Friday, June 29, 2007
However, although I've flown on everything from Lloyd Aereo Boliviano to Air Vanuatu, from London City Airways to Air Sahara, I've finally found an airline that has reduced me to the normal exasperated state of American air travellers. Stand up and take a bow, US Airways.
My journey to the US last Wednesday was irritating in numerous small ways. The priority baggage tags that my Star Alliance Gold status entitles me to weren't added, the seats on the Airbus A330 were cramped, they charge you for headsets, but I did get to Philadelphia on time.
At Philadelphia, my golf umbrella, which they had insisted I check in the hold, was missing, and I was initially refused access to their frequent flyer lounge in New York because I wasn't flying Envoy Class. Alright, so their own guidance says that Star Alliance Gold passengers with a same day international ticket are wholly entitled to use their lounges, but this is clearly beyond their staff's comprehension.
At least they let me in eventually to kill the extra hour awarded to me by the cancellation of my flight to Washington due to operational difficulties, a fact that was only vouchsafed to me when I arrived in New York, despite the fact that I had been in their hands for the past ten hours. It is interesting to note that the subsequent flight had plenty of empty seats, leading me to presume that they really couldn't be bothered to run the earlier one. My umbrella did reach me eventually, somewhat the worse for wear, but it did reach me.
Washington to New York went without incident, although I once again didn't get priority luggage tags...
The fun really started on the journey home. I arrived at La Guardia to be told that my connecting flight from Washington to Philadelphia had been cancelled for weather related reasons, and that US Airways would find a way of getting me home. Unfortunately, they assigned this task to Abelardo, who suffers from the misfortune of having English as a second language (or maybe third, it was hard to tell). I woud ask questions or make suggestions, and in return he would either ignore them, or answer questions that I hadn't asked.
At one point, he offered to try and put me on a British Airways flight. I pointed out that I needed the qualifying miles to maintain my Gold status and he said that I would get miles on British Airways. On being advised by me that British Airways is in One World, a completely different alliance, he seemed genuinely surprised. However, it was eventually decided that I would need to stay in New York overnight, fly down to Charlotte the next afternoon, and fly home on the evening flight from there.
My only problem was a hotel room, and being aware that airlines have arrangements with local hotels for stranded passengers, I asked for information, to be given a piece of paper explaining to any hotel what they should do. I wasn't initially told which hotel(s) to call, but eventually obtained three telephone numbers of hotels that all turned out to be full.
I therefore returned to the desk, and spoke to Kyle, who was remarkably friendly and helpful. We eventually agreed that I would fly to Charlotte that evening, and find a hotel room there. Still no priority luggage tags though... I caught the flight, but then spent more than three hours sitting on the tarmac, waiting for an electrical storm to clear. I won't blame US Airways for this, tempting though it might be... and eventually arrived in Charlotte at 1.15 a.m.
The next day, I guessed that the flight would be pretty full, and sought to offer my services for voluntary disembarkation. However, the queues were enormous and slow-moving, and there was no separate desk for customer services, so I gave up and tried to ring reservations instead, having been unable to reach the US Airways website (although even when you do, it doesn't seem to work...). I held the line for fifteen minutes but eventually gave up.
Hours later, I formally checked in and sought once again to volunteer to be bumped off the flight (the reward is usually $600 in vouchers and an upgrade, so it's well worth it if you're not in a hurry), to be told that I had to go to the gate and be placed on the list (I also had a gentle moan at the check-in clerk and eventually persuaded her to give my luggage a priority tag). However, the flight was overbooked so I thought that I had a chance, and headed for the gate. Nobody there, so I went to the lounge to be told that I couldn't deal with this there, and would have to return to the gate in about thirty minutes, which I did.
Unfortunately, due to more weather problems, not everyone made their connections, and my seat wasn't required. This meant that I got to fly in another cramped aircraft, with poor service. My intended request for coffee was completely ignored by the flight attendent, and it took five attempts to use the 'call flight attendant' button to get someone's attention. Curiously, the light kept switching itself off, and I guess that they just didn't fancy coming to see what I wanted.
Breakfast consisted of a cup of coffee and a doughnut...
