Sunday, June 18, 2017

Keep calm, and give our MPs some space...

No declared candidates, lots of rumours, and the first signs that the leadership contest may not be the edifying, inspiring event that it really ought to be. Not a great start.
I am disturbed that members are already urging individuals to declare their intentions to run. Look, the job of Leader is a tough one. It requires the post holder to make sacrifices that most of us cannot comprehend. It exposes you to increasingly microscopic and often hostile examination of your life, the lives of friends and family, and makes you the bearer of the dreams and aspirations of Party members, not all of whom display sufficient tolerance when things don't go to plan. In short, you've got to be pretty bloody committed in order to want the job.

MPs are people too. They juggle the various elements of their lives in order to fulfil their obligations to constituents and to their loved ones, just like the rest of us.

So, let them have the time and space to talk to partners, family and trusted friends, consider the implications and then announce their decision. Don't pressure them to be what you want or need.

As for the nascent attack lines against specific MPs, let me take this opportunity to utterly condemn Dominic McCaffrey for his written assassination of Jo Swinson in the Independent. Attacking one person on their record without having the decency to run a fair comparison with their presumed preferred alternative is shabby in the extreme, and if there is any suggestion that he has colluded with another candidate as part of the drafting process, you can be confident that my support for that person will be limited at best. Ironic really, given that she isn't actually running...

So, less conjecture, more patience is my advice. And, once we've identified the field, then let informed debate begin.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Queensbury Rules for a modern Leadership contest

Great, another leadership contest... just what the Liberal Democrats were crying out for. Or not, perhaps. Frankly, whilst Tim didn't handle the whole 'gay sex' thing terribly well, and a far better response was available than the one he gave, whilst he had the support of my friends in the LGBT community, I was willing to turn Nelson's eye towards the matter. It is his actions rather than his personal beliefs that actually impact on people's lives, and it seems that his record on Parliamentary votes was well nigh impeccable.

But it wasn't to be, and the grey men came for him. It's not clear who they were yet, and even less clear who exactly they spoke for, and I can't say that I'm awfully impressed. Jonathan Calder has already put it rather well when he suggests that whilst you can claim to be a democratic Party all you like, if a decision of the membership can be overturned by an anonymous cabal, you don't really have proper democratic control.

And, like Bill Le Breton, I'd like names too, if only so that I know who to hold to account. However, unless we're going to quiz every potential suspect, and we can validate what responses are given, the identity of the 'delegation' can only be conjecture, and a witch hunt would be deeply unedifying. That, of course, hasn't stopped elements of the Party in the past...

As to the succession, I know as much and as little as anyone. There are only eleven potential candidates, which does rather narrow the field, and some of those will rule themselves out as the days pass by.

I'm not minded to indicate support for any candidate at this stage. Until nominations close, the nature of the field is unknown, and whilst if given a range of choices, I might prefer one candidate over another, until offered an actual choice, I'm not disposed to providing even a glimpse of my thought process yet.

However, I would like to offer some advice to anyone out there thinking of running (in no particular order);

  1. Don't go negative. If you do, I'll assume that you don't have as much to positively offer as your campaigning might suggest. If you win, I'll think less of you, and to be honest, you need me rather more than I need you. After all, without me, and thousands like me, you lead a shell of a political party. And as for me, I could give the time and energy that I currently expend on the Party to something else, or in a different way. Oh and if you lose, you will probably have damaged the winner. I recall both Huhne vs Clegg and Lamb vs Farron achieving that only too vividly.
  2. Offer a vision. Vision is important. Yes, I want a shining city on a hill, yes I want chocolates and a long-stemmed rose. Or a pony. But definitely a vision for the Party. Have one, and articulate it.
  3. Talk to people beyond the bubble before you get elected. Find out why the volunteer Party volunteers, and tell me why it should volunteer for you. Demonstrate that you understand how the Party really works - some of the previous job holders really haven't got that, and it's made the relationship between leader and led rather prickly. I also expect you to work with the Party President and respect their office...
There's probably more that I should include, and I'll probably revisit this before too long, but one should always get some thoughts out there whilst they might be noticed and make a difference...

