Thursday, July 31, 2008

Gordon Brown - guilty of misleading the House of Commons? Or is it amnesia?

I've been catching up with BBC Parliament this evening, as you do, and was watching Prime Minister's Questions of 16 July and was somewhat surprised to see Gordon Brown answer a question with a factual inaccuracy (I'm a civil servant, we don't use words like 'lie').

Alastair Carmichael, our most northerly MP, asked El Gordo if he would take action over the ongoing industrial action being taken by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Here's the exchange in full...

Alastair Carmichael (Liberal Democrat, Orkney and Shetland) "On Friday, staff in the Maritime and Coastguard Agency will begin a 48-hour strike. During the previous 24-hour strike, the contingency cover that was put in place was barely adequate, and it would not be sufficient to cover a 48-hour strike—as a result, lives will be put at risk. Will the Prime Minister intervene to solve this dispute? Will he pay our coastguards a decent wage, or will he sit on his hands until lives are lost?"

Gordon Brown (Prime Minister) "I will certainly look at the issue of contingency cover to see what is being provided in the event of this dispute. I would, even now, call on the people who are engaged in planning the dispute to cease this action. I think that it is very important that employers and employees get together to find a solution to these disputes. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that 1.5 million workers in the public sector have already signed, or are subject to, three-year pay agreements, including nurses, teachers, and those who work in the Department for Work and Pensions and in the Inland Revenue. Never before have we had three-year agreements during difficult times such as these, and I believe that there should be support for other groups of workers in the public sector signing up to long-term pay agreements."

Interestingly, there is no pay agreement in place for HM Revenue and Customs (oh for heavens sake, Gordon, you merged the Inland Revenue with Customs and Excise, remember?). Our last pay deal expired on 31 May, and there is no indication that an offer is likely to be agreed any time soon. In fact, we were due a pay rise on 1 June, there is no offer on the table yet, and the expectation is that we won't reach a settlement until the autumn.

So, Gordon, a lie, a mistake or just a dream? And will you be apologising to the House when you get back? I'll be letting Alastair know that he hasn't had a truthful or accurate reply when I see him in mid-August...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Public 1, Labour's Choice Agenda 0?

The NHS Next Steps Review, under the leadership of Lord Darzi of Denham, is emphasising that patient choice is a key driver. Now I freely admit that I am generally supportive of choice, although not so enthusiastic that I am blinded to the genuine problems that arise in offering real choice.

Firstly, choice must be real rather than notional, especially if your intention is to use choice as a means of driving up standards. It must be an informed choice, which requires information to be available in an accessible and approachable manner, and available to all. Otherwise, it merely enhances the advantages that the middle and upper classes have over the poorer, more needy members of our society.

In most public services, choice is somewhat of an urban obsession, as I have noted in the past. If you can walk to eight schools within a mile, you have realistic choice. If your nearest school is five miles away, and it's another six to the next, you don't really have choice. And so it is with the NHS. But don't believe me, here's what the Kings Fund has to say...

" Patient choice is currently limited by a number of factors: the lack of information on quality, and particularly on outcomes; the difficulties patients have in interpreting outcome and quality data, even when it is available; the relatively small proportion of care over which choice can be exercised (at present limited to initial outpatient appointment, with perhaps the possibility thereafter to choose another provider for an operation); and the lack of feedback to providers about why patients may choose to go elsewhere."
However, the biggest hurdle is that of persuading the public. We're used to having a facility nearby and, whilst quality is important, many prefer to be closer to home. This desire tends to protect a weaker local facility from the 'threat' presented by a better, but more distant, facility. In addition, in rural areas, the nearest facility may already be some distance away, making alternatives effectively unviable as an option.
Indeed, choice implies that there is spare capacity for, without it, weak facilities will operate at full capacity and have little or no incentive to improve and, worse still, become the likely option most utilised by the poorer, less educated elements of society, the very groups most reliant on the NHS.
Worse still, from a political perspective, success will probably mean the closure of facilities, and we all know exactly how popular that is. How will that process be managed, especially where geographical and access issues complicate matters? Do you close a hospital in, say Norwich, if it is weak, but not as weak as Ipswich, if closing Ipswich removes capacity from a wider, or more heavily populated area?
I fully accept that the idea that we can provide high-quality, local facilties everywhere is a fantasy. It has never been done, and rationing of healthcare makes it unlikely that it ever can be, but persuading the public that such a yearning is against their interests is going to be a very tough sell. And frankly, I don't believe that this government is up to the task...

