Saturday, March 29, 2008

A reflection on mortality

I've just got back for a visit to my local vet. Not the usual call for flea treatment or something unpredictable but instead, given that I own five cats aged betwen fifteen and seventeen, the first of a series of visits that would eventually have to be made.

Last year, Victoria, my black and white cat, contracted cancer and underwent fairly radical surgery, involving the removal of most of her ear canal. It was hoped at the time that all of the malignant material had been removed but, in recent weeks, it became apparent that there was a problem.

Steeling myself, I took Victoria to the vet, fearing the worst and so it came to pass. What to do? Having undergone surgery so recently, and experienced such trauma, I honestly couldn't put her through it again, especially given the reality that even further invasive surgery would merely buy her a few more months. And so, dear reader, I decided to have her put to sleep.

I've always been in favour of euthanasia. I understand that there are ethical and moral concerns, and the risk that unscrupulous relatives might influence a seriously ill person into making a decision that might be the wrong one. However, freedom to live must also imply a freedom to decide that life is no longer preferable, subject to a robust framework and proper psychological evaluation.

There are those, particularly in the Catholic Church, who believe that to even countenance such a debate is the beginning of a slippery slope towards an amoral society, where the value of a human life becomes a matter of pragmatic economics rather than a contemplation of the human soul. Let me tell you, given the trauma of choosing such an option for a domestic house cat, I cannot imagine how much more ghastly having to make that choice on behalf of another human being would be, even if they had signed a 'living will'.

But it is surely better to consider the quality of someone's life. Fifty or more years ago, medical science had far less in the way of tools to maintain life. The issue of whether to keep someone alive or not was, for the most part, fairly irrelevant. The wonders of modern science allow us choices that our grandparents never had but they also offer us challenges. We human beings have never wanted to die quietly, raging against that dark night as a poet famously wrote. If modern technology can keep us alive, then many of us will want to take that chance, regardless of cost, regardless of probability.

The Catholic Church seldom protests about this, probably a good thing. However, might it not be helpful if they, claiming as they do to be a force for moral good, gave some thought as to the moral dimensions of chronic pain, ill-health and quality of life, rather than simply reprising their role as the opponent of modern scientific thinking that they've got down to such a fine art?

Friday, March 28, 2008

We, who are about to fly, salute you...

Never let it be said that the life of a faceless bureaucrat revolves entirely around bits of paper. There is, I confess, quite a lot of paper involved but Ros is still working through the process of weaning me off of the stuff.

As part of that process, and because she has a wonderful sense of humour, I was driven to Milton Keynes today to try body flying, otherwise known as indoor skydiving. Those of you who know me will be aware that I am likely to be to flying what a rhinoceros is to ballet, but I was assured that, with a little effort, I could soar gracefully through the air and not look the slightest bit silly.

After a slightly frustrating journey (will the roadworks between junctions 6 and 10 of the M1 ever be finished?), we arrived at Xscape and I reported for my introduction to manned flight. A brisk lesson on body positioning and signals followed and, although I wasn't absolutely certain that I had absorbed everything, I was keen to don knee and elbow pads, a jumpsuit, helmet and goggles (the latter in Lib Dem yellow, naturally) and get to the wind tunnel.

Body flying works like this. There is a wind tunnel which blows upwards and a steel mesh represents the floor, enabling your instructor to get a sound footing, and preventing you from falling to the bottom of the tunnel where, in truth, not much will happen (you are absolutely safe, I promise you). You step to an entrance and lean forward, chin up, arms raised, into the wind and assume a horizontal position, chin up, hips arched forwards (downwards) with arms and legs extended. By making small adjustments, you can go up, down and move around. Work hard, and you can do acrobatics and all sorts of other exciting things that would terrify your mother.

I wasn't that good. I got the hang of hovering in the air but every time I started to think about what I was doing, I tended to do something wrong and head off in the wrong or unplanned direction. That said, it was an amazing experience, and there is moving footage of me flying, occasionally. If I work out how to post it on the blog, I'll do so. Maybe I can post my bungy jump in Queenstown, New Zealand as well...

In summary, I wouldn't have missed the opportunity for the world. Jumping out of a plane fills me with dread, but this is exciting without the element of danger. On the other hand, trying to find your way out of Milton Keynes once you've finished... now that's danger for you...

Thursday, March 27, 2008

'I'm 4 Ros' - an evening of thinking beyond the box with Brian Eno

I had the great pleasure of attending a function in support of the 'I'm 4 Ros' campaign last night, where the guest speaker was the apparently infamous Brian Eno. I say 'apparently' because a degree of fuss has been made about his recruitment as an adviser to Nick Clegg on reaching out beyond the core vote.

