Thursday, April 30, 2009

Far, far away, on a planet where Liberals usually win


Ros and I are in Vancouver, the main city, although not the capital, of British Columbia, where Ros is leading our delegation to Liberal International - I think that that makes me the delegation... It isn't a long trip in terms of time, although the 8 hours and 35 minutes spent on the plane made it feel like a lifetime.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceAfter a long day's travel, we're safely ensconced in our roomy hotel room here at the Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites, Vancouver Downtown, and I can see the nearby mountains, still with some snow on them, from the window. My schedule is somewhat lighter than Ros's - a bit of gentle shopping, a bit of 'touristical activity' (I think that means sightseeing), and a few meals in nice restaurants.

British Columbia is, in political terms, something of a two-party state, the Liberals and the New Democratic Party dominating the scene. That dominance is distorted by the use of the 'first past the post' electoral system, which lead to a bizarre result a few years ago when the Liberals gained about 60% of the vote, but took 77 out of 79 seats on the Provincial Legislature.

I hope to report on events as they take place this weekend, the room has free wi-fi, my BlackBerry works, and I'm fully connected up, so further news as it comes in, as they say...

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Creeting St Peter: crime and disorder, plus the Public speak!

The final report to the Parish Meeting was that of the Neighbourhood Watch. Sadly, Georgina Sheldrake is the only member left, after the other two members either moved or withdrew. Luckily, crime levels are low in the village, but volunteers would be welcome. The role of Neighbourhood Watch members is to pass on police warnings and to keep a weather eye out for unusual activity.

The Chair of the Parish Council then gave the Council's annual report. Chris Wright paid tribute to the retiring members, as well as the retiring Parish Clerk, Elsie Rivers.

The village falls within the area covered by the new Community Board for Stowmarket and its environs, and Cllr Wright noted the consultation exercise which took place. He felt that the results were somewhat skewed towards the wishes of younger members of the community. This might be linked to the disproprtionate participation of students at Stowupland High School, who were keen to have more fast food outlets in the town.

It was felt to be vital to link the Community Board to the village. Hosting a meeting in the village was felt to be essential and it was proposed that we host a meeting on the site of the village playground.

There was a brief discussion of the proposed multi modal container depot at the northern end of the parish, with concerns aired over the length of time taken to determine what might happen. However, it was decided to have a separate Parish Meeting to discuss this hugely disruptive imposition on our village.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Creeting St Peter: more tales of the Parish Meeting...

On behalf of the Parochial Church Council, Alice Mathewson thanked the Parish Meeting for inviting them. She noted that regular services take place in the various churches in the 'rotation', including St Peter's, and it was agreed that details of services should be added to the website.

There was carol singing in the run-up to Christmas, and a dozen singers hit the streets of Creeting St Peter to raise funds for the church, with mince pies and mulled wine partaken of afterwards, which sounded pretty jolly (and other things ending with 'olly'). Most of the PCC's non-service activity revolves around the need to raise funds to maintain the church buildings, as aging buildings require significant maintenance. It's a pretty church though, if a bit isolated.

Our neighbour, Ian Harwood, presented the report of the Community Council. Their main project is the regeneration of the village's playground, and there is an application for funding through the landfill tax arrangements. £2,500 has been forthcoming from the County Council, plus £1,000 from the Parish Council. They have raised additional funds through a Fun Day, plus a bonus ball scheme, linked to the bonus ball drawn in National Lottery draws. I think that I'm already a participant though...


Finally, Ian noted improved co-operation between the Parish, Community and Parochial Church Councils which, given the size of the village, seems ridiculous. I look forward to reading a piece he will write for the village newsletter.

Creeting St Peter: twas on the Monday evening...

And so I attended my first Annual Parish Meeting, attended by a crowd far larger than that which attended last year's event. The Church Hall which, curiously, is quite some distance from the church, echoed to the voices of eleven attendees.

The minutes of the previous meeting were approved before moving onto reports. First up was the report from Suffolk Police, who advised that we had suffered from four crimes in the past year, two of which affected the same business premises.

Next up was our Conservative County Councillor, Gary Green, who talked about the review of unitary status and the (insufficent) steps that the County Council is taking with regard to the economic crisis. He confirmed that the Chief Executive is working part-time for another (failing) local authority, but that she is doing this in her spare time.

Cllr. Caroline Byles presented the Mid Suffolk District Council report, which included news that free swimming for the under-16's and over-60's has been introduced in Stowmarket. In addition, the fencing on Footpath 25 to the church requires repair. Neither the District or County Councils are accepting responsibility, and it was felt likely that either the landowner or the Highways Agency. There will also be a diversion of Footpath 15, and the Parish Council were keen to ensure that it was properly signposted.

Cllr Byles raised the spectre of lightning squatters on unoccupied land. An incident of this kind happened in Essex recently, and she gave us the lowdown on who to contact if such a thing were to happen in our lovely village.

Creeting St Peter: cometh the hour, cometh the blog...

Quite unexpectedly, I find myself with a new project - the creation of a blog for the parish of Creeting St Peter, part of a communications and information strategy for the village.

Hopefully, it will be unleashed on an unsuspecting world soon but I'll still be covering Creeting St Peter for 'Liberal Bureaucracy', so for news of mid-Suffolk's most perfect parish, you know where to come...

Monday, April 27, 2009

Creeting St Peter Parish Council: 27 April 2009

In the absence of the international news media, it falls upon me to report on happenings on the Parish Council.

Whilst the start of the meeting was delayed due to the late arrival of one of the councillors, the meeting was called to order by Cllr. Chris Wright, and the sole item on the agenda, consideration of a planning application to add a conservatory to one of the outlying properties, was taken.

There being no objections from council members or from the public present (that would be me...), the council decided to support the application.

With that, and there being no items of 'Any Other Business', the meeting was brought to a close.

Tapir update

I finally managed to find a picture in the Times - everyone say ahhh...

It's World Tapir Day today - what do you mean you didn't know?

Alright, I didn't know either, but my attention was drawn to the fact by a small piece in the Times. This is, in fact, the second World Tapir Day, intended to draw attention to these rather shy creatures. There was a remarkably cute picture in the Times, which I can't find online, so no link I'm afraid, but there is a webcam for you to take a look at.

Three tapir stories... I used to regularly visit the National Zoo in Washington DC and, just inside the entrance, was the tapir enclosure. Every time I visited, I would peer into the enclosure, hoping to see one, but never did, until one day I spotted one, partly hidden by the undergrowth. They really are very good at blending in.

In Emmen, in the Netherlands, I watched a tapir following her keeper around the enclosure. Suddenly, there was a lunge, and the tapir was off - with the keeper's sandwich... Finally, I once saw a tapir at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, being groomed by his keeper. Apparently, they enjoy regular brushing to keep their coats in good order.

So, happy World Tapir Day to you all and, if you see a tapir in the course of your activities, then give it a gentle stroke...

Liberal Conspiracy: where socialists lurk in a trans-Atlantic timewarp

When Liberal Conspiracy was formed, I was deeply suspicious. After all, given that its founding parents were predominantly members and supporters of the Labour Party, it looked like another attempt to recruit Liberal Democrats, Greens and others to some grand coalition of progressive forces against the Tories. I had no fundamental objection to the concept, just to the use of the word 'liberal'.

Recently, as noted by the likes of Andrew Hickey and Jennie Rigg, there has emerged the sense that, whilst at the outset there was at least a show of inclusivity, the true colours of 'Liberal Conspiracy' have begun to be flown. The recent declaration of ethics, written in such a way as to lead any new reader to infer that the whole site was a propaganda machine for Labour, and a number of articles since, appear intended to drive non-Labour participants away. Perhaps our role as camouflage isn't needed now that a decent readership has been achieved.

So I should be demanding that the editorial board stop using the word 'liberal' in their title, right? Tempting, but I think not. Instead, I would suggest that, as is common with Labour activists, they have taken their lead from our American friends and, as usual, drawn the wrong conclusions.

American liberalism is something that I'm quite familiar with. Socially liberal and strongly supportive of the role of government in the economy, these two strands have been at the core of organisations such as Americans for Democratic Action. Our friends at 'Liberal Conspiracy' clearly have an Atlanticist streak in them. The catch is that the average American liberal would be horrified by the authoritarian, controlling Labour Party, horrified by their assault on civil liberties, by their foreign policy, by their timidity on the environment.

