Sunday, August 31, 2008

Bones Commission: are we our own worst enemies sometimes?

Having met a large swathe of the Welsh Party in South Wales over the past few days, I have been impressed by their enthusiasm and sense of optimism, not something that you always encounter.

However, the Welsh Party, like its Scottish counterpart, suffers from a lack of resourcing. Unlike the English Regions, whose back-office functions are handled by Cowley Street, the Welsh and Scottish Parties employ staff to do these jobs.

Don't get me wrong, this is far from being a call for an amalgamation of our three State Parties into one Federal bureaucracy. However, I wonder if we could be more efficient if we could reach some mutually acceptable shared positions. For example, Parliamentary candidate assessment varies between the three States, meaning that a member approved in Wales needs to go through a further process in order to run in, say, Shrewsbury and Atcham. English Regions benefit from cross-regional collaboration. Scotland and Wales do not.

And yet, Wales has a membership one-third that of London, Scotland half that of London. London supports a part-time administrator and two full-time campaigns officers. Can Scotland and Wales really afford to go it alone?

I am more respectful of our Federal structure than most. In an era of devolved government in Scotland and Wales (and London, lest we forget), it would be politically suicidal to move policy and campaigning functions away from Edinburgh and Cardiff. Indeed, any kind of reform would need to be instigated by the Scottish and Welsh Liberal Democrats, and not imposed from on high by a Federal (read English) hierarchy. But if we are serious about making this political party as 'lean and mean' as we can without losing effectiveness, sometimes pragmatism needs to come before pride.

Update: Most ghastly woman award

Hurry! I may not be able to prevent myself from carrying out restorative justice...

Mothers can be really enbarrassing sometimes...

I'm on the 16:25 from Cardiff Central to Paddington, minding my own business.

The mother and daughter combo sitting across the aisle on me rank amongst the most annoying people EVER.

Whilst the daughter is vaguely whiny, the mother is without doubt one of the most ghastly people I've encountered in a very long time. She shouts when using her daughter's I-Pod, spends her time making telephone calls and talking in an astonishingly patronising and precious manner, and is the best excuse I've encountered yet for the reintroduction of the ducking stool.

Our train gets into Paddington at 19:30. If anyone wants to gather together a mob to burn this witch, I'll lay on the kindling...

The Germans are coming, the Germans are coming. Oh, they're here...

As readers of Ros's blog will be aware, we've been in Wales, meeting members and, in between, enjoying some scenery.

I've not been slacking off though, and have demonstrated my knowledge of obscure facts - did you know that New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote? - earning us a bottle of wine to take home from Bridgend, met the author of 'All Along The Watchtower' and been to the happiest place in the country (and the second most miserable).

But the title of this entry? Frankly, I couldn't resist. In Newport, we had the pleasure of the company of Veronica and Mike German. Veronica is busily shaking up Torfaen Council, whilst Mike is preparing for life post-leadership. I don't get the impression that he's terribly worried about the prospect, and he was in good form.

Peter Black has already given his view as to the succession, and it ill befits me to comment on what is predominantly an internal Welsh matter, but having met Kirsty Williams on a couple of occasions, I've been very impressed. She has passion, flair and a fair bit of determination too. If elected, she would certainly represent a change in terms of style and approach.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A first for Liberal Bureaucracy

I've been to my first ever meeting of full council today - in Neath Port Talbot. It lasted 16 minutes, including a welcome to Ros from both the Mayor and the Council Leader.

I'm not going to be critical, especially as the August meeting is held so as to avoid the usual logjam at the first meeting after the summer break that most councils traditionally take. And besides, if anyone had objected to anything, I'm fairly sure that they would have said so...

Afterwards, we were entertained by the Mayor and Deputy Mayoress in the Mayor's Parlour (another first for Liberal Bureaucracy), with tea and little cakes. Yes, I know that Neath Port Talbot is one of just two Welsh authorities with a Labour majority, but they were very nice nonetheless.

We discussed issues related to social housing, and Derek Vaughan, the Labour leader of Neath Port Talbot, who'd quoted from the 'Total Politics' piece when welcoming Ros (yes, it's a gratuitous plug but I'm feeling generous today), was quite candid about the problems the council faces in bringing its housing stock up to the required standards. Inevitably, the estimated shortfall of £497 million in funding will oblige the council to seek a stock transfer to a housing association next year, regardless of the potential democratic deficit that might arise.

My souvenir is a copy of the council papers, which I will keep on a shelf in my office at home and, in later years when my memory has faltered, wonder what they are doing there. It won't be for the lack of a warm welcome though...

Bones Commission: goodbye Devon & Cornwall, hello South West?

Before I start, I should note the wise words of a Party insider, who has reminded me that the Bones Commission report is only an advisory one, and far from binding on anyone.

Deep in the executive summary is a suggestion that the Party's regions in England be realigned with the European regions used for elections to Brussels. As a bureaucrat, believing in neat organisational pyramids, I can see the attractions of such a move. Indeed, one of the impacts of the move to regional lists was the creation of South Central and East of England regions from the former Hants & Wight, Chilterns and Eastern regions.

However, there is an irony in using that as a reasoning, in that there are many who believe that we've never taken European elections seriously, have under-resourced them and then underperformed accordingly.