He spoke to an intrigued audience on those issues about our democracy which trouble him, such as what he described as 'an ever shortening feedback loop' in public policy, whereby there is pressure for immediate solutions without time to measure the long (or even medium) term implications. He was also concerned about the tendancy of political parties to operate in thrall to focus groups.

It was a speech of a type we seldom here in politics, thoughtful, full of philosophical insight and imagery and, dare I say it, rather thought-provoking. The absence of political jargon, the sort that comes from all political parties, gave me a sense that I really ought to have been taking notes in order to better appreciate it later.

A varied crowd, including a pleasing number of parliamentarians from both the Lords and the Commons, enjoyed what turned out to be a very entertaining evening, and I am confident that it demonstrates not only that Ros is the serious candidate for the Presidency that I firmly believe her to be, but that there is genuine support for her across the Party.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Liberal Youth - a more auspicious start this time

Ros and I attended the launch of "Liberal Youth", the rebranded Liberal Democrat Youth and Students (LDYS). There were lots of young people around, and very few older people. Spirits were high, and there was plenty of optimism and confidence in the air. How different from the first launch of the youth wing of the Liberal Democrats post-merger...

I first got involved with the Young Liberals in 1986, having been encouraged to get involved on leaving my university's Liberal Society. I joined my local branch in Brent and Harrow, made friends who have lasted through the years... but I digress. The next year, following the disappointment of the General Election, talk of merger between the Liberals and the Social Democrats was in the air, and negotiations were soon under way.

The Young Liberals, who had always been suspicious of our Alliance partners, boldly (and some might say, suicidally) announced their terms for merger, most of which were, quite frankly, never going to be obtained. There were a few who were passionately in favour of merger, the 'realos' to steal a term from the emerging green movement of the time, but most were 'fundis', loyal to the concept of radical, community-based activism. There were a few of us stuck in the middle, longing to uphold the fine traditions of the Young Liberals yet fully aware that merger would happen with, or without, the youth wing. Someone had to man the ship until it could be handed over to a new crew.

Once it became clear that merger was truly inevitable, what was intended to become a merger of two youth wings into one rapidly became the fragmentation of two groups into four, maybe five. The radicals, concluding that their terms wouldn't be considered, let alone met, resigned en masse, leaving those in the room to carry on. Some formed the Young Liberal Movement, a ginger group for real liberalism both inside and outside of the Liberal Democrats, a few transferred their allegiance to the continuing Liberal Party, others chose the Greens. The Young Social Democrats sustained losses too, some to the continuing SDP, others, such as Danny Finkelstein, to the Conservatives.

In the midst of the chaos, I became Secretary General in the absence of any meaningful alternative. My task was a sad one, to deliver the Young Liberals to the grave, in the hope that something new and exciting could be created from the wreckage. It was a grim time, being able merely to stand by as an organisation revered by many former activists limped to an ignominious burial.

Merger brought crisis. There was no money to run the central Party, let alone a youth wing of whom the leadership were deeply suspicious. Former SDP members had always disliked the Young Liberals, based predominantly on a knowledge of its past glories rather than its current dereliction, and were not keen to encourage potential troublemakers. And yet there was no desire to cause trouble. The radicals had left, pragmatism was the order of the day but, without money, little could be done, leaving gesture politics as a tempting option.

And so the Young Social and Liberal Democrats (soon to become the Young Liberal Democrats) were born without fanfare, without resources and without much direction. Involvement was weak, activity weaker (except the international activity, for some reason very successful) and influence virtually non-existent. I served from 1988 to 1992 as Secretary, International Officer, President and Treasurer, hoping against hope that we could build something and always running into the sands of lack of resource and credibility.

Over time, and via a merger with the Students, LDYS built up its credibility, its funding and its activity. I have occasionally bemoaned a lack of consistency and follow-through, but it has become a more viable, more respected organisation in the intervening period. Now, it looks like a pretty vibrant group, and I am optimistic for its future.

A word to the wise though. Whilst one should never be radical simply for the sake of it, if you can't be radical when you're young, you're unlikely to discover the notion as you get older. So don't pander to the leadership in search of credibility, be it personal or organisational. Remember that the radicals of the present tend to become the ancien regime of the future and keep making us older people think a bit...

