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.

Some TV, book & talk recommendations

In February I wrote a post highlighting some of the interesting TV programmes I’d seen over the last few months. I’m going to do the same again but expand it to some of the books I’ve read and talks I’ve watched online (largely on TED talks) as a wider set of recommendations:

TV – Drama

Line of Duty (BBC) – There’s been a lot of praise heaped on to Line of Duty – a series centred on investigating police corruption – and without doubt for me its last series was one of the best police dramas I’ve seen on TV in a long time. So, could the new series live up to the hype? In my view, yes absolutely, and it continues to surprise and shock as it goes on.

Follow the Money (BBC) – This is the latest foreign language drama in the BBC4 Saturday night 9pm slot. It’s a Danish crime series around business and corruption. At times you aren’t entirely sure who is a goodie and who’s a baddie, but that’s what makes it so compelling.

Blue Eyes (Channel 4) – Part of the Walter Presents… strand of foreign language dramas that’s available from Channel 4, this focuses on the rise of the far right in Swedish politics and takes as its start the murder of a supporter of the fascist party. This is something that hasn’t been covered at any length in any other political series so it’ll be interesting to see how it pans out.

Trapped (BBC) – It’s a few weeks since this was on, but I missed it from my last post and so I’m including it here as it was a great series and the first Icelandic crime series shown on BBC4. Set in a remote town in Iceland when a body is found, the town is then snowed in and the local police set to investigate the murder and other associated criminality in the town. Not many dramas show it snowing for most of the series, and it was a great programme.

TV – Documentaries / Factual

Inside Obama’s White House (BBC) – this has been a fascinating behind-the-scenes four part series covering four of the major elements of his time as president including interviews with key players and Obama himself. It gives a good sense of what drives him and certainly gives you the impression of a bright, capable man whose time as president has been hindered by resentful opponents and events outside of his control. Whilst putting a positive spin on much of what he has done it’s an interesting counterbalance to some of the criticism that he’s achieved little.

Amy (Channel 4) – I was pleased to see this Amy Winehouse biopic being shown on TV as I missed it when it was available at the cinema. Whilst I’m a fan of Winehouse’s music this documentary will be of interest to many other people who aren’t. Whilst many will acknowledge that she was a flawed talent, this programme shows her to be a much more complicated individual.

Secret History: Shakespeare’s Tomb (Channel 4) – An interesting programme about the mystery of Shakespeare’s tomb (it doesn’t bear his name nor does it appear to be the right size) which includes the first archaeological investigation of his grave.

The Prosecutors: Real Crime and Punishment (BBC) – This behind the scenes documentary series shows the work of the Crown Prosecution Series and was interesting to see a crucial part of the criminal process that most of us don’t really think about or are aware of how it works. Having done jury service in the last year, it helped fill in some gaps in my understanding of how it all came together in court.

Being the Brontes (BBC) – This one-off programme takes three writers to Haworth where they explore more about the lives of the three sisters and tries to get to grips with who they really were and how their lives there impacted on their writing.

Art of Scandinavia (BBC) – Barring a few notable exceptions, the art of Scandinavia is often overlooked when considering art across Europe. This series takes each country in turn looking at key figures in that country’s art and how the landscape and culture of the country has impacted on it. Despite my Swedish heritage, it’s certainly filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge and moved me on from the slightly twee yet comforting paintings of Carl Larsson.


I’m an avid user of the GoodReads website and keep track of the books I’ve read and write regular reviews on there, so you can see more of my reading there. Here are a few of the eclectic selection of books I’ve read recently however that are of particular note with an excerpt from my full review.

Walk the Lines: the London Underground, Overground by Mark Mason – Every so often you read a book that feels as though it was written especially for you. That’s just how I feel about Walk the Lines. Over the last few days I have been exploring London by vicariously walking the route of every London Underground line through the efforts and writing of Mark Mason, and it’s been fascinating.

Renishaw Hall: The Story of the Sitwells by Desmond Seward – Unusually for a history of such a prominent family this book takes their home as its title and focus. It’s fitting however for a house that, whilst far less well known that the literary siblings who made the Sitwell name famous, has a big impact on every generation of the family.

Georgian London: Into the Streets by Lucy Inglis – This fascinating book brings to life Georgian London. Based on Lucy Inglis’ blog each chapter covers a different part of London its history, way of life and the characters who were crucial to that part of the city at that time. Although a credible and authoritative history what makes this book stand out is the way its author loves an interesting story that gives you a real sense of life at the time, rather than just a dry stating of the facts.

