Saturday, December 10, 2022

ALDE Party Council - some post-Council reflections

I think that I've remarked before that I'm not always good at conferences. I'm a bit shy, not necessarily the best at small talk with people that I don't know and tend to be a bit aimless unless I actually have something to do. Yes, it's nice to catch up with old friends, and conferences do offer that opportunity, but I can find them a little daunting.

Bratislava, however, went better than I might have feared. It helped that the relatively intimate gathering that is Council allows more time to catch up with old friends and colleagues and that the lobby bar at the venue hotel was actually rather nice, with comfortable armchairs and sofas, and not too brightly lit.

That meant that, as the evening passed, I found myself in conversation with some familiar faces, with the time to catch up on the rest of our lives, rather than talking politics all evening. And I accept that this seems a bit strange, given the reason we've all gathered, but I still find people fascinating, and as I have no ambition other than that of competence, it makes for a much more enjoyable, relaxing time.

Turning to the politics, I have found, I think, a niche within our delegation, and there were enough things to engage me to give me the impression that my presence was useful. And that matters because going all the way to Slovakia for a relatively short event is not without cost.

Whilst I occasionally kick back against the idea of being pigeonholed as a bureaucrat, there is a role for someone to hold the ALDE Party Bureau accountable, rather than just focussing on the policy and campaigning elements. As I've said before, a political party is better at winning elections if it is well-run and well managed. Without a strong base, all of the policies in the world mean little if you don't have a machine by which they can be communicated to voters. The trick is to balance the various demands of campaigning, ideas generation and compliance.

Reassuringly, the current Party delegation seem happy enough to trust me to fulfil my role in such a way as to not upset too many people and, in return, I make sure that they understand what I'm doing and why. That reassurance is a two-way street, in that knowing that I have their confidence makes me better at what I do.

With that confidence comes a greater ability to chip in on policy making. I'm not an expert, unlike some of my colleagues, but I'm well-informed, bring the viewpoint of someone with a South Asian background, plus a degree of gentle cynicism about the glories of Western democracy. That means that, when we're debating something within the group, I can perhaps tweak the language of a resolution or amendment or judge the efficacy of an idea and occasionally convince my colleagues to change tack a little.

And, given that I've been around rather longer than many, especially within the ALDE Party, I can find solutions to problems that might otherwise be complex. I know who to talk to and when, I know how the Statutes and Internal Regulations work, and I have a comfortable relationship with the ALDE Party Secretariat. Sometimes, that can be very useful.

I think, therefore, that I can look forward to three more years as a member of our delegation with a degree of confidence. Not too much, because I'm not that kind of person, but enough to allow me to be a little more relaxed, a little more "me". The first test of that will be Stockholm at the end of May. Let's hope that I pass... 

Friday, December 09, 2022

ALDE Party Council, Bratislava 2022 - so, what did I actually do?

So, having given a more formal report on events in Bratislava, it’s really rather about time that I offer a more personal perspective on events, one that focuses more on me and what I did there.

Delegation Meeting

Whilst our primary business was discussing the urgency resolutions, my contribution was to offer some compromise language and update my colleagues on some technical details.

Individual Members summit

The leadership of the Individual Members are deeply unhappy about the proposal to bring the current arrangements to an end and create a new “Friends of ALDE” group. Members of the new group would not have voting rights at Congress or Council and would be supporters rather than active participants. I’m a Liberal Associate (the descriptor for non-EU members) with rights pretty much equivalent to those proposed under the new arrangements and had two reasons for attending, one rather more controversial than the other.

As a member, I had every right to attend and express my views. However, as one of the primary authors of the paper that was to be presented to Council the next day, I am partly responsible for the proposals by which the Individual Members will be wound up.

I do think that the leadership of the Individual Members has been pretty poor in recent years, resembling nothing more than a group of squabbling children arguing over possession of a rather shabby toy. The meetings I have attended have been pretty unedifying and behaviour has been poor. But that is, in itself, an argument for finding better leaders rather than simply abandoning the idea. Instead, my concern is that the policy demands of the Individual Members leadership seem determined to reduce the influence of the member parties to a point where there would be little value in paying an annual subscription. There is a philosophical chasm between the objectives of the two sides, and I can’t see how it can be reconciled.

I’m also not convinced that the leadership represent much more than themselves. The participants in their policy working groups come from a very small pool indeed. I am convinced that the majority of Individual Members join for three reasons - to show support, to be kept up to date with events and to attend briefings and seminars. The new proposal would allow all of that.

I didn’t want to say too much - I don’t agree with the stance they are taking - but felt obliged to correct some of the inaccuracies in their claims. And, whilst I don’t think that they’re in the mood to listen, I did at least try to convince them to stick to the facts.

Stuttgart Declaration session

I was a bit late for this, due to the Individual Members but I did make a contribution. The 1976 Stuttgart Declaration was the founding document for what is now ALDE and it is proposed to update it for a new political age.

It would be successful, I suggested, if we could come up with a statement of principles such that, if someone was to attempt to guess our policy stance on a particular issue, the statement would point towards what it might be. The great liberal philosophers remain valid because their arguments resonate across the ages, and our document should too. The policy statement which follows would be more of an appendix. That seemed to meet with approval, so perhaps I’ve hit upon something.


As the delegation’s “house bureaucrat”, I’m given licence to lead on finance and organisational stuff. So, I queried why we weren’t offered an indication of the current 2022 budget outturn figures when asked to approve the 2023 budget. Comparing it to a 2022 budget which may, or may not, be a fair reflection of what actually happened, rather hampers Council from doing its job of scrutiny. The Treasurer suggested that it would be inappropriate to offer us unaudited figures and I guess that my perspective as a tax inspector differs from his as an accountant. I think that he’s wrong - my job is to scrutinise his work, not merely to applaud it, and I don’t doubt that I’ll return to that topic in May.

I also had a central role in the discussion of how a Secretary General is appointed and evaluated, given that I co-wrote the document that the Bureau presented to Council. The failure of the Co-Presidents to manage the agenda meant that it didn’t really get the airing I had hoped, which augurs badly for the discussion that has to take place at the next Congress. I raised the issue of a “conflict of interest” clause, preventing Bureau members from seeking the position within two years of the end of their term as a Bureau member - something we take for granted in government here. I sensed that Co-President Timmy Dooley wasn’t keen and whilst I did rather spring it on him, it’s an argument that I haven’t given up on.

