with honest doubts or who are without the sort of emotional armour that is required to deal with the abuse that seems standard in our body politic - in other words, the very people whose voices we need to hear more of.

Mid Suffolk: will I be in a different District ward for 2019?

I have suspected for some time that, with Stowmarket growing like Topsy, the distribution of Mid Suffolk District Council's forty council seats was becoming increasing distorted. And today, there is news that someone who matters agrees with me, as I see that there will indeed be boundary proposals to take effect for the 2019 elections.

It turns out that Stowmarket North has about 31% more voters than it should (might building the Cedars Park estate have something to do with that?), and so a redistribution is needed.

Assuming that Stowmarket gets an extra councillor, which I think is likely, a ripple effect will mean shuffling the host of small villages across the District (and some of us are pretty small) to form viable units. And, as Creeting St Peter is one of the smaller parishes, and currently forms a small fraction of the Stowupland ward, I would guess that we're vulnerable in that sense. Indeed, we were part of The Stonhams ward until 2007, with Creeting St Mary, Earl Stonham and Stonham Aspal - held by Tony Fowler for the Liberal Democrats.

What I've learned is that, to get elected, it helps to live in the ward around here. It also helps to either live in the dominant village by population in that ward, or to live in a ward made up of a number of villages so that you have a reasonable shot at building support across them all.

In 2011, I lost my campaign in Stowupland ward for a number of reasons. Having the election on the same day as the AV referendum wasn't helpful, as a high vote against favoured the Conservatives. Being a Liberal Democrat didn't help, as we were about as popular as anthrax amongst some Labour and Green voters and I needed their support. And, whilst I did very well in my own village, where people knew me, I had a bit of a hill to climb in Stowupland.

I might have had a better chance in The Stonhams, as I'm a small village sort of person, and it requires commitment, organisation and discipline to run a campaign across a number of locations. Luckily, I have Ros to supply the organisation and discipline. And, once engaged, I have a surprising amount of enthusiasm.

As a Liberal Democrat with a sense of geography, I will doubtless offer some thoughts on how best the new boundaries might be drawn. And we do need to engage with the process, as we have seats to defend in 2019 and should be seeking to add to that number from a relatively low base.

So, watch this space. It could be unexpectedly interesting...