Genealogy: Essential Research Methods by Helen Osborn – This book has become one of the core texts if you are undertaking your family history. Whilst a potentially dry subject, this book explains in an interesting and clear way the crucial techniques you need to understand if you are to undertake genealogy in a methodical and thorough way. Using real examples from the author’s own research, this book will help you think afresh on how you do your own research and make you cover all of the bases in ensuring you have a clear and traceable family history.

TED Talks

Just the two to kick this off, as I’ve not watched as many of these of late but I remain a huge fan of the inspiring and fascinating things you explore through the TED talks website.

Hans & Ola Rosling: How Not to be Ignorant About the World (view here) – Father and son team Hans & Ola Rosling present real statistics and information about the world that shows that whilst there are undoubtedly problems around the world, things are actually a lot better than we think. It’s a call to question what you’re told by the media and at school, but also gives a few tips on how to use your instinct to better understand the world.

Rory Sutherland: Life Lessons from an Ad Man (view here) – A leading figure in the world of advertising, this seven year old talk is still one of the funniest. It also though helps you understand why intangible benefits may be good and how advertising could change the world for the better despite what people may think.

Gawsworth Hall, Cheshire

Cheshire is one of those counties that I’ve not spent enough time exploring. I’ve got friends who live in Cheshire and other places nearby and I’ve often visited them, but I’ve never really got out and about visiting the different parts of it. It also seems to have a lot of historic houses worth visiting, and so that’s how I ended up at Gawsworth Hall when a friend who lives a few miles away suggested we met up.

On Easter Sunday (or at least this Easter Sunday) Gawsworth Hall near Macclesfield opened to the public for just £2.50 entry. If you add in the beautiful weather when I set off from Sheffield it seemed like the perfect day out. It continued to be a lovely day out, but the weather was one thing that didn’t last as after we’d been inside the house (fortunately) for about five minutes the heavens opened and the rain was bouncing off the ground.

Gawsworth Hall (West Front)

Gawsworth Hall is a traditional black and white half-timbered house typical of Cheshire. Its ownership has passed through various families, although many of them connected, such as the Fittons, the Earls of Macclesfield, Earls of Harrington and then various individual owners up to the present day where it is now the home of Timothy and Elizabeth Richards. What makes this house so different from others you visit is that the house is opened up the owners and they are there to show the house where they live day to day. These aren’t rooms for show, they’re rooms for daily life. But despite that it’s worth a look around. Gawsworth Hall isn’t the most important house historically or architecturally, as lovely a building as it is, but it’s that feeling of being in a real but well preserved old house that’s retained large parts of its history that makes it interesting to visit. It was often brushed by history – Charles II was said to have stayed and it saw a notorious duel – but it wasn’t right at the centre of it, as many older houses probably weren’t.

If there’s one thing I love when visiting historic houses it’s a good library, and Gawsworth Hall achieved on that score from the off. The first principal room that you see is the library lined with beautiful old books that you just look at and think “I could so live here,” although you’d hate to dust it. Mind you if you can afford to live in a house like that you can probably afford to have a cleaner and avoid the dusting yourself. We soon realised however that we would needed to keep any opinions we had about the place to ourselves given that our comment on dusting (one very thorough dust once a year apparently) and another comment about St Barbara (there was a carved figure of her, which was an odd coincidence as I’d only said the day before I’d never heard of her when someone was marrying at a St. Barbara’s church) were replied to by the owner stood some distance away in the Entrance Hall. She might be a bat.

Despite me saying that Gawsworth Hall isn’t historically important, it has two characters that it’s especially proud of. One is Samuel ‘Maggoty’ Johnson, one of the last jesters in the country who used to live at Gawsworth where he’d entertain the Harrington family and whose fiddle is mounted on the wall of the house. The other is Mary Fitton, who is thought to be the dark lady that Shakespeare wrote about in his sonnets (someone I admittedly was unaware of) and who lived in the house and is buried in the church next door. These add some colour and further interest to the house but in reality it’s the cosiness and ancient feel of Gawsworth Hall that makes it worth visiting.

Their gardens are fairly low key and distinctly damp on the day of my visit, but after a look round and a lovely cream tea in their small cafe, we then called in on Gawsworth Church where many of the former owners of Gawsworth Hall are buried. It amazed me how many churches continue to be unlocked so people can just wander in these days, which is a nice sign of still trusting people. Although parts of the nave were marked as being alarmed and so you weren’t able to get too close to the most interesting bits of the church.

Gawsworth Church

There is a small album of photographs from Gawsworth Hall on my Flickr site.

English Lib Dem Executive Report – Sat 19th March 2016

Here’s my regular report from the English Lib Dem Executive (ECE), this time from the one held last Saturday. I wrote a post before the meeting and so this is adding to that report.

First, a short clarification from that report. The membership figure I gave was just for England rather than the total party membership. However the English Party treasurer reported back at the meeting that the figure had since been revised upwards and so he needed to clarify the exact figure. So I suppose it’s fair to say the figure is at least the 52,654 I gave before.