I had to explain to the delegate from the Individual Members that the paper on the future of their organisation wasn’t a platform to argue whether or not they should be abolished - that decision was taken in Dublin at the previous Congress, after all - so trying to make the argument wasn’t particularly helpful. I’m guessing that this will run and run, not helped by some of the contradictory messages being conveyed.

If I had to sum up how Council went, from a personal perspective, I’d say that I did what I promised I would do, scrutinising the work of the ALDE Party, offering a perspective stemming from a firm belief that an organisation should live its own values in terms of how it operates and how it treats its people. 

Friday, November 18, 2022

Liberal Democrat internal elections: winning (and losing) here…

So, I fought two elections and emerged with a 50% success rate. Given that I don’t generally benefit from group endorsements, and am not wildly keen on “slates”, I rely more than some on the friends I’ve made over the years and the strength of my manifesto. Luckily, longevity and a willingness to do those jobs that people need doing but would rather not do themselves, means that I know a lot of people (or, rather more importantly, they know me).

A study of the endless count sheets for Federal Council will show that there was one candidate who was neither elected or eliminated. That would be me. I hovered between 20th and 23rd throughout the count but, in the end, fell just short. In the event of a vacancy through resignation or death, I’m in with a shot of promotion, although there are no guarantees in a recount - it depends on who goes and where their votes are redistributed.

Coming, effectively, 22nd out of 59 is pretty good, if not good enough, so I can’t be truly unhappy with the outcome. And I’m always pleasantly surprised by the level of support that I get, given that I’m not at the core of anything much these days, so I must thank all of you who did vote for me, wherever that might have been in your preference order.

The contest itself was not for the faint-hearted, and I have a sense that Federal Council may be a bit of a bearpit - it’s not entirely clear to me that some successful candidates are particularly bothered about more than a very narrow agenda. That, however, is not something that I can do much about, so I won’t lose sleep about it.

Having lost that, my expectations in the contest for a place on the ALDE delegation were lowered somewhat. Whilst there were ten vacancies, three were effectively gone already as I’m not Scottish, Welsh or young. It was therefore a bit of a surprise when word came that I’d actually won. Admittedly, I have no idea how, as the actual count information hasn’t been published, but I probably came in the top seven in a tough field, so I’m really pleased. It was, it seems, a complex count, needing five recounts, so I’ll be intrigued to see how it all unfolded.

I’ve really enjoyed my time attending ALDE Party Council meetings - they suit my skill set as a bureaucrat, reader of constitutions and keen process geek. I actually think that I add value, confirmed by one of the responses to my reaction on Twitter.

I’ve built a strong relationship with the ALDE Party’s secretariat, partly because I think that it’s important to work effectively with the professional team but also because, in my experience, politicians can be weak on process and sometimes lacking in respect for those who have to deliver their decisions - you can take the boy out of the Civil Service, but you can’t take the Civil Service out of the boy. In return, they’ve been supportive when I’ve wanted to change things, tolerant of my occasional flights of fancy and kind on occasions when it has mattered.

All in all, I have much to be grateful for, and another three years in which to represent my Party and, hopefully, do good. And, as I promised, you’ll hear about it here… and here…

Monday, November 14, 2022

Everybody has an agenda, it seems, and I’m no different…

Whilst the Liberal Democrat internal elections draw to a close - you’ve got a couple of days left to vote, by the way - the campaign isn’t cooling much. Suggestions by one candidate that they have contacted the police in relation to comments against  them on social media don’t give comfort that the declaration of a result will end the unpleasantness that has ensued.

But there is no doubt that the campaign has certainly exposed two camps, each of whose positions are seemingly unacceptable to the other. And, because the nature of the divide, those less able to restrain themselves on social media become the justification for their opponents to ratchet up the unpleasantness themselves.

Now you might think that this is me gently leading up to a plea for tolerance and mutual understanding and, under normal circumstances, you’d probably be right. The catch is that I’m not entirely convinced that the chasm between the two sides can easily be bridged.

You see, one side appear to want to punish an entire group of people for the theoretical behaviour of a few individuals who may, or may not, actually be members of that group. The other side feel that offering people freedom to live their lives as they wish, punishing those who transgress as and when they do so, is the way to go. I’m instinctively with the latter group, whilst understanding that fear is a very hard motivator to overcome.

I could be being unfair, and I’m happy to consider an argument to the contrary, but my working hypothesis for liberalism is always about freedom and the balancing of freedoms between groups - does the freedom given to one group impinge on the freedoms of another, how do you mitigate this if it does, or do you simply have to accept that life is imperfect and you can only do your best?

Some talk about power, a concept which, whilst I recognise its importance, makes me vaguely uncomfortable. I firmly believe that power is, like freedom, something to be shared, and, as a bureaucrat, my job is to provide the information sufficient to allow people to make good decisions. Not necessarily ones that I agree with, but decisions that work for them. And that’s as true for the organisations I work with as it is for those I care for.

I chose to run for Federal Council this year because I think that we should try to make it work in a manner which helps the Party to grow and thrive. I don’t have “answers”, partly because we don’t yet have any questions, but partly because politics moves quickly, and the issues that might be critical today may be irrelevant tomorrow. But good governance doesn’t change, and it acts as a platform for good decision making.

My manifesto does give the impression that I might like to chair it if elected, and I would be dishonest if the idea hadn’t crossed my mind. I am, apparently, quite a good chair - at least, people are very kind - partly because I’m not keen on the sound of my own voice, like to reach consensus and have developed an ability to peer benignly over my spectacles at people. I’ve also benefited from watching a lot of people chair committees, some good, some bad, some indifferent. But there are a few minor hurdles to clear before we get to that stage… especially given the possibility that I might not get elected in the first place.

There is also the decidedly high possibility that the contest that has emerged during the campaign will be carried into the new Federal Council, where those whose manifesto focussed on policy issues are likely to be confronted with the uncomfortable truth that policy is highly unlikely to be at the core of its work - it is meant to be a scrutiny committee. Defining the role of Federal Council, putting meat on the bones of the constitutional skeleton of the committee, will be essential to prevent it from becoming the talking shop that some believed it was always intended to be.

So, regardless of whether or not I get elected or, if I do win a place, Federal Council should be interesting to say the least. Ah well, not long to wait now…

Wednesday, November 09, 2022

The Boundary Commission for England reports... can I see three constituencies from my house?

