My 2016 in books

It’s becoming a New Year’s Day tradition that I do a post about my reading over the previous year. Once again, it’s seen a lot of books being read – 95 in total – and the Goodreads website provides a nice graphic that sums it all up and picks out some of the key books, which is what I’ll also do here.

First by way of explanation, I’ve always rated my books based on the following rough assessment – 1=Didn’t enjoy it, 2=It was OK, 3=I liked it, 4=I really liked it and 5=It was excellent. That means that even a middling score of 3 is actually a positive view of a book rather than anything negative. A book does however need to work really hard to get a 5 and over the last five years I’ve only handed out 11 ratings of 5, with four of them being in 2016. So that suggests a year of really good book reading, but it’s actually felt like more of a middling to poor year with a handful of real highlights, all four of which were very different books.

When I read Walk the Lines by Mark Mason I described it as a book that felt it had been written specifically with me in mind. I find London fascinating. I also find transport history fascinating. But most of all, I love the idea of exploring places on foot that are new to me. This is exactly what Mark Mason does as he finds himself walking each London Underground line on the surface and in the process finding bits of London he’s only ever travelled underneath before. He then writes it up combined with a series of amusing observations. And this is exactly the sort of thing I love doing, not just in London, and so it’s no surprise the book appealed. What did disappoint me was that I felt it could have been so much longer. You felt he could have written a whole book about each line.

My next book is surprising. Not just that I gave it five stars but that I read it at all and it’s Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. I’d been aware of it ever since it won the Samuel Johnson Prize but whilst there are often books on their shortlist that have an immediate appeal this wasn’t one of those. Reading a true story about someone who decides she wants to raise and train a goshawk isn’t a subject matter that would be of obvious interest to me. I gave it a go after much encouragement from my friend Katie who fell in love with it, and I did too. I should say that this book doesn’t pull any punches and can be quite gruesome in places (it’s probably not a book for vegans) but it draws you in and you really start to feel a bond with the goshawk in the same way that its author does where she starts to feel, understand and react to its moods and habits. I guess it’s the brilliance of Helen Macdonald’s writing that makes it work and for a time after reading it you also want a goshawk of your own.

In contrast my next book is a lighthearted funny read and it’s Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly which is another true story but this time around from a British journalist who reluctantly moves to Denmark when her husband is offered a job at Lego. There’s a whole genre of books around people who move from Britain to a foreign country and they range from the deadly serious anthropological in tone to ones that feel like a xenophobic mocking of foreigners. What this book does is look at the genuine differences and challenges of living in a different country, getting to know their ways (there’s also a moving from London to a rural area narrative too), and falling in love with the country at the same time. It is however all written in a lighthearted humorous style that made me laugh out loud (few books do) and I’d love it if Helen Russell followed it up with another book on the same subject now she’s been there a number of years.

Finally, a book that has been heavily promoted for the whole of 2016 and I’ve been wanting to read since it came out – Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall. What is great about this book is not only that it’s about geography, maps and geopolitics, (all of which make it an easy win for me), but that it explains many of the challenges, conflicts and attitudes of countries around the world in a way that makes you think “I sort of knew that, but now you’ve explained it to me in the way that you have it’s really obvious.” It’s a fascinating and yet quite simple book and should be required reading for anyone who enjoys having strong opinions on the state of geopolitics at the moment.

One surprise in 2016 is how the proportion of books I read that are crime fiction keeps going down. It may simply be that making much more use of the library has made me try out more of a variety of genres and so I’ve not fallen back on my usual reading as much. It’s also hard to pick out any particular crime novel that I’ve read this year as my favourite as none have really stood out and I’ve tended to simply continue reading more by authors with whom I’ve long been familiar. If I had to pick out any it’s The Murder Room by PD James, a writer who I loved when I first started reading crime fiction but despite being one of the top authors in the field I only picked up again just over two years ago. I’ve also continued my love for the books of Barbara Nadel and Robert Galbraith.

My political reading has been surprisingly small this year. That could be a reflection of me wanting lighter reading rather than getting too bogged down with detailed political thoughts or biographies at a time when I despair of politics more than ever. The best read though was Steve Hilton’s More Human. Although a well known adviser to the Conservatives, he brings his reputation for free thinking and an open mind to this book which provides an alternative series of ideas for government and policy. Whilst the book doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive programme following a specific ideology, it is perhaps surprising the issues he cares enough about to devote whole chapters to, such as animal welfare. Whilst I don’t agree with a number of his ideas and I sometimes struggle to see how he can rationally make some of the proposed policies fit together, it is easy to read and most of all quite thought provoking.

