Saturday, December 16, 2017

Catch the bus, if you can...

As a recently returned member of the Liberal Democrat Voice editorial team, I have the good fortune to receipt a copy of every press release issued by the Party. Well, I say good fortune but, most of the time, I simply delete them as being of little personal use. That isn’t a criticism of our Press team, but is a reflection of the fact that I’m only really an amateur journalist one day per week.

Sometimes though, one of them catches my attention, as it did on Thursday.
Local bus routes slashed by 14% in areas outside London 
read the headline. Given that I live outside London, and rely on buses to get out and about in the absence of both a car and the ability to drive one, I wanted to find out more.

It seems that the number of miles travelled by supported bus routes, which are subsidised by local authorities, fell to 125 million in 2016/17 in areas of England outside London. This is a fall of 20 million miles, or 13.8%, compared to the previous year.

In truth, this comes as no great surprise. My village lost its last scheduled bus service a few years ago, but given that it ran once a week (on Market day) and was so obscure that even my then fellow Parish councillors didn’t know of its existence, its failure to survive was inevitable.

The service was replaced by Demand Responsive Transport, funded by the County Council. I could ring the contact number, talk to Margaret or Francesca, and we would agree pickup and drop off times, based on the needs of other users. It was surprisingly reasonable in cost and very efficient, helpful given that it was my only connection to the outside world apart from a long walk across the fields to either Stowmarket, Needham Market or Stowupland.

Suffolk County Council’s Conservative administration is inordinately proud of its record of freezing Council Tax, and of increasing reserves each year in excess of inflation. The down side of that is increasing pressure on what are seen as non-core services, and rural buses fall into that category, with subsidies reduced year on year.

My bus service was put out to tender as part of that programme of cuts, and the new operator was tasked with reducing the required subsidy to nil over five years. What that meant was a sizeable rise in fares - the cheap return was replaced by two singles (my fare went up by 54% as a result) but, worst of all, the County Council had, by design or by accident, excluded the Mid Suffolk service from the concessionary fare scheme for the elderly. That was hardly likely to help make the service viable, but nonetheless, it was done anyway.

It was noticed that the equivalent services in Waveney, Babergh, St Edmundsbury, Forest Heath and Suffolk Coastal all retained a right to use the concessionary fares scheme, and even in Ipswich, there were plenty of regular buses on which the scheme applied.

But, it was, and is, all about the money. The County Council continue to make cuts, rural bus routes shrivel up and die, and the villages become that little bit harder to get to and from. Once a bus runs on a less than hourly basis, the chances are that more and more people will simply switch to private vehicles. And if you make the schedule unpredictable, you’d better believe that you have problems.i

A death spiral ensues - less people ride the bus, so higher subsidies are required, which the County Council can’t, or won’t countenance. Thus, more cuts, less buses, further passenger switching to private vehicles. I can’t object to the apparently inexorable logic, but there comes a point when rural isolation becomes more of a problem than the cost of the subsidy.

It is no consolation that rural bus services are under threat across the country, as the Save Our Buses campaign notes in its briefings, but at least someone is banging the drum for even a vestigial rural transport. It would be nicer if someone on power was actually listening...

Friday, December 15, 2017

Venezuela: Maduro gets his retaliation in first...

I’ve written here before about Venezuela, a potentially wealthy country brought to its knees by first corruption, then quasi-imperial overreach and finally rampant paranoia. And I return to the subject following the news that President Maduro, a man ill-equipped to run a bath, let alone a country, has decided that, following a widespread boycott of recent municipal elections, those Opposition parties who chose to join the boycott will be barred from contesting next year's Presidential election.

It should come as no real surprise, given his nonchalant disregard for the democratic process. He has, after all, subverted Parliament by creating a Constituent Assembly in his own image to override it, removed an uncompliant Chief Prosecutor (who, by the way, is in The Hague trying to bring a case against him in the International Criminal Court) and done everything possible to paralyse the Opposition in the country.

All of this, remember, against a backdrop of a collapsing economy, with inflation at 650% and expected to reach 2,300% next year, the country said to be in selective default of its debts and with the average Venezuelan thought to have lost 9 kilos in weight in the past year - Venezuela imports much of its foodstuff.

The Maduro Administration still has some friends - the Russians have deferred $3 billion in debts over ten years - but with $140 billion in debts, just $9.6 billion in reserves and an income stream heavily dependent on oil sales to the United States, it is only a matter of time before the wheels fall off completely.

This has been a slow motion train wreck, in plain sight of the world, in a supposedly developed country, and yet there appears to be no will to do very much. One can see why, perhaps. There is no grounds for military intervention, as Venezuela is no real threat to anyone, and the Government is clearly immune to persuasion. Aid is difficult as the chances of it reaching ordinary Venezuelans is remote, unless they support the Government. And a boycott of Venezuelan oil is likely to put prices up - an unpopular notion - and cause even greater hardship amongst the people.

What remains is to continue to condemn the Maduro administration both as individual states and as collections of states, explaining to the Government that their behaviour is unacceptable, and that assistance is conditional, hoping that desperation leads them back to democracy.

It’s a long game, and the Venezuelan people are likely to suffer more before it reaches a conclusion. One can only hope that, should they be driven to revolution, that it be quick and relatively merciful and that the outside world stays out of it - Latin America has seen enough outside interference over the past two hundred years and needs no more.

May God have mercy on the Venezuelan people - they need all of the help that they can get...

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Is there a best time to take a position if you know that doing so will cost you support?

The Labour frontbench’s decision not to support a Liberal Democrat amendment which would hold open membership of the Single Market was an interesting one. If, as is reported, it was simply an attempt to keep the option on the table, then one might reasonably argue that, by allowing it to be defeated, Labour reduced their own wriggle room in the eventuality that they become the Government.

And they’re entitled to do that, if they see that it is to their political advantage.

But, as a political party seeking to gain the support of those voters who wish to remain in the European Union, it might be a risky strategy. Yes, the options available to Remain voters are quite limited in many ways - the Conservatives and UKIP are obviously ruled out, the Greens and Liberal Democrats are too far back to be credible alternatives in many places just now - but that might not last.

