Sunday, May 31, 2009
She was determined that, unlike past years, we flew the flag in every county division and, I'm delighted to say, this time we have (with one, wholly justifiable, exception). Alright, we may not be likely to win everywhere, but there is nowhere where a voter can say that they didn't have the opportunity to vote for a Liberal Democrat.
She has also sought to ensure that we run the best campaigns we can, sacrificing what spare time she has from her own division of Belstead Brook to help others.
And so, this afternoon, I'm going to go to South Suffolk and deliver some leaflets for her. Because, as the adverts suggest, she's worth it...
The remains of a now superfluous piece of furniture plus some old textiles and ancient paint tins have been taken to the civic amenity site. I've settled some bills using my internet banking facility, I've updated the Facebook page.
And now I'm at a bit of a loose end. I do, admittedly, have a glass of St Peter's India Pale Ale - damned good, I must say, and brewed within 30 miles of the Valladares demesne - so I'm not wasting my time. Well, I don"t think so, anyway...
Saturday, May 30, 2009
Yes, I was on the far side of the Waveney, in Mundesley, one of those typically English seaside resorts, small, without obvious attractions but with a gently sloping beach, tea rooms and a crazy golf course. And, joining me were, amongst others, the hyperactive local MP, Norman Lamb, no.2 on the European list, Linda Jack, and county candidate Graham Jones.
Initially, we weren't finding too many people in, but as we knocked on more doors, it became clear that everyone knows someone who's been helped by Norman Lamb. It's just like Berwick - "oh yes, we always vote for that nice Mr Beith" - and a tribute to Norman's hard work. To be honest, it was hard to believe that so many people were willing to vote Liberal Democrat, but given the quality of the canvas team, it's hard to put it down to mere optimism.
And, as the sun shone, and LibDem definites and probables emerged in droves, one might almost have believed that we might do quite well...
Friday, May 29, 2009
And in the great MP expenses scandal, perhaps some honest reflection has turned out to be a pretty decent strategy. Labour have held the line, with only those MPs found guilty of mortgage interest fraud walking the plank or, rather more accurately, standing at the end of one whilst someone saws it off near the ship. The calls for individual MPs to go have, for the most part, been comparatively limited. Is there really any likelihood that Gerald Kaufman will go, for example? Margaret Moran is, I grant you, an exception, but once St Esther of the Jungle had got her teeth in, it wasn't going to go away. No, most of them will attempt to bail out and head for the Lords, in the expectation that Lords reform remains a dream.
The Conservatives, on the other hand, have provided a regular supply of shark bait. Egged on the voracious followers of Guido Fawkes, the consistent sacrifice of those who were greedy rather than criminal has rather lowered the bar in terms of the level of offence that suffices to end a career. It looked quite clever to pension off a few aging knights of the shires, until it becane clear that if the likes of Sir Peter Viggers had to go, there were so many more whose failings were of a similar, if not quite so ridiculous, degree.
And the problem is that blood attracts sharks. When there is such a mob mentality, it is a brave politicians who stands up and says, "It was only a duck house, and I paid the money back, what more do you want?". As for those who acted on the advice of the Fees Office, is the latter's incompetence or spinelessness likely to be taken into account? Didn't think so.
You'll have to judge for yourself whether or not the approach of the Liberal Democrat leadership has been appropriate. However, whilst the initial response of a minority of Lib Dem bloggers was to reach for the nearest lamppost and piano wire, as far as the Commons is concerned at least, there has been little organised effort to defenestrate any of them. There has been, it appears, a realisation that, in comparison with charges of flipping, moat cleaning and dodgy mortgage interest claims, their offences have been ones of vanity rather than outright greed.
So, perhaps the rush to punish has served a political purpose in terms of making the weather, but in terms of changing the climate, has a little reflection allowed for some rather more long lasting?
Let's see how it goes...
Review all charges - the Liberal Democrats will review the charging policy for care in Suffolk, to make sure that the elderly and vulnerable are getting the best deal possible.
Re-introduce free day care - since the Conservatives first started charging per day, the number of sessions attended by elderly people has halved. This will initially be funded by the huge reserves held at the County.
Help people claim the benefits they are entitled to - the council should be proactively helping all elderly and vulnerable citizens to get the benefits they have earned.
Provide free bus passes for carers - there is no point in offering free transport to disabled people if their carers have to pay. Giving carers free bus passes would encourage both to use public transport.
Ensure adequate funding for drug and alcohol support services - the Conservatives have cut funding to this vital service.
Work with the NHS to provide the best possible service for Suffolk residents - The Liberal Democrats will fight any proposals that could cause a reduction in the level of care for people across Suffolk.
Thursday, May 28, 2009
I'm bored with listening to David Cameron play off one side against the other. His calls for reform are meaningless without some content, and, as usual, our friend in the blue has been lacking in substance. This could, of course, be because the idea of reform doesn't really come naturally to him, but as the PR man in him comes to the surface, he is smart enough to know that if he talks about change with sufficient conviction, faked or otherwise, he'll fool enough of the people, enough of the time, to get away with it.
On the other hand, our teams in both the Commons and the Lords have been calling for reform for years, to a chorus of yawns and catcalls from both the Government and its loyal Opposition. These things never seem to matter in the good times, the cynical view being that the public don't really care. Sadly, they may have a point in that sense, in that, when times are good, little attention is paid to how decisions are made.