I currently live in Bury St Edmunds constituency, Conservative majority 24,988. The Liberal Democrats didn't contest it in 2019 - it was one of the seats ceded to the Greens for little effect (they came third with 15.7% of the vote). And the new proposals move Creeting St Peter into the revised Central Suffolk and North Ipswich constituency in the centre of the map, I've marked us with a green dot.

This represents a return to where we were prior to the last boundary changes but what is interesting is the significant redrafting from the previous proposals. Suffolk still moves from seven to seven and a half constituencies, the difference now is that, instead of sharing a constituency with Essex (Haverhill and Halstead), the cross-border constituency is with Norfolk.

Originally, a chunk of West Suffolk was to be parcelled off to the proposed Haverhill and Halstead seat, with Bury St Edmunds constituency shuffled westwards. The gap would be filled by splitting Central Suffolk and North Ipswich in two, north-south and expanding westwards, forming a North Suffolk seat and an Ipswich North and Stowmarket seat, whilst Waveney shrank to Lowestoft, and Ipswich, South Suffolk and Suffolk Coastal remained relatively unchanged. Creeting St Peter was going to be in the Ipswich North and Stowmarket seat.

The new proposals retain West Suffolk - possibly good news for Matt Hancock if his future plans include being an MP - and instead create a new Waveney Valley seat from parts of Bury St Edmunds, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, Waveney and South Norfolk. It’s a pretty huge seat, stretching from Stowupland in the south-west to the western edge of Beccles to the east and as far north as the Tivetshalls in Norfolk. Bungay and Diss are probably the largest centres of population, but it’s going to be a pretty challenging task for anyone trying to take the seat from the Conservatives given the difficulty in forming a campaign team that can effectively reach the dozens of small parishes strewn across the area.

Bury St Edmunds and West Suffolk are both squeezed further westwards, whilst Lowestoft remains as originally proposed, losing Bungay and the Elmhams to Waveney Valley. Again, South Suffolk and Suffolk Coastal remain basically untouched, whilst Ipswich sees no changes.

Luckily, this requires very little disruption for Liberal Democrats in Suffolk, as we’re organised on local government boundaries. However, in Norfolk, they’re organised on constituency boundaries, which is going to make for some interesting discussions over Waveney Valley between Mid Suffolk (split between three constituencies, East Suffolk (likewise) and South Norfolk (now torn asunder).

But perhaps we ought to get the district elections out of the way before we worry about that…

Monday, November 07, 2022

Leader and President - perhaps the boundaries aren't so clear cut?

It's odd really, but I'd never given a lot of thought to the role of the Leader. After all, they're the Leader, right?

One of the candidates for Party President is emphasising the words at the beginning of Article 20 of the Federal Constitution:

The President shall be the principal public representative of the Party...

and, of course, Liz Webster is absolutely right to point that out. But what, exactly, being the principal public representative of the Party means in reality is rather less clearcut.

I thought, therefore, that I ought to see what it says about the role of the Leader. And that was something of a revelation. Article 18, which refers to the Leader, tells you how one is elected but doesn't actually tell you what the Leader does.

Now I hear you exclaim, "but it's obvious, the Leader leads, right?". Well, yes, but what does that mean, especially if you have a President who wants to be front and centre, as Liz does.

So, if Liz is going to take up a campaigning role, what happens if the Leader sees it differently? What if internal polling shows that her stance isn't as popular as she thinks it is, or the Leader wants to soft pedal that. Is Liz going to insist that her mandate gives her the authority to override him? Now, I don't know the answer to that question, but I do suspect that, if the relationship between the Leader and the President is poor, then the President is likely to come off worst. No Leader is going to want to be seen as not in control of their own Party.

In truth, I've always seen the President as being the principal public representative of the voluntary Party. The idea being that the President is the bridge between the members and the Leader and Parliamentary Parties, conveying hard messages in private and being supportive in public. By chairing the Federal Board, the President manages the voluntary Party and guides the professional team.

At the moment, I don't entirely get the impression that Liz entirely agrees with me and, of course, voters may agree with her. But, at the moment, there are a lot of assertions and little in the way of actual proposals for action. And, as I noted on Saturday, slogans may not get you very far when, in early January, you turn up for your first Board meeting...

Saturday, November 05, 2022

A Presidential contest, but not exactly a happy one…

I have noted in the past that I have an unusual perspective on the Presidency of the Liberal Democrats. When you’ve been nearer the heart of a successful campaign, and then acted as Presidential Consort for two years, your sense of what is required to win the Presidency and then do the job is perhaps a little more acute than most.

So, in deciding how I was going to vote, I had quite a lot to reflect upon.

But here are some thoughts, both on what I think of the three candidates and on the campaign so far.

Starting with the incumbent, Mark Pack… I had reservations about his candidacy last time - can a non-Parliamentarian really hold their own amongst the big beasts of the Party, will they be taken seriously by the Leader and the Chief Executive, can they motivate and manage the Party’s internal leadership?

In truth, I don’t really know if he has achieved that - I’m somewhat remote from events in HQ these days, and the pandemic hasn’t helped in that sense. But there’s no sense that the Party is struggling organisationally, nor that Mark has failed. He’s managed to make some constitutional and structural changes that I might not have expected to succeed, there’s a sense that the Party has the capacity to improve its position, and I’m not hearing any suggestions that he has done much wrong.

I rate Lucy Nethsingha very highly. A very capable Regional Chair, a successful campaigner and leader, and a former MEP, she should be a thoroughly credible candidate for the Presidency. The fact that she’s from the neighbouring county helps.

I know rather less about Liz Webster - she’s passionately opposed to Brexit, comes from a farming background but other than that, she hasn’t really come onto my radar. I presume that, like a lot of our membership, she’s joined since 2015, but that in itself means little.

So, it would be fair to say that, in theory, I could have voted for any of the candidates.

It is very hard to just rock up and run for the Presidency, even in the age of social media, unless you have a very high profile already. Paddy could very easily have done so, had he ever fancied the job, Shirley likewise. The fact that their first names remain easily recognisable says much. And the Presidency is not an easy gig, you really need to have given some thought to why you want the job and nothing says you haven’t necessarily thought it through like turning up at virtually the last moment and announcing your candidacy. For example, Ros campaigned for more than two years before her decisive victory in 2008. When the formal stage of the campaign was reached, she had a clear vision which she could articulate, a killer campaign team, supporters and influencers across the Party at every level, and an understanding of how the Party functioned (or didn’t).