So, leave the word 'liberal' by all means, as a reminder that too many Labour activists would like to steal the word but are unworthy of its traditions, American or European, economic or social...

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Creeting St Peter: democracy comes to town!

Readers may recall that there are a couple of vacancies on the Parish Council. Naturally, in a vibrant democracy, it is better by far to fill them with individuals with a democratic mandate. And so, the process of advertising the vacancies has begun, with the placing of a notice of vacancy (alright, two notices of vacancy) by Mid Suffolk District Council.

Anyone on the electoral roll may petition for an election to be called in order to fill the vacancies but, if nobody does, the Parish Council may choose to do so by co-option.

In truth, very few parishes in Suffolk hold elections, and local democracy at a truly grassroots level is usually in name only, a case of finding people willing to serve. One might argue that this leads to democracy by 'people like us' for 'people like us', as is usually the case when those in charge are tasked with recruiting new blood.

This presents me with a dilemma. As a democrat, do I petition for an election, knowing that there is little likelihood of a contest, or do I save everyone money and await a co-option? Of course, if my suspicions as to the likely level of interest are correct, I would probably be elected unopposed...

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Possibly the nicest bed and breakfast you could hope to find

We do an awful lot of travelling, and are often put up for the night by local members in their homes. They are most gracious, and their hospitality is greatly appreciated.

Last night was no exception, although there was a twist. Our hosts for the dinner last night were Diana and Ian, who own a listed Georgian house within the walls of Berwick which is utilised as a bed and breakfast. But not just any old bed and breakfast, by no means.

Northumberland House is the kind of bed and breakfast that you always hope that you've booked into. The rooms are large and rather gorgeous, there are cats (Tigger and Fluff), there is a garden to enjoy with games to play - apparently Fluff likes to play table tennis and is rather good at it - and the food is amazing.

If you are the sort of person who enjoys breakfast, you're in the right place. Ian and Diana are totally committed to using local suppliers and are fortunate in that there are plenty of sources within a small radius. I was lured by the option of kippers, smoked in nearby Seahouses, and I wasn't disappointed. Starting with porridge made from organically grown oats and served with a dram of malt whisky, and a glass of fresh orange juice, I can confirm that the bureaucrat ate a hearty breakfast.

Everything is done to reduce the impact on the local environment, and their efforts have been reflected in the four star status and the Green Tourism gold award.

So, if you're in the area, or even if you weren't planning to be, and you need somewhere to stay, I cannot recommend Northumberland House enough.

Live from the North East Regional Conference

Ros and I are in Gateshead today, where the Regional Conference is taking place in the Civic Centre on a sunny day. I emphasise the 'sunny day' element because the last time we were in the North East, the weather was, for the most part, pretty grim.

The council chamber is traditionally Labour in style, with a National Union of Mineworkers banner on the wall, a lot of brown and beige, and very few places to plug in a laptop computer. It is, however, a very nice place to hold a conference with comfortable seats, good acoustics and excellent sight lines.

Ros opened the Conference with a speech and questions, and was followed with a presentation by Robert Adamson, who is the representative of both the Federal Conference and Policy Committees to the North East Region. It was interesting that he should choose to come up to Gateshead and show his face, and he received a polite reception.

We're now in the midst of a presentation from Dave McCobb, the Campaigns Officer for Yorkshire and the Humber, telling us what we should be doing for the European elections. I wonder if a blue envelope and postal vote campaign would work in Creeting St Peter?

Berwick-upon-Tweed: build it and they will come

Sometimes, you escape the hurly burly of 'retail politics' and do something more, dare I say it, genteel. Last night, Ros and I were in Berwick, attending a dinner and politics evening in the home of one of the members.

Over an excellent homemade dinner, the conversation ranged across the political arena (excluding the budget, unexpectedly), before we settled on a discussion of the local aim to create a university college for Berwick. Berwick-upon-Tweed is now one of the British towns furthest from a university and, with the government's declared aim to expand the tertiary sector, a group of community leaders have come together to do something about it.

I was fascinated because, as a Londoner, the idea of a university in a town like Berwick would once have been slightly absurd. Yet now that I have part of my life in rural Suffolk, the importance of an institution like that becomes more obviously apparent. It acts as an economic driver, creating jobs and attracting industry. In turn, young people are less likely to be driven to leave the area in search of education and opportunity.

Of course, you have to have a unique selling point, perhaps a speciality that would attract a particular demographic, or links that might offer the opportunity of international exchange and collaboration. Agriculture is one area that perhaps stands out, but Northumberland and Berwickshire offer a wealth of opportunities that make for an interesting educational prospectus.

So I would like to offer my best wishes to those attempting to bring a university to Berwick-upon-Tweed, and maybe one day, I'll get to visit it...

Friday, April 24, 2009

Creeting St Peter: it's time for the Parish Meeting!

Time to catch up with life in Creeting St Peter, methinks. Whilst away in Cyprus, I missed out on the excitement.

We've got a new Parish Clerk, Rosemary Cochrane, and she's hit the ground running. No sooner has she taken up her post than there is a flurry of activity on the village noticeboard. Of most interest to me is the Parish Meeting, something I haven't experienced before - London doesn't have parishes.

Ros tells me that a Parish Meeting is an opportunity for the electors and any local media to hear a report from the Chairman of the Parish Council, as well as a financial report related to how the precept is spent. Electors may also ask questions related to issues of concern to them - planning is normally covered here. Effectively, this is democracy in action at the lowest electoral level.

Interestingly, the Parish Council are due to meet beforehand to consider a planning issue, so your correspondent will be present, partly as the press contingent (does one apply for a Press pass?), but mostly because I want to fill one of the two vacancies on the Parish Council, so a quick reconnaissance seems like a good idea.

The Parish Meeting kicks off with a report from Mid Suffolk District Council, an opportunity to see what our local Conservative-run council are doing. Not much, I guess, but it never does any harm to keep them on their toes...

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Something for those steam buffs amongst us...



This is 'Oliver Cromwell' passing through Mellis in mid-Suffolk last year. It was just as lovely a day today when it passed through again...

Doesn't it make you proud to be an Englishman on this, St George's Day?

Whilst my Scots, Welsh and Irish colleagues tend to take their patron saint's day rather more seriously than the English do, nevertheless I had an experience this afternoon which was quintessentially English, and I thought that I should share it with you.

On the platform at Stowmarket, I noticed a small sign which explained the presence of a man with a good camera on the platform. You see, the 'Oliver Cromwell' was due to steam through the station, and he was clearly there to get some action shots.

The sun was shining over mid-Suffolk and it was clear that word of a working steam engine on the East Anglian main line had got around - there were people in fields with cameras and camcorders, small children at a safe distance from the track, and a worker outside his factory, all there for a glimpse of steam.

It fair brought a lump to my throat... So Happy St George's Day to you all...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A budget for the petty and the envious

Well, in the round at least, not to many surprises from Mr Darling. A bit of encouragement for savers by increasing the contributions limits for ISAs, the usual hit on 'sin taxes', so far so dull.

I'll pick on three aspects that indicate what this budget says in political terms.

1. Increasing the proposed 45% rate to 50% and introducing it a year earlier.

Alistair has clearly taken on board the criticism that a 45% rate would raise precious little. I'm not convinced that he'll raise much more, as those likely to be affected are also likely to be better equipped to avoid it. There will also be those who feel encouraged to take their skills elsewhere. I'm not suggesting that the threat of an exodus of the best and brightest should cause a Government from refrain from setting tax rates that satisfy the needs of the state, but the impact of such behaviour should be factored in when calculating future tax revenues. Besides, Andrew Lloyd Webber never did leave the country, did he...

2. Withdrawing personal allowances for those earning above £150,000 per annum.

Again, a punitive measure affecting a comparatively small number of presumably Conservative-leaning voters. If a 50% tax rate wasn't enough, let's hit the wealthy a little harder.

3. Restricting relief on personal pension contributions to the basic rate for taxpayers earning over £150,000 per annum.

Alistair here attempts to steal a pretty good idea from the Liberal Democrats but, in typical Labour fashion, messes it up. The fact that this doesn't come in until next year is an encouragement to taxpayers to frontload their contributions, but he's thought of that. No, with immediate effect, those making large contributions to gain relief now will be prevented from doing so.

The problem with this is that it is far from unusual for the self-employed to make lump sum pension contributions. Are they trying to beat the system, or behaving in a manner similar to past years? And who decides?