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Scot, a European and a gentleman

I am saddened by news of the death of Russell Johnston, one of the true characters of Liberal and then Liberal Democrat politics over nearly half a century.

My first encounters were as a Young Liberal Democrat in the late eighties, attending various European Liberal events. He was, at that time, one of the two Liberal Democrat members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Lord Mackie of Benshie being the other), and radiated an enthusiasm for Europe that so many of his generation shared.

He had, by then, already served as a member of the European Parliament and was the leading figure within the Party on foreign affairs. In 1990, I found him in the bar at Shannon Airport, and was moved to buy him a drink (this was a bit of a 'bloke' thing, I suspect) for which he was most gracious.

Of course, in anorak circles, he will go down in history for winning the tightest four-way marginal in history in 1992, when he won his seat with just 26% of the vote. The fourth-placed Conservative gained 22.6%...

Latterly, he wasn't the most frequent attender in the Lords, although he was always there when his vote was needed.

In many ways, the place of his death speaks volumes about his life. He believed passionately in a European ideal and there are many who will hope that the torch he carried for so many years finds a worthy bearer.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

A high society experience in North Wales

A brief hop across the border took us to Gresford, the home of Martin Thomas and Joan Walmsley, two of Ros's colleagues from the Lords, who hosted a campaign event for members in North Wales.

Ros and I arrived in good time to help out with preparations and were put to work hulling strawberries, lots of them. Then, whilst Ros freshened up, I found my way to the entry to the drive to do gate duty with Bruce Roberts, Chair of Wrexham Liberal Democrats.

The sun was shining strongly, and people were arriving from as far afield as Llandudno (I should namecheck the noble Lord Roberts of Llandudno who looked incredibly sharp in a black shirt) and we were reduced to directing traffic towards hopefully nearby parking opportunities.

Meanwhile, the garden party was in full swing, with real ale to drink, some great food, and at least four Liberal Democrat council group leaders talking about the challenges facing them.

Martin made a speech welcoming everyone before turning to Ros for a few words, followed by a speech from Alan Butt Philip, the newly selected number 1 on our Euro candidate list for Wales. We have a genuine opportunity to win a seat in Wales for the first time next year, and it would be nice to see a stalwart like Alan reap the benefits of his hard work over many years.

Everybody seemed to have a good time as the sun beat down on a gorgeous summer's day and a very decent sum was raised for local funds. As Tom Rippeth, the PPC noted, it'll pay for a lot of leaflets...

It was incredibly kind of Martin and Joan to find time to organise and host the event, and a constant thread in our campaign has been the generosity of members around the country in arranging events and inviting members to attend them.

A gentle painkiller for the soul in Farndon

A slightly wounded bureaucrat (back trouble - old war wound) rolled gently into Cheshire on Friday evening to resume the 'Campaign for a Real President' at an event hosted by Paul and Vera Roberts at their lovely home in Farndon, on the Welsh border south of Chester.

The local elections were not kind to Liberal Democrats across Cheshire, but they're resilient in the North West, and the realisation that, whilst the Conservatives have the seats, the intellectual force is still with us means that they've recovered their spirits fairly quickly.

Ros made a brief speech, followed by a series of questions, some about her work in the Lords, but also a number about her aims if elected as President. I am increasingly convinced that councillors, activists and party officers expect the President to do a serious job and represent the Party with dignity. If that's so, then they know where to put their mark on the ballot paper...

We had a really pleasant evening, and much thanks must go, in particular, to Vera for her gracious welcome.

Friday, July 25, 2008

From one campaign to the other, next stop Chester...

Whilst the inquest into Glasgow East gets underway (and it shouldn't take long), I'm now in Cheshire heading for an evening meeting in Farndon, near the Welsh border. Ros is already there, having travelled up from London this afternoon.

I have to say that all of this campaigning continues to be very educational, and I hope to be able to apply it to the work I do deep in the heart of the party bureaucracy.

That reminds me, I really ought to comment on the Bones Conmmission at some point...

Buying rail tickets the bureaucrat way

I start this piece from a first class seat on a Virgin Pendolino en route to Glasgow Central. The breakfast was free, as was lunch plus two quite decent glasses of wine. Did I mention the free copy of The Times? My fare? £63. Not bad, eh?

Buying rail tickets is fun, at least if you can combine patience with a sense of experimentation. Quite often, rail companies, like airlines, have a curious sense of humour and, if you share it, you can save yourself money.

Last week, Ros and I went to Lancaster. The best standard fare available was about £70 each. A bit pricey for being crammed in like sardines, so how about via Manchester? Same fare. What if I break the journey into bits? Hmmm... £53 first class to Manchester, £9 from there to Lancaster.