As a Londoner, such a proposal has little impact on our effective city state. However, it will impact on four regions with varying circumstances. Devon & Cornwall, Western Counties and South Central are, in relative terms, quite successful, with a sizeable Parliamentary presence, and a record of success in local government. South East has a comparatively strong funding stream, yet has just one MP and is generally an area where we are the lead opposition but no more than that.

The simplistic argument against merging Devon & Cornwall with Western Counties, and South Central with South East is one of geography. I am sympathetic but would note that Watford to Norwich (East of England) and Chester to Workington (North West) are hardly a breeze either, yet little fuss is made in either instance.

I would argue, however, that the question of purpose and effectiveness is more salient. We clearly need regional parties that have sufficient scale to be effective in terms of resource use, but we also need to provide an effective level of internal governance that fills the gap between the English Party and local parties. Too big a region risks alienation of the fringes but, more importantly, makes it difficult for regional officers to fulfil their monitoring and enabling roles that are so clearly needed.

Size is not everything in terms of funding either. As important is the ability to bring that funding to bear effectively. Indeed, some smaller regions, such as Devon & Cornwall, are probably more successful at raising funds per head of membership than some of our larger ones - having MPs and running councils evidently helps.

So, on the whole, I'd probably be against the suggestion of the Bones Commission unless a strong case were to be made. And when we see the whole report, maybe we'll see that argument...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sometimes, just sometimes, Government enables rather than interfering...

News reaches me of that a new service is being tested that ensures people only have to tell the government once about births and deaths. The 'Tell Us Once' service is being piloted to see if it is feasible for people to report their changes to the government only once. In particular, the service aims to make it easier for vulnerable people faced with major upheavals such as bereavement.

A senior HMRC official, Bernadette Kenny, said, “Something like a death in the family is incredibly difficult to deal with, especially if it triggers major financial changes. The last thing a person wants to do is inform several government departments about their loss. This service will mean fewer processes and paperwork, which will help people deal more easily with issues such as housing, tax credits and benefits”.

If all goes well, the Department of Work and Pensions, who are hosted the pilot, plans to run a larger pilot – called a Pathfinder – this autumn.

The perils of taking Facebook too seriously

Jo Anglezarke has recently commented on her recent problems with Facebook, and I find myself sympathising with her, at least to some extent. I do have my doubts about the wisdom of her comments that appear to have triggered the issue, and of her somewhat intemperate language, but there is an issue here worthy of thought.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
Facebook is a wonderful thing, and I certainly found myself semi-addicted to it at one point. You add friends and obtain a window into their lives. Status updates are amusing, sad, puzzling and occasionally intriguing. People invite you to events, or to join groups, or to support campaigns far and wide.

However, sometimes there is a dark side. There is the risk of indiscretion, of saying something because you think that it is part of a private conversation, when in truth, it is effectively committed to easily transmittable 'paper'. For those of us in the field of political endeavour, that risk is all the greater, as occasionally becomes apparent.

Recently, I had a disagreement with a fellow Lib Dem blogger and Facebook habitue. It was then suggested by them that I was foolish to trust people on Facebook as I had up until then, and so I removed said person from my Friends list, not as a punishment for them, more like an exercise in avoiding risk for myself.

I freely admit that I have 'sought' very few friends on Facebook since my early addiction, mostly family in fact, but seldom turn down approaches unless I have no idea who they are (and in some of those cases, it is likely that my memory is poor). I have no conscious notion of how many friends I have on Facebook, although it is on my homepage somewhere, nor do I see how it really matters.

It would be nice to think that we can all value ourselves for who we are, and it's probably naive to take such a stance, but is it really sensible to allow oneself to be destabilised by what is, after all, just a social contact network?

Better late than never: the best blog entries wot I wrote...

This may be the last response to Alex Wilcock's invitation and, technically, I've missed the deadline set. However, you're all asleep, or having sex in front of open fires, or whatever, so give me a break, why don't you...

I've been reading through the many blog entries that I have written in the past year to see if there are any worth promoting as amongst my best. It hasn't been easy, as my blogging has been affected by my burgeoning romance with the fair Ros. I have, in short, been less than entirely feisty, although I can't blame Ros - I've had far better things to engage my thoughts with than Blogger.

However, here are a few pieces that I have written that I thought readers might enjoy...

  • House of Lords Reform - a non-baron writes - I enjoyed writing this, and I still firmly believe that making people dress up as penguins is as good a proposal for selecting members of a second chamber as anything this Government has come up with so far...

  • Thoughts on public service - how a lack of confidence betrays us all - I still believe that this stuff is important, albeit deeply unfashionable...

  • The 10p debacle - why the bleeding won't stop - tax and politics. And indeed, the bleeding hasn't stopped...

  • You are invited to the funeral of the Labour dream - flowers not required - I hate it when politicians give up the pretence of principles and then forget that they ever have any...

  • European Selection: massacre of the innocents - if only because nobody listened to me five years earlier and they seem determined not to do so again...

  • I'm not going to claim that they are works of genius but they mattered to me when I wrote them. However, I'm hoping to me more 'up for it' in the coming year, so we'll see how it turns out...

