Saturday, March 31, 2007

Dulwich & West Norwood Labour Party - will the lies ever stop?

I got home from Maidstone to find the latest assortment of lies, misrepresentations and evasions on my doormat, otherwise known as 'East Dulwich Rose'.

The claim that Liberal Democrats voted against local ward-based police teams gets another airing, despite the fact that not only the Liberal Democrats but the Conservatives included sufficient funding for such teams in their alternative GLA budgets. Given that the same lie was used by one of their candidates in Bromley last year in the run-up to the local elections, I must presume that it is official London Labour's policy to spread this fiction across the entire city.

So, to make it easy for anyone to verify this, here is the Liberal Democrat budget proposal for that year and, in a spirit of even-handedness, the Conservative proposal. You will notice that both include funding for additional crime prevention measures...

The reference to improving standards at Heber Primary School is a nice touch. Naturally, no credit is given to the local authority, whose improvements led to Southwark being allowed to take education services in house again after the Government had removed responsibility form, yes, you guessed it, the then Labour administration.

On the plus side, there is a lovely picture of Tessa Jowell walking down Lordship Lane with two police officers, obviously detailed to make sure that she didn't get lost so far away from her home. Given the look on her face though, you would think that she has just been arrested for impersonated a competent Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport...

I, Mark Valladares, being the Returning Officer for...

... Maidstone and The Weald Liberal Democrats, announce that the votes cast for the selection of a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate are as follows...

It has been some time since I got to say that, and I was beginning to wonder if I would ever get the chance to do so. However, the morning went very well, and we now have a PPC in place for this potentially quite promising West Kent seat, where we were within six votes of Labour for second place in 2005.

Pictured above are Rebecca Hunt (middle), the new PPC, Rochelle Harris (Chair, Maidstone and The Weald Liberal Democrats, right) and yours truly, the Returning Officer, wearing another of those shirts that I warned you about...

As the sun burnt off the early morning mist...

... I was on a train heading towards Maidstone. I'm not really an early morning person but I made an exception for the husting meetings to select a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Maidstone and The Weald.

I have to say that the West Kent countryside is quite pretty, and the field of deer near Kemsing was a pleasant surprise, although it isn't God's own county (Sussex). I even managed to grab a hot chocolate at Otford, where I changed train.

Best of all, and somewhat unusually for me, I even made it to my destination on time!

Honestly, I'm really not running for anything!

Wednesday evening saw this faceless bureaucrat in Bexleyheath, attending a Bexley Borough Liberal Democrats quiz night. I'm the Regional contact for Bexley and neighbouring Bromley, so it was an added delight to be able to catch up with Grace Goodlad (pictured left), the new Chair of Orpington Liberal Democrats.

Naturally (!) with all of this talent on our team, we overcame a slow start to sweep all before us, and I headed home with a bottle of wine as a memory (albeit one with a short life expectancy) of a fun evening. Many thanks must go to Chris Eady and his team for providing such excellent entertainment.

Duncan Borrowman (Grace's other half) wasn't able to join us, something to do with a 'Pizza and Politics' evening in Haringey, I understand...

Friday, March 30, 2007

My part in the forthcoming downfall of the Republican Party

Great news yesterday, as my appointment as Co-Chair of the Foreign and Military Policy Commission of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) was confirmed. As a result, I shall be in Washington, D.C. from June 21 to 24, attending the 60th Annual Convention of this august American liberal group. Those of you who know me will be slightly puzzled on a couple of points, i.e. I’m not American, and I don’t tend to do policy – I’m a bureaucrat.

In fairness, my first ADA Convention was in 1991 when Rachelle and I attended as part of our honeymoon (the first week was spent at Walt Disney World in Florida). I enjoyed a week of being quizzed by senior activists to ensure that I had only honourable intentions towards their National Board member - a bit like meeting the prospective in-laws for the first time, except that there are about two dozen of them.

Over the years, I attended when it could be fitted in around Rachelle’s increasingly hectic political travel schedule and enjoyed the academic environment – ADA has a membership whose views, particularly on foreign and military policy issues, would fit fairly comfortably into the Liberal Democrats, although their links with the unions are far stronger than we could dare dream of.