The week before, Bath to Stowmarket, £29 each standard class... £29 each first class. A bit of a no-brainer, really.

Amazingly, it seems that many people overlook offers on first class which, given some of the perks you get (free food and drink, plus lounge access on Virgin, for example), is just weird.

Buying tickets for journeys using the services of multiple rail companies can be made much cheaper by breaking the journey at the connection point. On Sunday, Ros and I will be travelling back to London from Crewe. I was offered £53 each for standard class tickets via Banbury. Break it down and it becomes £25.50 each first class to Banbury and £10.50 each from there to Wembley Stadium. Don't you just love it?

The Trainline is really good for finding fares, although not so good for buying them. They charge you for sending tickets, they even charge you for picking your tickets up from a ticket machine. The individual rail companies don't... yet. Also, National Express East Coast offer a 10% on-line only discount, well worth having.

Travelling from London to Manchester or vice versa on a weekday? Check out Virgin Train's e-ticketing experiment, with fares for as little as £3 one way on offer. There's a box on their home page but they don't exactly push the deal that hard.

Of course, the earlier you get there, the better the deals. Some of the rail companies will alert you when cheap fares for your intended journey become available, a very useful service indeed.

I hope that this public information announcement has been of use to you. You can always contribute a proportion of any savings to Ros's campaign for Party President...

Glasgow East: small earthquake, not many dead

Strolling down Argyle Street on a sunny Friday morning, it would be fair to say that coming fourth and losing our deposit doesn't look good. This could be because it isn't.

That said, it's hard to see what positives we could have drawn from any viable result that would have resonated beyond the political anoraks. Let the Conservatives brag about overtaking us - their vote fell, after all, and we won't be seeing much of them in the East End of Glasgow from now until the next election, if then.

What we can conclude, however, is that history is repeating itself. Just as in the period from 1992 until 1997, voters will rally behind whichever Party looks most likely to beat the Government, regardless of whether or not they actually are the theoretical nearest challengers. This offers us a challenge and an opportunity at the same time. Can we establish ourselves as a credible alternative to Labour in places where they can be hurt?

I leave those kinds of tactical issues to the leadership, both political and campaigning. Instead, I'm taking my aching bones for a bit of retail therapy before heading to Chester. For me, the campaign continues...

Midnight in Glasgow East - polling is closed but there's still work to be done

Alright, I've done some odd things in my political life but I find myself somewhere on the edge of Glasgow holding an eight foot long pole with a hooky thing on one end, called a lopper by the local cognescenti. Yes, I know, I'm not actually using it just now but you know what I mean.

A feature of campaigning north of the border is signboards attached to lampposts. The catch is that they have to be taken down... fast. And so I'm out with Fraser from Danny Alexander's office and Duncan, cutting them down. The roads are empty and our work is swift. I wonder what's happening at the count?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Glasgow East - so where the bloody hell are you?

In fairness, the turnout of Lib Dem activists here in Glasgow East has been pretty good, with leaflets flying off of the shelves, and surprisingly little tea being drunk - Andrew Reeves is running his usual tight ship.

I've been leafletting in Carmyle, the home suburb of our candidate, Ian Robertson, and then taken part in a little meet and greet session with Agnes and Craig, two voters who'll be voting Liberal Democrat today.

I've been impressed by Ian, whose genuine nature has clearly made an impression. Hopefully, he'll get an opportunity somewhere more promising, perhaps in the Scottish Parliament next time.

Glasgow East has been given a fairly negative press, and one might think that I've spent the afternoon dodging burnt out cars from everything that has been printed. And whilst parts of the constituency might be on the grim side, Carmyle is a fairly normal suburb, where the tenants take a pride in their homes and gardens. If only the media would look beyond the easy headline...

As Barry Manilow might say, "Looks like we made it..."

I've made it safely into Scotland and, contrary to the rumours, there are no polar bears, igloos or frozen tundra. Pity really, I quite like polar bears...

Fortified by a second chardonnay-pinot grigio hit, and with a comfortable pair of walking shoes, it will soon be time to find Glasgow East. I'll report back once I've found the HQ...

Over the top and Scotland bound

A change of huskies at Preston and we're on our way towards Shap through the gorgeous Cumbrian scenery. Whilst there was no sauvignon blanc, I am consoled by the chardonnay-pinot grigio that replaced it, along with some ham sandwiches, some fruit and a piece of chocolate lemon shortbread.