Now, however, with a tidal wave of excrement being tipped over our Parliamentarians, there is a realisation that 'something must be done'. Just enough to remove the stench, just enough to make it go away but not so much that politicians are taken out of their comfort zone.
No, not good enough. What we need is a power hose (I like them, they're fun...), radical reform, a veritable cleansing of the temples. So I would add something to the list of demands - a new Parliament building. Organisations grow comfortable in their familiar environment, and unless you remove the social equivalent of the cosy armchair, they'll just revert to their old ways. So build a new Parliament, equip it for the new politics, provide access to the public and reinforce the sense that things are different now. Oh yes, and make the BBC televise it live on a new BBC Parliament 2.
In the meantime, we'll need a use for Needham Market Middle School when the Conservative County Council close it down, so they can all meet there until the new building is completed...
Halt the closure of middle schools - the Conservative administration has pushed ahead with closures, despite overwhelming public opposition. Liberal Democrats across Suffolk have been opposed to middle school closures from the start. For stage 1 areas we would consult again with parents, children and the local communities to ask them what they want.
Improve educational attainment - the exam results in 2009 highlight our need to support Suffolk’s schools to improve their results.
Introduce free School Transport for all children and young people - to enable young people from lower income families to stay on in education post 16. It will also discourage young people from driving to school and college.
Adopt the ‘Rights, Respect and Responsibilities’ plan in schools across the County - this initiative improves behaviour, reduces exclusions and increases school attendance and attainment.
Continue to support the University Campus Suffolk - to provide a first class education to a new generation.
Provide greater funding for youth activities - to provide positive activities for young people.
Scrap tuition fees - this national party policy is extremely important to ensure that our young people don’t grow up saddled with debt.
For two days every year, town meets country, and you can see the difference. The bourgoisie of the county set, in (often garish) jacket, tie and chinos, farmers in hard wearing yet practical outfits and the Ipswich locals, keen to enjoy free samples of local food, drink beer and point at weird and wonderful farm animals, mingle under the supervision of gentlemen in bowler hats, wearing old school or regimental ties, known as stewards. There are women in hats and heels (odd, considering the grass), in their finery.
And yet, the show is a vital event for the county's economy. For the farming community and its suppliers, it is an opportunity to seek new customers, market new products and network. For food producers, the chance to attract new consumers, to increase market share offers an opportunity to ride out the recession. Indeed, despite the recession, the only obvious sign of distress was in the luxury furniture pavilion, which did seem rather emptier than it had the year before.
Naturally, I took the opportunity to buy some more beer from St Peter's Brewery, plus a couple of bottles of lager, brewed in Coddenham Green, not far from Creeting St Peter. Which reminds me, it's high time I got back to the Elmhams to restock...
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
- Tightly control top salaries - under the Conservatives the number of employees earning more than £50,000 has mushroomed, costing the taxpayer an additional £10m in the last three years. There must be a freeze on salaries over £50,000.
- Consult HONESTLY with you - many people feel that the Conservatives are ignoring the results of consultations if it doesn’t suit them. We promise to listen to the public and take their views seriously.
- Introduce further opportunities to hold the council to account - you should be able to hold the council to account. If the public feel strongly about an issue, they should be able to ask for it to be examined.
- Ensure the continuation of European funding for Suffolk - we have already seen the benefits from previous funding on such projects as the Waterfront in Ipswich, and the A14 Haughley Bends. Liberal Democrats at European, County and Local level are also lobbying to upgrade the rail line from Felixstowe to Nuneaton, to take freight off the roads.
- Ethical investment policy - recent events have shown that ethicalinvestment is prudent as well as morally right. We will ensure that thetax payers money is invested safely without causing damage.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Oh yes, the European Union is a flawed creation, overly secretive, with a democratic deficit and byzantine structures. Too many of its big decisions stem from fudged agreements made in smoke-filled rooms by the ministers of the national governments. And yet it has been, in broad terms, astonishingly successful. The creation of the biggest multinational free trade area in the world has acted as a model for other regional groups such as ASEAN, the freedom to work in other countries and to travel across borders without the need for passports, all of these things have made life better for those of us willing to take advantage.
Programmes such as Erasmus, the exchange scheme for students whereby they can study in another country for a year, encourage a freer flow of knowledge and engender greater understanding. Investment in key transportation routes eases the free flow of people and goods. For example, in mid-Suffolk, European Union funds helped to fund improvements to the A14 at Haughley, straightening the route and eliminating a notorious accident blackspot on the main road between the Midlands and the huge container port at Felixstowe.
Liberal Democrats have, in the past, been cowed into taking a defensive position on Europe by those who accuse us of being fanatically pro-European. Yes, we do believe in Europe and in greater cooperation, but not at any cost. The argument has to be won, and we need to be willing to talk about the good that comes from Europe, as well as the bad.
In Needham Market yesterday, a voter told me that he was opposed to Europe, and didn't see what we got in return. So I mentioned the A14 project, and pointed out that there was a sign stating that the project had benefited from EU funds. He was surprised, and felt that perhaps the sign should be bigger (and perhaps it should). Now I'm not going to claim to have changed his mind, but perhaps he won't be so quick to condemn in future. And if we can get EU funding for improving the key rail route from Felixstowe to Nuneaton (via Needham Market and Stowmarket, let us not forget), maybe he'll have something else to think about.
