Thursday, May 28, 2009

You Can't Dencentralise and Empower Without PR

Win or lose in this election, I will not regret having done it. First of all, you meet a lot of people. You get to understand what is on people's minds. I am also quite impressed by just how much people understand politics and current affairs.

What also hits me is the preciousness of democracy. The fact that it is the public that chooses whether I am a Councillor next week, not a committee or a bureaucrat. They have the choice.

And while choosing a Councillor doessn't translate into anything like real control or empowerment on most issues, it is a golden thread of accountability that defines the type of society we are.

I would like to see more of this: recall, citizen referenda and citizen-led legislation like you see in the US. Politics beyond politicians which invigorates civil society - and keeps politicians on their toes.

Competition is key to this. Without competition, the benefits of democracy disappear too. In the neighbouring division to mine, in which I live, there are no leaflets, poster or visits.

Because there is only one winner. Now and always. He gets around 50% of the vote but no more. Most people know the situation and, surprisingly, don't engage. And he feels more accountable to his party's whips than the people who put him there. This isn't the right balance, I feel.

By contrast the competition in my Division is intense and three-way. At least two candidates, including myself, are visiting every household in the Division and leafleting intensively.

If we win, we know we have to be active, energetic representaives, not the do-nothing types you find in the Labour or Tory monocultures that you find in inner-cities or the rural shires.

For this reason, PR is needed. Alternative vote at local level would retain the link but ensure that whovever won had the endorsement of the majority. It would also enliven debate and engagement.

Which is why Cameron's announcement and interview yesterday can be seen as politicial bluff. Because if he was remotely serious he wouldn't exclude electoral reform from his list.

Electoral reform is the oxygen of decentralisation and wider engagement in politics. Without it, most votes don't count for a thing. If Labour had any sense they too would come out for PR, like Alan Johnson has done.

`Typical Lib Dem' I hear you thinking. Well yes, you are right. For Lib Dems have always championed the radical decentralisation now being aired by the mainstream parties. But you can't give power away to any meaningful degree without a voting system that also recognises the value of each and every vote.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

When Work Isn't Working

I was on the phone yesterday to CEO-friend of mine. It was lovely to speak to him, as ever, but he's not happy man. Not at work anyway.

Like a lot of CEOs, he's just not enjoying the job. He struggles to believe that his organisation is making a difference and he despairs at the mountain of crap he has to deal with every time he goes to work.

He contrast this life with his earlier one with a much smaller organisation. This felt far more `real' and he felt that, however difficult things got, he was making a tangible difference, not, as he put it, `wasting his time' in his current role.

We discussed the nature of senior jobs. Are they all a bit like this? Low on satisfaction, high on hassle. With an accompanying sense that only a small droplet of social good emerges from the oil-refinery of inputs and outputs over which one presides as a CEO.

Obviously not all the top jobs are bad. There is fun to be had. I, for one, am in a more fortunate situation than my friend. But he has a point. We talked a bit about money.

What you get above 45k is, he says is commensurate with the level of stress you have to ensure. The top salaries are essentially buying not only your skills but also your ability to absorb negativity and, perhaps most crucially, your consent to set aside your own fulfilment through meaningful work in exchange for a good standard of living.

Again, this reflects, I think, only some jobs - but more than perhaps we'd all be comfortable admitting. At times (normally during long meetings), I too feel I am divorcing myself from what I used to actually enjoy in order to earn more than I once did.

Where does this leave us? My friend is seriously considering his options. He yearns for a more meaningful if less well paid existence. Something brand new is on his mind.

For me, I am staying where I am, for now. My situation is cushioned by an amazing senior team and board. I consider myself one of the lucky ones. But, in the middle distance, I envisage change, if only to restore that vital connection between myself and the direct delivery of benefit.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Learning the Hard Way

I am mostly enjoying my new life as a small-time politician. The campaign takes me back to the early days of Speaking Up. All volunteers, young and old, all in it together. I love the challenge of working out people's skills and melding together a team that clicks. I also relish the buzz of the campaign.

My `Campaign Crew' is a motley group ranging from 82 to 22. I have senior professionals, I have call-centre staff, pensioners and students. Unusually most of my crew are not Lib Dem party members and three are members of other political parties. I've not worked with this kind of diversity for a long time. After years of working with only with my senior team and board this is actually a refreshing kind of challenge. Fortunately I am loving it. Mostly.

This week the campaign had its first hiccup. One of the team, a prominent member of the local party, wrote part of my second leaflet and included in it an incorrect fact about one of my opponents' voting record. 3500 of these had been printed and 500 delivered before I got an angry call from the gentleman whose good name we had besmirched.

Understandably upset, he demanded that we withdraw the leaflet and apologise. Then the paper called and suddenly I am part of a story about the depths to which local politicians will go to gain petty advantage.

My more experienced colleagues tell me, like kindly uncles, that this is all par for the course. Local politics is, they say, pretty aggressive and personal at times (my opponent pulled no punches in his communication). It all left me a little...unsettled, if I am honest. Which I am sure was the desired intention.

Where does this leave me? Do I accept that local poltiics is a bit of a knockabout and give as good as I get? Or do I seek to act in the way I do in other areas of my life where I try, wherever possible, to seek the common ground and get things done through trust. A path I have always found to be the most productive.

For now, I am going with the latter, whatever people tell me. The people I really admire in politics - Frank Field, Vince Cable etc - are all `real people' as much as they are professional politicians. The public actually like this about them. While I am sure they are superb operators, they are smart enough to realise that the highly adversarial means of doing politics in this country are actually not particularly effective at achieving its ends. And that they are a turn off for voters, especially the young.