That was one of the things that puzzled me when Lucy announced that she was running - I would have expected some sense of a campaign building, especially when you’re attempting to “take down” an incumbent. And, in truth, I still don’t have a sense as to why she’s running. Her campaign material is very policy heavy - what her intentions are for leading Federal Board, for example, are something of a mystery. There’s little or no social media, and no sign of anyone reaching out to contact voters. Lucy has my e-mail address, and if there was a campaign team, I’d expect to be contacted seeking my vote.

But if Lucy was late into the fray, Liz was last minute to the point that there was a question as to whether or not she would get the required nominations. Ironically, the innovation of online nominations almost certainly made her campaign possible. However, given the impression that she was only running because Jo Hayes couldn’t, I sense that she’s decided to run first and then come up with a strategy second. And her campaign has shown that - it’s policy heavy and signals a potential clash with the Leader and the Parliamentary Parties.

I am deeply uncomfortable about her pledges to support various groups, pledges that she has very little likelihood of being able to deliver upon as Party President - it’s not a policy role as such. If she does take views that undermine the Parliamentary strategy, especially that of the Leader, what happens if those are exposed during a General Election campaign?

I also have to say that I don’t take kindly to the tone of her campaign and especially that of some of her supporters. Smearing your opponents is bad enough in retail politics, but doing so in an internal contest is not the sort of behaviour that makes friends and influences people and, if your goal is to lead the voluntary side of the Party, making enemies amongst the Committee stalwarts is probably not going to make it easy.

And whilst I note what she says about the membership figures, pinning the decline on the Party President displays a very shaky grasp of how the Party works, especially when she doesn’t appear to offer any answers in terms of how the situation might be improved.

Mark’s campaign doesn’t inspire. But, as the incumbent, he doesn’t have to, having the advantage of a track record to run on. He’s got the serious endorsements, from people who evidently think that his leadership has helped them to succeed. He also has the advantage that he is fully prepared for a campaign, having spent a long time (and I mean years) preparing first to get elected and then to gain re-election. You might fairly say that he’s run a classic Liberal Democrat campaign over a long period, just as the experts tell you that you should.

So, who have I voted for? The lack of enthusiasm might point towards an abstention but then, I’ve been around a long time and don’t have a personal investment in this contest like the one I was involved in during 2008. After all, I did marry the candidate during the campaign…

The answer is… Mark. He is the only candidate who, in my eyes, understands the job, and given that a lot of people whose views I respect, and have been in the room for the key meetings, say that he is worthy of re-election, there is a perfectly respectable argument for voting for him. Lucy doesn’t give me a sense that she really wants the job or have a vision for what she would do if she won, and I am suspicious of Liz’s motives for running and whether or not she would be a team player.

Mark sees his priority as getting the Party machinery “match fit” for a General Election, where the funds needed to fight a credible campaign, employ the best staff and present our argument are available, that we are able to take advantage of whatever opportunities come our way. And I respect that - it worked in 2009 and 2010.

But, for me, the clincher is that Mark appears to understand that the Presidency is about soft power, not about command and control. And, if you know the Party well, you know that in an organisation where power is more diffused than many appreciate, the ability to identify who can make something happen is critical.

So, those are my thoughts, for what they’re worth. We’ll see what happens soon enough but, regardless of who wins, I wish them good luck. The Presidency is a huge challenge for whoever holds it, and there’s no shortage of work that needs to be done, but the country needs a strong liberal voice, now more than ever.

Wednesday, November 02, 2022

Creeting St Peter - a small but surprisingly bright light to relieve the darkness

Out here in the countryside, the provision of some of the things that others take for granted isn't always obvious, as I discovered when I first became a Parish Councillor. Who knew that a Parish Council might be responsible for its own street lights? And why, given the costs of installation, maintenance and power? After all, I pay my council tax to Suffolk County Council to light other people's streets, why don't they light mine?

It is, apparently, a historic thing, and there are plenty of villages like ours who decided to take the matter into their own hands in the past.

Ours had presented a challenge for a long time. Ageing, inefficient, hard to maintain, I had begun to wonder how we might replace them or, indeed, if we could even afford to. The Council had not made provision to do so, with no capital policy in place to, over a period of time, raise the necessary funds. In my capacity as portfolio holder for Finance (and it's not a title I sought, rather one I was presented with), I did at least make provision for an annual provision to fund the cost of replacement over twenty-five years. But, with an annual precept of £5,200, and plenty of ongoing costs, raising sufficient to cover the cost of replacement wasn't going to be quick or easy.

Ironically, the resignation of our Clerk last November offered a chink of light, and when, earlier this year, the County Council announced that, not only were they going to replace all of their street lights with new LED versions, but they would allow Parish Councils to hitch onto the contract, I leapt at the opportunity.

As a result, Creeting St Peter has nine new streetlights, which appeared one day without notice. When I saw them, my first thought was "they're a bit small, aren't they?" and they are, I admit pretty small. And, when they first sparked into light, as dusk fell, they didn't seem very impressive.

But wait a while, and the benefits of the new technology reveal themselves. The light they cast is strong, but very focussed on what lies beneath them, reducing light pollution and revealing a rather clearer night sky. Add to that the lower energy and maintenance costs, and I think that they'll pay their way over their lifetime - about twenty-five years. Which gives me time to raise the funds for their replacement...

When I moved a motion declaring our acknowledgment of the climate emergency, it would have been easy to see it as a meaningless gesture. What impact could a micro-parish like mine have? But every contribution helps, no matter how small, and my community of 275 or so has made a step towards reducing its impact upon the planet. That can only be a good thing.

I wonder if we can do something about the heating in the Church Room next?...

Thursday, October 27, 2022

NALC Annual General Meeting 2022 - keeping the flame of ultra-local government burning...

It has, somewhat astonishingly, been two years since I became Suffolk's representative on the National Assembly of the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) under somewhat unusual, albeit worryingly typical for me, circumstancesAnd, as nobody seems to mind that I continue, I'm still in post. 

In that capacity, I attended NALC's Annual General Meeting on Tuesday, expecting a not terribly exciting meeting but keen to do my bit for the organisation. I say "not terribly exciting" as it's an off year for elections to the Executive Board and the various committees, and the only items likely to be debated were a motion from our Northamptonshire colleagues on Clerks and some constitutional amendments.