I've got to say that, if you're bringing in £150,000 per annum, this is a pretty vicious budget. However, in politics terms, those who envy the wealthy their good fortune will be gratified, so it will probably solidify the Labour base. That doesn't make it a good budget though...

What if they set up a working group and nobody came?

To Cowley Street yesterday evening for the inaugural meeting of the Candidate Training and Development working party, set up by the English Candidates Committee. I have to admit to having some doubts about where we will be going with this, especially given the expectations that both the new Capability Board and the proposed Leadership Academy will have some interest in the subject matter. However, my doubts were replaced by a grim depression when I saw the agenda, in particular;

4. Terms of reference/project charter for the working group - discussion

Words designed to chill the marrow, methinks.

As a civil servant, I'm well aware of the culture of meetings about meetings. Luckily, I don't get sucked into that too much, being a comparatively small furry mammal in a world of big but inflexible scaly reptiles, but I know the signs when I see them. The first Valladares rule of meetings is;

"Always decide what a meeting is intended to achieve before you call it."

and I suspect that such an agenda item fails that test.

However, I did persuade my colleagues that, before we dive headlong into a contest to invent the same things before anyone else does, that we should actually find out what else is going on.

More news when I have it...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A tax policy that speaks volumes

I've been broadly supportive of our tax policy in the past, and the theme that has run through our proposals of establishing a greater degree of egality has been one that I can approve of.

However, I do think that the new proposals are as good a reflection of what is needed at this time as I could hope for. I'm not a believer in punitive taxation - I just don't believe that disproportionately bleeding the rich actually works, and merely encourages tax avoidance and, indeed, evasion, on a massive scale. However, it seems grossly unfair to give those who have even more. And that's why, for example, the idea of limiting tax reliefs to the basic rate is entirely reasonable.

Indeed, our tax system has been used as a laboratory for social engineering for many years. Offering incentives to save through TESSAs and now ISAs is an obvious one, but the panoply of reliefs for those willing to invest in companies, films or research and development have acted to distort the behaviour of those with discretionary income. Did the Victorians need tax incentives to invest in the new technologies of their age, or did they invest on the basis of achieving a true return? You cannot talk of freeing up the market whilst 'tricking' supply and demand, and the howls of protest when reliefs are withdrawn are a sign that investments have been made without consideration of the genuine needs of the economy.

At a time when Alistair Darling is talking about seeking another £10 billion in 'efficiency savings', changing your systems so as to reduce the adminstrative burdens is a good idea. So, instead of the complex bureaucracy of tax credits, why not take them out of the taxation system as far as possible, leaving more of their earnings in their pockets, rather than taking it away and then giving it back? Raising the personal allowance to £10,000 will save anyone earning more than that £705 per annum, as well as providing those with an annual income of between £6,475 and £10,000 with a benefit, albeit a smaller one. Perhaps the next step is to move towards a fully unified tax and benefits system, along the lines of proposals for a 'basic income'?

Tackling tax evasion has its attractions, and whilst I would be slightly hesitant in the absence of a statement as to how this additional compliance activity will be resourced, there can be few who would have a principled objection to such a crackdown. If I might be so bold to remind our Treasury team, please note the trend cost:benefit ratio of devoting more investigation resource.

The proposal to treat salaries on a cumulative basis for the purposes are calculating National Insurance Contributions liabilities is, I believe, a fair one. It seems ludicrous that you might pay no National Insurance Contributions if you have six jobs all paying £4,000, yet would pay over £2,000 if you have one job paying £24,000. In reality, very few genuinely poor people fall into the former category, and most of them would probably be working on an agency or self-employed basis.

Whilst a minor part of the overall equation, taxing flights rather than passengers makes sense, although I remain unclear as to how you make that work in an instance where a seat on a flight might not be sold until the last moment. It is, regardless of methodology, a statement of intent that, if people must fly, airlines should be encouraged to maximise loadings and cut out flights that are little used. Linking aviation taxes to the efficiency of the aircraft will encourage a switch away from older, more damaging aircraft, helping us to achieve reductions in carbon dioxide emissions and, regardless of your view on climate change, reducing the use of increasing limited stocks of fossil fuels.

There will doubtless be jibes from our opposition, claiming that we are unable to settle upon a consistent policy. They are undoubtedly right, but then the world has changed radically over the past year. Putting money in the hands of those most likely to spend it can only help to boost the economy over the medium and long term, and evening out the rate of tax deduction between the various economic groups is merely a long overdue step towards a progressive taxation system that is more transparently just.

We'll see what the Labour response is soon enough when Alistair gets on his feet tomorrow. We'll then see the criticisms that spring from the Conservative brains trust. However, they're still a bit light on proposals of their own and, until they lay out their strategy in terms of tax and spend, it will be difficult for them to establish the sort of credibility that lasts. Oh how they wish they had Vince instead of George...

Hey George, enough of the hyperbolae already!

George Osborne's key job is to persuade us all that everything about the British economy is terrible, and made worse by Labour failures over the past twelve years. Fair enough, as he's hardly going to say that they've done a good job and, in truth, the economy is in pretty grim shape.

With unemployment heading towards three million, the banks not lending, and homes being repossessed at the fastest rate since the early nineties, you wouldn't want to run for office on the basis of the success of the British economy. However, you do have a responsibility to demonstrate some sense of perspective.

In November, George claimed that it was 'the truth that it (the UK's) is the worst-prepared economy in the world for recession. The truth that the pound has fallen by a record amount against other currencies.' No it wasn't. He was merely alleging that it was. Compared to Ireland, Iceland and large chunks of Eastern Europe, what we're experiencing is a picnic. Japan, Singapore and other East Asian economies are suffering too.

This month, he claims that, "the UK's public finances are not just the worst in the world but the worst since World War II". Come on George, haven't you read about Zimbabwe? You've got a pretty good case and there's no need to stretch it beyond credibility.

Don't get me wrong, there is much to criticise this Government for. Their repeated optimism as to the level of tax revenue, their failure to invest in projects that would provide a long-term return, their inability to see an area of our national life that couldn't be interfered with, or an area of taxation policy that couldn't be tweaked. As for Gordon Brown's assertion that the United Kingdom is best-prepared to face the recession, whistling in the wind may provide some short term reassurance, but without concrete improvement, it merely delays the moment of disappointment.

But let's be sensible here. Telling the British people that they've never had it so bad economically is lowering the bar for an incoming Conservative administration to a point where even a pygmy would be hard pressed to limbo under it. Or it would be were it not for the fact that reducing support for Labour is, in itself, probably not enough to win a majority for the Conservatives. To make the big move, they've got to persuade people that they can make it better.

That's going to be a more difficult task. Given the massively increased level of public debt, a Conservative Chancellor is going to need one (or more) of three things;
  • significant tax increases
  • significant cuts in public spending
  • a dramatic level of growth in the UK economy

The first option would be intellectually honest, politically suicidal and likely to cause almost unbearable tensions between the leadership and those currently cheerleading for a Conservative victory. Very few Conservative activists will have been working hard only to increase taxes across the board.

The second option would meet with approval amongst most Conservative activists, right up to the point where stories of NHS waiting lists started to emerge in the media. It never ceases to amaze me how people are keen to see the Government spend less on everything, as long as it doesn't affect them personally. For all that Alistair Darling talks of efficiency savings, neither Labour or Conservative administrations have ever delivered the sort of cuts that they claimed were possible and, without a strategy to define what government should be for, it is unlikely that they ever will.

And as for the third, unless we discover vast and unsuspected oil, gold and uranium ore reserves within United Kingdom territory, the chances of growth exceeding 4% per annum this side of 2015 are remote to the point of Tolkienesque fantasy.

In truth, 2010 could turn out to be a pretty good election to lose, especially if the end of the recession is as delayed as some fear it might be...

Monday, April 20, 2009

In praise of Caroline Pidgeon AM



Caroline Pidgeon is someone I've known, and worked with, for a few years now. When I became active in local politics in East Dulwich, I watched her carve a swathe through Southwark politics and wondered where her ultimate ambitions lay. She was selected to fight the target constituency of Lambeth & Southwark in 2004 and came close to winning it, but didn't let that put her off, and I was delighted when she was successful via the top-up list last year.


One hope that I shared with many Liberal Democrat activists was that she would form better links with Local Parties so that we could campaign more effectively. Our Assembly Members are potentially a valuable resource in terms of raising issues, establishing a profile where we are otherwise weak, and providing a platform for issues of concerns to our voters across the city.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceI'm delighted to say that she has had a real effect, using her transport portfolio to pass on information to Local Parties, challenging Mayor Boris on issues such as fares, raising issues passed to her by local campaigns, and generally doing the job we hoped she would do.

