Friday, October 31, 2008
Thursday, October 30, 2008
Sunday, October 19, 2008
|Yes, it's a wheelbarrow full of orangutans. Want one? I do.|
I was recently appointed as Returning Officer to Liberal Youth, and this was my first turn of duty. I wanted to impress, so I brought my own ballot box (yes, I know...) and, on arrival, I was presented with a package consisting of ballot papers, a numbering stamp, some blank slips and a hole punch (very professional, I must say).
I was in a good mood, so I decided to put on a show. An animated account of the vote for the new Honorary Vice-Presidents, with tales of transfers and philosophical debates that didn't matter was my contribution before lunch.
After lunch, I was called into action again to run an impromptu contest for the endorsement as Liberal Democrat candidate for the forthcoming NUS election. As a gesture towards transparency, I counted the ballot papers in front of the whole conference. Ben Mathis 'called me' on the arithmetic so we had an audience participation recount before I declared the result.
It was great fun, and I look forward to working with Liberal Youth at their Spring Conference next year...
The Observer today carries an article in its magazine section about the campaign to save the red squirrel, led by an organisation called the 'Red Squirrel Protection Partnership'. As Rupert puts it, "We only call ourselves the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership because if we called it the Grey Squirrel Annihilation League people might be a bit less sympathetic.".
It is one of the funniest articles I have read for a very long time, and Rupert comes across as slightly eccentric (guilty as charged, M'Lud...) but deeply convinced of the rightness of his actions. He and his team have gathered together hundreds of volunteers in their quest to rid Northumberland of grey squirrels, including some wonderfully unlikely help. The grannies, Rupert suggests, tend to be the most bloodthirsty trappers. 'It's like: "Can you beat it to death with a hammer and let me watch?" We had one old dear who went inside and came back out with a sort of elephant gun: "Do you want to shoot it with this?"'.
Best of all, Rupert displays a sense of irony that is worth preserving. For those of you with a knowledge of the history of the Mitfords, there is one line that is, to my mind, priceless. Read the article, and marvel at the work of one of our less prominent Peers.
Rupert, you are a treasure...
Last night saw us in Solihull, and Ros and I formed a team with Norman Davies, our Group Leader on Solihull Council, and John Windmill, his predecessor, both of them councillors in Olton ward. It wasn't the easiest quiz I'd ever been involved in, and the competition was pretty sharp too, but by the end of the evening, the 'Old Oltonians' had swept triumphantly to victory. The two bottles of wine that we won are chilling nicely in the fridge...
It was noticeable that our Group there has three young councillors, all of whom are thought of as rising stars. Tim Hodgson is the Deputy Group Leader, having been elected to the council last year, aged 21, and this is a group of eighteen! Throw in Leela Widger and Brynn Tudor, and you can be pretty confident that Solihull and Meridien Liberal Democrats have much to look forward to. Of course, they're working flat out to make sure that Lorely Burt is returned to Westminster at the next election.
We were made to feel incredibly welcome, and Ros was very well received indeed. A perfect end to a pretty good day, I'd say...
Saturday, October 18, 2008
Ballot papers having gone out, many of the people we've spoken to today have assured us that they've already voted. However, you don't know that for certain, and it always pays to show your face in the hope of convincing a few undecideds. Besides, given the importance of word of mouth, and of endorsements by friends, in an election where there is virtually no reliable data on voter intentions, you really can't afford to slacken the pace.
Regardless of the outcome, people have been incredibly friendly wherever we've been, and it was nice to run into so many old friends and acquaintances, beginning with registration at South Central's conference in Woodley, near Reading, where I was greeted by Penny Hopkins and Jen Parry. Penny and I first met when I was doing international youth politics and she was working for ELDR, whereas Jen (Clive's mother for those of you who know much about Lambeth politics) was on the selection committee when I was Returning Officer for Wantage.