Which brings me to my original question. Labour can, for now, get away with not really taking a clear view on Britain’s future inside or outside the European Union. With the Government displaying quite astonishing levels of incompetence and unreliability, merely not being them makes Labour look better than they might otherwise do. But, at some point, if they get into power (and it shouldn’t be ruled out as the implications finally dawn on the Conservatives that Brexit is not going to be easy, cheap or painless, or even what any of them want), they’re going to have to take a stance.

Less than three weeks ago, I was at a conference of the Save Romania Union, a new political party, who have gone through some teething pains. Having formed as an anti-corruption, pro-reform, pro-European Party, as they have formed a set of working principles, they have lost some of their initial supporters, who don’t want to adhere to those principles, or at least, some of those principles. As policy decisions are taken, you lose people who don’t like that particular choice.

And Labour have the same problem. Take a clear stance on membership of the Single Market, and you risk losing either the support of left-wing Eurosceptics, or of young, pro-Remain, voters. Similarly with the Customs Union, or freedom of movement. But, if you don’t have a clear stance going into Government, you’re not likely to make a good fist of negotiating with the European Union, who do know what it is they are trying to defend.

There’s a possible election to be fought and won,  preferably with the aid of an army of young, committed activists, who may not be quite so committed if they think that Labour are a pro-Brexit party at heart.

So, Labour are in a bind. They need to gain and retain as much support as they can to get elected, but risk early disenchantment of those supporters at the very time they will need loyalists most. What is a political party to do?...

Brexit: Parliament sticks it to the (wo)man...

This Parliamentary democracy thing is an interesting concept, isn’t it? The idea that we, the people, after a campaign in which candidates attempt to persuade us to support them and their ideas, send our chosen tribune to Westminster to listen to arguments and sift data before taking the decisions that affect our lives seems like quite a good one.

Of course, this is the theory. It relies on a number of increasingly heroic assumptions;
  1. That voters actually have an open mind.
  2. That candidates tell the truth, or are at least honest about the options.
  3. That media coverage is objective.
  4. That, once elected, Members of Parliament are not whipped like dogs.
Don’t laugh...

All of that said, our system of democracy contains a series of checks and balances that protect us - a neutral Civil Service, an independent judiciary - and which we can mostly rely upon to protect us from an over-mighty Executive.

And, occasionally, Members of Parliament act according to their conscience, as in last night’s vote on Amendment 7 to the EU Withdrawal Bill. In truth, one should really wonder about the 305, mostly Conservative, ones who concluded that Parliamentary sovereignty is only really necessary when they’re in opposition.

It’s funny really, in that I had rather more respect for those Brexiteers who purported to be most concerned about a loss of sovereignty. It is true that, in pooling sovereignty with others, you lose personal autonomy. If that loss is counterbalanced (or better) by benefits of various kinds, that is probably a decent trade-off. “Sovereignty” Brexiteers don’t believe that the benefits meet that test, and whilst I think that they’re wrong, it is at least an honourable argument.

At least, it was, until they were offered an opportunity to take a stand on the right of Parliament to have the final say. It turned out that they actually believe that Parliament is only sovereign if it agrees with them. Just like their concept of freedom, their belief in sovereignty turns out to be conditional, partial, incomplete.

In other words, in order to deliver something they want, they are willing to sacrifice the very principle which underpinned their stance on Brexit. It’s hardly an edifying stance...

Meanwhile, my Conservative MP, Jo Churchill, clearly doesn’t believe that she should be allowed a say on the terms, and trooped loyally through the lobbies as per instructions, despite her stated support for remaining in the European Union.

Brexit may well continue to its fruition, the rebel Tories may decide to back the deal in the end, but at least tonight, we saw the Executive thwarted and a glimmer of democracy return to the Mother of Parliaments. And a damned good thing too...

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

What does my Conservative MP think about Brexit?

It’s a genuine question, borne out of a degree of frustration.
You see, during the Referendum campaign, she was in favour of remaining. As she noted, 53% of the region’s exports go to the European Union...

and the European Union is a vital source of research funding...

It provides security...

And voting remain was a vote for East Anglia!

And so, on 23 June 2016, she voted to remain. So far, so consistent.

It didn’t take her long to bend to the supposed will of the British people though... On 27 June, she wrote;
As many of you will know, I campaigned to remain within the European Union. I am proud to say that whilst I am personally devastated at the decision this country has come to, it is my duty as your Member of Parliament to respect the democratic decision of St Edmundsbury, Suffolk and the UK on the whole, to leave the European Union
Yes, it took her just four days to decide that the will of 52% of those who had voted, was enough for her to conclude that, no matter how bad an idea it was, she was going to respect it. The fact that it was bad for the country, its economy and its people was clearly not sufficient for her to challenge the new orthodoxy. Perhaps the fact that her local association’s members were probably significantly pro-Brexit might have been a factor.

And, since then, she has consistently entered the lobbies for the Government, not a word out of place, not a whisper of discontent.

So, has she changed her mind, and if so, why, beyond the “will of the people” I hear so much about? She seemed pretty certain prior to 23 June.

Alternatively, she is simply supporting the view of the Government, regardless of what that view is, even if it is contrary to her previously expressed views, which leads you to ask how important her principles are as opposed to the needs of her Party.

And then, there’s the alternative that I’d rather not believe, that her pro-remain stance was simply because it was that of the then Government, and now that the Government’s view has changed, she is simply shadowing it, in which case, how sincere is she?

Now I don’t dislike Jo Churchill. Yes, she’s a Conservative MP, but she seems harmless enough in the generality. I don’t approve of her voting record much, but then, I am a Liberal Democrat and would make different, hopefully better, choices. Her Twitter feed is full of congratulations for various local voluntary groups, many of whom are carrying out tasks that were once done by Government (and might still be better done at one or other tier of government). She does not dissent, repeats whatever the line of the day is from Conservative Party HQ faithfully, doesn’t rock the boat. She’s a bit ‘identikit Tory’, but our modern politics does seem to drive out personality.

But it is the job of our MP to seek the best outcome for her constituents and for the country, and that means asking the difficult questions and taking a stand based on her principles from time to time, and far from being a critical friend, as she claimed she would be, she has become mere lobby fodder, to be relied upon without question.