So here are the main points from the meeting, which is a mixture of discussion arising from the reports presented to the meeting, and a lengthier discussion that looked specifically at some of the points that had come out of the General Election Review and the Party Governance Review:

  • The party has considered the option of moving Lib Dem HQ out of London but the cost is the largest barrier because there would still need to be some sort of base in London which would mean the party would have to sustain two HQ buildings not one.
  • The costs of running Spring Conference this year were substantially less than they have been, and if you exclude staff costs made roughly a £5,000 loss which perhaps isn’t as significant as was originally thought. I should say that this figure is approximate and based on information supplied to the Federal Conference Committee and so I don’t know how it is calculated. The conference hall overflow area in the exhibition area turned out to not be needed (although a couple of debates came close to being full), however the cost of having ‘hard-shell’ stands may mean that the exhibition at Spring probably won’t return to exactly how it used to be. There was a clear desire at the meeting that Spring Conference should continue, whether this is as a Federal event or just an English one.
  • The party is currently recruiting a new Director of Campaigns and Elections and it was proposed that ECE should request that the English Chair be on the interview panel. I was happy to support that as it provides a link between the appointment and regional parties, however the decision was clearly not in our hands and we didn’t know who was already proposed to be on the panel.
  • The next English Council is moving to early July (since the meeting it was agreed to be on the 2nd July) as it was originally scheduled to be the weekend before the EU Referendum. There was a suggestion it was instead moved earlier to mid May to allow the changes to candidate selection rules to take place sooner rather than later, but the time taken to come up with the rule changes and to properly consult on them makes that difficult. I made a request that we engage much more extensively with the wider party on this than we usually do as the decision will be of interest to a lot of people who aren’t on English Council.
  • Whilst on the subject of candidates, there are many parts of the candidate selection process that constituencies can get on with before the rules are agreed and will allow them to advertise as soon as the rules are sorted (as I’ve said previously, if you’re in a seat that wants to be an early selection you need to contact your Regional Candidates’ Chair ASAP). A briefing note will be sent to all local party chairs to make sure they’re aware of the schedule and what they need to do to select. Unlike in the last parliament, where both state and federal parties agreed that we should wait until boundary changes were known before candidates were selected there is no suggestion that this should happen this time. In most cases a selection will stand regardless of boundary changes, although a handful may have to reselect if the changes are particularly extensive. In cases where the majority of the new seat was in a seat that was previously selected under an All-Women Shortlist then the new one will be. It’s important to be aware that the next boundary changes will not just be a dusting off of the previous proposals with just a few tweaks, as the electorate has changed quite dramatically in some areas and this will have a knock-on effect even if there are areas that look as though they closely match what happened last time. This is something that the party needs to be taking more seriously.
  • Whilst on rule changes, the next English Council meeting will also consider changes to bring in One Member One Vote to the English Party and changing the current make-up of ECE. The original plans for this were outlined in the English Strategy document agreed last November, but these have now been turned in to some draft amendments that will be tweaked by a small group of ECE members before being circulated more widely. With all members in England being able to vote it would see English Council instead replaced with an English Conference which due to its potential size could be a part of Federal Conference, or run as a standalone event. Whatever happens however it would need a very different sort of agenda as the current format of English Council is pretty dry and wouldn’t engage the members that well (or at least wouldn’t encourage them to come back). The membership of ECE is also proposed to change to instead be made up of the English Party officers, English regional chairs and Liberal Youth England Chair as now, but without the 11 additional elected members (of which I am one). The officers, who would all be directly elected by all members in England, are currently proposed to be made up of the chair and five vice-chairs covering campaigns, candidates, compliance, finance and membership. The last four of these are all specific responsibilities of the English Party, but the addition of a campaigns role is designed to ensure better links between Lib Dem HQ’s campaigns function and the campaigning role performed by English regional parties. Each of the vice-chairs would have a committee to help in their work whose members would be elected by ECE with any member within England eligible to stand for election. Whilst I think the English Party does need to get on with introducing one-member-one-vote I have some doubts about immediately changing the structure of the English Party’s governance even though the general thrust of these changes were agreed by English Council last November. Given that the party’s Federal Governance Review has yet to reach a conclusion and there is likely to be a knock-on effect we perhaps should be waiting for that to conclude first even though it is entirely within the gift of any state party to structure itself as it wishes.
  • Liberal Youth England is keen to promote its Branch Development Fund which helps Liberal Youth branches get up and running. They had a very good turnout at their latest conference and there’s quite a bit of optimism.
  • There was some concern expressed at the meeting about the idea of combining candidates with campaigns in any new party structure. Those who have been involved in the candidates process were pretty passionate about the need to revisit this suggestion contained within the Governance Review. It was accepted that the work of the candidates function is currently poorly understood and there is a lack of communication (in both directions) between candidates and campaigns which needs to be resolved. However, there is also a potential conflict of interest between campaigns and candidates that could end up leading to interfering in specific selections with the result that they are less impartial and fair to all involved and lead to further conflict and formal complaints. The job of a candidates’ chair at national or regional level is already a nearly full time role where the regions do most the work on the ground but wouldn’t be helped by then being separated from those people on the national committee that co-ordinates it. This is a debate that will no doubt continue.
  • There was some discussion about how people are elected to party committees. The Governance Review asks if directly-elected members should be in the majority, and ECE agreed that they should so what the committees do is generally owned by the membership, which is a current issue that affects the credibility of how the English Party operates. This should however include state representatives as being seen as directly elected. However there could be various ways in which direct election is done, such as people being elected within regional constituencies to ensure a broader geographic spread. It was mentioned that the chair of the English Party is currently around the third most northerly English member of the Federal Executive and he lives in Hertfordshire.
  • Regional chairs were concerned that they hadn’t seen the full General Election Review which they thought they had been promised. The summary version that is publicly available contains many recommendations and assertions, but without the full version it is difficult to know how those conclusions were reached and what issues were identified that led to them. It was agreed that it should be kept confidential, but if regions are to play a full role in rebuilding the party then the chairs felt they needed to be better informed.
  • The English Party has awarded an annual Penhaligon Award for membership each year. This has traditionally been about not only membership increase but also engagement. There was a suggestion that rather than awarding it in the Autumn, it should be postponed until next Spring and given to the local party that does the most over the Summer and early Autumn to retain membership from the post-General Election surge.

