Tuesday, May 31, 2011

I have the chance to ask Paul Burstow a question about NHS Reform. What should I ask?

Tonight, at 9 p.m., a conference call will take place between Paul Burstow, Minister of State for Health, and the English Regional Chairs (plus, I'm delighted to see, young Thomas Hemsley as the English Convenor of Liberal Youth). And, as our Regional Chair, the lovely and fragrant Julie Smith, can't make it, I'm standing in for her.

But I need your help. I'm not an expert on health issues, and I'm not a policy wonk. So, there is an opportunity for someone, anyone, to effectively ask Paul a question. I will, if possible, put it to Paul, and report back on his answer, so long as it isn't confidential - there are some minimal restrictions on reporting back.

Feel free to use the comments to suggest your question, providing some background - it will really help...

Monday, May 30, 2011

Planting a bush for Cincinnati

I am not really a gardener, and not terribly nostalgic either, but Ros is keen for the former, so we've spent part of the Bank Holiday weekend working on the garden. Ros is in charge, so I dig holes where required, fetch and carry pots, compost and hosepipes, whilst Ros plants things in the borders, or in pots.

However, I did feel that I should have a plant of my own, something that I could take personal responsibility for. And so, whilst at the Suffolk Food Barn today, I bought this redcurrant bush to be planted in the garden. I had thought about giving my plant a name and, on reflection, naming a redcurrant bush after my beloved red and white cat seemed like the right thing to do.

Eventually, it will grow to be about five feet tall and four feet across, and produce fruit that I can eat. Given that I don't eat anywhere near enough fruit, that can only be a good thing...

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Ed Balls and Sharon Shoesmith: demonstrating the value of silence

With Sharon Shoesmith winning her industrial tribunal case against her sacking as Director of Children's Services for the London Borough of Haringey, the 'decent, honest, taxpaying reasonable people' are up in arms. It is, after all, generally accepted that she deserved to be sacked, and the idea that she will pick up a fat cheque, courtesy of the council taxpayers of Haringey, is unlikely to be welcomed in the streets of Wood Green.

However, she has provided us all with an invaluable lesson, in that her successful claim reminds us all that workers have some basic rights, a key one amongst them being the right not to be arbitrarily sacked without proven cause.

When Ed Balls announced to the world that she would be sacked, he trampled all over her rights to a fair hearing. Ironic really, because Labour had claimed to be the party for workers' rights and, in fairness, had done much to redress the balance following some of the more egregious anti-union legislation of the Thatcher era.

By doing what he did, he pandered to the lynch-mob mentality that undermines so much of our public servants. Apply the law, and people will complain that you are over-bureaucratic. Apply it badly, and you have failed and must be punished. Wait for the result of a proper inquiry? You have to be kidding, the Daily Mail and its fellow travellers would never allow such a thing.

As I wrote at the time, the essential thing to do is to find out what actually happened, and why a particular course of events unfolded, rather than shoot first and ask questions later. Perhaps that's why I disagree with Richard Morris, who wonders why she didn't resign. He suggests that what we need are a few more resignations, and perhaps I ought to explain why I think that they don't, and won't happen.

It is true that her Department came out of the inquiry in pretty poor shape, with reports of insufficient staff training, too many agency staff, and poor direction of inexperienced staff. But it wasn't Sharon Shoesmith's choice to employ less staff than she needed, it was a decision forced upon her by budgetary issues, by the inability of inner London authorities to recruit and retain social workers, by internal processes that were designed to wallpaper over the cracks. How many of those were her fault?

That is not to say that she made the right choices, or even the best ones at the time. It isn't to say that she was good at her job. The inquiry didn't exactly hold back in terms of its criticism. But there were a lot of people whose decisions contributed to the failure to protect a small, defenceless child, and most of them are still untouched by the retributive process.

The idea of a resignation as a point of principle is dead. I know, I did it once, to be greeted by a sea of bewildered incomprehension amongst my colleagues. Unless an individual directed committed an action which led to a tragedy, or a failure, it is hard to see why they should take the fall. If, for example, a Government Department loses the data of twenty-five million people, because a junior officer in a provincial office fails to follow published guidance, does the Minister resign? And if he or she did, why would they be doing it and what would it change?

If Sharon Shoesmith had known that she had acted in such a way as to cause a tragedy, or had halted an action that might have prevented it, then I suspect she would have resigned. Don't think for one moment that someone who works in that field doesn't wonder every day about the impact of their decisions, and the idea that you might be responsible for the death of an infant would come as a terrible blow.

However, I do think that she would be well-advised to give the media a wide berth. Regardless of her perceived justness of her case, there is no desire out there to be seen to defend paying over a large some of money to someone who is seen to have failed, and failed badly. And the media can be so unkind, sometimes...

It's hard to escape being seen as just a bureaucrat, when nobody else wants to be one...

Look, I fully understand that this party bureaucracy stuff is quite dull. Actually, some of it makes watching paint dry seem vibrant and thrill-packed, but it has been what I've done in the Liberal Democrats for quite some time. Apparently, I'm quite good at it, although that might be because telling me that is a way of persuading me that I should keep on doing it, making sure that others don't have to.