That’s a pity, as I strongly suspect that she entered into politics to make people’s lives that bit better, as most of us did. But principles matter, Jo, and as far as Brexit goes, you appear to have sold yours too cheaply.

She’s not alone though. All seven Suffolk MPs, all Conservatives, campaigned to remain. And although Ben Gummer lost his seat in June, not one of them has even been rumoured to have questioned the Government’s strategy or direction. 

If it was wrong and bad eighteen months ago, ladies and gentlemen, it is wrong and bad now. And if you have any reason for supporting it now beyond “the will of the people”, perhaps you’d like to enlighten us. For when the story of Brexit is written, it will not be the ardent Brexiteers who will be blamed - they at least were consistent in their beliefs - it will be those of you who knew it was wrong, but went along with it anyway, who will have betrayed our nation and its people.

Was that what you went into politics for?

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The problem with Europe is that it’s really quite complicated...

So, another ‘big vote’ and, again, the Labour front bench vote with the Government. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, given Jeremy Corbyn’s ambivalence, at best, over the concept of Britain as being part of a European Union.

Europe is, after all, a useful thing to have to blame for things not being as you’d like. From a socialist perspective, you’re never going to get a socialist Europe, especially given the poor performance of Labour’s sister parties in such places as France, Germany and the Netherlands. Mainstream socialism appears to be being usurped by more ‘authentic’ left wing movements, such as Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece and the populists such as Jean-Luc Melenchon in France. One could argue that Labour’s resurgence here is down to their move to the left, although given the incompetence of the Conservatives, and their adoption of a stance likely to be unpopular with young voters and those born after the sixties, that may not be lasting.

So, you have a Conservative Party committed to leaving, with a membership base predominantly supportive, and a Labour Party whose elected representatives are not so sure but who defer to their leader, even if they don’t really believe in him, who also wants to leave. His membership believe in him rather more than they believe in Europe, it seems.

How then, can the argument that remaining in the European Union is the right thing to do be won?

Ironically, the modus operandi of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords may offer a solution, albeit a long-term rather than a short-term one. Asking questions requires ministers to either think about the answers, or to get someone to do so on their behalf. What research has been done on the impact of Brexit on X, or Y? What analysis has been done on this element or that?

In other words, cast doubt on the Conservative’s big idea. Support them on the nature of any future relationship where we agree, and arguing for alternatives where we don’t. Make the case for working together on justice issues such as Europol, or on fishing arrangements in the North Sea, which we’re going to have to co-ordinate with the other states with territorial waters there in any event.

At the moment, we seem to be joining in the yah boo politics, when we should be the grown ups in the room. We should be talking about the issues, highlighting our philosophical approach to internationalism and sovereignty, as well as our understanding that, by pooling defined degrees of sovereignty in return for equally defined benefits, we make the country wealthier and stronger. It’s ultimately about working with others for mutual advantage not, as the Conservatives see it, a world where you become richer by seeking advantages over your neighbours, regardless of the global arrangements.

We also need to explain that capitalism works, as long as you have a strong and effective regulatory framework, designed to balance the needs of consumers and producers. And yes, it’s complex. Using very simplistic arguments has got us to where we are now, and you can’t really claim that it’s a good place, can you?

You can criticise the voters, but they were given a data rich, fact poor information environment, where one side traded in untruths that were never intended to be cashed in, and the other focussed on an almost apocalyptic picture of a post-Brexit Britain. And, eventually, someone is going to have to treat them like adults, explaining how international trade deals work, how sovereignty is not complete or absolute, how some problems and challenges are better faced together.

If we want to persuade former Leave supporters to openly change their views, you have to bring them along with you through persuasion and the casting of honest doubt. It’s time that we started on that task...

Thursday, December 07, 2017

So, where has the lying stopped, and just how many ministers are implicated?

It seems as though the Secretary of State for Brexit may have been wilfully inaccurate in his statements to Parliament, to the media, and to the public. Either impact assessments have been made, as he claimed on multiple occasions, or they haven’t, as he claimed before the Brexit Select Committee yesterday morning. Both statements cannot be true, unless one stretches the definition of truth in the manner of saltwater taffy.

Fine, it should be a hanging offence, especially for a Government whose assertions of taking back control emphasise the importance of Parliamentary sovereignty. And whilst the Conservative/DUP majority can prevent a formal censure, if David Davis fails to do the honourable thing, and isn’t sacked, the level of misconduct required to end a ministerial career reaches new depths. Given that it seems almost impossible to get sacked by Theresa May, that’s going something.

But, it leads to the question, “who else is lying?”. After all, various junior ministers in DExEU have referred to these mythical sectoral analyses, claiming to have read some, or part, of them. Theresa May herself has apparently read some, or part, of them. And yet they don’t exist.

Perhaps the likes of Steve Baker, Robin Walker and, yes, Theresa May, should be called in and asked to swear, under oath, to the veracity of their earlier statements. Because, whilst lying about policy is one thing (morally and ethically unacceptable though it might be), on the grounds that you don’t necessarily know what the impact of any particular decision might be, telling people something that you know to be untrue undermines our demos to the point where the public have every right to loathe politicians even more than they purport to do currently.

The referendum was won on the basis of a series of big lies - £350 million per week for the NHS, Turkish accession to the European Union, remaining in the Single Market, to name but three - and it seems as though there are elements of the Government who have lied their way through the negotiations.

Yes, they may win the war in terms of Brexit, but if you were a potential trading partner, or a regional bloc, could you really negotiate a trade deal with a country whose senior politicians demonstrate such disregard for the truth? You might, with the right safeguards, but you’d be very cautious.

This Government has, in two years, trashed our reputation in the wider world. Increasingly, our friends think that we’ve lost our collective marbles, and our enemies relish our discomfort. We will pay a price for that over time, although I suspect our poor and vulnerable will bear much of the cost. But, as I’ve often said in the past, credibility is hard won and easily lost, and you wouldn’t fancy Boris and David to help that much.