It feels good but, as they say, the proof is in the voting, and it is virtually impossible to tell how most of the membership will respond to the one mailing they will receive. About 40% of the membership will receive up to three e-mails (they've had one already) and other than that it is down to the ability of the campaign teams to reach out further. And time is ticking away...
However, we're still enjoying ourselves, and we've got one more event this evening before bedtime. Tomorrow, Guildford, for the Liberal Youth conference and a hustings...
Friday, October 17, 2008
On arrival, I was somewhat surprised to be told by one of our councillors that he had been calling members in his ward to encourage them to vote for Ros. Now I freely admit that I had used my Executive e-group to ask all of them to vote for her, but I hadn't expected such a response. Apparently, people have been forwarding my message on to other people they know. It's all very touching, but reflects the genuine warmth displayed by so many people in support of Ros's quest for the Presidency.
I have a huge soft spot for Brent Liberal Democrats, as I've said in the past, and they never cease to confound. They aren't prone to sentiment, as their campaigning record testifies, but there is a warmth and a collegiate nature which makes you feel good inside.
And so, if re-elected, I intend to stay on as Secretary of the Local Party. It would be rude not to...
Now I fully understand that my employers want to ensure that they don't discriminate, but whilst ethnicity and disability are obvious, and there are good grounds for having disability data so that proper adjustments can be made, I'm a mite uncomfortable about their need to know my sexual orientation. It doesn't impact on my ability to carry out my duties, there is legislation to prevent staff from discriminating but it falls into the area of my life marked 'none of your damned business'.
There is almost certainly discrimination against some non-heterosexuals within HM Revenue & Customs. I haven't personally experienced any, but the likelihood is that it exists. But isn't it easier to leave people's private lives just that?...
Liberal Democrat apparatchik, Mark Valladares, aged 134, was quoted as saying, "I don't know what's chuffing going on. When I was a lad, we didn't have any of this Interweb malarky. We had to entertain ourselves by invading small countries, or sending gunboats out to enforce exclusive trade agreements."
* With apologies to all four, but if you're just going to be silly...
Much has changed since then, of course. I am married (to the lovely Ros), I've moved house, I've exchanged Quito for Kirkwall and changed office. The blog, perhaps, is one of the few constants, an ever present reminder that life goes on.
Blogging has become more erratic, in accordance with my lifestyle, although I've probably become less tolerant of failure, and more willing to express myself freely. It's been fun though, and who knows what the next year has in store?
Thursday, October 16, 2008
1. Decide upon your preferred format.
2. Find a neutral chair - if you don't, you'll draw a complaint from anyone who feels that they have been unfairly treated and, guess what, it's your fault.
3. Invite the candidates, telling them what the format will be and who will be chairing. This gives the candidates an equal chance to prepare, and perform at their best, ensuring that attendees have the best information on which to make their choice.
4. Don't change the format at the last minute, especially if you have followed instruction 3.
5. Apply the same rules to all candidates, ensuring that no candidate is unduly advantaged.
Easy, really. In fact, so easy that you'd think anyone would take it as common sense...
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
And then I waited... and waited... and waited for a ballot paper that never came. So, being an curious sort of soul, I rang Cowley Street to see what was happening. Paul Rustad, the friendly administrator of the English Party, told me that there would be no ballot paper, as the number of candidates conveniently equals the number of vacancies, i.e. five.
So, I have been (kind of) gloriously re-elected. I'd like to thank my agent, my campaign manager, my website designer and all the other people whose work has made this possible.
For completeness, I should congratulate Ken Cosslett, the current Regional Candidates Chair for South Central and a thoroughly decent soul, Neil Halsall from Western Counties, my fellow radical, and Dawn Davidson, the former Chair of English Candidates Committee, on being elected too.
Friday, October 10, 2008
In that time, my colleagues and I have reviewed the performance of candidates in the 2005 General Election, and found little in the way of problems. There were a few instances where candidates were called in for interview, but they were few and far between. Otherwise, we have mostly administered the existing system. We've done virtually no pastoral work with candidates.