    Monday, August 25, 2008

    Total Politics - insensitive to its female readers or too sensitive to criticism?

    I've been having a bit of a row with Iain Dale this evening, after I made a throwaway remark about his new enterprise, 'Total Politics'. I think that he's been a bit touchy and defensive but...

    I am, however, going to criticise one element of the latest issue of 'Total Politics'. This article is the sort of article that adds nothing to political dialogue, and is, to be honest, a bit of an insult to female readers of the magazine. Why does the dress sense of our politicians matter, as long as they are smartly presented? Will there be an article on the dress sense of some of our male politicians?

    It's all a bit odd really, as I've generally been quite kindly towards Iain in the past. In fact, our years at the University of East Anglia overlapped somewhat, and whilst I knew a bit about him (to be a Conservative at UEA did tend to mark you out in an institution as generally left-wing as UEA was would tend do to that), I've paid rather more attention to his career in publishing and then retail politics after that. He has successfully carved out a niche in the world of political blogging and all credit to him for doing so. For all the carping that has come from some of our number, he has gone out there and made something happen.

    So I have been puzzled by the fact that he has, to be honest, bothered with someone who is really rather insignificant in the great scheme of things. I hold no political power, have a small amount of influence on things that have little, if any, impact beyond the bureaucracy of the Liberal Democrats, and blog when I have time and not even always then.

    Some of my non-political friends take the view that most of us bloggers are too self-absorbed and too precious by half. We imply by our words that we have more influence than perhaps we do, and we are lulled into a false sense of self-importance by the fact that lazy journalists tend to resort to us instead of the rather harder job of finding out what non-blogging members and supporters think. Perhaps if some of us took a step back and gave some thought as to what we actually hope to achieve, we might come across as more-rounded human beings than we might currently do*...

    * This is not, I repeat not, intended to be an attack on any individual blogger. No, really, it isn't...

    HM Revenue & Customs: as I was saying earlier...

    The Guardian today raises further concerns about the performance, attitude and approach of HM Revenue & Customs. Its report doesn't make pretty reading for the Board, under its new Chairman, Mike Clasper (left).

    There can be no question that he takes over an organisation that is in a less than happy state. Major reorganisations stemming from a series of reviews have led to office closures from Buckie to Bury St Edmunds, the loss of thousands of jobs, and a sense amongst many staff of alienation. And now, at a time when staff are being asked to make sacrifices in pursuit of the imposition of a 5% cut in running costs year by year, a pay offer which offers staff pay rises of 2% in 2008 and 1% in 2009 and 2010 has brought a not wholly unexpected response from the two key unions involved.

    I have no great argument with management, especially as they can only play with the cards they're dealt by HM Treasury, and their quoted statistic that resignations represent just 3.2% of our workforce does imply that retention is not a problem. However, might I suggest that if you want an organisation that is smarter and more effective, it might help to recruit better staff by offering them a competitive salary scale.

    No, my sense of incredulity is directed at the Government. Their use of the bluntest of blunt instruments, a fixed year on year cut, regardless of the wider economic picture and at a time when inflation is high, means that a planned real terms cut of 4.9% in running costs has become somewhat more draconian in its effects. The spending plans, based on an predicted inflation rate of 2.8% for 2008/09, and 2.5% for 2009/10 and 2010/11, are now clearly shown to be optimistic, and I have my doubts as to whether Ministers actually understand the consequences of their actions.

    There is no doubt that scope for efficiencies has always existed. In an age when computer usage in the norm, and when communications doesn't have to be face to face, the existence of offices in areas where accommodation and labour costs are high is sometimes hard to justify. The option of e-filing of documents means that clerical staff who once filed and sorted are obsolete. But change comes with costs of its own. Transitions need to be managed and resourced, treated as investments, if you like. Those responsible for the work need to be motivated to continue working productively whilst their jobs come to an end.

    I believe that this results from the Labour misunderstanding of the nature of society. Society is about more than just groups brought together for a common interest, it is about individuals, the very building blocks of our communities. Labour sees our public services as machines, designed to deliver outcomes, but seldom worries about what motivates the individual 'cogs' to perform their duties well and efficiently. Money isn't the prime mover, especially as civil service salaries fall behind the private sector. A sense of public service, the satisfaction of a job well done, pride in our Department, these are all key elements of the 'glue' that holds HM Revenue & Customs together.

    So I fear that there will be a fair bit of unhappiness to come, and some unenviable moments for Mr Clasper to look forward to. I plan to stay put, after all, I am somewhat institutionalised. It would be nice to think that there might be an organisation worth working for at the end of it.

    My life with Scarlett O'Hara

    Issue 3 of 'Total Politics' has been published and, whilst I wouldn't normally promote a magazine which, thus far, has been less than entirely friendly to anyone other than Conservatives, I feel obliged to bring your attention to this item...

    Clearly, I'm going to have to buy a new house, as the staircase is utterly unsuitable to sweeping down in voluminous skirts...

