Charles Kennedy

Given the number of tributes there have been to Charles it seems unnecessary to do one of my own, but as I woke up to hear about his sad death yesterday there were a few things I wanted to set down in writing.

I didn’t know him personally but he was leader for eight of the 19 years I’ve been a party member and so has in many ways been a leading figure in my life.  Back in the very late 1990s I was on the executive of the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students (LDYS) and my first job after being elected as its Youth Development Officer was collecting Charles Kennedy from the local railway station and walking him to Staffordshire University nearby where we were holding our conference.  He had yet to be elected leader but it was at a time when I’d still get quite starstruck about meeting well known political figures.  The only thing I remember of our conversation on that walk however was him telling me about the importance of the current Countryside Alliance march and how it wasn’t all about hunting but protecting the rural way of life.  Something that was undoubtedly important to him.

I was unusual amongst the group of friends I had in the party at the time that I voted for Charles to be leader.  I think most people felt he was too much the establishment choice, were slightly suspicious of his SDP roots, and didn’t seem enough as being either a grassroots campaigner or political thinker.  That may have been true, but then (as it has been at every leadership election) my choice was about who I thought would be the best figurehead that could get our message across to the public.  I do remember however chatting to a lobbyist at the subsequent federal conference who told me “He won’t be a great leader, but it’ll be fun as a member having him as your leader.”  In hindsight, although without really answering the question, I suppose it’s how you judge a great leader.  One thing I certainly loved was Charles’ conference speeches which always appeared fresh and passionate in a way that I think no leader before or since has quite managed, and made me leave conference enthused.

My only other personal connection with Charles was shortly after he became our leader.  One of his first acts – and one that we were impressed by as we weren’t aware that anyone else had done it – was to invite the LDYS executive round to his flat in Victoria to discuss LDYS issues.  We were all a bit nervous about impressing him but his quip when someone accidentally kicked his coffee table “don’t worry about it, it’s only a family heirloom” relaxed us all.  He certainly knew the way to student hearts and gave us all a beer and then asked us lots about what he could do to help us.  It certainly improved his reputation with those who didn’t vote for him.

Obviously what most people loved about Charles was his reputation as someone normal and unvarnished.  Whilst this can be over exaggerated and many leaders with that reputation have actively cultivated it, with Charles it never really seemed an act.  Everyone knew he didn’t live the healthiest of lifestyles (in a bizarre appointment he was for a time the party’s health spokesman during which he was once overheard outside a healthy eating event saying “well that’s enough health for one day, I need a fag”) although the issue of his drinking was downplayed by many until his notorious Paxman interview and his subsequent admission when his leadership was challenged.  Personally, I think it was right for Charles to retire when he did even if the way it was done seemed brutal.  Although he still seemed on top form to the public; party staff and MPs found him difficult to work with.  But despite this it felt a shame that he never had time as a minister in the last government to show what else he could do.

For me, Charles embodied something that I feel other people have struggled to convey.  The sense that you can be equally passionate about your local roots, your national pride and your Europeanism and internationalism.  In Charles’ case it was as a Highlander, a Scotsman, being British, European and wanting to be significant on the international stage.  Whilst it is true that Charles had to be persuaded in to opposing the war in Iraq, it fits absolutely with him wanting the party he led to be seen as positively internationalist rather than his country ignoring international law and reverting to the British warlike jingoism of the past.  His pro-Europeanism is something that people outside of politics don’t readily associate with Charles, but for me it was one of his greatest attributes.  To me, his greatest victory was not achieving the highest number of seats the party had won since merger (many at the time believed we should have done far better in 2005) but leading us to victory in the 2003 Brent East by-election.  It is a by-election in which I played a very active role and that I absolutely loved being a part of.  It was the perfect embodiment of Charles in his leading role in the anti-war movement and as a positive down to earth figure that people could relate to and whose cause they could rally to in a constituency that was not at all natural territory for us.

I believed that at the recent General Election, Charles was one of the few MPs in Scotland who could resist the SNP tide.  He couldn’t, and so who knows what role he would have continued to play in the future?  Instead he will now join the ranks of those popular charismatic political figures such as Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam and John Smith, who were taken too early and never quite fulfilled their potential.  I didn’t shed a tear yesterday, but I did have a wee dram to remember him by.

Preview of English Lib Dem Executive – 30th May 2015

This Saturday is the first English Lib Dems Executive meeting since the General and Local Elections.  For that reason the focus is partly about reviewing the election just gone but in particular looking at where we go from here (the Strategic Review), which is what will take up all of the second half of the meeting.