Privately, however, the story is different. I have been approached by a number of candidates and ex-candidates who have been concerned about the way they have been treated, or by incidents within the Local Party. I do what I can, on one occasion plying an old friend with vast amounts of red wine to stiffen his sinews, so to speak.
I answer questions about opportunities elsewhere, I matchmake across regions, I ask people if they've thought about what they'd like to do in the Party, I talk about the assessment process and about how selections work, and much of that information is published on my blog. I even like to remind people that candidates put their egos on the line whenever they apply for a seat.
Some of this is responsive, some reactive, all of it important. However, it's all informal. You have to know me and, more importantly, approach me, because I'm easily distracted and a bit overcommitted. Persistence helps too...
However, my committee is a potential source of long term support. London's Regional Candidates Committee has a membership of seven, with a variety of skills. Most candidates won't need anything more than an occasional chat and, in the less winnable seats, won't be in post for very long. On the other hand, a few will need ongoing support, and having someone at Regional level, with access to information and contacts across the Party, who can be reached fairly easily, can only be a good thing.
So, I'm going to propose that my Regional Candidates Committee appoint two members tasked to act as a contact point for candidates. In fact, I'm going to volunteer to be one of them. Of course, I'm going to have to get re-elected back onto the committee in order to be one of them, although there is, theoretically, nothing to stop me from offering my services anyway.
What this means is that I'm going to have to give up something, something that theoretically takes up a lot of my time. We'll see what that means in due course - I'm still lost in thought about my plans for 2009 otherwise...
Thursday, October 09, 2008
- never been a Parliamentary candidate
- never been an agent
- never run seriously for public office
- never had any personnel/HR experience
Given that I had just turned thirty, and would be likely to be assessing applicants far older, far more mature and far more experienced than I was, and had been semi-retired from frontline Party activity for three years, I could easily imagine the potential difficulties in terms of my personal credibility. Being male, this (naturally) didn't stop me from accepting the invitation...
In some ways, I regretted it from the start. An in-built lack of self-belief, combined with the semi-perpetual fear of being exposed as a rank amateur, made for some deeply discomforting experiences. On the one hand, as a young, BME assessor, I added diversity to the process. On the other, the sense that I might mistakenly damage someone's 'career' or, equally harmfully to the Party, approve someone who wasn't up to the job, tended to cause me to fret.
Many a sleepless night was spent marking application forms until, one day, I had a minor breakdown in the middle of the assessment day caused by a combination of three hours sleep in the previous forty-eight, and vast doses of coffee to overcome it. My ability to function failed me and I went into emotional overload. Fortunately for all concerned, it conveniently happened in the midst of a constituency surgery roleplay, and I was the constituent. Whilst my fellow assessor was complimenting me on my acting skills, and the 'lucky' applicant was retreating in shock to the 'holding pen', I was pulling myself together enough to carry on.
Strangely, it was a bit easier after that, and as time passed, and I found myself becoming one of the more senior assessors, it got easier still. I still agonised over some of the scoring and some of our decisions, but with age came experience.
Time passes, and the assessment process has changed to reflect the needs of the time. Now, we are moving to a new, streamlined, more relevant process. The irony is that all of the existing assessors have to undergo retraining and, to be invited to attend, we have to complete an application form. Even more ironically, the form for potential assessors is longer than that for potential candidates.
I'm having real problems filling it in. It brings back a whole set of doubts as to whether or not I have the qualities required. After all, I am still to be a Parliamentary candidate or seriously run for public office. In a Party which purports to be moving towards greater professionalism, is there a place for the well-intentioned amateur?
Indeed, by the time you've discovered your fate in Federal or State level elections, it's too late to use the time given to you by defeat to contribute elsewhere. C'est la vie, I suppose. Of course, for me, that decision is complicated by Ros's campaign to be Party President. How much time I will have to serve the Party on committees will vary depending on whether or not she wins, especially as one doesn't want to be seen as failing to deliver upon commitments made in manifestos (mine, not hers).
