Friday, November 22, 2019

General Election 2019 - the view from a comfortable seat on the sidelines...

Regular readers of this blog will know that I live and do politics in mid-Suffolk. And those of you who know mid-Suffolk will know that the district is split between two Parliamentary constituencies, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds. Creeting St Peter is on the boundary between the two seats, having been in Central Suffolk until 2010, and in Bury St Edmunds thereafter. As part of the deal making over the “Remain Alliance”, local Liberal Democrats were stood down in Bury St Edmunds in favour of the Greens.

And this “not having a candidate to support” is strangely disconcerting. There is no local activity to get involved in, no camaraderie of getting things done. It does begin to feel as though the election is happening somewhere else, even though it’s all over the media. I have at least been out and about with Ros - to Cambridge and North Norfolk - and attended campaign launches in Central Suffolk and, this evening, in Ipswich.

We’re not alone, of course. When I started this blog, I was living in south London, and was Chair of Dulwich and West Norwood Liberal Democrats. They've been stood down in favour of the Greens too.

I don’t need to be persuaded that the deals done with the Greens and with Plaid Cymru were helpful in maximising our prospects in seats we really could win - that’s a pragmatic response to the injustice that “first past the post “ doles out to smaller parties - but it does leave our activists in such seats with a dilemma. Do we campaign for the party we have stood down in favour of, or campaign for ourselves in our areas of strength just to remind people we exist, or travel somewhere more promising to lend a hand? Or, do we simply sit this one out?

The Party would (and does) urge people like me to go somewhere else, as there is never enough resource in key seats. And some of us will do that, travelling across the county boundary to deliver leaflets or canvass or whatever, whilst others telephone canvass if they can. Others will give generously to support campaigns both national and local. But some will simply stay at home because politics isn’t their lives, or because they don’t have the same stake in helping people that they don’t really know, or that travelling for a couple of hours to deliver a few leaflets doesn’t feel like a good use of their time. 

Of course, what happens with all of those Liberal Democrat campaigns out there matters deeply. Having more Liberal Democrat MPs speaking up for tolerance, decency and internationalism (amongst other things) must be a good thing. And I know (and like) some of our candidates personally, which does give me an interest which is not entirely academic.

So, the campaign continues, albeit somewhere else, and our road trips will do too...

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Is there a danger that our politics is spiralling into a moral void?

I don’t consider myself to be an exceptionally good person. I have, I admit, flaws. I have an erratic attention span, don’t always deliver entirely what I promise to, and could be better organised. But I like to think that I’m pretty loyal, prefer facts to rhetoric, and that I care about the people around me. If given a choice, I will tend to avoid personal attacks and make a positive case for the things I believe in rather than tear down my opponents.

And that, perhaps, is why I find modern retail politics so uncomfortable. I almost enjoy canvassing for myself, meeting voters and finding out what worries or concerns them. Putting out leaflets explaining what I think might be done reminds me that local government can potentially be a force for good. The problem is that, faced with opponents who make false claims, my first thought is to combat them with more positivity rather than confront their claims. The anecdotal evidence, unfortunately, is that such an approach doesn’t appear to work that well.

So, when my Conservative opponent in 2011 claimed to be the local candidate despite living miles away from the ward, I merely emphasised my local connections, leaving her misrepresentation to stand. I lost, albeit respectably, but I still lost. I am told that I should have raised the issue of her lack of connection to the ward early on, but it felt uncomfortable. Ultimately, my moral scruples may have cost me victory.

But I now find myself watching from the sidelines a contest where one side is running a campaign seemingly utterly lacking in moral scruples but without apparent consequence. Either voters have reconciled themselves to this, and polling numbers appear to suggest that, or the choices offered to them are so lacking in appeal that lying and misrepresentation are seen as legitimate tactics. That’s about as dispiriting as can be if you believe in politics as a potential force for positive change. For, if a politician is not tangibly punished for knowingly committing falsehoods, and indeed appears to be being rewarded for doing so, what incentive is there for others to play by the usual societal rules?

And thus, we see a political environment where those with integrity and decency are driven out, leaving those with the thickest skin, the least self-awareness or the greatest avarice left to “represent” us. Are such people actually what we aspire to in governance terms?