So, we’ll see if the truth comes out, and what the punishment will be, if any. For the Conservatives have to understand that, if you allow your people to show such disregard for the truth, you can hardly be surprised when your enemies do the same thing. And complaining is unlikely to meet with much sympathy…

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The reality of the Government’s broadband rollout plans

For those readers who live in cities, towns or even reasonably sized villages, the existence of decently fast broadband is a given, and in an increasingly digital world, you can easily take for granted the ability to makes transactions online. Accordingly, the Government is targeting the rollout of superfast broadband to 95% of all homes by the end of this year and, if you’re not in that 95%, you will have at least 2Mbps.

Well, it’s December, and I don’t have either. My village of two hundred or so souls, with two hundred and seventy-five residents in the Parish, is part of the 5% not considered to be worthy of having that sort of communications access, and thus on the wrong side of the digital divide.

What that means is that school children from villages are left at a disadvantage to their more urban colleagues - how can you do research online with slow internet access? - and running a business from home is, to put it mildly, challenging. The Government want us, for example, to file tax returns online, but if you can barely download your e-mail, how likely is it that you could do so easily?

The response of the Government is not encouraging. According to the Better Braodband for Suffolk site, we are scheduled to be upgraded at some point between now and 2020, which means potentially three years of unsatisfactory access to broadband. On the other hand, our MP has advised that we’re scheduled to be upgraded into Q1 of 2018/19, which sounds more promising, albeit that I’ll believe it when I see it.

The Government seems determined to make life harder for rural communities. The decimation of village schools and rural bus services, combined with closures of pubs, post offices and bank branches, makes it imperative to be able to do more and more online, yet compared to our urban neighbours, who have all of these things relatively close at hand, our ability to do so is less than theirs. And we don’t get the range of services provided by local government in towns either.

That’s fine, as we’re pretty self-sufficient in many ways. But we’re taxpayers too, and it’s hardly an encouragement to pay one’s dues if you don’t appear to get very much for your money. So, perhaps the Government might like to pull their collective finger out?...

Friday, November 17, 2017

Twitter: sometimes, you learn the hard way...

I'm not a prolific user of Twitter, I admit. I use it more as a combined news source and means of keeping up with my friends, than as a way of communicating. Occasionally though, I do take a dip in the gasoline-covered waters.

This evening, I made the mistake of responding to something that Iain Dale had retweeted, pointing out that the 'divorce bill' he was referring to was the United Kingdom's share of the costs of commitments entered into jointly by the members of the European Union. Not hugely controversial, I thought. Apparently though, this offered Iain the chance to make a snide response, spotted by his 100,000+ followers.

He's allowed to do that - it's a free world. But he sends me a clear signal that he believes his fame to give him the right to be unnecessarily rude without consequence. And again, he's entitled to that.

However, what he also implies is that any exchange on Twitter will be on his terms. Unfortunately, he's not wholly entitled to that, as the word 'exchange' requires two parties to make it work. In other words, I have to accept his attitude if I want to exchange ideas with him.

Now, as I noted at the beginning, I use Twitter as a combined news source and means of keeping up with my friends. Iain isn't my friend - we've met socially from time to time, and we were a year apart at the University of East Anglia, where he was a prominent member of the Federation of Conservative Students... and I wasn't.

That makes him a potential news source. But, if his attitude is to be rude to people he doesn't agree with, that doesn't make him a valuable news source either, as I would need to seek validation of his opinions from other sources. Life is too short, and there are too many other sources of information that I respect more, regardless of whether or not I agree with them - I'm a devoted Times reader, for example, and the Guardian mostly annoys me.

And so, I'll free up a little bit of bandwidth on my Twitter feed by unfollowing Iain. It's no great loss to me, and no loss at all to him, especially as he doesn't follow me.

But perhaps it's a sign of the times that Brexiteers and Remainers are digging themselves into their respective trenches. And for those of us who are genuinely keen to get the best for our country, whatever that is, it's just another measure that, in the pursuit of ideology for ideology's sake, we become a country that's just that little bit less pleasant for all of us.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Time to hold Azerbaijan to account for its maltreatment of its LGBT community

The news that members of the LGBT community in Azerbaijan are being rounded up and held in detention on what appears to be entirely spurious grounds triggers the obvious concern that events in Chechnya, where gay men are being hunted down and killed, are spilling over into other parts of the Caucasus. In response, members of the Federal International Relations Committee have drafted a resolution to be considered at the ALDE Party Congress in Amsterdam, calling for action.

It has to be said that, usually, I would leave such things to those more expert than I am. On this occasion though, I have intervened.

For, interestingly, the European Union is in the midst of negotiating a strategic partnership with Azerbaijan and whilst I do wonder about the wisdom of signing such an agreement with a country whose leadership are alleged to be pretty corrupt, with a 'first family' who are seem to be incredibly successful in their business deals, it does open up a route through which the Azeri government might be persuaded to mend their ways.

And so, I proposed, and had accepted, the following additional clause under "Congress call for";
A suspension on talks between the European Union and Azerbaijan on the proposed agreement on a strategic partnership until the rights and freedoms of all citizens of Azerbaijan are fully restored.
One of the whole points of being a player on the world stage, and the European Union aspires to being just that, is to use our influence to change things for the better. if Azerbaijan feels that a partnership with the European Union is valuable, it will change its ways. If the European Union believes that its values mean more than just fine words, it will seek change in Azerbaijan in return for that partnership.

Our values as Europeans are important, and not conditional. Liberty should apply to those whose activities do not cause hurt or offence to others, and this is a concept that needs defending, not compromising.

Hopefully, some external pressure will send a message to the Azeri leadership that they can't get away with mistreating their citizens.

The Boundary Commission proposals for Creeting St Peter

I ended yesterday's post by noting that the proposals for new boundaries were of interest in so far as they related to Creeting St Peter. I should explain, I guess.

Prior to the last round of boundary changes, the village formed part of The Stonhams ward, combining with Stonham Aspal, Earl Stonham, Stonham Parva and Creeting St Mary. It elected a Liberal Democrat councillor and was a neat enough fit. Unfortunately, that round of boundary changes stripped the ward of our village, throwing us with the metropolis that is Stowupland.

The proposals made by the three political parties each had a different plan for Creeting St Peter.

The Conservatives wanted a rather sprawling ward, including all of the Stonhams, Mickfield and Wetheringsett. Frankly, I didn't fancy it much, although it would include a heritage railway with quite a good real ale bar when the Mid Suffolk Light Railway was open.

