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...