Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Lives on the line

The Independent has a disturbing report on the number of suicides by railway train and the measures which hard-pressed railway police are taking to reduce it. I had a feeling that this grisly way of taking ones own life was on the increase, but the fact that there were hundreds of such fatalities every year came as a shock. Do the people who give up their life in this way realise the traumatic effect it has on railway staff and particularly on drivers?

From the People's Republic of Islington

- or that's what the commentariat (and yes, that is a word that was coined before Mr Corbyn uttered it yesterday and one that will surely be in the next round of dictionary revisions) would have you believe. My response on hearing the speech live on BBC-Parliament was the same as that of Caron Lindsay who expressed it far better than I.

It was a nice touch to have a young trainee lawyer of clearly south Asian heritage to make the introduction as a constituent of Mr Corbyn's. (I wish we could get across that the Liberal Democrats welcome liberals and social democrats from whatever background. Our image of overwhelmingly pink faces must put minority ethnic people off, but I would assure them that the door to the party is open. It just needs a little push.) She embodied the basic appeal of Mr Corbyn, as an assiduous local MP who genuinely cares for people - a quality he shares with Tim Farron, but of course the policies in the national arena are what count.

I would only add that the objection to Mr Corbyn's use of pre-published text in his speech is rather synthetic. Very few political leaders produce genuine innovations on the public platform. Their speech-writers are prone to make use of hand-me-down tropes and even whole sections supplied by pressure groups. If Mr Corbyn found a neatly-expressed passage which encapsulated his own political philosophy, so what? It is the content which should be criticised, not its origin.

EU wonks duck critical electoral issues

At first sight, this assessment of The Reform of the Electoral Law of the European Union (in pdf form) should have been welcome. A rationalisation of the different voting systems for the European Parliament in the constituent nations is surely overdue and the EU has the power to impose it - that is, if the Parliament and the Council of Ministers can agree. At present, as I understand it, the only requirement is that the electoral method must be proportional.

However, the Reform is concerned too much about process and the representation of parties. It does not tackle the iniquity of party lists which put too much power in the hands of managers and reduce that of the people to prefer individual candidates.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

UKIP's real aim

Swansea Lib Dem leader, Councillor Chris Holley, said he was baffled by UKIP.

"What I don't understand is why they are standing in the Assembly elections or the local elections in Wales," said the former council leader.

"It must now become clear to everyone that Ukip is just a one issue party. On every other issue they are the same as the current Conservative Party in Westminster."

The reason is, of course, to cream off more public money in the form of salary and expenses in order to fund their atavistic isolationist campaigns against European cooperation. If elected, any UKIP AM will clearly spend as little time in Cardiff as his or her comrades do in Brussels and Strasbourg.

In particular, I am informed by one of his erstwhile constituents that Mark Reckless has given no indication that he intends to give up his seat on Medway Council in Kent.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Frank Tyson

For too short a time, Frank Tyson was the spearhead of the England attack. As I recall, injuries curtailed his career. One of the intriguing "what-ifs" of cricket history is the dream of that triple attack of Statham, Trueman and Tyson being kept together.

Jonathan Calder has reported that Tyson has just died in Australia. He has also posted a helpful video reminder of what county and Australian batsmen had to face.

Tim Farron's first speech as leader (continued)

Lord Greaves has responded to the Guardian in a letter about the paper's commentary on the Farron speech:

Your pat on the head is ironic but still welcome. It is 51 years 
since I was first present to hear a leader’s speech at a Liberal 
Assembly - the annual inspiration by that great Liberal Party 
leader, your own Jo Grimond. I do think that Tim Farron’s speech 
this year, in presentation and context and content, is the best 
I’ve heard in all the years of Liberal and Liberal Democrat 
conferences since then.

Members of the Liberal Democrat conference this year were not 
“doggedly cheery” as you suggest. The years we were dogged were 
during the coalition, determined to see it through, to promote 
Liberal policies and to stop the Conservatives doing their worst. 
The mood now is of some relief that we are free of the Tories 
combined with deep anger at what their worst now means for people 
in this country and in the rest of the world.

This had to be a transitional speech but throughout it Tim 
headlined and emphasised our Liberal tradition, our Liberal 
beliefs, our Liberal cause. And in his return to Grimond’s famous 
appeal to march his troops to the sound of gunfire he reaffirmed 
our historic role as the campaigning radical force in British 
politics, based firmly on the Liberal left and actively promoting 
those progressive causes that the other major parties shy away 

This is our role and our destiny. So watch this space because 
it’s ours. 

There have also been comments from Mark Pack, Stephen Tall, Paul Walter and Caron Lindsay. So, rather than dissect the whole speech, I will just pick out a few passages which struck me:

But you know, I have never felt so common as the day I entered the House of Commons. I have never met so many well-spoken, expensively educated people. It doesn’t make them bad people. But it does make me feel like an outsider. But that’s fine, because Liberal Democrats are outsiders.

This is a line which should be dropped - or seriously modified - if we want to be considered seriously as a party of government again. It also comes perilously close to whining.