But it is a bit soul-destroying sometimes. The expectation that things will get done, minutes written, constitutions read and interpreted, the sense that, all around you, people are having fun. And yes, I know that not all of you are out there living it up, that some of you are struggling with casework, or trying to campaign with the tide running against you. But, just occasionally, it seems like you are.

I think that the worst of it is the sense that you're doing it all in a vacuum, only noticed when something goes horribly wrong, and that the things that you work on are otherwise ignored. Worse still, people spend their time complaining about things that happen in the Party yet take no interest in taking the steps that might change them. Why? Because it's bureaucracy, and therefore dull.

Perhaps it is the danger of allowing oneself to be defined by what one does. After all, I am a professional bureaucrat, somewhat politically restricted (how many of you have to ask the permission of a Permanent Secretary to attend Federal Conference?), and I do like a sense of 'ordnung'. But there is a risk that one submerges ones passions beneath a sea of paper, and I'm beginning to get the urge to demonstrate that there is a bit more to me than  has otherwise been on display.

So, a little less bureaucrat, and a bit more 'armchair philosopher' from now on. Don't worry, there will be some bureaucracy, because I can't leave it all to Mr Dr Pack, can I? I might even express an opinion or two...

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Lords Reform: Lord Harries should know better...

The House of Lords is “rowdy” and “grossly inflated” because David Cameron cannot stop appointing new peers, according to Lord Harries. As reported by the Daily Telegraph, he told an audience at the Telegraph Hay Festival that the House is now full to bursting. “There is no doubt about it, the House of Lords does need reform. It’s not that it doesn’t work, it works very well indeed but it is now grossly inflated in terms of numbers,” he said.

“David Cameron is shovelling them in every week. I’m serious. There is nowhere to sit, the place has got rowdy, people can’t get in to speak. It was not like that when I first went in. We do need a smaller House.”

Now I don't entirely disagree with his first sentence, and many long-standing members in the Lords would probably agree with him. However, he might like to remember that the Labour Party wrote the first of the two lists published since the General Election, which included thirteen retiring Labour MPs and sixteen other Labour figures, sixteen Conservatives, nine Liberal Democrats, one Democratic Unionist and a cross-bencher, Sir Ian Blair (whom some might add to the Labour ranks). Yes, that's fifty-six in total.

The second list, of fifty-four, was designed to redress some of the balance lost by the first list (well, not only to do that, but I'll leave the motive assignment to others). It included twenty-seven Conservatives, fifteen Liberal Democrats, ten Labour, one Plaid Cymru and a cross-bencher, Sir Richard Dannett (not really a Conservative, honest...).

So, let's spread the blame more fairly, Lord Harries, shall we?

Friday, May 27, 2011

English Council. Your Region needs you!

To be exact, my Region needs you. As Regional Secretary, I am responsible for (lightly) whipping the East of England delegation to English Council, and for finding substitutes as required. And I need one, indeed I'll probably need more than one in due course.

So, if you're a Liberal Democrat member, and live in the counties of Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk or Suffolk, and want to attend one of the most thrilling events on the Party calendar, please get in touch at markv [at] aol.com.

Of course, even if you don't live in the East of England, your Region might have a vacancy, so if you're interested, let your Regional Secretary know. His/her details will be on the Regional website...

Broadband access in Suffolk: frankly, I should be grateful that you can read this at all

For those of you who live in towns and cities, or otherwise have access to fibre optic cables and all the paraphenalia of modern telecommunications, spare a thought for us country dwellers.

I live about seven miles from my local BT exchange, as the ancient telephone wires run. So remote are we, that some homes still share cables. As a result, broadband speeds are astonishingly poor, a fact which has serious repercussions for the rural economy. For whilst the incidence of heavy industry is minimal, the potential for remotely supplied intellectual and professional services is vast. After all, why run a web design business in an urban location when you could do it from a purpose built office surrounded by pretty scenery, where property prices are lower and stress levels lower still?

This potential is crushed by the failure to provide decent availability of broadband services, and today's announcement that the Suffolk bid for £20 million from the Government's Broadband Delivery UK fund has been rejected comes as a bitter blow - even more so given that Norfolk's bid was successful. That £20 million would have been the leverage for a total of £42 million to used to bring superfast broadband to the county, and although there will be further opportunities to bid in the future, valuable time has been lost.

The task of apportioning the blame has already begun and most interestingly, the new, shiny and remarkably personable Conservative MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, Dr Dan Poulter, has led the charge, attacking his own colleagues on the County Council and, in particular, Jeremy Pembroke, for the inadequacy of their involvement in, and support for, the bid. I don't know enough to comment on whether that's fair or not, but it does seem like an extraordinary thing to do without good grounds.

And whatever has happened in the past, the immediate future for superfast broadband in Suffolk is bleak. At a time when Government strategy relies on job creation in the private sector to compensate for job losses in the public sector, any barriers placed in the way by poor infrastructure should be dealt with briskly...

Don't you know, we're talking about an evolution...