After Rachelle and I separated, I was slightly surprised to receive a handwritten note from their stalwart Executive Director, Amy Isaacs, passing on her condolences but expressing the hope that I wouldn’t give up ADA. So, last June, I attended the conference on my way back from Fiji and had a blast. Three years of rebuilding my political self-confidence, allied to the networking skills gleaned from Rachelle, allowed me to impose myself to just the right extent and clearly caught the eye of the ‘powers that be’.

Thus, the invite to be Co-Chair of the Foreign and Military Policy Commission. I freely admit that I consider it to be a huge honour, and will be spending some of my next holiday doing preparation work (that’s what flights are for, isn’t it?) to make sure that I’m ready to hit the ground running (albeit a bit jetlagged) on 21 June.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

'Pizza and Politics' in leafy South London

Time to catch up on the events of the past week, I think. Here's a picture of the (glorious) leader of Southwark Council, Nick Stanton, speaking to Dulwich and West Norwood Liberal Democrats at our first 'Pizza & Politics' evening last Friday evening.

Nick was telling us just how many cultural icons either lived in, or worked in, our fair borough - albeit most of them at the northern end. As you can see, he is smiling, which should act as an encouragement to anyone else who fancies braving our occasionally tough crowd. Many thanks to Pat Mynott for her kindness in hosting the event which was, it was generally agreed, a great success.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

How does the party actually work?

I am often fascinated by the lack of knowledge of the party's internal structures amongst otherwise very capable, very bright Liberal Democrat campaigners. I always assumed that my lack of knowledge was almost entirely caused by my lack of involvement but on being elected to the Regional Executive in November 2004, I made a point of reading the Regional Constitution (a thrill a minute, let me tell you...).

It did seem like an obvious thing to do, especially as I like to know how things work. I was subsequently surprised to find that I was in a very small minority amongst my new colleagues, to the point where I could state a relevant paragraph and be treated as some sort of oracle. As Regional Secretary, I do admittedly have responsibility for issues of bureaucracy, but it merely indicates to me that knowledge of how the Party actually interrelates is vouchsfed to comparatively few people.

Perhaps this explains the high level of frustration that, in particular, campaigners experience in trying to get things done. In turn, the fact that most organs of the Party effectively meet in secret, don't explain or justify their decisions or actions and don't initiate genuine debate helps to ensure that this remains the case.

We also tend to create some fairly labyrinthine procedures in order to achieve often quite laudable goals. Unfortunately, when these clash with the needs of campaigners, unhappiness generally ensues, especially when said structures are staffed by already stretched volunteers.

I like to think that I have, in a small way, shone some light on some of the more obscure parts of the Party. It isn't an easy task, especially as you need to respect confidentiality, avoid the risk of inhibiting frank debate, and maintain a reputation for discretion.

However, over the coming weeks, I aim to post some pieces which might help readers to understand how this political party actually works, and how you (and I, for that matter) might make best use of it. I would welcome suggestions from readers on what I should try to cover... because if I don't know the answer, I probably know someone who does...

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The end of an era beckons...

Yes, the "for sale" is up in front of the house, and a photographer is coming on Thursday to take pictures and draw up a floor plan.

It is, in a way, rather sad, as I'd grown comfortable in this house but, for the next phase of my life, it is in the wrong place, has too many memories that I'd rather not dwell on, and has an apparent value that I would be foolish not to crystallise.

I suppose that I'd better start househunting...



Thursday, March 22, 2007

European Parliament Selection Rules now available!

I know that some of you are keen to find out what you can and can't do over the coming months, and it gives me great pleasure to announce that, as promised, the Selection Rules have now been published at www.libdems4parliament.org.uk. You will need to register if you haven't already done so but, once you've gained access, you'll find the document in the download area...

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

If I had a $1,000,000...

... I'd buy you an exotic pet, like a llama, or an emu... or if I was Gordon Brown, I'd play with tax rates again.

In fairness to the man though, he has made a gesture towards long overdue simplification of the tax system and doubtless shot a lot of Conservative and Liberal Democrat foxes in the process (I'm not sure what the Lib Dem Tax Commission will have to say in private but might be able to essay a guess...).

Interestingly though, the headline impact of the income tax changes will be to see an increase in the tax liability of anyone earning between £5,225 and £18,605, although I'm assuming that there will be counterbalancing tax credits and the like to fill the gap. The changes in the ceilings for National Insurance Contributions would potentially allow a marriage with income tax at some point in the future and remove the bizarre anomaly where your marginal tax rate dropped at the point where National Insurance Contributions ceased to be charged - a nod towards properly progressive taxation, perhaps?

