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.

IMG_4781

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.

Some TV recommendations

There was a time when I regularly watched all the soaps and lots of regular dramas. These days I just don’t have time to watch them and my tastes have changed and so I tend to stick to good drama series and documentaries, along with a few guilty pleasures. I rarely watch them live and usually rely on iPlayer or All 4 and my trusty Chromecast, which is why I’m not keen on the suggestion that the BBC should charge extra for iPlayer unless they stop charging for a TV Licence as I will otherwise be paying twice for the same programmes.

In the last two-three months there’s been a lot of good programmes which I’ve struggled to keep up with but just about managed. Here are my recommendations. Some are still available on catch-up but others aren’t but no doubt will be repeated which is why I’m mentioning them anyway:

Dramas

Cuffs (BBC) – this was a great new police series that felt like The Bill for the 21st century and set in Brighton. Sadly, they’ve decided to not commission a second series which astonishes me so watch this while you can as it’s great. A serious drama but with light-hearted moments.

The Bridge (BBC) – Widely praised I also loved this series simply to keep in touch with my Swedish roots. I don’t think this latest series was as good as the first two but it’s still great and it’s good to see the more sensitive side of Saga Noren.

Luther (BBC) – far fetched and with a sinister undercurrent but I have a soft spot for this dark and dangerous police series with the brilliant Idris Elba in the eponymous role.

Silent Witness (BBC) – I don’t think this series is as good as it used to be, but then it has been going for 20 years now and so perhaps many of the plots have been used up. Still good entertainment though and it’s nice to see that the role of my favourite character these days played by Liz Carr feels as though it’s been beefed up a little in this series.

Hinterland (BBC/S4C) – this Welsh series that is shown initially in Welsh on S4C is then later shown largely in English (with some Welsh with English subtitles) on the BBC. The latest series isn’t quite as bleak as the first and it feels as though everyone is up to something or got a hidden secret. I love it mainly because it reminds me of my time in Aberystwyth but it’s got some pretty good plots.

Deutschland 83 (Channel 4) – a series that makes me feel old given it is set in my lifetime but now looks so much like history, this is a brilliant drama in German (with subtitles) that shows life in the Cold War and how the East spied on the West. At times I do wonder if they could have really got away with the things they did, but perhaps it was how it was.

Shetland (BBC) – if you loved Vera then you’ll love this as it’s written by the same person. Whilst set in a bleak environment the stories aren’t bleak and you warm to the main characters. This latest series feels as though it’s been spun out in to too many episodes but that’s not putting me off.

Happy Valley (BBC) – this second series of the brilliant police crime drama set in Calderdale recently started. The first couple of episodes of this series makes it look as though it’ll be as good as the first. For me it’s especially poignant as I recognise so many places that I loved when I worked in the area

Documentaries

Conquest, Blood & Gold: The Making of Spain (BBC) – a great four part series telling the fascinating history of Spain with Simon Sebag Montefiore.

Great British Railway Journeys (BBC) – I prefer Portillo’s continental railway journeys but this series is still good and great at showing a glimpse of bits of the country I’ve not seen before. I find it remarkable that the Portillo I used to hate when he was an MP is now one of my favourite TV presenters.

Empire of the Tsars: Romanov Russia (BBC) –  a fascinating series about the Romanovs by Lucy Worsley, a person who’s persona and jolliness I thought would put me off but she tells a great story and it’s absolutely fascinating. An interesting story well presented.

Bitter Lake (BBC) – a film that’s documentary, art and drama. It’s all about the Middle East and how the decisions made by ‘the powers that be’ have impacted on the world today. It’s two hours but worth putting the time aside to watch. Intriguing stuff.

Manchester’s Serial Killer (Channel 4) – anyone who lives or works in Manchester has heard about the infamous ‘Pusher’ who is supposed to be murdering people by pushing them in to the city’s canals and rivers. Sensationalised and melodramatic and with too much of the annoying trait in modern documentaries of constantly repeating before and after every break what you’ve already watched and what you’re about to watch, but worth watching to see the truth behind the stories.