I went through an enjoyable phase early in 2016 when I read consecutively a number of quite contrasting books all about the history and character of London. The specific ones that I’d recommend include Georgian London: Into the Streets by Lucy InglisLondon’s Boroughs at 50 by Tony Travers and Spitalfields Life by The Gentle Author. This was followed by more history but this time outside London with Renishaw Hall by Desmond Seward which was for me a mixture of local, national and literary history. Much later in the year I read another fascinating history of a prominent family but with an added mystery thrown in with Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman & Paul Newell Clark. Finally two more that have stuck in my mind long after reading them are Rose George’s interesting book on the world shipping industry Deep Sea and Foreign Going and Bernadine Evaristo’s fun but enlightening book Mr Loverman about a secret relationship between two elderly Caribbean men living in Hackney.

One of the downsides in my year of reading has been an increasing tendency to get in to a particular theme of books or build a pile of books that I feel I must work through and that I should stick with come what may. It has made some of the, otherwise enjoyable books that I do want to read, feel, at times, like a chore and a challenge to be got through rather than something I love doing. If I have one resolution for 2017 it’s to be prepared to drop a book I’ve started reading or return to the library something that I have yet to start if for some reason I am starting to lose the passion for it. I must remember that I can always pick the book up again later if I want to and stopping reading it now isn’t accepting defeat but may just mean that it’s not the right time to be reading that particular book.

My New Year’s resolution of twelve months ago was to finally start writing the book I’ve always wanted to write. Again it came to nothing. Although I signed up to a free online creative writing course time, personal circumstances and energy levels meant it never happened. For that reason I’ll stick with my earlier resolution on reading better rather than making a new one on writing my book, although that will always be there at the back of my mind.

London Walks: Rollicking, Frolicking Fitzrovia

It’s been a while since I went on a London Walk and this one has been on my to do list for a while, but as one that isn’t a part of their regular programme it’s all come down to whether I’ve been in London on the right weekend.

I’ve always been intrigued by Fitzrovia. Despite being in the heart of London, just off Oxford Street, and surrounded by many well known areas such as Soho, Bloomsbury, Marylebone and Mayfair, it’s a place that a  lot of people haven’t heard of or at least couldn’t place on a map. The guide for this walk, Jane (a former school teacher although you could have easily seen her as the actor that she pointed out that she wasn’t at the start), got things rolling at Warren Street station making the very point about its obscurity to the surprisingly small group of eight of us. So as always, here are some of the highlights, although in not too much detail so as to not spoil the walk for others who may wish to pay their £10 to go on it:

Fitzroy Square, London

    • Fitzrovia has long been a home for a number of artists and radicals and as a result developed a bit of a bohemian reputation including some of the inevitable scandals. Big names include Virginia Woolf (and various members of the Bloomsbury Set), Louise Michel, George Bernard Shaw, Francisco de Miranda, Walter Sickert, James Whistler, Ford Madox Brown, Grayson Perry and Roger Fry. Many of them lived in and around the beautiful Fitzroy Square which takes up a decent chunk of the walk and provides a host of stories to be told.
    • BT Tower dominates the area and you can’t help feel sad that its rotating restaurant is no longer open. A popular London landmark now, but can you imagine trying to get planning permission for it in 2016!
    • Fitzrovia Play Association Mural on Goodge Place is a lovely montage of some of the various prominent figures who lived in the area, some of whom aren’t covered in the walk, and so it shows how many more stories there are to tell about the area.