The next meeting is on Saturday 21st May.

Preview of English Lib Dem Executive – Sat 19th March 2016

It’s time for the next executive meeting of the English Lib Dems (or English Council Executive or ECE depending on your preference) and so here’s my preview of what is on the agenda and items that I’ve picked out from the reports presented to it. I’m pleased to see that the agendas and minutes for English and Federal Party meetings are now being regularly posted in the members’ area of the party website. To view the agenda (but not the reports) for this meeting you need to log-in and then go here.

Before I get in to the meeting I just want to point out that the first set of proposals from the party’s Governance Review is available. Despite my interest in this which led to me sending in a (far too) extensive response to the initial consultation, this had completely passed me by and I was still awaiting the report. Unless you get the full conference papers mailing you wouldn’t have had a paper copy and so given the interest that there was in this when it first got underway I want to encourage party members to now respond to the generally good set of proposals that have now been produced.

The agenda for this meeting largely involves discussing the various party reviews (general election and governance) and strategies (English) and so until the discussion has been had there’s a limit to what I can report on those. However, here are what I think are the key points from the agenda papers:

  • There is some discussion about replacing the Spring Federal Conference with a Spring English Conference. This is partly reflecting the attendees of this event, but also a need to review it in light of the cost of hosting it. This is also tied in to the future governance model of the party however, and the party is still booking a venue for 2017 and so it may not change immediately. This year’s Spring Conference was the highest attended ever with over 1,400 members and around 250 first-time attendees but is still likely to make a loss due to the fewer external organisations, media and observers attending.
  • The party is working on plans to improve communications between Lib Dem HQ and the membership, as this is something that is often cited as not being quite right whether it’s in volume (too much or too little, depending on your take) and whether the tone and channels are quite right. Ad Lib magazine is now an all-members magazine and it has been agreed that there will be a section containing news from regional parties as well. Regions are also going to work with the membership department on piloting new recruitment ideas. The membership incentive scheme has been a great success, but in the long-run it is unlikely to be financially sustainable and is already a significant financial pressure on the national party and so looking at new techniques is useful from this point of view as well as positive in its own right.
  • Whilst on membership, the party ended 2015 with 52,654 members which was a net increase of 13,679 over the year. A stunning performance. However the challenge is now to get the large post-election increase to renew, whilst the first quarter of 2016 showed a drop in the rate at which some of the longer-standing members were renewing.
  • Parliamentary selections will start to get underway in England in the Summer, and so anyone who is interested in standing should get their application to be an approved candidate in to the Candidates’ Office now (details here). The number of new applicants has been fairly low recently, and so do encourage anyone you know who may be or should be interested. Alongside this, if your seat wants to be one of the first to advertise for a candidate then you should let your Regional Candidates’ Chair know ASAP. The party still needs more candidate assessors and returning officers trained to cope with a flood (hopefully) of seats wanting to advertise for candidates later this year. Regional parties will have the job over the next few months of designating which seats in their region will have an All-Women Shortlist and this needs to be done quickly to allow selections to proceed. The European Parliamentary selection will take place later this year.
  • The Federal Executive has set up a small review group to review the party’s current SAOs and AOs.
  • The party’s excellent Pastoral Care Officer has produced a paper proposing a ‘Partnership Charter’ which aims to improve the working relationships between party staff and volunteers. It’s been well documented how a lack of mutual respect has grown up within some parts of the party which in particular manifests itself with intemperate language, casting aspersions on people’s motives, actions and professionalism and the repeating of lies and personalised negative opinions. Robust discussion is one thing, but the tone of some comments verges on, and in some cases is, bullying. Some people have bravely decided to tackle this head on, but when they have the comments thread has then degenerated in to the exact same problem that the writer was highlighting in the first place. The prompt for the proposed charter however is many HQ staff citing a lack of mutual respect from members as the worst aspect of their job at leaving interviews. The lack of mutual respect is an issue amongst the wider membership as well (and we shouldn’t forget that the vast majority of party staff are long-standing members as well) but it is a serious problem that needs addressing. I hope that this new initiative helps, but it will continue to be a challenge if some people fail to realise they are a part of the problem, and this includes some otherwise well regarded individuals.
  • The party’s Diversity Engagement Group which had been held in abeyance since the General Election was restarted in December with Meral Hussein-Ece as its new chair. They continue to meet and in particular will be looking at how to embed in the party community outreach and diversity of candidates and membership. The report from the group has highlighted a few interesting things – 61% of candidate assessors are women however the number of BAME assessors is very low, Regional Candidates’ Chairs can recommend that the one year rule on being a member before being approved as a candidate is waived if someone comes from an under-represented group, and four regions need to appoint Diversity Champions (SC, SE, WC & YH).

