Sunday, April 29, 2018

A sense of dissonance in Sofia

So, here I am in a cafe on Vitosha, the main pedestrian thoroughfare in Bulgaria's capital, Sofia, surrounded by men enjoying a shisha pipe, a Mozart string quartet on the headphones and a Grapefruit Sour by my side. The sun is shining in a perfectly blue sky, it's warm. Life is good, right?

If only it was that easy.

I've spent the weekend at an ALDE Party Council meeting which has, in itself, gone well. The main business ran smoothly and, as a member of the Financial Advisory Committee, seeing the financial reports earlier than most, I had no questions to ask.

I feel a bit semi-detached, to tell the truth. I'm a member of a party which, through no fault of its own, feels as though it is drifting to the periphery of the ALDE Party as Brexit draws closer. My colleagues are passionate in their belief that we can somehow avert the cliff edge, but I have an uncomfortable sense that our sister parties have moved on and look upon us in the same way that motorists look at accidents on the opposite carriageway - "there but for the Grace of God, but I'm glad it isn't me". They listen to the messages coming from Westminster and take the Government at its word when it talks about when we leave, not if.

Where does a member party from a country that isn't either in the Union, or aspiring to be in it, fit in an organisation whose goals are free trade, freedom of movement, and so on? I don't know that I have an answer to that.

So, what did happen in Sofia? Well, I've got to write that up for Liberal Democrat Voice, so I ought to give that some thought.

However, Sofia is a much nicer city than I remember, although it was December when I came here the first time, and most cities are improved by sunshine. But twelve years of European Union membership have certainly changed Sofia for the better. It's a city of leafy side streets, of Orthodox churches in that curious Turkish style whereby they look like a giant hand has squashed them from above.

I've taken the opportunity to walk around, somewhat randomly, as it isn't a city with that much 'must see' stuff. As a result, I've found some interesting neighbourhoods, a cafe culture that I hadn't expected, and a liberal link. William Gladstone has a place in Bulgarian history, having spoken out for Bulgarian independence in the 1870s. So, naturally, I found ulitsa Uilyam Gladston and took a photograph.

I'll be back in London tomorrow, and it will feel a little like leaving Europe in a psychological sense. Forget geography, being European is a bit like being part of a family. And when your Government are determined to convert the bonds of family into a formal business relationship, you know that it's never going to quite the same after that...

Friday, April 20, 2018

Some thoughts on Ipswich Town, courtesy of an outsider....

I ought to declare my (lack of) interest straight away - I’m a Luton Town supporter, more in the technical sense than the “turning up in rain or wind” one. My life is too complex, and the journey too much hassle, to be anything more than an interested observer. But, living in the heart of Suffolk as I do, the one thing that you can’t help but notice is the place of Ipswich Town in community life.

It perhaps does help that there isn’t an acceptable, credible alternative for some distance. Norwich City are beyond the pale, except perhaps in the borderlands towards Diss, and the other two teams near the county’s edge, Colchester United and Cambridge United, are irrelevant.

But it never ceases to surprise me just how many people I run into who either are season ticket holders, or were at one point or another. And given that, for some time, they’ve been relatively ordinary - no current Championship team has been there longer - being a Tractor Boy (or Girl) is not an easy option.

If the Town are doing well, the town and county seem a little sprightlier, if not, then their failings are a matter of general debate.

But it’s only little old Ipswich, population 130,000 or so, hardly likely to be able to compete at the top level in the modern era. Well, not so, as I’ve already hinted, for they are a county team, as much as a town one, with a hinterland of nearly 750,000 to draw on. And in a corner of the country with little sporting heritage to call its own, the football team is an important emblem.

In recent years, the team struggled, and seemed to be on its way to the oblivion that is League One and away trips to Shrewsbury and Fleetwood (no disrespect to either is meant, but older Ipswich fans still have treasured memories of European nights), until Mick McCarthy was brought in to steady the ship.

To that extent, he was successful, and, for six years, kept Ipswich afloat on the cheap, with little money to spend. The problem was that the football itself was mostly hardworking rather than entertaining, and the fans aspired to better. My colleagues didn’t demand success, but they did want some attacking football and a bit of quality, and that never seemed to come.

It does need to be borne in mind that, compared to a number of other Championship teams, with their parachute payments for Premiership failure, or wealthy owners willing to spend, Ipswich have become relatively poor relations, and similar sorts of teams - Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers, for example, have fallen further and harder.

As a result, I’ve been modestly sympathetic to McCarthy, because bringing a new man in with a mandate to be a bit more positive is fine, if it goes wrong, someone who can shore up the defence and scrap away will be in demand pretty quickly.

