Sunday, March 26, 2006

Perhaps I'm not the only liberal in my family...

My cousin Kim, not previously noted for her political views, has started her own blog recently. In recent weeks, she's started posting some interesting stuff from perspectives that I can't really represent.

Here are her views on the issue of the dress code in Luton and Islam... I'm not sure that I would be quite so forthright but I can't help but agree with her.

Friday, March 24, 2006

When attack is the worst form of defence

My post earlier today on the subject of the Darbyshires has drawn some interesting comments, as you can see.

I hold no mandate to defend Leah and Robin, and it ill befits me to try and do so as I really don't know them that well. But perhaps one of them is reading this and so, treat this as an open letter...

Dear Leah and Robin,

I have read your blog since it was launched and, whilst I had some doubts about the wisdom of some of the postings made (and you may remember the occasional polite e-mail suggesting that you might like to rethink/clarify your words), I saw no fundamental harm in what you were doing. Your style isn't mine - and there are some very good reasons for that, gender, age and perspective being just three - and I did think that the comments about your relationship were less than well-suited to being published on a political aggregated blog.

The satirical blog that emerged and, I must admit, remained unseen by me, was just what I feared would emerge. Your style was far too tempting to escape parody for long. You might have been better off giving up the blog, or starting a new one and only releasing details of it to those close to you. Instead, you turned inexcusably nasty, and worst of all, picked on an innocent bystander. And that's when it turned personal and nasty. People started to take sides and, when it comes down to choices, the innocent bystander is always going to win (and worst of all from your perspective, she really was an innocent bystander and most people knew it).

To then start a series of generic attacks on the basis of looks and sexual jealousy was so unnecessary because the neutrals started coming off of the fence too. Not everyone can look like a movie star or a model, in fact. most people don't. You don't either, as far as many of the comments that I've seen are concerned. That's not to say that you're ugly, plain or stunningly attractive, I've simply not given it a huge amount of thought because you're not my type - my friends will testify to that...

And so now you've resigned as Party members. Perhaps politics isn't for you, I don't know. However, whatever you do in politics from here on in, the story of your blog will follow you - people are kind of mean like that. It's a pity because you might have had a successful career in the party if you hadn't taken it all so personally. Politics is a tough game, and that's one of the reasons I don't tend to fight elections (I find the ease with which lies are told deeply troubling).

And now perhaps we can stop worrying about it all and get on with the rest of our lives?

Yours regretfully,

Mark Valladares
Chair, Dulwich and West Norwood Liberal Democrats

The Darbyshires - a note of regret

I read the recent stream of vitriol from Leah Darbyshire with some regret, as I never really got to know her when Robin worked for Southwark (not that I had much opportunity to talk to Robin either).

And so, what do I think? My first impression on meeting the two of them was, I admit, to ask the question, "porn star or rock star?". Neither of them fit the image of "Liberal Democrat activist", although I'm not sure how that is a bad thing. The blog could, from the perspective of an outsider, have read as a spoof and Leah's literary style does tend to encourage satirism (sorry, Leah, but it does, honest...). I don't think that many are comfortable with the sort of "we're so much in love" stuff - it tends to go against the grain of slightly repressed Englishmen/women in any event.

Having said that, had she carried on like that, the whole affair might have faded away. The problem was Leah's tendancy to verbally assault people who, she assumed (sometimes incorrectly), were attacking her. It rather gave the impression of paranoia but did indeed attract an audience (admittedly including a number of people who enjoy the sight of a metaphorical car crash). Once again, I apologise if this sounds harsh, but some of the attacks come across as rather small-minded, vicious and ill-directed.

Perhaps, in a few years time, Leah might look back at some of these entries, and a glimmer of self-doubt rear its head. In the meantime, I'll stand on the foreshore, wishing the good ship Darbyshires a safe voyage...

Saturday, March 18, 2006

It's official, I'd rather not be in Chicago...