And for any UKIP voters out there who might be reading this, think about this. You sent them to Brussels last time, and did it change anything? Did they achieve anything apart from having one of their number get arrested for nineteen counts of benefit fraud? Although, in fairness, their difficulties with expenses (Tom Wise, anyone?) almost compare favourably to those of the Conservatives. And as for Labour, well they clearly didn't get it either...
On the other hand, Liberal Democrat MEPs have campaigned successfully against attempts to restrict civil liberties, in favour of lower roaming charges for mobile phone users in Europe, and spoken out for greater transparency in decision making processes. They have also published a code of conduct which is binding on all of our sitting MEPs and candidates, requiring the publication of their expense claims in full. The eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that it was published a year ago.
So, if you believe in a better, fairer, freer Europe, you know where to put your cross. Just look for the bird of liberty...
It's a slow worm (angius fragilis) basking in the sun on one of Creeting St Peter's many footpaths. It isn't actually a snake, although easily confused for one, but is actually a legless lizard. The test? Lizards have eyelids, snakes don't. Of course, they aren't dangerous, but at this time of year, they are a bit sluggish and vulnerable to birds and, to be honest, being trodden on.
The main threat to them otherwise is domestic cats, as they have little to defend themselves. Luckily, my two are probably too stupid to know what to do if they encounter one (I love them really, but they are still adapting to country life...).
- Reduce business miles - the County Council has continually missed its own targets for reducing the 20,000,000 (yes, 20 million!) miles travelled by staff each year - that costs you £8 million per year and adds to the Council's carbon footprint. We can reduce this by encouraging remote working, and audio and video conferencing.
- Promote advanced mechanical biological treatment - and other modern technologies instead of costly, inflexible and environmentally unfriendly waste incineration, but ultimately;
- Aim for Zero Waste - we want to encourage a zero waste solution for the County, and will put pressure on companies to reduce packaging. Zero waste = zero need for incineration.
- Include green planning in all council policy - making sure that all future policies and developments are assessed for their environmental impact
- Improve public transport - we will review ALL public transport services, including rail, to ensure that they are properly integrated and provide the best possible services for residents and visitors throughout Suffolk.
- Examine the feasibility of seasonal park and ride - coastal towns are big tourist attractions during the summer months. Introducing a seasonal park and ride will reduce the impact of cars in these towns and villages.
- Promote green technology - using the already established hub at Lowestoft’s Orbis energy centre we will continue to invest in Green Technologies in order to become market leaders.
'Alternative Vote plus' does little to put power in the hands of the public. Yes, an MP will need to gain the support of 50% of those voting, and yes, there will be greater proportionality. But that just ensures that the spoils are more evenly divided, it doesn't give the public a genuine say about the identity of the individual who represents them. A small, fairly unrepresentative clique of Party activists will still choose the candidates and, in all likelihood, the top-up lists will be as they are in European, Scottish Parliamentary, Welsh and London Assembly elections, on a closed basis.
Not good enough, not good enough at all. But don't get me wrong, I'm not calling for an open primary system for selecting our candidates. The last thing I want to see is a candidate adopted by a bunch of people who have no sense of commitment to getting him/her elected, and who may not have the best interests of liberal democracy at heart. Besides, who pays for the process, and how does an aspirant candidate campaign for support? No, if I'm going to dedicate myself to getting him/her elected, I want to restrict the franchise to those making a commitment to my Party, and who share its beliefs.
If we really want to break the patronage of political parties whilst retaining their philosophical core, let's have STV, on multi-member constituencies, with open lists. We, the Party, decide which five, or seven, or whatever Liberal Democrats we think are best equipped to serve the constituency, and you, the public, decide which ones you prefer most. Candidates can campaign in their own name, competing against each other for your vote. You can vote for a particular type of candidate if you wish, and diversity is likely to improve. Even incumbents will have to work harder, if they want to retain their seats.
I don't think that Alan Johnson is being particularly cynical - after all, he has believed in electoral reform for some time. What I do think is that he fails to be radical enough. Political parties have become part of the problem - by giving up part of their control, they could yet be part of the solution.
Monday, May 25, 2009
- Support Middle Schools - we will stop the closure of Middle Schools in Suffolk, such as Bacton Middle School
- Better Care Services - we will review all care service fees and make elderly day care free once again
- Safer Suffolk - we will reduce accidents on our roads and reduce speeding in our towns and villages
- A Better Run Council - we will freeze all council salaries over £50,000 and run services fairly and efficiently
- Greener Suffolk - we will cut the 20,000,000 miles travelled by council staff every year
- Smarter Education - we will reverse the fall in GCSE results and invest in our children's future
Whilst the future of Suffolk County Council is unclear, Suffolk Liberal Democrats are committed to doing their very best for everyone who lives here. If you agree with some or all of our ideas, we invite you to vote Liberal Democrat on June 4th.
The events of the past week, and the response of a significant chunk of the Liberal Democrat blogosphere appear to have made my current publishing policy untenable. Accusations that I am merely 'a lackey of my wife', and suggestions that my comments somehow presage the opinions and plans of the Party President have demonstrated that, whilst we collectively talk a good game in terms of freedom, democracy and opposition to conformity, when push comes to shove, nothing beats a good mob scene. And as for the right to hold and espouse an opinion, that appears to depend on who you are.
There is clearly a price to be paid, and in this instance, it's a price I pay with a heavy heart but a sense of relief. So, until the time comes when a new Party President takes up his or her office, I will refrain from comment on the following:
- anything to do with the activities of the President
- anything to do with the internal workings of the Party
This means that, unfortunately, my offer to report for Liberal Democrat Voice on English Council and English Candidates Committee must be withdrawn (much to the relief of the latter body, I suspect). Sorry about that, Alix...