It looks as though Adam Boulton will make it to Glasgow in one piece (I apologise to his understudy for raising their hopes)...

Jonathan Wallace, eat your heart out...

Past Crewe, but the weather is beginning to deteriorate, with cattle huddling together for warmth and regular draughts of coffee helping to keep morale up.

Hopefully, the huskies will be able to keep going until we reach the supplies cairn somewhere near Preston, where a case of sauvignon blanc is waiting...

Tories are still stupid, we're not throwing enough rocks at them

Many thanks to Peter Black and Nich Starling for bringing to our attention the recent demonstrations from Nick Bourne and David Ruffley that Conservatives are better off silent.

The advantage of being policy-free is that attacking the Conservative Party is a bit like punching fog. You know that there is probably something in there that you don't like, but it's hard to make your attacks count. However, as their lead in the polls remains at levels likely to produce a change of government, some of their less intellectual figures have been emboldened to essay some thinking.

The fact that Nick Bourne clearly has no idea how devolved government works in Wales is quite troubling. This is a man who, had things worked out differently, would have been a key figure in the administration. Whilst a degree of ignorance can enable you to do things thought to be impossible, this is one step too far.

As for David Ruffley, who is incidentally my weekend MP in Creeting St Peter, perhaps someone should point out to him that security costs for his Party's conference might be better compared with the costs for our conference. After all, they haven't been in power for eleven years, their ex-ministers who need security have their own, and there have been no specific threats against the Party.

Perhaps David might like to spend some time worrying about the antics of his colleagues on Suffolk County Council instead... On second thoughts, David, don't bother, we'll keep on picking up by-election gains...

Off and running

Well, we've made it past Milton Keynes. The huskies are doing well, and the sled runners are nice and smooth as we race towards Rugby in the bright sunshine.

In the distance, I can see Adam Boulton. Good news, methinks, if provisions get low, I can feed him to the huskies. The pink shirt that he's wearing should make him easy to spot..

A bureaucrat decides - my top ten blogs of 2008

Apparently, there is some sort of poll going on to decide Britain's best political blogs. Last year, I didn't vote (alright, I was deep in the throes of passion and was therefore far too busy). This year, I'm still too busy, but there is a space in my diary and I feel guilty, so...

  1. Liberal Democrat Voice - The LDV Collective: I love these guys, mainly for providing me with a chance to moan very occasionally. I can chip in when I feel like it, and I tend to use it to find out why everyone hates party bureaucrats (except me, of course, I'm lovable)
  2. Peter Black AM - Peter Black: alright, he's Welsh (nothing wrong with that) and I have no real connection to Welsh politics. On the other hand, as an insight into how politics works at the coal face, I really enjoy his work.
  3. The People's Republic of Mortimer - Alix Mortimer: crazy woman, brilliant writing style. I thought that I could do sarcasm and irony but I bow before the reigning monarch... hmmm... reigning dictator for life?
  4. Liberal England - Jonathan Calder: still churning out great work. Besides, as Lord Bonkers' diary secretary, he should be preserved for the nation.
  5. Cicero's Songs - James Oates: some really good writing, an intellectual approach to blogging which will hopefully become more frequent.
  6. Because Baronesses are People Too... - Baroness Ros Scott: to paraphrase Victor Kiam, I liked the candidate so much, I married her.
  7. Quaequam Blog - James Graham: perhaps he's saving his best work for a bigger audience (and who can blame him) but still one of the most robust bloggers on the Lib Dem circuit.
  8. Norfolk Blogger - Nich Starling: I don't always agree with him, and I'm sorry to disappoint him by voting for him, but it isn't his positioning that bothers me sometimes, I simply don't agree with everything he writes. He certainly livens things up though...
  9. Dib Lemming - Stephanie Ashley: a relatively new blogger from somewhere far from the M25 (any further and you fall into the sea, I'm told). I recognise the template and like her style.
  10. The Yorksher Gob - Jennie Rigg: another new addition to the ranks of Lib Dem bloggers, even though she is categorised as 'Left Wing' in the Total Politics Blog Directory. Her style and mine are poles apart, but she is enthusiastic and unfettered. I suspect that she'll go a long way.

Curiously, for a Londoner, the majority of my votes have gone to bloggers outside the M25. I find that reassuring in an odd way, perhaps because it reinforces the lessons I've learned during my relationship with Ros, i.e. that there is a tendency to believe that people are only truly politically alive the closer they are to Westminster.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Be gentle with me, Glasgow East

There are a great many phrases that one is unlikely to hear. "Thank you for being early, Mr Hughes", or "I, Gordon Brown, am resigning as Prime Minister to take up ballet dancing.", are just two such. So here's a third... I'm off to Glasgow in the morning to help out in the by-election.