The temptation is to take on less rather than more, and that's probably how it will end up in 2009. On the other hand, a reduction in my formal commitments will allow me opportunities to take on one-off projects, and dabble in areas that I enjoy.
One of the advantages of being married to Ros, is that it's quite easy to see what she's up to at work. Indeed, I have a rule. If Lord Greaves has risen to speak in support of Amendment 187K, I've got enough time to get to the Lords to pick Ros up after a day's legislating.
It's a bit like 'Big Brother', although the public votes to remove contestants take place with rather less regularity. Just think of it, proceedings described by someone with a Geordie accent... "Lynne Featherstone is in the florists.", or "Jeremy Browne is buying a postal order."
Perhaps the screening rights could be used to subsidise the cost of Parliament...
Wednesday, October 08, 2008
However, in the eyes of an old colleague and friend, I didn't go far enough. And I have a confession to make - Duncan is right to say that. However, I have a defence, albeit an imperfect one. I might actually have to get involved in that process of reconciliation that is so necessary. In my role as a member of my State and Regional Candidates Committees, if a conciliator is required, I will be needed to act as an honest broker. Thus, taking a stance that places the blame on one side or the other reduces my potential effectiveness.
I have heard some pretty ghastly stories where candidates have been consistently undermined, and encountered Local Parties whose expectations of what might reasonably be expected of a candidate run towards the delusional end of any sensible scale. In turn, I have encountered candidates who have an unrealistic expectation of what the Local Party might be able to deliver, or whose perception of the winnability of their seat is flawed. Occasionally, I have lent a helping hand, where I am able to do so.
My responsibilities start with diagnosing the problem, which I think that I have done. However, that can only be an opening gambit, and actions speak louder than words. Last night, I found myself in conversation with a member of the Leader's team, and took the opportunity to raise this issue, seeking to place the item on their agenda. I got a fairly friendly hearing, and I hope that Team Nick will at least investigate further.
Over the coming few days, I will make some suggestions of my own regarding the roles that various groups might play in improving the situation. Meanwhile, Duncan will be doing some research as indicated yesterday. It won't be immediate, but we might have some effect in the medium and long term.
In the meantime, if you know a PPC who is struggling, offer them a helping hand. Do something that might ease their burden. If necessary, find someone who can step in if needed. After all, one day you might be that PPC...
Tuesday, October 07, 2008
Despite the fairly unwelcoming weather, a small but friendly group turned out to talk about the Party and what it is doing. The Club has, on display, a collection of scrapbooks containing press cuttings going back to the time of Jeremy Thorpe, and it was fascinating to follow the stories as the constituency changed hands from Liberal to Conservative and back, with Nick's narrow victory when he regained the seat.
Pictures of a somewhat younger Nick were dotted around the room, as well as posters from celebrations of years gone by. It was fascinating to see such signs of Liberal tradition, something that I seldom encounter in London.
Monday, October 06, 2008
Okehampton is a pleasant little town on the northern edge of Dartmoor, and has managed to keep its main shopping in the centre, making for a bustling scene on a Saturday. However, sadly, we had to move on to make sure we arrived in good time for the Central Devon AGM, where Ros was the guest speaker.
Business was conducted fairly briskly all things considered, despite a slightly idiosyncratic performance by the Chair and Ros was on her feet somewhat earlier than I might have otherwise feared. She gave a frank and honest appraisal of Party strategy, noting that this had an impact on our targeting strategy in places like Devon, where our primary opposition is the Conservatives.
Ros complimented Sally Morgan, the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Central Devon, noting that the Party needed more like her if it was to achieve its goal of selecting and electing more women to Westminster, and I share her enthusiasm. Sally juggles her family and political responsibilities in a manner which demonstrates that she could handle the competing priorities of an MP's role quite easily.
There is an assumption in some quarters that raising a family is a barrier to being a successful candidate. It is - for anyone who is a parent. However, it should not be insuperable, and we have a duty as liberals to ensure that we provide support sufficient to enable anyone to play any role they are qualified to fulfil. It shouldn't be down to the partner, if one exists, to shoulder the burden of support, although there are many who do so uncomplainingly.