Sometimes, you realise that you're fated to spend more time in a place than you had intended. For me, that place is Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Having spent most of Monday there, I had the pleasure of being scheduled to pass through it again on Thursday, so you can imagine my surprise and pleasure to check my itinerary that morning to find that I had been reassigned to a direct Delta flight from Cincinnati to Boston. Best of all, I could stay in Cincinnati for an extra hour and get into Boston nearly three hours earlier than originally planned. There had to be a catch...

I turned up at the airport to check in, only to be told that I had excess baggage which would need to be paid for. Arguing in vain that, had I still been flying United, I wouldn't have had a problem, I decided to head to the United desk to see what could be done. The guy at the United desk was very apologetic, even though it wasn't his fault, and rebooked me onto the later Chicago flight. We were running a little late but no matter, and I got on the plane, found my seat and immediately fell into a deep, untroubled sleep. An hour later, I woke up, looked out of the window and saw tarmac. "Good, we've arrived...", I thought, only to be informed that this was still Cincinnati. Hmmm... not good.

Eventually, we made it to Chicago and I went to the check-in desk for the next Boston plane, to be told that I had been rebooked onto the 21:30 flight. I wasn't wildly happy, as that meant an 00:30 arrival in Boston, but was pleasantly surprised when the same rather surly gate clerk handed me a boarding pass for the 19:00! And so, eventually, I made it to Boston, only three hours later than scheduled.

Boston is a city I visit frequently, both to shop and, more importantly, visit my cousin Clint and his Bulgarian wife, Kalina. The politics here is a bit dull (if you're a Republican, move to New Hampshire) but the local press are pretty feisty so there is always something happening.

And best of all, I'm decently rested for the first time in months. I'll need to be as, with just over six weeks to go until polling day, life is going to be manic from here on in...

Thursday, March 16, 2006

A really meaningful day out

When I'm on the road, I do like to catch a really good museum, especially one that challenges and informs. It was therefore a great pleasure to find that Cincinnati hosts the National Underground Railroad Museum, dedicated to recording the history of those who aided runaway slaves to find freedom in the North, and of slavery itself. It would be very easy to just airbrush this shameful episode in American history out of the picture but, in fairness, Cincinnati has made a real effort by building an excellent exhibition space and putting it in a prominent location, right on the riverfront between the new Paul Brown Stadium (Cincinnati Bengals football - gridiron for my British audience) and the new Great American Ballpark (Cincinnati Reds baseball).

The exhibit includes an actual slave pen, interactive exhibits, animated films on themes related to freedom and enough historical information to keep anyone with a conscience busy for hours. Most interesting of all, is the evidence that simply making it to a free state was not good enough. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act allowed those hunting runaway slaves to enter the free states, recapture fugitives, and return them to the South in chains. It even led to the kidnapping of hitherto free citizens in places as far north as New York.

Another piece of information that I had not been previously aware of was that women had been given voting rights in some states after independence, and that this right was gradually taken away from them in the early years of the nineteenth century. All in all, a really good exhibit and, if you're ever in the Cincinnati area, I would strongly recommend a visit.

Next, to the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame. I spent a number of years watching the Reds play baseball, trying to catch a game most years and I discovered that the game I saw in 1999 in Denver against the Colorado Rockies was the game in which the Reds scored their highest number of runs on the road since 1900 (the game ended 24-12). And I was there... The Cincinnati Red Stockings were America's very first professional baseball team (1869) and have a key place in the history of the sport. Given my fondness for numbers, it won't surprise you to know that I find baseball statistics fascinating...

Finally, back to the Hofbrauhaus for more beer and schnitzel. The beer is brewed according to the German purity laws under licence and supervision of the Staatliches Hofbrauhaus in Munich. So, real beer, great schnitzel and men singing German drinking songs in German. Weird...

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Man, leather trousers, accordion, and it's not a fetish club, so...

... I must be in a Kentucky recreation of a German bierkeller. Obvious, really.

And, I have to admit, it's a pretty good one. The beer, very German tasting, is served in litres and half-litres, they serve a mean weisswurst and there are men singing German drinking songs armed only with a drumkit and an accordion. So far, so good.