Monday, March 24, 2008

Criticism, hyperbole and censorship - why being a liberal blogger isn't so easy

One of the difficulties with blogging is fighting the urge to control debate. As a liberal, I believe in the concept of freedom to publish. On the other hand, there is a responsibility to protect the wider society where hurt or offence may ensue. As a publisher, I want to propagate my views and, by attracting favourable supporting comments, gain greater credibility for them. This, in turn, creates a larger audience and thus a virtuous circle is created.

Liberal Democrats tend to be keen to debate, partly because liberalism tends to balance the needs of individuals against those of the community, however defined. That said, discussion within the Lib Dem blogosphere usually remains courteous. Those among us with a reputation for 'edge' generally aim their invective at the opposition. However, when an argument becomes heated, we like to see it unfold. Censorship of public disagreements is frowned upon, as long as criticism is open, and not hidden beneath a cloak of anonymity.

We also tend to dislike hyperbole. Exaggerating your case to the point of ridicule will attract... ridicule...

It looks as though one of my fellow bloggers has overlooked this. Like Bernard Salmon, I read Bob Shaw's comparison of the 1933 Enabling Act with efforts by the Catholic Church to influence the debate on embryo research, and thought that it was an absurd exaggeration of the case. Unlike Bernard, however, I took the viewpoint that Bob was demonstrating his lack of a sense of history and of perspective and left it at that.

Bernard felt more strongly, and chose to comment. Bob's response appears to have been to play the man rather than the ball, resorting to invective. After an exchange of views, Bob then seems to have decided that the exchange shows him in a bad light and removed it.

Sorry Bob, but that's rather foolish. Now that you've been outed as someone who censors merely to protect his own reputation, it is clear that engaging with you is futile, and that comments posted on your blog must agree with your line. In short, what credibility you have is damaged, and credibility is much easier lost than won.

And before anyone gets too excited, I freely admit to censoring comments posted to my blog. Anonymous comments attacking third parties are banned, unless they contain coherent, logical and verifiable argument. I don't believe that anonymity should be encouraged except in very limited circumstances. Otherwise, I'm perfectly happy to publish comments critical of me or my positions on whatever issue I have blogged about.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Where your delivery walk is a bit longer than usual

Amazingly, London's run of by-elections has come to an end (five wins, two good seconds and Havering). And so this bureaucrat found himself in Creeting St Peter, delivering a walk small in numbers but large in distance.

There are some rewards. Despite the snow, there is much to see, horses to pat, pheasants to admire - they're a bit more confident now the season is over - hares in the fields and rabbits in gardens. You meet the occasional local walking their dog(s), which provides an opportunity for a chat, or catch a glimpse of one of the area's many small but perfectly formed rural churches.

The Stowmarket North ward has been Conservative since the Black Death one presumes, but the local Tories appear to have a few problems hanging on to their councillors. Having been elected in 2005, the initial member disappeared, finally resigning in time for a by-election last July. His replacement has quit before his seat at County Hall could barely warm up. It isn't somewhere that Liberal Democrats have fought hard in the past, but a proper campaign was fought last year, and a decent vote was won.

This time, the by-election candidate, Nicky Turner, is back, and she's giving it a go. I'm quite impressed with the literature and the message, "we're local and we're still here", something that the Conservatives really can't claim.

So, if you still have a yearning to help out in a by-election, and fancy giving the Conservatives a bloody nose in a ward they really won't want to lose, get in touch...

Thursday, March 20, 2008

And a damned fine conference it was too, if I say so myself...

And so I have delivered my first and, quite possibly penultimate, Regional Conference. Most people seemed to enjoy it, the feedback has been positive and, thanks to the efforts of what I must lovingly refer to as the Regional Geek Sub-committee, attendance was very good. Hopefully, we made a profit...

I've already eulogised about Sally Hamwee, but the contributions from Brian Paddick and Nick Clegg raised our spirits and, I must admit, the latter's comments about the gifts for Sally and Graham simply confirmed his gift for comedy. I'd be quite intrigued to see him on 'Have I Got News For You' or some similar game show.

Simon Hughes and Sarah Ludford continue their gracious support of the Region, and provided us with further reasons to take the fight to our political opponents, both this year and for next year's critical European election.

The final policy session was ably chaired by Caroline Pidgeon, and the contributions from Chamali Fernando, Jo Christie-Smith, Denys Robinson and Mike Tuffrey merely demonstrated the wealth of talent ready to be unleashed on London in the coming months and years.

Thanks must go to Flick Rea and her team of volunteers who make things run so smoothly. Eddie Ottery is our Chief Steward, knows his job backwards and is always calm, Jill Fraser, Margaret Foreman and Eliane Patten deal with registration and, above all, Flick manages me on top of her other responsibilities.

