Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Labour Leadership contest: destroying the village in order to save it?

For those of us who believe that a country is best served by a vibrant democracy, especially those of us who believe internal party democracy is key, the unfolding nightmare that is Labour's leadership contest is a cause of some sadness. The events of the past week have not been pretty, although there are some lessons we might all benefit from.

Messing about in the affairs of a party you don't support is still stupid

Oh yes, it's been highly amusing as various non-Labour supporters have waved their ballot papers in front of cameras or on social media. That doesn't make it clever, because it merely exposes how vulnerable to entryism every political party is. Regardless of your party affiliation, does your local group actually vet new members for adherence to your Party's values? So, when you have a leadership contest, or are making some other important decision, can you be confident that it is unadulterated? But, of course, you've now declared open season on such things. Labour are probably the first to be impacted - they may not be the last. And, if you've had your laugh this time, don't be upset if it comes back to bite you...

Green Party support is conditional on Labour being centrist

It is alleged that 1900 of those excluded from the Labour electorate are recent Green candidates or supporters. That's bad news for the Greens, as it means that their increased support is very shallow. Mind you, now that Caroline Lucas is calling for a formal partnership, is there much point to the Greens? And so much for internal party democracy, when your only MP can go so far off message without apparent consequence.

Slagging off your internal opponents seldom ends well

Today's charges of sexism against Andy Burnham appear somewhat artificial from this distance. How on Earth could he answer a question about the value of a female leader for the Party now, when he's running to be Leader? If he had said, "Yes, that would be great.", the obvious follow-up would be, "So, why are you running?".

And accusations relating to the creation of internal ginger groups by the likes of Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt do make you wonder how you could unite the Party afterwards, regardless of who wins.

Internal democracy is important, so don't mess around with it unless you've thought through the consequences...

It does seem that the likely consequences of using a leadership contest to encourage new members to sign up was not wholly thought through. One of the issues surrounding online recruitment is that vetting such new members is more difficult than with those you actively sign up - the personal relationship may very well not exist. Likewise with the notion of OMOV for internal party elections. Yes, democracy is a good thing, although informed democracy is better. An uninformed electorate is more likely to vote for well-known, well-established candidates than radical outsiders without a profile. That may lead to administrative ossification and a reduced ability to react to a changing political situation.

So, just a few thoughts from the other side of the Atlantic. I was a democracy activist before I joined the Party, and have earned a modest reputation as someone who takes an interest in the workings of internal party democracy. And, right now, I'm a mote nervous...

Monday, August 17, 2015

To the Maine Shore by air, but not necessarily the conventional way...


When it was decided that, by way of respite from our two big city destinations, we would probably need some oxygenated air, Ros came up with the idea of Bar Harbor, a small resort town on the coast of Maine. I was sceptical at first, but discovered that, whilst there were no trains, or even buses, there was an airport.

And so, I set about finding flights, only to discover that no major American airline flies there. On the other hand, United would sell me a ticket to get to Bar Harbor from New York, with an aircraft switch at Boston. And yes, I did note that the connecting flight was on a Cessna 402...

Anyway, having made it to Newark's Liberty Airport, our first flight was somewhat delayed. Indeed, it was late enough to jeopardise our connection, entailing a breathless dash through Logan Airport in Boston to get to our gate. We were, thank heavens, just in time to be questioned as to our weight, which seemed not to be problematic.

And then, with seven other people, we were led down a flight of stairs and out across the tarmac to a mosquito-sized aircraft, where our hand luggage was taken from us and a rollcall taken by first names. Seats were assigned and we were off, the pilot's window open so as to allow some fresh air into the cabin.

We taxied across the airport before taking our place in the queue for take-off, dwarfed by the Boeing 737s and the like all doing the same thing. Frankly, we could have been run over and I don't think that many people would have noticed.

On a Cessna 402, every seat is a window seat, especially 1B, which would be the co-pilot's seat were Cape Air to have any, but instead increases the passenger capacity to nine. There is a rather good in-flight magazine, although it does take second place to the incredible views of the New England shoreline.

However, after an otherwise uneventful flight, we arrived at Bar Harbor's Hancock County Airport in bright sunshine. As a final reminder that we weren't on a big faceless airline, the couple waiting in the arrivals lounge turned out to be our pilot's mum and dad.

So, Cape Air is probably not recommended for nervous fliers. However, it got us to our destination on time, and in time for a lobster supper...

Saturday, August 15, 2015

I don't envy Kezia Dugdale her new job, but...

I'm not usually one to get too involved in the internal workings of other political parties, and especially don't often offer advice - there's little enough reason why they should listen anyway. However, sometimes, the health of our body politic is a bit more important than that, and given that the place of Scotland in the United Kingdom has a direct impact on how the country as a whole is run, I make an exception here.

In Kezia Dugdale, Labour have elected a leader who has an opportunity to start a new chapter in Scottish politics. Not because she has any particular talent - I don't know enough about her to really know - but because she doesn't need to be particularly beholden to the sort of people who got Labour to the point where it has only one MP north of the border. Machine politicians who, when confronted with the collapse of the machine, had no means by which to resist the SNP juggernaut.