The Docklands Bomb: Executing Peace (BBC) – an interesting documentary showing how the bombing of how London’s Docklands Bomb was a pivotal moment in the Northern Irish peace process. With Northern Ireland having moved on so much it almost feels like ancient history, but for me it feels like a significant historical moment that I grew up with.

The London Markets (BBC) – three programmes with each one looking at what happens inside each of the city’s wholesale markets – Billingsgate, Smithfield and New Spitalfields. Showing how these places are, or aren’t, changing and showing why I’d not want to work there, they do give a sense of what these famous markets are like.

The Story of China (BBC) – the history of China in just six episodes, this is an interesting series telling the story of the country of the moment. Lots I didn’t know but I feel as though I should have done.

Business

Mary Portas Secret Shopper (Channel 4) – I love all of these trouble shooter or small business type programmes, but I also think Mary Portas has got a great way with people even when she’s being tough. The latest series was short but excellent and shows how even simple straightforward changes can improve fortunes. People trying to make their own future, which small business people do, I always find interesting and inspiring.

Dragons’ Den (BBC) – OK, so you can usually tell whether they’ll get an investment or not, but I like the imagination of some of the people on the programme even if they’ve not thought through their business properly. I’m a big fan of the latest dragons and hope they stay with it for a future series alongside Deborah and Peter.

English Lib Dem Executive Report – Sat 23rd Jan 2016

Here’s my very belated report on the last English Lib Dems’ Executive (ECE) meeting. After my previous post gaining praise from Mark Pack on his own website: “Anders Hanson is one of the stars of the English Party because he does report back publicly on key parts of what the English Party is doing. He’s not part of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ culture,” my forgetfulness in posting this doesn’t exactly help back up his assertion!

In the interests of balancing the need to keep members informed and in brevity, I’m going to do this as a series of (hopefully) short paragraphs on the key areas discussed rather than going through each agenda item in turn or repeating what appeared in my preview of the meeting. Since my last post a couple of people have got in touch with me asking for more information about certain points and I’m happy to give party members more information when I know the person asking is a party member.

A world outside London – there were two discussions on a similar topic both of them under the Chair’s report, which often becomes the repository for subjects that members of ECE want to get off their chest but don’t appear elsewhere on the agenda. The first was a discussion that we always have at least once a year and that was the location of ECE meetings. Although we always agree in principle that it’s healthier for the party to not always meet in London, we still end up nearly always meeting in London as it’s proved generally easier for more people to get to London than anywhere else and when meetings have been held elsewhere they have often had a lower attendance. There is also some impact on cost as there are usually better deals on train fares to/from London and using Lib Dem HQ doesn’t cost anything. Having said that increasingly a clash of meetings has led to ECE meetings being held in other London venues anyway, such as this one which was held at the City of Westminster Archives. It was agreed that we would look at non-London venues for later in the year to give people more time to plan but also in the short term to try and make sure people can always phone in (which some venues we’ve used don’t allow). The second discussion on outside London is the move of Lib Dem HQ. This was something on which I initially didn’t think I could write anything as whilst the possibility of a move was well known amongst party staff, contractual negotiations were still underway. However, the need to move is now in the public domain following a somewhat sensationalist post on Guido Fawkes website. The location of Lib Dem HQ is another discussion that comes up on a regular basis and as someone based in the North I have a lot of sympathy for the argument that it would be healthy for it to not be in London part of the ‘Westminster bubble’. What’s always persuaded me otherwise however is that given how few people are employed at Lib Dem HQ, the cost of splitting the HQ team and needing two bases (we’d always need some staff in London) and the upheaval for a number of not desperately well paid staff, it probably isn’t worth doing. It’s also worth noting that a number of ostensibly London based party staff actually spend most of the week working from home in another part of the country entirely and only travel to London when they need to. I expect this will continue to be debated within the party for years to come.

Post-General Election Review – this is due to be released shortly. There is some concern about how little of it is expected to be available to the wider party membership, especially as knowing more of the detail will be helpful for anyone who has some sort of leadership role within the party. I understand the sensitivities of it and certainly the release of Labour’s General Election review created some unhelpful headlines in the short term. But in the longer term I feel that the more informed discussion that can be had from seeing the full report (with a small amount of sensitive information appropriately redacted) will be better for the party in the future. We will see how much is finally released however as I think most people are working on hearsay rather than knowing exactly what will be decided.