The Northamptonshire motion, one which had the support of the Suffolk delegation, noted issues in terms of recruitment and retention of Clerks and called for a benchmarking exercise to establish a clearer sense of requirements.

I spoke in favour, noting the difficulties for small parishes, where the position of Parish Clerk perhaps required four hours per week, meaning that you couldn't really make a career of it, and making recruitment challenging, to say the least. Having had to act as Clerk for nine months myself, I noted my rather greater appreciation of the knowledge and skills required.

There was some opposition, from those who didn't see how a benchmarking exercise would work, or were opposed to the engagement of a consultant, but the motion was eventually passed.

Most of the constitutional amendments were lost, as the proper notice hadn't been given, which was slightly awkward, but as none of them were felt to be urgent, it probably didn't matter much, even if the Task and Finish group who had been given responsibility for producing them might have wondered why they were encouraged to get the job done in the first place.

That left a proposal to change the way NALC runs its elections, introducing the Alternative Vote system for single vacancy contests and the Single Transferable Vote system for multiple vacancy contests. It was unfortunate that the mover of the motion was semi-inaudible for reasons that never entirely became clear and that the seconder found it impossible not to over-complicate matters, thus stirring up confusion and thus opposition.

I did try to offer a very brief explanation of the benefits, rather than explaining the mechanics, but it was clear that the mood of the meeting wasn't favourable enough and, whilst each of the elements of the proposal won a majority, it wasn't enough to reach the two-thirds majority required. That probably means that we won't be revisiting it for a while, which is a pity.

A meeting that was gently steered, rather than strictly managed, by our Chair, Keith Stevens, ran pretty much to schedule and I do see improvements in the way that NALC is run along the lines of better reporting and transparency, but we still have a bit of a problem with wider engagement across the sector. That's partly the nature of the beast, I think - after all, how many Parish councillors have much interest in events beyond their borders?

But I am enjoying the role and, if my colleagues in Suffolk are minded to let me continue, I'd be happy to carry on. We'll find out the answer to that question next month...

Friday, October 21, 2022

Creeting St Peter - return of the prodigal?

I had thought that, having served four years as Chair of my Parish Council, I had deserved to enjoy a slightly slower pace of life as Vice Chair, and Finance portfolio holder. I'd even managed to resolve our lack of a Parish Clerk with what seems like a rather innovative solution. Unfortunately, for reasons too complex to explain, the Chair became vacant within ten weeks. After a discussion with my remaining colleagues, it became clear that the only solution was to return as Chair.

And so, on Monday night, Council met to pick up where we'd left off in July, with the first order of business to co-opt a new member. We had two vacancies, and still hope to fill the second next month, but having four councillors when your figure for quoracy is three can only be a good thing, especially as our newcomer looks likely to be active and capable.

My colleagues then graciously elected me as Chair, and so life returns to normal in our small, but perfectly formed, village.

That said, I'm probably better equipped than I was the first time. The experience of having to act as Chair, acting Clerk and Responsible Finance Officer has given me an insight into the mechanics of local government that I might not otherwise have gleaned. You can, as it turns out, rely too heavily on your Clerk, to the extent that you don't really have a grasp of how things actually work in reality. I would admit to having fallen foul of that but, if you've got a Clerk you can rely upon, the temptation is simply to let them get on with it.

And, right up to the point where the relationship is severed for whatever reason, that isn't a problem. And then it is. I was lucky, in that the relationship with our ex-Clerk was still good, and she was willing to tolerate acting as a "postbox" whilst we sorted out a replacement. I don't think that either of us thought that it would take nearly a year...

But, as noted before, we have now appointed both a Clerk and a Responsible Finance Officer, and I intend to work closely with them going forward, so that I understand what is happening and why, and can fulfil my obligations more effectively.

And so, my reign of terror leadership resumes. Watch this space...

Monday, September 26, 2022

Liberal Democrat Internal Elections: "a million thanks, dear friends!"

A few of you will know that I've thrown my hat into the ring again this year. Again, I wish to serve as a member of the Party's delegation to the ALDE Party Council - it's something that I think I've done well and credibly. I've also put my name forward to be a member of Federal Council, for reasons I'll explain another time.

This year, the nomination process has become rather more technologically advanced. You notify the Returning Officer that you wish to stand, and you are then added to a list of candidates who can nominated by any party member wishing to do so. Once they have, the candidate gets an e-mail advising who their latest nominator is and, eventually, that you have enough nominations to be accepted as an official candidate. It works pretty well, although there will be some valuable lessons learnt for next time, I suspect. Much credit should go to those responsible, nonetheless.

Now, having not really publicised the fact that I am running (with the exception of one Facebook group), I was somewhat surprised as a steady stream of e-mails arrived, especially as many of those who had gone to the trouble of nominating me aren't actually members of that group. It was, and is, rather touching that people with whom I've worked, in a range of capacities over more than thirty years, have sufficient confidence in me as a candidate. They've actually done so unprompted (at least, unprompted by me).

I am a realist. Nominating me doesn't necessarily mean that I'll get their first preference, or even a very high one, but it does offer some confidence that I may have a shot at getting elected, which is reassuring.

So, if you are one of those who have nominated me, many, many thanks. Your kindness has given me a bit of a fillip, never a bad thing.

And now, to produce a couple of manifestos...  

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Recognition for the unsung heroes - the Suffolk Community Awards

It's one of the things about moving from a city to a small village as I did more than a decade ago, you become much more aware of how communities survive and thrive. In a city, because the level of population churn is greater, you may not gain a sense of continuity, and of individual contributions to civic society. That's not to say that it doesn't exist - there are no end of community groups operating in our towns and cities - but it can easily feel impersonal.

In our small towns and villages, however, where the presence of local government is less "overt", the importance of volunteers is more evident. From Parish and Town councillors to good neighbour groups, from village hall committees to Parochial Church Councils, you're more likely to know the people who make things happen, who go that little bit further to improve communal life.

And, in Suffolk, three key umbrella groups have come together to recognise those people - the Suffolk Association of Local Councils, whose Board I have the honour to serve upon, Community Action Suffolk, where Ros is a trustee, and Suffolk County Council. The Suffolk Community Awards are open to nominations from across the county, and last night saw the awards ceremony.