A lot of HM Revenue & Customs staff will be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of applying the new legislation of Managed Service Companies (in fact, we may need additional budget authority for glee, so enthusiastic are some...) and changes to the corporation tax rates offer a glimmer of a future with just one rate of corporation tax (any offers at 25%, anybody?), which would in turn remove most issues related to associated companies, marginal rate relief and other ornate, yet incomprehensible to the layperson, complications.

I'll want to see all of the numbers to be able to reach a conclusion as to how good a budget this is, but given the laziness of the average financial journalist when it comes to this sort of stuff (not good enough to be an accountant, not efficient enough to run a business and too ethically challenged to work in government...), they'll probably buy the 20% headline rate of income tax and declare it to be a success.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

How to become a member of the European Parliament

Four years ago, at about this time of year, I was relaxing after the conclusion of the selection of our European Parliamentary List for South East England, when I was sucked into an argument about the absence of ethnic minority candidates from that Region's shortlist.

At the time, I was a mite defensive, perhaps because, as a member of the ethnic minority community myself (and that is a somewhat meaningless phrase in itself), I was slightly taken aback at the suggestion of racism amongst a selection committee I was responsible for supervising. I made what I thought was a valid point that the ethnic minority applicants were comparatively inexperienced and, in some instances, were still going through the process of approval as potential candidates whilst the selection was in progress. Against more experienced applicants, their answers to key questions on campaigning and strategy came across as thin, and thus made them less likely to fulfil the published selection criteria.

However, feedback is more than the art of diplomatic deconstruction, it should be about helping people to be more successful in the future and I suggested that any ethnic minority member desiring selection as a European Parliamentary candidate next time should start working their chosen Region now (i.e. in 2003), in anticipation of the next selection. Since then, I've gone from being an anonymous and rather inactive member of a small, unnoticed Local Party in a influential Region to being an Officer of that Regional Party. Yet, despite that, the number of people obviously organising even a skeleton campaign to raise their profile in London as a prelude to the selection can be counted on the fingers of one hand with sufficient left over to make a rude gesture.

I'm less than obviously ambitious, and have never had even a mild urge to be elected to anything in the 'real world', but I have come to increasingly suspect that the desire of some to achieve maximum reward with minimal effort is in part to blame for the lack of success that they moan about at such length and with such vitriol. And yet, the model is one that our Campaigns Department have been promoting with some success in our election campaigning for some years...

A Regional List selection is rather like a district council ward in somewhere like South Cambridgeshire. The electorate are quite spread out, and you need to make yourself known to them over a lengthy period in order to win them over. You clearly can't meet them all yourself, so you need a campaign team to spread across the ward, to spread the message about what a great campaigner you are, and what you will achieve for the residents if elected. You need to build networks in the villages, gain the trust of key community activists, and all of this whilst maintaining your 'day job' and juggling your other commitments.

It isn't easy, but then, if it was, everyone would do it, and they clearly don't. The reward though is a seat in the European Parliament for about as long as you want it, given our devotion to incumbents and the lack of information relating to their record once elected. The salary is quite nice, the travelling is interesting (if you have the freedom to really do it properly) and whilst the commuting can play havoc with the rest of your life (family, friends and the like), one presumes that you considered that before running in the first place - you did consider that, didn't you?

So, if you're interested, have you formed your campaign team yet? Do you have a unique selling point? Do you even know why you're doing it? If you can answer yes to all three questions, you've got a chance, unless of course, you've been auditioning for the role for years and everyone knows it, in which case you've beaten me to the punch (congratulations, I'm sure that you'll love Brussels...).

I'll be watching this year's selection with a more roving eye than usual, as my roles as Returning Officer for South East Region and Secretary of London Region will place me in the midst of the campaign in both Regions. I want to see, in both Regions, merit-based lists of candidates that reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. It's a two-way street though, in that if a level playing field is created, you have to turn up ready to compete... if you're really serious, that is...

Monday, March 19, 2007

California dreamin' on such a winter's day

One of the things that gets me through a typical week of bureaucracy is the prospect of escape, and especially when the weather outside is vaguely unpleasant, as today has been, that prospect looms ever larger. And so, what is a bureaucrat to do, but seek inspiration in song?