Today, I got an e-mail from her in my capacity as Local Party Secretary here in Brent, advising me of proposed changes to a local bus route. This allows me to pass it on to my Executive Committee, and hopefuly allow an exchange of information between our members in the area served by the route and the 'powers that be'. It isn't the first such e-mail that I've had, and is indicative of a genuine community campaigner.

Transport isn't a glamorous portfolio, yet it is key to the quality of life of Londoners. Most voters commute, or use the bus to go shopping, and there is a risk that we take it for granted. Having someone like Caroline, who is keen to voice our concerns and represent our interests, is incredibly valuable, and I hope that our members appreciate it.

So, thanks Caroline, and I'll be hearing from you again soon, no doubt...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A perfect weekend in Mid Suffolk

The sun is shining, the barbecue is cranked up, there's a bottle of badly labelled beer, and here I am in the area declared to be the rural authority to be the highest quality of life in England.

There's pork loin, sausage and bread from our very own bread maker, prepared with care by Ros. We even have Ruby, our visiting cat, who is curled up on a chair in the conservatory.

Does it get better than this?

Hunter gathering for the new millenium

Most people who know me would, if asked, not have me marked down as the sort of person who would go out and hunt my own dinner, or forage the countryside for nutritious plants. They probably wouldn't mark me down as someone of a particularly practical bent, either.

However, yesterday saw something of an achievement, as Ros and I went to Bury St Edmunds to buy something we've been talking about getting for some time. Yes, we became the proud owners of a gas-fired barbecue. At least, we were the owners of a box of parts purporting to be a gas-fired barbecue...

In a touching display of faith, Ros left me to construct the thing, armed only with a twenty-six stage instruction manual, a screwdriver and a spanner, whilst she got on with some gardening. I hardly had the courage to explain that I'd never done such a thing before, especially something that might, if I got it wrong, explode.

I ran into trouble almost immediately, as I was unable to fit the foot to one of the legs. However, Marcus, our neighbour, demonstrated his project management skills and the first hurdle was overcome. Beer helped (it often does) and a glass of St Peter's Golden Ale acted as a spur to greater progress. It was when I got to the bits that carry the gas to the burners that my confidence wavered a bit.

For the life of me, I couldn't work out what happened next but, after a bit of headshaking, I finally worked out what went where and, from then on, it was simply a matter of methodically screwing bolts in and placing bits where they should have been.

Ah, but would it work? With some apprehension, I connected the regulator to the gas bottle and, after a few false starts, propane flowed to the burners. Ros turned them on, flames appeared in an appropriate manner, and nobody died by means of a dramatic fireball.

Ros has a touching faith in my ability to do things like this, whereas I have grave doubts about my technical skills. However, this time (as usual), she was right. We'll be using the barbecue today, so I'll let you know how it goes...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A word to the wise for The Times - be careful what you wish for, you might end up getting it...

I tend to read the financial and personal finance pages quite closely. Not necessarily because I have lots of money, because I don't, but because the information is occasionally useful in my work. I've not always been impressed with financial journalists, however, especially when they talk about tax.

So I was a mite wary when I read the 'Troubleshooter' section in today's Times, written by Rebecca O'Connor, and noted a complaint by a taxpayer who had suffered from delays in receiving a repayment. Said taxpayer was annoyed because they had not received interest on their repayment, something which HM Revenue & Customs are obliged to do by statute.

Rebecca was suitably outraged, and has suggested that we should pay a commercial rate of interest on amounts held by us in excess of liabilities. Apparently, the commercial rate of interest is approximately 0.66%. So, in the instance that her taxpaying correspondent raised, interest of approximately £6 would have been paid.

Unfortunately or, were I to be more cynical, with malice aforethought, she fails to see the other side of the equation. The statutory rates of interest paid and charged were linked to the Bank of England base rate but, as the base rate fell, it became apparent that, if nothing was done, we would be in the ludicrous position of charging taxpayers for owing them money. Hardly fair and, aaccordingly, the interest rate on overpaid tax was given a floor of 0%. Harsh, and providing little incentive to HMRC to make repayments, but at least modestly equitable.

The flip side is that HMRC doesn't charge a commercial rate of interest to its debtors. If you owe HMRC income tax, interest is levied at the astonishingly reasonable rate of 2.5%. Yes, you read correctly, 2.5%. Given that the best buy rates for personal loans are around the 8% mark, and that credit card debts are at 16%, HMRC are charging one of the best rates to be found anywhere, except possibly the 'Bank of Mum and Dad'.

You'd think that a financial journalist would think through the implications of her demands but, on this occasion, Rebecca O'Connor is effectively calling for those struggling with their tax bills to be severely punished. Not necessarily what her readers might wish for, were they to think about it...

The Royal Mail: dealing another (small) blow to social cohesion

I was saddened yesterday to hear that the Royal Mail have closed five of the seven remaining postbus routes in the Highlands following a failure to agree a subsidy from the local authority.

More than twenty years ago, when I applied to join the Civil Service through their trainee accountant scheme, they had clearly read my application form and, noting my declared interest in transport, asked me about Highland postbuses. Naturally, being a Londoner, I knew virtually nothing on the subject, except that they were, presumably, a good thing.

It wasn't a great interview, culminating in the question, "So why do you want to be an accountant?", my answer to which was, "I'm not absolutely certain.". It probably sealed my fate but, fortunately, my test score was so good that they decided to offer me a generalist Executive Officer position anyway.

The postbus network in one of the country's more remote corners has been a crucial link for a string of isolated communities, especially for the elderly and those rural dwellers unable to drive for whatever reason. And yes, subsidy is required, given the impracticality of running a regular bus.

However, there is a limit, and the Royal Mail's insistence on trebling the level of subsidy has proved too much, hence the loss of five routes. A spokesman for the Royal Mail asserted that providing the postbus service was not part of their core duty of delivering the post, and that is exactly the attitude that says all that needs to be said about the loss of a sense of community responsibility.

The Royal Mail still need to collect post from, and deliver to, these communities. To do that, they need a small van, which doubtless runs according to a schedule. How much extra cost can there be to tell people what that schedule is and pick up the occasional passenger? One might almost suspect that they have a long term plan to withdraw from such places...

Friday, April 17, 2009

Andrew Adonis's extraordinary odyssey

I've been quite critical of Andrew Adonis of late and, I feel, not unreasonably so. However, there are times when you have to acknowledge something worthwhile.

Lord Adonis is on a train journey, having purchased a 7-day UK Rail Rover, to see what our railways are really like, from Cornwall to the Highlands and via most points in between. On the way, he's meeting with MP's to discuss their concerns, Dan Rogerson on the Par branch line, Matthew Taylor in Truro and Danny Alexander in Inverness, amongst others. Indeed, in Ipswich, Ros ran across him, getting off of a train to meet the local Labour MP, Chris Mole.

Most impressive of all, he hasn't opted for the soft option of a first class view, something which at least means that you normally get a comfier seat, an occasional cup of tea or coffee and a snack, and a generally more sanguine view of delays. Instead, he has a standard class ticket, so he'll get to see the rail network how the rest of us mostly see it.

So hats off to Andrew Adonis, and here's hoping that he'll learn enough to keep Network Rail and the train operating companies on their toes...

Torture: you might not like it, but I can see where President Obama's coming from

Barack Obama's decision not to prosecute those responsible for the torture of those held at Guantanamo Bay has come in for much criticism from, how can I put this, people like us. "How can we let these people off scot free?", is an obvious question, given the circumstances.

However, I find myself in agreement with his decision. Not because I see a place for torture in any criminal justice system, nor because I believe that people shouldn't be held to account for their actions. The thing is this, should you prosecute people for doing something they have been told, by an authority as high as the Attorney General, is legal?

I personally think not. And yes, I am well aware that the 'only following orders' defence is a lame one. The problem is that, through the decisions of the Bush Administration, the normal frameworks within which combatants are handled were torn down, only to be replaced by whatever Dick Cheney and his neo-con cohorts said was permissable. Challenges to various aspects of the regime at Guantanamo Bay were lost in the thickets of appeal, process and Presidential decree, whilst the ability of politicians to scrutinise the intelligence community has always been limited.