Thursday, May 21, 2009
It is typical of Liberal Democrats that the funding for such a useful medium should be dependent on the kindness and sacrifice of an individual, and it must be acknowledged that many of us take Ryan for granted. We moan when Lib Dem Blogs goes down, which does occasionally irritate him, and just assume that technology is a cost-free option. Clearly, it isn't.
Perhaps, however, we need a more settled solution for the long-term health and prosperity of both Lib Dem Blogs and Liberal Democrat Voice. If I can help in that process, I will...
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
A piece containing two major inaccuracies designed to create a stir is published. It then mysteriously gets a prominent place in the blogs of the two leading Conservative commentators, neither of whom could be described as being entirely objective. Describing Liberal Democrat Voice as Cowley Street-backed and conflating Alix Mortimer's personal views with comments made by someone completely different does rather smack of an underhand attempt to force the agenda. And, given the author's undoubted media skills, you'd have to accept that it looks more like conspiracy than cock-up.
Oh yes, by the way Charlotte, saying that misrepresenting someone and, as a result, getting them plenty of coverage, is a good thing is a mite disingenuous.
Now, for the record, I'm not convinced that I've been wildly impressed with Alix Mortimer's approach to the expenses scandal - just a bit too willing to condemn first and consider the rebuttal later for my taste. However, I'm a bureaucrat and I tend to a 'shades of grey' stance rather than a 'fluorescent' one. And, of course, Alix wins awards and I don't, so I'll assume that she's doing something right (that's a compliment Alix, just so that you know...). However, rewriting someone's words, and quoting their private e-mail without permission does smack of abusing someone to do your dirty work for you. It is disrespectful and potentially impacts on Alix's ability to do what she does so well for LDV.
I don't know what will happen regarding the accusations against Chris Rennard and, at the time of writing, I don't know what happened at Federal Executive - you'll have to wait for comment from someone who was there. However, if people want to attack him, I'd rather they did it themselves. After all, we're all in favour of openness and transparency, aren't we?...
Sunday, May 17, 2009
And, to be honest, the level of Lib Dem support seems to be holding up well. Yes, I've met a number of people who aren't going to vote because 'you're all crooks', but when you probe further, you discover that many of them don't vote normally anyway.
It was nice to spend some time with David Heath on his patch though. For those who expect their MP to be a clean-shaven man in a smart suit, David isn't going to quite fit. On the other hand, if you want an MP who looks utterly at home on his patch, who can recommend a good local beer to drink (and you know that he's tried it) and knows the area like the back of his hand, David's your man.
There is no doubt in my mind that we need to steel ourselves to get onto doorsteps wherever we are, and face the music. It might not be a comfortable process, but they'll respect us for doing it.
Saturday, May 16, 2009
This is, I must emphasise, entirely a personal opinion. I have not sought the views of, nor do I represent in any way, any other Party activist, member or supporter.
I've been watching the debate over MP expenses with increasing despair. Forget the stupidity, venality and outright fraudulent behaviour of MPs of all parties, we all have our opinions on what punishment should be meted out.
However, what has disturbed me almost as much is the stance of some leading Liberal Democrat 'internet personalities'. A group of people who, under most other circumstances are keen to express their support for the rule of law, defend the right of the accused to a fair trial and who generally believe that it is by far better to weigh up the facts before reaching a judgement, has suddenly begun to resemble a baying mob.
Now, before anyone gets too excited, I'm not suggesting that you've all become one. But it does begin to feel like it occasionally. So I thought that I might muse on what can be done and where it might happen.
Naturally, Local Parties have the right to deselect sitting MPs if they consider their behaviour to be likely to bring the Party into disrepute. I don't doubt for a moment that the odd Local Party may discuss whether or not they wish to put such a motion to their members.
There appears to be little opportunity for Regional Parties to play a part, unless there is an attempt to seek revocation of membership for bringing the Party into disrepute. I'm not sure, even then, whether such a hearing wouldn't be kicked upstairs to the appropriate State Appeals Panel, or even the Federal Appeals Panel. We would definitely be in uncharted waters here.
I'm unconvinced that much will happen at either level. Local Parties are likely to feel too close to their MP to want to wield the knife as, after all, they will have worked hard to get him/her elected, and will feel that, as friends, they cannot reasonably demonstrate due detachment. That leaves only the State Parties. Perhaps the Scottish and Welsh Parties might feel they have the authority, although I cannot see the English Party acting. Which brings us to the 'centre'.
However, for the Party centrally to act, it has to have a process. Firstly, who should sit in judgement? Should it be Conference, our sovereign body, in which case we either call an emergency conference, which will take time, or we wait until September, which is less than ideal if swift justice is desired. Or should it be the Federal Executive, part-elected by Conference, but with only a narrow majority of members with a direct mandate? Alternatively, we set up an independent panel. But who selects those panel members? Do they act as judge and jury, or do we leave 'sentencing' to another body or group? It is, I fear, complex.
Members are rightly suspicious of anything which looks like an establishment plot to slap a few wrists and declare the Parliamentary Party pure and free of infestation. We should also be deeply suspicious of a rush to judgement.