If elected, I will seek to work in the way I always have to make good things happen. And, yes, this includes a personal note of apology to my opponent, despite his reaction, which was not what I am used to in such situations. When I look back in a few years time at this blog I may laugh at my naivety. But is there any point doing this if you're not going to be yourself and bring to the table what has worked well so far in your life? If that's the case, why bother?

The lessons of this week have been harsh ones though. Check your facts. Be in control of your message. Anticipate how opponents might try to convey not only what you stand for but how you operate as a person. This is, I am learning, a tough game, even at local level. The gloves are off and if you leave yourself open, as I did, you will get one in the head. I don't believe there is anything inherently `personal' in any of this stuff (candidates apparently have great fun together at the count, once the war for votes is over), but, in the meantime, anything you do which can count against the way voters perceive you is fair-game.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Anonymous Pol

I am feeling very virtuous right now. For a small-time politician anyway. On my rounds I picked up a lot of concern about a local road near a school where there is no crossing.

I wrote a letter to the paper (the titan Bury Free Press) and was immediately called by a journalist.

Time to come clean but risk being outed a a pol or to milk the story but risk exposure? Being risk-averse, and reasonably clean, I fessed up but pointed the journo to the local mums.

However, I am, as anyone knows me, never one to miss an opportunity. So I did pop round to let the Mums know I had called the paper and they wanted to run the story. And, that, yes, I was stepping out now, because I thought it would run better without politics.

For a moment I felt the cynicism melt away as bid goodbye, jumped into my Scrapage Focus (a grand and its yours) and sped away. OK so I don't make Friday's paper. But this felt like a good result in these overcast times. And it certainly felt right. Two votes rather than, say, 20. Maybe I will live to regret it. But, somehow, I don't think I will.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Politicians - you're all the bloody same!

Its not a great week to be out knocking on doors as an aspiring small-time politician. People just don't want to know. MPs of all parties have done fantastic damage to not only to politics but also to the social fabric.

The scandals of the week have given documentary, indeed granular, proof of the grasping, maximising nature of many of our politicians. And to all the curmudgeons who say `They're only in it for themselves', well the proof is there now for all to see.

On the doorstep, all you can do is say you agree and tell them what a nightmare it is at local level where we don't get paid etc. A lot of people tell me they are not going to vote, as a protest. Others, even committed voters, just don't know what to do next. This has, flummoxed them.

And this is perhaps the most worrying aspect to all this. The cynics were always there, a small minority. Most people in this country recognise the need for politics, they might not engage that much but their tacit consent is key to our system working. If it is withdrawn, we're all in trouble.

All of this opens door not only to mass disengagement but also the political fringe. I suspect the BNP will benefit in many areas because of this.

What also interests me is the way nearly all MPs - the better people as well - all pretty much got what they could. Obviously this is so much the norm in Westminster that people soon lose any inhibition once elected. I wondered to myself what my claim would have looked like were I an MP for, say, Bury St Edmunds. Would I have a second home? Might I have used all the available means to furnish it without dipping into my own pocket. Could I have resisted the temptation to realise capital gains when I finally sold it?

I would like to be able to say No, No and No to all of these questions. But I am not sure it would always be quite so straightforward. While the moralist within me would want to resist, the human in me would ask futher questions: If all my peers claim for these things, wny shouldn't I? Is it within the rules, after all, to claim things which are incurred in setting oneself up as an MP who has to, effectively, live in two places? And, at the end of the day, I may not be an MP forever and my career prospects have already ben pretty shredded by getting into politics all those years ago.....

I think all of this is, in the wider context, pretty weak. But I can see how many MPs, otherwise pretty OK people, will have got to where they are now.

Anyway, my campaign is going well I think. I have a great team ranging in age from 22 to 82. What I enjoy is the sense that we're in it together and everyone is there because they want to be. It reminds me in many ways of the early Speakining Up. And, yes, I have having a lot of fun.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

24 Hour High

Possibly my most active 24 hours for some time. At this time (10pm) yesterday I was at UEA Norwich watching and admiring the incredible Doves play a very loud set to the East Angles. It takes a lot to get me out to live events these days (I don't like armpits, dives or hanging-around) but for Doves I waive my rules.

A bit like Elbow, Doves are all fairly un-glam, post-ego northern blokes around my age who just do what they do. They wear shit clothes, don't do `chat' with the audience beyond the occasional `Thank-you, Norwich' (which I like), but are clearly honoured by people's interest and enthusiasm. I left with my heart yearning for more, and ears ringing loudly all the way home.

A seven to seven day at work today. Six big meetings, back to back. Wondered how I would do it but actually started enjoying myself quite quickly. Funny how this happens. I even found the disciplinary-type meeting I had today oddly satisfying (I often feel physically ill in advance of these things). Reminded me I can be tough if I have to be.

Spent quality time with my Chair, my SMT and several individual SMT. I have an unsually talented senior team. In this I am incredibly lucky. All of them are super-bright, motivated and, to a person, honest and nice. I think I pick well but I simply follow the maxim that you should try to appoint people better than yourself. They never cease to impress me.

Finally got back to the kids who I haven't seen all week. Get a welcome I don't really deserve. See my mother who has been down all week and I haven't spent an hour with. Feel on a `work-high', the drug I spent most of my 20s and 30s, hooked on. The come-down will arrive in about....36 hours. It actually feels like I have taken something. Which is why I need to be careful. I can't sip from this bottle too often or I go backwards. Time to stop I think...