But we’ll see who ends up being unveiled as the new manager. If they seem promising, they might reverse the recent downward trend in season ticket purchases, and improve the fairly negative atmosphere that hangs over Portman Road these days. It might even make Ipswich (and Suffolk generally) a happier place...

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Merging Suffolk Councils - a glitch emerges...

I must thank Ros for bringing this to my attention, and the noble Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope for bringing it to hers.

Times are tough in local government, and Suffolk is no exception to that. In the absence of any agreement on forming unitary authorities for the county, the District Councils have paired off to combine services, Waveney with Suffolk Coastal, St Edmundsbury with Forest Heath, and Babergh with Mid Suffolk. Inevitably, I guess, that has led to proposals to form merged authorities, West Suffolk to cover St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath, East Suffolk to cover Waveney and Suffolk Coastal. Consultations have taken place, and the Parliamentary Orders have reached the House of Lords.

There, they have been considered by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which has concerns... Here’s the summary of what they have to say...
These instruments provide, respectively, for the abolition of Suffolk Coastal and Waveney districts and their district councils, and for the creation of a new East Suffolk district and council which covers the same geographic area; and for the abolition of Forest Heath and St Edmundsbury districts and their district councils, and for the creation of a new West Suffolk district and council which covers the same geographic area. 
The Government’s own criteria for council merger proposals include the demonstration that any such proposal commands local support. There is no doubt that the merger proposals for East and West Suffolk are seen favourably by a number of local stakeholders. At the same time, however, significant numbers of residents and, it seems, parish councils have voiced concern about, and opposition to, the proposals; and it may be questioned whether the opportunities provided for such views to be expressed have allowed enough scope to opponents to voice their concerns and have them properly recognised.
It is, naturally, a decision for the full House to consider, but it would be unusual for the Committee’s advice to be disregarded.

I have been unimpressed by the consultation by Mid Suffolk and Babergh thus far, which as reported, has generated a favourable reaction from those surveyed. Of course, what information has been given to respondents is an interesting question, and one that somebody might like to pursue. And it wouldn’t entirely surprise me if the quality of the consultation in East Suffolk and West Suffolk hasn’t been equally sketchy.

It’s worth reading the Committee’s report in full though, and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government’s briefing, which forms an Appendix.

Personally, I think that moving to unitaries is inevitable - provision of services is probably more important to voters than the intangible benefits of having local authorities closer to the level of residents. But if you are going to consult, and you should, you should do it properly. It is, after all, our choice as to how our money might be spent.

Adventures in Transnistria (part 2)...

I had rather forgotten to report back on the rest of my trip to Moldova, so let’s see if we can remedy that. If you haven’t read the earlier posts on my trip to Transnistria, you can find them here, and here.

Transnistria is not really oriented towards tourists - getting to it is not easy without an airport, or any trains from further west than Chisinau. The lack of knowledge that it even exists can’t help much either. What it does have, other than the KVINT distillery, is the fortress at Bender/Tighina, on the west bank of the Dnieper.

This has always been border country, between the Russians and the Ottomans, amongst others, and command of a major water artery was worth having. In other words, a big fortress was a must.

The number 19 trolleybus runs from the centre of Tiraspol across the Dnieper to Bender, and if you get off at the bus station there, you are tantalisingly close to the main castle. But no, arrive at what looks like the entrance to the fortress site, and a sign directs you around the western side of the fortress walls. It’s a long walk, the signpost suggesting that it’s nearly a mile. That doesn’t feel as though it’s true, because you then arrive at a rundown, of not actually derelict, industrial complex at the back of which is a nondescript building which is the ticket office.

A somewhat unfriendly woman sold me an admission ticket for 50 Transnistrian rubles (a little over £2) and I followed the signs past more post-industrial wasteland until there it was, a quite impressive castle. Yes, it does appear to have been restored somewhat, and a conservator would perhaps not be wildly impressed with how it has been done, but nonetheless, it looks good enough. You can fire crossbows, climb up to the battlements with caution, and there is a graphic display of medieval torture instruments with explanations (in English too) of how they worked.

I did have to get back to Chişinău though, so I made my way back through the post-industrial wasteland, caught the trolleybus back to Tiraspol, and set off for the station. On the way, I stopped at the KVINT store and picked up a half-litre souvenir.

At the station, having confirmed that the next train to Chişinău was in four days time, I went to catch a minibus. Slightly surprisingly, I was greeted in German and encouraged to buy a ticket quickly, as he was due to leave. He escorted me to the ticket office, I handed over most of my remaining Transnistria roubles, and we were off.