The first half of the meeting consists of the usual reports back from the officers of the English Party and the representatives to other party committees.  There’s nothing worse at a committee meeting than people who read out the report that we’ve all already had in writing, and this bit of the agenda is increasingly being focused on questions or detailed discussion on one bit of someone’s report.

Strategic review

The English Lib Dems agreed at its March meeting that after the General Election there would be a review to make proposals for the “future role of the English party and the English regional parties in the rebuilding and future development of the party, including the structure.”  This plan was agreed before the result was known, but the rebuilding process is more significant than most of us anticipated.  The idea is to prepare some initial questions and thoughts for the English Council meeting on 13th June, and this will then be worked up to become final proposals for the November English Council and English regional conferences to consider.  In between times the English Party will be consulting with members to get their views and ideas.

Those members who have been around a while will remember the Party Reform Commission (or Bones Report from c. 2008) and there’s a risk that it repeats the same job.  However, the impression I get is that there is an increasing willingness to look afresh at a lot of things and with the devastating General Election result there will be a need for more dramatic change.  There is a danger that the review will become fixated with structure and the clear desire of many people to scrap the English Party altogether, however it is certainly my view that if the party is to be a success it needs to look at what it wants to be and then design the structures appropriately to support that objective.  That may or may not mean keeping a similar structure to the one we have at present, but that isn’t where we should start. (more…)

Eurovision myths

Every year I get frustrated by comments made about the Eurovision Song Contest and so I thought I’d collect a few together and dispel some myths:

They’re neighbouring countries so of course they vote for each other: Neighbouring countries are as likely to dislike each other as they are to vote for each other, after all, who are they most likely to have invaded over the years?  For many years Greece and Turkey would have never voted for each other (although that is less common now), Armenia and Turkey have hardly been best friends, and Georgia and Russia both being ex-Soviet countries doesn’t mean very much.  It’s more complicated than geography, which I’ll come on to.

Everyone hates the UK:  If they did, why does our music sell so well throughout Europe?  Also, we won in 1997 which is a hell of lot more recent than most countries.  There are 33 countries competing to be in the Eurovision final and we won 18 years ago, which if think that some have won more than once is actually not bad going.  Russia isn’t exactly flavour of the month but they also seem to do OK.

It’s our placing in the contest:  In 2012 we were placed first in the running order and we said it was too early and everyone had forgotten about us by the end.  Last year we were the last to perform and we said, well the problem was that we were too late and everyone had made up their minds and the Netherlands who came shortly before us were so good we looked rubbish in comparison.  You can’t blame the position.  Yes, later songs have generally done better, but an outstanding song trumpets all of that.

So here are some more plausible reasons:

It’s about airplay: Outside of the UK, many countries go round promoting their songs in the run-up to Eurovision, and so by the time they get to the contest itself they’ve heard other country’s songs over and over again.  It also perhaps helps that most countries have to go through the semi-finals as it means that much of Europe has already heard their song and seen it performed on the big stage.  The UK however just doesn’t seem to do its promotion, and the last time I specifically remember us talking about promoting our song it was Katrina and the Waves, and they won!

Many countries share language: This has a bit of a link to the last comment, but when a country shares a language they often listen to each other’s music.  The Scandinavian countries understand each other’s languages so they often hear music from each other’s countries on radio and they also share some TV programmes.  German speaking countries understand each other’s songs, as do French speaking countries and so on.  In fact, the UK can’t criticise this as they have a tendency to vote for Ireland and vice versa for the same reason.  Even these days when most countries sing in English, the tradition of listening to music from countries that share your language, or have a language you understand continues.

Look at minorities:  Neighbouring countries might not vote for each other, but residents of a country whose family hail from another country or who come from a minority group within another might.  After all, I still feel a loyalty to Sweden despite having grown up in the UK (although I’ve been pretty lucky in that Sweden does generally enter good songs) but a good example is how much Germany votes for Turkey, which presumably has a connection with the large Turkish minority in the country.  Whilst I’ve dismissed the “neighbouring countries vote for each other argument” this is actually partly true when it comes to national minorities but it’s far more significant than simple proximity.

We enter rubbish songs: Generally, our entries have been pretty rubbish.  If you enter crap songs, what do you expect to happen?  We’ve assumed that mediocrity with a good singer will do, but actually one big shift in recent years is that most entrants can sing well (it’s very rare you hear a poor singer these days) and so you need more than that to win.  There is definitely a Eurovision type song, but all sorts of things do win, and so whilst some songs that do well commercially may not stand a chance at Eurovision, many songs would.  Perhaps we need a Swedish-style five-week long televised competition as they seem to do pretty well out of it and we like shows like X Factor or The Voice.