I don't know what Federal Executive will debate, nor do I know what it will decide - I am quite deliberately not privy to their discussions. However, someone needs to come up with a means to weigh the evidence and decide upon proportionate and appropriate action that is transparent and consistent with natural justice. In turn, we need to hold them accountable - they act in our name.
It is entirely possible for a team to rise up through the divisions, as Afghanistan's romantic journey from League 5 to the edge of qualification for the World Cup demonstrated. So, good luck to the six teams, who can look forward to games against the likes of Botswana, Germany and Vanuatu in the next stage if they're successful...
Friday, May 15, 2009
Ros is in Cornwall, campaigning with our candidates for the critical Unitary and European elections there. She isn't carrying a laptop, her PDA reception is bad, and she's spending all of her time meeting the public. Her blog entry was dictated down the telephone line so that I could type it into Blogger this morning (by the way, the language is hers - the emphasis of one particular sentence is my work, I'm afraid).
Neither of us could read all of the comments (a PDA only gives you the first line), and it was decided to wait until I could get to a computer so that they could be read in full. I was then detailed to publish them, which I now have. So, no conspiracy, no desire to be anything other than transparent. I just thought that I needed dinner and a glass of wine first... it's been a bloody awful day...
A recurring theme has been the phrase 'I consulted the Fees Office before making my claim'. Assuming that it is true, and we'll probably never hear from Fees Office one way or the other, there is a real question about its efficiency. I deliberately set aside the question of the morality of those submitting claims - we've seen everything from carelessness to simple error to apparently calculating dishonesty - but one must ask whether or not the Fees Office has the resource, the ability and the will to do its job properly.
I suspect the answer is a bit of all three. I never cease to be amazed by the inability of the public sector to properly staff the things that really matter. And, as is often the case, the public will assume that there is a large office full of people whose sole job is to scrutinise every claim. For the record, the public are usually wrong.
At the turn of the millenium, I worked in the internal recruitment team of Inland Revenue London, as adminstrator of all of our vacancy-filling processes of London and the Head Office Divisions from Administrative Assistant to Senior Executive Officer. It was not the job that anyone seeking popularity would seek but it brought a degree of satisfaction to do it well. After a particularly difficult period for the Human Resources team, it was decided to do a 'roadshow', visiting local offices to find out what the issues were 'face to face'. At one meeting, my team came in for particular criticism so my colleague asked those present to guess how many staff worked in the internal recruitment team. The average guess was twelve... I spent weeks looking for the other nine - the team consisted to 1.6 Executive Officers and an Adminstrative Assistant...
In terms of ability, there is no doubt in my mind that the quality of the average civil servant is not what it was. The increased emphasis on process means that use of discretion is discouraged, as is pragmatism - is it really worth a big battle for a small issue? Are staff encouraged to find creative yet effective solutions for circumstances that don't fit neatly into the 'tick box' structures? Is there scope to enable claimants to comply more readily, to educate them as to what is and is not acceptable? Probably not, as anyone who has dealt with a large Government department will testify.
If an individual MP is genuinely uncertain as to the validity of a claim, seeks advice and then acts upon it, are they really guilty, or just poorly advised? And if the person giving the advice is the official who will subsequently deal with the claim, is it reasonable to doubt their word? Does the Fees Office have a responsibility to give the best quality advice available to people whose claims will subsequently be made public? You'd better believe that they do.
Finally, will. Are staff encouraged to believe that if they apply the expenses rules outlined in the Green Book, they will be supported by their managers? Remember, the rot starts at the top. If, as an individual civil servant, you make a decision that is appropriate and supported by the Rules/legislation, and someone in a more senior position overturns it without good cause, are you then likely to continue to hold the line? Or, as is more likely, do you just draw the line in the sand a bit further up the beach?
In my career, I have only had direct contact with an MP once. On that occasion, I was given advance warning by the person he was representing that he would be calling, not because he was pleased that the MP would be calling, but because he thought that the MP was behaving unreasonably. And so it turned out. We had corresponded about an issue and I had acted exactly as I had advised I would in the absence of a response. The MP's response? "In the absence of a reply, you should assume that I didn't get your letter!". His bombastic and threatening approach was somewhat derailed when I pointed out to him that his stance was wrong on a whole range of levels and I heard no more on the subject subsequently.
What this demonstrates is that power does go to some people's heads. They will pressurise junior civil servants because they can and, sometimes, that will be enough. The civil service still includes a deferential streak and, after all, MPs are supposed to be our betters - we are there to serve them, and through them the state.
Whatever emerges from this morass of sleaze, one thing that will have to change is the Fees Office. Better staff, more staff if necessary, with more freedom to act in the interests of the public purse. And not soon, now. The public deserve better...
And indeed, there has been comparatively little criticism from within the Westminster village. After all, why criticise when you might be next, especially given some of the charges that have been made (Alan Reid, for heaven's sake, what were the Telegraph thinking of...)? The public have, not unreasonably, taken a very dim view of the emerging details of apparent fraud and misdemeanor.
As usual, however, there is a more complex picture emerging. Most of the charges have been acknowledged, albeit grudgingly in some cases. However, some charges have been strongly disputed, Andrew George, for example, and some probably merit an apology - would the Telegraph journalist who wrote the piece on Alan Reid like to do so personally by letter to each of Alan's constituents for blackening his reputation (the reference to the female assistant travelling with him was gratutious and malicious in my view)?