I've learnt quite a bit from this event, and hope to apply it in the run-up to the Autumn Conference and AGM, provisionally scheduled for 15 November. See you there, then?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sally Hamwee rocks!

Alright, this might not be the headline that leaps most readily to mind when you think about the noble Baroness Hamwee of Richmond upon Thames, but I think that it’s high time for a re-evaluation.

Like many people, even those whose interest in politics is somewhat above the norm, I have traditionally paid little heed to what goes on in either the London Assembly or the House of Lords. The media are where they believe the action to be, and that place is the House of Commons. Meanwhile, work of equal, or more likely, greater value is going on down the corridor and down the river.

Sally Hamwee has served the electors of Richmond upon Thames and London for some years (courtesy causes me not to say how many, but if you’re interested, why not look it up…), as a councillor, as Leader of the council, as a member of the London Assembly – including chairing the Assembly itself – and has a wider brief as a key member of the Communities and Local Government team in the Lords. Until recently, this had little significance to me, and I perceived Sally (as much as I thought of her at all) to be a rather distant, slightly daunting senior figure within our ranks. That is, until I actually met her.

Our paths had crossed in the past, although in mostly glancing terms, but as a colleague of Ros’s, we’ve had occasional conversations in recent months. However, her ‘elevation’ to the position of president of London Liberal Democrats has brought us into closer contact. Apart from being a source of wise counsel, one of the roles of the President is to open our regional conferences and chair the Annual General Meeting. As Chair of the Regional Conference, I therefore have to work with her to ensure that her contribution is properly organised.

On this occasion, however, it was decided that we should honour her for her work as a member of the London Assembly, particularly important given that she did not stand for re-selection and is therefore retiring (a word I use with caution), along with (Lord) Graham Tope. Tasked with organising a suitable gift, I employed my contacts to ascertain what this might be and arranged for purchase.

The agenda was set so as allow Sally time to make a speech on any subject she cared to pick, and she chose to review her eight years on the Assembly, acknowledging the efforts of her colleagues, celebrating the good times, and the not so good ones, bringing events at the Assembly to life and leaving no doubt as to how proud she was to have served London and the Liberal Democrats. She struck just the right tone of outrage at the antics of Mayor Livingstone, and commended Brian Paddick as the best choice for London.

I admit that, as the applause died down, I was impressed. I had never really considered Sally to be the emotional type, more a calm, level-headed technocrat than a warm and witty speaker, but I was clearly wrong.

Indeed, Sally isn’t retiring, far from it. Once the elections are out of the way, she will return to the Lords to lead for the Liberal Democrats on the new Housing and Planning Bills, where her sharp analytical mind, and close command of her brief will doubtless cause the Labour frontbenchers much angst as the summer approaches. It would be nice if she found time to enjoy her gift though…

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Civil Serf - does this mean the end for Liberal Bureaucracy?

The recent controversy over the 'Civil Serf' blog which, I note, is no longer accessible, is a reminder of the high-wire act that is blogging when you're a civil servant.

All of us sign the Official Secrets Act when we commence our employment with whatever Department we join, and we are asked to keep any political involvement to a minimum, as is entirely appropriate given our role as servants of government.

For that reason, I don't take positions that are overtly political, acting instead in administrative roles, and always seek authority before seeking election to new positions (management are yet to turn me down). Being comparatively junior helps - I have no connection to the real levers of policy making or decision taking.

However, I have to exercise a degree of self-censorship. It would be inappropriate for me to attack Government policy as it relates to taxation, and I tend not to attack them on much else, instead noting regret or making positive suggestions as I see fit. Pay and conditions are an exception, although my stance - pay civil servants properly, and you'll need less of them - is only controversial if you're a senior figure in my union...

I haven't read 'Civil Serf' but, it would seem, his/her trenchant criticism has been noticed by someone higher up the foodchain, not necessarily a good idea. Anonymous criticism is never popular with authority, and informed anonymous criticism even less so. However, the excerpts that I've seen so far don't appear to breach the Official Secrets Act, unless Civil Serf's views on, for example, Peter Hain, represent a state secret.

That said, the hunt is on, and the indications are that there will be formal guidance for civil servants on blogging in due course. This, of course, impacts on this blog and, potentially, its very existence. Let's just say that I await the next missive from the Cabinet Office with more interest than usual...

Monday, March 10, 2008

Thoughts on public service - how a lack of confidence betrays us all

In amongst the big picture statements in Nick Clegg’s speech to the Liberal Democrat conference yesterday, was a less high-profile but heartfelt plea that the ‘system’ needs to be more mindful of the public it purports to serve.