In effect, any moral lodestone had been lost, leaving those at the sharp end of prisoner interrogation floundering in an ethics-free environment.

So, if you can't prosecute those who carried out the torture, surely you can prosecute those who gave the orders? Not so fast, Tiger...

The difficulty here is in proving that the law was actually broken. I'm not an expert in US law, and I know few people who are. Whilst waterboarding and the various other methods used to extract information are vile in nature, and in their impact on the victims, it is obvious from the actions of senior US law officers that the position was not as transparent as it might have been.

So, whilst prosecutions of Cheney and others might provide a degree of moral satisfaction, it is far from certain that they would be successful.

I think that President Obama has displayed a sense of pragmatism here. Torture has no place in a civilised society, no matter how evil our opponents are, and I trust that such acts will be prohibited, regardless of the circumatances. The victims of torture must be compensated and rehabilitated where possible. And then let the IRS loose on Cheney's tax returns...

Suffolk Liberal Democrats nominate candidate for Upper Gipping!

I did mention that there were a few potential opportunities on my horizon and it gives me great pleasure to announce that I have been nominated to be the Liberal Democrat candidate for the Upper Gipping Division of Suffolk County Council.

Upper Gipping has not been contested by the Liberal Democrats in the recent past, but we feel that it is important to give voters across the county an opportunity to vote for a party who will challenge the savage cuts in services being made by the Conservative administration.

So I'll be taking the fight to the Conservatives from Haughley in the west to Occold in the east, as part of a team of candidates across the county. They deserve a decent contest, after all, since taking control in 2005, they've;

  • made £40 million worth of cuts in care for older and vulnerable people
  • overseen a drop in GCSE results
  • increased pay for top council managers by £10 million
  • increased allowances for Cabinet members by 78%
  • abolished free day care for older people
  • closed council run day centres
  • appointed a Chief Executive on £220,000 a year

Unusually, there is no incumbent, as the sitting councillor, Jeremy Clover, sadly passed away earlier this year. So, whatever happens, Upper Gipping will get a new councillor in June. Only time will tell if it's me...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Hurrah for Mysore Paints and Varnish - the Returning Officer's faithful friend

Polling has started in the world's most populous democracy, and across India, voters are having their fingers indelibly marked to prevent multiple voting.

The Times reports that all of the special ink comes from a small company founded by the Maharajah of Mysore in 1937, and has been conveyed to every one of the 828,804 polling stations. It's good to see that India produces such a world-beating product, and it's so effective and cheap that they export to several other countries, including Canada and Mongolia.

This year, their work has been complicated by the decision to mark voters with a line rather than just a dot, as in past elections. And yet they have worked their marvels, producing an ink that marks the skin for fifteen days, essential when polling takes place on consecutive Thursdays...

As a Returning Officer, such tools as these can be vital to prevent voter fraud, and when the potential number of voters is as high as 714,000,000, an quick and easy check is essential.

So, a big hurrah for Mysore Paints and Varnish, Karnataka's gift to democracy!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The award for the worst campaigning error goes to...

Now we've all heard of stories where a candidate has bounded on stage at a campaign rally and cheerfully shouted, "Good evening, Dogs Breath, Idaho (or whatever)!", only to discover that he's in Armpit, Nebraska (or wherever). In the midst of a hectic campaign, it can happen.

However, V S Acharya, from the Bharatiya Janata Party, India's leading opposition party, has probably trumped all of them. In Udupi, he was forced to cut short a fiery campaign speech when he received a volley of abuse from the assembled throng. It seems that he was addressing a rally of Congress Party supporters!

I'm hoping for his sake that he turned up at the right venue, and that the date was wrong. Oh well, perhaps Damian McBride could do some media management for him, he'll have some time on his hands...

UPDATE: Perhaps there's more to this story than meets the eye...

Liberal Youth: does anyone want to be Vice Chair Campaigns?

Due to what I might describe as an ethically sound, and clearly thought-out decision on the part of Ben Mathis (you will note that I do not comment on whether or not it is right), there are two vacancies which require urgent action.

Firstly, Liberal Youth require a Vice Chair Campaigns to fulfil the remainder of the 2008-2009 term (until 30 June). This will be filled by co-option. Secondly, they require a Vice Chair Campaigns to fulfil the 2009-2010 term until a proper by-election can be held at their next conference. This will also be handled by means of a co-option.

And now, as I fear you might have guessed, is where it gets a mite complex. This is, I emphasise, not a criticism, although there are those who might feel that it should be. In most parts of the Party, the Executive Committee are empowered to co-opt without much in the way of limitation. Liberal Youth are different, as much to ensure openness and transparency, I suspect, as for any other reason.

Accordingly, Liberal Youth will seek nominations from the membership, whereupon all nominees will have their manifesto circulated to the 2009-2010 Executive Committee*, who will vote by secret ballot (probably by e-mail and/or text). Given that Liberal Youth don't have a staff member at the moment - watch this space - I'll be talking to James Shaddock to see how we go about kickstarting the process.

So, if you're a member of Liberal Youth, watch out for the advertisement and, if you think that you have what it takes to be a good Vice Chair Campaigns, why not apply?

* The 2008-2009 Executive Committee have, I am told, agreed to accept whoever is 'elected' to fill the 2009-2010 vacancy pro tem...

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

We're on the road to Eastbourne (Borough)... a Hatters fan reflects

And so the dream of a Houdini-like escape from certain relegation finally died yesterday, as Luton Town's 0-0 draw with Chesterfield, combined with Grimsby Town's win at Notts County, finally shut the door on any hope that they might survive starting the season on minus 30 points.

It's been a tough few years for Luton Town fans. Three rounds of administration, some eccentric management decisions plus a crooked board of directors have taken the club from fifth place in the Championship to relegation to the Blue Square Premiership in just 40 months.

On that December day in 2005, the coach trip to Ipswich was diverted to hospital after Sol Davis, our central defender, had a stroke. The team that was doing so well suddenly couldn't buy a win. It's been downhill from there, really.

The decision to consult fans as to the identity of a new manager had brought Mike Newell to Luton Town - rumour had it that Watford fans had voted for him as the worst of the three options - and his crusade against bungs in football was made to look somewhat hypocritical when, as it turned out, his contract gave him a cut of all transfer fees gained when selling players.

The Club Secretary, Cherry Newbury, uncovered financial irregularities and reported them to the Football League, and that was the killer blow. Despite the fact that a new consortium had brought the team out of administration, and offered a surprisingly good deal to creditors, a seventeen point penalty for a breach of FA insolvancy regulations, plus a thirteen point penalty for financial irregularities was the punishment deemed appropriate.

Brian Mawhinney, the former Conservative MP for Peterborough, told fans that we should be grateful for being given the chance to even play in League Two at all, which might explain why 40,000 fans booed him at the season's rather surreal high point, the Johnstone's Paint Trophy final at Wembley.

The against the odds 3-2 victory after extra time against a side pushing for promotion from League One gave Luton the ironic double of a trophy and relegation to the Blue Square Premiership. At least we'll be able to exchange reminiscences with Oxford United as the only two teams to have won the League Cup and now not be in the Football League.

It won't be easy next season. If reminders were needed that bouncing back is rather harder than it looks, here are some... Wrexham, Mansfield Town, York City, Oxford United, Torquay United, Kidderminster Harriers, Rushden & Diamonds and Cambridge United...

It's not going to be pretty at times next season, but we do get to play AFC Wimbledon. Come on you Wombles (in your other games at least)!

Monday, April 13, 2009

He's Just Not That Into You

And so we've reached the end of our holiday, and here we are at Larnaca Airport awaiting a flight to Frankfurt (it's a long, and fairly dull story) before connecting for London City.

It's been a good trip, and both of us are better for what has been a fairly restful break. I've got four Returning Officer gigs and some council candidate selections to do, whilst Ros returns to the full-time job of President - at least, she's putting in the hours of a full-timer whilst continuing to perform her responsibilities in the Lords.

Our last day was spent pottering around before heading around the coast from Polis to Larnaca. Given that neither of us was terribly keen on a long drive in the darkness, we took the opportunity to arrive back early and catch a movie at the cineplex here in Larnaca. Given that The Fast and the Furious 4 and Confessions of a Shopaholic were the other two options, we picked 'He's Just Not That Into You' as being the sort of non-intellectual but gentle movie that two mature moviegoers could bear.

And it wasn't that bad a movie. Alright, the plot is a bit predictable, and there is a plethora of happy endings - for the 'good' people at least - but as a way of killing two hours or so, I could think of many more less satisfying choices.