The question of proportionality has been rather dubious too. It has to be said that the column inches dedicated to Vince Cable and Norman Baker smacked of over-compensation in pursuit of equality of mistreatment. Is a claim for a £119 trouser press, for example, even remotely comparable to changing your designated second residence repeatedly?
That said, there is a feeling abroad in the country that MPs are crooks and frauds, not helped by the Telegraph's focus on the wrongdoers and not the honest majority. The atmosphere on 'Question Time' this evening was akin to a lynch mob, something that made me fear for our democracy, certainly in the short term. I actually thought that Ming rallied well after a shaky opening, and managed to get some reasonable applause for his later answers. Margaret Beckett was pretty robust, although she was always on a hiding to nothing as the representative of the Government. Theresa May mouthed the right platitudes but didn't look comfortable, not unreasonably given the simmering sense of anger in the audience in front of her.
This evening's opinion poll may well be the sign of things to come. If the European Elections end up as per the polling figures (Conservatives 28%, Labour 22%, Liberal Democrats 19%, UKIP 19%, BNP 4%), a party with more than its fair share of crooks (yes, I do mean UKIP), will benefit. I trust that the Telegraph will be taking a close look at some of their MEP's prior to 4 June...
However, it seems that we are far from the end of the drama. Married couples are supposedly to come, and I suspect we may have a few questions about family employees before this is over. It's going to get worse before it gets better, I fear...
Thursday, May 14, 2009
But now it's back, from outer space, I just walked in to find it there with that look upon its face. There are more people involved, there's a blog. They claim to be in favour of the sort of things that I'm broadly in favour of - lower taxes, smaller government, more freedom.
And yet, and yet, I'm not going to join. Why not? Because I have a sneaking feeling that there's another agenda here. I could be wrong but, ladies and gentlemen, it's up to you to prove me wrong. The first effort was poor, the follow up worse still, so you've got a bit of catching up to do.
Good luck, all the same, as I always enjoy a meaningful debate...
Monday, May 11, 2009
Fortunately, the rain had stopped by the time we reached New Mills, where we were picked up by our Group Leader on Derbyshire County Council, Barrie Taylor. He kindly dropped us off at our rather unusual venue, the Spire House, home of David and Hillary Lomax.
David was Leader of High Peak District Council under somewhat unusual circumstances, in that he led the smallest of the three groups on the council. Sometimes it works our like that... Anyway, he and Hilary had bought and converted an old chapel, half of which is now a bed and breakfast. Guess where we were spending the night...
They had produced an amazing buffet dinner, with a European theme, and I was able to talk to a number of local activists before Ros spoke to the gathering. Hilary made sure that I got some of the rhubarb and orange crumble though.
A welcome night's sleep followed by a full English breakfast, courtesy of David and Hilary, before some photo shoots in Whaley Bridge and New Mills and a dash to the train...
First, Andrew Walker, the head of the Office, has been condemned for not having an accountancy qualification. The merit of that argument has been shot down by my old colleague Sara Bedford, so I won't add anything to her comments, except to note that there are very few HMRC officials with an accountancy qualification, and we seem to administer the tax system pretty well in spite of that.
However, what I did discover is that the leak may very well not have come from there. In fact, the expenses information collation had been contracted out to a private company, so the leak might just as easily have come via that route.
Today, though, I want to address the proposal that an independent group be set up to audit MP expenses. It's a rubbish idea and is designed to protect MP's, not to set proper limits on their expenditure. In short, it's not the audit that is the problem, it's the rules themselves. The Parliamentary Fees Office is perfectly capable of carrying out a proper audit if given the opportunity and resources to do so. If the rules are lax, the audit has no effect.
If I was a Liberal Democrat MP, I'd be voting this 'reform' down. If it achieves anything, it will be to draw a veil over the issue that Freedom of Information campaigners worked so hard to bring into the open. Clearly, there are those who have learned nothing in spite of the events of the past week...
- My mother. Whilst my father was a Labour supporter, my mother was apolitical. Well, not exactly... she had, and still has, a strangely liberal streak. She believes that with rights come responsibilities, that people should be given an even break, and is tolerant of anyone but idiots. She would never have described herself as liberal, but that's how I was influenced.
- My junior school teacher, Mrs Moore. Mrs Moore encouraged me to think for myself and left me with a phrase that I have never forgotten. "Mark,", she would say, "life is not fair.". She was right, it isn't, but that didn't mean that you shouldn't strive so that it might be.
- My secondary school teacher, Mr Franklin. He taught me not to use the word surely. 'Surely' is a word used when you want things to be as you would like them to, even if the facts indicate otherwise.
- My university adviser, Dr Janacek. He taught me to be sceptical, to doubt the statistics that are presented as fact.
- A sense of honest self-doubt. I'm not someone who deals much in certainty. There is always another side to the story, always a range of opinions to be compared and contrasted. For me, that desire to listen to those opinions and balance the freedom of the individual against the needs of the community is the essence of liberalism. It is, at the same time, the greatest challenge.
- People, not systems. Ironic, coming from a bureaucrat, I know. However, whilst you need frameworks within which to operate, you need to remember who the processes are designed to serve. I believe that government should be there to enable, not to dictate. I believe that people should be encouraged to take part, not to wait for someone to do things for them.
- Because I was made to feel welcome. Without exception, I have been at home in every part of the Party. I'm a shy, retiring soul, contrary to my reputation, but the kindness shown to me by a variety of people at different times has encouraged me to engage, albeit erratically. I have already withdrawn from active liberal democracy twice in my life, only to be embraced upon my return.