Fitzrovia Play Association Mural, Goodge Place, London

    • The Cleveland Street Scandal is a fascinating story well worth reading more about and in particular in the way that this all overlaps with some of the wilder theories around Jack the Ripper, Walter Sickert, Prince Eddy and the death of Mary Kelly.
    • Charles Dickens crops up a few times as he lived in Cleveland Street and just along the road from that house continues to exist (albeit now derelict) the Strand Union Workhouse which may have inspired Oliver Twist, and nearby is Berners Street home to another legend around the ‘White Woman’ who may have become Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, and the Woman in White of Wilkie Collins.
    • The architecture varies and there are some fascinating buildings in this area which I’d not really spotted before. Apart from the BT Tower there are a host of Georgian buildings, there’s the super modern Arup Offices and the 50s built Indian YMCA on Fitzroy Street, the jumbled non-conformity of the de Walden Estate, the huge yet hidden All Saints Church on Margaret Street and the small yet hidden Fitzrovia Chapel, the unique All Souls on Langham Place and the beautiful tiling of Radiant House on Mortimer Street.

Great Titchfield Street, London

  • The BBC inevitably gets a mention, as does the Berners Street Hoax, but I also discovered (or perhaps re-remembered) that two of my favourite books Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell and Saturday by Ian McEwan have strong Fitrovia connections. It also includes one of my favourite shops The Scandinavian Kitchen on Great Titchfield Street.

This was a walk well worth doing and whilst it didn’t strike me at the time, it’s writing this up now that I remember how much I saw and what a fascinating area it is. Well worth spending some time there.

Lib Dems: English Council – 10th December 2016

This English Council (EC) is later than usual as normally it would be held in November, but it was postponed due to the Witney by-election. The big change since the previous meeting is that the English Party has elected a new Chair for 2017 Liz Leffman who will take over from Steve Jarvis on 1st January. Steve has been Chair for two years and was previously treasurer of the English Party and so has worked very hard and done a great job for the party for some time and I certainly appreciate all that he’s done. Although his proposals to reform the English Party were sent back for review, it’s interesting that despite being pretty much English Party establishment he has been very keen on changing the way it works. It will be interesting to see where Liz takes the party in this respect over the next year.

Due to there not being enough nominations I have been ‘re-elected’ to the English Executive again for 2017, and a by-election is now underway to fill the remaining three vacancies. I’ll report on the full set of new committee members when they are all known in January.

English Council reports are often made up of items that have already been reported through English Council Executive meetings, and so here are any updates or new developments that I feel I should highlight, in no particular order:

Federal Policy Committee

There are three areas of policy work that are currently active – rural communities, 21st century economy and education. The FPC and FCC have both operated a system of ‘regional reps’ who are existing members of those committee and operate as a link between that region (and SAOs) and the committee. It was noted at EC that this wasn’t working particularly well as some reps have close links with their region whilst others no one has ever heard from. This may be reviewed when the new federal committees are elected.

English Review Group

Despite a desire by this group to get on with the process of reviewing how the party functions in England its work has been delayed by both the Witney and Richmond Park by-elections. It was then felt best to hold off slightly until the outcome of the English Party’s Chair’s election was known. All of these delays and the change of Chair has resulted in a revision to the process. The original plan was a two-stage process. First a set of open questions would go out to the membership asking what the party should look like in England and what they feel the pros and cons are of the current structure. This would then be narrowed down to a set of options to be consulted on around the time of Spring Federal Conference, with a final set of revised options to be presented to the English Council meeting in June for a vote. There has been some pressure to stick to the original plan of getting this done in time for June English Council and so now the English Review Group will take the responses from the original Party Governance Review, views from their own regional membership and these will be discussed at an away day in January where we will come up with a set of three options that we believe would make a good start for debate. These will then be presented to the members to comment on and a final decision will still be made in June. This feels less open in some respects, but there has been concern from some people that having a range of open questions initially would simply re-run the consultation done by the Party Governance Review less than a year ago and create a volume of replies that then wouldn’t be handled in time for this process to be completed by June.

One thing I should really emphasise is that this is not, as been claimed elsewhere, an attempt at self-preservation by the English Party. The group is made up of people with a range of views including those who would retain the English level but revise its powers and processes, those who want to scrap the English level and push its powers up to federal level, and those who want to scrap the English level and push its powers down to regional level. In reality I think all members of the group are open to having a debate about it and it is likely that the group will present options rather than just one answer. I would also be interested in seeing some alternative ideas that can’t neatly be pigeon-holed in to any of the three broad positions. What I’ve realised over the years is that plenty of people agree on wanting to abolish the English Party but not many people agree on what should be done with the powers that it does have, how you create an effective link between the regional and federal parties, or given any thought on how this impacts on the Scottish and Welsh Parties, and hopefully this process will do that.

