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.

War in Syria: The most difficult of decisions

“The decision every politician dreads is whether or not to send brave servicemen and women into military action in defence of our country” is how Tim Farron’s email to Liberal Democrat members last night started and I truly understand that. And this war is perhaps the hardest of all.

When the UK has gone to war over the last few decades it has usually been clear to me what we should do. The Gulf War – Yes, War in Iraq – No, Bosnia – Yes. But whether we should bomb IS in Syria is incredibly hard and one on which I really don’t know the right answer. I use the abbreviation IS as it’s how they’re best known, but I don’t like to use the full name as it’s an abomination to equate what they do with Islam.

Unusually for me, I understand the desire for revenge. It’s unseemly and not something I’m proud of but when an organisation such as IS unleashes the sort of attacks they have done recently in France, Lebanon and Mali and to individuals who have been there on charity work, then I sympathise with the wish to take some action. But I also know that it isn’t the way to reach a long-term solution.

My instinct is usually for negotiation and international diplomacy, but that just isn’t going to be possible in this case. I would also want to see a clear plan of what happens if our bombing succeeds, but at the moment the most likely outcome is a continuation of the appalling Assad regime and the weak governments in Iraq. Neither of these are great, but are perhaps an improvement on IS. Yes, there is an opposition to Assad in Syria but their political make-up is questionable and it’s a secondary issue at this point. What I do want to see is a broader coalition, and whilst a number of neighbouring countries are resolutely opposed to IS, such as Jordan and Lebanon, some other countries in the region that we have tended to fawn over have, whilst not being pro-IS, have allowed them to operate and receive funding. Whilst bombing may be a suitable way of penning in an appalling regime, what I want us to see more than anything is to work with those regional powers with whom we are often allies to make sure they cut off the channels that keep IS alive. Will that solve the problem? Probably not, but it’s a start. What I feel most though is that we just don’t understand the Middle East and if anything is urgent it’s that.

Finally, I’m surprised at the choice the majority of Liberal Democrat MPs made to vote to bomb Syria, but that surprise makes me think they’ve truly given it plenty of thought. The easy option and one that would be less controversial with most members would be to vote against. But most Lib Dem MPs have voted for and in particular I wouldn’t have seen that as Tim Farron’s natural position. Even if I disagree with my party, and in this case I really don’t know what I think is for the best, I feel positive when they’ve clearly gone through a difficult deliberation. In this case I think they have, and I won’t criticise them for it.

London Walks: Inside Covent Garden

A rare midweek trip to London meant that I could join another one of the regulars of the London Walks programme that I wouldn’t normally get a chance to do, the Inside Covent Garden walk.

It’s been a while since I did a walk around a part of Westminster that I felt I knew reasonable well. Of late I’ve either done themed ones or ones in a bit of non-central London that I don’t really know. I thought I knew Covent Garden and I was expecting this walk to be largely about the market, despite the blurb on the London Walks website, but it was so much more than that and absolutely fascinating.

Covent Garden Piazza, London

The guide was the most clearly thespian Simon Whitehouse, a new one on me which made a change as increasingly I’m finding I recognise most of the guides. Meeting outside Covent Garden tube station, the band of 16 walkers, all bar three of whom were overseas visitors from various countries, it soon became clear that there was going to be a constant battle against noise. No sooner did Simon start speaking then workmen started drilling in a neighbouring building, to be joined soon after by a lorry beeping to reverse around the corner. At this point the introduction was abandoned and we moved elsewhere for it instead. This was when it also became clear that one of the fellow walkers was going to be trouble. One of the group was an Italian and particularly grumpy about the noise, which was difficult at times (as we were competing against a London Poppy Day event) but as the guide pointed out “well we are outdoors” but the Italian then added to this by twice answering his phone whilst the guide was trying to speak. The introduction we eventually got did a brief overview of the history of the area, its ups and downs in the social scale and a bit about the market. But soon moved on to other things which I will as before summarise but not give much detail so as to not spoilt it for others:

  • I feel I should have realised but the grand square of Covent Garden existed long before the actual market building, and changed from being a high class area to somewhere more down market to then what it is today. It was interesting to discover that the history of Covent Garden wasn’t what I’d realised.
  • St Paul’s Church Covent Garden is known as the actors church and many of them are commemorated and/or buried there, including theatre cats. This is a lovely church and a place I’ve just walked past without realising what a little sanctuary it is both inside and out, especially when you go round to the entrance at the back of the building.
  • The history of the costermongers, and the origins of the pearly kings and queens. I’d assumed these were specifically an East End thing, I hadn’t realised they were London-wide and very much connected to the markets of the city.
  • When this walk was billed as ‘Inside’ Covent Garden, I assumed it would be inside the market, but we actually largely skirted round this. The first stop was the fascinating Simpsons-in-the-Strand restaurant next door to the Savoy Hotel. This isn’t the sort of place I’d have expected would want tourists tramping round, even if it was out of their open hours, but we saw a couple of different rooms, learnt about its history and its link to international chess. Simpsons was also the place where the Italian I mentioned managed to get trapped in the revolving door and I had to help get him out.