Life changes, even here in my little Suffolk village, and quite often, it only needs a push from one or two people to make it happen.

One thing that I had noticed in Creeting St Peter when I first moved here was the apparent lack of social activity. Yes, it is a small place, with only a church room as a social space, and given my backstory in the big city, I wasn't hugely concerned, especially as I was still working in London.

There was, I was told, some activity in the past, organised by the Community Council, summer fetes, barbecues and the like, but with the loss of key members, this had ceased.

But it does pay to make an effort sometimes. Alice, the Chair of our Parochial Church Council, and her colleagues initiated a monthly coffee morning on the second Saturday of each month and suddenly discovered a hitherto untapped desire to meet fellow villagers. So much so that they rapidly became standing room only.

I've done a small amount to support them - by advertising the event on my village blog, by suggesting that the scheduled visit by the mobile police station be sited outside the church room at the same time - but by simply getting things started, more volunteers to help have come forward, making them more self-supporting. It is, if you like, a perfect example of the 'Big Society' in action.

And I learned a lot too. I learnt about the delicate web of personal relationships that sustains or, occasionally, harms a small community, of the history of the village, of the ups and downs of community. As a rookie Parish councillor, that kind of knowledge is invaluable if you want to do the job well.

Of course, I then ran as the Liberal Democrat candidate for the ward which includes Creeting St Peter. Running a classic campaign of the kind I approve of, heavily local in focus, a lot of canvassing, I met a lot of my fellow villagers, some for the first time. It was another immersion in the often small things that exercise people. And people were really friendly (with a few exceptions...).

Meanwhile, the Parochial Church Council had become more ambitious, with plans for a village pub night (we don't have a village pub). Unfortunately, Ros and I couldn't be there - ELDR Council in Dresden intervened - but it was an event that I wanted to succeed.

There was a brief local difficulty when a sign on the village green advertising the event was removed by the Parish Council, for perfectly justifiable reasons, but even that had its benefits. I had wanted to publicise the news of a local road closure, and it provided the perfect excuse to deliver another leaflet - this time as a local resident and not as a politician. So, six days before the event, Ros and I leafleted the entire Parish with news of the event. After all, we want our village to be a better place...

The event went well, with fifty people turning up to drink local ale, raise money for charity and meet, and I hope that Alice, Russell and all of those who made it happen feel that it was worth the effort. I'm certainly looking forward to the next one!

And the consequential effects ripple outwards. There is more interest in the long-standing Community Council project to refurbish the playing field, talk of improving communication, of engaging village residents. All because a few people have shown some willing to contribute...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A little taste of an ELDR Council meeting

Here's the official video of the ELDR Council meeting in Dresden. You'll notice that I was rather soberly dressed for a change...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Saxon, drugs and Dixieland

Having beaten the ash cloud back to Blighty, I should take this opportunity to report back on my trip to Dresden. My apologies if this sounds a bit like an advert for the German Tourism Board...

Alright, I would be the first to admit that Saxony wasn't all that high on the list of places on my 'wouldn't it be nice to go there?' list, but given that ELDR Council was being held there on a Friday afternoon, it seemed foolish not to make a weekend of it, even more so as Ros was going to be with me.

And what a remarkably nice place it is. Dresden itself has rebuilt many of its historic jewels, and is a compact enough city to be easily explorable on foot. And to make things even better, the sun was shining, and the annual Dixieland Jazz Festival was on, with jazz bands performing for free across the city centre.

There is no shortage of good hotels, and our choice, the Holiday Inn in the Albertstadt suburb, was comfortable, with a generous breakfast buffet, free wi-fi, and all of the stuff that makes staying in a business hotel worth doing.

The public transport system is really accessible too, and a family day ticket for the Region surrounding Dresden, including all the way to the Czech border, is just €15 for two adults and up to four children under the age of 14.

Saturday was spent exploring the Altstadt, having lunch and taking a river cruise. On Sunday, however, we went on an adventure, taking the S-Bahn to Bad Schandau, a small spa town near the Czech border, a really pretty little town. There, we took a vintage tram up the valley of a tributary of the Elbe, to an artificial waterfall, before returning to the town for a gentle stroll.

We took the long way back, using a Regional Bahn route from Bad Schandau to Pirna that, if it had been in England, would surely have been closed by now. And yet the rolling stock was new, clean and comfortable, with large windows to stare out of at the Saxon countryside.

We ate well, enjoyed some decent, locally produced Saxon beer, and generally had a great time. So much so, in fact, that we're thinking about going back in September. After all, it's only two hours from Prague by train...

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Europe, it was better in my day...

I'll be honest, I'm not missing the 'glamour' of spending my weekends travelling around the country with Ros. However, I do like to get out beyond the borders of Suffolk from time to time, and this weekend sees me in Dresden for a meeting of the ELDR Council (for more details, see here).

For a Party which is internationalist and pro-European, we really don't take our European relationships that seriously. Our delegations to ELDR and Liberal International go unremarked and, for the most part, unnoticed, and it is rare for a senior figure, other than our MEPs, to take part. Which is a pity, in truth.