Don’t get me wrong. I still believe that many politicians are broadly decent and honourable. But tolerating such behaviour tarnishes the soul, and risks making you guilty by association. If your senior colleagues lie and dissemble, they are doing so in your name and, if you stay quiet, your complicity must be assumed.

I have no expectation that some of the more egregious committers of falsehoods will suddenly see the light and admit that they were wrong, indeed, I expect them to prosper, at least in the short term. But, in doing so they will coarsen our political debate, and the price will eventually be paid by us all, in poor government and resultant waste, inefficiency and expense. Because rules matter, and when times are tough, they matter even more...

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Creeting St Peter - a Parish Council dares to dream?

So, I’ve been chairing Creeting St Peter Parish Council for eighteen months now, and the village hasn’t suffered a plague of frogs, or forest fires so, on the whole, I’d count that as a success. But there is a danger that you allow things to drift - carrying on the way you always have because, well, it seems to be going alright, doesn’t it?

On Monday night, Parish Council met, and there were two key items on the agenda, the draft budget and our communications strategy.

I would be the first to admit that our budget isn’t very exciting - having a precept of £5,500 or so is never going to allow us to build a skate park, or that high speed rail link to London that I’d had my heart set on. But there is an alluring comfort in simply rolling over last year’s figures, adding a little for inflation and shaking hands on the numbers. After all, we charge each household about 14p per day on average, an almost imperceptible amount, right?

But one of my colleagues raised the perfectly legitimate point that we have healthy reserves, and could credibly freeze our precept and use a slither of the reserves to meet any gap between income and expenditure. And I do find myself wondering. The solution was, in the next financial year, to have a meaningful discussion about our short, medium and long term goals as a Parish Council and as a community, and draw up a financial plan on the basis of that. It gives us a potential opportunity to engage with residents, and might trigger some innovative changes in how we work.

Ironically, we were missing one key figure, i.e. the tax base, and after the meeting, that emerged. Even more ironically, the figure supplied means that we can support a small increase to the budget yet leave the precept per household unchanged. That doesn't change how I feel about a more activist approach to our finances though.

The discussion on our communication strategy is similarly thorny. We have two possibly conflicting goals, to improve how we tell people what’s happening in a more immediate way than a quarterly newsletter, and to maintain cost control. Our thoughts so far revolve around the use of e-mail and a PDF newsletter, which would allow us to reach residents much faster than we currently can, or do, but would effectively create two "classes" of residents, those who have (or want) internet access to information, and those who don't. You could get around that ethical dilemma by calling it an opt-in process, but it doesn't avoid the fact that some people simply won't be able to.

It has been suggested that we commit to distributing any information both by e-mail and by leaflet, but that acts as a disincentive to communicate by making it more difficult to do so due to the additional resource (both financial and human) that would be necessary.

There is a danger of paralysis through doubt though, and we really must improve the way we reach out to residents. So, we're going to approach residents to encourage them to opt in to e-mail communication, and then work from there. It may be that we're worrying about a very small number of households, and that we can solve that problem in an ad hoc way.

Ultimately, our goal is to help the village to be the best place it can be, and engaging with residents enables them to take control of some, perhaps minor, aspects of their lives. It certainly isn't big, and it probably isn't that clever, but one ought to try...

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

"Shaping Suffolk" - how community engagement might influence planning and development

Yesterday found me out of the office, but not by very far, as I had signed up to take part in a conference organised by the Suffolk Association of Local Council, called "Shaping Suffolk".

The aim of the event was to look at how we might improve the way planning authorities and local councils (by which I mean town and parish councils) engage with each other and with developers.

I would be the first to admit that, in Creeting St Peter, we don't really do much about engagement in an organised sense. It can feel a bit ad hoc and, I suspect, look a bit amateurish. That, I guess, is partly due to resource and knowledge - we're a collection of concerned citizens that mean well, after all.

But a lack of planning applications due to our status as a hamlet village doesn't mean that there isn't much that we can do to improve, and so I volunteered to attend on behalf of our small, but perfectly-formed, Parish Council.