So, no great policy, no speech, no historic event. But then, that isn't really me. I'm a bureaucrat with a sense of public service, a liberal who believes that government, with all its problems, can make our society a better place.
It would be fundamentally wrong to tag Ros, so I'll tag my fellow National Express passenger, Jonathan Wallace, instead. It will give him something to do on the 7.40, presuming that it isn't cancelled, of course...
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Our first stop was 'Soundbites', an organic grocery store run as a workers' co-operative. Upstairs, we were shown into the office of 'Bike-It', part of Sustrans, where Mike spoke eloquently about their efforts to get children onto their bikes for journeys to and from school and elsewhere. Ros, Lucy and Ruth talked about the implications of achieving that, as well as about things that local councils can do to make things easier.
For the record, I suspect that amongst the many reasons why children don't cycle to school any more is 'stranger danger'. We have indoctrinated both parents and children to minimise risk at all costs, and that means not allowing your children out of your sight. If you do, and something happens, you risk abuse from the media for being neglectful of your children's safety.
Next, we visited the shop, and took tea and a bowl of carrot and aubergine soup whilst Ros was interviewed by a reporter from the Derby Evening Telegraph. I did a little shopping, purchasing a bottle of the locally produced Amber Ale (organic, just 13 food miles), whilst Ros was photographed looking at ethically sourced, organic products.
Our final stop, for the bureaucrat at least, was the Party HQ, where we stuck labels on European election addresses. So I finally got to make a small contribution to the campaign to get Ed Maxfield elected as our second candidate in the East Midlands, which pleases me a lot. Ed and I were at university together, albeit two years apart, and he's a great guy. He'll add weight to our Group in the European Parliament and represent his constiutents as they deserve to be, with vigour and enthusiasm.
I carried on labelling whilst Ros did a brief session of canvassing but, all too soon, it was time for the next stage of our Derbyshire weekend...
Saturday, May 09, 2009
I was picked up at the station by local MP Paul Holmes, whose car was notable for not being a gold-plated Maserati and the absence of security guards - don't all MPs have those, if the Telegraph is to be believed? We caught up with his wife Rae, the cats (Hendrix and Cashmere) and daughter Rhiannon over tea, before heading into town for the dinner.
The dinner was great, and we ate well before the raffle draw. Once again, I urged Ros not to pull one of my tickets out of the bag, and once again, she unfailingly managed to do so (the bottle of Australian Shiraz Cabernet will go down a treat at some point...). Paul then drew a winning ticket, only to pull one of Rae's out of the bag. It was beginning to look a bit suspicious but fortunately, the prizes began to be more spread out. Between us, Rae and I must have turned down another six prizes but the raffle eventually concluded.
An auction of a bottle of House of Commons claret followed, which entertained us all for ten minutes, before Ros spoke, a more light-hearted effort suitable to an after-dinner speech. She then fielded questions before the evening drew to a close.
They're a nice bunch in Chesterfield, and they work like Trojans. And with Paul leading the way (and he's someone I really respect), they'll do alright next month.
Friday, May 08, 2009
I'm not going to get carried away at this stage, as there is much still to be revealed. And, until it becomes clear that Liberal Democrat MPs are without sin (if it ever does), it would be foolish to come over all self-righteous. Anyone rushing to tar one party or another will doubtless look very silly if a cohort of their own side are then found to be equally guilty/venal/stupid (delete as appropriate).
There is no doubt, however, that the collective reputation of Members of Parliament will take an absolute battering over the coming days. Perhaps that will prove to be justified, I don't know, but it will provide an opportunity for those without access to the gravy train to use it as a stick to beat the established parties with. Frankly, I'm concerned as to how that will play out in next month's European and County elections.
I'm sure that the BNP and UKIP will run strongly on snouts in the trough - UKIP are big on hypocrisy like that - and the sizeable proportion of the population who are minded to give politicians a 'good kicking' are more likely to do so in an election which doesn't appear to matter that much.
This saga is, in addition, of continued concern to the Parliamentary Fees Office, who must be horrified to discover that they are wholly unable to prevent the leak of information previously kept secret. Whilst it was due to be published in a format which allowed for security concerns to be addressed, the fact that this information, all of it, has either been sold to the highest bidder or even just given to a specific newspaper, will worry management.
Official secrecy and discretion are important in terms of establishing credibility. If information passed on in confidence cannot be kept safely, then individual MPs will be disinclined to provide full and complete declarations, in itself a concern. I would therefore guess that the hunt for the mole will continue.
There is no doubt that the expenses claims should be made public, save for information that might make the claimant vulnerable. However, it might be better if we actually paid MPs a proper rate, rather than using a myriad of allowances to make up the difference...
Now I know Kingsbury Road pretty well, and I know that drivers race along the stretch near the park because it's straight and flat. This doesn't seem to stop them from finding imaginative ways to lose control and crash but there you go, as they say. Best of all, when the traffic is heading towards the station, it runs into the main shopping area, where traffic is reduced to two lanes anyway, and gets backed up along the road.
However, there is some discontent. Local Conservatives and the three remaining Labour councillors (who do look rather grim, I must say), are in opposition. So why are my Liberal Democrat colleagues intent on doing something that the locals don't like? Could it be because the Road Safety Plan as amended in 2006 insists that the number of those killed or seriously wounded on London roads is cut by 50% by 2010? And who wrote that plan, without the requirement for a democratic mandate? Might it be a Labour Mayor of London? You know, I really think that it might have been.