Cypriots clearly do late nights better than Ros and I do. The cineplex was pretty quiet when we got there at 7 p.m. yet by the time we left there were hordes of people waiting to catch the various 10 p.m. showings.

We went for the more typical pastime of eating next, and found a restaurant only too willing to serve us the most enormous meze. Too enormous, as it turned out, with enough food left over to feed another couple, I suspect.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

New Labour says, "Volunteer... or else!"

Apparently, the new Labour policy is that everyone shall have performed 50 hours of community service by the age of 19, under proposals released today (it's Easter Sunday, for pity's sake, haven't you got families to oppress, guys?).

It's just another step towards a state which tells you what to do, how to do it and well, from a political party that actually believes that you should make co-operation mandatory (think about it for a moment). There are, according to government figures, some three million young people carrying out some form of community work in this country, all of it presumably voluntary, through church groups, guides, scouts, youth clubs and all of the worthy organisations that do so much to enrich our lives.

And yet there are young people out there, forced to step in to replace the state, as carers, as babysitters, bringing in earnings to supplement those of their parents, or to help keep a roof over their heads. There are those who serve in our armed forces, or as local councillors, or who are studying to go on to teach, or nurse, or police. All of these things enrich our society, and often for little reward.

Labour propose to make our young do the things that they, the Labour Party, choose to support. They probably don't consider campaigning for action against climate change or for fox hunting, or for the preservation of castles to be community work, and yet it can be (by the way, I'm not in favour of fox hunting, but there are those who are, and they have a right to be heard too).

Young people have turned away from politics with its inevitable compromises, towards single issue groups who lack the baggage that political parties drag behind them. They believe that by working for those causes, they can make the world a better place. Who are we to tell them that this is less valuable than painting a fence at a care home for the elderly?

Labour believe that citizenship includes contributing to your community, as do I, and aim to include this in the national curriculum for 14-16 year olds. However, National Youth Service, as it will be called is just another kneejerk reaction to the calls for greater discipline amongst our young people. Calls made, for the most part, by people made frightened by the media and too many of our politicians who demonise our young because they can't vote, and those who cry out can.

I believe that Liberal Democrats should oppose mandatory community service, whilst encouraging those who wish to volunteer by providing interesting and fulfilling opportunities, and by providing financial and moral support to proposals that support volunteerism. If, for example, a group of young people organise a day to clear rubbish from a stretch of river or stream, local councils should provide protective clothing, perhaps lay on a truck to take away the rubbish, invite the press to attend, and mark their efforts publicly.

Yes, we need to find ways to encourage our young to integrate into the wider community. Most of them, if given an opportunity to do so, will accept with open arms.

But please, please don't make it mandatory. Remember, we have a volunteer army for a reason. It stands and fights because it volunteered to be there, not because someone made it. Likewise, our young people won't be much use in their communities if they're made to do something and be somewhere that they wouldn't otherwise choose.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Resignation is not enough, Damian...

No sooner do I write that Damian McBride has brought the civil service into disrepute than he is gone. If only I actually had that sort of influence!

But seriously, in this instance, a resignation is not enough. There needs to be a clear statement that this is not something that the Government wishes to associate itself. Might I suggest a proper dismissal, with disciplinary action?

The Civil Service deserves nothing less...

Damian McBride - proving yet again that Labour don't get the public sector ethos

It seems that Damian McBride has been exposed as the source of a number of e-mails proposing attacks on prominent Conservatives using false allegations in an attempt to discredit them.

One should set aside the allegations themselves for the time being, although they demonstrate a particularly New Labour trend towards slur and innuendo that has become more and more pronounced as the wheels have fallen off of the 'project'. 'If in doubt, use leaks and friendly journalists to discredit those attacking you' appears to be the motto.

However, as a public sector bureaucrat, my concern relates to the use of a civil servant to attack political opponents. The whole point of civil servants is to provide apolitical support, leaving the grubby art of politics to the political professionals. And that's where the system of Special Advisors creates a massive problem.

You and I pay for Special Advisors through our taxes, in the same way that you graciously pay my salary. I am covered by the Civil Service Code, which explains what I may or may not do in the course of my duties, especially in terms of the boundary between political and administrative. If I cross that boundary, I can be disciplined, by sanctions up to and including loss of position and, if memory serves, pension.

It seems clear that young McBride has crossed that boundary and then some. Under normal circumstances, disciplinary action should follow. Something tells me that a mere reprimand will be meted out, which tells me just how little Labour politicians understand how the public sector should operate.

I fear that they see us as a reservoir of votes, a client group who rely on the Labour Party to build and sustain a bureaucracy large enough to keep them all in a job. To some extent, this is true, although less so than it was. Labour have done little for job security in London and the South East, and are only to happy to enmesh us in targets and strategies, instead of allowing us to adapt to the needs of those we serve.

They also seem to think that we have a duty of loyalty, come what may. I disagree. We have a duty to avoid disloyalty, a responsibility to deliver those policies and strategies devised by our political masters regardless of their origin, Conservative or Labour, Liberal Democrat or Plaid Cymru. We must ensure that the law of the land is upheld, and make it as easy as possible for those who wish to comply.

It is high time, therefore, that the place of Special Advisors within the structure of government is made abundantly clear. Either they are civil servants, prevented from taking part in partisan politics, or they are not civil servants and their salaries are paid by politicians. If the latter route is chosen, then they're free to behave in a partisan manner.

It shouldn't be that difficult for an intelligent person to see the significance of this, but Damian McBride has proved that some people just won't get it...

Support your local PPC - doing something about it

I have, I acknowledge, talked a good game on improving support for PPC's, especially those in less attractive, i.e. non-winnable, seats. I've talked about the importance of mentoring, of the mistakes we make by selecting a PPC and then letting them get on with it. However, without action, it's all just talk.

And so, when English Candidates Committee proposed the creation of a Training and Development Working Group, I looked around the room to see who would volunteer. It became painfully apparent that, given how many of my colleagues would be up to their necks in campaigns elsewhere, I was honour bound to put my money where my mouth is, and volunteer my services. So I did, and now serve on a group that consists of Dawn Davidson, former Chair of both the English Party and the English Candidates Committee, Margaret Joachim, London's Regional Candidates Chair and a former PPC, Martin Turner, Chair of our beloved Parliamentary Candidates Association, and myself.

It could be argued that the creation of another working group only serves to blur the various initiatives springing up. We now have a Training Advisory Board, chaired by Marcus Evans, as proposed by the Bones Commission, which is tasked with finding ways of improving and developing those skills required in modern campaigning and policy development. We have the Campaign for Gender Balance, whose work on mentoring and training has been commented on favourably in the past. We also have the Campaigns Department and ALDC, whose training sessions add much value to our campaigning.

So I see our role as being to tie up the loose ends, identify those gaps which particularly impact on PPC's, and to recommend what additional training and support might be required, and how it might best be delivered. We've got our first meeting soon, so I'll let you know how it's going...

Friday, April 10, 2009

Archbishop Makarios III, not quite what I expected

We don't usually associate Europe with religious leaders, but then Cyprus is just a little different. Never let it be said that 'Liberal Bureaucracy' isn't willing to go that extra mile for a good story though.

In this instance, Ros drove the extra mile that brought us to Panagia, a village on the edge of the Troodos Mountains in western Cyprus, which is the birthplace of Cyprus's first President. Our original plan had been to weave our way through the mountains but, after I'd found absolutely no sign of the scheduled turning, we were heading for the monastery at Kykkos when we came to a road junction unmarked on our maps. As it indicated a route to Panagia, we reverted to plan A.

Panagia is a traditional place, with elderly Cypriot men sitting outside bars, talking and killing the hours. They've probably earned it, as the terrain is tough and opportunities few, available only by dint of hard graft. It is therefore perhaps an unlikely place for a spiritual and political leader to be born but this was where the man imprisoned and exiled by the British, and the subject of an assassination attempt by Greek Cypriots seeking to unify the island with Greece, came from.

Makarios was a vague memory from my childhood, but he was clearly no ordinary man. He studied theology at Boston University before returning to become a key figure in the independence movement. The British realised just how influential he was, and exiled him to the Seychelles before acknowledging his authority and bringing him back for negotiations.