There is a certain irony here, in that I sense a desire, certainly in my corner of the public sector, to find ways to reach out to our ‘customer base’ (sorry, but I really don’t feel comfortable with the phrase) that make it easier for them to comply. Advances in new technology, attempts to improve the language we use, to reach out to people through advertising campaigns (for example, HM Revenue & Customs apparently have a greater advertising spend than Proctor & Gamble!), have all had an impact. Even more ironically, many of these innovations have come from the top of the organisation rather than, as we might hope, emerging through bottom-up initiatives.

Bringing new blood into the public sector from the outside world has had its benefits, undoubtedly, especially through the introduction of new ideas and the removal of a corps of professional administrators whose raison d’etre was to run the system and leave initiative and ideas to politicians - not necessarily a good idea.

The problem, however, is this. You, my friends, don’t get to deal with the people running the organisation. You don’t experience their enthusiasm and initiative. I do, sort of. I experience their initiatives and enthusiasm every day, through messages, new computer systems, reorganisations and exhortations to try harder. I also experience their efforts to cut costs, hold down my salary, make my working environment less comfortable etc, but that’s a story for another day.

On the front line, I experience heightened expectations from those who call or write to me - a good thing in some ways but pressure generating in others, organisational barriers in terms of structure, lack of management clarity, complexity of legislation and a computer system which prevents me (occasionally) from doing what would make both sides happy and adhere to the legislation. In London particularly, this is compounded by the unnerving effect of various proposals to move work, and thus jobs, out of London and the South East. All of these things tend to discourage risk-taking and initiative at local level.

Indeed, where public sector salaries lag between the regional norm, recruitment tends to be less successful in attracting and retaining bright, enthusiastic staff, encouraging a ‘jobsworth’ mentality, and a desire to hid behind the rules, “it’s not me, guv, it’s the system”. A lack of experience, compounded by a lack of confidence in their grasp of the legislation, encourages staff to refer enquiries and questions further up the chain of command rather than risk getting it wrong and dealing with them there and then.

This is what frustrates the average person dealing with the bureaucracy. It isn’t necessarily a big systemic problem, although the system clearly contributes. It is a failure of will, combined with a collective loss of confidence. There is a tendency, when faced with something going wrong, to assume as a starting point, that the public sector is wrong. Often, further analysis demonstrates that there is fault on both sides, or misunderstanding on one other, and that communication is poor. Confidence in what we do, and an acknowledgement that we aren’t perfect, would go a long way to addressing ‘Faceless Britain’.

Occasionally, you are forced to confront the impact of your behaviour, and Nick Clegg’s speech has certainly given me cause to stop, think, and smell the administrative Earl Grey (not coffee, I am a civil servant after all). I’ll be giving some thought over the coming days as to how my bureaucratic touch impacts on those I interact with and maybe some style changes may emerge. The battle against ‘Faceless Britain’ can be fought one desk at a time…

Sunday, March 09, 2008

And as the anticipation reaches a crescendo...

Hi Mum, I'm in the hall for the Leader's speech here in Liverpool.

We're all in high spirits after a wonderfully fun conference, something you might not have guessed from reading the papers earlier in the week. Nick looks incredibly relaxed, has mingled with the rest of us and, whilst I know his entourage were probably not too far away, there isn't that sense of 'deity come to visit the peasantry' that has existed in the past.

Must dash, Nick's on in a minute or so...

Want to interview Nick Clegg in Sheffield? Ask me how!

Following on from the debate about getting access for bloggers from outside London to key figures in the Party, I was innocently minding my own business in the bar of the conference hotel last night when who should appear in front of me but Nick, our glorious leader.

I'm not much of a groupie and tend to leave the celebrities alone but, on this occasion, I asked him if he would be willing to meet up with bloggers somewhere other than London. His response? "How about Sheffield?", he said. "That sounds like a challenge!", I said. "No,", he replied, "an invitation."

So, the opportunity exists. He's up for it. Are you? Get in touch with me, and I'll see what can be arranged...

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Taxi for the Federal Executive!

This evening saw a vote on an intriguing constitutional amendment. Intriguing, because the prospect of a proposal on internal Party governance supported by both the Liberator Collective and the Federal Executive is so unlikely, that it must surely be a good thing, shouldn’t it?

I’m a suspicious soul at heart, and the scheduling of a constitutional amendment as part of a thirty-five minute slot containing the reports of the Federal Executive and the Federal Finance and Administration Committee, as well as a business motion making the Liberal Democrat Lawyers a Specified Associated Organisation, might lead one to believe that the matter at hand wasn’t terribly important, just mere housekeeping.