I swear now that I will never fly US Airways by choice, and retain the fond hope that the airline goes broke, the management lose their jobs and never work again, and that someone makes the ground staff learn English. In the meantime, I apologise to United Airlines because, no matter how bad occasional experiences have been, their performance has never plumbed such low levels so consistently.
Saturday, June 23, 2007
We're currently debating topical resolutions, and have already adopted updated policy on Venezuela and Darfur, and are now in the midst of a debate over the Employee Free Choice Act, a piece of legislation which will encourage unions to sign up new members and obtain the right to collective bargaining for union members. Any union signing up 50% plus one of the workforce will be formally certified as the bargaining agent.
This seems so obviously reasonable that it is hard for an outsider to understand why it needs to be debated. Even the Conservatives, no friends of the unions they, would never have tried to attack the right to organise so blatantly. And this is one of the indicators that marks out just how different the framework for debate is here.
In healthcare, a facet that I've already touched upon, I want to talk about empowering communities to take a direct interest in how healthcare is provided, and what priorities are made. Here, the concerns are so much more basic, founded on the need for access in the wealthiest country on Earth. Most European countries would consider it to be a matter of shame if individual citizens didn't have the right to healthcare and high levels of access at that.
On trade, there are concerns about the secrecy underpinning the formation of trading agreements. I was astonished to discover that the President is seeking the right to make agreements with other nations, and place them in front of Congress with no right of amendment, for adoption.
I've spoken in support of government support for the development of nuclear energy (we lost by a margin of 5:4), as part of a transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources. Frankly, I think that to overlook the potential role of nuclear energy in managing that transition is naive, but I accept that fears over safety, particularly in the light of Seven Mile Island, tend to override the rather dry economic argument.
The difference between debates at our conferences, and those here is a vast one, although I do think that the method used here is much more participatory, and thus more fun. And fun is a thoroughly good thing.
This means that I can continue my work as Secretary, Returning Officer, and all of the other things that I do, even though I'm 3,500 miles away (oh yes, and the sun is shining, and it's 86 degrees...).
Technology, isn't it the coolest thing ever?
Friday, June 22, 2007
Kucinich maintained his campaign long after it was clear that he had little mainstream support amongst Democratic primary voters, and he is back again this time, promoting the same agenda of proper healthcare, real jobs, fair trade and sustainable economic growth which tends to be lost in the rush to the centre of American politics. His policies foresee a much larger role for government than I believe voters (and I use the word voter rather than citizen) are able to stomach in such a suspicious society.
It is perhaps a sign of the chasm in the debate on either side of the Atlantic that an American political campaigner can talk of 46 million Americans without access to affordable health care, and risk defeat if he or she proposes to act to improve matters, whereas any attempt to remove access to health care free, for the most part, of charge in Europe would lead to electoral suicide.
Personally, I think that Kucinich will again fly his flag through the primary season, as a living reminder to more likely victors that there is a radical stripe in the Democratic Party, and that they need to energise it to mobilise the base supporters. He is, perhaps unexpectedly, a remarkably intellectual speaker, capable of making an argument without too many garish soundbites, and would on some issues, fall within Liberal Democrat territory. I was therefore keen to hear him speak on day 2 of the ADA Convention.
He talked of fair trade but was keen to protect American jobs, he spoke of the need for a strong military but called for greater emphasis on diplomacy in America's dealings with the rest of the world. He understands that Bush has made the world less safe, and America even less so, accepting as he does that the current policy of coercion of allies and opponents alike creates new and more numerous enemies.
I was, I admit, impressed. He may not have a shot of success, but his ability to rally progressive activists is strong, he speaks passionately about issues of concern to the socially aware, and he is able to express a philosophy in a way that few politicians can without sounding vaguely folksy. And I'm sorry, but I'm never going to be one of those 'knit your own folk guitar' kind of liberals...
This year, for a change, the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) convention banquet was moved forward to the first evening to allow a number of House and Senate members to attend, so I needed to make some effort with my wardrobe. So I picked out a purple short-sleeved shirt made from khadi silk and, armewd with my laptop, set off for the campus of Gallaudet University to meet with my fellow co-chair of ADA's Foreign and Military Policy Commission, Bill Markus.