And, before you stop me, I acknowledge that, in terms of seats won and lost, we Liberal Democrats didn't do a whole lot better - our vote held up better though.

In truth, the SNP are unlikely to be beaten by simply regurgitating the old politics of aggression - they have an overwhelming advantage in terms of activists and organisation. Nor is any attempt to bring together the theoretical anti-independence coalition likely to work either. No, it is for different political groupings to offer the Scottish people what they, as proponents of different political philosophies, believe to be the best solutions for Scotland within a federal state.

Now, for Labour, that offers a bit more of a challenge, especially whilst the identity of the new leader in London remains unknown. How truly independent can Scottish Labour be, for example? Is there the will to create a truly Scottish left of centre platform? Recent history says possibly not. But in a Scotland which is well on the path to independence, and with a government in Westminster which is likely to encourage further steps along it, Labour have to adapt to the new environment, talking about a Scotland that could be.

Kezia has a history on social media of being something other than a slavish adherent to a line, and if she is allowed her freedom and is brave enough to take some risks, she could help to make Scottish politics something other than the bear put it resembles from the outside.

One should welcome new leaders in politics (within reason) as they have the power to change the political environment for the better. Indeed, I would suggest that they have a responsibility to do so. So, good luck Kezia, although you might need it...

Remembering a terrorist outrage - the 9/11 Memorial Museum

It's been some time since I was last in New York, and the city is ever changing. The effective completion of the memorial for the victims of the September 11th attack by Al Qaeda meant that we could go and see how they have decided to reflect upon an incident that most of us thought unimaginable.

In order to ensure that you can walk into the museum, it is best to book in advance online - you can print off the ticket - so that you can fit your visit in efficiently. And it is very efficient, with admission organised on half-hourly slots to help visitor flows.

The museum building itself is surrounded by a small park with two incredible water features which act as the memorial to those who died, not just in the two towers, but in Washington and in New Jersey, where the fourth flight crashed in open country. Two square pools, with water pouring down from each edge into the centre, and a square hole in the middle where water drains away. The falling water catches the light to create flickering rainbows and upon the walls are engraved the names of the dead.

In my experience, Americans are not prone to introspection. That isn't a criticism, more an acknowledgement that big city Americans appear louder than life. And, in a museum that marks the deaths of more than three thousand people, that might not be a helpful trait, especially when combined with tourists who might not 'get it'. But it is a remarkably tranquil place, albeit a very somber one. the exhibits explain the story of the day itself, the history of events that led up to it and followed on from it, and tell individual stories in a way that is incredibly moving.

The fact that the museum is built over Ground Zero, and that remains from the original Twin Towers form part of the building itself, is just another of the features that makes the 9/11 Memorial Museum something that visitors to New York would do well to make time for. I'm certainly glad that I did...

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Take me out to the ball park...

I've always had an interest in baseball, at least, ever since I was introduced to it twenty-five years ago. For my sins, I follow the (ill)fortunes of the Cincinnati Reds, a team cursed with being in the same division as the rather more successful St Louis Cardinals. When I'm in the US, I usually try to catch a game and, when Ros and I were here three years ago, I took her to see her first game, at Safeco Field, the home of the Seattle Mariners.

This year, we're on the East Coast, and, being in New York, we had a choice, between the Mets and the Yankees. That is, we technically had a choice, as it had been made clear to us that the Yankees really weren't an option (we have a Boston Red Sox fan house sitting this week...).

So, we've spent a warm afternoon at Citi Field in Queens, watching the Mets slaughter the Colorado Rockies, 12-3. Beer may have been drunk - in moderation, naturally - and hot dogs eaten. This is pretty exciting, as the Mets are top of their division for the first time in years and, best of all, the Yankees aren't.

All of this seemed unlikely when, in the first inning, Mets pitcher, Noah Syndergaard, gave up two home runs. The Mets struck back quickly though, with three runs of their own, and by the end of the third inning, the game was symmetrically tied at three apiece. That, as it turned out, was as good as it was going to get for the Rockies, whose season is already effectively over, as their pitching staff gave up a steady stream of hits and runs.

Citi Field is one of the new generation of ballparks, with great sight lines, whilst giving a gentle nod to the past. The entrance area is a tribute to Ebbets Field, the old home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Jackie Robinson is honoured with a section of the stadium named after him with an exhibition for visitors.

It isn't a cheap experience - think of it as being akin to a Premier League game - but it is worth it if you're curious about this cornerstone of American life.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

"A second cousin is a person in your neighbourhood" - a gentle mid-morning in Brooklyn

Saturday morning, the sun was shining, and it was time for a trip on the subway. Our destination - Brooklyn or, to be more precise, Clinton Hill, a long-established residential suburb, for brunch with Leon, Patti, Vayden and Finley.

