Thursday, September 11, 2014

ALDE: doing good, one small policy proposal at a time...

I am, as a politician (and I use that term in its loosest possible sense), a gradualist at heart. Perhaps it is the slightly diffident bureaucrat in me that shies away from big, spontaneous gestures, or a lack of a specialism that offers the required expertise, that prevents me from proposing big ideas, but I do flatter myself that, when it comes to the mechanics of implementation, I have an eye for implications. And today, that came in useful.

We were discussing membership structure proposals at today's meeting of the ALDE Financial Advisory Committee - naturally, I cannot discuss specifics as everything is still at the proposal stage, and the relevant bodies are yet to be informed - but as we discussed them, and the implications, it dawned on me that they presented an opportunity to reach out to those parties who, for various reasons, find it hard to pay affiliation fees and therefore opt for a more limited form of membership.

And so, I offered up a suggestion which, I hope, will make it easier for smaller parties, from places where politics is difficult, to engage with the rest of us. It does involve some expenditure on the part of the ALDE Party, but I see it as an investment in building a bigger, more diverse, European liberal family, and, given the support of the Treasurer and, I believe, the Secretariat, it is a decided possibility.

As I said, it isn't a big thing, but it is the ability to make a contribution which makes my position as a member of ALDE's Council so worthwhile - a place where process and careful analysis take precedence over grand politics and the expression of ideas.

What that means is that, unlike my usual diffident approach to elections - it would be nice to win, but it isn't the be all and end all - this one is different. I would really like to be re-elected this year to another two-year term, so I'll be campaigning somewhat harder than I have in the past, on a platform of vorsprung durch verwaltung - progress through administration.

You see, I believe that political parties have a duty to run themselves efficiently, as their internal workings are a window into the way they believe politics should be done. They should also wear their principles on their sleeves, because if they don't, why should a voter have any faith that, in power, they would be true to them?

It is that spirit that I bring to my work, and whilst virtue is apparently its own reward, the recognition that re-election represents would be even better...

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

And so, another journey to the home of the Salamander...

It is that time of year again, when your correspondent travels abroad to carry out the solemn duty of advising European liberalism as to its moral and ethical responsibilities in terms of internal financial management.

I enjoy my membership of ALDE's Financial Advisory Committee, in that it allows me to be helpful - at least to a certain extent - in a field I understand, and yet remain relatively non-political. Our role - the Committee has seven members - is to examine the financial aspects of ALDE Party activity, suggest ways to progress its objectives and act as, if you like, a back-up conscience for both the Bureau and the Secretariat.

You note that I don't claim that we are the conscience, as I have every confidence in both the Bureau and the Secretariat to behave appropriately. However, sometimes, an external perspective, not involved in the day to day necessities and obligations of running a political party, is useful and, I hope, valuable. We are, by our relative separation from the professional staff and leadership, able to ask questions the answers to which may seem obvious to an insider but, to an outsider, might smack of "but that's how we've always done it".

My colleagues, Boris, Hans, Luca, Monica and Roman, bring different experiences to the table, and different perspectives, which is useful because there are as many ways of doing things as there are countries in the European Union, and issues that might pass unmentioned in one country might be problematic in another. For example, accepting a particular source of sponsorship may generate issues in, say Italy, that cause no problems in Sweden.

We do have a new member this time, as there is a new LYMEC (Liberal Youth Movement of the European Community) Treasurer to be introduced and welcomed, replacing Anne, whose input was always helpful.

So, wish me luck, as I'm kind of doing this for you - because financial probity matters to everyone in civil society...

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Scotland: you gotta be cool, you gotta be calm, you gotta stay together?

If the polls are to be believed, the margin between those intending to vote 'yes' to independence in the Autumn, and those intending to vote 'no' has shrunk towards the margin of error. And whilst I'm not a defeatist, and I'd really not want to see the Scots go, I could hardly complain if they did.

I'll set aside the impact of Scotland reclaiming its independence on the rest of the United Kingdom - it's mostly conjecture and there'll be a queue of people writing about it before very long - and look at the decision itself.

As a liberal, I believe in self-determination and devolution of power, and I suppose that there can be no clearer declaration of that than the desire for nationhood. And yes, the concept of a sovereign state is somewhat different in our modern, inter-connected world than it might once have been, but it is still one that stirs the blood. So, if the Scots want it, they should have it.