More than twenty years ago, when I was International Officer of the Young Liberal Democrats, one of the more successful aspects of our activity was our participation in LYMEC (Liberal Youth Movements of the European Community) and IFLRY (International Federation of Liberal and Radical Youth). They were a thoroughly effective training ground for young politicians and, occasionally, a stepping stone to bigger and better things. My contemporaries ended up as government ministers, MEPs and MPs. One of them became the Vice Premier of British Columbia.

Now, Liberal Youth aren't engaged to the same extent, and the age profile of those who choose to take part from the wider party is a mite depressing - twenty years later, I'm still one of the younger ones.

Twenty years ago, relative poverty was a valid excuse - most twenty-somethings had more pressing things to spend their money on than a wet weekend of policy wrangling in Bratislava or Helsinki - but now the issue is about information. After all, who knows much about the international work of the Party these days?

Oh yes, there are reports in Liberal Democrat Pravda, read by very few people likely to read this piece, but there are no reports to Conference, little coverage in Liberal Democrat Voice (unless I write it), and therefore little scope for widening participation.

Something should be done... might our noble friend, Lord Bonkers, be prevailed upon to help out?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Mobile Network by 3 - perhaps they need to work on their people skills?

I received a phone call on my BlackBerry this morning from a rather breezy young man who wanted to sell me mobile phone services.

I'll be honest, I'm perfectly happy with the arrangements I have at the moment, so I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about his offer and, indeed, may well have conveyed that in the tone of my response. However, he pressed on, asking whether I have a contract or are on pay-as-you-go. Now, call me old-fashioned if you will, but that's my business, not his, so I explained that I was perfectly happy with my current arrangements. I judge that to be a courteous, yet firm response, designed to convey the message that he should conclude the call.

But no, he asked the question again, obviously sticking to his script. I was slightly puzzled. Why on Earth should I give him the information that I wasn't willing to release the first time? So, I gave him the same answer.

Now, most sensible people would disentangle themselves by thanking you for your time and concluding the call. Not this young man, however. He exclaimed his frustration with my difficult attitude and hung up.

In truth, I understand his frustration. I wasn't adhering to his script - there's enough information about me held by various organisations I do business with without random companies getting involved. But, and if anyone from 3 is reading this, when your people are cold-calling, during the working day, the chances are that they are disturbing someone at work, and that that someone would rather not be cold-called by someone asking intrusive questions which are, with respect, none of their business.

And that, if that cold-caller displays that sort of attitude, I am extremely unlikely to consider 3 as my mobile phone service provider in future. I am also likely to take such a call as an indicator as to the quality of their customer service, something unlikely to enhance their prospects.

So, if you get a telephone call from 02920 822690, you'll know what to expect. Don't say that I didn't warn you...

Monday, May 16, 2011

Rally Against Debt - not really bringing the people with them...

I was intrigued by the reports of the 'Rally Against Debt', which took place at the weekend in London.

Intrigued because, in a society which is generally resistant to change, most demonstrations are aimed at stopping something from happening, rather than demanding that it does. And curiously, I find myself sympathising with their wish for the deficit to be cut faster, and for the level of debt to be decreased. After all, interest paid on debts that accrue on non-investment activities is wasted expenditure, and debt has to be settled eventually.

However, the organisers of, and participants in, the 'Rally Against Debt' don't appear to inhabit a world where the art of the possible meets the science of economic theory. And yes, you could legitimately argue that an adherence to the art of the possible has contributed to the economic mess the country now finds itself in. That said, successful reform brings along enough people with it to sustain it when times are tough.

The United Kingdom has become a country where people have grown used to, and comfortable with, a level of State provision that we apparently cannot afford. I say, apparently, because until you strip out the bureaucracy, over regulation and inefficiency that dogs this country, it is difficult to tell what the nation can afford. Individuals have become dependent on the State to sustain them and their lifestyle, in some cases regardless of merit.

But there are plenty of people out there who need the protection of the State, who are genuinely ill, genuinely disabled, genuinely victims of misfortune, who need and deserve the support of the wider community. And these people are genuinely fearful that the blunt instrument that is big cuts will hurt them, and hurt them badly.

Many of the rest of us retain a sense of compassion, a sense that, whilst cutting spending is necessary, we would like to protect those people, to retain those aspects of communal life that add value to our lives, like libraries, to play our part in building a better society. And I don't sense that those who participated in the Rally entirely 'get' that.

The reports so far, almost entirely from bloggers, given the relative lack of critical interest from the mainstream media, seem to feel that the rest of us are part of some terrible conspiracy to stall deficit reduction measures. And if by 'stall', they mean 'seek a strategy that isn't simply slash and burn', they would be right.

Because, ultimately, it is imperative that those who govern comprehend the effects of their decisions on those they govern, that spending policy is about more than a rush towards minimalism, and that taxes paid contribute towards building a safer, freer society.

Now I'm not saying that those attending the Rally disagree with me on this, it's simply that they give the impression of worshipping at an altar by indicating a willingness to sacrifice those less fortunate than they are. Worse still is the utter disdain shown for those who indicate less than total agreement with them.