Meanwhile, outside, a field full of sheep chewed thoughtfully on the damp grass as a thin drizzle fell throughout. I find sheep intriguing. They aren't very interesting in terms of activity, but I am increasingly suspicious that they have greater understanding of what we're up to than they let on. I wonder what they make of it all?...
At that time, there were three individual, free-standing Local Parties, none of whom had a large membership. Indeed, Brent East had just forty-seven members, and only seven of those voted in the uncontested selection.
Brent South was likewise an unopposed 'contest', and the candidate was a young man called Julian Brazil. It was his first attempt at selection, and he was duly adopted by a vote of two to nil. He was an enthusiastic candidate in a contest against Paul Boateng but duly went down to defeat in what was hardly an unexpected result. However, he performed well, and earned a positive report.
To cut a long story short, Julian is now our PPC in Totnes, a seat where we harbour hopes of success, and it was a pleasure to spend an evening with him, his new wife and three dozen or so local members and, of course, my lovely wife. We were attending a dinner at a restaurant called 'Alf Resco' and a really rather pleasant time was had by all, made even better by the fact that a goodly sum of money was made to support the campaign.
It has been one of the curious features of our travels that I keep running into people that I've worked with. I wonder what happened to the young woman who chaired Brent & Harrow Young Liberals in 1986/87?..
However, sometimes I learn something of a non-bureaucrat nature. On Friday, Ros and I were taken to see some of the achievements of Teignbridge District Council, now Liberal Democrat led. Our guide was Leader of the Council, Cllr Alan Connett, and our first stop was the Recycling Centre.
Teignbridge residents now recycle 56% of their waste, and we got to meet some of the key staff, as well as Cllr Gordon Hook, the Executive Member who leads on recycling. I was particularly impressed by the work done in schools to encourage children to play a role in encouraging household recycling, with collection vehicles named by different schools, and pictures created by children placed on the side of them. One particularly nice touch is that there are big signs on the sides of every collection vehicle thanking residents for their achievements and telling them how well they are doing.
There is genuine enthusiasm for improving those figures, and all of this without moving towards mandatory recycling, something that has been introduced by other councils. Best of all, their efforts contribute towards reducing the costs of landfill to the residents.
There is an interesting twist though. Teignbridge is one of very few, if any, local authorities to bring their waste management back in-house. It was their view that the original contract was poorly delivered and, when the opportunity arose to retender, they discovered that they could undercut the best private sector bid by £750,000. They now have the flexibility to try new ideas without having to constantly renegotiate.
Sometimes, it isn't public or private, it's about what actually works...
Sunday, October 05, 2008
Of course, Jonathan's role as secretary to Lord Bonkers (my favourite slogan, "Don't be plonkers, vote for Bonkers!" will live long in my memory) is what he is perhaps best known for amongst Liberal (Democrat) activists. However, amidst the references to the presumably now world famous 'Shropshire Star', and the pithy one-liners, there lies an astute commentator on current events. The recognition of his work by fellow bloggers, regardless of party, is a reflection of the thoughtfulness and quality of his postings, indeed of his writings generally.
For unlike most of us, Jonathan has rather greater reach, through his contributions to Liberal Democrat News and the New Statesman. He is an ambassador for Liberal Democrat blogging and worthy of our celebration.
However, I was brought up aware of the idea that, whilst the concept of free speech is entirely desirable, it is not obligatory to provide a platform for racism, sexism or homophobia. Irfan Ahmed's blog entry earlier this afternoon treads perilously close to homophobia, perhaps even steps over the line. Publishing such comments on a Liberal Democrat blog aggregator risks discrediting all of us, and posting such comments under an avatar which is the Party's official logo is, in my mind, unacceptable, and I have muted his blog accordingly. If clarification is forthcoming, and is satisfactory, I reserve the right to reverse my stance.