Ros was intending to go, but now can't, so I thought that I might use the train tickets and hotel booking. This will, I'm sure, strike horror into Labour and SNP activists, and I'm even more sure that Ian Robertson will assume that victory is in the bag, but I'm going to feel the burn and do it anyway.

I'll report from the campaign headquarters when I find it...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

House of Lords reform: a non-baron writes

Oh no, I'm not bitter about the fact that, had the positions been reversed, Ros would have become a Lady.

Actually, I'm not. It does seem a bit quirky, but signing off letters from HM Revenue & Customs, "Yours faithfully, Baron Valladares of Needham Market", might, I fear, give people the wrong impression about our new and dynamic UK tax administration.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
On the other hand, I do have a view about the Ministry of Justice's new publication, "The Governance of Britain - An Elected Second Chamber: Further reform of the House of Lords", one of the most vacuous documents ever published, even by the standards of this government. Eleven years in power, a clear mandate for reform, and you sense that any radicalism that might have been left is now utterly dissipated.

So, let's see what their conclusions are...

3.6 The reformed second chamber should take account of the prevailing political view amongst the electorate, but also provide opportunities for independent and minority views to be represented.

Hmm... if we rewrite it in the negative... The reformed second chamber need not reflect the view of voters... alright, entirely motherhood and apple pie so far...

4.30 The Government would welcome views on the size of the second chamber.

Pardon me? Isn't this a White Paper? What do you mean, you don't know? For God's sake, you're the government, you've got a majority. So use it!

4.41 There was strong consensus in the Cross-Party Group for, and the Government proposes that there should be, direct elections to the second chamber.

Hallelujah, at least most of the hereditaries didn't die in vain...

4.80 The Government believes that further consideration should be given to the following voting systems options for elections to the second chamber:
  • a First Past the Post system;

  • an Alternative Vote system;

  • a Single Transferable Vote system; or

  • an open or semi-open list system.
As opposed to naked arm-wrestling, synchronised bungy-jumping or a silly walk competition. Actually, I know, we could do it as a political version of Jeux San Frontieres, where candidates could dress up as penguins and try and fill buckets with water coming from a tap eight feet off of the ground whilst standing on a greased turntable. It would certainly keep costs down...

4.87 The Government believes that there should be a process to fill vacancies and would welcome views on what those arrangements should be.

Bless, isn't it wonderful that they believe that voters shouldn't go without representation...

From there on in, the document is a morass of entirely reasonable, if mechanistic, set of proposals, most of which are unlikely to offend particularly.

The question of what happens to those Life Peers already elevated to the second chamber is addressed by means of a series of options. There is a moral dimension to this, in that these individuals have been sent there for life. You could argue that a contract has been entered into but, given that the average age of members of the House of Lords is sixty-eight, the actuarial bottom line is that death will take care of the problem in comparatively short order. That, and a modestly generous redundancy package, would probably satisfy the contractual obligation, and ensure that a reformed second chamber would be mostly elected by 2020.

For psephology geeks out there, Annex 2 considers what the make up of a reformed second chamber might be based on the results of the 2005 General Election. Putting aside the fact that, if current opinion polls are correct, the tables serve no useful purpose whatsoever, they do indicate that any proposal that calls for first past the post or alternative vote should be actively opposed by anyone other than Conservative or Labour supporters.

The Annex also indicates how the reformed second chamber would have looked after each election since 1974, and shows how we have advanced as a party since then.

And so, what are the prospects for House of Lords reform? Labour consider this to be an issue for their next term. The Conservatives view - something for a third term. On that basis, I expect to be married to a member of the House of Lords for some time to come...

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A homecoming queen, make that baroness

Yesterday was Kendal and Hebden Bridge, today saw the roadshow reach Bradford, where Jeanette Sunderland generously hosted a cream tea. Home made down to the jam, with some excellent tea and great company, it gave Ros an opportunity to meet some members in a less formal environment.

In fact, Ros has a Bradford connection, in that her father's family came from Bradford, and she frequently visited the area as a child.

I got to spend some quality time with Mat and Jennie, who'd come from Brighouse to enjoy the sunshine and strawberries. Jennie's meteoric rise to blogging fame has been evidence (if it were needed) that gender isn't a barrier to successful blogging, but the ability to convey a message is. It would be fair to say that our styles are somewhat different (I write like a bureaucrat, she... doesn't) but I follow her blog for the quality of the spleen-venting.