It must be for Scots to take responsibility for their actions though, to weigh up the modern day equivalent of the 'cost in blood and treasure' of breaking away, and it is for those in positions of authority to talk through the issues in a manner that treats the people as adults, with hearts and minds, which is why the debate that is currently taking place looks like such a shambles, with its utter disregard for the significant areas of doubt and uncertainty that exist on currencies, European Union membership and finance to name but three.

And nationhood is not, and should not be, conditional - the "we'll keep all the good bits of our old relationship" argument - because they aren't yours to promise, they're for others to offer, should they be so inclined.

There will be a price to pay for newly independent Scots, as my friend Cicero has already noted. Can the Scottish economy sustain the calls upon it that currently exist, let alone the promises that Alex Salmond has showered upon wavering voters? How painful will the transition phase be? How much will it cost to create a civil service to administer the new nation - diplomatic corps, tax authority etc. - and to build the support systems that they require?

Of course, one thing that emerging nations have not had to think much about is the view of the financial markets in a global economy, and yesterday's selling of Scottish companies (and the pound too) is a reminder that no country, no matter how passionate it is, is truly independent anyway unless it is to become a hermit nation, not a prospect that is likely or credible for Scotland.

So, despite the pleas from my friends and my party to fight to keep the Union together, I'll be remaining on the sidelines, conscious that the debate for Scotland's future appears to be an unsafe place for those with an open, questioning mind but without a direct stake in the outcome.

I have only one thing to add, and that's a reminder. Any decision, especially one as big as this, comes with a proviso, that the winners accept the consequences of their actions, and honour their commitments. And that goes as much for the 'No' campaign as it does for the 'Yes' one...

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Liberal Democrats: try and keep your head up to the sky?

If all that I knew of the Liberal Democrats was the pronouncements from the centre and the debate on Liberal Democrat Voice, I would probably be pretty depressed. That isn't to say that it hasn't been a bit grim of late, as the fire of the Party seems to be turned on itself, aided and abetted by outsiders with little fondness for liberalism or, in some cases, interest in its survival in our country.

In some cases, where people have been hurt, or failed by the Party, I understand their unhappiness, even whilst wishing that it wasn't so. And if they feel that, having tried every other way to seek remedy for what happened, their only option is to attack the Party in a public forum, then those of us who remain will just have to take it on the chin.

We are promised change by our leaders, and maybe it will come. But it won't be quick, and it won't be certain. Not every member of the Liberal Democrats is a liberal or a democrat, political parties attract some people who, given half a chance, will demonstrate just how astute Lord Acton's comment on power and its ability to corrupt was, and one person's morality is not that of another. And, in judgement of such things, we are ultimately reliant on humans, with all their multiplicity of faults and failings.

Process is not, in itself, the solution to the mess that the Party finds itself in, as, unless the culture changes, the process is only good for punishing people after they have hurt others. It might act as a deterrent, and I hope that it does, but it won't prevent such events entirely, and I worry about the current level of expectation that it might. In an organisation which is predominantly run and led at local level by volunteers without experience of handling complaints, and where awareness of best practice is patchy at best - trust me, I have plenty of practical experience on the subject - you are only as strong as your weakest link.

So, we must strive to build confidence in our members and supporters that, where wrongdoing is discovered, that it will be acted upon swiftly, and with due process. But we must also stand prepared for the weaknesses of individuals and the randomness of misfortune...

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

ALDE: listen as your day unfolds, challenge what the future holds...

It's getting towards the time of year when thoughts turn to re-election, and as my second term as a member of the Liberal Democrat delegation to the Council of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE) comes to an end on 31 December, I should be giving some thought towards a manifesto.

There are some new complications this year, in that gender balance will be more strictly enforced, which given that more men than women generally run, makes my prospects somewhat less rosy - c'est la vie, I guess. I am, it is true, somewhat more low profile than once I was, which probably doesn't help either, and I belong to a smallish, rather out of the way Local Party.

It would be nice to think that I could run on my record, but as hardly anyone knows what ALDE does, and even less what the Council is for, I'll be up against people who have views on European policy (even though it is Congress that makes policy, not Council), and have little or no interest in what Council does - it's the administrative bit of ALDE.

But I would rather like to get elected for another term. I like the way politics is done at European level, more collaborative, more consensual, I enjoy working with others to reach a policy solution that brings people together rather than driving them apart. And, at a time when domestic politics both within and beyond the Liberal Democrats is, to be frank, a bit depressing, doing something rather more positive is important.