A master at playing off competing interests, he resisted absorption into Greece whilst giving every indication that he supported it, until 1974 when, with the Generals in charge in Athens, a coup attempt was launched. Whilst it failed, and Makarios survived, it was sufficient provocation for the Turks, whose invasion still leaves the island divided in two today.

His birthplace is rather humble, although clearly cared for, and tourists flock to the small building in order to learn more about one of Europe's forgotten, but key, figures.

If you do happen to be in the area, you might want to drop in. Besides, the views will take your breath away...

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Time for the police to think about the implications of their actions

There has been plenty of comment in Lib Dem circles and elsewhere about the 'Tomlinson affair', and I'm not going to spend any time adding to the words of my esteemed colleagues. However, I feel that I should touch upon the threat of civil society caused by the increasing breakdown of trust between the police and the communities they serve.

Many years ago, there was an acknowledgement that, if you came from a minority community, the police were perceived as people to be avoided and not to be trusted, especially if you were young. White, male and reactionery, and that was just the senior officers. Racism and homophobia were thought to be rife, and a series of incidents merely reinforced that suspicion.

That said, as long as you weren't black, gay or Irish, you could be reasonably certain that the police wouldn't trouble you. They weren't armed, they had limited rights of detention, and they had a bit more discretion in the absence of targets. Add the fact that police officers were more tightly connected to their communities, and you had a degree of confidence in their actions.

Increasingly, things have changed, and in doing so, the view of the police has changed. The McPherson Report, following the shambles that was the investigation into the tragic death of Stephen Lawrence, highlighted the perception of institutional racism, and led to a re-evaluation of how the police should act in a multi-cultural society. Changes to 'stop and search', amongst other traditional bugbears, were intended to reassure minority communities that the police were there for everyone. Community outreach projects were designed to encourage migrant communities to build stronger relationships with the police.

Surely, this was, and remains, a good thing. Good policing requires a flow of information backwards and forwards. The police can't be everywhere, and data gleaned from honest citizens going about their day to day activities is, if properly evaluated and applied, invaluable in attacking terrorism and criminal activity.

And yet the police find new and imaginative ways of shaking that trust. Jean Charles de Menezes' death may well have been a horrible mistake, but the lies and subsequent coverup sent out a clear message that, when things go wrong, the gut reaction is to pretend that they didn't.

The recent case in Merseyside, where a young man was arrested for turning in a lost mobile phone was, in many ways, more worrying. I was brought up to believe that, if I found something valuable, I should turn it in. If the actions of the Merseyside Police are reflective of current practice, that's clearly the last thing I should do. It implies that the police look upon everyone with suspicion, and that they are not one of us.

The Tomlinson incident and the two videos showing an officer in riot gear attacking a middle-aged man walking away with his hands in his pockets, and using an inappropriate level of force, implies a police force overly keen to use violence against those engaging in perfectly legal activities. Yes, there was tension, yes there were incidents of violence against the police and against property. However, I expect the police to be sufficiently well-trained to resist temptation.

All the community outreach in the world comes to nought, if incidents like the three I have quoted overshadow the activities of the majority of decent officers. If the public feel less trusting of, and more distant from, those whom they trust to police their communities, we are all that little less safe, and a little less free.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Hanging out with the lounge lizards of the Akamas

I've always had a quiet fondness for lizards. Indeed, the idea of having an iguana for a pet retains some appeal - I'd walk him on a lead and harness and call him Iggy - although I'm not sure that Ros would be as keen.

However, one of the pleasures of Cyprus is the number of lizards I have spotted, basking on rocks or scuttling across paths. They're pretty handsome creatures, especially the striped skinks that I occasionally run into. With the balmy days of spring turning into summer, life is pretty good for reptiles, and so they are more active than usual.

Today, Ros and I spent some time driving around the Akamas Peninsula, in far north-west Cyprus. The British forces on Cyprus used the area as an informal testing range, and there are still unexploded ordnance to be found by the unwary. The unsurfaced roads are very rough, but Ros drove us safely to a small cove on the Eastern side, where we stopped for a picnic lunch and a brief paddle in the azure sea.

We had already stopped for a walk in the forest that covers a decent chunk of the peninsula, and were charmed by the vibrant colours of the wildflowers that cover the ground in a variety of yellows, blues, reds and purples. Again, Ros's recommendation that we come to Cyprus has proved to be a pretty good one...

And still I'm Returning Officer for South East England...

Due to the unforeseen withdrawal of Simon Green from the Liberal Democrat list for South East England, there has been a further change to the list order as follows;

1. Sharon Bowles
2. Catherine Bearder
3. Ben Abbotts
4. Jim Barnard
5. Antony Hook
6. Zoe Patrick
7. Gary Lawson
8. David Grace
9. John Vincent
10. James Walsh

Zoe, Gary, David and John all rise one place, and James has been added by the Selection Committee in the absence of any further short-listed applicant who wished to be considered.

I've had the pleasure of working with James in the past, and know him to be firmly committed to the creation of a better Europe for its citizens. He'll make a fine addition to our list and I'm personally grateful to him for his willingness to step in at short notice.

Dear Irfan...

It seems that, instead of properly answering the question I put to you last week, you've decided to have a bit of a whinge about the fact that I've attacked you.

No, I don't make a habit of attacking you. Heavens, if I had a go every time I thought that you'd written something I consider to be wrong, I wouldn't have nearly 900 postings, it would be rather higher. On the contrary, because you place barriers in the way of commenters - is registration really necessary? - I prefer to use my blog to point out that I disagree.

Indeed, on the two occasions that I have indicated that I think that you're wrong, you've withdrawn your initial assertion under a hail of comments attacking your position. I fully accept that I called you out on the use of homophobic language last year, and I wasn't the only one to do so. I overlooked the anti-semitic language you used in your piece on Gaza only because of the condemnation that came from other quarters. You have an unfortunate habit of using language with a lack of thought and sense of context, and when that is used as a stick to beat our Party, as it was by Iain Dale, I see no reason to let it slide.

Your cavalier disregard for facts is occasionally troubling but, for the most part it falls within the category of freedom of expression. When you attack our MPs for wasting public money however, and offer an ill thought out suggestion, I have a right to respond, and on this particular occasion, I took the opportunity, as I potentially would if an opposition politician was equally reckless/stupid.

Now the use of the phrase 'cavalier disregard for facts' is quite a strong one, I know. However, you are at liberty to test it and here are two questions for you;

1. When were our two pieces, the piece by me challenging you, and the piece where you first addressed the Alastair Carmichael question, posted?

2. How many times have postings of mine been in the Golden Dozen, and how many of them have been about you?

You evidently know the answers, because you assert that you do, so it shouldn't take very long, should it?

Yours sincerely,

Mark

Monday, April 06, 2009

News from Creeting St Peter: public transportation to Little Stonham and beyond!

As I mentioned in the climactic ending to my posting last week, our village noticeboard contained some exciting information. Yes, there is public transport out of Creeting St Peter!

I'm a Londoner, transplanted to mid-Suffolk on a part-time basis since I married Ros, and as a non-driver, I am occasionally twitchy about my reliance on Ros to get around. Needham Market and Stowmarket are both reachable in an hour on foot, but I'm an old(ish) man, and not as fit as I might be. I was aware that we have a bus every Thursday morning - route 453 from Stowmarket to the Creetings and back the same afternoon - part of a network of bus routes designed to convey people from outlying villages to a market town whose market is a mere shadow of what it once was.

So the news that we indeed have a regular service was the cause of great excitement and then confusion. Confusion because the timetable referred to a taxibus, whatever that might be. Best of all, the bus appeared to run from Stowmarket to Little Stonham, but not back... Luckily, the Internet came to my salvation, and I came across this useful explanation and allied leaflet . Yes, the bus does run to Little Stonham, where it connects with buses to Diss and Ipswich. Also, you can pre-book it to take you to Needham Market or Stowmarket, all for the cost of a regular bus fare. The only unexpected element is that it actually is a taxi, although you won't hear me complain.

And so, the world is my oyster. I can get to Sudbury, Diss, Bury St Edmunds or Ipswich by bus, or go to lunch in one of the various gastropubs in the area, and all without having to rely on Ros. A man should retain some degree of independence, after all...

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Peering across the border...

The sun is warm, the sky is blue (as is the sea). Yes, Ros and I are on holiday, here in Cyprus.

This is my first trip to Cyprus, and it isn't a country that, in the past, I would have given a lot of thought to. It's a bit near, a bit Mediterranean, and lacks that sense of adventure that once marked my travelling. However, Ros was convinced that I would enjoy it so, here we are.