The Greens wanted to keep Stowupland and Creeting St Peter together, adding Earl Stonham to make up the numbers. That meant keeping splitting both the Creetings and the Stonhams, which never felt like a going concern.

The Liberal Democrats proposed the recreation of the old The Stonhams ward, adding Mickfield to make up the numbers. I feared that it wasn't quite big enough, although it offered an interesting campaign opportunity for yours truly.

What nobody had considered, myself included, was the option of looking south. That is, until the Boundary Commission's experts had their go at solving the Mid Suffolk Rubik's cube...

They came up with an expanded Needham Market ward, retaining its two member nature by bolting on some new territory - Creeting St Mary to the east, Creeting St Peter to the north-east, plus Darmsden and Baylham to the south. Now, that would mean that we now live in what is notionally a Liberal Democrat ward. It would also mean that, if the proposals are adopted, I would be represented on the District Council by the woman who recruited my wife to the Party.

Naturally, I'm of the view that the draft proposals are a work of genius. All I have to hope for is that nobody persuades them to change their minds...

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Mid Suffolk: the Boundary Commission proposes an unexpected outcome...

I had meant to mention the current Boundary Commission review of Mid Suffolk's ward boundaries, in which the District Council loses six councillors, going from forty to thirty-four, which requires, as you might guess, some interesting reshuffling.

Unlike in London, where redistributing means drawing entertaining lines of maps and crossing your fingers that the other political parties don't work out what you're doing (I do those who study these things a disservice here admittedly...), in Suffolk you have a set of building blocks known as towns and parishes. Rule one is, "thou shalt not split up parishes", which simplifies and complicates the process in equal measure.

The job of the Boundary Commission is thus to create a number of wards which have an amount of electors within 10% of the average number of electors per councillor. That can be done by means of one member or two member wards, but you don't want them to be too large in geographic terms.

There were three political proposals made, one from the Greens, one from the Conservatives and one from us. You'll notice that there wasn't a proposal from Labour, but as they don't actually have a councillor in Mid Suffolk, I guess that they weren't that bothered. Slightly bizarrely, our local Green councillor admitted that they had agreed a joint proposal with the Conservatives, but that the Conservatives had reneged on the deal late in the day. That does beg the question as to why the Greens thought that doing a deal with the Conservatives was a good idea, but it does perhaps indicate that the Greens are either more naive than I had thought possible or, more troubling my, that they might not be reliable in their opposition to the ruling administration.

In any event, none of the three proposals seemed to have an awful lot to recommend them. The Conservative proposal required there to be thirty-five councillors, i.e. one more than the specified number, which perhaps serves as a reminder as to the quality of some of the local Conservatives. The Green proposals, for there turned out to be two versions, seemed not to understand the importance of the 10% variance from the mean, as they often failed by producing wards that were too big or too small. The Liberal Democrat proposal was better, but still not ideal.

It appears that the Boundary Commission weren't wildly impressed either, as their draft proposals, issued on Monday, differ from all of them. And, from an initial look, I reckon that they've done a pretty good job.

From a personal perspective, the most interesting element is the one that affects me most. And it wasn't what I was expecting...

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Theresa, it's too late. Boris has already won...

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
I've got to admit that I've never been a fan of our Foreign Secretary. I tend to prefer gravitas over 'personality' and competence over an ability to dissemble. But what fascinates me it why, despite a history for which the word 'chequered' seems almost inevitable, and a relative lack of achievement, Boris Johnson is considered by so many to be a credible leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister.

And then you see the way that he has done Theresa May like a kipper and you think, "Gosh, what a cunning bastard!". Yes, the Prime Minister is notionally in charge, but you hardly think that she's in control, especially as the sheer horror of negotiating the promised lotus land is becoming ever more apparent and the  inevitable compromising starts.

By laying down his red lines, most of which have as much chance of being met as I do of opening the batting for England this winter, he sets her up for failure knowing that there is no personal risk. If she decides to follow his lead, he is the hero, defending the notion of a hard Brexit from a vacillating leader. If she doesn't, and it goes wrong, as it probably will anyway, she gets to be the sacrificial goat and he is ideally placed to be leader.

At least, so he thinks. He may even be right. I do hope not.

It says a lot for the state of the modern Conservative Party that he is a credible alternative though. After all, he has issues with truth and fidelity, is as tactful as a rhinoceros with toothache and tends to look as though he has been dragged backwards through a hedge. His lack of self-awareness has caused him to imaginatively insult allies and enemies alike. You would like to think that, amongst the ranks of senior Conservatives there was someone who could do better, even if Andrea Leadsom would be worse.

But what intrigues me most is the answer to the question, "what does Boris believe in?". With David Cameron, you sensed that the answer was, whatever was broadly popular, with a veneer of social liberalism. I'm not even sure that Boris comes with a veneer.

Nevertheless, he's played a blinder this week, as all that anyone can talk about is him. And, as far as the members in the country are concerned, as long as he can get the nominations to run (and if Dan Poulter's supporting him, it seems unlikely to be a serious obstacle), he can have every reason for optimism.

And if you thought that this country was becoming a joke already...

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Catalan Referendum: a view from no-man's land

The images emerging from Catalonia today should trouble all of us, especially given the link between  liberalism and self-determination.

You could, and I probably would, argue that both sides have been particularly uncompromising in their approach, but independence battles tend to encourage such an attitude - after all, there have been precious few examples of states gaining sovereignty through negotiation alone. But the responses of both sides have led to today's scenes of riot police attacking and wounding those Catalans who fervantly believe that their lands are better off in a free Catalonia.

I am a believer in the principle of peaceful self-determination. In a civilised and rational world, power is assigned to the most appropriate level, devolved downwards where possible, pooled if necessary. The idea of the wholly sovereign nation state is almost absurd given the interrelationships of trade and migration.

You could therefore wonder why Catalan independence matters. What would a free Catalonia be or do that it can't already do within the context of the Spanish variable devolution model? And, likewise, what benefit is it to Spain to impose its central diktat over a people who possibly don't want to be a part of it?