Regional and Local Party rebates – one of the payments of the proportion of membership income that goes back to local and regional parties was missed at the end of last year. This happened for a number of reasons, but the biggest concern was that local and regional treasurers were not informed of it in advance to allow them to plan around it. Discussions are under way to see how this will be resolved.

Police & Crime Commissioner candidates – unlike four years ago many more areas want to stand candidates in the Police & Crime Commissioner elections, however this enthusiasm isn’t shared as widely amongst the people who are approved candidates. As a candidate must live within the PCC area, unlike in a General Election where someone can live anywhere in the country (which allows for any approved candidate to be parachuted in at the last minute), it makes the pool to choose from smaller. The regional candidates’ committees are working with each PCC area to help make sure they have a candidate in place. I think we have to accept that these posts are now here for good, or at least the foreseeable future, and so we should treat them more with the seriousness that we do with other elected posts. There is actually the potential to make use of them as a great way of pushing our liberal and I think unique attitude to policing and justice issues, and so should provide an interesting and different option for those who are interested in taking on a public elected role if they were promoted appropriately.

Parliamentary candidates – there was a big churn in approved parliamentary candidates in the last parliament, with many previous candidates dropping out and more new ones being approved than ever before.  What is reassuring is that the post-General Election candidates review shows that most of these are very keen to stand again in the future. The first seats will start their selection following this May’s elections, and those who want to get on with it should make their desire to do this clear to their regional candidates’ chair. Whilst I’ve always been keen on early selections, and it’s clear that the English Candidates’ Committee want to make this happen, it’s also been clear that many local parties and/or candidates don’t want to do that. You can push them in to it, but to be honest if they are pushing back then they probably don’t expect to win anyway.

Transparency – the paper on making ECE more transparent by including contact details for its members on the party website, dates and summary of agenda items to be sent to all English Council members and also posted on the party website and advance notice of potentially contentious items, was passed without need for a debate.

Diversity within Liberal Youth – there is a recognition that by improving the diversity of members and activists within Liberal Youth this will help improve the future diversity of the party’s candidates and party bodies as people progress in to other roles. Liberal Youth are currently looking at how they can do this effectively.

English Strategy Review – some smaller groups are going to be set up to look at what actions can be taken in the short term that fit with the priorities outlined in this paper that was agreed by last November’s English Council. Essentially, the more complicated and controversial areas that nearly led to it being referred back, (such as the possible outsourcing of membership work), will be put to one side for now, but those areas which were genuinely popular will be investigated further. There’s little more to report on this at present, but more should be known on this by the time of the next meeting.

Finally, Co-options – there were co-options to the two sub-committees of ECE – the Regional Parties’ Committee (RPC), that deals with legal compliance and disciplinary issues, and the English Finance & Administration Committee (EFAC), whose role is largely self-explanatory but also works closely with the membership department. The co-options to these committees are largely around adding to the committee what the party website describes as “experience or expertise relevant to the function of the RPC” and they must be members of English Council with the latter in particular massively restricting the options. This makes RPC quite large as a sub-committee but as it’s a committee of work rather than just attending meetings, it’s helpful having a larger pool of people who will take part. The additions to these committees have not exactly improved diversity or gender balance, indeed it’s made it worse, (which is particularly unfortunate given the attendance at this ECE was the first time in a while that was almost 50:50 on gender), but without other names to suggest and knowing that they were all on an individual basis good additions I didn’t object. The party  (and in this I include all of the party) is generally quite poor about advertising party committee vacancies and co-options with the result that it’s often the same faces who appear everywhere. I will attempt to rectify that for ECE posts in the future. Read further down for two current vacancies.

EFAC co-opted Su Thorpe and Peter Ellis, largely because of their respective experience as a party treasurer and scrutinising party finances. This makes the full membership: Paul Clark, Brian Orrell, Rachelle Shepherd-Dubey, Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Su Thorpe and Peter Ellis. It is chaired by the Treasurer David Hughes and Chair Steve Jarvis is an ex-officio member.