Labour, tough on integrity, tough on the causes of integrity...
- Caroline Byles (Conservative)
- John Cook (Labour)
- Andrew Stringer (Green)
- Mark Valladares (Liberal Democrat)
Interestingly, it looks like three of us live outside of the division, with only the Green able to vote for himself. So we'll be relying on others to make sure that we get any votes at all...
My Conservative opponent has already collected her leaflets, so I'll assume that she'll be out delivering them. What the Greens will be doing waits to be seen, whilst I'm not expecting much activity from Labour. As for me...
Thursday, May 07, 2009
Wednesday, May 06, 2009
Vancouver and its surrounds is an amazing place, set between the coastal range and the sea, with float planes in the harbour and rich woodland everywhere. The province is a Conservative-free zone - today's opinion poll here shows the Greens in third place with 13%, and Others with just 5%. That 5% includes the Conservatives...
In British Columbia, the contest is between the Liberals and the New Democratic Party, with most polls showing the Liberals with something like a 10% lead. Given that polling day is on Tuesday, it would take something fairly dramatic for the Liberals to lose power.
We're determined to come back before too long, and the guidebooks and internet can expect a good workout before very long...
Monday, May 04, 2009
Sadly, there is worse news still. China banned all imports of Albertan pork yesterday, and it is feared that the US may follow shortly. Given that Canada is the third largest exporter of pork - after the US and the European Union - and that Canadian bacon is virtually a brand name is the US, this is a serious blow to the economy.
According to a staff reporter at the Globe and Mail, swine influenza is common and spreads quickly because pigs live in close quarters and, unlike schoolchildren, they are 'not subject to constant admonitions to wash their hooves and cough into their sleeves'. Clearly, Canadians have not lost their sense of humour...
Sunday, May 03, 2009
Saturday, May 02, 2009
2023 ballots were cast, of which 59 were spoilt, leaving 1964 ballots cast for Michael Ignatieff, 97% of votes cast.
He'll be in London in July to give the Isaiah Berlin lecture, so we'll get a closer look at him then...
More like the selection of an American Presidential nominee than anything we might be familiar with at home, there are signs to be waved, inflatable noise sticks to be banged together, and bilingual nomination speeches to be made.
And just as there is always a Liberal Democrat presence at a Democratic National Convention, there is a presence here. Ros, naturally, but also Lord Alderdice, here as President of the Liberal International, and Charles Kennedy, who happens to be a Vice President of the LI. And me...
One interesting element of the nomination process is that ordinary members can join in by submitting their nomination online. Two of the Party's youngest members have been given an opportunity to speak to the convention, which is quite an incentive to take part.
And the result?...
My eye was caught by a reference to a 'blogger space', so I ventured into a room to see what was going on. The answer? Not much, just a few bloggers busily working on postings. However, I did discover that there is a Canadian equivalent of 'Lib Dem Blogs', called 'Liblogs'.
It seems that, like in Britain, there is an informal link between bloggers and the Party, although there appears to be an attempt to strengthen those links whilst retaining a degree of independence.
The comparison between bloggers from a liberal party which expects to be in government and those from one used to opposition might prove of interest...
Here in Vancouver, a workshop with that title has just gotten under way. You guys at home may be talking of Gurkhas and possible Labour defections, but here it's all about deep philosophical thoughts, of the rise of Chinese military power, of the future of international co-operation, of defence of the free market. All done with simultaneous translation in a windowless box with an enormous cruise ship outside.
That cruise ship is a metaphor for Liberal International in many ways. Everyone is heading in the same direction, although occasionally new passengers get on, and old passengers either die or decide that, for them, the trip towards a liberal future is not where they would like to make. The crew and passengers speak a jumble of languages and operate in a multi-cultural atmosphere.
The keynote speaker is Dr Ing-Wen Tsai, Chairwoman of the Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan, speaking on behalf of Asia. The DPP are, to Liberal Democrat tastes, a bit too right of centre, keen on deregulation and a light touch in terms of state participation (especially state subsidy). However, one suspects that the contributions from Europe, Africa (the Parti Constitutional of Morocco) and the Americas (the Liberal Party of Canada) will balance the discussion somewhat, displaying the full spectrum of international liberal thinking.
I'm particularly confident about the European contribution, as it comes from the President of the Liberal Democrats...
I'm a bit of a sceptic about technology, especially if it comes from the US. Not because it's bad, or because I don't think it will work here (for a given value of here, that is), but because I never forget about the vast financial disparities between US and European political campaigns. What I need is cheap, flexible technology that I can use to communicate to as many people as I can reach. However, one cannot deny that if technology is all-singing and all-dancing, and my opponents have it, there is a risk that I might lose an otherwise tight contest. And that was one of the key messages conveyed.
I do wonder how much value this offered to delegates from places such as Burundi, where liberal forces fear retribution from the government, or the Democratic Republic of Congo. This type of technology presumes relative freedom and a degree of access to computers that cannot be taken for granted, and that democracy is reasonably secure. I might suggest that in places such as Egypt, the government might take a keen interest in any group gathering expressions of public opinion, especially that unfavourable towards them.
I don't doubt that we'll end up adopting something like VoteBuilder in the years to come. Perhaps EARS will come to resemble it, as it adapts to the new technologies. We probably won't like it much, but we'll learn to love it...