Ultimately, it comes down to two things, emotion and economic advantage. Sometimes, as in the case of Scotland, you use the former to gloss over the fact that the latter isn't in your favour. In the case of Catalonia, that's not quite so clear cut, although I can't claim to have quite as much knowledge of the Catalan economy as I do of the Scottish one.

From a Liberal Democrat perspective, there is an uncomfortable contradiction in play. Some of my colleagues are enthusiastic supporters of the Catalan cause - and I respect that. However, given the Party's stance on the Scottish independence question, one might wonder as to the consistency of the two views. Perhaps romance trumps pragmatism when you have no economic skin in the game...

But the heavy-handed stance of the Spanish authorities will not do anything to change minds. It is all well and good to rely on the "rule of law" but those who seek freedom are seldom deterred by mere administrative process. I can't help but feel that, if Madrid is so confident in its position, offering the Catalans a binding referendum requiring a supermajority of eligible voters would have provided a definitive outcome.

Today's referendum will, ultimately, determine nothing. Given the call from Spanish political parties for their supporters to stay away from the polls, a yes vote is likely. As it has no legal status, the Spanish Government can, and will, disregard it. Yes, it puts pressure on the ruling parties in government, but they will be reminded that, for the majority of Spanish voters, Catalonia is Spain. It is an existential matter for the Spanish State.

From a wider European perspective, there are interesting challenges ahead. In the ALDE Party, for example, there are Catalan and Spanish member parties, on opposite sides of the argument. Managing those relationships will be challenging, if the debate spills over, seeking to have the ALDE Party take a side. The ALDE Party Congress, which takes place in Amsterdam in early December, may be fractious...

Saturday, September 30, 2017

FA Cup, Third Qualifying Round: @needhammktfc 1 @DartfordFC 6

Or, as the title suggests, "The Day That The Wheels Fell Off". It was, I'm afraid, not one of the most glorious moments in the eight or so years that I've been intermittently following our local non-league football team. And yet, it had started so promisingly...

The sun was shining brightly on a somewhat busier than usual Bloomfields, as Conference South side Dartford were the visitors, with the promise of knockout drama and a possible giant killing. Alright, Dartford are only one division above Needham Market, but it's quite a big step up from the Bostik League to the Conference South, as a number of teams have found in recent years. And besides, they had been in reasonably good form coming into the match, whereas the Marketmen appeared to be saving their best performances for the road, with a rather poor home record thus far.

The theory is that the underdog has two options, either keep it tight and try to nick a goal from a set piece, or have a go, and Needham Market had clearly chosen the latter, putting the Darts under quite a lot of pressure early on. It all looked promising until, twenty minutes in, a Dartford free kick just outside the box was played along the ground, causing some chaos, and after a scramble, the Dartford number nine, Alfie Pavey, struck a fierce shot past the home keeper.

The sun promptly disappeared behind a cloud. It was an omen, wasn't it...

Whilst Needham weren't obviously downhearted - it was rather against the run of play - it was clear that the goal had settled the visitors and, from a tidy break, a nasty, teasing cross from the left was met by a bullet header from that man Pavey. Thirty-five minutes gone, 2-0 to Dartford.

Needham heads were visibly dropping at this point, and you just had to hope that they could make it to half-time just two down and regroup for the second half. It wasn't to be. In stoppage time, another ball into the box, good strength shown to hold off the defender before hooking a shot past the keeper. Yes, it was a hattrick for Pavey, who else?

The mood in Bloomfields was a resilient one though, and in truth, Dartford had made only four real chances, and a quality striker had taken three of them, none of them that easy. Dartford's more confident distribution, with an ability to move the ball at pace, was at the heart of the gap between the two sides.

The second half kicked off, with the hope that the score could be kept respectable. It didn't last long, as with Needham pushing forward, another lightning break, a well-chosen diagonal through ball and Tom Murphy took a gift-wrapped opportunity to make it 0-4.

It could have been even worse soon afterwards, with Dartford awarded a penalty for a senseless push on Pavey as he had a clear header on goal. The defender was lucky to get away with a yellow card, and had an even luckier escape when the keeper managed to push the penalty onto the bar, the rebound being blazed over it.

The Dartford manager had clearly seen enough to be relaxed about saving key players for the league campaign ahead, and Pavey and Murphy were both substituted on the hour mark. Whilst the substitutes were getting into the game, Needham stepped up a gear and, from a corner, central defender Sam Nunn got above his marker to nod in what was probably only going to be a consolation.

There followed a brighter spell from the hosts but, just as you began to wonder if they might spark an unlikely comeback, Dartford cut them to ribbons. Again, a break from the back, another long diagonal ball cut out the defence, and Andy Pugh had an age to beat the keeper and restore his team's four goal advantage.

With twenty minutes still to go, you feared for the Marketmen, but the game remained pretty open, with both sides looking to add to their tally, until, with seven minutes to go, Warren Mfula, on as a substitute, was on the verge of beating the last defender when he was brought down somewhat clumsily. A red card was the only likely outcome and the referee didn't shirk his responsibility, ending Billy Holland's afternoon with seven minutes to go.

The game rather petered out after that until, in stoppage time, Gareth Heath laid off a hideous back pass to an unsuspecting keeper who just about beat the onrushing striker. Unfortunately, he could only toepoke it to Ryan Hayes, whose precise pass into the net from thirty yards or more put the final gloss on what was an object lesson in how to avoid a Cup upset.

So, a 6-1 beating for the Marketmen, and an emphatic end to the dream of a game against the big boys in November. It would be fair to say that, whilst Dartford were clearly the better side, a five goal margin wasn't reflective of the gap in ability between the two sides. Needham were a bit naive and open at the back, and a bit underpowered up front, where Ryan Gibbs tried his hardest but doesn't yet have the nous or power to compete with more hardened and experienced central defenders.

Back to the league then, and perhaps an FA Trophy run?...

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

You can, apparently, never start too early...

I received a telephone call during Conference, whilst walking on the beach, from an unfamiliar telephone number. Admittedly, I don't tend to get an awful lot of telephone calls from people, so my contact list is a bit bereft. On this occasion, it was Paul Clark, my Region's Candidates Chair, with news of a mission. He needs a Returning Officer, and I'm apparently the person for the job.

