Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A member of Federal International Relations Committee quietly does his job...

Things tend to happen whilst I'm away. Mostly, they're good things, and they happen to me/us. It is, potentially, more complex when they happen somewhere else, and the calling of a snap General Election whilst Ros and I were in Tallinn fell into that category. But never let it be said that I am remiss in the performance of my duty.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceThanks to Robert, our Chair, forwarding a key e-mail to me from the Party's Policy Unit, I was able to put out a call for Foreign Affairs input into the manifesto, and, with much thanks to Paul Reynolds, I think that we've come up with some useful material (I'm looking at Federal Policy Committee to endorse it), which I submitted on our behalf in good time for the deadline. I have done likewise with the submission of the Liberal Democrat European Group.

I also involved Brussels and Europe Liberal Democrats, who have come up with some interesting ideas to attract the support of UK nationals living abroad - their membership has risen even more spectacularly than that of the Party as a whole, and the number of overseas voters will be much more significant this time. Again, I trust that Federal Policy Committee will use some or, preferably, all of it.

By chance, Ros and I have met with their Chair, Laura Shields, over drinks and dinner in Tallinn with friends and family (Ros's, mostly) to talk about their role in the campaign and what might be done to support them both now and in the future.

We are scheduled to send delegations to both the Liberal International Congress in Andorra (18-21 May) and the ALDE Party Council meeting in Ljubljana (2-3 June), and I've started the arrangements to replace those who were intending to attend but now find themselves 'otherwise engaged', not unreasonably.

Considering that we were on holiday, that's not bad. But I had miles to travel still, before I slept...

Monday, April 24, 2017

Did you ever have a sense that the Conservatives weren't quite so ready for an election?

The starting gun is fired, the commentariat are up and running, and there is a frenzy as everyone gets ready for the campaign ahead. Me, I've got things to keep me occupied, but I've still got time to think.

And I have an odd sensation that, whilst one could not envisage a better set of circumstances for a snap election - twenty points plus ahead in the polls, Opposition in apparent meltdown, no obvious domestic threat - there's something not quite right with the Conservative campaign. Don't get me wrong, a majority Conservative administration still seems 'bolted on', but amidst the shambolic start to the Labour campaign, there is a sense that the Conservatives weren't really oven ready.

For, ultimately, Brexit was won by a coalition of groups whose mutual interests beyond winning the vote were mutually contradictory. The free traders and the anti-migration lobby, the sovereignty campaigners and the racists cannot be reconciled, and Theresa May must either know that or be astonishingly naive, and I don't believe that for a moment. Thus, the preparation for a series of retreats after the desired majority is obtained, with the hope that, five years down the road, all will be forgiven and forgotten. That might turn out to be astonishingly naive.

In a campaign that will doubtless centre on Brexit, we still aren't clear what their position is. What are they intending to negotiate and why, what sort of Brexit do they really want? There has been little so far to suggest that they have any sense of the compromises that will (not might, will) be necessary to secure a good deal, nor is there much clue as to what they believe would be the implications of no deal. They certainly don't appear to be anything other than gung-ho about it.

On tax, there appears to be no firm commitment to hold tax rates as they are, and whilst as a pragmatist, I can see the attraction of leaving one's options open, I'm not sure that the totality of current Conservative support would agree. And, in fairness, why should they, given what they were promised?

A series of retreats have already been signalled - 'barista visas', quotas for agricultural workers, bankers, nurses and doctors, construction workers, students - which will only serve to disgruntle those who voted for Brexit to stop them coming. And, even if you make exceptions, are key sector migrants being offered enough security to make it worth coming? Anecdotal evidence suggests not. In any event, the slump in the value of Sterling makes it necessary to rethink the rates of pay on offer to make good the reduction in the value of earnings sent home.

The question is, is anyone capable of asking the right questions and, even if somebody is, is there anything willing to contemplate the answers? Labour are in a world of pain, conflicted on Brexit between those who see the European Union as a capitalist club of neo-liberals and the pragmatists who see Europe as a means of protecting their supporters from the worst excesses of the anti-regulation zealots of the Right. Jeremy Corbyn is never going to ask the right questions.

As for the Liberal Democrats, whilst it is interesting to see how much coverage they are getting already - it's almost as though the media are rediscovering them all over again - it is uncertain that they will elbow Labour out of the way to establish themselves as the real opposition. But with the Scottish Nationalists focussed on a second independence referendum, they may be the only credible challenge to Conservative hegemony.

No, I'm convinced that the next six weeks or so will serve to demonstrate exactly where Conservative weaknesses are for the next five years. Watch very carefully and take notes. They might be very useful one day...

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Out of the darkness, into the light...

It has been a rather more cheering day here in the pearl of the Baltics, Tallinn. The buzz of political debate has given me a sense of urgency, so I've been getting on with the sort of tasks that fall upon me to perform.

And yes, I've spoken to my Regional Candidates Chair and the Chair of the Brussels and Europe Local Party, exchanged e-mails with the Chair of Federal International Relations Committee, the ALDE Party Council delegation - we're due to be in Ljubljana the weekend before polling day, and I'm expecting some withdrawals, not unreasonably.

I've also offered some support where it might be useful over the next seven weeks, so we'll see how that goes.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice Meanwhile, I'm in the Baltics, on holiday, and it's a perfect place from which to contemplate the notion of being European. From Estonia, the concept of being part of Europe is so much more obvious than it appears at home. For a country with a population of just 1.3 million people, on the edge of the Union and facing the Russian bear at close range, the notion of pooling some sovereignty in exchange for a range of benefits is more than simply transactional. Freedom was hard fought for in these parts, and you don't just blithely give it away.