It is very difficult to make lasting changes to society without building a base of support, or at least acquiescence, for those changes. Political parties that try to buck that rule tend to crash to defeat, their changes reversed by an incoming administration with a mandate to do so. Perhaps those so keen to cut the debt might bear that in mind before lecturing the rest of us...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Oi, Willetts... NO!...

I'll say this, I don't know what David Willetts is smoking at the moment, but it's certainly hallucinogenic. Even hinting at the possibility that the wealthy could buy their way into the university of their choice for their children is, at best, ill-advised.

And yet, he is considered to be one of the greatest brains amongst Conservatives, which only goes to demonstrate that intelligence and common sense are not always mutually inclusive. His comments on feminism and social mobility were interesting, even if they proved to be a hostage to fortune, especially in his assertion that feminism had had a negative effect on social mobility. I can't imagine why women might not have agreed with him on that one...

Ironically, the subsequent debate demonstrated that he had some good points, but had undermined them with a flawed contextual setting. And it remains difficult to conclude that women have attained a level playing field in the areas that matter - employment, opportunity, politics. He also played to the fears of those who believe that Conservatism is designed to maintain power in the hands of a small, self-selecting elite.

But back to universities. The notion that individuals should be able to buy places in universities for themselves or their children would be unacceptable if it meant that others would be excluded. If it meant that those whose academic talents were insufficient went to university whilst the talented were excluded, society at large would be concerned.

And there are already programmes where employers sponsor students, whereby they agree to pay part, or all, of their fees in return for a commitment to work for the company for a designated period, so the notion of employers effectively buying places in universities is not such a huge step. But it is a worrying one.

You see, what is there to stop say, Valladares Investments LLC, based in the Cayman Islands, from deciding to buy a place for a young person to studying at the University of East Anglia (my old university)? Who decides who that young person would be? What is there to prevent the Chairman from selecting his grandson? In other words, what protection is there against nepotism, and what incentive is there to promote social mobility? Call me a cynic if you will, but you can just see how it will work in reality.

So, just give this one up, Mr Willetts, and focus on getting employers to sponsor students. Best of all, they'll sponsor students in the disciplines that they, and the country, most need, ensure future employment for more of them and provide guidance to universities in terms of demand management.

No, the market isn't always the solution, but it can be a healthy part of it sometimes...

Monday, May 09, 2011

I am the very model of a Parish Council Vice Chairman...

As those of you who are, or have been, councillors will know, a council has to meet within fourteen days of an election. I'm assured that there is a good reason for this, laid down by statute I presume. In Creeting St Peter, we don't let the grass grow under our feet, and so we met this evening to meet the requirement.

Unfortunately, our outgoing Chairman was unable to attend, and so my colleague Sue opened the meeting by calling for nominations for the Chair. Steve wanted to continue, so we nominated him in his absence, leaving us short of a Chair for the meeting. Sue wasn't keen, so I got the job. My first task... welcoming our newly re-elected District Councillor and inviting her to give her report. I am, after all, a gentleman...

We then moved on to the election of a Vice Chairman and, given that nobody else wanted the job, I graciously accepted the nomination. I'll be honest, and admit that I'm really honoured by the opportunity. It may not seem like much, but I feel that I've been accepted in a small way, and that's kind of important to me. Small villages aren't always so welcoming to an outsider, I'm told.

I'm also the village's representative on the Stowmarket Area Road Safety Committee and to the Suffolk Association of Local Councils, so my evenings are being slowly filled. It's all go here in the English countryside, you know...

So, I'm acting Chair until our next meeting, when I can hand over to Steve. Don't worry, I'm not planning to annex Stonham Aspal in the meantime...

NHS Reform: getting rid of Andrew Lansley isn't the point

According to this morning's Times, one of the prices to be paid for securing the Coalition is the head of Andrew Lansley.

To be honest, that's a bit too easy for my taste. Don't get me wrong, I hold no candle for the MP for South Cambridgeshire, but he isn't the problem. The problem is the policy, in that it isn't wildly popular. That doesn't make it bad policy, ironically, because popular isn't always good - dangerous dogs, anyone? - but it does mean that revisiting the drawing board might be a very good idea indeed.

Firstly, strip out the entirely artificial deadlines. All they do is create an undue sense of urgency and make transition management a nightmare, a car crash waiting to happen. That's not only bad politics, but bad administration. Good policy is straightforward to administrate, so that you can make it happen.

Second, decide upon your criteria for a well-run NHS. Cost-efficiency, improved care standards and democratic accountability are not mutually exclusive, and a proper debate on the future of health provision might just make for better decision making. And that means not simply demanding the full ice cream sundae with whipped cream, a flake and a cherry on the top, it means a realistic assessment of what we need in the future and what we can afford.

Thirdly, the notion of private sector cherry-picking is something that some Conservatives do not, or do not want to, get. And yes, there do appear to be some in the Labour and Liberal Democrats who suffer from the same myopia. That isn't to say that there isn't a place in health provision for the private sector, but it makes people nervous. So, for example, why not allow private companies to run an NHS Region leasing all of the buildings and equipment from the State? Any savings could be split on a shared basis between provider and government, and the assets revert to us when the contract ends. Indeed, you could even allow said provider to subcontract bits of work, so as to open up opportunities to small and medium sized enterprises.