As I suddenly have some time on my hands, at least, over the medium to long term, I said that I would do it. And so, it's time to reread the Selection Rules, saddle up my trusty ballot box, and set off on the long road towards selecting another PPC.

I've been doing this for some time now, indeed, I've been running candidate selections for the Party for more than two decades, and much has changed in that time. The approval process has become more sophisticated, the Selection Rules have become more, and then less, complicated, but the biggest change is the introduction of more wide-reaching guidance to ensure that our candidates are more diverse than was the case when I started.

Now in truth, that's a thoroughly good thing. It simply shouldn't be the case that the image of a Parliamentary candidate is a middle-aged man in a suit, although it is still an image which flashes a fin in the eyes of many when you discuss politicians. And it takes positive action to generate a spectrum of candidates more reflective of the wider community. Don't start me on what it needs to make Westminster more reflective of society.

You'll pardon me, however, if I'm not very forthcoming as to which constituency it is. It will be a matter for disclosure within the Party soon enough but there is much work to do before I get to that point.

It does allow me an opportunity to remind readers, especially those of a Liberal Democrat persuasion who are ambitious to run for Westminster, that if you think you're ready, it's never too soon to get that application form in...

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

I'm thinking of writing a motion for next year's Conference...

So, having vented my spleen just a little, one does have to move on. And I have an idea, in that I have an interesting platform as a member of FIRC (which does, now I think of it, have the ring of a group of shadowy figures bent on world domination). After all, I have notional credibility as a commentator on international affairs in the Party.

Why not write a motion on something that interests me then?

That something is intervention abroad, what criteria should be applied, what changes to governance are necessary and how might they be resourced. More than a decade ago, I came up with a similar document for Americans for Democratic Action, albeit a much simpler one than I'd want now, which laid down the core criteria for intervention in the internal affairs of other sovereign states.

Now, before you reach for your smelling salts, dear reader, I'm not a natural interventionist. More harm has been done in recent years by botched interventions in the affairs of countries such as Iraq, Libya and Syria than could be stated in a simple blog entry, yet as a country which still has a reputation for decency and fair play, we could play a valuable role in world trouble spots.

So, I welcome any suggestions of people I should talk to, or ideas that might be added. Think of it as an informal policy working group with an unusually narrow focus.

And now, time to read the drafting guidance for policy motions as produced by Federal Conference Committee...

Federal International Relations Committee: the official unofficial report...

So, I've written a report for Liberal Democrat Voice on what happened at Sunday's meeting of the Federal International Relations Committee, as I promised I would do when I ran for election in the first place. Read it, why don't you. It is, as you might guess, a reasonably neutral version of events for, after all, Liberal Democrat Voice represents a kind of unofficial official record. 

Here, I don't have to be quite so restrained.

The input from our guests from the ALDE Party Bureau, Timmy Dooley TD, and Henrik Bach Mortensen, was genuinely interesting. To read the debate in the United Kingdom you could easily believe that there are only two parties to the Brexit negotiations, "Europe" and the United Kingdom. But, of course, that isn't entirely accurate, in that there are twenty-seven nation states on the other side of the table, and a whole slew of interested parties beyond the European Union who might be impacted by any deal.

We heard of the sadness at the breach in our relationships with neighbouring countries, of the impact on the economies of Denmark and Ireland. Our Brexiteer friends will rely on that to claim that they wouldn't put that at risk, but they're wrong. They will realign their trading towards Germany, in the case of Denmark, or look to other markets, in the case of Ireland, because the losses that would arise from a breakdown of the Single Market are far worse than any losses due to Brexit. The less barriers to free trade there are, the better, and the Single Market has achieved just that.

Our Belgian guest, Bart Somers, was pretty inspiring. His application of core liberal principles in addressing the causes of radicalisation in the community was something that should be brought to the attention of liberals in local government everywhere. In that sense, his time was better spent addressing the LGA and ALDC crowd than an international relations committee, but I learnt much from his approach.

The Committee itself continues to bumble along, without any sense of strategic vision. You could argue that, in the absence of a clear steer from the Federal Board (they're still working on developing one, in fairness), but too much of the Committee's efforts are last minute, ad hoc and ineffectual. I did my best to create some basic structure and process, but I do feel like a lone voice, a practical Roundhead in a world of Cavaliers. Funnily enough, the Roundheads won in the end. All I have to do is find the best strategy, I guess.

As an example, ALDE Party Congress takes place in early December, and the deadline for submitting motions is coming up fast. And yet, despite me including it in every agenda up to the point of my resignation as Secretary, nothing was done about starting the process of coming up with some resolutions. Now, something may be cobbled together at the last minute. Given that the Congress is an annual event, you wonder that nobody has given the problem much thought earlier than this. Bluntly, I don't anymore, my expectations are that low.

The Committee is in danger of becoming an ineffectual talking shop, making decisions either in haste or at the whim of key individuals, and it requires a greater sense of active engagement from its members. It is not enough to simply turn up at meetings, react to events and then leave things to slumber on, relying on our remarkably capable but hideously under-resourced International Officer to keep the show on the road.

I do not despair though, because I have my own thoughts as to how I can make a difference, and rather than rely on the formal structure, I'm minded to be more creative.

Watch this space...

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Coming up with a blog title is harder than you might think...

I've been blogging for a long time now, nearly twelve years, in fact, and I still wouldn't claim to be very good at it. I write modestly well, but do so infrequently and slightly erratically. I'm also worryingly reasonable and tend to shy away from those extremes of opinion that draw readers like moths to a flame. But that's enough about me. Well, sort of.

Once upon a time, this blog was called "Liberal Bureaucracy". That made sense, as I was a liberal and a bureaucrat. However, eventually, life changed, and I switched to "The View from Creeting St Peter", in part to reflect my new life as a country dweller. It never entirely felt right though, so I reverted to "Liberal Bureaucracy". The catch is that it doesn't truly reflect who I am, and rather pigeonholes me as the house bureaucrat. I am, I am reliably informed, rather more than that.

So, I'm going to give some thought to a new title for the blog, as part of a gentle relaunch. Don't offer up suggestions, I'm going to have to do this in my own...