Most of my trips tend towards the complex, and I'm not very good at staying in one place for very long, so I often find myself poring over timetables and airline websites in an occasionally frustrating mission to go somewhere new. In the past, this has led to classic trips such as London to Quito via Washington, Buenos Aires and Bogota, or London to Nadi via Luxembourg, Mumbai, Ho Chi Minh City, Seoul, Kyoto, Rotorua and Auckland.

This time, my dilemma is related to what to do during a particular week in late April, and I've just spent a very cheerful if rather fruitless hour talking to United Airlines somewhere in the Midwest, and Air New Zealand in Auckland, attempting to discover how a plane can only have two business class seats when the seat map shows eight (answers on a postcard to...).

So far, I've got a seat from London to San Francisco, a hotel room there for three days, an onward flight to Melbourne via Sydney, and a seat back from Melbourne to London via Sydney and San Francisco. It's the bit in the middle that is the problem...

Time to go and sleep on it, I think...

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Every day, in every way, life gets a little more complicated

My apologies for the silence from this corner of South London, but I've been rather busy, delivering leaflets in Knight's Hill, assessing potential London Assembly candidates, dealing with mergers (I've been here before, methinks...) and, tonight, attending the Annual Dinner of Borough of Brent Liberal Democrats, soon to be, I hope, my Local Party.

Yes, that does mean that the Valladares roadshow is to revert to a North London locale. I received an e-mail from my estate agent of choice on Monday, telling me that they had been appointed on a sole agency basis by Rachelle's solicitors (they very kindly told me later that day...). We have agreed upon a conveyancing solicitor, after it was pointed out to them that they were trying to breach the court order they themselves had drafted, and now all that is required is for me to allow an estate agent and photographer into my home to deal with floor plans and all of the stuff that goes into selling a house in these rather more complex times in which we live.

In turn, I will need to approach some estate agents in Kingsbury and Wembley, and start the process of finding a home for myself and my cats (it will almost certainly be more traumatic for them than for me, as this is the only home they've really known). Moving companies, more conveyancing solicitors, hassle, annoyance, regressive stamp duty, so much to look forward to... as if I had time for it all...

It was a lovely evening though, somewhat different in style to the Barnet event last week. Whereas Barnet's was at the rather glamorous National Liberal Club, waitress service and a speech from Nick Clegg, tonight was African dancing, a steel band, a self-service buffet and speeches from Sarah Teather and Vince Cable, a late stand-in for Paddy Ashdown, who was called to somewhere in the Middle East for a television show by all accounts, all of this in a building somewhere between Harlesden and Neasden.

Whilst I enjoyed the Barnet event, I was more comfortable in the slightly more anarchical Brent event, partly because there are so many familiar faces (I started my political activity in Brent in the mid-eighties), many of whom date back to the time when we managed to win our first ward (Barham) in 1982, and who worked tirelessly in what was often a fairly hopeless cause until comparatively recently. Last year, we went from nine councillors to twenty-seven, became the largest group and now lead a coalition with the Conservatives. It is certainly true that luck has played a part, especially in terms of the timing of the Brent East by-election, but as a famous golfer once said, "it's amazing, the harder I work, the luckier I get.". Work is something that Brent Liberal Democrats have never shied away from...

And now, nor can I. There will be much to do over the coming weeks, but at least the end of the nightmare is in sight and I can get on with the rest of my life, whatever that means...

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Believe it or not, the European selection campaign is underway (or maybe it just seems like it)

One of my work colleagues is convinced that I'm always out doing something, and I'm beginning to think that he might have a point.

Tonight, I was at the National Liberal Club, acting as Rab Makki's stand-in (for those of you who don't know Rab, he is Nick Clegg's self-appointed stalker) at the Barnet Borough Liberal Democrats Dinner. Given that tonight was the vote of House of Lords reform, we weren't expecting Nick to make it until fairly late but, miraculously, he was there almost on time and dinner was hugely entertaining as a result.

I found myself at a table with Helen and William Wallace (Lord Wallace of Saltaire for those of you impressed by titles), and they were a delight to have the opportunity to talk to. William is one of those people who add lustre to our representation in the House of Lords and would probably be described as 'terribly clever' by Lord Bonkers, and is our House of Lords Spokesman on Foreign Affairs (I assume that there is quite a lot of competition for that job with Russell Johnston about).