Now I ought to note that the awards are not just for small towns and villages, with Felixstowe and Carlton Colville being recognised for their achievements in the fields of health and physical activity and community building respectively, but my particular interest is in how small villages and hamlets face up to the challenge of sustaining communities in the face of the challenges wrought by the shrinking of local government in the tiers above them.

And when Bredfield won the award for the best small village in the county, I was amazed to hear what they've achieved in terms of creating opportunities for residents both in their village and in its neighbours to take part in a range of activities. Given that Bredfield is barely larger than Creeting St Peter, with a population not much above 300, it sets the bar rather higher than I could have envisaged. I'm not daunted... much...

Other awards went to young volunteers, and to groups working with young people to enhance their lives and to create opportunities, and it is rather moving to hear of the impacts they have despite limited resources.

The organisers, whose efforts should really be applauded, had managed to persuade Mark Murphy, the former BBC Radio Suffolk morning show host, to present the awards, and he enthused the audience and engaged with the various winners in a very natural and encouraging way.

All in all, a really invigorating evening, and one almost perfectly designed to spur on those of us in the audience to give just a little more of ourselves in the campaign to build stronger communities across our county.

Wednesday, September 07, 2022

Creeting St Peter: it's time to bring the professionals in...

Last November, our long-serving Clerk resigned somewhat unexpectedly. Naturally, as Chair, I sought to find a replacement but, in the absence of anyone else, I ended up acting as Clerk, Responsible Finance Officer and Chair simultaneously. It wasn't sustainable in the long-term, and I fully understood that but, if there wasn't anyone else...

Luckily, our affairs are quite simple, I'm enthusiastic about transparency and, of course, I'm a professional bureaucrat. That still doesn't mean that the option of such power in the hands of one person is a good idea.

But, as winter turned to spring and then summer, there was no sign of an applicant to fill our vacancy. And then, in the course of a conversation that I was only part of because I'm married to the person they really wanted to talk to (and I was invited), another option was uncovered - to appoint someone to act as Clerk, and someone else to be Responsible Finance Officer.

To cut a long story short, they've started work, effective from 1 September and I've been answering questions, supplied information and documents and updating our website so that they can hit the ground running. It is, I confess, a weight off of my mind, especially as, despite my sworn intention to transfer power to someone else, it didn't work - I'm back as Acting Chair after less than three months with an understanding that I will be re-elected as Chair formally on 19 September. It would be fair to say that my remaining colleagues weren't terribly keen on taking the reins of "power".

It is also reassuring that my new professional team are highly experienced, extremely knowledgeable and competent. I do fret about breaking rules, especially given that we are, for all my light-hearted commentary, a tier of local government with a slew of legal responsibilities. And the conflict of interest that arises from holding a multitude of roles made me extremely uncomfortable - it's not necessarily a fear of wrongdoing as much as the risk of perception of possible wrongdoing from residents.

In truth, there isn't enough money in the kitty for me to disappear with, but that isn't really the point - those responsible for public funds must demonstrate the right attitude towards accountability and transparency as far as is possible, and certainly as far as the law requires.

But I'm also an officer of the County Association of Local Councils, and therefore have a responsibility to set a good example, even if that's more an aspiration than something actually expressed by any of my fellow Parish Council Chairs.

In the meantime, I've developed a far better understanding of what goes on "under the bonnet" of local government, especially the hyper-local operation that is a micro-Parish. As a Chair, the temptation is to leave all of that "organisational stuff" to your Clerk. After all, they're trained, and you aren't. But, and I think this is important, the Chair, and preferably other councillors, should have a sense of what is happening in their name, as they are ultimately responsible to the electorate.

So, despite the stress of the past nine months, I think that I have gained something useful from the experience, something I can pass on to other Parish Council Chairs undergoing similar difficulties.

Let's just hope that I don't have to do it again any time soon...

Saturday, August 27, 2022

It’s going to be a brutal winter, so we ought to be thinking ahead…

I have to admit that, reading the various reports on the prospects for household finances, my blood runs somewhat cold. If, like me, you’ve been paying attention to the data on household financial resilience, you’ll know that there are already alarming numbers of households where something like a boiler failure would send them into debt. The prospects of finding thousands of pounds to pay heating bills will add two or more million households to that group, and any extended period of high gas prices will add more and more.

And, whilst attention has turned to energy costs, households are also facing food inflation which feels higher than the already painful 10% as reported. The loaf of bread from Tesco that cost £1.10 not so long ago is now £1.40. Worse still, all the evidence points to food inflation rates being higher for the poor than the rest of us, with rates of up to 18% reported.

One of the things about living in a small, somewhat remote, village is that we don’t actually have mains gas - we evidently weren’t worth connecting up - and so mostly rely on heating oil for heating and hot water. That might be somewhat to our relative financial advantage over the coming months but, up and down the country, village communities are going to face problems.

We’re already hard hit by the increased cost of petrol - many households run more than one car by necessity in the absence of meaningful public transport - and for those villages that do have mains gas (and 85% of all households have gas heating), the older your house is, the harder it is likely to be to keep it warm. Village halls and what public facilities remain will be more expensive to keep warm, whilst retail and small businesses that are already marginal will struggle to keep going. And, once your village butcher has gone, you probably aren’t going to get them back.

As a Parish councillor in a micro-Parish, my problems are inconsequential compared to some of our neighbouring villages. We don’t have a building and, fortunately, our aging streetlights are all due to be replaced with brand new, highly energy efficient, LED lights imminently. But I deeply suspect that colleagues elsewhere would welcome support to enable them to open up village halls as “heat banks” for elderly residents, or to improve energy efficiency and/or insulation for these key community assets.

We may also need to think more strategically about solar farms in rural areas. They are seldom popular, with accusations of agricultural land being lost and landscape blight. But solar energy is going to become an essential part of the diversified energy mix needed to keep the lights on at a price we can afford, and there’s going to have to be a little more give and take, especially if we want to improve self-sufficiency in energy. It may not help this winter, but it will eventually.

In addition, many rural homes are suitable for solar panel installation - we’re mostly detached or semi-detached, with roofs open to the sun. Not only can we potentially supply much of our own electricity needs, but with the right incentives, some of us can supply power back to the grid. We’ll need some to power our electric vehicles, but even so, it’s a good investment all round.

There’s a crisis coming, and it’s going to be grim. But, in solving the immediate problems, we shouldn’t give up on planning for the future…

Thursday, August 25, 2022

A new constitution to play with...