Saturday, June 10, 2017

There isn't enough popcorn in the entire world...

I ought to admit now that my expectations for the election, from a Liberal Democrat perspective, were pretty low. Like the experts, I was fearing net losses and, if you had offered me a nil gain, nil loss outcome at 9.55 on Thursday night, I would have taken your hand off at the elbow.

That wasn't because I thought we'd run a bad campaign. Far from it, I was quietly impressed with what was said and done. Perhaps I had grown weary with the years of disappointment and loss.

But I tuned into the BBC's election night special to check on the exit poll figures, only to find that it perhaps wasn't going to be as bad as I might have feared. You know, the triumph of hope over experience  and all that. It wasn't right though, was it?

And now we know that what was probably the worst election campaign by a ruling party in living memory achieved its utterly deserved denouement, failing even to achieve a majority. My night was spent with a sense of cheerfulness that I wouldn't have expected a few hours earlier, as Theresa May melted down before our very eyes. I admit, it felt good, despite our losses in Southport and Sheffield Hallam. The wins were that little bit sweeter, Jo in East Dumbartonshire, Wera in Bath, Jamie in Caithness and best of all, Layla in Oxford. Vince and Ed, Norman and Tom, Tim surviving a nail biter and Christine in Edinburgh West, and all against a backdrop of Conservative disappointment.

This has undoubtedly been the worst Conservative administration I have ever experienced. Some may have been more malevolent, but this one has been utterly incompetent, devoid of any vision other than of doing whatever it takes to maintain Party unity. In return, a sizeable number of supposedly moderate Conservative MPs, such as Jo Churchill and Dan Poulter here in mid-Suffolk, went from being publicly pro-Remain to utter silence in the face of a hard Brexit. Principles, anyone?

And now, it appears that the answer to the question, "how many coasters does it take to prop up Theresa's wobbly conservative table?" is ten. What it does for the Good Friday Agreement is anyone's guess.

So, with the Tories now in full-on recrimination mode, a weak, discredited leader and shackled to a bunch of Protestant, socially regressive zealots who also want a soft Brexit, what could possibly go wrong?

I'd be buying shares in a popcorn company, if I were you...

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Liberal International: the cost of everything, the value of nothing?

Ah yes, Liberal International. Seventy years of bringing together liberals from around the world, but for what? I had reached Andorra, and was thus able to consider the question in situ, so to speak.

And it is an interesting question. Our membership of the ALDE Party has some practical value, especially whilst we remain in the European Union, in terms of allowing input into policy making, and the pooling of knowledge and experience within political models similar to our own. On the other hand, the tangible benefits of being able to interact with liberals from West Africa, or of policy making when there is little means of delivering it internationally are harder to discern.

There isn't an awful lot of money available, so much outreach is directed through such organisations as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, whose funding is provided by their respective states.

Yet, whilst the benefits to a party like the Liberal Democrats aren't immediately obvious, there is no doubt that providing a forum for emerging liberal parties in the developing nations is of tremendous value to them. Knowing that they have sister parties in the major democracies, and the platform that Liberal International offers, allows them to accrue credibility in the eyes of their local communities, and acts as a shield against the worst acts of sometimes corrupt, sometimes authoritarian ruling administrations.

Liberal International also offers a means to bring regional groups together, and this is particularly true in Africa, where the African Liberal Network is increasingly providing opportunities to exchange best practice, encourage solidarity and develop new activists, especially from under-represented groups.

If you believe that one of the moral obligations upon developed democracies is to provide a beacon to the emerging ones, then paying our annual subscription to Liberal International is one of the easiest, and most obvious means of doing our share. And, from a personal perspective, it reminds me that, no matter how disheartening our own politics can be, one cannot fail to be inspired by the struggles of some of our sister parties in places such as Cambodia and Nicaragua.