Nick was, as usual, on top form, assailing both Labour for their appalling record of justice and civil liberties, and the Conservatives for their dreadful opportunism (just what is it that you're in favour of, Dave?).

However, from the perspective of a European Returning Officer (which leads me to be somewhat cynical), I was most interested by the presence of two potential European Parliamentary candidates for London, working the room. I won't name them, but note that my past advice (that you can never start campaigning too early) is at least being borne in mind by someone.

And, as a result, they might get a higher preference from me than they might have done otherwise...

Monday, March 05, 2007

Faceless bureaucrat in technicolour, thanks to Caroline Pidgeon!

Someone recently posted a comment regarding the collection of vividly coloured shirts that I allegedly possess, complaining that I didn't post any pictures of them or, equally importantly, me wearing them.

And so, courtesy of Caroline, here is a picture of me, taken on Friday afternoon, after I had been to the barber... it's a lovely shirt, enhanced by the two rather more attractive women on either side of me (Munira Hassam on the left, Caroline Pidgeon on the right). Close inspection will also reveal my rather spontaneous change of look...

I should also return the compliment by encouraging you to look at Caroline's new website which, I have to say, is one of the best examples that I've seen recently.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Adventures in Conferenceland...

I've not always been a big fan of Party Conferences. As a natural wallflower (it's all a disguise, I'm painfully shy and insecure, really), my networking skills were rather poor and I tended to hang out with my old friends and watch the other delegates wander to and fro, drinking, having casual sex and doing all of the other exciting things that presumably go on at these events but I never actually see myself.

I really must credit Rachelle with demonstrating how networking is done (she is terribly good at it) and am, as a result, somewhat better at it. It does help that, as Regional Secretary, Returning Officer and parliamentary candidate assessor, I appear in people's lives briefly, have some minor impact, smile sweetly and move on. As a result, conference has become the heady social whirl I always imagined that it should be.

Coming up to Harrogate on Thursday evening helped though. I was able to spend Friday relaxing and destressing, getting my hair cut, (and for those of you who haven't seen me since Thursday, you might be in for a bit of a surprise...) followed by an afternoon at the town's Turkish Baths. Friday evening was spent at leisure with colleagues over dinner, celebrating the birthday of Eliane, who works in our Candidates Office. Eliane is a treasure, a calm, still voice in the occasionally manic world of candidate selection and approval, who graciously tolerates my foibles and eccentricities and in return helps me when I need something.

I'm not able to give you a view on the Trident debate as, due to a clash with English Candidates Committee, I was otherwise engaged. Ironically, we were discussing issues which, in their own comparatively small way, will have a significant impact on the Party, in that we were debating the process of selecting our European Parliamentary lists. Hopefully, we'll improve the process, freeing up potential candidates to interact with, and engage the selectorate much more than in past selections. In doing so, technology will be our friend as much as possible. I know how frustrating it can be for those candidates who are comfortable in the brave new world of Facebook, YouTube, Skype and Second Life, when we tell them, "no, you can't do that", primarily because we, the 'regulators', struggle to comprehend how it all works, and it's easier to say no than to address the challenges and opportunities created.

I spent most of the rest of the day in the bar, predominantly not drinking (the diet is going pretty well, thank you for asking), and meeting old friends and new. Debates on policy don't really enthrall me, if truth be told, as I don't really know enough or, equally importantly, care enough to take part. And it is so frustrating not to be able to take part... What I find so reassuring is the number of bright, young, enthusiastic campaigners we have who want to win, and are willing to do the work to achieve that. Best of all, they are incredibly diverse, which is perhaps a sign that our candidate approval process does work, albeit imperfectly sometimes.

In about half an hour, Ming will be giving his big set piece speech to close Conference. Whilst there are many who remain unconvinced, it is generally accepted that his intervention in yesterday's debate, whilst high-risk, was critical in swinging the waverers behind the leadership line. At the very least, it has bought him a little time to consolidate his position further. And yet, he will be under pressure today, as the eyes of the Party lock their gaze upon him. What will he say to stir the blood before the Local Elections in May? Will he generate a buzz to inspire candidates in tough contests? Will he carve out a philosophical niche that is liberal?

We'll just have to see, won't we...