I’m happy to continue to answer any questions that members have about items on the agenda. Just click on the word Contact in the bar above, fill in your comments and I’ll get an email that I’ll respond to.

Looking ahead, I won’t be able to attend the English Council Executive meeting in May due to another personal commitment that day, however I will write a preview of the agenda. The full English Council meeting that had been scheduled for 18th June will be moved to another date due to the EU Referendum, with 2nd July being the favourite. That English Council meeting will have a pretty hefty agenda as it will include the constitutional changes needed to introduce One-Member-One-Vote (OMOV) to the English Party  and it will agree candidate selection rules changes to reflect the diversity motion at the recent Federal Conference. I don’t believe any proposals on this latter point have been drafted yet but it’s important that these have wider discussion given the strong interest in them from many people who are not members of English Council.


Wakefield – part two

Continuing my visit to Wakefield (part one is here)…

The city centre

Arriving back in the city centre was a jolt confronted as I was with a dual carriageway, a large car park and in the distance a shopping centre. Trinity Walk Shopping Centre is a fairly generic shopping centre with the range of shops that most cities now have and I can imagine it was an exciting new development for the city when it opened fairly recently. Like many of the newest shopping centres it was designed rather than as a completely covered centre to instead be made up of open air streets that linked up with the neighbouring roads, but with it being at one end of the city centre I wondered if it had ended up killing the rest of the city centre. The answer is perhaps a little (I suppose I don’t know what it was like before) but certainly nothing fatal.

former Wakefield & Barnsley Union Bank, Westgate, Wakefield

The rest of the centre was a mixture of bargain basement retailers, old-fashioned independents and a few newer looking cafes and bars. Whilst not exactly giving the impression of thriving it certainly wasn’t rundown and it seems that the rest of the centre works quite happily providing something different and complementing the major chains of Trinity Walk. I always think it’s a shame to lose from city centres streets that are a mixture of local independents and national chain retailers, but when you’re close to another big city, not having the latest popular chains is more likely to encourage people to go off to other cities that do, and might mean you end up with even fewer shops rather than simply keeping people using your existing retailers.

I would have made use of one of these newer local independents in the lovely looking cafe Marmalade on the Square, but it was absolutely packed and so I instead resorted to a more old-school type of café Chapter Seven on Silver Street – plate of chilli and rice just £4. I also partook in a pint at the pleasant Wakefield Beer Exchange on the Bull Ring. The one place that did seem to be suffering was the older Ridings Shopping Centre which, whilst still retaining mobile shops, Boots and Marks & Spencer was looking distinctly sad and in need of some TLC to move it in to the 21st century.

County Hall, Wakefield

One thing that is a very attractive feature of Wakefield’s city centre is its old street plan and some quite interesting historic buildings. The Victorian grandeur of the city’s Civic Quarter with the towers of the Town Hall and the County Hall, and the columns of the County Court, (which is sadly hidden by scaffolding at present), are as, if not more impressive, than the buildings on offer in major cities. Having lost its county council and with council services being scaled back you do wonder what use these buildings will continue to have, and you need to hope they don’t end up becoming rundown and derelict.