It never fails to surprise how heavily influenced the Midwest is by Europe. Chicago has a huge Polish community, Milwaukee is very German (the mascots for the Milwaukee Brewers are giant sausages...) and Minneapolis is Scandinavian. Cincinnati tends towards German, with a suburb called Over-the-Rhine, and an enthusiasm for beer (and none of that ghastly standard American stuff, either). They like pretzels too, served properly, with mustard.

Cincinnati is, it's fair to say, quite familar to a European. It has a real heart, with things happening in the downtown areas, and a proper public transportation system, with buses that run regularly and have decent passenger numbers. I'm quite impressed but then, with a cat named after the city, you aren't too surprised, are you?

Anyway, I've enjoyed some beer, so it's time for sleep...

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Welcome to WMJV in Cincinnati!

Noting my apologies to that comparatively little-known American sitcom (WKRP in Cincinnati for those of you unfamiliar with this minor classic), it's actually great to be here in the 'Queen City of the West', or less familiarly, 'Porkopolis'.

Yesterday saw an arduous journey between New York and here. I turned up at La Guardia, checked in at the self check-in desk to be informed that I couldn't get to Cincinnati at all. A very kind agent put me on standby on the flight before mine (which still hadn't left due to weather problems in Chicago) and I was fortunate enough to get a seat, allowing me to get to O'Hare just in time for the 15:40 connection to Cincinnati. Great!... until I got to O'Hare and found that my connecting flight had been cancelled. "You aren't going to make it to Cincinnati tonight, we've booked you onto the 06:25 tomorrow morning.", was the response. "Can I be put on the standby list for the 18:30 tonight?" "Yes, but we can't be certain you'll get on". I took my chance, went to the gate and, lo and behold, got a guaranteed seat.

So I went to grab some dinner and, now slightly less irritable, went to my new gate to find that, joy unbounded, the 18:30 was now cancelled. Back to customer services... "We've transferred you onto the 10:45 tomorrow morning." "Is there another flight this evening?" "One more, at 20:50, but it's completely full." "Put me on standby anyway".

More delays later, and at 21:15, I get lucky again, a seat has come up because half of the passengers due to connect onto it haven't made it into Chicago. The bad news is that the plane is delayed, and delayed, and delayed until 22:25. At least this one actually takes off and I make it into Cincinnati at 00:45, nearly seven hours later than planned...

But at least I'm here, and got to spend the day at the world-famous Cincinnati Zoo, America's second oldest. It was a bit cold, but they have some great exhibits, including their manatees, who are rather special.

Back into town for some of the local delicacy, chili. Cincinnati is famous for this, with at least two major chains of chili parlours, whose penetration of the market beyond the surrounding counties is virtually non-existent. I haven't worked out why this should be, but their chili, served over linguine, is very good. If you're ever in the neighbourhood, Skyline is apparently better than Gold Star...

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Would it surprise you to hear that...

... the Museum of American Constitutional Government is closed due to reconstruction work. And who said that Americans have no sense of irony?

Faceless bureaucrat in the city

Whilst it isn't very early in the morning, the five hour time difference makes it feel as though it is. Yes, you're right, I'm on the move again, attending another family wedding, this time, my second cousin, Leon (It was his elder brother who got married in Mumbai in December). Leon has managed to reintroduce Judaism back into the family after I carelessly misplaced Rachelle, and he and Patti get married on Sunday, here in New York.

My hotel room is very impressive, with a computer and free internet access, thus allowing me to blog my way through the weekend and catch up with some paperwork (sad, or what?).

New York doesn't change. Despite my being a fairly adventurous traveller, I still find myself drawn to the concrete canyons of this place, looking up until my neck hurts. It really is an amazing place. Tomorrow, I'm hoping to do a little shopping before the rehearsal dinner and drinks at the Heartland Brewery afterwards. I got in a little practice earlier (practice makes perfect!) and can recommend both their wheat beer and their Irish red.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Looking back in confusion and regret

In hindsight, and with the benefit of reflection, I feel somewhat cheated. It appears that my faith in the honour and decency of some of our party's most senior figures might have been ill-judged and, by exhibiting an unhelpful degree of naivety, I may well have prejudiced the very cause I had hoped to promote.