Ultimately though, the problem is less about policy than about fear and trust. On the NHS, people don't trust the Conservatives, and the fact that the changes appear to be all about one of the three key criteria - cost - excites suspicion. And it isn't the job of the Liberal Democrats to reassure people that Andrew Lansley has the best interest of the NHS and patients at heart, it's our job to test, prod and probe the policy, and to do it publicly. If it survives proper scrutiny, then fine.

And if Andrew Lansley doesn't like it, he can quit, rather than be sacked. That way he gets to retain his honour and his integrity, and we take a small step towards the new politics that people keep talking about.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Oh, for pity's sake Mr Milliband, no means no!

Another day, another invitation from Ed to join the great progressive crusade against an evil government, stealing the bread from the mouths of orphans, etc, etc. So, just in case you missed my first response, let me put it in terms that will take me off your invitation list...

I'm a liberal, not a socialist. Alright, you're not a socialist either, but a progressive - a bastard word that would sell itself to any weasel in a tight corner, as Terry Pratchett so elegantly describes in 'Going Postal'. Or at least, you say you are. And given that your definition of progressive is the creation of a client state obliged to vote for you to keep all of those things you can't actually afford to pay for, it isn't a word with tremendous appeal.

I don't believe in blind opposition to whatever anyone else does either. Your response to the economy - a blanket denial of the need for cuts or tax increases - doesn't convince me that you're offering a home for a 'sound money' liberal like myself.

And as a social liberal (and yes, you can be both quite easily), your notion of rights, something to be awarded by the State, as opposed to freedoms, to be claimed from the State and to be presumed, troubles me deeply.

Your Party also believes that the answer to every problem is more legislation, whereas I believe that applying the laws that you have - and heaven only knows that there is enough of it - might actually do the job. You might even be able to strip away some of the regulatory fat from our system of government if you concentrated on getting the basics right.

I also have a say in the running of my Party, whereas in yours, faceless union bosses decide upon the leadership, and ordinary members are given marching orders rather than encouraged to take an active role in policy-making.

So, Ed, that's just a flavour of my thoughts on your 'kind' invitation. You don't really want me to make a contribution to your party anyway, other than as a scalp to wave at other Liberal Democrats, and you don't believe in what I believe in, so it would only end in tears.

I think that I'll stay put, if that's alright with you...

Treasure hunt: a morning drive in Mid Suffolk

I meant to publish this in September, and appear to have forgotten to do so... but it's fun anyway, so why not...

Whilst pottering about in Stowupland a few weeks ago, Ros and I came upon a poster for a Treasure Hunt, due to take place this weekend just passed. Whilst we don't get much opportunity to do things locally, it so happened that we would be at home and not committed to anything else, so Ros signed us up to take part.

So, yesterday morning at 10.25 a.m., we found ourselves at the Village Hall at Stowupland, where we were given a set of cryptic directions and clues to solve, plus a sealed envelope with a map in it. We weren't alone, as the Chair of Stowupland Parish Council, Nic Perks and his wife, were there with likewise intent.

I hadn't taken part in one of these before, but Ros had, so we took on our usual roles (Ros drives and I navigate) and we set off. The route took us up towards Cotton and Finningham, through Wickham Skeith, then across to Walsham-le-Willows and Badwell Ash, before returning via Wetherden and Haughley in time for a baked potato lunch back at the Village Hall.

I was rather pleased that, as at the time we finished, we were the only team to get all of the questions correct, and Ros dealt with the idiocyncracies of my technique with equanimity (oh look, there's a bunny rabbit!). We'll have to do it again if the opportunity arises.

Eventually, I must find out how we got on. Apparently, there is a formula which takes into account the number of miles travelled (the greater the number, the more detours you've taken), the number of questions correctly answered and the time taken.

Where next for the Liberal Democrats?

A sound thrashing efficiently administered, the public will now doubtless look to something else to keep them occupied for a while. In the meantime, we need to start thinking about where we go from here.

There are those who will call for the head of young Clegg, and I am curious as to why Sky News think that we should pay the blindest bit of attention to an easily gamed Twitter poll, but there you go. There are those who will suggest that we need to get our message across more effectively. But what is that message?

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceTo be honest, Nick is not the problem. Oh yes, he is a problem for some of our people, a lot more of a problem for a surprising number of people who aren't Liberal Democrats, never were Liberal Democrats and never will be Liberal Democrats, but I'd suggest that it is rather more of a question for us to decide upon, rather than allow the media and our enemies to drive the issue.

The policies aren't really an issue either. Most of the electorate don't know what the detail of each Party's manifesto is anyway, they operate on the basis of perception. Labour are for the poor, Conservatives for the rich, Liberal Democrats for... errr... not being the other ones. Alright, I simplify (a lot), but you get the idea. The fact that Labour might not be very good at protecting the poor and needy, or that the Conservatives aren't always particularly good at running an economy, is not something that exercises as many people as some of us would like to think it would.