    Friday, August 22, 2008

    The Bones Commission: everybody wants a box of chocolates and a long stem rose…

    And so the Executive Summary was published, to the sound of an orchestra of badly played kazoos. To be honest, after all the conjecture, the result has been a bit disappointing. Not as disappointing as the way the document was handled though…

    As an object lesson in how not to convey a message of change, the Bones Commission has achieved near perfection. A high-profile launch, some pretty comprehensive consultation and then… nothing. A timetable which slipped by just enough to raise suspicion, plus some judicious leaking to give the impression that the document was cover for a naked power grab by the leadership, and the muttering was underway. Oh dear, this isn’t working terribly well, so we’d better publish the executive summary. Of course, we all know that the main document is much more interesting… I wonder what it says…

    I can’t help but feel that we deserve better. As the ‘poor bloody infantry’, if we don’t have a feeling of common purpose, we have nothing. Unlike so many Labour activists, who appear to be able to accept virtually any insult from their leadership as long as they keep winning, or Conservative activists, happy to accept the kiss of the organisational whip, we tend to be rather less willing to blindly trust our generals.

    However, rather than proposing that we set up a commission to look at how we might best improve our communication skills, here are some proposals for our glorious leaders;
    1. If your timetable is slipping, tell us what is the likely revised date and what the cause of the delay is.
    2. Address the leak. If it’s anonymous, condemn it. If you find out who it is, purge them - they almost certainly have their own agenda, and it probably isn’t friendly.
    3. Launch it and then publish it - in full. By all means put it in a member-only area but do tell us that you’ve done so.
    Organisational change is difficult, especially when the entrenched interests have much to lose, often deservedly. You make it harder when you bungle the delivery of the message…

    To Inverness and beyond!

    I'd never been any further north than Dingwall until this trip, but I'd have to say that Orkney is well worth the trip. A place that evokes feelings of bleak remoteness, yet a place where you're rarely out of sight of a house.

    Ros and I were there on business, but Alastair Carmichael, the unexpectedly youthful MP for Orkney & Shetland, took the time and trouble to show us some of the sights of Mainland, the largest of the cluster of islands that make up Orkney.

    Above is a picture of part of the Ring of Brodgar, a circle of standing stones whose age is unknown but likely to be of a similar age to Stonehenge. Set amongst the heather, they attract a much lower number of tourists, but you can walk right up to them, touch them if you so wish, and are probably far more interesting and interactive than Stonehenge is.

    On the western shore is the neolithic village of Skara Brae, a World Heritage Site dating back 5,000 years. I've visited a surprising number of World Heritage Sites but Skara Brae would be on any highlight reel. You approach the site by means of a path marked with markers depicting various historic events. However, what makes this special is that the markers are spaced relative to their distance from the sight so you start with events such as the American Declaration of Independence fairly early on your stroll. The birth of Christ is a fair way and, eventually, you get to the establishment of Skara Brae. You then look back and realise that it's quite a walk back to the visitor centre...

    As I noted at the time, if such a site was within an easy drive of London, it would be visited by millions, would probably be only visible from a distance, and would be one of the must-see attractions. Instead, it is far away from an international airport, is at the end of a long road and is accessible to the point where the visitor path takes you through the centre of the village itself.

    I'm quite keen to go back, especially as I've discovered that there is a flight from Sumbergh, in the Shetlands, to Bergen...

    Thursday, August 21, 2008

    A gentle ramble through my family history

    Whilst my father's side of my family is fairly well documented, my mother's is all a bit vague. As a result, the opportunity presented by our trip to Scotland to visit my mother's birthplace was not to be missed.

    My mother was born in Keith, a small town about midway between Aberdeen and Inverness, famous for its distilleries, a quite good Highland League football team and not much else. And I have to admit, upon arrival on a grey, gloomy day with rain promised, not threatened, I wasn't wildly impressed. In fact, we missed the centre of town completely and got lost in a rather sombre back street before finally locating Mid Street, where all the action is (note - the use of the word 'action' is entirely relative).

    Keith describes itself as 'The Friendly Town' - it even says so on the road signs that tell you that you've arrived - but I was in need of some convincing. However, a stroll past the shops and a few bits of shopping helped and, by the time we'd visited the museum of the Keith and Dufftown Railway (the most northerly heritage railway in the United Kingdom!), I was suffused with a sense that, despite the chill wind and the rain, the welcome was genuinely warm.

    There are no obvious traces of my family, but it was nice to visit, especially as my mother hasn't been back since she left as a baby. You never know, she might be encouraged to make a return journey one day...

    Wednesday, August 13, 2008

    Glenn Gould - the genius of eccentricity

    The other advantage of having my laptop with me is that I can listen to music whilst I while away the miles.

    Over the years, I've become quite partial to the recorded works of Glenn Gould, a Canadian-born pianist, whose renditions of the keyboard works of Johann Sebastian Bach are a key part of my music collection.

    Gould was something of a mad genius, with a tendancy to hum his way through recordings. If you have a keen ear for such things, you can often detect a background sound which, I always like to think is his subconscious enjoying the sounds the piano is producing. Admittedly, the sound engineers generally made great efforts to mute it, but they didn't always succeed.

    Gould was very much a recluse, and gave up live performances at the age of 31. He had already developed a reputation for withdrawing from concerts at the last moment, indeed, Leonard Bernstein began a performance of the Brahms D minor piano concerto with the New York Philharmonic and Gould as soloist by saying, "Don't be frightened, Mr. Gould is here; will appear in a moment.". He then informed the audience that he was assuming no responsibility for what they were about to hear, as Gould had insisted that the entire first movement be played at half the indicated tempo.