Rules Restaurant, Covent Garden, London

  • Rules Restaurant is a particularly historic institution, which like Simpsons I was unaware of. Another fascinating place with its connections to literature, great and the good, and with a fantastic mural of Margaret Thatcher positioned above the Argentinian ambassador’s one-time regular table.
  • We finished at the Royal Opera House with a great view over the piazza and the wider area, and now I’ve discovered it a place I expect I will return to.

This was a fascinating walk, which I largely did just because it was at a convenient time rather than because I particularly wanted to do it. But I’m glad I went on it and it was well done and Simon was a great guide.

Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell. By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Henning Mankell has given me two significant things over the last few years – reigniting my love of reading and making me feel more in touch with my Swedish roots.

As a child I read avidly and writing was something I’d always wanted to do as a career (that dream still exists, but at 40 already feels less likely), but I reached a point in my 20s where I read little. Discovering Henning Mankell however helped get me reading avidly again, not just his books but many others too. Sadly, he is the second of my favourite authors who rekindled my love of reading to die in the last few years following Iain Banks in 2013.

Crime fiction has always been one of my favourite genres, but what makes Mankell’s stand out is the normality and humanity of the extraordinary events he writes about. Although he has written books with other lead characters it is of course the Kurt Wallander books that really stand out. As a character Wallander is a true human being with strong feelings about the world around him and the crimes he deals with, but this is conveyed in a way that is natural and not forcing you to take a particular view. The writing style of Mankell also really fits well with this and, like my other favourite crime writer Ian Rankin, is straight forward and easy to read even when you’re in a setting where it’s hard to concentrate. The plots are cleverly put together and he brings the people to life with a simplicity that I wish I could achieve myself.

Mankell was one of the first in a wave of Nordic crime writing that has been popular across Europe, and that also helped lead to the unlikely popularity of foreign language dramas on BBC4. But for someone who was born in Sweden and whose ability to speak or read Swedish is pretty poor, the availability and popularity of his books in English made me suddenly feel a lot more close to my roots. Reading great stories set in the Sweden of today has rekindled my sense of Swedishness and being able to truly understand my home country, and for that I’ll always be grateful. It’s not just the day to day life of Sweden and explaining how the country is, but for all the popularity they’ve had in the rest of the world there are still elements of Mankell’s books that have made me realise how much I understand about its culture that isn’t entirely obvious unless you have a connection to the country.

Henning Mankell has left a great legacy with his own writing, (and I will now savour even more every one of his books that I have yet to read), but as importantly he’s inspired so many other writers and readers to take an interest in the Nordic Noir genre that is now so popular.

Devolution for Sheffield – a lopsided deal but hopefully one to give us confidence

Sheffield City Region

When I woke up to the news on Friday morning that Sheffield City Region was to get a devolution deal with the government with an elected mayor, I was excited and disappointed all at the same time. Excited that Sheffield had got its act together and jumped the queue but disappointed about the mayor. Largely I’m positive though as I think it’s about time that Sheffield moved out of the shadows of the other big cities, but it does create some interesting complications. This post is looking at some of those but is also my initial instinctive feelings about it all.

Devolution within England has always been controversial, not so much about the principle, but at what level it is done. As I’ve written before, I’ve always had a scepticism about the benefits that a Yorkshire Regional Assembly would bring to my home city of Sheffield. My heart loves the idea of a single body that represents the county in which I grew up, but my head tells me that as far as Sheffield is concerned it makes more sense to have something more focused on the one city and to arrange economic and transport development around the city and its hinterland, much of which falls outside Yorkshire. This post however isn’t intended to go over that argument again but instead it’s to look at the latest proposals and the complications they create in terms of lopsided devolution within their own city region.

The new devolution deal gives Sheffield City Region and its directly-elected mayor a large number of new powers over areas such as transport management, policy and spending, economic development, work benefits and post 19 skills. Whilst many of these are about co-operating with central government to work out what would suit the region best, rather than necessarily a whole new way of doing things, it’s a start. For me the most exciting part of it though is what it could lead to in terms of greater powers, rather than necessarily what’s on offer now. It’s not as big a deal as Greater Manchester got, but it’s a start and I imagine it will gain a momentum that will inevitably lead to further powers.  These powers however apply to the area of the combined authority, which is formally only Sheffield, Rotherham, Doncaster and Barnsley. Whilst there are a further five local authority areas that form the Sheffield City Region, only the four I’ve named are legally ‘constituent members’ which means the powers of the combined authority only cover those. This creates a lopsided deal that gives lots of powers to one bit of the city region and less to the other.