I guess that I should be flattered to have received the call. After all, it's not every day that you get invited to join a working group set up to look into aspects of a major organisation's statutes and rules of procedure, and an international one at that.

And thus, part of my morning was spent with colleagues from Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, North Macedonia and Spain, as well as the ALDE Party's Deputy Secretary General and its new HR Manager, looking at how to address the issues within our remit. I wasn't in Dublin when the debates took place which caused our group to come into being, so it was interesting to establish the "backstory" and thus the context underpinning what we have been asked to do.

It is perhaps a sign that I am mellowing but I found myself resisting an urge to stray into the politics of the decisions we are asked to reconcile with the Statutes and Internal Regulations. After all, we are an advisory group, tasked with drawing up proposals to go before the Party Council and Congress, not a decision making body. I see our goal as one of reflecting the wishes of Council and the Congress in such a way as to give them what they want, as far as is possible within the framework of Belgian law and of good organisation.

Now I accept that what I've said so far is opaque to the point of total obscurity - "What is the bureaucrat on about?", I hear you mutter - but I'm not actually sure how much of what I'm being asked to consider is in the public domain and, even if it is, I'm not wildly enthusiastic about the notion of discussing it too widely - yet.

Regardless, it was nice to be doing something which demonstrates that I still have a role and have something to offer.

So, here are some general perspectives which will guide my contributions over the coming weeks;
  • constitutions should protect all parties as far as is possible
  • change should not stem from personalities, but from situations, even if the personality has created the situation
  • complexity should be kept to a minimum
  • the laws of the legal jurisdiction should be at the core of constitutional change
I've spent far more time than is necessarily healthy reading constitutions over the years - partly because nobody else ever seems to - but a grasp of the rules of any game tend to help you to play it more effectively. And you develop a philosophical position over the years which either becomes more rigid or more questioning - I've personally gone for the latter.

As I understand it, we are to report back to Council in Bratislava at the beginning of December, so time is short, especially if, as I hope, we don't "spring" our proposals on an unsuspecting room full of delegates. And now, I must draft something for my colleagues...

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Not so fast, Cllr Valladares...

Three months ago, I reported that my reign of terror four years as Chair of Creeting St Peter Parish Council was at an end. And I absolutely meant it, having persuaded a colleague to take over. Unfortunately, it didn't quite work out, as said councillor resigned last month, both as Chair and as a councillor. Naturally, the Vice Chair acts on a temporary basis until such time as Council can meet to elect a successor. That would be me then... 

I've discussed the matter with my remaining colleagues and they have decided that they'd really rather I return to the post. Under the circumstances, I don't really feel that I've got a choice - Council must have a Chair, and if nobody else will do it... well, I'd rather do it with good grace than grudgingly.

There is some good news though, in that our organisational problems appear to have been solved, with a new Clerk and Responsible Finance Officer starting on 1 September. Unusually though, especially for a small micro Parish, they're two different people.

Another Parish Council in Suffolk has been innovative in doing this, and it seemed like a perfect solution for us. So, having approached their Chair, I was told that their Clerk and Responsible Finance Officer might be willing to act for us too. I spoke to them both, and was impressed by their enthusiasm and expertise, and Council was happy for me to proceed. Hopefully, that will make my role less onerous than it had become, and I won't lie awake at night wondering what I've missed.

Council meets again in less than four weeks, and I'm hoping that we can also fill the two vacancies that have arisen over the summer - we're currently only just quorate with three councillors. I also intend that we take the Civility and Respect Pledge, not because we have a problem with that but because I think that it sends out a message to both those we represent, but also those beyond the Parish with whom we interact.

And so, I'm a responsible adult again. At least, more responsible than I had been. Wish me luck...

Friday, July 01, 2022

The big train ride, day 9 - on a very comfortable wing and a prayer

It was earlier in the morning than I would like, and I hadn’t actually seen Tarragona in daylight, but sometimes, a traveller has to do what a traveller has to do. 

Tarragona has two stations, one in the city, served by regional trains from Barcelona, the other a twenty-five minute bus ride away from the city’s bus station, thankfully conveniently located for my hotel, which is served by high speed trains between Barcelona and Madrid (amongst other places).

Camp Tarragona was purpose built, and is a sleek glass and concrete building with all of the things that you really need from a station and not much else. It also has luggage scannners, which was somewhat unexpected - the Spanish are particularly keen on security and, for the time being at least, mask wearing.

I was bound for Valencia, which turned out to be rather glorious. The sun was shining out of a perfectly blue sky, it was warm and still pleasant, and the core of the city is utterly charming and, as I had a couple of hours to soak it all in, I took the opportunity to wander around, taking in the sights. These include a plaque with my surname on it, somewhat to my surprise.

Bridges, gate towers, a sensational looking market hall, Valencia has all this and more, plus direct flights from London, and I deeply suspect that I will bring Ros here at some point in the not too distant future.

All good things come to an end, apparently, and I had to leave, albeit not actually by train. Valencia has a convenient airport and, having realised that I wasn’t going to able to leave Spain by train, I had a flight to catch, bound for Zürich with an onward connection to Vienna, courtesy of Swiss. In keeping with the first class train ticket, I was flying business class, using some residual United Airlines frequent flyer miles.

Valencia Airport is nice enough, with a very civilised business class lounge, and Swiss supply passengers with some very nice chocolate - something I like even more than gummy bears.

I made my rather tight connection in Zürich, arrived safely in Vienna, and headed into the darkness. It was time to return to Bratislava…

Sunday, June 26, 2022

The big train ride, day 8 - in which some valuable lessons are learned…

France was heating up, and I had a long train ride ahead of me. Which, as regular readers may recall, left me with a challenge. You see, I started walking ten thousand steps each day in 2016, and haven’t missed a day since. And so, to ensure that I didn’t fail, I had an early breakfast and took one of Dijon’s very efficient trams into the city centre to take advantage of the best of the day.

Dijon is a delightfully walkable city, with seemingly something interesting to see around every corner, as perhaps befits the capital of Burgundy, and on a gloriously sunny day, my only regret was that I didn’t have time to stop, enjoy a glass (or two) of wine and a hearty, if stylish, lunch.

And that, I guess, was the flaw in my schedule - albeit an intentional one. But Dijon is certainly somewhere I’d like to bring Ros to sooner rather than later.