    Gould had a reputation for not being a slave to tempo, indeed a comparison of those few pieces that he recorded more than once will uncover a range of tempi that horrified the critics.

    Sadly, Gould died at the early age of 50, leaving behind him a body of recorded works that are as fresh and entertaining now as they were then. But don't take my word for it, listen to the great man at work... Meanwhile, as my train approaches Berwick, I'll return to his recording of the first Book of "The Well-Tempered Clavier", by J S Bach...

    On my way to the Kingdom of Fife - a complete coincidence, your Honour...

    I'm actually on my way to St Andrews today, so this piece comes to you live from the 13:00 National Express East Coast service from King's Cross to Glasgow Central via Newcastle.

    Now I know what you're thinking, especially if you're not a Liberal Democrat. "Typical bloody LibDem vulture, the man isn't even cold yet, and he's on his way to Glenrothes to set up for the bye-election!". If only I had those sort of psychic skills, I'd be much better off than I am, as my ticket was bought on 9 June. For the record, my condolences go out to the family of John MacDougall who, according to at least one of his political opponents, was a thoroughly decent man.

    Actually, I'm joining Ros for the Scottish leg of the Presidential campaign tour, as she's speaking in North East Fife this evening. Luckily, National Express East Coast provide free wi-fi, so I can keep in touch with the outside world whilst speeding towards Northumbria...

    The weather is thoroughly vile as we leave Darlington, a mere seven minutes late (we lost that south of Peterborough and show no signs of catching it up), but I'm quite looking forward to this part of the campaign, especially as there will be a bit of tourism thrown in plus a trip to my mother's home town of Keith.

    And whilst I'm talking about trains, I'm beginning to suspect that someone at National Express has it in for Jonathan Wallace. Every week, he has a bit of a moan at them for cancelling his train and yet, every time I use them, things run pretty smoothly. If I was Jonathan, I'd be checking where the person responsible for operations actually lives, and who he or she votes for...

    European Selection, South East England: it gives me great pleasure to announce...

    the result of the announced recount for the list, following the withdrawal of Murari Kaushik and, subsequently, Martin Lury.

    As already stated, the top five remain unchanged, but the list now reads;
    1. Sharon Bowles
    2. Catherine Bearder
    3. Ben Abbotts
    4. Jim Barnard
    5. Antony Hook
    6. Simon Green (previously seventh)
    7. Zoe Patrick (previously eighth)
    8. Gary Lawson (previously ninth)
    9. David Grace (previously tenth)
    10. John Vincent (new addition)

    Notably, John was a candidate last time, and he is the third member of the list who ran in 2004 (Sharon and Catherine are the other two). I ran into John in Brussels last month, and I know that he'll do us proud in the campaign ahead.

    Tuesday, August 12, 2008

    Jo, silence doesn't imply apathy, it might just imply that I don't need to waste my time repeating what someone else is likely to say rather better

    I have a lot of time for Jo Christie-Smith. So much, in fact, that I encouraged her to apply for the selection of a PPC for Dulwich & West Norwood whilst I was running to be Chair of the Local Party.

    We haven't always agreed on the best route towards making our Prospective Parliamentary Candidates more reflective of our society (she is rather more interventionist than I am) and I remember a lengthy argument in a restaurant bar in Brighton a few years back that ran on for more than an hour without any sign that we might reach even a tentative agreement.

    She writes really well on issues related to organisation (a pet hobby horse of mine) and equality (something that matters a lot to me, and an area where I have past form). I still don't always agree with her though and we crossed swords rather messily at a meeting of the English Candidates Committee nearly two years ago when, in my view, she was sold down the river by the very people she was supposed to be representing (may the then Executive of the Parliamentary Candidates Association hang their collective heads in shame...).

    However, I think that she's been quite harsh on the male element of the LibDem blogosphere when she asks why we aren't commenting. I heard the reports on 'Today' this morning and, in the recesses of my groggy morning mind, my sleepy liberal cortex thought, "Bloody good thing too, what kind of neanderthal thinks that what is done to you when you're drunk is your responsibility?". My next realisation was that I was late for work and really ought to get on with my day.

    I tend only to blog when I've got something to say, although I have occasional flights of fancy, or whimsy, when the mood strikes. And today, nothing had happened that I felt particularly equipped to say much of value about. Except, of course, to respond to Jo's blog posting...

    So, not so hard on us, Jo. If you want us to join you on the barricades, let us know where you've built them and we'll probably turn up. But don't be surprised if we are delayed by having to write a blog entry telling everyone that we're coming...

    Monday, August 11, 2008

    Why you might want to invest your money somewhere else if the Conservatives win the next General Election

    I don't normally read the Observer on a Sunday morning/afternoon, as it's a bit on the worthy side. However, Ros picked it up this week and, whilst she lounged in the hot tub at the family 'entertainment hub' (and it really is that good...), I ploughed through the Business section to see how grim things are getting (don't ask, you really don't want to know...).

    Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceAnd indeed, things are getting grim, with sterling falling 3% this week against the dollar (the dollar, for pity's sake!), inflation at over 4% (and food inflation at 9%, apparently) and the housing market on a one way ticket to oblivion, it seems.