Changing the membership rules

This motion to the English Council proposed to scrap the current one-year rule in England where you need to be a member for a year (in reality to have renewed once) before you can vote in party selections. This was introduced some years ago, and at the time to little controversy, to deal with entryism where a group of connected individuals recruit a large number of new members to the party with the intention of taking over a local party and imposing a candidate of their own choice on the members. The argument for its scrapping was that we now have such a large number of new members who have chosen to join on an individual basis that this is unfair on a large group of people, in many places a majority, who are keen to participate and are definitely not entryists. It has also been emphasised that the party’s new membership systems can pick up any attempts at entryism and these can be handled using other party rules. This motion went through comfortably with very few votes against.

English Candidates’ Committee

There will be a new chair next year, but I think everyone who has worked with the outgoing and retiring Chair Richard Brett, knows the amount of effort he’s put in, in particular recently at trying to improve communications between the state candidate processes and the federal committees.

The currently ‘selected’ parliamentary candidates are in place until 31st May 2017 when new selections will get underway. Any local party who wants to be part of the first tranche of selections can start now in the making the preparations for this, such as preparing constituency profiles, working out the timings, choosing a selection committee and so on.

Finance and membership

The party has recently seen another slight uplift in its membership thanks to the election of Donald Trump as US President. As a result of the increased membership throughout the year the party in England has manged to see a small surplus in its budget for the first time in a while. The increase in membership has however of course increased the cost of running the Membership Department.

The budget for the Membership Department has been increased for 2017 to help them handle the larger party membership. 50,000 of the party’s members will be due to renew in the middle of 2017 and so this will be a huge challenge. The Compliance Department’s budget has also had a modest increase.

Sheffield Central Library to be replaced by hotel? It’s not the full story, and it shouldn’t just be rejected out of hand

geograph-793563-by-chris-downer

Sheffield Central Library, Surrey Street. © Copyright Chris Downer and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The instant reaction to today’s story in Sheffield’s Star newspaper “Chinese plan to turn Sheffield Central Library into five star hotel” is inevitable. People will of course be appalled, in fact horrified is probably a better word. Many won’t read any further than the headline, as the reaction on Twitter is already showing. But here’s why I don’t think we should dismiss this idea out of hand.

First of all, it’s the headline. It doesn’t tell the full story. It could easily have instead been “Plan to invest millions in building new Sheffield Central Library.” The headline instead is typical clickbait and will make many people react in anger without even reading the story. The reality is that IF this goes ahead Sheffield will get a new modern Central Library, and the older building that currently houses the library will be turned in to a five-star hotel. That’s something that the city doesn’t have at the moment and it needs it if it is to compete with other similar sized cities, something which I desperately wish it would do on a more level playing field.

Secondly, it’s about the appalling state of the Central Library building. Whilst it has some brilliant sculptures and art deco features a lot of its structure was knocked up on the cheap in the late 1920s/early 1930s. As a result, the steel frame is severely corroded, the window frames are almost falling out and the roof leaks to such an extent that it causes panic for art gallery staff every time there is a heavy deluge of rain. It also has terrible disabled access and its IT facilities are poor. If it was a 1960s build that was in a similar condition it would probably have been demolished by now, but because it is a beautiful and much-loved building the council has tried to keep it patched up and preserve it as best they can at a time when there is very little money around to invest in it properly.

At the moment this is just a proposal. There’s no guarantee it’ll happen and if it does become a firm plan it needs to be heavily scrutinised, but what it could give us could be something brilliant. Investors (who happen to be from China) would buy the current Central Library building from the city council and turn it in to a hotel thereby preserving one of the city’s favourite buildings. The city as a result gets a modern state of the art library building in return which I hope could be of some architectural significance too. I’m not someone whose instinct is to defend the city council’s ideas. I also love the Central Library and I’m there on average twice a month often more, so this is something that means a lot to me personally. But I’ve also seen the facilities that the new library buildings have around the country and they’re much better than what Sheffield has to offer (For example, I love the interior of the new Library of Birmingham). It may also give us the opportunity to create more space and move many books that are currently in storage on to the shelves where they can be borrowed more easily. It would also be nice if it could at the same time create more space for the city’s art collection which is similarly often in storage as there simply isn’t room to show them properly (at present it’s proposed that the Graves Gallery would move to the ground floor of the existing library building but perhaps there might be a better alternative).