But you are willing to consider the benefits of a larger roof, and better protection against the elements, the opportunities that come from being part of a vast market when you have confidence in your ability to compete and thrive, the freedoms that come from travelling to your neighbours and friends, of education and trade.

It seems that our Government on one hand believes that we can strike out as a global trading nation, yet lacks the confidence to believe that it can build a better Europe from within. And as for those who not only want to leave the Union but are desperate for it to fail, one can only condemn them for their pettiness and spite. Fine, leave if you want to, but don't interfere with something that those who remain want to succeed.

The history of the Baltics has often been of the tragic kind, with the urge for freedom suppressed by more powerful neighbours time and again. For more than a quarter of a century now, they have been making their presence felt on the world stage, and perhaps we should listen to their voices and find ways of benefiting from their experiences before we close the door on our way out of the European Union.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Cry, my beloved country?

It is dark, and I am afraid.

And I am moved to 'pick up my pen' and 'write'. Hopefully, it is for the best.

A General Election has been called, with a fractured, crippled Opposition, liberal forces recovering from a near death experience and with a Government who, despite showing all the signs of having no idea as to how a modern economy works, seem determined to apply shock therapy in a manner comparable to that applied to the economy of the Soviet Union in the 1920s, albeit hardly on the same scale. My recollection is that the latter didn't work so well.

Governments come and go. If you're old enough, that knowledge offers some reassurance. And, as a liberal, you're relatively prepared for defeat. The catch is that, whilst there has always been something that philosophically separates the two main parties, they have enough in common that you can be reassured that our society will remain evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

Not this time.

A governing party that intends to fundamentally change our relationships with our neighbours in pursuit of an ideological chimera will, in doing so, risk what many of us thought was the comfort of a community working to bring neighbours together. Oh yes, it wasn't, and still isn't, perfect, or even close to perfection. But it had potential, it had kept the peace, and it created opportunities and freedoms that we hadn't previously had, and quite appreciated once we'd got them.

And whilst some Conservatives chuntered on about how awful the whole thing was, we didn't take them seriously, especially as what they offered as an alternative really wasn't very attractive. And, the more you dug beneath their rhetoric, the less attractive it became. They were persistent, though.

Their opportunity came, in the shape of an ideologically vacuous administration, mired in cynicism after years of austerity, with a Labour Party veering towards anti-globalisation. And they certainly took it.

God, I hate them for that.

The expectation, as it currently stands, is that whilst the Liberal Democrats will recover somewhat, the Labour Party will suffer a crushing blow and the Conservatives will gain a majority large enough to inure themselves against short-term unpopularity and by-election defeats. I hope that this doesn't come to pass, but some of my lifelong optimism has been knocked out of me over the past few years.

Thus, my sense of fear. A fear that our country will be changed forever, a country where blame and recrimination displace the decent, tolerant, imperfect society where most of us tried to rub along. A fear that we stop looking outwards to see what we can do to build a better world. A fear that we become mean-spirited and suspicious of our neighbours. Because that is the sort of society that some of our opponents appear to aspire to.

But there is only one thing to do with fear - confront it and use it to your advantage. 

And so we must, as individuals and as communities, send out a message that we are better than that, that whatever our political beliefs, we believe in a broadly internationalist approach, in working with our neighbours for a common good. And, regardless of the result of the election, perhaps our efforts will cause an incoming government to hesitate before it takes irretrievable steps towards severing our ties with the European Union...

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

The Zen of Committee (how not to annoy the Secretary)

I am known to be a fairly placid soul, and so when I suggested to a sympathetic ear this evening that I had a fairly radical proposal to improve future meetings, it was borne of much frustration. And so, whilst it is unlikely that any member of Federal International Relations Committee will read this, this seems like a good time to speak up on behalf of Committee Secretaries everywhere...

The lot of a Secretary is not an exciting one. The drama, assuming that there is any, tends to happen elsewhere. But, if you are one of those people who do the job because it matters (and I acknowledge that many end up in the role because their arm has been twisted), you will, I hope, appreciate what follows. And what follows is some tips to keep your Secretary happy.

1. Keep to deadlines

Your Secretary doubtless has other things to do, and sets deadlines to ensure that he or she can fulfil Constitutional requirements without having to stay up until 1.30 in the morning.

2. Written reports are always better than verbal ones

I hate verbal reports. They require much more effort to record than a circulated paper which can simply be referred to in the subsequent minutes. And if the Secretary has sought written reports in advance, and you choose to ignore that, you are showing disrespect. I take a mafiosi style view of disrespect.

3. Do not read out your written report

The Committee can read. Really, they can. They have all sorts of skills if you give them a chance, and the whole point of circulating your report in advance is so that they can read it. If they choose not to, that's their problem, and I have a tendency to heckle people who ask questions that were answered in the document they chose not to read.

4. Read the reports circulated to you in advance

Do as you would be done by. See also point 3.

5. If you want to raise something, put it on the agenda

There is nothing more dispiriting than reaching the end of an agenda when, at the point where 'Any Other Business' is reached, there is a deluge of items for discussion. Your gallant Secretary is tired, having had to be alert throughout the meeting, and the chances are that everyone wants to go home, or to the pub, or somewhere.

But if you are going to raise something that isn't already on the agenda, do try and warn the Secretary in advance so that he or she can ensure that business is moved along and that there is sufficient time to air the issue properly.

6. The agenda is not for turning

Raising items out of turn is not helpful. It makes the minutes disjointed, confuses the flow of a meeting and flusters the Secretary. I put my heart and soul into that agenda, and you just toss it aside like a used handkerchief...

So, remember these six points and you will make your Secretary's life happier and more fulfilled. Remember, a Secretary is for a full term of office, not just for Christmas...