Bill has been around for rather longer than I have, and has frequently chaired the commission in the past, and we agreed tactics before an unusually small band of delegates turned up. I say unusually small because we started rather earlier than usual this year, and a lot of delegates won't arrive until tomorrow morning. However, we quickly got into the swing of things, agreeing issue statements on Iran, Iraq, Israel and Palestine and Human Rights, before deciding upon and agreeing two topical resolutions, one on Venezuela and the other on the ongoing crisis in Darfur.
Next, we adjourned to a reception, where I got the chance to talk to Vic Fingerhut, one of the best known American pollsters, whose views on how America is perceived overseas proved to be very robust. I tend to share his view that America need not apologise for taking a lead role within the world community, even if administrations past and present have made some ghastly misjudgements in their choices of when and when not to intervene.
The evening was rounded off in fine style with a banquet to honour Peter Yarrow (Peter from Peter, Paul and Mary) and Andy Levin, son of Congressman Sander Levin and nethew of Senator Carl Levin, for his work in the field of workers' rights. Unusually for these events, the food was pretty good, and I was lucky enough to be seated at a table with the freshman Congressman from Iowa, David Loebsack, which was entertaining, to say the least.
Thursday, June 21, 2007
Today, I have made an unexpected discovery in, of all places, the US Airways Club Lounge at La Guardia Airport, New York. My laptop is wi-fi enabled, but I really hadn't comprehended how it actually worked. So, given an extra hour here (my original flight was cancelled), I took the opportunity to experiment. And, much to my immense surprise, the technology works and I can blog my little heart out whilst drinking free beer and nibbling pretzels.
My e-mail is up to date, Facebook is checked and a dinner date confirmed. In fact, I am even able to function as a Returning Officer. You are warned. The world is not safe and there is no escape from liberal bureaucracy. Cue hysterical laughter and a dash for the plane...
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Accordingly, I fly to the nation’s capital tomorrow, by a somewhat circuitous route (Gatwick, Philadelphia, New York (La Guardia), Washington National). Given the amount of flying that I have to do, it seems vaguely appropriate that I am on the hawkish wing of the organisation, although this is not saying a great deal, given that we are talking about an American liberal group.
The intention is that we produce three brief statements on issues of concern, and review the existing body of policy, plus any new resolutions that emerge. The debates are generally well-informed, something that might not be expected given the external view of American politics, and the participants from a variety of backgrounds, often bringing years of international experience with them. For that reason, I look forward to the debates to come, knowing that no matter how passionate they become, we’ll all acknowledge each other’s positions (eventually).
I’ll try to blog my way through the convention, depending on internet access but if you don’t hear from me for the next few days, I’ll try to catch up in New York…
Sunday, June 17, 2007
The Officers of my Local Party met this evening, or at least most of us did, and one of the issues which arose was the unexpected, and hopefully temporary, disappearence of our Secretary. And so, yes, you guessed it, I am now acting Secretary. So, I'm now working with nine Local Parties in various capacities and three Regional Parties. I'm Secretary to three of them, Returning Officer to another five, a member of the Selection Committee of another, and Regional Contact to four more. I'm also talking to at least five other Local Parties about hustings and/or social events.
One advantage of holding all of these positions is that I end up consulting with myself in a number of different situations, which at least has the positive aspect that I get the decision that I want/need. It also means that when I get to parties, there is nearly always someone I'd like to talk to about something I'm involved in.
Such a level of involvement tends to mean that the individual wants something. I wonder what I subconsciously want?
I must admit that the secret of good administration is that it must be able to adapt to changes in the political weather, as the methodology of a Conservative administration will differ greatly from that of a Labour or, at some future point perhaps, Liberal Democrat administration. And that brings me back to my point about empathy...
However, recent years have seen the rise of the Special Adviser, or SpAd, as Guido Fawkes refers to them. He has been enthusiastic in his pursuit of instances whereby SpAd's have broken the guidance restricted their political activities and I have to accept that the frequency of such malpractice is a nightmare for supporters of a non-partisan civil service.
Their presence amongst the upper echelons of government, like targets, distorts the behaviour of those around them. And so, the question must be asked. If this Labour government falls at the next General Election, or a subsequent one, can a new incoming administration rely on the civil service to put their programme into effect, or will a 'night of the long knives' scenario come into play?