So, I'll be pondering over the messages for my campaign, and working on the text of what will probably be just an A5 page in a large booklet of similar pleas for support. And whilst it might be premature for me to express a wish that you might look kindly upon my candidacy, do remember that, like most other candidates for elected Party office, I'm doing this because I want to serve my Party, not as some sort of quest for fame.

Crossing the path of Erik XIV once again, this time in Turku

That Erik XIV certainly got around, albeit somewhat unwillingly. This is Turku Castle, or Åbo Slott, as Swedish speakers would refer to it, where our friend was imprisoned. It would seem that he was moved around quite a lot, to prevent anyone getting any ideas about putting him back on the throne, until it was eventually decided that poisoning him was best for everyone (except Erik, presumably).

Turku was our third stop on our circumnavigation of the northern Baltic Sea, having left Mariehamn on a surprisingly perfect afternoon, on the M/S Viking Grace, a vast, rather snazzy ferry which travels backwards and forwards between Stockholm and Turku, calling in the Åland Islands en route. It was, in retrospect, too early to leave Mariehamn and, likewise, too early to reach Turku. But that's part of the travel experience and, as I always tell Ros, we can always go back.

In truth, Turku is not an obvious tourist destination, and despite its status as one of the two EU Capitals of Culture in 2011 - Tallinn was the other - there is little to keep the questing traveller. We went to Naantali, a rather lovely old town masquerading as a ferry terminal - we stood where the map suggested that the terminal should be, but couldn't find any evidence that a ferry travels from there to Kapelskär via Längnas, even though it actually does. 

On our second day, we visited the castle. It is rather something, notable for having had, as one of its defences, bears which would savage unwary attackers. Apparently, this would now be considered cruel and unusual punishment, although anyone attacking a castle rather deserves all that they get, if you ask me. The English-speaking guide was very good value for the €2.50 that she cost, with a lot of interesting stories and some very un-Finnish humour.

The riverfront makes for a pleasant walk too, and the cathedral is imposing, but it isn't enough to make me think that I really ought to go back - just watch, there'll be an ALDE event there next year, now that I've said that...

Monday, August 25, 2014

Âland of gentle surprises, set in a chilly sea...

There was a time, not so long ago, when a travelling bureaucrat would have been in some big city, looking at big things, flying on big planes. But times change, and so have my, or should I say, our travels.

The Äland Islands are a Swedish-speaking collection of Islands and skerries which form the western end of an archipelago that reaches out from Turku, in south-western Finland, across the lower Gulf of Bothnia towards Sweden. 25,000 or so people live in what is an autonomous province under Finnish sovereignty. That autonomy is such that they have their own flag, their own post office, a parliament and a bunch of exemptions from European Union regulations, and all of this is the result of a 1921 ruling by the League of Nations that was the talk of international jurists everywhere.

But enough history, why come here?

Mariehamn, the capital, isn't big - just ten thousand or so people - and it isn't exactly bustling. What it is though, is gentle, especially out of season - the summer bus timetable ends in mid-August, and most museums close for the year in mid-September, not to reopen until May. You can walk across from shore to shore in about fifteen minutes - there is sea to the east and west - and the bus service is slightly erratic.

It is a maritime town, with a history that looks to the sea, of brave men who set sail for the four corners of the world but whose roots were in the small communities and rocky outcrops that were their island home, of the women who raised their families and waited patiently for them to come home.

Perhaps it is the fact that, unlike some island communities, the locals are pretty friendly and very helpful, and, on a sunny day, with the sun reflecting off the water and the wooden houses, it is just the place I might live for a while. And then one is gently reminded that the average temperature is above ten degrees centigrade for four months of the year,  Stockholm is six hours away by ferry (it's five to Turku), and in the depths of winter the average temperature is below freezing for three months or more. Hmmmm... maybe not...

So, come to Mariehamn, bring a sweater and perhaps a hat to keep the rain out of your hair. Take a walk, catch a bus, grab an ice cream and some herring - but not at the same time, perhaps. And, at the end of the day, kick back with a beer and relax in the knowledge that, tomorrow, you won't be in a hurry...

Is the only good Tory a kauppatori*?

Ah yes, Finnish humour - a concept somewhat less likely than the same nation's historic fascination with tango. But I digress, and not for the first time.