We'd spent the first part of the day relaxing in our hotel room. Whilst the events themselves are a lot of fun, the travelling can be very tiring, with crowded, noisy trains making it very hard to relax. Add to that the tension caused by late-running trains and missed connections, and you can understand why we take a lot of trouble to ensure that the schedule leaves as much recovery time as possible.

And as the campaign hots up, my role as travel co-ordinator becomes more important. There are two aspects to the task, making the travel efficient and, equally important, stretching the travel budget as far as possible - this isn't cheap, let me assure you, and finances are limited. I've learned a remarkable amount about the way the various rail companies price tickets as we've gone on and you'd be amazed at the apparent insanity of
it all...

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Liberal Democrat pilgrimage

Catholics have Lourdes or Santiago de Compostela, Anglicans have Canterbury and Hindus have Varanasi, all of which are perfectly charming, I'm sure. Liberal Democrats have Hebden Bridge, the font of cutting-edge campaigning ideas since Tony Greaves was a lad.

I've only been there once, nearly twenty years ago for a LYMEC seminar on Tourism. The sun shone, the Timothy Taylor's Landlord was perfect, and the crazy golf competition between the Young Liberal Democrats and the Young Liberal Movement went our way (make birdies, not war...).

And now I'm on my way back. A bit wiser, perhaps, a bit older, certainly, but back nonetheless.

Last night, Ros and I got to Lancashire, for a meeting with members in Wyre and Preston North. The Local Parties there are working hard to build a more effective campaigning machine, increasing membership and organising action days. We were made to feel really welcome, and we even won some cushions in the raffle.

We stayed overnight with Harold Elletson, whose family home is one of the more remarkable I've encountered. We ate dinner in an Italian restaurant in Preston, where we met up with Andrew, a journalist friend of Harold's, and chatted about the
media, Europe and tax policy. It's nice sometimes to talk about ideas. After all, a campaign is meant to be fun too...

Friday, July 18, 2008

Trapped in their ivory tower, or just too genteel to put the boot in?

Ros gets to turn up at the debate, whereas I only get to read the papers afterwards. Not unreasonable, I suppose, and I almost certainly wouldn’t get to read some of the more intriguing documents otherwise. By the way, don’t worry, I don’t get to read anything that isn’t in the public domain! Amongst today’s reading matter for the train journey to Lancaster (hi Mum, I’m on the train!), is the report of the very Select Committee that Ros wrote of earlier.

It is a very well written report, although I do wonder about the fairness of some of the criticism. It is entirely fair to question the effectiveness of the partnership between HM Treasury (HMT) and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), a subject on which I have an interest but no direct knowledge. However, the criticism seems to overlook the political dimension, perhaps naively so.

As the Conservatives have become a more credible party of government - not necessarily a more credible party in government, I might add - they have begun to attempt to make the weather on taxation, aided to some extent by the inability of the current administration to identify a consistent political narrative. Generally speaking, George Osborne and his merry men have avoided the difficult task of actually costing their proposals - we are told that this is a work in progress - but the thought that they might care is sufficient to earn ‘brownie points’ with a discontented public.

Labour’s response has smacked of the behaviour of a rather paranoid and hyperactive magpie, regardless of the truth of the matter. It may indeed be the case that many of their responses have been based on pre-existing work being done, but the media, the public and, more worryingly, the professional stakeholders, don’t believe it. It’s all about credibility and tone, and Alastair Darling doesn’t have it at the moment.

Liberal Democrats are good on costings, long on credibility (could we have a better Treasury spokesman than Vince Cable, indeed could anyone?) but short on access to the media - although it’s getting better by the day…

So, with the Conservatives making much of the weather, and Labour doing badly but committed to an economic policy that leans towards a conventionally liberal economic agenda, there has been a temptation to spring tax policy changes for short-term political advantage. And, to be frank, a bunch of whinging accountants and tax lawyers, who probably vote Conservative anyway (a left-wing generalisation, not mine) are less significant than a couple of favourable headlines in the Daily Mail and the Guardian. What price proper consultation under those circumstances?

The abstract of the Report concludes by stating, “Our overall impression from the evidence we received was that this year the formulation of tax policy has been marked by uncertainty of direction.”. Alas, just another sign of intellectual drift in that long-running Westminster farce, “By George, Darling, you’ve lost your trousers!”.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Bones Commission: take a deep breath and count to ten

One supposedly 'friendly' leak to the Times and the Lib Dem blogging community are all a-flutter.