Alongside the Civic Quarter are the old yards on both sides of Westgate. Westgate itself appears to be the main location of the city’s clubs and bars and so was pretty quiet on my daytime visit, but these yards give the impression that with a bit of TLC they could be really something. I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to say that when you look down one of the yards towards the towers of the Civic Quarter you could imagine that you’re in one of the ancient hilltop cities in Italy such as Siena or San Gimignano.

View along George & Crown Yard, towards Wakefield Town Hall

Hidden away in one of these alleyways – Thompson’s Yard – is the birthplace of writer George Gissing. Although not especially well known these days, it was a result of my previous visit to The Hepworth that I discovered him and ended up reading his best known book New Grub Street. Unfortunately, my visit was on a day that the Gissing Centre housed in his old birthplace was closed, but it’s somewhere that I’ll try and come back to another time.

Wakefield Cathedral

Wakefield Cathedral has this curious ability to dominate views across the city – it does have the tallest spire in Yorkshire after all – and yet be surprisingly hidden when you’re in the streets surrounding it. I wouldn’t have thought I’d have to look at a map when I was only two streets away to find such a prominent building. Sadly, on my visit the cathedral was part of the way through a major renovation which meant that only half the cathedral was open with the rest behind wooden boards with builders frantically working to a very imminent deadline to complete all the work before its reopening. This meant that some of the parts of the building that I’d seen online before my visit, such as the beautiful choir, were not visible.

Wakefield Cathedral

A very enthusiastic cathedral volunteer did however insist on showing me his ‘ambo’ which fortunately wasn’t as disturbing as it sounded and was in fact a beautifully made wooden pulpit/lectern on wheels they’d recently had installed. It was dragged across the floor for me as a demonstration of how smoothly it moved although it was pointed out that it did have brakes “as we don’t want the bishop suddenly flying off in the wrong direction during a service.” Despite being very much an atheist I do love a good church and so I expect this is another place I’ll be back to when the renovation is complete.

On my way to my final destination I took a small detour to admire Wakefield’s Chantry Chapel – one of only four remaining, and the oldest of the bridge chapels in the country – with impressive stone carvings although now slightly spoilt by its position on an ancient bridge parallel to a very busy main road. It’s this busy main road that unfortunately also spoils the walk to my final destination.

Chantry Chapel of St. Mary the Virgin, Wakefield

The Hepworth Wakefield

I’ve been a fan of Martin Parr ever since I first took a real interest in photography about ten years ago and that was why I was so keen to visit The Hepworth last week to see their exhibition of his work. I just love his curiosity about the world around him that he manages to convey in his photographs. Whether it’s his recent bright and colourful work – the latest of which The Rhubarb Triangle, was the new commission that tied in to this exhibition – or his early black and white work such as The Non-Conformists that is an affectionate portrayal of a traditional world in Calderdale that has now disappeared, I find it all irresistible. I attended a fascinating talk he gave in Hebden Bridge a few years ago and that sealed my love of his photography and so a chance to view six of his major projects in one gallery (The Non-Conformists, The Last Resort, Common Sense, The Cost of Living, Autoportrait and The Rhubarb Triangle) was too good to miss.

The Rhubarb Triangle and Other Stories, (Martin Parr) at The Hepworth Wakefield

Mind you, I need little excuse to visit The Hepworth as the only part of Wakefield that I’ve spent time in before. Not only do I love David Chipperfield’s architecture that manages to be both dramatic and yet also at a very human scale, I just like the feel of the place. If I’m honest I wouldn’t say I’m a particular fan of sculpture which is of course the main focus of the gallery and I have a lot of sympathy for the person who once described it as “something you bump in to when you step back to admire a painting.” Despite this, I am more appreciative of Barbara Hepworth’s work as I like the shape and tactility of a lot of it and I do love seeing them in the landscape on my occasional visits to Yorkshire Sculpture Park. What I don’t get is sculpture such as the objects that I saw on my previous visit to The Hepworth which seemed to consist of severed fingers balanced on the top of wavy bits of metal. I guess no one likes everything in art.