    However, both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesmen were invited to offer their suggestions as to what might be done. Philip Hammond, the Conservative Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury used his opportunity to tell us what was wrong with the economy and what Alastair Darling could be faulted for. As for their 'concrete' proposals;

    "We are consulting on proposals for a Fair Fuel Stabiliser, so that when petrol prices rise, the government uses the extra revenue it gets from North Sea Oil to cut fuel duty. We are campaigning for next year's planned increases in road tax to be scrapped. We believe we should cut tax rates for companies. We will improve the process of making tax law. And we should look at reforming insolvency law, so that basically sound companies are given time to come up with a rescue plan."

    Good, eh? I knew that you'd be impressed. Vince, on the other hand, provides a mini-manifesto of options, suggestions and proposals. One of the two has a clear understanding of how economics works. The other is a Conservative.

    I have a message for George, Philip and the rest of the Conservative Treasury team. Develop some policy, for God's sake. You're only looking good in comparison to the current administration, but if you don't get better fast, the financial markets will eat you alive. And I quite fancy collecting a pension some day...

    Dr Rachel Joyce responds

    There is a danger to rushing to the barricades in defence of your man/woman/whatever, as a number of Labour activists in East London found out over Miranda Grell.

    On Thursday, I highlighted an apparent contradiction between the positions taken by Dr Rachel Joyce, the Conservative PPC for Harrow West, on her blog and on Conservative Home. I e-mailed her to see what she had to say in response, little expecting a reply. And so, I must report that she has interrupted her holiday to provide this...

    Dear Mark

    Thank you for your email. I am currently abroad on holiday so only have a limited internet access. Can you therefore reply to this email so I know you got it. Of course anti-social behaviour can be as a result of societal failure. If you read my other blog posts about anti-social behaviour you will see this along with poverty are important issues to me. Having worked with some very deprived communities as a doctor, and with people with mental illness, it is clear this is the case. That does not mean however that people should have to put up with bad behaviour.

    I do not know you so I am not quite sure why you are raising the issue of Ian Oakley. However, this is my view:

    I utterly condemn what Ian did (as he has now admitted it - which was not clear when the news first broke). As I also said in the ConservativeHome comments, the Association will need to offer a wholehearted apology.

    I myself only know Ian as a fellow candidate, and not that well. However, he was a nice guy when I met him, with a very loyal group of friends. I am therefore utterly shocked that he could do this sort of thing. However, as I said, I probably didn't meet him more than 10-15 times.

    I also have not spoken with him since this news broke so I don't know the details. I do however understand that Watford 3 party politics is very heated. The only explanation I can surmise for this behaviour which was apparently out of his usual character is the stress of that political position. I presume the pressure got to him.

    He needs to be both punished and counselled, as does any other criminal who may be in need of professional help. Clearly Ian appears to have issues that need to be worked through. He still must suffer a formal penalty for the crimes. He is clearly suffering a significant effect in his life as a result of his actions, and I do feel sorry for him. However, I also feel very sorry for his victims and wish them well.

    As I said, I don't know you but I would hope that we do not get into that type of politics in Harrow. By this I include misleading stories or lies about people or parties. If you read my blog, you will see that I am supportive of some Labour and LibDem politicians as politicians (not with all their policies) - such as Frank Field and Vince Cable.

    I believe both parties and their supporters generally mean well, but I don't think their policies are the right ones for the economy, public services, poverty, inequality and for a free liberal democratic society. I used to be a LibDem myself but reached the conclusion based on evidence that their policies were too held down by politically correct dogma - very different to the Liberal tradition and the Whigs of the past.

    I hope that clarifies things.

    With best wishes


    Dr Rachel Joyce
    Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate, Harrow West

    Now call me old fashioned, but I think that this represents a pretty gutsy response, given the circumstances. Don't get me wrong, I think that she's pretty naive, but it is brave to make a written response to someone she doesn't know, and quite impressive that she should do so at all, especially given the excuse that she is on holiday.

    One tip though, Rachel. Using the banner "Evidence-based, common sense politics" is likely to get you into trouble eventually, especially in a political party as policy light as the Conservatives still are.

    Friday, August 08, 2008

    Lessons in democracy for Conservative Central Office

    A few months ago, I noted that a debate was taking place on Conservative Home regarding what appeared to be a rather shambolic, and remarkably undemocratic looking selection process for the Conservative regional lists for Europe. I wasn't gloating, as I was a democracy activist before I joined the Party, and those who know me will know how committed I am to due process and transparency.

    My remarks were quite well-received amongst the ranks of Conservative Home activists - I was quite open about who I was, after all - and I've kept an occasional eye on the fallout ever since. Thus far, if there has been any response, it's been fairly low key.

    I am in the midst of a process of revising our list for South East England and, as a contrast, here's an explanation of where we're at, by way of comparison...

    Having balloted the entire membership within the Region, without protection for the incumbents, we selected a list of ten using STV. Having now suffered a withdrawal, rather than reballot, we will re-run the count, redistributing Murari Kaushik's preferences. Three of the four runners-up have indicated that they would like to be included, so we'll also have to redistribute the preferences for him too.