“And what was the proposal?”, I hear you ask. Put simply, the proposal was to decouple the job of the President from that of Chair of the Federal Executive. Naturally, I have a view on the matter, although that really isn’t that relevant in this instance. The more interesting aspect was that the proposal failed to get the necessary two-thirds majority to pass.

My concern is that, if it was a conspiracy to push something through under cover of darkness, the Federal Executive, with its acknowledged ‘payroll’ vote, wasn’t able to successfully deliver the desired outcome. This does not necessarily inspire confidence in their collective competence. On the other hand, if it wasn’t a conspiracy, the fact that the ‘non-payroll’ vote probably at best voted narrowly in favour of it indicates how out of touch the Federal Executive has become. It is true that all but half of its membership is not directly elected. It is also true that, in internal Party elections, members of the Federal Executive who are well known personalities tend to do better than their performance might merit, simply because of their ‘celebrity’. As a result, there is a decided possibility that the Federal Executive is less well connected to the membership than it might otherwise (and really ought to) be.

Perhaps a few of them, especially those publicly arguing that removing the President from their role as Chair of the Federal Executive enhances the internal democracy of the Party, might like to consider whether or not they retain the confidence of conference delegates and the membership at large…

English Candidates Committee - making things better, one meeting at a time

This morning was always going to be a very long one so, fortified by a vast breakfast of fruit (see, Ros is having a positive effect on me already…) and various dead animal by-products (…but not that positive, it would seem…), I slipped into the meeting of the English Candidates Committee, and prepared for the long haul.

The early part of the meeting was taken up with regional reports, the election of our new Vice Chair, Glynis Dumper from Devon & Cornwall, and the debut of the new Chair of the Parliamentary Candidates Association, Martin Turner. Martin is a worthy addition to our deliberations, and I really believe that, working together, ECC and the PCA can make candidate approval, selection and development core to the successful campaigning work of the Party. As I recall, it’s all about electing Liberal Democrats to change society and our communities for the better.

The second half, on the other hand, was taken up with consideration of the report of the Approvals Process Working Group. Their efforts are very close to reaching fruition, and for obvious reasons, I don’t want to jump the gun by giving away any information until the time is right (and it genuinely isn’t yet), but I really feel that the proposed new system will be more efficient, more effective, and will produce candidates who can deliver successful campaigns and make good constituency MPs if elected.

I have learned one useful thing though. It is considered poor form to present a proposal from a group you are a member of, and then distance yourself from it in a meeting when it proves unpopular. Personally, I think that collective responsibility and a sense of honour would prevent individuals from acting in such a cavalier manner. However, we have always known that there are some amongst us who don’t understand such concepts...

Friday, March 07, 2008

World shut your mouth, shut your mouth...

Apparently, MPs are outraged that HM Revenue & Customs staff pocketed £23.6 million in bonuses despite worsening performance. In the nicest possible way, the Treasury Select Committee can kiss my... hmmm... maybe not.

For obvious reasons, I can't rehearse the arguments here as to why some of our staff genuinely merit performance-related pay, and believe me, many of them do.

However, performance related pay has been a key weapon in the fight by both Conservative and Labour administrations to drive up performance. The idea that extra money incentivises staff to work harder is a controversial one, especially is a highly-unionised organisation like HMRC. Indeed, the argument can be made to suggest that we don't go far enough.

My current pay deal, which expires this year, allows for a pot of money sufficient to pay up to 5% of my salary as a bonus. Depending on the number of nominees, in practice it works out at about 3.5%, or about £1000 before tax and NIC, if I am judged worthy. In return, I have to exceed my targets, regardless of what goes on around me, or of goalposts being moved mid-year. Not just by a little either, by a sizeable margin.

Of course, if my manager is weak, or biased, or my team is very good generally, my performance might not merit a bonus in relation to my team, even though it is excellent in national terms, because managers are limited to a set number of nominations.

All of this makes you wonder whether it is really worth the effort for perhaps £10 per week. Is 25% extra effort worth 3.5%?

The backdrop, of course, is a Treasury settlement where the Department is expected to cut costs by 5% year on year for six years, sacrificing 25,000 jobs (26% of the workforce), closing buildings and forcing taxpayers to make greater use of technology. People like me make that possible, so why aren't we entitled to share some of the benefits?

Nick Clegg calls for opposition to Faceless Britain - what did I do to upset him?

I have a fine and noble reputation as a Party bureaucrat. Not an apparatchik, just a bureaucrat. My friends call me Faceless Bureaucrat, due in part for my discomfort in the spotlight, but mostly because I tend to toil away in the administrative end of the Party.