Perhaps we need to get this into perspective. There will be no proposals requiring immediate constitutional change, as promised at the beginning. There will not be a power grab by the Leader, because we would need to be convinced to grant him greater powers anyway (read the constitution, dull but well written).

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceOn the other hand, the Party has such a byzantine structure that power lurks invisibly and unaccountably where one leasts expects it. Bloggers have, for a long time, called for greater clarity, greater democracy and faster decision making. I believe that Bones proposes some ideas that might get us moving in the right direction.

If I have a criticism, it is that the path ahead is insufficiently signposted. What will happen next and where is unclear or, at least, is insufficiently well-publicised. Perhaps Nick could clarify for us? Oh yes, and not by means of a well-placed leak...

Over land and under sea - the campaign goes international!

Having watched Ros hand an award to Eurostar on Tuesday night, Wednesday saw us heading for St Pancras to catch a train to Brussels for an evening garden party at the home of Lawrence Meredith, vice-chair of Brussels and Europe Liberal Democrats.

The Eurostar experience is pretty fantastic, and the journey to the Channel Tunnel passes by in a flash - so much better than the old trundle through Kent. We were picked up at Gare du Midi by Rebecca Taylor, their Chair, who, depsite feeling fairly ghastly (get well soon, Rebecca), made us very welcome.

We then headed over to the event, and immediately ran into John McCormick, who I was shadow assessor to and then Returning Officer for in Wokingham. My past life as a European Returning Officer made for a series of familiar faces, as the Local Party tends to produce a disproportionate number of European Parliamentary candidates, and it was good to see the likes of John Vincent and Peter Welch, both of whom had made special arrangements to be at the event.

Graham Watson came directly from a memorial service to introduce Ros, and made some light-hearted remarks about the Presidential contest before handing over to Ros.

Ros spoke for a few minutes before mingling with those present to talk about a range of issues before we returned to Graham's place in Ixelles for a glass of wine and a chat before bedtime...

The lottery of getting there

Whilst Ros was handing out awards, I was enjoying the company of our table.

Amongst those gathered with Alan Dedicot, the voice of the National Lottery (he was working as the disembodied emcee) and, unexpectedly, Tamsin Dunwoody, recipient of this year's worst political hospital pass. Tamsin was there to collect a posthumous award to her mother, Gwyneth, for services to transport, and was in quite expansive form. I've remarked in the past that the media create very two-dimensional images of people in the news, and Tamsin was not really as I had expected her to be.

Alan was an interesting character too, and was telling us about the Routemaster bus that he and some friends are restoring for use for weddings and such. He couldn't have been surrounded by a more interested group of people if he'd tried...

It's curious, because I generally didn't enjoy these types of events in the past. My capacity for small talk was not great, and I tended to feel a bit isolated. Now, however, I've learned to relax a bit, and go with the flow. As I've discovered, most people tend to feel as I did, and having someone introduce themselves and break the ice makes it rather more enjoyable.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

And then there were three - a cat called Franklin

Unfortunately, when you are the owner of a group of increasingly aged cats, the prospect of their demise becomes ever closer. Having already lost Victoria earlier this year to cancer, I had become concerned about Franklin’s health. At nearly 17½, or 85 in ‘human years’, he was becoming something of a geriatric.

And yet the fitting of a catflap gave him a new lease on life. He prowled the garden, as well as those nearby, walked across the top of narrow fences without any evident difficulty, and seemed to be bearing up well, even if he was a mite scrawny. Indeed, Eleanor, his brother (don’t ask, it’s a long story) seemed to be in worse shape.

On Thursday night, I had hosted a meeting of my Local Party Executive, and Franklin took the opportunity to introduce himself, before taking his customary place in his new cat bed (one of Ros’s innovations). He seemed to be reasonably perky but, when I came down the next morning, I found him sprawled across the carpet. Given that no self-respecting cat would ever allow himself to be seen like that unless there was something wrong, it was clear that this was serious. A quick examination made it clear that this was terminal, and with heavy heart I took him to the vet. The lack of response and of movement did not augur well.

The vet quickly reached the same conclusion, and it was agreed that he should be put to sleep without delay. I have sworn that none of my cats will suffer unnecessarily, and whilst putting them to sleep is not something I do lightly, if it is clearly for the best, and the vet agrees, then I won’t hesitate.