The Hepworth Wakefield

The one thing that does disappoint me about The Hepworth is how you get to it. In a city that by now I’d decided had a lot going for it and a generally attractive city centre and immediate surrounds, the walk to a place as inspiring as The Hepworth is thoroughly uninspiring. My last visit was by a train to Wakefield Kirkgate station which has thankfully now changed from being a depressing incredibly rundown and quite frankly embarrassing station to one that has been thoroughly restored and upgraded. But to get to The Hepworth, which is only 10 minutes away from the station, was via poorly sited signposts, a rundown pub, scruffy tower blocks, a very busy main road that involves several different crossing points and a collection of ugly retail warehouses and builder’s merchants. I’m not saying the artgoers of The Hepworth should be shielded from the realities of life, but it doesn’t exactly entice you in. This time, having walked there and back from the city centre, you started to wonder which grim alleyway the city fathers were going to try and entice their visitors in to next. When there’s so much in my visit that has transformed my impression of Wakefield, the route to The Hepworth is a disappointment.

The Hepworth Wakefield at night

So that was my day out in Wakefield. It was an interesting trip to a place I didn’t know and if I’m honest somewhere I didn’t originally hold out much hope of filling a whole day out with. But Wakefield turned out to be an interesting and generally attractive place with lots of potential to be even better. I accept I only saw one small bit of it and looking at a map it seems that the vast majority of the city where people live is to the west of the railway line that I arrived on, which was an area I never even touched. But places are largely judged by the city centre as that’s where most visitors spend time and on that the city did well.

Despite the week it’s taken to write up my visit, I’m also pretty chuffed that I’ve finally embarked on something I’ve long intended to do – visit somewhere I don’t know, find out what’s interesting and then write about it. I should do it again.

To finish off, here’s a few final random Wakefield facts that I also discovered and didn’t fit in anywhere else:

  • The children’s nursery rhyme “Here we go round the Mulberry Bush” is purported to have been written at Wakefield Prison as the female prisoners used to exercise by walking round a mulberry bush (that is still there) in the middle of the prison yard.
  • Whilst on the musical theme, although the song ‘Lambeth Walk’ is about as stereotypically London as you get, it was written by Wakefielder born and bred Noel Gay. He also wrote Run Rabbit Run and the music for Me and My Girl.
  • And another London connection is that William Whiteley who started up Whiteley’s department store in Bayswater (now the Whiteleys Shopping Centre) started his business career working at a draper’s shop in the centre of Wakefield.
  • John Radcliffe, the doctor who is now so intimately associated with Oxford spent his childhood years in Wakefield. His father was governor of Wakefield House of Correction, now the prison.
  • Wakefield’s beautiful Queen Elizabeth Grammar School on Leeds Road was designed by Richard Lane, the architect also responsible for Manchester’s Friends’ Meeting House and Victoria Park, along with Salford Town Hall.
  • Writer David Storey grew up in Wakefield in a house that is still there. Many of his books, which I keep meaning to read, are set in and around the city.
  • Wakefield’s lovely Theatre Royal on Westgate, originally the Theatre Royal and Opera House, was designed by prolific theatre architect Frank Matcham who also designed the London Palladium and Hackney Empire. It is the smallest remaining theatre of his and its current Creative Director is successful playwright John Godber.
  • Another Wakefield landmark is the four towers of Tudor House on Kirkgate. Designed by R Seifert & Partners who were also responsible for Centre Point and Tower 42 in London and the currently being renovated Gateway House at Manchester Piccadilly Station.

Finally, my Flickr album containing 41 photographs from my visit is here.

Wakefield – part one

Wakefield may not seem like the most likely destination for a day out, but it was where I found myself one day last week. Like probably most people in Yorkshire, it’s a city I’ve passed through on the train but without any reason to get off. However, with an exhibition that I was keen to see at The Hepworth I decided that I should also spend the day seeing a bit of the city. Beyond what I could see from the train my knowledge of the city was pretty sketchy and all I really knew of was its cathedral and a prison. Whilst the former may be a good reason to visit, the latter is perhaps less so. So following a bit of online research I put together a list of places to visit and a route to take to have a look around. Here’s what I found…

One thing that is very noticeable just by looking out of the window as you pass through Wakefield on the train is how much the area around Westgate station has changed. The scruffy looking 70s station building has gone and been replaced by a modern glass building, and the area around this new building has similarly changed with modern office blocks designed to create a dramatic new entrance to the city and a large multi-storey car park that shows how, despite it being a proud city in its own right, it is increasingly a commuter town to Leeds just 10 minutes down the line. Whilst the modern office buildings do show that the city is developing and not stagnating it does make it look a bit like everywhere else and the sign that greeted me as soon as I was about to leave the station didn’t exactly disabuse me of that notion.

Wakefield Museum

Wakefield Museum is just a five minute walk from Wakefield Westgate station and is housed in the council’s plush new office building. Like the other new office buildings nearby it’s archetypal ‘modern architecture’ that every city has now. It’s probably nice to work out of, a lot cheaper to run than the collection of old Victorian buildings they previously used and to be fair up close it’s reasonable attractive if not exactly cutting edge. The museum was just inside the main entrance where I was greeted by a very enthusiastic staff member who seemed delighted to find a genuine tourist visiting “have you seen the log-boat upstairs too, it’s very interesting.” Wakefield Museum is small but gives a general overview of the development of the city* with a firm emphasis on making it fun for kids including the four who were there when I was who insisted on constantly playing with the very noisy clocking-on machine.