There can be little doubt that the process of differentiation between Liberal Democrats and Conservatives has begun in earnest. Odd, really, because the Conservatives have had very little trouble in that regard - there are very few serious commentators outside of the Coalition parties suggesting that they are much more 'wet liberal' than a Cameron-led, Conservative-only administration would have been, and in cutting welfare spending, they're doing what most people would expect them to, even if they don't like it much.

No, the expectation is that it is for the Liberal Democrats to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives, and that this is to be done against a backdrop of public cynicism, media vendetta and the hypocrisy of Labour activists who chastise the Coalition for its treatment of the poor and vulnerable whilst their leadership talk of being tougher on welfare and immigrants.

I'll be frank - doing a post-election deal with Labour isn't attractive to this rural bureaucrat. The catch is, would five years of continuing to try to mitigate Conservative incompetence any more worthwhile. I had thought that, whilst they might not be very nice, they were more likely to rebuild the economy than Labour, and on civil liberties issues, they couldn't be much worse than Labour were. I had not given much thought to the question of basic competence...

And it is competence, as opposed to 'right-wing evil' (message to some social liberals and most Labour activists - they aren't evil, it's simply that their view of society is radically different to yours), that has been the problem. In an attempt to win over the media, the Conservatives in government have effectively conceded that, whatever it is that journalists say must be done, regardless of the evidence. So, for example, when talk was of migration, the Conservatives came up with their absurd net migration target, something which has brought about a series of inane measures whilst failing utterly to convince those for whom the pledge was intended to placate and attract.

The 'bedroom tax', Europe, legal aid, anti-terrorism legislation, and so much more, where it is either clear that it didn't work and is being reworked, or is having consequences that thinking people had predicted from the beginning, too much of it is Conservative-inspired.

So, in the event that the British public throw up their hands as if to say, "we don't know, you sort it out", Liberal Democrats will find themselves with a rather harder puzzle to solve. And I really couldn't tell you, at this stage, how I might lean if it came to it...

* a kauppatori is the Finnish for a market square - perhaps as good a description of some Conservatives as you could hope to find...

Interim Peers List - so where do we stand now?

So, let's summate;
  • the original 1999 list saw nine out of its fifty members get the call, although two more went on to get one eventually
  • its 2004 replacement saw just two successful candidates, although that was better than...
  • the 2006 list, of which only one member was preferred...
  • but not as good as the 2008 list, which has seen five successes, and another from its subsequent 2010 top-up
My calculation tells me that, therefore, there are still thirty-nine names available to the Glorious Leader. That is, theoretically. Sadly, Viv Bingham is no longer with us, following his death in 2012. Meanwhile, John Stevens quit the Party in 2010 to fight John Bercow in his Buckingham constituency, and Jeremy Ambache is now a Labour councillor in Wandsworth, rather ruling them out, I suspect.

On the positive side, Catherine Bearder is unlikely to give up her seat in the European Parliament, thus taking her out of the frame, although even were she to tire of the charms of Brussels and Strasbourg and accept a peerage, her replacement, Antony Hook, would then be out of the frame instead.

But, to be frank, there may not be very many opportunities for anyone left on the list until next year's General Election... and possibly even fewer after that...

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The slightly mysterious Interim Peers top-up list of 2010

It is entirely a coincidence that the 2010 top-up list was announced on 13 November 2010 - although it was my birthday - and a new list of appointments to the Lords was announced six days later. It did lead to an interesting occurrence, however.

A list of fifteen, to be added to the remainder from the 2008 list, was elected as follows (those actually appointed highlighted);
  1. Sal Brinton - count 1 (19 November 2010)
  2. Mark Pack - count 1
  3. David Boyle - count 2
  4. Kay Barnard - count 2
  5. Flick Rea - count 20
  6. Sue Baring - count 22
  7. Mike Tuffrey - count 23
  8. Val Cox - count 27
  9. Alan Butt-Philip - count 28
  10. Jon Ball - count 28
  11. Chris Wiggin - count 28
  12. Richard Church - count 28
  13. Liz Leffman - count 28
  14. Chris Bones - count 28
  15. Antony Hook - count 28
It was almost certainly a coincidence that Sal was appointed six days later - whilst nominees are warned some time before the official announcement, the timing is rather longer than that. And there have been no other appointments since from the top-up list...