RPC co-opted Paul Clark, Ian Jones, Lucy Nethsingha, Mike Wheatley and Stuart Wheatcroft, largely because of their experience in dealing with difficult disciplinary cases over the last year and in the case of the latter will help reduce the average age of the committee substantially. This makes the full membership: Dawn Davidson, Tahir Maher, Geoff Payne, Paul Clark, Ian Jones, Lucy Nethsingha, Mike Wheatley, Stuart Wheatcroft and myself. It is chaired by the Vice-Chair Margaret Joachim and Chair Steve Jarvis is an ex-officio member.

There are two further posts that ECE now need to be filled:

A further member of the Regional Parties’ Committee. The RPC meets around six times a year, although it is always possible to phone in to these meetings rather than having to physically be there. The main body of work involves reading reports from people who have investigated complaints against party members and making decisions on complaints and how they should be handled in a methodical and dispassionate way. It is also occasionally needed for members of the committee to make a quick decision on whether to take a complaint forward for investigation or not and this is usually handled by email or by an extra short-notice phone meeting. To improve balance it would be helpful to find potential co-optees who are female and from the Western side of the country. For more details contact the Vice-Chair of the RPC.

A further member of the English Appeals Panel. This is the body where appeals against decisions made by party bodies within England are decided or where rulings are requested on interpreting parts of the constitution. Members are appointed for five year terms and they are expected to be people who don’t currently hold any office within the party or are a parliamentary candidate, but who have been active in the past and would like to continue to do something to help the party. HR or legal experience are often useful, and to improve diversity it would be helpful to find potential co-optees who are female. For more details contact the Chair of the English Party.

Preview of English Lib Dem Executive – Sat 23rd Jan 2016

Saturday sees the first English [Liberal Democrats] Council Executive (ECE) of 2016. Put out the bunting! I wrote a short explanation of what the body does just over a year ago.

The first part of the meeting contains the usual reports from officers of the English Party (Chair, Treasurer, Vice-Chair and Candidates) and its reps to other party bodies (Federal Executive (FE), Federal Conference Committee (FCC), Federal Policy Committee (FPC) and the G8 local election grants scheme), although within these there are sometimes substantive issues that need discussion. Some of these officers also chair committees which also report back, such as the Vice-Chair chairing the Regional Parties’ Committee and Treasurer chairing the English Finance and Administration Committee. I have included a section on the membership of the committee and various other elected reps at the bottom of this post. The second part of the meeting involves reports on particular areas of work of the English Party at the moment.

Due to space and time I am not going to go in to every item that is due to be discussed at ECE and instead I just pick out the key parts that I think are OK to be in the public domain (do let me know if you think something shouldn’t be or there’s something you like discussing). I have long argued for all agendas and reports to be available on the party website for members to look at if they wish, which would help negate the need for me to do this although giving my view on the areas being considered I would continue with. Getting the reports to be circulated or included on the party website has been hindered slightly by vacancies in the relevant parts of Lib Dem HQ and the need to spend time double-checking everything for anything that shouldn’t be available to the public. Personally, I think very little that we discuss really needs to be kept that secret and will be of little more than of passing amusement to the opposition. However there is a proposal to the ECE meeting tomorrow that should push this along a bit more quickly and I assume will be uncontroversial as almost none of the English Party’s work has ever been that secret, except in the tiny handful of cases where it involves named individuals such as party disciplinary issues or employment situations. An appropriate balance needs to be struck, which may not always be just right, but I can assure members that it is certainly considered properly.

The main issues for noting or discussion tomorrow are:

Diversity motion to conference – this is to improve diversity within the parliamentary party by allowing any local party to request an all-women or all-disabled shortlist for selections or to have reserved places on it for specific groups, and to require all local parties with retiring MPs to choose from an all-woman shortlist and similar provisions for a specific proportion of seats that achieved above particular levels of support at the 2015 General Election. Although candidates are the responsibility of each state not the federal party, there is clearly a desire from many for conference to take another view on positive discrimination, with states then expected to come up with the rules to make this happen. This will no doubt be a source of some controversy at conference and within the party and so probably needs to be debated in a larger forum. I remain unconvinced that the biggest problem is at the selection stage anymore, but is instead earlier in the process, but I do agree it needs to be debated.