Our best writers are going abroad:  Have you noticed how many Eurovision entries are clearly written by British composers? Just look at the captions that appear.  So we can write Eurovision entries that are credible, but we just give them to other countries, perhaps because they take it more seriously and so care more about having someone good to write entries.  In some cases there is a long tradition of British pop or dance writers working abroad, but it’s not as many as there are entries.  Why do we not entice some back home?

We’re all so liberal here in Western Europe:  We like to think we’re all liberal in the UK and some other countries aren’t.  But whilst the UK voted for Conchita Wurst last year, the phone vote went for the writhing sexually provocative female Polish entry, and with Austria third.  It was the jury that tipped the UK in to voting for Austria.  Russia however, that was supposed to be all buttoned up and anti LGBT rights had a public vote that also placed Austria third, it was their jury that stopped them voting for Austria in the end.

But to be honest, whatever happens, do we really enter this to win?  No, we enter because it’s fun, it feels neighbourly and the Eurovision Song Contest is one of the most popular TV programmes in the UK, in Europe and the world as a result. Yes, I’d love us to win some time soon but more than anything (and certainly more than the Olympics) it is the taking part not the winning that counts.

Eurovision Song Contest 2015 – preview

I go slightly Twitter mad when the Eurovision Song Contest is on.  I always liked it, even as a child, I think at that time it was the faint air of European exoticism and it was about the only thing in a year that would make me feel Swedish (there’s many more things now, but that’s another post) but after hiding it for a bit, it’s now becoming sufficiently popular albeit in a camp kitsch type of way, for me to embrace my inner Eurovision geek again.

What this year’s Eurovision entries has made me realise is how spoilt we were last year.  All the talk was of Conchita Wurst, but there were so many potential winners – Netherlands with their country duet, Russia with a catchy song with strangely follicly-conjoined twins that would have done better if they hadn’t just invaded Ukraine (that’s the country not the twins), Sweden with an outstanding ballad performed very well, Iceland with a bit of quirky colourful punky pop, and Spain with Ruth Lorenzo’s dramatic vocals.  In another year any of those could have won.

This year the choice is so much poorer. I’ve come to the conclusion that generally (although they all have off years) that the countries that really get what works at Eurovision are Sweden, Ukraine, Greece, Armenia and Iceland.  Sadly this year, none of them have put in a particularly good entry, and Ukraine have stopped participating. So here’s my top picks (and yes, I have listened to all of the entries at least once):

United Kingdom: OK, here’s my confession.  Yes, I do like the UK entry and it’s a long time since I said that. It’s fun but it’s also performed well and it’s catchy. My main concern is that it might need a lot of people on stage to create the spectacle that the video does and you can only have six on at a time.  Watch it here.

Slovenia: Imaginary instruments, wearing large headphones, quirky voice, catchy song… it might have just enough to do well. If you only hear the song it’s perhaps catchy enough to grab the attention although it takes a while to build, although I also wonder if the oddities actually add something and so a quirky stage set might also help it win.  It’s got a bit of the dance music side of Loreen although not quite at those heights. Air violinist (is there such a thing?)  Watch it here.

Estonia: This was the first song that stood out for me.  It’s a pleasant song that’s got a real story and although pretty dark in its lyrics and even more so in its video, it may be the sort of well written lyrics that the juries will rate. I’d be very happy if this won as it feels like the best song in the contest, but I just don’t think it’ll stand out enough to get even in to the top few as is often the way with songs that are more singer-songwriter duet types.  Watch it here.

Belgium: A bit of catchy dance music with a cute singer who won Belgium’s version of X Factor. This would perform well in the charts if it hadn’t been connected to Eurovision (despite the – to British ears – odd pronounciation of ‘rap’), but older viewers may not be so keen on voting for it but then do they ever anyway?  However, it’s a lot catchier than most of the other songs I’ve picked out and so it should do well and it’s definitely one of my favourites, but how will it come across on a big stage? Watch it here.

Malta:  I’ve picked this despite me not being convinced it’ll get through the semi-finals as I think it’s performed well with incredible vocals and if it wasn’t a Eurovision song it would probably be commercially successful.  It takes a while to build but it’s performed well and by the end it’s a fairly catchy power ballad and it feels as though she’s channeling Ruth Lorenzo which is perhaps no bad thing.  Watch it here.

Russia: Very catchy and a fluffy heartwarming theme about peace and freedom.  It’s also very powerful and dramatic vocals. However, it won’t win as it’s Russia and the theme of the song is exactly what people feel Russia is not at the moment, but on the quality of the song it really should be a challenger.  I always feel a bit sorry for the Russian entry as again they’re good but just won’t win. Watch it here.