I don’t deny there’s lots to consider properly in this proposal, and I know as little about it as is in the article in The Star. But we shouldn’t just reject it out of hand just because the headline is sensationalist and it involves wealthy overseas investors getting something they want too.

Geoffrey Lee 1919-1941

Note: I wrote this post three years ago and for some reason never published it at the time. So having remembered it and re-read it this felt like a good day to put that right.

My family is fortunate.  In all of the family history research that I’ve done and in the vast extended family tree that I now have, I only know of one ancestor who was killed in action.  That’s not to say that my family wasn’t affected in other ways, but as we remember the people who died fighting to preserve peace, democracy and liberty, I thought I would write this post about the one member of my family who died in combat.  This post has been written by bringing together a number of useful online sources that were readily available and between them give a picture of what happened. With more research over a longer period of time and using offline resources too, I will undoubtedly find out more. If there’s anyone out there who does know more, including perhaps some long lost relatives, then do get in touch or comment below.

Geoffrey Lee doesn’t sound like a close relation – he’s my first cousin twice removed – but if I instead describe him as my grandma’s cousin he suddenly feels a lot closer, especially as it was my grandma who told me the most about the Jackson family, of which they were both a part.  But despite this distance, I have always had an interest in Geoffrey Lee simply because he was the only person in the family who died during the Second World War, and because I’d seen this lovely photograph of him, which appears to have found its way to other websites.

Geoffrey was a member of 82 Squadron which during the Second World War spent much of its time in operations over the North Sea.  It was largely based at RAF Watton in Norfolk, although it eventually operated out of other bases such as nearby RAF Bodney and RAF Lossiemouth, and then later in the war it moved entirely to the Far East.  Geoffrey was a part of the RAF Volunteer Reserve, which is to some extent an RAF equivalent of the Territorial Army.

82 Squadron had had a tough time of it during the early part of the Second World War.  Twice it had to be rebuilt from scratch following raids where every plane was brought down by German bombers.  The most prominent of these incidents was during the raid on Aalborg in Denmark in August 1940 (there’s an interesting short film about it) when most of the squadron was destroyed and a number of airmen captured.  In July 1941, 82 Squadron was often being used for anti-shipping operations in conjunction with the RAF Coastal Command (a book is available about this often forgotten – including during the war itself – offensive).

On 30 July 1941 at 12.43, Blenheim IV R3803 took off from RAF Bodney in Norfolk.  On board the plane were three crew members – Pilot Sergeant Peter Stocks, Air Gunner Pilot Officer Eric Hale and Observer Sergeant Geoffrey Lee.  They were aiming for the area around the Kiel Canal, possibly to bomb German targets in the area or possibly to lay mines.  The Kiel Canal has long been a crucial link between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea since it was constructed in 1895, and although this made it a huge asset to Germany during the war, it also made it a point of weakness for them as they relied on it so much.  The flight on 30 July 1941 was therefore part of a long-standing and much wider operation around this part of the North Sea.

At around the same time as Peter Stocks, Eric Hale and Geoffrey Lee were taking off from Norfolk, a number of German Messerschmitt Bf110‘s took off to guard the Kiel Canal, probably from their base in Jever in Lower Saxony, northern Germany.  They were part of the Zerstörergeschwader 76 a wing of the Luftwaffe which was engaged in numerous varied operations around northern Europe, and at other times across Europe and the Middle East.

At around 14.30, the British RAF plane was found by the Germans in the skies above Denmark.  Opening fire, they brought the plane down over the North Sea not far from the Danish city of Esbjerg.  It was one of five Blenheim’s shot down by the Germans within a 20 minute period that day.

The war continued…

A month later, Eric Hale’s body was found on the beach at Nymindegab with Geoffrey Lee’s body found nearly 40 miles further south on the beach at Mandø.  Peter Stocks’ body was never found.  Geoffrey Lee’s body along with that of another British airman and three German airmen, were retrieved by the Wehrmacht and taken to Ribe and then on to Esbjerg’s Fourfelt Cemetery.

Geoffrey Lee and Eric Hale are buried are at Esbjerg’s Fourfelt Cemetery.  Peter Stocks is remembered on the Runnymede Memorial.