Council Offices, Wakefield

The biggest part of the museum was given over to Charles Waterton, someone who my pre-visit research failed to mention at all. Charles Waterton was a conservationist before such things had been heard of, and was inspired by a trek to South America to turn his home of Walton Hall near Wakefield in to a nature reserve (it’s now a luxury hotel). He was also a keen taxidermist, using his skills in it to create some imaginary creatures using bits of various animals. An interesting figure, he was however clearly pretty odd, (for example he would bite the legs of guests whilst pretending to be a dog), but much of what he did at the time was an inspiration to people such as David Attenborough (who officially opened the museum) and Charles Darwin. Waterton also invented the bird nesting box, which I suppose someone had to, but I’d never really thought before that it was something that needed inventing as they’re just there. When you find out more about him you do wonder why you’d not heard of him before.

* So, (very) briefly a history of Wakefield: Sandal Castle on the edge of the city was the centre of a large part of Yorkshire, then the wool trade came and Wakefield itself grew up and it became rich, then industry and coal mining started up, and then it declined and it’s now not as rich, but Wakefield is still considered the county town of West Yorkshire, just as it was for the West Riding before it, so really it’s very important.

St. John’s Square

Something I had spotted when passing through on the train was what looked like some impressive looking Georgian houses on higher land just north of the city centre. So that was somewhere I felt I had to visit and how I found the glorious St. John’s Square. The square is dominated by St. John’s Church that gives the square its name and is surrounded by houses that the blue plaques show was once (and possibly still is) the home of the city’s great and good. One thing that Wakefield does well is commemorating its history with blue plaques as shown on the website of what appears to be a very active Civic Society.


The architecture in and around St. John’s Square isn’t what you associate with Wakefield and you could easily believe you were in somewhere such as Bath or Dublin, so impressive were the buildings. Many of the houses have now been divided in to individual flats, and as I walked through the area to my next destination it was clear that many were also now occupied by private schools, the local college and nurseries, although if you have a spare £525,000 there is one six-bedroom house still available.

St. John's Square, Wakefield

As I wandered to my next destination I came across an interesting Victorian former hospital too that looked ripe as a target for redevelopment in to expensive apartments. What struck me most though in this area was how quiet it was. Apart from two men trying to fit a large fridge in to an implausibly small car and a few people who had clearly dipped out of work to have a quick fag break, it was almost entirely deserted as I made my way up to the northern edge of the city from where you got a good sense of the towers that dominate the city centre (more of which later).

Mental Health Museum

My next port of call is probably the most unusually themed museum I’ve ever visited – the Mental Health Museum. Although this one room museum has existed in various guises for some time, it is now housed in the middle of Fieldhead Hospital and is easily missed as the signs to it were not that obvious and it’s in quite a low-key hospital building. Just as my route to the museum had been fairly devoid of people, so it was when I reached my destination. Fortunately I decided to ignore the sign saying that someone would be with me ‘in five minutes’ as no one appeared for about 30 minutes, by which time I had nearly finished look round, although there were clearly some signs of life as there was the distinct aroma of microwave meal and the voices of two staff have a gossipy conversation in a backroom.

Mental Health Museum, Fieldhead Hospital, Wakefield

The museum was a combination of a history of the nearby former Stanley Royd Hospital, which pioneered many techniques in mental health treatment, some of which we would now be appalled by although were considered progressive at the time, and others that are still with us today, along with a general overview of how mental health is looked after. This is a museum that could easily be sensationalist, but it was done well, although the inevitable padded cell did feel a little disturbing, but perhaps that was more my unease when I went inside it as it really does block out many of your senses. If there was one thing that I was less keen on it was the captions on the displays with little quotes from what was probably a well meant community outreach programme. I don’t need to know what others think about previous techniques in mental health as part of visiting is that I can decide that for myself.

It was now time to head back in to the city centre passing as I did so signs towards a museum I discovered had closed down (Clarke Hall – I wonder if that would have been worth seeing), the former Stanley Royd Hospital that as is often the way with these institutions has now been turned in to luxury flats as Parklands Manor, and the birthplace of sculptor Barbara Hepworth at 15 Duke of York Street. It felt appropriate to pass Hepworth’s house given I was going to the eponymous gallery later, but it was also the first ‘ordinary’ housing that I had passed all day. A city that I had assumed would be largely terraced or semi-detached housing, had so far turned out to be anything but.

The next part of my day in Wakefield will be available here.