So, what do I think we need to start doing?
  • Talk to people about things that matter to them. First though, find out what those things are. Sadly, they don't include interns, Lords reform or social mobility. They do include tax, crime, health and immigration.
  • Go back to first principles. We're liberals, not socialists or conservatives. We believe in individual freedom within the context of strong communities. That's not always easy, but it is what we believe in. Talk about building a better society, talk about giving people the tools to build it, talk about how we will protect those that need protection.
  • We don't have to change things just because we can, or because the media demand it. Actually, just managing things better can sometimes be the best thing in any given situation. Labour weren't wrong on everything. The Conservatives aren't either.
  • Talk about the rule of law. Actually, talk about rules and, in particular, using the ones we already have and only changing them if the ones you have don't work, not because you haven't applied them. Take immigration as an example. The rules about student visas work if you close down fake colleges. Asylum seekers can be dealt with effectively if you deal with them quickly and justly. The British people have no fundamental objective to allowing those in fear of their lives to shelter in our country.
  • Stop talking in terms of short-term advantage. Either we believe in something, or we don't. Trying to be clever, and playing one group off against another doesn't work. Creating artificial differences between ourselves won't impress the public, arguing coherently about the real ones is more likely to.
  • Hold up your hands and admit you're wrong when you are. We got tuition fees wrong. Live with it. Yes, the new system is almost certainly better than it would have been had we not been involved. But people think that we lied, and wriggling on the hook won't change that.
  • Work hard. As I've said before, credibility is hard won, and easily lost. It's time to roll up our sleeves and start rebuilding that credibility. It won't be easy. It certainly won't be fun. However, we have plenty of local councillors and activists who know what it's like to deliver leaflets on rain, snow and wind.
And actually, none of this stuff is particularly difficult, if you believe in it. And I believe that Nick does believe in it. So let's have the conversation, a genuine conversation where we talk about our hopes and fears for the future, where we agree on a way forward that takes into account what those of us on the ground, and those of us making the tough decisions that being in government entails, are actually experiencing.

It takes a village to fight a campaign in one...

Alright, I've picked myself up, dusted myself off and am focused on the horizon. However, there is some unfinished business before I set off on the next leg of the journey. Yes, it's time to thank those whose contributions made the campaign as successful as it was...

Firstly, I should start with the people who set me loose on an unsuspecting District council ward, David Chappell, our then PPC, Kathy Pollard, the Leader of our County Group, Penny Otton, the Leader of our District Group, and Martin Redbond, our agent and campaign guru. They told me that I could start campaigning with official approval, so I did.

Kathy introduced me to PagePlus and gave me my first lesson in how to use it to produce the first leaflet. Tim Lockington, the Chair of the Local Party in Ipswich, printed it and Ros and I delivered it. Tim went on print the second and third leaflets on his Riso, and one day, he might even tell me how much I owe him...

Our first action day was co-ordinated by Martin, and many thanks to Keith Scarff, David Payne, Wendy Marchant, Mike and Sheila Norris, all of whom came to help me fly the flag.

Jamie and Brij, my stepson and son-in-law, delivered leaflets at key moments, Sally provided me with useful artwork from her back catalogue of Libdemmery.

During the campaign, Phil Stevens, Daniel Brown, Grace Goodlad and Sam Webber all graciously gave up some of their spare time to telephone canvass on my behalf, allowing me to confirm that my own canvassing wasn't hopelessly over-optimistic, and Matthew Hanney, from Nick's office, came all the way to Mid Suffolk to help out with the final leaflet delivery and do a little canvassing besides. Yes, we did bribe him with cake, but he was worth it...

But, ultimately, the most important person in the entire campaign was Ros. She cajoled, advised, directed and inspired my efforts, and her wealth of knowledge in terms of campaigning and, in particular, rural campaigning, prevented me from making an idiot of myself. She delivered leaflets, even whilst fulfilling her duties as Party President, took on greater and greater shares of the household chores to free me up to design leaflets, canvass voters and deliver the message, and was generally amazing.

She also, in the midst of it all, found the man who printed the rest of the leaflets at, of all places the South West Regional Conference in Plymouth. Ian Gillett printed the calendars, based on a design he supplied, and then printed all of the leaflets from then on, recommending changes as he saw fit, redesigning the 'out leaflet' altogether, and doing it all without fuss, at remarkably low cost and in a timely way. If anyone wants his contact details, feel free to get in touch...

So, thank you to you all, and thank you to the voters of Stowupland and Creeting St Peter, who gave me a polite, and sometimes warm welcome on the doorstep, turned out in significant numbers to vote for someone they barely knew, and gave me sufficient encouragement to carry on.

And now, freed from the necessity to dedicate vast chunks of my life to the campaign, I can dedicate vast chunks of my life to Ros. Because she's worth it...

Saturday, May 07, 2011

The world has not ended, and a new day dawns...