17 months after Geoffrey Lee’s tragic death, his brother Wilfred’s second child was born. He was named Geoffrey Lee presumably in memory.

Thank you to the following websites which have proved essential in helping me put together a lot more about this than I ever knew before:

Back to Normandy
Aircrew Remembered
Søren Flensted’s Air War over Denmark
Tony Wood’s Combat Claim List
Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Preview of English Lib Dem Executive – Sat 29th Oct 2016

I’ve not managed to blog the last English Council Executive (ECE) meeting or follow up on the English Council (EC) meeting which I feel a bit frustrated by. This has been due to some personal circumstances and a slight reticence whilst I was in the process of job hunting given advice received from a couple of recruitment agencies that being seen to be currently politically active might jeopardise my employment chances. I’m not sure whether that’s true but you don’t want to take the risk. With me now having been recruited for a new role starting soon, and having a little more time on my hands, I am trying to catch up with some of the English Party’s activities in light of tomorrow’s ECE meeting which is back meeting at Lib Dem HQ for the first time in a while.

As always this post has ended up far too long, however there are at least two pretty chunky areas that are seeing a lot of work which you can read more about here… (more…)

Preview of English Lib Dem Council – Sat 2nd Jul 2016

Tomorrow’s English Lib Dems Council meeting held at University College London will probably be one of the more interesting ones in a while. I say this as someone who has always found English Lib Dem Executive interesting, but been less engaged by the English Council. The reason for this is that it sees motions to implement the rules on diversity that the party’s Federal Conference voted for in March, changes in the way that the English Party operates to bring in OMOV and a revised structure for the state party and, in a change to the originally advertised programme, an open discussion on the EU referendum result and a possible snap General Election. There will also be a presentation by the party’s Chief Executive Tim Gordon.

But before I go on to those, here’s a few excerpts from the various reports from the English party officers and its representatives on other party committees that have been presented to the English Council meeting:

  • As has been widely advertised, the party has seen another surge in its membership since the EU Referendum (about 12,000 new members at the time of writing) but last year’s post-General Election surge has largely held up. Two-thirds of those new members from last year renewed immediately and signs are that a good proportion of those left will renew before their membership expires.
  • A proposal will be going to Federal Conference to increase the proportion of membership subscriptions that go the federal party from 44% to 45%. This is intended to help improve the national party’s cashflow.
  • The membership incentive scheme has been a great encouragement to local parties to recruit new members, however it was always intended to reward local party efforts rather than just to hand extra cash to local parties as a result of a national membership surge. There is an expectation that the way the incentive scheme works will be reviewed in the light of the most recent membership surge.
  • A further 53 General Election candidates have been approved since May 2015 which will help plug some inevitable gaps should there be a snap General Election this Autumn. I’ve been impressed at how rapidly the state and regional candidate officers have sprung in to action to ensure that we already have pretty advanced plans should there be a General Election this Autumn.
  • The Party President has set up a diversity taskforce following the motion passed at Spring Conference. She is also looking in to complaints about allegations of sexual harassment at conference, however although this may achieve some important changing of the culture, action can only be taken by state parties on specific complaints if people are prepared to provide information so that the party can investigate. I appreciate this can be difficult for people but as I’ve said before I am very impressed by the party’s Pastoral Care Officer and so I’d urge people to contact her. You will be supported. Her details are going to be included in future conference directories but you can also make complaints here.
  • Although the EU Referendum didn’t see the result we wanted it was felt that the engagement by members was impressive, including one weekend when over half of all local parties had a street stall.
  • Proposals on the party’s Governance Review will be presented to the party’s Autumn Conference. Whilst I support many of the draft proposals there will inevitably be some that are controversial. There is also the possibility of course that it will all have to be delayed if there is a snap General Election.
  • The Federal Policy Committee is currently recruiting to four new policy working groups on industrial policy, foreign affairs, education and rural issues. The deadline for applications is the 4th July so you need to act quickly if you want to join them. More details can be found here.
  • The Federal Policy Committee are actively looking at ways to engage more people in the policy making process. Consultation sessions at conference have been improved, Skype is now routinely used for members of policy working groups and they are looking to develop packs that can be used by local parties for each topic under discussion.
  • The York Spring Conference saw the highest attendance at a Spring Conference that there’s been for a long time. It also made a small profit which is very positive given that traditionally it has made a loss, and this is largely due to efforts by the Federal Conference Committe and Conference Office to run the conference on a smaller budget.
  • The Federal Conference Committee is reviewing how ‘interventions’ are made in conference debates. These are short contributions made from the hall, but as such it is harder to balance opinions according to the debate or on diversity. Suggestions on how to improve this are welcome.
  • Liberal Youth are organising an Activate weekend for younger activists on 28th July. They are also planning their freshers’ campaigns including mental health, house building and the EU referendum response. They are also looking to create guides to help Liberal Youth regional parties to run better action days.