I might have taken the step of complaining about the matter to Ryan. However, I think it unreasonable to place him in the position of having to make decisions of censorship, and therefore place my view before my fellow blogging colleagues for their consideration accordingly.
I do not believe that any blogger, regardless of his or her views, should have the ability to propagate their views curtailed. However, it is not their right to have such views further propagated by groups or individuals who do not support and, indeed, condemn them.
Friday, October 03, 2008
It is nice to see David Blunkett's commentary though. "This is rule by autocracy and a dangerous precedent, politicising the police force in Britain." Such a pity he didn't understand that when he was Home Secretary...
Wednesday, October 01, 2008
Whilst I'm not convinced that it is ethically sound as a theory, I listened to a fine example of the art this morning on 'Today', courtesy of Edward Stourton and William Hague. It is presumed by many that the Irish will vote again on the Lisbon Treaty and that, if they do, they will ratify it.
"So, what will the Conservatives do if this happens?", William Hague was asked. "Will you tear up the treaty? Will you put it to a referendum of the British people?", he was asked.
His response, to say what would happen if the Irish had not ratified, left the question hanging, unanswered. "So, Mr Hague, the answer is that you don't know?", was the final enquiry, at which point time ran out.
I thought that the Conservative position was for a referendum come what may. William Hague apparently disagrees. What does he really believe in, if not a referendum, or was his position just for media consumption? You really begin to wonder if the Conservatives believe in anything...
A freeze on council tax? Sounds great, until you realise what is actually on offer. Councils will be allowed to increase spending by 2.5% and will have the entire increase funded by central government. Now, let's see if I've got this right. I will not pay more council tax but will pay more tax to cover the increased central government contribution. Not smoke and mirrors at all then...
Oh yes, and it's entirely inconsistent with Conservative talk of localism. No right for a local council to spend more if they need to, so clearly a means to introduce still more stringent capping. Whereas for efficient councils, it provides an incentive to spend more money, not less, as the funds are coming from central government.
It isn't a stealth tax either, is it, as it replaces a charge that I can see, receive an explanation of, and can punish the council for, with a subvention from a large faceless budget administered by civil servants who have no accountability to a formula which is even less transparent than the answer to the Schleswig-Holstein question.
Of course, there will be cuts to make up for it all, I'm sure. The emphasis on 'hard working families' makes it abundantly clear that, if you're single, or childless, or poor, there is little on offer. The poor won't benefit, as their council tax is paid for by the state. The elderly will continue to suffer from the death by a thousand cuts that is the likely fate of social care. Those amongst us who are single will lose out through the introduction of bribes to become, or stay, married.
I loathe this government, and most of its recent works. However, I don't see why I should go quietly in a transition from a bunch of big government, authoritarian control freaks to a bunch of socially reactionary, hypocritical control freaks. My only hope is that the Conservatives get exposed for what they really are...
Since then, I’ve been working to put my ideas into play, not just on the committee itself, but on the newly created Selection Rules Review Group.
and my cat, Cincinnati, thinks so too…
Local Parties, especially our smaller ones, struggle with the bureaucracy of our candidate selection system. It is expensive and time consuming, so I have proposed that we abolish selection committees for non-target, non-Moving Forward seats. Less need for selection committee training, less work for returning officers, and why place more barriers in the way of applicants who are already approved?
I’ve worked hard to persuade my fellow colleagues, and sense that I’m making some headway. I’ve also supported other proposals such as revised, cheaper arrangements for advertising vacancies for PPC’s.
There is still more that I would like to do. Greater freedom of campaigning in selections is still to be won, but I truly believe that we should encourage greater creativity from our candidates. Technology may be seen as a threat by some, but it also presents opportunities for the brave.
I promise to oppose attempts to introduce positive discrimination in candidate selection. Liberals oppose such things on principle and I am no exception.
Finally, if re-elected, I will continue to propose and debate issues related to the work of the committee on my blog, as a means of reporting back on what I’m doing. I believe that it is vital that I keep you informed of my activities so that you can vote on an informed basis. It’s what democracy should be all about.