Italy: This has amazingly strong vocals and it’s exactly what you expect Italy to enter.  I’ve never liked those popular opera type acts like G4 (it’s amazing how they went from opera to poor security at the Olympics) and Il Divo.  It has the dramatic vocal abilities of Conchita Wurst, which may be what they’re relying on, but it just doesn’t have the backstory that works.  But the video is funnier than you’d expect for this sort of thing, with a singer who seems to think he’s Gok Wan, and if they can pull off the performance on the night, then maybe it’ll be a contender.   Watch it here.

There’s a few tracks that have been highly rated that I really don’t so here’s my thoughts:

Finland:  Why? Why? Why?  Actually, I know why, it’s because it reminds everyone of Lordi.  But Lordi was both heavy metal and with a catchy lyric so could appeal to two different Eurovision demographics.  This is just bad.  It’ll probably win now I’ve said that but it really shouldn’t despite the interesting back story. I can find nothing that redeems it at all.

Norway:  I can sort of see it’s clever, a well sung duet and would perhaps be popular in other circumstances (I’m struggling to think of which) but I just can’t see it.

Iceland:  Quite a nice song and again it’s well sung.  She is a cross between Björk and Lena (German winner from 2010) but it just isn’t catchy enough.

I’ll probably get this all woefully wrong, but this is my take.

Where we go from here: some thoughts for the Liberal Democrats

When I joined the Liberal Democrats towards the end of 1995 it had 24 MPs. I’ve often said that fortunately I wouldn’t see that few Lib Dem MPs again. Even reading the worst opinion polls for the party over the last parliament I didn’t believe I would see that few. Yet here we are, on just eight MPs.

One of the things that’s been hard over this parliament has been to see all the electoral progress that has been made by the party over the 19 years I’ve been a member fall apart. For some people, the successes of the opposition parties has galvanised their resolve and made them want to fight harder. For me, it’s taken some of the fight out of me and made me thoroughly depressed, although there is more to that than just the party’s electoral performance, but that’s another post. I sort of assumed that if the results were absolutely awful it would be time for me to gradually walk away and do something else with the next 19 years even though I’d continue to stay on as a member as it is too engrained in my DNA now.

What I’ve found remarkable however is how that’s not been my reaction. Perhaps it’s been the realisation that all Lib Dems have been hit by the result, not just a handful. Perhaps it’s been the reminder of how awful majority Conservative government is going to be, just as it was when I first joined the party, and that there’s a real need now to stick up for the things that I think are important and that they don’t. I think the surge in party membership has also helped give me some real optimism about the party’s future. Plus the discussion from many people in the party on Twitter, Facebook and on blogs about where we go next has made me find that my thoughts are not heading towards giving up but towards where we go next. So in that spirit, here are a few random collected thoughts from me on that subject.

This was intended to be a brief summary, but on each point it became quite lengthy, so apologies for that. The list is not comprehensive, and I expect I’ll come back to some ideas that are missing or not properly explained. It’s certainly not fully thought through, nor is it all original, but it’s my bit of putting on record what I have going round and round in my mind at the moment and what I’d like to see from the party and whoever we elect as our new leader. (more…)

This week

My review of the week.  Here’s some of the things I’ve been in to (and this time it seems to be a bumper edition):

A TV series:  Storyville on BBC4 is a series of one-off documentaries from around the world.  The latest series has been running for some time but I caught up with it with the latest one about the British spy – now living in Russia – George Blake.  Well put together and researched and often about people or places you know little about they’re worth watching as an insight in to what else is happening out there.

A pub:  Last Sunday I went for a walk from my flat up through the Ponderosa and Weston Park and then back home again via the Red Deer pub on Pitt Street, a back street near to West Street.  Rather than a real ale pub, it has more of a feel of a traditional back street boozer with a varied clientele, although it does do a number of ever changing real ales alongside more mainstream offerings, as well as some nice looking pub food.

A song:  I’ve actually included this in a This Week before, but for some reason it came to mind again this week and it really is a excellent song.  It’s Anthem from the musical Chess and I am still convinced that the original version by Tommy Körberg is the best.  I think as the person who sang it originally rather than just being an singer doing a performance he perhaps gets the meaning and emotions behind the song more than others do.