And, as usual, she's right. The warmth of the sun, and the gentle pace of life turns out to be to my liking after all.

We're staying near Polis, in the northwest of the island, and our outing today took us to Kato Pyrgos before swinging inland to see the moufflon at Stavros tis Psokas. The journey is made more complex by the division of the island between the Republic of Cyprus and those areas controlled by Turkish forces. Nowhere is this division more bizarre than on the coast between Pomos and Kato Pyrgos, where the village of Kokkina (Erenkoy in Turkish) is a tiny pocket, hemmed in by Cypriot forces on the heights on all three landward sides, monitored by a small United Nations base. As a result, the drive to Kato Pyrgos is lengthened by about 15 kilometres up into the hills and back down the other side.

We were looking for a recommended restaurant but gave up when the road ran out at a gate marked 'You are entering Turkish territory'. It looked like an ordinary road, without any warning that you might be on your way to one of the last surviving European geopolitical hotspots - the Attila Line. It's still guarded by armed troops, although there are now five authorised crossing points.

We gave up and retreated back into town where we found a restaurant serving fresh fish and healthy salad before setting off into the hills.

The road weaved its way inland, with hairpin bends and sensational views, although I was glad of Ros's driving skills, given the potential hazards and the frequent small landslips we encountered. Eventually, we reached Stavros, where we grabbed coffee before visiting the moufflon enclosure.

The moufflon is the national animal of Cyprus and it's a bit like a mountain sheep. At one point in the 1930's, there were just 15 left, but preservation measures have retrieved matters so that over ten thousand now roam the hills - not that you'd have much chance of seeing one, as they're very shy. The enclosure at Stavros isn't very big, but they were still hard to spot. They are brown in colour and blend in to the scrubby hillsides that they inhabit.

We then headed back to the villa, with some off-road adventure as we made our way past the Argaka Dam and through some rather pretty forest before home and an early evening snack...

Friday, April 03, 2009

A kettle is probably most effective when used to make tea

I'm a law abiding kind of guy, with no criminal record and an inherent respect for the police. They have a difficult job to do and, for the most part, they do it well, even under severe provocation.

However, that doesn't necessarily mean that their tactics and strategy should go unchallenged, especially by those amongst us who are keen to see a policing and criminal justice strategy whereby the key elements of each support and underpin the other.

There are now serious concerns about the strategy employed in policing the mixture of peaceful and provocative protests that we saw in the City of London earlier this week. The notion of 'kettling', whereby protestors were effectively detained for exercising their legal right to voice their legitimate concerns, demonstrated a notion of policing for convenience rather than for proportionality. By showing such disregard for the needs of the innocent and the peaceful, they have harmed each individual protestor's view of the police, and in the longer term damaged society's relationship with those who are tasked with building and maintaining safer communities.

Policing is most effective when it is done by consent, whereby those of us who abide by the law accept the right of the police to use legitimate tactics and strategies to thwart those not so inclined. In return, we retain the right to go about our lawful activites unmolested. Those responsible for the abuses unleashed this week are well advised to remember that particular social contract.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Welcome to the Irfan Ahmed Challenge!


I note that Irfan has sounded off about MP expenses again, challenging our MPs to reduce their expense claims to the average levels of Tory and Labour MPs. Whilst a number of you have commented on his blog, the fact that I would have to register to do so rather put me off. So I am obliged to enter into the fray via this august medium...


Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceMy challenge to Irfan is this. Alastair Carmichael claims the highest level of expenses for travel of any Liberal Democrat MP. Can Irfan find the cheapest way of getting from Evie to Westminster that allows Alastair to be present in the Commons chamber for the maximum amount of debating time and allows him the flexibility to change his arrangements without additional cost?

In my experience, statistics offer a mere snapshot of information and provide little context in isolation. It's a bit like trying to identify an elephant through a keyhole. If the elephant is far enough back, it's possible. If the elephant is too close, you can describe what colour it is, but not what it is.

You really need to break down expense figures and analyse each element before you start making sweeping statements condemning a group of people. And then, by all means, attack waste, fraud and greed, but do ask questions first, and shoot later. It's so much more difficult if you do it the other way round...

So now that the election is over, what do I do next?

I've tidied away the ballot papers for safe keeping, I've calculated the results, and I'm content that, as far as possible, all is well in terms of process. The result, on the other hand, is for Liberal Youth to deal with in due course.

I do have to submit a report on the elections, and would be grateful for any comments with regard to process that reflect possible constitutional change, or that could be reflected in a protocol for future elections. You know where to find me, or just leave a comment.

The rest of my life is likely to be hectic over the coming months, as a whole new set of opportunities have emerged, but I ought to 'clear my desk' first, so to speak...

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Liberal Youth - time to stop fighting, time to start doing?

I wrote this article early on in the campaign and, following some actually quite justified criticism, withdrew it from circulation pending the end of the election. I did say that I would put it up again afterwards, although in hindsight, it probably deserves a revisit...

One of the quirks about being a kindly Returning Officer is that people talk to you. Sometimes, and I emphasise only sometimes, you wish that they would stop, but most of the time, you get to learn an awful lot about a person and the organisation they're involved in. In the case of Liberal Youth, this hasn't always been impressive. I'll start with the good stuff...

They have a good administrator. Paul Pettinger has been a pleasure to work with. He has a pretty good idea as to what he should be doing, is able to manage it to a degree, and is patience itself.

The activists are fizzing with enthusiasm and ideas. That is exactly how it should be and, whilst I don't necessarily agree with Lembit's suggestion to them that they should be radical and on the cutting edge, there is no reason why they shouldn't be exploring new ways of doing things, new ideas for policy and asking the questions that most of us would like to see asked but haven't quite got the nerve to.

My concerns start with achievement, I suppose. Liberal Youth and its predecessors have, in recent years, been weak here, or at least, perceived to be weak, which amounts to pretty much the same thing. Their freshers campaigns have been sub-optimal, reliant on hard graft by Paul in the office, under-funded and occasionally late. For example, in my years on the Regional Executive in London, requests for financial support were frequently late (if they turned up at all), poorly supported in terms of planning and worse still in terms of reported outcome.

Campaigning has appeared fragmented and the disconnect from the campaigns run by the Party nationally has been glaring. If Liberal Youth is to run its own campaigns, might it not be better to link them to a salient campaign run by the Party? Better still, might talking to the Policy Unit, or the parliamentarians, or Campaigns Department help in terms of materials, press or strategy? If it is going to campaign 'independently', it needs to link up with other parts of the Party, to build up a mutual support network.

For me, the most disappointing aspect is the lack of unity. It has been put to me that an organisation that is doing little is most vulnerable to infighting, and I have to say that it has been a recurring theme of my time as Liberal Youth Returning Officer that most of the conversations I have been part of revolve around who isn't getting on with whom. How does such distraction help in the building of a better organisation?

Another problem is one of continuity. This has always bedevilled the students - a maximum of four years is likely to do that - and now that the new organisation is predominantly student-led due to the comparative difficulty of organising individuals spread thinly across an area, it seems to have infected Liberal Youth.

A much better transition process is the key. Unless you are changing the entire Executive, and even in Liberal Youth, that is unlikely, you should have some continuity. Proper record keeping, and better information publishing, allows an incoming Executive to pick up and go with comparative ease.

Lastly, Liberal Youth has, in the past, been weak on the use of the Internet. ironic, really, when you consider how keen they are on Facebook and blogging. The website needs more content, more frequently but most importantly, it needs relevance. In the autumn, when Ros and I were attending their conference, we arrived on the campus of the University of Surrey to discover that we had no more information that that. If we hadn't run into John Dixon, we might never have found them.

Details of their conference, its venue, the agenda and some contact details would seem to be an obvious thing to put on the website, as well as news of those candidates standing for election. With an Executive the size of Liberal Youth's, it shouldn't be difficult to get the work done without placing further burdens on the sole staff member. Using the website as a core campaigning tool would enable it to be linked to other readership groups within the Party, build goodwill and, possibly, attract funding from other sources.

I have no personal interest in who might be able to achieve this, especially as the things that I am proposing are the basics of running an organisation, i.e. what do you need to do, who are you doing it for and how are you going to deliver it? Once the elections are over, I may well suggest some ideas that help the winners. It's up to them to listen, should they choose to do so...

UPDATE - 20:50: I am advised that there is a separate website for Liberal Youth conferences...