But I did have a train to catch, and a connection to make…

France is, of course, famous for its high speed trains. They are undoubtedly impressive, sweeping across the country on dedicated lines but why do SNCF insist on charging for a mandatory seat reservation? And it’s not a minor amount either, with the cost of a first class seat reservation adding as much as €70 to the basic first class fare. And, if you have a connection, that means more than one seat reservation.

As I headed for Dijon Ville station, there was something nagging away at the back of my mind - what I was going to do the next day. For, whilst everything had been neatly planned up until now, the only fixed point after this journey was a Eurostar train in three days time. But the train to Lyon was on time, I had snacks to keep me going and a solution was bound to come up, right?

At Lyon, I had time to ponder my options before catching the train to Barcelona. SNCF and the Spanish national rail company, RENFE, now operate four high speed trains each day crossing the border. Other than that though, your only real options are either via Port-Bou on the Mediterranean coast, or via Latour de Carol in the Pyrenees. Neither is quick, or convenient, and it leads me to wonder why more fast trains don’t exist. I’d been lucky to get a reservation on this leg, which should have been a warning.

There were no seats available the next day travelling back the way I was coming, and no availability on trains to San Sebastián, either directly or via Madrid, and so I was forced to do something unplanned.

The journey to Barcelona is one to enjoy, with some gorgeous scenery as the train passes through Nimes and Montpellier, along the Mediterranean shore and into Catalonia. We were held up at Perpignan due to a passenger being taken ill and, by the time we arrived in Barcelona, it was already dark.

I did have a plan though, requiring a seat reservation on a morning train out of Tarragona, and as RENFE only do seat reservations for Interrail passengers in person, I headed for the ticket office to make the necessary arrangements. This turned out to be easier said than done, and it required some rather frantic negotiations with their customer service team before I was directed back to the ticket office.

Once I’d queued for a little while, a friendly gentleman remarked that “that hombre” had appeared, sold me a seat reservation and indicated his mild surprise that, with such a Hispanic surname, I spoke no Spanish. But I had what I needed. The Great Escape was on!

Sunday, June 19, 2022

The big train ride, day 7 - across the continent to the home of condiment

The idea of sleeper trains is a romantic one and it is easy to forget that, not so long ago, they were headed the way of the dinosaur. Deutsche Bahn were so convinced of this that they decided to axe all of their sleeper trains. Fortunately, their Austrian neighbours saw an opportunity and bought all of the available rolling stock.

The result was a network of routes based from Vienna that allow you to go to sleep in one city and wake up, hours later, a long way away and for no more than the cost of a cheap hotel room. Even if you want a compartment to yourself, and I’m quite keen on that, the cost is still reasonable.

And other people want to get in on the act, with private companies raising funds to fill the gaps that ÖBB (Austrian State Railways) can’t easily service.

My destination was Milan Porta Garibaldi, thirteen or so hours from Vienna, including a two hour break in Villach where the two halves of the train, the other for Rome, were divided and new locomotives connected.

We arrived at three minutes early, leaving me enough time to get to the imposing Milano Centrale to catch a cross-border train to Bellinzona. These are operated by a collaboration between the Swiss canton of Ticino and Italian Lombardy, thus the trains are efficient and rather stylish.

At Bellinzona, the time efficient route to Zürich is via the Gotthard Base Tunnel. Efficient but dull, so I took the slow train, via Airolo and the old Gotthard Pass route and stared out of the window at the glorious Alpine scenery. A dash for a connecting ICE train at Zürich and I was in Basel ahead of schedule to catch an SNCF regional service to Mulhouse Ville. 

I’d never been to Mulhouse before but rather liked it, a walkable town with a complicated heritage as part of Alsace Lorraine. It’s somewhere I might come back to, with Ros this time, as it’s a region that neither of us knows particularly well. One of the aims of this trip was to visit cities less publicised and I think that it has worked well in that sense.

My final destination for the day was Dijon (cue a series of mustard jokes). My hotel was attached to the Toison D’Or shopping mall, which gave me the opportunity to buy that new Fitbit I needed. It’s very nice and a bit more stylish and advanced than the old one.

A quick dinner later, it was time for some sleep - I had another early start to come…

The big train ride, day 6 - a somewhat battered traveller detours in search of profit…

Morning, and time to assess the damage. The knees were somewhat beaten up, with cuts and scrapes the record of the previous day’s mishap. But they were working, so it was time to get on with the show. And I had a plan…

Before leaving Suffolk, I had rummaged through our “random currency box” and discovered that we had 81,000 Hungarian forints. And given that my only fixed point for the day was to catch a train from Vienna at 7.23 p.m., it was time to get inventive.

There is a train service that runs every hour from Bratislava-Petrzalka station to Parndorf in Austria, from where you can get to Györ in Hungary. I needed a new Fitbit as I’d scratched the face of the one I was wearing, and the strap was damaged - neither by the fall, fortunately - and 81,000 forint would probably cover the cost of a replacement. And there was a conveniently located laundromat near Györ-Gyarvaros station…

And, sure enough, the laundromat was rather clever - you can pay by debit card, and the machine adds the laundry detergent itself, thus simplifying matters greatly. Better still, because the machines are industrial, a load of laundry can be washed and dried in about an hour, incredibly useful when you’ve got a train to catch. So, if you’re ever in Hungary and need to get some laundry done, the Bubbles chain comes highly recommended. The machine instructions are in English too, which is a bonus, and there’s an app so that you can book in advance.

Next, to the nearby shopping mall to look for a new Fitbit. The local branch of Media Markt, a Europe-wide consumer electronics store, didn’t have what I looking for and, as it turned out, the forint bank notes were out of circulation. So, I went to a bank to change them.

Unhelpfully, the bank weren’t obliged to do so, as I was nine months too late. Instead, I was directed towards a bank in the centre of Györ which, I was assured, could help. The catch was that they were about to close for the day. And then I had an idea.

Post Offices are run by the state in most places, and Hungary is no exception, so I headed for the main Post Office and, lo and behold, for a very reasonable 3% fee, I was able to walk out with 78,000 forints which I soon converted into €195. Time for a dash to Vienna for that 7.23 train…

Luckily, I’d left myself a time cushion, as we were held up at Hegyeshalom for reasons that never actually became clear. But I did get to Vienna in time for the connection I couldn’t miss.

I found my cabin, made myself comfortable and we were off. The cabin attendant had brought me a nice glass of Sekt, which was drunk as we headed south-west…