Regional employment of Campaigns Staff – a source of considerable discussion at the last couple of ECE meetings has been the restructuring of HQ staff that saw all campaigns officers directly employed by Lib Dem HQ rather than any regional involvement as largely happened before. A number of regional parties have been very unhappy about this and been pretty strident about their opposition to it and despite an attempt by the English Party Chair to broker a compromise, this hasn’t been successful. Personally, I think having a centrally employed campaign resource to be deployed where needed is sensible, although I’ve been in a considerable minority on this within ECE. Previously, regional parties were able to have some influence over the work of campaigns staff and able to employ someone specifically for their region by sharing the cost with party HQ. With party HQ employing people directly, it will mean that regions will need to find other ways of funding any campaign posts they create, and I am very much keen to see this progress as building local campaign skills is a good area for regions to work on (in conjunction with my own employers at ALDC).

Operations Committee – this is a new committee that has been created by the Federal Executive to oversee the day-to-day running of the party. This has occasionally existed before in different guises, but has often involved people who are too busy in other roles to do it effectively. Its membership is the chairs of state parties and chairs of the key federal committees. Hopefully this will ensure that the different committees and Lib Dem HQ work together more effectively and talk to each other properly on a regular basis rather than operating in silos and then getting grumpy with each other when they hear about things on the grapevine (which may or may not be true) or after the event.

Wired Working Group – FE has created a working group to review the party’s IT strategy and how the party supports digital activities more effectively.

Federal Conference – due to the introduction of one-member one-vote and to help the party use its funds more efficiently, the exhibition at the York Spring Conference will be considerably scaled back. Autumn Conference is moving to hold more of the event on the Saturday which will mean finishing on the Tuesday rather than the Wednesday.

English Party Strategy Review – this was a paper adopted by the English Council (EC) last November on the ‘strategy’ for the English Party going forward. Some parts of it were controversial which led to it very nearly being referred back, although when this failed it was passed quite comfortably. For now, the English Party is concentrating on those areas that are more straightforward and less controversial or where there is a clear route for dialogue. Whilst I supported the strategy paper at EC, largely because I thought there were enough bits I agreed with for me to support it and also because I think the English Party needed a document on which to focus its attentions, I am hopeful that the implementation of it will be done steadily to allow further discussion on those bits that were less universally supported and because the Federal Party is involved in its own strategic review, parts of which overlap with this. The areas currently prioritised are campaigning (largely about how we boost skills on the ground and the roles of regional parties in this – see above), membership (looking at involving existing members further and how we recruit and retain members in the future) and organisation (how the English Party is run and implementing one-member one-vote).

Finally as promised…

Membership of ECE

ECE is slightly different in its membership from last year, albeit not massively, and is comprised of the following members:

Officers Elected by English Council: Steve Jarvis (Chair), Richard Brett (Candidates’ Chair), Antony Hook (FE rep) and Geoff Payne (FCC and FPC rep).

Ordinary Members Elected  by English Council: Margaret Joachim (Elected Vice-Chair by ECE), David Hughes (Elected Treasurer by ECE), Paul Hienkens, Rachelle Shepherd-Dubey, Simon McGrath, Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Paul Clark, Brian Orrell, Justine McGuinness, Dawn Davidson and myself.

Regional & Liberal Youth Chairs: Adam Killeya (Devon & Cornwall), Gavin Grant (Western Counties), Tahir Maher (South Central), Paul Hienkens (South East), Ade Adeyemo (West Midlands), Phil Knowles (East Midlands), Stephen Robinson (East of England), Chris Maines (London), Stewart Golton (Yorkshire & the Humber) and Amanda Hopgood (North East). The North West regional chair’s position is currently vacant. Sophie Thornton represents Liberal Youth.

ECE has already agreed to co-opt Anne-Marie Curry (Diversity Champion) and Lucy Nethsingha (ALDC rep).