The first session was on the principles of engagement framework, and was introduced by Philip Isbell, the Chief Planning Officer of Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils, and he launched a good practice guide for community engagement. Now, you may argue that such a guide would be unnecessary for a well-run council, and I might agree with you, but many issues surrounding consultation and engagement require smaller councils in particular to step outside of their natural comfort zone. You know, making decisions in the public eye, rather than in virtual anonymity.

I did feel that there was a weakness, in that the document seemed only to address the stages up to and including the decision making stage, yet the question of how we engage with the post-application phase, mostly around issues of enforcement, something which has irked me in the past, appeared to be rather disregarded. So, I took the opportunity of the lunch break to ask him if he thought that there was more that could be done, and he was willing to acknowledge that it was an aspect that could be improved.

The after lunch session started with a session on how to respond to planning applications, led by Rachel Almond, from West Suffolk Council, highlighting the issues that can be reasonably considered in our submissions as statutory consultees, as well as those that really can't, but often are. There can be a tendency to assume that, because you don't like a particular aspect of a planning application, you can simply say so and be taken seriously. The National Planning Policy Framework does offer a useful guide to what a local council can, or should, do.

The final session was about infrastructure assessment, funding and delivery and, that elusive thing, the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL). Neil McManus and Steve Merry, from Suffolk County Council, talked about the sort of infrastructure spending that developers might be persuaded to support. Although, for parishes such as mine, we wouldn't expect to have much in the way of CIL funding ever, especially given we aren't thought of as being a likely magnet for development, nor does the Council intend to permit more housing in hamlet village due to the lack of facilities.

Nicola Parrish, from East Suffolk Council, spoke about how CIL funds are distributed, and highlighted some recent changes that specify reporting, not only in terms of how money is spent, but what happens if it isn't. And, to wrap up, Tom Newcombe, a partner at our hosts, Birketts, and head of their Planning and Environmental Team, neatly summarised some of the key issues for local councils to factor into their thinking.

All in all, a useful day, and I think that most of the attendees gained something from it, so much credit to Sally Longmate and her team at the Suffolk Association of Local Councils for organising it. Apparently, they're hoping to hold a similar event on highways and allied issues, although, from a personal perspective, I'd like to see public transport included as part of the mix. It would be fair to say that I have "views" on that particular subject.

Monday, November 18, 2019

It’s not just the Presidential contest that isn’t over yet...

One of the advantages of reading constitutions is that you tend to have a better grasp of the rules of the contest. And, if you read more than one constitution, you’re likely to have a better grasp of the intersections between them. Better still, if you had a hand in writing one of them...

When the new Federal International Relations Committee emerged from the Party’s most recent governance review, I was the Secretary of its predecessor, and I realised quite quickly that someone was going to have to deal with the constitutional niceties. Given the makeup of the Committee, that was probably always going to be me, and so I arranged for the creation of standing orders, a communications plan and all of the other stuff required by the Federal Constitution.

It would be fair to say that there was some grumbling in terms of why this stuff was necessary. But, if you’re going to have a job, you need a framework within which it can be delivered.

One of my early tasks was to suggest how the new ALDE Party Council delegation would be determined, and I concluded that, regardless of how many places we were entitled to, two of our delegates should be the Party President, given their stated role as the principle public representative of the Party, and the Chair of the Federal International Relations Committee, which seemed obvious. The rest were to be directly elected.

This was accepted by the Committee, and, in due course, advised to the Party so that this could be dealt with as part of the election cycle. I note, in passing, that this didn’t happen this year, and all six of our delegates were directly elected. And whilst that’s a problem, it’s not one that I can fix.

However, wearing one of my other hats, I was considering a proposal within the ALDE Party for revising its membership fee structure and, by extension, member party entitlements. From that sprang a revised formula for determining how many Council delegates a member party is entitled to, and this turned out to be;

1  +  number of votes received/500,000  +  percentage vote/10

where the votes received and percentage vote related to the last Parliamentary election.

2015 hadn’t been a good year for us, and so, the calculation was;

1  +  2,415,916/500,000  +  7.9/10  =   6.62

which was rounded to the nearest whole number, i.e. 7.