In the United States, many high-level administrative posts are filled on the basis of rewarding supporters and fundraisers, leading to a huge turnover at the head of the bureaucracy after a change of Party in the White House (and not only then, even after a President is re-elected, there is often significant personnel turnover). You then get a period whereby people are mastering their new briefs, and positive activity is almost suspended.
I hope that such a state never reaches these shores, and that the non-partisan nature of our civil service can be preserved. Sadly, Labour's control freak tendency have done more to damage this essential facet of our government system than anything else, be it low pay, loss of respect or the general tendency of political parties of all stripes to use the civil service as a convenient whipping boy. And one day, all of us will regret it...
And so the seemingly endless saga of Jamil el-Banna speaks to me of a situation where all of these aspects have failed. Jamil has recently been advised that he will be released from Guantanamo Bay after more than four years of illegal detention there. He would, not unreasonably, quite like to come home to London and rejoin his family, who fled here from Jordan as Jamil was deemed to have justifiable fear of torture had he remained there.
Jamil's case was considered by the Home Office, and he was given leave to remain. And now the story takes a rather sick and twisted turn. It would appear that the Home Office are of the view that his absence for more than four years has negated his original approval, and that he may have to return to Jordan.
So the facts as we know them are quite simple:
- Jamil is acknowledged to be at risk of being tortured if he returns to Jordan
- he was detained by the US authorities in a manner which breached his human rights
- they now accept that they can find nothing to charge him with
- he has been out of the United Kingdom for more than four years through no fault of his own
And yet, it appears to be beyond the wit of my colleagues in the Home Office to reach the obvious conclusion, which would be to overlook his period of illegal detention. In the 'good old days', before politicians concluded that the best form of bureaucracy was a partisan one, a fairly junior civil servant would have made the decision, passed it to a more senior colleague for approval and then issued a sensibly-worded letter acknowledging the situation and indicating that the right to remain had been renewed.
Sadly, the effects of political interference have now gone so much further than direct meddling in administrative processes. Civil servants, especially higher up the food chain, are now so conscious that their every move is being monitored that they tend towards self-regulation so as to avoid the risk of upsetting their political masters, an invidious trend if ever I saw one.
Which begs the obvious question. Is this moral cowardice on the part of the civil service, or direct meddling by a minister whose only yardstick for making decisions is the likely response of the tabloid press?
Jamil has one thing on his side, the determination of his local MP to plead his case, and I wish her all the luck in the world in her efforts to get justice for the el-Banna family...
Thursday, June 14, 2007
And so it was that I found myself on an evening train to High Wycombe, running a little late due to a delayed inbound service. However, I made it to the meeting point on time, and was pleasantly surprised to receive a warm welcome. A cup of coffee later, and we were chatting away as though we'd known each other for years. And that's how the relationship between a Local Party Executive and its Returning Officer should be...
Most of us love our Local Parties, despite their foibles and eccentricities. We tolerate amateurism in a way that we would never do in our businesses, remembering as we do, that these people are volunteers, sometimes doing things because nobody else will. It is, in many ways, a bit like a marriage. You compromise on your ideals because the relationship means something and is worth the occasional inconvenience.
And this evening, I kind of fell in love with Wycombe Liberal Democrats. They may be small in number, and up against the vast battalions of true blue Buckinghamshire, but their sheer enthusiasm and energy is well nigh impossible to resist. It would be so easy for them to despair, but they had a good round of local elections this year, making gains in an otherwise difficult year for Liberal Democrats, and are genuinely excited at what their new councillors are achieving for their constituents.
And if I can help them find an equally enthusiastic PPC over the coming months, all the better...
Monday, June 11, 2007
I have already made my opposition to quotas abundantly clear, favouring the Campaign for Gender Balance (CGB) approach of support, mentoring and training. Meral Ece has already made the case that Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats (EMLD) receives no funding from the party centrally and so I find myself wondering, "Is there a role for my Regional Party here?". Clearly, given the proportion of the London population that defines itself as non-white (28.8%), we would be failing if we didn't take a lead on this issue. We have a training budget, and we could work with EMLD to organise training that might be useful.
I would say this though, working simply with EMLD is not enough, we should be working with CGB and, a point often overlooked, anyone else who might benefit. Women-only training opportunities have been crucial in both encouraging women to come forward and supporting them once they have done so. On the other hand, there has been some ill-feeling that such opportunities haven't been made available to anyone else.