We walked across Times Square in search of an ATM, withdrew some spending money and purchased two 7-day Metrocards - pretty good value at $31 each (never let it be said that you don't learn anything here at "Liberal Bureaucracy"), before heading into the underworld. It is, it must be said, just as hot as Hades down there. However, we eventually located the C train platforms, arriving just in time to catch a train.

One of the quirky things about the New York subway is that lines aren't necessarily fixed, and we suddenly, rather unexpectedly, found ourselves on the F line, heading for Jay Street/Metro Tech where, we were reassured, would revert to the C line, due to weekend engineering works (where have I heard that phrase before).

Having left Times Square, which is truly raucous and chaotic, we were slightly surprised to emerge into the sunshine at Clinton/Washington Streets to a scene of tranquillity. It is twenty minutes from Times Square, yet the peaceful streets betray no sense that Manhattan is so close. Tree-lined streets, interesting nineteenth century architecture, in short the sort of place where a bureaucrat could live if obliged to return to the city.

Abandoning my jacket - it was a very comfortable twenty-five degrees - we set off for a stroll around the neighbourhood. Clinton Hill has long been a middle-class enclave amongst some slightly dicey locales - Bedford-Stuyvescent to the east inspired the 1980 Billy Joel lyric "I’ve been stranded in the combat zone/I walked through Bedford-Stuy alone.” - but is now a place where some rather good restaurants compete for trade. We stopped for an excellent brunch at "Ici", which describes itself as a French country kitchen. I'm not sure about the French, but the food was very good, and a witbier from Nantucket went down very well with it.

Strolling on, we headed for Fort Greene Park, so that Vayden and Finlay could run around a bit, before having a look at the farmers' market and picking up some provisions. We returned to Leon and Patti's place via a different route, stopping at the Brooklyn Flea, an organised flea market held on the playground of a local high school. All sorts of things can be obtained, but my eye was drawn to some outsize metal letters. If only luggage restrictions weren't so onerous...

It was, all in all, a very pleasant way to pass a few hours, catching up on events, just hanging out in the neighbourhood. And, hopefully, we'll see my second cousin and his family rather sooner next time...

Saturday, August 08, 2015

The curious miracle that is intercontinental flight

We are on our travels again, this time on the right coast of the United States - or the East Coast for those of us with a more conventional sense of geography. And yes, there is some 'touristical' activity - baseball, the Freedom Trail, a national park, sea otters and whale watching, amongst other things - but I also have family here, in New York and in Boston.

So, yesterday, Ros and I presented ourselves at Heathrow's Terminal 5 for what can be astonishing tedium. It turned out, fortunately, to be an astonishingly uneventful trip and, just twelve and a half hours after leaving central London, we were ensconced in my second cousin Leon's apartment in Brooklyn, catching up on the odd nine years or so, waiting for his wife Patti and children, Vayden and Finlay, to get home.

That is, when one stops to think about it, pretty amazing. After all, it is nearly 3,500 miles from Heathrow to New York's JFK, against the prevailing winds. And yet, we now take it for granted - people do it for a weekend break. Even in my lifetime, long haul air travel has become (relatively) commonplace.

Within a few hours, my father's cousin Chris, and his partner Beena, had shown up, and we were talking politics (why, exactly, Donald Trump? Actually, just why?), family and stories of travel, house refurbishment and how Polish contractors are so efficient (yes, that's true here too...).

It was nice, and a gentle start to our trip, before jet lag hit with the impact of a brick wall, and Chris and Beena drove us into Manhattan and to our rather conveniently located hotel - a story for another time, perhaps...

Monday, August 03, 2015

I remember when Ed Joyce and Lembit Öpik were the future...

I recently noticed that we now have something called Lib Dem Future, and was curious to find out what this might be. By means of a little investigating, I discovering that this curious little effort appeared on Lib Dem Blogs under the name of Ed Joyce, a name perhaps familiar to readers of this blog.

I'd wondered what had happened to him, after the shambles of a campaign whereby he had been disowned by his own candidate for blaming the loss of Montgomeryshire on the misfortunes of a third party. And now I know, as he is providing a platform for the one, the only, Lembit Öpik, to opine on... well, anything, really.

Don't get me wrong, Lembit is a genuinely interesting person, although in a rather different manner these days, and his views on the world probably have a market... somewhere. But, since his defeat in 2010, he has been a bit of a political gadfly, supporting a candidate running against a Liberal Democrat in a Parliamentary by-election (technically an automatic expulsion offence), working for an Iranian television station, coming fourth (and last) in the contest to be our London mayoral candidate in 2011.

However, if the dynamic duo of Joyce and Öpik are together again, I suspect it means that either Lembit wants to make a comeback, or he wants something. What that might be is anyone's guess, as he does have something of a credibility gap to bridge, but we'll doubtless find out soon enough.

If I might be so bold though, gentlemen, as to make a suggestion, it would be to remove the sub-heading "The New Voice of the Lib Dems". In the light of the 18,000 plus new members, so many of which are in their teens and twenties, you're twenty years too old, and at least five years too late...