It is easy to dwell on the cost of our membership, and wonder if the money couldn't be better spent on more campaign tools at home. But it must be nobler to consider the value of our membership in terms of what it enables others to do towards building stronger democracies and creating stability in areas of volatility.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

To Andorra la Vella by... now I think about it, how?

I had decided to be part of the Party's delegation to the 70th Anniversary Congress of Liberal International partly because it sounded interesting, but also because it was an excuse to add another country to my list. And so, I had booked a hotel in Andorra, and flights to and from Toulouse. I hadn't really given it much more thought than that.

And you know how things are, you're busy with other stuff, and you don't really get round to doing quite as much research as you ought to. That's particularly true if you aren't taking your wife, who would fret about such things.

In fairness, Ros had intended to come, but the unexpected calling of the General Election had led her to decide that her place was at home, or at least in or around a target seat in the East of England.

So, on a fairly ordinary Wednesday morning, I set forth for Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5 for the relatively short flight to Toulouse. I had booked into an Ibis Styles hotel opposite the railway station as much for convenience as anything else, as my outline plan was to take a train up into the Pyrenees and wing it from there. After all, how difficult could it be?

Toulouse was alright, I guess. My mood was not lifted by the pretty mediocre hotel - just don't bother with the Ibis Styles Toulouse-Matabiau is my advice - and I would rather have been with Ros than in a strange city on my own. I found a bar near the river, had a beer and followed the news from home before getting an early night.

The next morning, rising earlier than I might usually do, I set off to the station to buy my ticket to L'Hospitalet pres l'Andorre, some two-and-a-half hours up the valley of the River Ariege. The usually accurate guidance of the Man at Seat 61 website was that, if there wasn't a connecting bus into Andorra, a taxi should be fairly easily found.

It was a pretty enough ride, with the river accompanied by the railway for most of the journey, through some of France's most lovely scenery, and I was beginning to relax by the time I reached my next transfer point.

L'Hospitalet pres l'Andorre station in the snow.
Luckily, when I got there, the only snow
was on the mountains...
L'Hospitalet isn't a big place, and there weren't many people about once the train pulled away. In fact, with the station unstaffed, there appeared to be nobody around. There was, I eventually discovered, a sign with a telephone number for a presumably local taxi company. With rather more hope than expectation, I rang the number, and was told, yes we can have a taxi to you in about five minutes. I was, I admit, relieved.

And, five minutes later, there was my taxi, driven by a women a bit younger than I am, but with sufficient English to understand what I wanted, and to explain that they didn't go over the border very much, due to the number of people crossing the border to take advantage of the duty-free shopping in Andorra. The French Customs officers don't like it much, it seems, and the local taxi drivers have taken the hint. However, an Englishman with a suitcase wasn't likely to bother them much, especially as I was travelling into Andorra and not out of it.

It's quite a drive from L'Hospitalet to Pas de la Casa, the first settlement you reach when entering Andorra from that direction, with hairpin bends and sharp climbs, but it wasn't too long before I was being dropped off at the bus stop for onward travel to Andorra la Vella.

Buses run that route every half hour, costing just over 6 euros, and I didn't have to wait too long before I was on my way. I had reached Andorra, and a Congress awaited...

Monday, June 05, 2017

If you can't beat them, leave the country...

It's been a bit quiet around here of late, partly because I haven't felt inspired to write very much, but also because I've been away on Party business. I'm not allowed to canvass support for Parliamentary candidates, and the nearest target seats are a long way from mid-Suffolk in any event, so I've attempted to fulfill my obligations as a member of International Relations Committee instead, travelling to Andorra and Ljubljana to attend first the Liberal International Congress and then the ALDE Party Council meeting.

They've been interesting, in rather different ways, and perhaps I ought to report back. So, over the next few days, expect tales of travel and drama, of policies discussed, intrigue and adventure.

I'll start with a journey...