So now, Nick calls for Liberal Democrats to oppose Faceless Britain. I'm disappointed and hurt... Oh well, a glass of wine and I'll doubtless get over it...

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Good grief, what does a bureaucrat have to do to make peace?

And lo, a bureaucrat rose near the centre, and called upon the bloggers of the Liberal Democrat world to lay down their pens of venom and lie together in peace and harmony. Yea, and the bloggers spoke as a multitude and sayeth, "yes, but he started it, and besides, she smells"...

That said, there has been a general sense of agreement that there is no conspiracy, merely the nature of the way these 'blogger opportunities' have been organised. All except Nich, that is. Nich, it really wasn't necessary to attack Alex like that, especially after you'd thanked his partner, Richard, for the politeness of his response. Indeed, Alex has acknowledged that his response was a bit over the top and, might I suggest, his thought that counting to one hundred before responding might be more widely applicable. For the record, coming third in Stevenage, where the Local Party had less than one hundred members and one councillor, and flying the flag in a fairly hopeless cause is rather noble, to my mind, at least.

So, let's see where we've got. We have a problem with a perceived, if not necessarily accurate, sense of Lendon-centrism. We have a suggestion that, if certain individuals feel so strongly about it, they should do something about it.

Perhaps an experiment is in order. I am attending the South East Regional Conference in Ashford on 29 March, where the guest speakers are Susan Kramer, David Heath and Norman Baker (there is another guest speaker, but I'd rather leave Ros for later, if you don't mind). If there is anyone willing to take part, I'm willing to arrange an opportunity to meet with one of them. Susan has recently hit the headlines with her musings about the leadership, David is experiencing some turbulence over Europe, and Norman, well let's just say that he's always interesting.

Alright, it's still in the South East, but I'm giving three weeks notice, and I'm willing to do the work. I may even bring doughnuts...

Let peace reign in the land of Lib Dem bloggers

I have watched the spat between Nich Starling and Alex Wilcock with some sadness. Whilst I don't know Nich terribly well, probably because I live in London and he lives in Norfolk, his blog has certainly attracted an audience. I've known Alex for some time, and respect his ability to construct cogent arguments on the issues that he cares deeply about. I've also been Returning Officer in a Parliamentary selection he won, but that's a story for another day. Now, Bob Shaw has joined in. Bob's blog is interesting. Not necessarily designed to make friends, it must be said, but eye-catching nonetheless.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceAs I've occasionally remarked, there is a gap between some bloggers from London and the rest of us, but it merely mirrors the gulf in terms of access. As a London based member, I am more likely to meet an MP at one or other Local Party event because that's where they are during the week. Party HQ is in London, because that's where the politicians are. Oh yes, and the Palace of Westminster is in, errrr, Westminster. As a result, London based activists have greater opportunities than others.

In fact, if you look at where our internal Party committee members live, there is a bias towards London and the South East which reflects the political system regardless of Party. Indeed, quangos have a far greater proportion of their members in London than in any other region, and little has been done to address that.

That's the problem. What Nich has suggested, albeit somewhat hamfistedly, is that it would be nice if the Party is less London-centric. That said, he initially jumped to a conclusion which implied that it was some kind of conspiracy. Clearly, it isn't. I apparently write the fourteenth best Liberal Democrat blog in the United Kingdom (Iain Dale says so, so it must be true...), and have never been invited to one of these "meet the politician" opportunities. I live in London, work in central London, spend time in Cowley Street and, for my sins, am now part of the "establishment", whatever that is. This "omission" doesn't particularly bother me, and I've assumed that those involved have organised it themselves.

Alex has helpfully explained how it actually works and I now know that, if I am inclined to get involved, all I need do is ask. I probably won't, as I prefer to maintain a degree of independence and, besides, I'm not really a policy person. Perhaps he might have held his fire a little bit in terms of his response to Nich, but that isn't really his style (and Nich isn't exactly a shrinking violet either). It's nearly always funny, although being on the receiving end might smart a bit...

The solution to Nich's concerns is more difficult. Outside London, bloggers are more widely spread, and access to politicians less easily to achieve. Ed Davey is unlikely to spend much time in the vicinity of Norwich unless invited there by one of the Local Parties. Politicians are generally overcommitted at our conferences, thus making the creation of a space for bloggers more difficult.