Motion: Changing the Westminster selection rules

This follows on from the motion at Spring Federal Conference and as such probably needs little extra information here (you can download the motion that was passed in the agenda from that conference available here).

There is however an amendment that would seek to change the threshold at which a region had to designate a seat to select from an all-woman shortlist from having at least two seats receiving 25% or more of the vote to having 20% or more of the vote. This would ensure that those regions who previously didn’t need to designate a seat would now have to do so. At the same time however an additional clause would also ensure that all-woman shortlists cannot be imposed on a seat without their agreement as long as they can prove their ‘gender balance credentials’. I’m not entirely sure what this means.

Whilst I was always opposed to the original diversity motion, (for a variety of reasons which there isn’t time to go in to here but was largely around the principle that we shouldn’t stop seats from selecting the right candidate for their seat regardless of characteristic and about the effect the motion would have on other forms of diversity), I do feel that the expression of feeling given by the Federal Conference was such that this motion does need to go through. I will however listen to the debate on the amendment as I need to fully understand what it means before I decide how to vote on that.

Motion: Restructuring the English Party

The English Council last November approved a strategy paper that included creating a new structure for the English Party. The party has also now adopted One Member One Vote (OMOV) at a federal level and so this will now be introduced at state and regional level. The amendments to achieve all of these things are too detailed (and dull) to explain here, however in addition to OMOV the key changes proposed at this meeting would in summary:

  • Replace English Council with an English Conference which all members in England can attend. For logistical reasons this is expected to become a part of Federal Conference.
  • Replace the current English Council Executive (ECE) that is comprised of all regional chairs, a number of specific office holders (such as chair, vice-chair, treasurer, candidates etc), and 11 additional members directly-elected by English Council. Instead it would become a committee comprised of just regional chairs and a slightly increased number of specific office holders elected by all English members – chair, campaigns, candidates, finance, members and standards.
  • Replace yearly elections with two-yearly elections.

Since these proposals were originally put forward one key change is that the Federal Executive has expressed a desire to move to three-year cycles for all federal, state and regional committees, with each level electing in a different year. I appreciate the neatness of this, but I know there is some concern that at at a regional level committing to three years as a regional chair might put off some people who are prepared to do it for a year and see how it goes. I have a lot of sympathy for that argument as someone who was regional chair for a year and decided that it wasn’t the right time for me to continue but wouldn’t want to let the region down by resigning early.

There is also an additional amendment which would see the retention of a smaller number of directly-elected members of English Council Executive members rather than abolishing them completely. Rather than the 11 at present it would see five which is consistent with the sub-committees of ECE. Again, I have some sympathy for this, and not just because I am a current directly-elected member, as it allows you to include some additional people with useful skills and experience who don’t have the time to be a regional chair or are perhaps former experienced regional chairs whose knowledge you would value, but I will again listen to the debate before deciding how to vote.

There is a valid argument to be made about whether this is the right time to be making these changes to the English Party structure when we don’t know how the party’s federal Governance Review will impact on state parties. Some recognition of this is seen in that the full change to OMOV won’t be made until the Governance Review has concluded and the proposals do show a willingness by the English Party to examine whether it does work in the best way. However, despite the mandate given to explore these changes given by the last English Council I worry that some of this will end up having to be unpicked again once the Governance Review has been approved (or not) by Federal Conference. Having said that I do largely support what is proposed and so plan to support the motion as a whole.

I had anticipated this post being shorter than usual due to the more straightforward agenda. Seems it wasn’t to be so, but as always feel free to contact me by either writing a comment or filling in the comment form available in the header of this website which then comes to me directly via email.