At the border, the same border guard approached the bus to collect my entry visa. And then, in fluent English, he rather surprised me by saying, “Actually, why don’t you keep it as a souvenir of your visit to Transnistria?”. I thanked him politely, and we rolled back into Moldova...

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

@ALDEParty: a day of advanced bureaucracy for political parties

It does sometimes seem hard to believe that I’m now in my seventh year as a member of the ALDE Party’s Financial Advisory Committee. Perhaps that’s because, when I was first appointed, it was on the basis that we would serve no more than three two-year terms, but for various reasons, we have all been extended, some of us for one year, the remainder (including myself) for two.

And in that time, the Committee has evolved. We still do financial advisory stuff, but we also consider grant applications to the Political Projects fund, we examine proposals for new types of spending and advise on such things as fundraising strategy. We are, perhaps, a sounding board for the Secretariat and the Bureau, given our experience of the internal dynamics of political parties. My history as a Regional Secretary, Treasurer and all around bureaucrat gives me an unusual perspective, which comes in handy.

Our relationship with the Secretariat is a healthy one, in that we are willing to ask challenging questions, but have, over time developed a genuine respect for the ability of the senior management team. Indeed, I find myself wondering how the similar relationship between the relevant bodies of the Liberal Democrats and the executive team works. Fortunately, that remains someone else’s problem.

Today, we examined the recently completed 2017 audit, looked at the 2018 budget figures to date, and discussed the relationship between the Committee and the Bureau. We also gave some thoughts on how the Bureau might look at filling the vacancies on our committee as they arise. 

I can’t, for reasons of organisational integrity, discuss the audit. It remains to be considered by the Bureau and the ALDE Party Council, each of which has legal responsibilities, but I am personally reassured that the Party’s finances are healthy and that the fiscal controls are in good hands.

We have had an influence over the years, drawing up an ethical fundraising strategy for the Party which, I understand, has been duplicated by the European People’s Party (plagiarism is the ultimate form of flattery, I guess, although a payment for our work would be nice...), and leading on a restructuring of the membership fee system to make it easier for small member parties from poorer countries.

One thing that does vaguely worry me though is that we appear to have become, almost by stealth, the only group holding the Bureau and the Secretariat to account. Council seems to take increasingly little interest in the day to day running of the ALDE Party, which is rather its constitutionally defined role. In an organisation where transparency is considered important, that might not be critical, but there is a principle here.

When the Liberal Democrats elect members of the ALDE Party Council, candidates tend to talk about ideas, about policy. They don’t talk about how a liberal political party should be run and operated, perhaps because it’s rather dull. And yet, a political party should, in the way it works, reflect its philosophical roots, within the confines of legislation.

I suspect, though, that our delegation is not alone in being more interested in ideas than in process. And if people aren’t interested in process, they are, not unreasonably, not going to pay much attention to such things, trusting the professional staff and the Bureau to take care of it.

Which is why I wondered aloud about reforming Council to sharpen its focus...

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Adventures in Transnistria (part 1)...

Tiraspol’s railway station is rather grand, and utterly wasted on the few trains that serve it, but like a surprising number of stations at home, it is a little way from the centre, at the end of a tree-lined avenue. I had a sense of where I was going though, and headed in the direction of the centre of town. This took me past a rather attractive monastery, and then I blundered across the Tourism Information Centre. Now I would admit to not having expected to find such a thing, but there it was, so I went in, in search of a city map.

My sense is that, whilst it was apparently staffed by three women, as they were all sitting in the side office, they didn’t expect to be very busy. However, seeing me standing there, one of them came out to greet me and, upon my request, handed me a colour photocopied sheet of A4 with a map of Tiraspol on one side, and some useful information. She talked me through some of the things to see and do - mostly see, in truth - including the war memorial. Transnistria commemorates three wars, World War II, the Afghan War and the War of Independence against Moldova. It was explained in a matter of fact sort of way, as though I should not be in the least surprised. I was also offered a chance to buy some souvenirs, but as I hadn’t actually been anywhere yet, I opted to wait until later.

Equipped with a map, I set off to explore the delights of Tiraspol. It doesn’t take very long, although what there is is interesting in a kind of bemusing way. The big Soviet style buildings, with Russian flags on, the enormous Russian consulate building, far bigger than you would think it ought to be, and the armoured personnel carrier that commemorates the victory of the “evil Moldovans”. There is even a consulate building (above a shop) shared by the representatives of North Ossetia and Abkhazia, neither of which is recognised by anyone either.