You will recall that I had been surprised by the two amendments that were chosen for debate. One, on monitoring, came as a surprise only because I was not informed that it had been taken for debate. As James Graham rightly reminds me, I had been warned about it in advance and, putting aside my personal misgivings about monitoring for sexuality and religion, I certainly accepted the basic principle of collecting data so that progress might be quantified.

The second, proposed by Simon Hughes, our illustrious Party President, was obviously tabled with the knowledge and support of our Chief Executive, who demonstrated once again, if proof were needed, his mastery of internal politics. I was warned, albeit probably too late to do anything about it. And even, had I been able to credibly attack it, I didn't have enough 'backstory' to successfully do so, especially after arriving in the hall to find that Navnit Dholakia's speech already included a statement of acceptance. For the record, I only discovered this by reading his speech over his shoulder (and he didn't know that I was there at the time). The response to his intervention from my readership and the wider blogosphere is, thus far, a long way short of impressed.

And so they were both passed. Unfortunately, I am now left in the uncomfortable position of hoping for the best, and fearing the sort of invidious sabotage that the Federal Executive tends towards when Conference wants something that it doesn't.

It pains me to have to make a statement like this publicly, and I will happily recant if the review produces something effective and timely (bear in mind that winnable seats are selecting already, and wasn't the whole purpose of the exercise to get black and ethnic minority MP's elected?). But either the auguries aren't promising or my more pragmatic friends are overly cynical. Experience tends towards the former.

Gentlemen, prove me wrong...

Live from the Harrogate Conference Centre!

And so I threw myself into a heady social whirl that is Federal Conference. There I was, minding my own business, when Francesca Marritt, from the Campaign for Gender Balance, told me that there were in fact two amendments to my motion. It might have been nice if someone had told me... Francesca was behind one of them, on monitoring, and I had no fundamental objection to a voluntary, opt-in scheme, so that was alright. On the other hand, the amendment from Simon Hughes looked like a ploy to delay matters, or worse, screw the Campaign for Gender Balance. What to do? And besides, who was moving the motion?

The answer was not long in coming. "You're doing it, Mark.", said Flick, our Regional Administrator and eminence grise. "Really?", I replied, slightly confused. "Yes, really." "Fine, I'd better write a speech then...".

So I retreated to my lonely garret on the third floor and wrote a speech. It didn't take that long, as the arguments have been running on continuous loop in the back of my mind for months. And then back to the bar for a little refreshment. Alright then, quite a lot of refreshment (it is conference, after all). Chris Rennard assured me that there was no hidden agenda behind Simon's amendment and I took his word as a gentleman (he is a baron, after all...).

A reasonable amount of sleep later (five hours is very reasonable for a Federal Conference), I got up and prepared for my first ever meeting of English Candidates Committee. To most observers, these meetings would seem astonishingly dull (and parts of this one were a bit, I must admit) but the subject matter and the implications are huge. It would probably have helped had I brought the papers issued to me two weeks earlier but I've been a bit preoccupied of late.

At 10.45, I sneaked out to head to the auditorium, arriving in time to hear Vince Cable describe my employers as being in chaos. Alright, I'm not wildly impressed with the way HM Revenue and Customs is run, but things really aren't that bad. I've got some nice filing in our Twickenham office that he might be able to help with...

And so, a little behind schedule, my moment in the spotlight arrived. I walked onto the platform, stood behind the podium, feeling not a little lonely and isolated, and gave my speech. It was an odd sensation, and I had the impression of being oblivious to all of the usual sensory cues, but I said all of the things that I wanted to say, didn't stumble over the words too often, and got some applause at the end. I even managed to air my concerns over both amendments.