In part, this is due to the fact that there isn't any other organisation which is similarly effective. My views on the Parliamentary Candidates Association (PCA) vary between mockery and contempt, depending on how good a mood I'm in and, as already stated, EMLD has little funding. So perhaps we could run the same training session three times, once with CGB, once with EMLD, and once for anyone in the Regional Party?
I'm keen that rather than just talk, we act. There will be a review of our processes and outcomes, it is true, but the sooner we start to make a real difference, the sooner we can put the events of the past month behind us.
Sunday, June 10, 2007
It doesn't get any better, but all that needs to be said about Al Yamamah is here...
In 1998, I missed all the hustings for South East's European selection due to a pre-existing commitment (alright, I was on holiday) and rather cunningly organised two hustings for the same evening. It seemed logical to have the candidates to Windsor and Newbury on the same evening, especially with a motorway to connect the two. I don't drive, which may explain why I overlooked the fact that picking the Friday of a bank holiday weekend would leave the M4 looking more like a car park than an express route. I am led to believe that some of the candidates made it... eventually...
Despite this, they very kindly requested a reprise in 2002/03. This time, the manifesto approval phase was scheduled for the period around the New Year. For some reason, I thought that being in Chile and Argentina would make the process more relaxed. On the other hand, the hotel delivered one faxed manifesto with a bottle of champagne, which did make me rather more kind-hearted towards the candidate than I might otherwise have been. Admittedly, he didn't know about it, and we'd paid for it, so no harm done. I did admire the gall of one applicant who complained that I had taken eight hours to respond to her manifesto. Given that she'd sent it at 5 a.m. Buenos Aires time, I was less than entirely courteous in my response...
This time, I'm planning very little travelling, and intend to be at the hustings. Instead, I'm putting an effort into the papers, with pen pictures of the members of the Selection Committee. And that's where the problems start. You see, I'm rapidly drawing the conclusion that the members of the committee are more interesting than the applicants. So, I hereby declare that the South East Regional shortlist is:
- the incumbent
- Prue Bray
- Jamie Sharpley
- Mike Wheatley
- Margaret Ticehurst
- Season Prater
- Ken Cosslett
- Vera Head
- Chris Jennings
- Mark Valladares
May I thank the applicants for their interest, and the Selection Committee will be taking a well-deserved long summer break before the campaign starts in earnest...
Friday, June 08, 2007
Fortunately, the hordes of potential applicants have obviously decided to wait until the weekend to deluge me with requests for the application pack, so I may actually get a chance to get everything done before my life ceases to be my own once again.
Now, of course, my Selection Committee are in possession of the only slot being vacated by its current occupant (don't worry, it isn't a secret, Liberal Democrat News says so!), and so, assuming our performance doesn't drop significantly in 2009, a new MEP will emerge, blinking in the light. I wonder who it will be?
One of my pet projects this year is to create a decent list of events across the Region so that candidates can mingle with members. So, if you have connections with a Local Party in either South Central or South East Regions, get in touch, we can talk about a potential social event between 28 August and 6 November. Try and avoid Saturdays and the period between 15 and 20 September (we'll all be going on a late summer holiday in Brighton), but other than that, my diary is wide open...
Thursday, June 07, 2007
Tuesday, June 05, 2007
Est-ce donc pour gémir et soupirer en vain
Que mon art a produit ton image adorable?
Saturday, June 02, 2007
Part of the meeting was spent considering protocols addressing particular circumstances that have arisen, and information on this will be made available to relevant parties in due course. However, we also looked at the Rules pertaining to the campaign phase of the European selection, particularly salient in the light of the GLA selection. Some eminently sensible changes have been agreed, and I hope that they will go some way towards addressing concerns raised elsewhere. Once the amendments have been incorporated into the Selection Rules, these too will be made public, certainly no later than Friday.
Unfortunately, due to the fact that the meeting overran somewhat, I had to leave before it concluded in order to convene the first meeting of the South East England selection committee, where we had to address issues relating to the selection criteria, regional profile and scheduling. It was an immense relief to see the committee work quickly, efficiently and effectively, and I now expect us to be ready to go live on Friday.