The only solution is to create opportunities, rather than complain about the lack of them. Using Regional Conferences might help. If Nick Clegg is willing to go to Llandudno, or Aviemore, then perhaps bloggers in Wales or Scotland could come together and ask his office for a little bit of his time. If Vince Cable is speaking in Leeds, bloggers in Yorkshire and the surrounds could do the same. Find out who your Regional/State Conference Chair is, and ask them who their star turn is going to be, contact that person's office and see what might be done. The worst that can happen is that they say no...

Monday, March 03, 2008

As Francis Scott Key might have put it - the banner yet waves on second homes

Might I say how enlightening it has been to read the responses to yesterday's posting on second homes. The response from my economic liberal friends has been, frankly, much as I might have expected. So, let's see if I can respond in kind...

The notion that a wholly free market model can be allowed to destroy rural life cannot be left unchallenged. It is, as James Schneider so cleverly put it, entirely the right of individuals not to sell their homes in idyllic communities to outsiders looking for a weekend place in the country. Not a country dweller then, James...

As the number of second homes within a village reach a critical mass, local services begin to lose their financial viability and close. Bus services, such as they are, begin to be withdrawn. Village stores and post offices reduce their hours or close, village schools are reorganised out of existence. All of this leads to increased isolation and the temptation, sometimes necessity, to up sticks and move to a larger community, where the critical services they require are more readily available. Those who are left behind, perhaps because their house isn't as 'cute' or 'quaint', find it difficult to sell to more local purchasers, assuming that there are any, due to the lack of facilities.

An alternative solution is that we subsidise rural services, a fine example of the free market economy that my colleagues so boldly trumpet. I think not. Alternatively, we could just let small villages become midweek ghost towns. It doesn't take a crystal ball to see the eventual clamour from those second home owners now the proud possessors of charming homes in dead villages demanding support for their communities from local government whose business rate base has been decimated. Second homes, if left unchecked, cause local government and full-time local residents increased costs without any realistic compensation in return.

What other alternatives are there? We could increase council tax rates for second homes, although the amount charged is pretty much the full amount. Indeed, if we were to increase the charge to properly compensate for additional costs, you would be able to hear the screaming from the middle-classes from Mars (I am, for the record, decidedly middle-class).

It is already the case that planning permission is required for the building of holiday dwellings. Legislation allowing local councils to determine for themselves what level of second home ownership can be sustained without negative impact on their communities is surely consistent with our belief in local autonomy and strong communities.

Yet again, the metropolitan fixation with choice and freedom shows its almost proud lack of understanding and knowledge of the needs, fears and hopes of rural communities, where choice and freedom are fine words not always supported by realistic opportunity. I expect it from Labour, whose concept of the countryside ends where the concrete does. I don't expect it from a political party whose existence was preserved by rural communities who remained loyal to its ideology at a time when almost nobody else cared.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Second homes - policy is theft...

I should, before I write further, declare a personal interest, in that my parents own a second home, somewhere in darkest Gloucestershire.

That said, despite the fact that they've owned it for twenty years or so, I've never been there. "Why not?", I hear you ask. The first reason is a practical one. I don't drive, and never have done, making the property pretty much a trap for me. Yes, you can reach civilisation on foot (apparently), but it doesn't really appeal. The second reason is the principled one. You see, I don't actually much approve for second homes, not for puritanical reasons but because they have a dramatic impact on the communities they are situated in.

Because I have been an inveterate townie all of my life, it hasn't had a lot of impact on me, and my lack of knowledge with regards to local government means that even if it did, I really would have little clue as to what alternatives there might be to address it. Now that I am, at least, a part-time country dweller, I have begun to appreciate more precisely the fragility of small rural communities. In terms of local government knowledge, being engaged to Ros has filled much of the void.

And so, I find myself agreeing with much of the proposals coming from Matthew Taylor's commission, as commissioned by one Comrade Brown. They are strangely familiar though, and as the mists cleared over mid-Suffolk (the metaphorical ones, at least), I was reminded that this is actually established Liberal Democrat policy.

There are elements that I am uncomfortable with. Empowering local council officials to ascertain whether or not a property is a second home risks being intrusive, although if this is what is required to protect rural services, I'm willing to countenance it. I suppose that the question is, which house is the second one? What criteria might you use to establish this? It could be the order of purchase, or residence for the purposes of voting (would the latter accelerate the decline in voter registration in big cities?), or even a simple election. Perhaps linking it to principle private residence relief might be the better solution. You would then force people to declare one way or the other.

All this said, however, this whole debate is part of an attempt by a Labour Party in terminal philosophical decline to clothe itself in our finery. The worst thing about it is that their lack of credibility actually detracts from the good ideas that they're stealing. Time to take the initiative back, methinks, and take it to this wretched Government ...