    In fairness to the candidates already selected, we will ensure that no candidate can be placed lower down the list than they are currently. The recount will take place electronically on Monday under the supervision of David Allworthy, the Party's Head of Compliance and Constitutional Affairs.

    I'll let you have the result as soon as I can...

    Dr Rachel Joyce - an update

    For those of you wondering whether or not I was going to get a response to my e-mail to Rachel, it gives me much pleasure to announce that I've had a reply. I'll publish it once I get an opportunity.

    It isn't necessarily what you might expect...

    Poisoning the well of political discourse

    No, this isn't a piece to do with Ian Oakley, although the events surrounding his activities in Watford have given me some food for thought.

    As a bureaucrat, I don't tend to do much 'retail' politics, although I've been seen near the frontline more frequently of late. On the other hand, I do read across the blogosphere and have become increasingly aware of the coarseness of a minority of the debate to be found there.

    Guido Fawkes, whose general tone is fairly abusive, even when he's right about the issue being debated, attracts in his comments a collection of people who, if they behaved like that in real life, would probably be shied away from by most reasonable members of the public. However, they're not alone, and the Conservative end of the blogosphere is riddled with individuals whose trade in insults is far more prolific than their range of ideas or reasoned argument. And I'm sure that bloggers of all parties and none fall into the same trap, although I don't see much of it amongst Liberal Democrats.

    So why worry about this? Perhaps because these are the people who aspire to run the country, sooner rather than later. They believe in a respect agenda, yet they show none to others. They display no value for pluralism, yet they talk of democracy, and of winning elections. They complain about opposition foul play, yet think that similar behaviour by their own side is just a laugh.

    I still believe that most people enter the political arena because they want to make the world a better place. They won't agree on method, or ideal of outcome, but they will accept that service to the public is the purpose of the body politic. If politics become the cause of personal abuse, many will wonder if it is worthwhile, and others will choose not to get involved in the first place, leaving our society the poorer for it.

    Worse still, if it is true that a diet of violence leads to acts of violence, and many Conservatives claim to believe this, then it is surely true that a diet of abuse will lead to abusive acts, and an abandonment of those restraints that reasonable people place on their own behaviour.

    There must be a place in politics for satire, ridicule and irony. However, most of us understand that there is a line beyond which we will not cross. So, from now on, I'm going to avoid those blogs where offensive comments are tolerated, especially anonymous ones.

    Abuse, it's not big, and it isn't clever...

    Thursday, August 07, 2008

    Fallout from Watford - the perils of Dr Rachel Joyce

    A number of my colleagues have already covered the story of Ian Oakley's ongoing campaign against various Watford Liberal Democrats. I won't comment further on his vile behaviour, except to say that it takes a particular level of commitment to stay in the public arena under such assaults, and local voters will, I trust, reflect on that when casting their votes.

    I thought, instead, that I might turn the spotlight onto Dr Rachel Joyce, the Conservative PPC for the neighbouring constituency of Harrow West, who takes a very strong view on anti-social behaviour... and here are some of the highlights.

    "One thing I really want to do if I get to be an MP is to sort out the unfair, disempowering nuisance laws that actually encourage anti-social behaviour. It is about time there was root and branch reform. One of the issues we get on the doorstep from time to time is very distressed people living a nightmare with neighbours from hell or repeat nuisance"

    "The few successful prosecutions usually result from years of painstaking evidence collection, and then the penalties for the infliction of real suffering on other people are usually derisory."

    "I believe that by changing these laws and clamping down on all forms of nuisance and anti-social behaviour hard we can start to turn around many neighbourhoods."

    Meanwhile, she had this to say on the subject of Ian Oakley...

    "Ian was nothing other than supportive, helpful and kind as a fellow candidate. The last few times I saw him he complained that he was having trouble with dirty LibDem campaigns. I would be amazed if he was really guilty of this but if it is true then I presume the stress of a nasty campaign would have got to him."

    and this

    "However, the Ian Oakley I know is a nice guy. IF he did do this then it must have been because of intense pressure. Nasty politics and untruths in leaflets can get out of control on all sides which is not constructive in the long term for the people that we serve, and is psychologically harmful for those involved. More needs to be done (eg by the electoral commission) to ensure that leaflets and other political messages properly represent the truth and that politicians keep their promises, and if they can't there is openness as to why. This might go some way to reducing the amount of nasty partisan politics that can lead to this kind of behaviour and upset."

    In fairness, one should not criticise someone for hypocrisy based on two sets of comments made months or even years apart. On the other hand, Rachel made her comments about Ian Oakley on 21 July on Conservative Home, after news of his arrest had broken. Her comments about anti-social behaviour were made just eleven days later, on 1 August.

    So, if there is anyone in Harrow West reading this, they might like to ask Rachel why, when a Conservative PPC commits a series of vile acts of harassment and criminal damage against innocent political opponents, he must have been under intense pressure and must therefore be sympathised with, whereas if anyone else commits anti-social behaviour, the full weight of the law should be brought to bear on them without hesitation. I live in the neighbouring borough, and will be putting the question to her. I'll let you have her response, if I get one...