A year ago my comment on diversity proved controversial when it was picked up by Lib Dem Voice, and whilst it’s got better it’s still not great. On gender 6 of the 25 (24% this year, and 12% last) are women. On other areas of diversity it’s harder to comment as I don’t necessarily know which groups people fit in to but taking two areas that I feel I’m on fairly safe ground on then amongst all of ECE at least two of the 25 (8%, last year 4%) are BME and at least 5 of the 25 (24%, last year 16%) are LGBT+. When you break these things down it often shows a different picture – such as no female chairs last year and only one this, but all of ECE’s BME members are regional chairs. Both of the current co-optees are women, which was partly because of their roles within the party but gender was a consideration and will marginally improve the male/female split to a still embarrassing 70% male/30% female. We simply need more women standing to be regional chairs (and there have certainly been many in the past, although not having reviewed the figures I’m not sure if this a temporary blip or a longer-term issue) and of course also an improvement in numbers standing as directly-elected members.

Committees

ECE has three standing committees with the membership of each elected from within ECE, although it can (and usually does) co-opt other people to improve diversity and to bring in specific skills:

English Finance & Administration Committee (EFAC) is in charge of the funds of the English Party and liaises with the departments of Lib Dem HQ with which there is a service level agreement such as membership and candidates. Members elected are Paul Clark, Brian Orrell, Rachelle Shepherd-Dubey and Gerald Vernon-Jackson. It is chaired by the Treasurer David Hughes and Chair Steve Jarvis is an ex-officio member.

Regional Parties’ Committee (RPC) deals with membership, compliance and disciplinary issues. Members elected are Dawn Davidson, Tahir Maher, Geoff Payne and myself. It is chaired by the Vice-Chair Margaret Joachim and Chair Steve Jarvis is an ex-officio member.

There are two further posts that have been elected by ECE – Paul Hienkens is English rep to the International Relations Committee (IRC) and Anne-Marie Curry is Diversity Champion.

 

My 2015 in books

2015 was another year of avid reading for me. I was quite surprised when in 2014 I managed to read 79 books over the course 0f the year. In 2015 it was 97 books. Whilst I haven’t tried to reach a certain number, as I’d rather enjoy the books instead of trying to meet some sort of target, I did end up a little disappointed to just fall short of 100. The full list of what I read is here on my Goodreads site. But as with last year I’m going to pick out some that I particularly recommend or that I think were noteworthy.

Surprisingly, the book that came out top was Roman Krznaric’s How To Find Fulfilling Work. This is part of a series of books by The School of Life, a project started by Alain de Botton to help people improve their lives through culture and their emotional intelligence. It now runs courses, publishes books and has various other services from its base in Bloomsbury. It’s an organisation I’ve always thought sounded interesting and when I spotted a book by them that aims to help you work out what motivates you and how that translates to a job that you would find particularly fulfilling, I knew it was a must read. What this book did most of all for me was make me think. It made me think in a different way about what I’m most interested in and where in the longer term I want to be as it’s highly unlikely I’ll remain in my current job for the 30 years until I retire. It’s a short read but one that made me look at things in a different way, and also much to my surprise included someone as a case study who I once knew and who I hadn’t realised had gone off in a completely different direction from his old career.

Whilst my favourite book of the year is perhaps a surprising one, I have continued to read plenty of crime fiction – traditionally my preferred genre of book. But like in 2014 it’s becoming a lot less of a key part of my reading. My two favourite crime novels last year were both set in the same city – Venice – a city which I have continued to be fascinated by ever since I visited it nearly 15 years ago. It makes me wonder whether it’s the subject matter I find fascinating rather than the books themselves, but regardless of that The Anonymous Venetian by Donna Leon and Dead Lagoon by Michael Dibdin were both excellent. Donna Leon has rapidly become one of my favourite crime writers and as all her books are set in Venice she manages to depict many different sides of the city in each one. Her main character Commissario Brunetti is also an interesting and fully formed character in his own right rather than being just another dogged investigator. Michael Dibdin is someone who I haven’t read for a while as I was a little disappointed with his last book which felt too melodramatic, however in this one his lead character Aurelio Zen finds himself back in his home city (unlike Leon, Dibdin’s books are often set in different parts of Italy despite the origins of Zen) and is caught up in a complex web of relationships between the great and the good. Dibdin is back on form with this one. 2015 was also a year when I started to read a number of books on real crime, perhaps inspired by my time on jury service in February, of which two particularly stood out – Mr Briggs’ Hat by Kate Colquhoun about the first murder victim on a train back in 1864 and Blood on the Altar by Tobias Jones about two murders committed by the same man – one in southern Italy and the other in Bournemouth. I’ve also finally read my first Sherlock Holmes, thoroughly enjoyed JK Rowling’s first book written as Robert Galbraith (great characters about whom I’ll definitely read more) and uncovered Barbara Nadel’s interesting Hakim & Arnold series.