I’ll miss Franklin. His company was a comfort to me in some of my darkest moments, and his antics were always entertaining. Let’s just hope that he’s enjoying prowling the celestial garden…

Monday, July 14, 2008

Back to life, back to reality

I've been, in blogging terms at least, drifting a bit of late. The Campaign for a Real President has taken up quite a lot of my time of late, planning trips, acting as a sounding board for Ros and, to be honest, party bureaucracy has begun to pall in terms of its attractiveness...

This weekend saw the campaign trail reach Peasedown St John, in North East Somerset, the new constituency which takes in Wansdyke, the last Labour seat in the county. Our host, Cllr Nathan Hartley, threw a very pleasant event, with good food, great beer and fun company. Ros gave a speech which attracted laughter and interesting questions in good measure, before we retired to the home of Gail Coleshill, the local PPC for the night.

In the morning, we set off for Suffolk, having discovered that, due to the vagaries of rail fares, it was the same fare to travel first class as it would be to travel standard class. I'll return to that at some point...

On Sunday, we had been invited, with a broad cross-section of Suffolk high society, to attend an event to celebrate the first stage of the restoration of the Miller's House at the Pakenham Water Mill. So, we dressed for a Sunday afternoon in the country (floral print for Ros, linen jacket and chinos for me) and drove over to Pakenham. The Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Sue Tamlyn, another of those Suffolk women who, had they been born a century earlier, would have been running a British Residency somewhere in the Empire, made an unexpectedly humourous speech indicating the work that has been put in by the volunteer corps of fundraisers, millers and mechanics who have underpinned the restoration.

We then had an opportunity to see the restored buildings, see wheat being milled into flour (the mill is a working one, and produces high-quality flour for sale in local farmers markets), and admire the millpond and the new flat that has been created as part of the site. In an era when food miles are a middle-class obsession, Pakenham has food yards - you can see the fields of wheat from the mill.

The Board of Trustees then invited us to take afternoon tea, with finger sandwiches and their 'really rather excellent' lemon drizzle cake. The tea was high-quality (and I say that as someone who takes his tea very seriously) and the lemon drizzle cake was, dare I say it, really rather excellent.

This morning, however, it was time to head back to London for the urban bureaucrat. I like to end my Suffolk weekends with a proper breakfast on the train, a luxury I know, but it helps me make the transition from country to city. Today was almost painfully perfect though, with an excellent full English breakfast served by those really rather nice people at National Express East Anglia - "was everything alright, my love?" - and the sun shining as we glided effortlessly through mid-Suffolk and the Stour Valley at Manningtree.

As London drew closer, I began to daydream that the guard had come up to me and said, "I'm terribly sorry, Sir, but we really do feel that you shouldn't go to London today. Don't worry though, we'll put you down at Brentwood and someone will make sure that you get back to Needham Market safe and sound." Sadly, it never happened...

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Blogging for bureaucrats: a new Labour surprise

Some time ago, at the height of the Civil Serf controversy, it was announced that the Cabinet Office would be looking to define some guidelines for civil servant bloggers. I wasn't confident... but am pleasantly surprised to see what has emerged.

In an era of massively verbose legislation, statutory instruments and guidance, Tom Watson has come up with the following:

Be credible

Be accurate, fair, thorough and transparent.

Be consistent

Encourage constructive criticism and deliberation. Be cordial, honest and professional at all times.

Be responsive

When you gain insight, share it where appropriate.

Be integrated

Wherever possible, align online participation with other offline communications.

Be a civil servant

Remember that you are an ambassador for your organisation. Wherever possible, disclose your position as a representative of your department or agency.

It must be considered that, for once, there is a liberal view of the world emerging from a dusty corner of our government. There is a degree of trust displayed here that asks serious questions of civil servants, i.e. are we up to the challenge of balancing information with confidentiality, openness with political neutrality?

Interestingly, I see some potential for innovative interaction with the accountancy profession and taxpayers. There is plenty of information available on the legal framework within which the taxation system works. However, information on how to find the person best equipped to help you is more difficult. I often speak to taxpayers or accountants who have spoken to three or four people in a frustrating attempt to find the right someone. Taxpayers, particularly, struggle because they are not au fait with the language of taxation, and are bewildered by terms such as 'period of account' or 'accounting period' (not necessarily the same thing). Often, our systems make little sense without the underlying context and appear to be simply a set of hoops that we make people jump through.

The real question for middle management is, "do you have the confidence to allow experimentation?". Now, there I have less confidence. In an era of change, risk-taking has become less frequent and reliance on the letter of the instructions.

However, on the whole, this is a good thing, and I believe that there is a potential to drag the UK Civil Service into the Century of the Fruitbat... I shall watch with interest...