    As for Conservative Party members in Harrow, they might want to question whether Rachel's judgement is sufficiently good to enable her to be an effective parliamentarian. Once an arrest had been made, it would have been perhaps wiser to await an outcome rather than rush to his defence, although I can fully understand the temptation to do so. On the other hand, I don't want to be a Member of Parliament...

    Tuesday, August 05, 2008

    Labour's campaign finance proposals - the politics of envy?

    Of course, the Guardian isn't irredeemably in the pocket of the Labour Party. On Friday, they reported on the Electoral Commission's misgivings over Labour's new campaign finance proposals.

    Politics is irredeemably linked with money. Politicians spend money (ours, for the most part), raise money for campaigning, and tell people what they can or can't do with their money. As a Liberal Democrat, I, like many of my colleagues, worry about our difficulty in keeping up with the 'arms race' of campaign finance. However, I'm realistic enough to understand that, to a great extent, money follows the prospects of power. Thus, where we are strong, we can raise funds, and where we are weak, it is more difficult.

    When Labour were riding high, plenty of wealthy donors were queueing up to give them money. In turn, now that the Conservatives are seen as being likely to win the next General Election, money is easier to find.

    The danger is that money, if predominantly from one source, is seen to influence our politics in a way that takes it away from the people and into the old smoke-filled rooms. And, that brings us to Lord Ashcroft of Belize. The current proposals from the Ministry of Justice are seemingly entirely aimed at stopping the flow of funding from Lord Ashcroft and, whilst I agree that there should be limits on the rights of individuals to fund political parties, you should clean out the Augean stables rather than disinfecting a corner that is inaccessible to Labour politicians.

    Labour now relies on the Unions for 92% of its funding. Even if Labour is twice as popular amongst union members as it is amongst the general public (and I frankly doubt that they are), half of the members of Labour-funding unions would rather the donations be split amongst a range of political parties. No proposals for change there, I see...

    In fairness, perhaps we should look at the funding rules for public companies too. Perhaps if individual shareholders could say how a company's donations were allocated, we might see a more representative funding system for political parties. Indeed, perhaps some of the minor parties might benefit, making our democracy more pluralistic.

    There will be those who say that money has little impact on our democracy, and that ideas are what matters. As someone who was brought up in an advertising-flavoured environment, I can assure you that if it didn't work, political parties wouldn't do it. Money buys access to the public, and the better delivered the message (glossy, targetted, whatever), the more likely it is to make an impression.

    But don't believe me, see what my old friend, Peter Facey (Director of Unlock Democracy) had to say...

    Culture update...

    Actually, culture fans, try this, the stretch version...

    Monday, August 04, 2008

    How culture feeds on itself...

    I'm not sure where I picked this up, but it really appeals to my inner music lover...

    Wiley is, apparently, a Grime MC and, if someone could explain this to me, I'd be really quite grateful (look, I'm 43 not 17...). The sample, and this is what really caught my attention, is from a 1991 'release' by DSK called "What Would We Do". Quite brilliant in a kind of seductive kind of way...

    Now I'm not going to claim that the lyrics are in the Simon and Garfunkel or Lennon and McCartney range, but as a serious fan of Kraftwerk, I'd like to think that my German friends would appreciate the cleverness of this.

    But see what I mean about the sample, and here is the 2008 remix...

    Sunday, August 03, 2008

    80% of men DNA tested by the Child Support Agency are lying bastards?

    The Guardian's article on Friday, highlighting the fact that 1 in 5 DNA tests carried out by the CSA show that the man tested is not actually the biological father is a perfect example of how to promote the Conservative agenda.

    The headline alone seems designed to raise the blood pressure, and it's only when you look at the numbers that you realise that we're talking about 20% of 3,500 DNA tests in 2007/08. Bearing in mind that those tests only take place when men deny parentage, it means that 80% of women know exactly what they're saying. As for the rest, women are just as capable of maintaining multiple relationships as men, are just as likely to wake up in a strange bed with someone they barely know as men, and so on. To err is human, remember?

    Chris Grayling, the Conservative spokesperson for stigmatising the poor and needy (sorry, Work and Pensions) and a man incapable of putting a bow tie on (and I have photographic evidence on the latter point) is only too capable of spotting a bandwagon and taking a comfy seat on it.

    He believes that the rate of negative tests is too high and that 'something must be done'. Actually, he might be better off studying the data and looking for the underlying reasons why women make mistakes or, in a small number of cases, lie. If a woman has more than one sexual partner, is she likely to be encouraged to tell the CSA that? Does the CSA pressure her to name the father and is her 'nomination' going to be any more than an informed guess?

    The Guardian's political editor, Patrick Wintour, should be ashamed to have his name placed against such an article, but then given his newspaper's consistent stance that all would be well with the Labour Party if only they adopted the Liberal Denocrat manifesto (errr... why not call on your readers to vote for the real thing?), I shouldn't really be surprised to see a once fine journal stoop to New Labour authoritarianism...

    Friday, August 01, 2008

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

    ...South East England European Region, hereby give notice of a recount, as required by Paragraph 5.3(g) of the European Selection Rules.

    Yes, we've had a withdrawal, and a replacement candidate is required. Luckily, we had runners-up, so a recount will take place. In fairness, the 'excitement' will be further down the list, so don't get too aerated...

    Once I have a result, I'll let you know...