Last year another new departure for me was reading a number of different travel books. I’ve always been fascinated by geography, and in particular what makes different countries tick, but I’ve never read many non-fiction books about specific countries. In 2015 I managed to find out more about Pakistan, Angola, Nigeria, and Italy, as well as a book that explain travel writing in general and one that covered a number of different world cities. I also found myself reading more fiction set in different countries including Japan, Sweden, Norway, Italy, France, USA, Netherlands, Spain, Egypt, Finland and Nigeria (the latter being Americanah by the amazing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). It’s all been pretty enlightening and showing you sides to countries you didn’t know. The two books I’ll particularly pick out though are Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven which is an amazing book, and quite a hefty tome, in which he uses his many years of experience as a journalist in the country to show you the contrasting and contradictory elements of Pakistan. It has made me see the country in a whole different way and helped me understand so much more about its place in the world. The other book was Looking for Transwonderland by Noo Saro-Wiwa, the daughter of murdered human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who spent most of her life growing up in Britain, but who decides to go back and explore her home country of Nigeria and face what she finds hard about the place. Although very different in style to Lieven’s book, Saro-Wiwa once again shows how books (whether fiction or non-fiction) can give you such a broader understanding of the world than the one you usually get through the media.

I’ve read far fewer political books than I have in previous years. Perhaps the reality of the General Election put me off. But there are two books I will pick out. One is Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism. This was a book I’d long wanted to get and I finally found it at a bargain price from one of the independent retailers that sell via Amazon. As the late Conrad Russell used to do in person, the book manages to sum up really well the key tenets of what being a liberal is about and manages to combine real life with academic rigour to explain the philosophy behind it. This was something that was a refreshing read for a Lib Dem such as me after such a traumatic year politically. The other book I read is one that I’d had mixed feelings about before I read it – Owen Jones’ The Establishment. I admit I’d been put off it because of Jones’ strident political opinions which I rarely agree with and I feared a lot of coalition government bashing. Yet I was also very keen to read it as I liked the premise of the book. The book was well researched and provided fascinating details about the lack of transparency and democracy involved in many of the institutions and companies that affect our lives so much. A very good book, but one that emphasised to me that whilst I share many of the concerns of socialists like Jones, I also disagree with the solutions that he wants to see (where are the books by liberals with the solutions to these same problems?).

One more book that I must particularly mention is Journey Through a Small Planet by Emanuel Litvinoff. I discovered this book entirely by chance when browsing the shelves of Waterstones in Greenwich the day after I’d been on the London Walk entitled The Old Jewish Quarter. This book describes the Jewish East End of Litvinoff’s youth and the people he encountered and the story of how his own parents left Russia and settled in Whitechapel. Where this book really excels is bringing to life the area at the time and the experiences the author had, to the point where you can see and smell vividly in your own mind what it must have been like. A fascinating book about a very distinctive culture that is both familiar yet also very alien.

As I always do on this blog, I have written far more than I’d intended and yet I’ve only covered a handful of the books I read last year. But finally I must give more words of praise for Sheffield’s Central Library. Although I’ve been a member of the city libraries from being a small child it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve used them so extensively. The Central Library, being my nearest, has become like a second home and I’ve acquired far more variety in my reading habits as a result of just being able to take a punt on a book even if I’m not sure whether it’s my thing or not. I’ve discovered new writers and new types of books as a result. It’s largely due to the Central Library that I’ve ended up reading so many books this year as every time I return a book I always end up borrowing more, even though I know that at home I’ve got shelves full of books that I’ve yet to read.

Last year I finished off my review by saying that I wanted 2015 to be the year I finally started the book I want to write. Well it didn’t happen, but perhaps in 2016 it will as I’ve already signed up to a free online course from the Open University via the FutureLearn website on how to Start Writing Fiction and that begins later this month.