Some thoughts in advance of Federal International Relations Committee

So, word has got out that I resigned as Secretary of the Committee, and "Liberator" has reported the story in their usual style. If you're interested, and I'm not sure that the resignation of a minor figure on an obscure internal party committee is particularly newsworthy, you can read the story there. However, my first meeting since then takes place this morning, and I ought to let you know what I'll be focussing on there.

My aim since being elected to the Committee at the end of last year has been to try and enable it to fulfil its functions and comply with the Party's Constitution. It isn't glamorous, but it is important - drafting standing orders, creating process sufficient to deliver key goals, that sort of thing. And, naturally, that work is ongoing.

And now, my attention turns to policy. Federal International Relations Committee is expected to advise the Party, and the Parliamentary Parties, on international and European policy, and I'm keen to make us relevant to the debate. That means developing policy in conjunction with Federal Policy Committee, it means drafting and submitting motions to Party Conferences, it means looking at potential future issues and considering how a liberal response would look.

We aren't alone in that. Word reaches me that the "Your Liberal Britain" team are looking into the creation of a number of committees, focusing on particular policy areas. There are also specialist groups in the Party, such as the various "Friends of" groups and the Liberal Democrat European Group, which have an interest in elements of international policy.

And so, I'm proposing the formation of a Policy sub-committee, tasked with coming up with new policy ideas, studying current priorities and seeking a clearer picture of what we should be doing in terms of a response. It would also take a lead on drafting resolutions for debate at ALDE Party and Liberal International Congresses, using our time more effectively and in a more organised way.

At the moment, FIRC doesn't really consider policy in an organised way - there just isn't enough time and, in any event, good policy making is organic and evolutionary, rather than impulsive.

Apart from that, we've got a very busy agenda, with three ALDE guests participating in the meeting - Timmy Dooley and Henrik Bach Mortensen, two of Ros's fellow Vice-Presidents, and Bart Somers, a prominent liberal mayor from Mechelen, in Belgium. There'll be planning for the forthcoming ALDE Party Congress in Amsterdam in early December, and a delegation is being put together in anticipation.

We'll also be talking about the future of Brussels and Europe Liberal Democrats, who are undergoing something of a remodelling following a large increase in their membership. A lot of work has been going on behind the scenes to come up with a structure that allows them optimal autonomy whilst addressing key compliance issues, and I'm hoping that a way forward will emerge this week.

So, much to do, and much to be getting on with...

Saturday, September 16, 2017

FA Cup, Second Qualifying Round: Needham Market 2 Chesham United 0

Unfortunately, being a Liberal Democrat kept me away from this afternoon's match at Bloomfields, but that didn't prevent me from vicariously following the game through the wonders of Twitter. And it was good news for the Marketmen in their rather harder follow-up to the game at Clapton.

Chesham United are at a similar level to Needham Market, and play in the Southern League, but given that the Conference South teams enter the competition at this stage, it would have considered a relatively benign draw. But games like that have to be won, and with £4,500 going to the winner, there was a lot riding on it.

The deadlock was broken by Callum Harrison, just before the half-hour mark, and a Dan Morphew goal early in the second half allowed Needham Market to go through in relatively unflustered fashion.

It begins to get serious now, with the chance of a First Round proper tie against a League One or League Two team on the not so distant horizon, only two wins away. The Conference National teams come in at the Fourth Qualifying Round stage, but before that, fingers will be crossed for a benevolent draw, avoiding some of the Conference South teams that remain in the draw. Oh, and yes, there's the small matter of £7,500 for the winner of a Third Qualifying Round match, a tidy sum for a team like Needham Market.

So, come on the Marketmen in two weeks time! And, if it's possible, I'll be there...

Saturday, September 02, 2017

FA Cup, First Qualifying Round: Clapton 0 Needham Market 3

On the face of it, it looks like a fairly straightforward triumph for the Tier 3 team, away at the Tier 5 wannabe giant killers. In truth, for the first hour or so, it was rather more even, as a bobbly, hard pitch with some interesting features gave Needham Market a few puzzles to solve.

With seemingly very few home fans in the ground, the two teams kicked off in bright, even warm, sunshine with little active crowd support. It was quickly evident that Needham's preferred style of play, involving balls to feet, wasn't too clever, with erratic bounce and an apparent ridge running along the middle of the pitch from goal to goal. 

Clapton were enthusiastic, if a bit erratic, but when some suspect defending let one of their strikers in, it looked for all the world as though they would take the lead. He rounded the keeper, and had a clear sight on goal at close range, but managed to find the defender on the goal line. It should have been one-nil, but even such a scare didn't seem to provoke a meaningful response from the visitors.

Midway through the first half, it became apparent why the crowd was so thin. At the end of the ground, where an alleyway runs against the fencing, a group of maybe fifty or so suddenly bobbed into view, singing and chanting on their team. It was the legendary Clapton Ultras, who are boycotting home matches until the loathed Chairman and purported owner of Clapton FC, Vince McBean, goes away. They were in fine voice, and with much to sing about, as what chances there were tended to fall to the home side. Whilst Needham looked like the better team, had they been behind at half-time, it wouldn't have been unjust.

The second half began in fairly similar fashion, with Needham struggling to string passes together, but the tactics had clearly changed, with the ball spending more time in the air, rather than on the ground. It wasn't pretty, but it was effective, as the Marketmen began to dominate.

66 minutes in, and the breakthrough came, Gareth Heath scoring his first goal since joining the club from arch-rivals Leiston during the summer (they're arch-rivals due to the fact that they always seem to give us a bit of a hiding...). And, to be honest, that was about it as far as suspense goes, as it seemed to me that the Clapton players seemed to know that the game was up.

Needham tightened the screw without ever seeming to be played to their full potential, and goals from Luke Ingram, after some neat play, and Callum Harrison with a fiercely struck effort from twenty yards or so clinched a place in the next round.

I had a train to catch, so couldn't hang around, but I did talk to a few of the Ultras on my way past. They're mostly young, pretty radical, and very committed to their football and the community around them. They're also friendly, unless you're a fascist and/or racist. It's almost a pity that they didn't hang on for a replay, as they might well have proved welcome visitors to Bloomfields.

And so, we await Monday's draw. The Conference North and South teams enter at this stage, but a home draw against FC Romania might be interesting... Come on you Marketmen!