The sun is shining, the birds are still singing, and I'm still a Parish Councillor for my small, but perfectly formed village. Admittedly, I'm not the District Councillor, but it was always a bit of a longshot.

However, I do find myself with a bit of a dilemma. Ros and I have been together for nearly four years now, and have been campaigning for all of that time, and find ourselves at a bit of a loose end. Actually, that isn't really true. Ros has her work in the Lords, of course, and as a member of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, and I have a job, a Parish Council and a Regional Party to tend to, as well as my share of the housework, so I'm not exactly without things to do.

And I've been out already, tidying the Parish noticeboard, where one of my new neighbours stopped me to say hello and offer her commiserations on my non-victory (it certainly wasn't a defeat as far as I'm concerned). Indeed, she has given me something to think about in terms of what I might do to help our village community over my four-year term as a parish councillor.

I've also picked up on the backlog of tasks for the Regional Party, although that's a bit dull for inclusion in this blog entry. Bureaucracy isn't always fun, you know... but with Beethoven's 'Eroica' Symphony playing in the background, it's time to stop moping and start doing again...

Friday, May 06, 2011

70% of a fairy tale isn't quite enough...

The campaign is over, the last leaflet delivered, the last door knocked upon, and I've attended the count.

On what turned out to be a less than stellar night for the Liberal Democrats nationally, Mid Suffolk saw its share of losses too, with Tony Fowler losing in the Stonhams, Mohammed Touran in Claydon and Barham, and Carol Milward biting the dust in Elmswell and Norton. We await the result from Stowmarket South but we will retain at least six of the ten seats that we held going into the election, and remain the official opposition.

As for me, it turned out that an 18% swing against a backdrop of a huge fall in Liberal Democrat support and a fiendishly timed series of concessions by Suffolk County Council's Conservative leadership was a hurdle too high to be surmounted. And in truth, that sort of swing only really happens in fairy tales. I did achieve a 13% swing, reducing the Conservative majority in Stowupland to just 91. The result was;

Byles (Conservative) 356
Snell (Labour) 128
Theobald (Green) 127
Valladares (Lib Dem) 265

I'm pretty pleased to have increased our share of the vote quite substantially, and slashed the Conservative vote, whilst pushing up turnout by about 8%.

But I didn't win. And that would have been the last chapter of the fairy tale...

On the other hand, I did get 50% of the vote in Creeting St Peter, and I'm grateful for the support of my friends and neighbours here. I just need the village to be bigger, that's all...
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Thursday, May 05, 2011

And as the sun finally breaks through in Stowupland...

It's been a bit gloomy here in the Gipping Valley, with the sky a kind of leaden grey until about an hour ago. But now, at last, the sun has made an appearance, and the sound of birdsong can be heard as I sit outside the polling station here at Stowupland Village Hall.

Business is rather less than brisk, and one wonders whether or not we'll reach the 40% mark achieved in 2007. However, the voters seem friendly enough, a concept that might not be familiar to other candidates across the country (regardless of party...).

It is lonely though, as there is no sense that anyone else apart from Ros and I have even put in an appearance in a campaigning capacity. I did meet my Green opponent, Craig Theobald, who is the only candidate voting here today - I'm a postal voter in the ward and voted more than a fortnight ago - seemingly his only active participation since signing his nomination papers. He seemed nice enough, though.

The Labour candidate, Ron Snell, is a paper candidate, and I didn't really expect to see him - he'll probably be helping out in Stowmarket, where he lives and where Labour must harbour hopes of winning a seat - currently they hold none on Mid Suffolk. If only they'd run a full slate in any of the three Stowmarket wards...

It is the apparent absence of my Conservative opponent, and the incumbent, which puzzles me most. There certainly hadn't been any sign of her or her agent in Creeting St Peter - I know because I always visit my polling stations as a courtesy to the presiding officer and poll clerks who do so much to make our democracy work. I've not seen her in Stowupland either, although in fairness, she may yet be out and about. She certainly hasn't visited the polling station.

There is one mystery though - the man who has been sitting in the parked BMW watching the door of the polling station for the past half an hour or so. I assume that he's here to meet someone, but it's rather odd nonetheless...
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Polling day dawns in Mid Suffolk

The campaign phase is over, the leaflets delivered, the canvassing done, and all that is left is to 'survive' polling day.

Ros and I have delivered most of the polling day leaflets, and I've been left to mind one of Stowupland ward's two polling stations, here in Stowupland (the other one is in my own dear Creeting St Peter, where just 11.5% of the voters are). I am, slightly surprisingly, alone, as the voters trickle in.

I say surprisingly, because I rather expected to find a Conservative teller when I arrived. Indeed, my expectation has been that my opponent will do something dramatic and game-changing. And whilst there is no obvious sign that it has happened yet, there is still time.

Expectations? Tricky question, that one. The canvassing has been pretty positive, with a friendly reception on the doorstep. I now have a high recognition factor, with complete strangers able to name me and/or my party. The question is, is it enough?

To add to the fun, the count isn't scheduled to begin until 3 p.m. tomorrow afternoon, so it will be more than seventeen hours after polls close until my fate is known. At least I should be well rested...
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