The other speeches came and went, for and against a summit meeting, mostly in favour of monitoring and, after the summation from Navnit Dholakia, who formally accepted both amendments, the motion was overwhelmingly passed. I hurried back to English Candidates Committee, just in time to be appointed to a Working Group, set up to review the guidance notes for Returning Officers. I then reported back to the meeting as to what had happened.

So my motion has passed. A concrete commitment to do something has been wrung from the powers that be and we will have to see what emerges from the review that has been promised. It isn't a victory, far from it, but we might actually have taken the first small step towards changing the public face of our Party. I would be kind of proud if that turned out to be the case...

And the band plays on...

It appears that the Right Honourable Member of Parliament for Dulwich and West Norwood's ongoing audition for a lead role in one of the less salubrious soap operas continues. The story so far...

David and Tessa love each other. Tessa has risen from being a psychiatric social worker to being a senior member of her friend Tony's government, whilst David has a successful legal career, helping people to manage their financial affairs. He's so good at this that Tessa trusts him entirely to manage their household finances. He does ask her to sign the occasional document but she trusts him, even though some of the numbers are quite big. He knows what he's doing, after all...

But what Tessa doesn't know is that David has another life as an international wheeler dealer, and that some of the people he advises are not the sort of people who she might want to be associated (although her friend Tony on the other hand...). They are very generous towards him but there's nothing wrong with the odd gift, is there? It is vaguely troubling that the Italian authorities keep asking to see David, but it isn't as though we have any connection to the Italian government. We do? Really? I really must ask my friend Jack. And they're somewhat to the right of Genghis Khan? Well, that doesn't make them bad people...

Suddenly, all these ghastly people with cameras are outside the house, asking questions about mortgages. What is their problem? Why do they suggest that helping rich people pay as little tax as possible is contrary to the supposed principles of her political party? And why is David so irritable?

He's used my position to gain influence? He's told people that he has the support of my friend Tony? How could he do that? Does he not understand what people will say about me? And, more importantly, about Tony? Tony is going to be so angry! It's no good, it's all over between us, or at least, so I'm told...

Alright, this might be a bit of an exaggeration. But the fact that David Mills makes his money by helping rich people to avoid paying their fair share in taxes is morally repugnant. And if Tessa Jowell doesn't understand that by doing so, she ensures that the money has to be found from somewhere, and that that somewhere is from people who don't have access to tax avoidance devices, i.e. the poor and the morally upright, then she has no right to stand up and say how much she cares about building a fairer society. I'm sorry about her marriage, and nobody deserves to have their relationship dissected by the Daily Mail, but she really does need to resign so that she can take a course of morality and ethics.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Gorillas in the mist

Sorry about the absence of reports. I couldn't blog from Harrogate (I don't own a laptop and the computers in the conference centre didn't appear to like And so, where were we?

I went up to Harrogate on Thursday evening, and had a fairly pleasant train journey apart from the idiot who had decided to occupy my reserved seat and set up his computer. Politely noting that he was in my seat, he asked if I minded giving up my window seat so that he could use his computer. Pointing out that I did mind, having wanted a window seat, he then asked if he could trail his cables across me. I wasn't wildly keen to be used as a cable tidy but consented, not wanting to appear churlish, only to then watch as he used the wretched gadget to listen to music. Get an iPod, loser!... I drove him away eventually, though.

Friday morning was spent doing some light shopping at Gap. I like their chinos and some of their brighter coloured shirts (faceless bureaucrat does peacock), and needed a couple of extra bits of wardrobe for the weekend. Next to the Turkish Baths to get some information and then to a rather nice barber shop for a haircut, beard trim and general refurbishment before dropping off my shopping at the hotel. The weather was lovely, with bright sunshine, although it was a mite brisk.

The Turkish Baths are fascinating. I turned up, paid my £13, and was escorted to the changing rooms for a brief explanation of how it all works. Friday afternoons are gentlemen only, leading to a general lack of clothing. I'm not the most svelte person in the world, tending more to walrus than giraffe, but I've learned to be fairly relaxed about my imperfections and strolled into the wonderfully restored hot room. I was a little disconcerted by the gentleman who followed me into the steam room, though. He had enough metal piercings in his genitalia to set off metal detectors... as far away as Leeds Bradford Airport... and I'm wondering how he gets on when he travels overseas...