The other thing which is interesting is the dominance of the Sheriff Group in the Transnistrian economy. according to Wikipedia;
Sheriff owns a chain of petrol stations, a chain of supermarkets, a TV channel, a publishing house, a construction company, a Mercedes-Benz dealer, an advertising agency, a spirits factory, two bread factories, a mobile phone network, the football club FC Sheriff Tiraspol and its newly built Sheriff Stadium.
I can testify to a lot of that, and they also now appear to operate gyms/fitness centres, if the adverts showing various muscly men and women are anything to go by. The football stadium complex was rather impressive, a modern facility with what looked like a decent-sized capacity.

What you probably don’t want to ask too much is, where does the money come from to pay for all of this stuff. Transnistria has a population of less than half a million, so one can only presume that the Sheriff Group effectively controls much of the economy and that its relationship with the government is a strong one, or at least has been in the past.

I popped into one of their supermarkets to buy some snacks, and found it to be well-stocked with familiar brands. Clearly, Transnistria is not clinging on to communism despite retaining the hammer and sickle on the flag. The chocolate was Lithuanian, the crisps manufactured by Lays, a brand familiar to Americans. I didn’t seem to attract any attention, or even much interest.

It was time to see one of the most famous attractions in Transnistria. First, I needed to catch a trolleybus...

“You don’t know how lucky you boys are...”

So, it’s my first full day in Moldova, and I’ve spent the day somewhere unusual. It’s easier to tell the story than to explain, so I’ll hope that all will become clear as I go along...

Body clocks are odd things, and with Moldova being two hours ahead, I expected a struggle getting up at a reasonable hour, but I came too at about 6.30, leaving time for a leisurely breakfast before I took a brisk stroll to the Central Bus Station. There seemed to be plenty of people willing to rip me off, but I eventually found the ticket office and bought my ticket on the 10.00 departure for the princely sum of 36.50 Lei (about £1.50).

My destination? Tiraspol, south-east of the capital, but also the capital of the self-proclaimed Republic of Transnistria, which covers broadly the territory of Moldova east of the Dnieper, plus Bendery on the west bank. And yes, they have a flag, a currency and, most important, border control. It is a bit of a conceit, and I guess that they tacitly acknowledge that by not stamping your passport - a bit like the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus. Instead, just like the TRNC, you get an official looking piece of paper which you must keep.

My twenty seat minibus was full to capacity, and we set off pretty much on time, through the cluttered streets of downtown Chisinau, towards the main highway south. This being Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, it’s not in great shape, although they do try. What that means is that we slalomed our way south, past the airport and out into the countryside.

After an hour or so, things got a bit more serious. There were soldiers around, and barriers, and a definite sense that hanging around wasn’t advised. And then, different soldiers, in different uniforms. We stopped for passport checks, at which point it became clear that I wasn’t the only foreigner on the bus. But there were no dramas, and we all piled back on the bus and headed into Transnistria.

The bus station is conveniently located next to the railway station in Tiraspol, giving me the opportunity to have a look around. There aren’t many trains, as Transnistria doesn’t have a lot of railway, but trains between Chisinau and Odessa/Kiev currently have to run that way, and the European Union has kept up the general pretence that everything is normal, funding a new three days a week train service between Chisinau and Odessa, which stops at Bendery and Tiraspol en route.

So, I was on Transnistria soil, and Moldovan soil at the same time, and the adventure was underway...

Monday, April 02, 2018

Welcome to Moldova - not many hurt so far...

Alright, so I've arrived. It isn't quite what I expected, but I'm here, which is good enough, I guess.

Here is Chişinău, the capital of Moldova, and whilst it is fair to say that it isn't exactly setting the tourism industry alight - I couldn't actually find a guide book - I'm hoping to have some interesting experiences whilst I am here.

And it is an interesting place, with a rather unfortunate schizophrenia for such a small, impoverished country. Part of it believes that it is another country altogether, which would like to reunite with Russia (with which it has no border), part of it wants to reunite with Romania, and another minority kind of wants to be independent but has settled for a devolved administration which covers a patchwork of enclaves in the south of the country. There are those who are proud to be Moldovan though, and I may meet some whilst I'm in town.

Moldova does work, after a fashion, although it has suffered for its choices - turning towards the West and, in particular, the European Union, caused Russia to reduce imports from the country's agricultural sector to virtually nothing. Given that Russia was Moldova's major export market, this was disastrous for the economy. Oh, and yes, the banking crisis when the equivalent of one-eighth of annual GDP was stolen by people close to the top of Moldovan society.

And, of course, the Transnistria problem makes it impossible for Moldova to join the European Union - once Cyprus, twice shy.

So, much to consider and to explore. It won't be by train though. Moldova has railways, but passengers seem to be a low priority...