A snack:  This is another thought that’s come from my walk last Sunday, and it’s a bit of praise for Yorkshire Crisps.  Crisps are perhaps one of the more unlikely foods to be given a bit of gentrifcation over recent years with all sorts of posh brands of crisps coming out.  Yorkshire Crisps are my favourites of these.  Not just because they’re made just outside Sheffield and so are quite common in pubs and shops round here (and although less generally available, you can get them in London) but they have some amazing flavours.  My personal favourites are Henderson’s Relish flavour and Sweet Chilli & Lime flavour.

A TV series: A slightly odd pick this one as it’s a ten year old series and I accept a very odd thing to be watching as a repeat, but it’s the first series of The Apprentice.  I stumbled on an episode on YouTube a while ago and occasionally watched them since when wanting some comfort viewing, but this tenth episode from the first series really shows to me how the series has changed with Nick and Margaret taking a more background role, more detail of the skills of the apprentices and planning of the task and more discussion in the boardroom (although on this one I thought the one who was fired was unfair).  It’s probably more about the editing rather than the actual way it’s done and the participants didn’t know in the first series that they’d become TV stars whilst it’s broadcast.  I also love the moment in this when Saira and Paul are cracking up over the design of the jacket.

An article (and a test):  When I found a test on the BBC website that was supposed to decide where you should live based on your personality, it got everyone I work with intrigued.  Although based on a study by Cambridge University I have serious doubts as to the validity of the test but it’s quite fun nonetheless.  For the record, I got Craven as the place I should live, Corby as the place I shouldn’t, and Derbyshire Dales as the place near me that I should live in, but I got below 50% on all of them anyway and so I suppose the message from that is that I’m difficult to please.

A song:  I’ve been listening to Rather Be by Clean Bandit featuring Jess Glynne quite a bit this week after being reminded of it thanks to the instrumental version being used in those Marks & Spencer adverts that make me want to rush out and buy lots of gorgeous looking (but expensive) luxury food from them.  Upbeat, dancey and the strings make it stand out from your run of the mill dance record.  There’s also another good live version from Dutch radio apart from the full one below in which Clean Bandit perform it without Jess Glynne which I think is as strong (or perhaps stronger?)

This week

My review of the week.  Here’s some of the things I’ve been in to:

A TV programme (and a book):  Last night BBC2 had a one-off programme Murder on the Victorian Railway about the first railway murder when a Thomas Briggs was killed in a train carriage near Hackney.  The programme comes shortly after I’ve read Kate Colquhoun’s book Mr Brigg’s Hat about the same murder, and the programme was based on that book.  After reading the book the programme felt very short, but it’s an interesting bit of social history at a time of massive change in terms of transport, increasing industrialisation, the growth of newspapers and attitudes towards different groups.

An article:  There was an interesting article on the BBC website this week about a study in to DNA of people living in Britain, which amongst other things showed interesting stuff such as how different the Celtic parts of Britain are and how the North and South Welsh have less in common with each other than they do with the English.  Fascinating stuff and intriguing how even today there are such marked differences.

A TV series:  India’s Frontier Railways is a short but interesting series of programmes on BBC4.  The name is fairly self-explanatory but as well as the logistics of running these railways and the people involved, it shows an interesting contrast between the modernity of India’s big cities and the very different way of life in the more rural areas.

A book:  I’ve been a fan of Gretchen Rubin’s books on happiness since I first read The Happiness Project a few years ago. A book I still return to every so often when I need a bit of inspiration. Some people are pretty sceptical about the surge in books dedicated to life improvement but what I particularly like about Gretchen Rubin’s books is how she takes the view that generally we are pretty happy but we might want some small incremental changes to our lives. She’s now brought out Better Than Before, about how to form good habits day to day.  My pre-ordered copy arrived yesterday and so I’m looking forward to reading it when I’ve finished my current pile of library books.

A TV series:  Caribbean with Simon Reeve starts tonight on BBC2 and as I’ve always loved his programmes I’ll recommend it now before I’ve seen a programme.  Simon Reeve always manages to show places and sides to those places that you’ve not seen before, and he as an informed curiosity that I think makes him head and shoulders above many other travel presenters who often appear to know very little about the place they’ve gone to.  He also does it without patronising and belittling the locals.

A TED talk:  This has been one of those weeks when there hasn’t been much that is worth picking out for my review, so I’m going to add in this TED talk from Thomas Heatherwick as it’s one of my favourites from the TED website. Thomas Heatherwick has designed some amazing structures but yet seems a surprisingly nervous character when on a big stage although he clearly relaxes as he gets in to his stride.  Even if Thomas Heatherwick isn’t someone you’ve come across before you will recognise some of his work and it reminds you of how clever designers and architects can be and how when they do something well it can bring a lot of pleasure to daily life.