I spent a very pleasant two hours or so, alternating between the various rooms and the steam rooms before heading back to the hotel to mingle with the newly arriving delegates. Imagine my surprise on discovering that two inches of snow had been depositing on Harrogate whilst I was gently broiling...

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Freedom 4 Belarus

This new campaign, launched by the International Committee of Liberal Democrat Youth and Students (LDYS), has been brought to my attention recently.

As a former International Officer (1989-1990) of one of their constituent predecessors, the Young Liberal Democrats of England, I am delighted to see the organisation roused from years of apparent slumber to campaign on something fundamentally unsexy yet morally principled. The Belarus regime, and there is no other way of describing it, is a reminder of the very worst of the Soviet Union, with secret police and a repressive government led by a man who is almost certainly responsible for the death, torture and imprisonment of those who campaign within the country for democracy and the sorts of freedoms that we take for granted.

They ask for people to show their support by placing a lighted candle in a window on the night of 19th March and, if I was in the country, instead of on an aeroplane, I would certainly do it myself, despite the risk of one of my more stupid cats melting their whiskers on it.

We often get cynical about politics and, heaven knows, there is often good cause, but this is an instance where those leading the campaign stand to gain nothing from this but a sense of doing the right thing. I wish them the very best of luck for what will hopefully be a short and successful campaign...

Apologia (bureaucrat + emotion = malfunction)

It is often unwise to blog in a moment of self-indulgence, even more so when you're tired, weary and a mite low. So it is at least a mercy that my quirky sense of catholic guilt is engaged...

In fairness to Tom Brake, he doesn't even know that he's been invited to take up the mover's speech, so I really shouldn't criticise him for a predicted lack of understanding. Whoever briefs him on this point is sure to give him all of the necessary information.

I shouldn't really criticise the Regional Executive either. I invited them to make a decision and they did so. I could have argued my corner but didn't, a valuable lesson for all of you wallflowers out there. We are talking about politicians, remember, they like winning. Me, I like winning too but hate being seen to be pushy about it (alright, go figure...). That's why I'm a faceless bureaucrat.

And most important of all, this should be about more than just self. The whole idea of encouraging the Party to think about diversity issues and then do something about it is that we demonstrate our seriousness about making ourselves reflect the communities we aim to represent.

And on that note, it's time to get ready for Harrogate.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Apparently, it's alright to be disappointed

Never let it be said that politicians, be they elected or otherwise, are without ego. And I'm no exception...

Having worked quite hard to get my motion on diversity, I nobly invited the Regional Executive to decide who should move the motion and summate the debate. Mistake number 1. The view was that the motion should be moved by a middle-aged white MP, the decision taken being to ask Tom Brake, the MP for Carshalton and Wallington. He's younger than I am... not exactly a balm for morale. With Navnit Dholakia lined up to summate (and I'm pleased to note that he has accepted), I miss my moment in the spotlight unless I put a speaker's card in and get called. Frankly, it sucks... big time.

I understand the politics of it all, the logic being that you need to get support from those who stand to lose most from the proposed reforms, and support it in principle. On the other hand, the idea of handing large chunks of the credit to someone who has had no involvement and offered no support, and probably won't even know who wrote the motion in the first place (or why), is hardly an encouragement towards altruism.

It is, of course, my fault. I freely offered up the decision to my colleagues, thinking that, as I had used the Regional Party as the vehicle to get the motion to Federal Conference, I should allow the Regional Executive the opportunity to decide on strategy - and they do know what they're talking about. However, I foolishly thought that my role to date might gain me some consideration. Mistake number 2...

Ah well, I'm just going to have to accept that the warm glow of satisfaction that comes from doing the right thing must suffice. Really, it's enough to make you cynical... If you're in Harrogate, do turn up and vote this through, it matters.