2017 was, almost unbelievably, worse, and so, the calculation was;

1  +  2,371,861/500,000  +  7.4/10   =   6.48

which, rounded to the nearest whole number, became 6, the number used to determine how many would be elected this time.

Those of you who “get” numbers will probably now be thinking, “ah, I see where this is going...”.

Throwing the current polling numbers into the calculation, and assuming that turnout on 12 December is similar to last time, the formula produces this;

1  +  5,120,000/500,000  +  16/10   =   12.84

or, rounded to the nearest whole number, 13.

In other words, the Returning Officer will be required to rerun the election with a revised number of vacancies, and my race may yet not be run...

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Sunday means roast meat and all the trimmings...

After the disappointment of yesterday’s election results, today was a rather more uplifting sort of day, as Ros had planned a lunch date to celebrate my birthday (not today, but close), and had promised a proper Sunday roast in Long Melford, about forty minutes away across the heart of Suffolk.

There are many places that boast about the quality of their Sunday lunches, and they don’t always live up to the hype, but the Black Lion delivers. This delicious looking pile of roast vegetables, served with two generous slices of roast topside of beef and a perfect Yorkshire pudding, served with cauliflower cheese and lashings of gravy, plus some perfect roast potatoes, was the perfect pick-me-up, made even better by the company of Ros.

We’d started the day with a gentle stroll up and down Hall Street and Little St Mary’s, before retracing our steps and passing the entrance to Melford Hall. Long Melford is a pretty enough little place, with enough in the way of facilities to enable you to meet most of your urgent needs, whilst Sudbury is close enough for supermarkets etc.

On the way back, we stopped briefly in Lavenham, mostly to pick up some Christmas and birthday cards from the Guildhall, a National Trust property. It’s a lovely little town, with so much gorgeous architecture, and ironically this was only preserved because it had fallen on such hard times.

So, all in all, a lovely day, and a short break from the election campaign. And now, back to work...

Saturday, November 16, 2019

A bureaucrat, a glass of Transnistrian brandy and some election results...

All good things must come to an end, I am told, and my time on the Party's Federal International Relations Committee has come to an end after five occasionally glorious years, following today's publication of the Federal Party election results.

In truth, I didn't do too badly, coming seventh on first preferences in an election for six vacancies although, in the final analysis, I was pushed down to eighth on transfers, but only just. And, given that I was beaten by some very worthy candidates, I can't really complain. Some churn is necessary to keep committees fresh, and I am no exception to that desirable rule.

Indeed, of the five members who ran for re-election, only two of us survived, with some interesting new members replacing us.

Hannah Bettsworth returns to the committee in a new guise, having previously represented the Young Liberals in her past life as their International Officer.

Doreen Huddart is an old friend, a fellow Returning Officer and candidate assessor but, more saliently, has served on the EU Committee of the Regions for two decades now. She knows how Europe works, and will add her own inimitable style to proceedings. She likes to do things, rather than be things.

Philippa Leslie-Jones is, I admit, a bit of a mystery to me, but as a former diplomat, you can hardly doubt her credibility as a member of the new committee.

Ruth Coleman-Taylor is another old friend, and has been an active member of our delegations to both the ALDE Party Council and Congress for many years, and is totally committed in her internationalism.

The two survivors are Phil Bennion and Jonathan Fryer, both of whom are well known and well regarded, so it is a strong committee going forward.

So, four women and two men, which is a bit unusual in historical terms, the committee having been a bit "male heavy" in the past.

I have one final task to perform, having been asked to act as Returning Officer for the election of a new Chair. One of the above six will fill the role, as per the Federal Constitution, and I will be working with Denali Ranasinghe, FIRC's Secretary, to progress this.

I also ran to return to the ALDE Party Council delegation after a three year break and, on first sight, it looks like I lost. There is a complication though, as we elected six members. The ALDE Party Standing Orders state that a member party's entitlement of Council delegates is linked to its electoral performance and is updated on 1 January of the year following the last set of national elections. So, if we do well, I might yet be back.

I may have rather more personal interest in our performance on 12 December than I had expected...