If you look through the devolution document it is littered with phrases such as “The directly elected Mayor of the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority will be responsible for a devolved and consolidated local transport budget for the area of the Combined Authority (i.e. the areas of the constituent councils)” which means it only applies to the four authorities of South Yorkshire not the whole of the city region. This means that one of the new powers the region gets relating to smart-ticketing will only apply to South Yorkshire and not to those other parts of the region for whom they will be as, if not more, beneficial, and perhaps lead to transport authorities in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire not wanting to invest as much in those areas or instead arguing with South Yorkshire over any ideas it comes up with that they could all pragmatically decide to implement across the whole area. Despite this there are other powers that sound more inclusive by not referring just to constituent councils but to the region as a whole such as “Powers over strategic planning, including the responsibility to create a spatial framework for the city region and to chair the Sheffield City Region Joint Assets Board.” This would mean that the mayor had powers over an area that never voted for it. Perhaps the new deal with encourage those authorities who are classed as ‘non-constituent’ to vote to become ‘constituent’ members but it doesn’t seem clear if this is something they are currently considering. If they did however it would not only make everything more joined up but it will also mean they get to choose a mayor who will have a big influence on the future economic prospects of their area whether they are constituent members or not. Somehow the new mayor will need to show that this doesn’t lead to the region becoming dysfunctional if it wanted to gain further powers in the future.

One area in which all parts of the region participate fully is the Local Economic Partnership (LEP). All nine local authorities are part of this body which is actually led by the private sector rather than local authorities, and whilst separate from the combined authority is inherently linked and more or less perceived externally as one body. The new mayor will also sit on this which emphasises how much all of these areas are part of the same economic region and attracting people to invest locally is something for all areas and outside investors won’t really see much difference between the Advanced Manufacturing Park (actually in Rotherham), Markham Vale (in Chesterfield) and Robin Hood Airport (in Doncaster) when one of the attractions will be being part of the Sheffield set-up.  I know I write as someone who lives in Sheffield itself, but one of the issues that I think has stymied the area is the unwillingness to embrace the Sheffield name. Whilst I know the people of towns such as Rochdale or Stockport for example are very proud of the distinctiveness of their towns and hate being lumped in with Manchester, I have detected a general acceptance from those who live there that as Manchester is the main urban centre for their region and has a generally positive reputation that they are a part of the brand that is Manchester. In South Yorkshire, and whilst I think most surrounding areas do see Sheffield as the main urban centre, the other towns feel a lot less attached to it. This may partly be because Sheffield’s brand and reputation as somewhere to look up to isn’t as strong as Manchester’s, or perhaps it’s because when you go between towns in South Yorkshire you pass through countryside rather than it being a continuous urban area. Really though Sheffield as a name should be a lot more powerful and needs to be embraced if everyone is to benefit. In the city’s industrial height, the ‘Made in Sheffield’ name was known throughout the world as a sign of quality, and Sheffield remains to this day the only city in the UK whose name has legal protections which means that companies wishing to use it need extra permission from the government. This should be used to its real potential by the wider region.

Despite my criticism of this lopsided bit of devolution I am still really impressed it is going ahead. I don’t like directly-elected mayors and I would be a little more relaxed about the idea if the mayor also had a small authority alongside to scrutinise decisions and hold reviews in to the policies that the mayor is or could be pursuing just as happens in London. But the argument about the mayor as a model is a whole other post. What I thing is good about this devolution deal though is that I hope it will lead Sheffield to become a bit more pushy and able to be confident about raising its profile more.

As someone who was raised in Sheffield and has lived here most of my life, I get very frustrated when, despite being England’s fourth largest city at around 560,000 people and a city region of around 1.8 million people, people largely ignore the city when they think of the major cities of the country. Many people have no idea that the city is so large or that it isn’t just some scruffy rust bucket in the North of England whose best days are behind it. Whilst this again is enough for a whole other post, I think this perception (or perhaps a lack of a perception) is due to a whole variety of factors which includes things as diverse as an economy that was centred on industries that suffered hugely in the 80s recession, but also not being a base for a regional TV station, not having a metropolitan county named after it, being officially the second largest city in its government region not the first, having two football clubs that haven’t been at the top of football for some time, and many other things. But if there’s one thing that working in Manchester has taught me it’s that Manchester is a city that has a confident swagger and pride that Sheffield doesn’t even come close to. I hope that the introduction of the devolution deal and the mayor will lead to a confidence to talk up the city rather than the main message that has come out of the council in the last few years of just how much the government is giving us a raw deal.  All councils think they get a raw deal from government, but constantly talking about it gives the impression that we are an impoverished backwater, and whilst I would never deny that poverty is a problem in our region, taking the powers that this devolution deal gives us means we can get on and do more about it ourselves.

I have always loved Sheffield and hopefully this deal will give the leading voices in the city region the confidence to talk up how much they love it too.