I think about the Ugandan Asians offered a safe haven by our parents from that murderous tyrant, Idi Amin. And it makes me realise the pride I feel in Britain when we do show such generosity of spirit.

That generosity should be seen in the light of history as set out here. Neither the Conservative government at the time of the expulsions nor the previous Labour government which had nullified the East African Asians' passports covered themselves in glory. But after some initial suspicion most British communities welcomed the immigrants, from whose contribution we are still benefiting.

Business needs stable economic conditions to thrive and grow. A strong, fair, liberal and sustainable economy is the essential core that enables people to succeed, shape their own futures and get support in times of need.

The Liberal Democrats are proud of our economic record in Government and we will build on what we have achieved so far to develop a strong and clear liberal vision for the British economy into the future.

That’s why we remain committed to the abolition of the structural deficit.

Our commitment to clearing the deficit by 2017/18 is right.

Not ending the deficit now means leaving the next generation to clear up our mess, and that’s simply unfair. By ignoring economic realities, Britain would be choosing more austerity, not less.

But what is equally unfair is to place the burden of ending that deficit on the backs of the poorest and lowest paid – we must all play our part, based on our ability to pay.

That, George, is what “being all in it together” really means.

So that’s the Liberal Democrat economic approach. Invest in infrastructure, innovation and innovators. Pay off our debts and share our burdens fairly.

That’s the common sense approach. Ambitious government, social justice, economic competence.

This is a point which needs to be continually made, within the party as much as outside. The Liberal Democrat party is heir not only to Beveridge, Lloyd George and the young reforming Winston Churchill who introduced economic justice; and to Roy Jenkins, the great social reformer; it is also heir to William Gladstone who practically created the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer as we know it today. Nor should we forget that Roy Jenkins, when Chancellor, also balance the books.

There will be calls for unfunded government spending from another seaside resort this week and, while it would be unfair to blame the Conservatives governing alone totally for last month's surge in the deficit, George Osborne has made a number of decisions which will dent future government income. We need to emphasise our financial responsibility along with our social conscience.

Sunday, 27 September 2015


Cecilia Malmström, the EU commissioner for trade, gave an important speech in the US last Thursday. In her Isaiah Berlin lecture at the Yale Club, Ms Malmström expressed confidence that the negotiations between the US and EU would continue to make progress.

She stressed that transparency would be a key feature of the final treaty. I understand from a talk given by Catherine Bearder MEP in Bournemouth that Ms Malmström has already negotiated away the secret tribunals to settle claims of unfair treatment by companies; these will now be heard in open court. It is also worth repeating that public services like the NHS will be specifically excluded from these claims. Being a Swede, and with a background in consumer protection, Ms Malmstöm can be relied on to ensure that EU standards will be maintained. In some areas, US consumer protection is higher than ours and the final TTIP agreement will incorporate the best of both.

The recent Volkswagen deception points up the differences between EU and US vehicle safety regulation and testing. In earlier years, we had the breast implant scandal. A common standard will remove the anomalies used to their advantage by manufacturers on both sides of the Atlantic.

However, the major benefit will be to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) who are disproportionately affected by trade barriers and differing standards.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Rail Wales

The latest issue of Railfuture Wales' magazine came through the door yesterday. On the back page is a photo of a new set of posts and booms outside Swansea station, ready to take the wires for the Hitachi electric train depot. So there is physical evidence to back Stephen Crabb's "total commitment" to electrification west of Cardiff. However, he did not guarantee the original timetable which depends on Network Rail's competence.

Clipped from a pdf on the site of the Office of Rail Regulation
Elsewhere, there is a table showing the entries and exits, based on ticket sales, to Welsh rail stations in 2014 and the two previous years.  I was surprised to see that Neath comes ninth with 820,188 movements, trailing the stations on the right as well as Cardiff Bay, Pontypridd and Trefforest. Cardiff Bay has seen a remarkable jump of around 28% over two years from 793,382 to 1,019,348. Port Talbot does not show at all, presumably being lumped in the "others" column at less than half-a-million movements per year. The reconstruction of the station may have affected the figures, which will no doubt also be impacted by the imminent redevelopment of the surrounding area.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Regulation: Who is responsible?

The news that Volkswagen's CEO Dr Winterkorn had fallen on his sword while at the same asserting that he had no knowledge of the engine control software which had been modified specifically to deceive rolling-road checks reminded me of the title of a conference fringe meeting last Monday.

As exposed by Baroness Kramer in that meeting, much of the trouble in the finance industry was caused by boards of directors not knowing what was being done in their name by people at the next level down. The other member of the panel, Andrew Whyte, director of communications at the Financial Conduct Authority, was able to defend the FCA by reporting that there was now a protocol under which each aspect of the business was assigned final responsibility to a named director. Apart from that, Mr Whyte was constantly stonewalling as only a former BBC PRO knows how. Susan Kramer apologised for any rustiness caused by working on transport matters until recently, but it was if she had never been away from her special subject as she tore into the faults that remained in the regulatory régime. She felt especially for whistle-blowers who were guaranteed to lose their career if they spoke up about misdeeds in their companies.

The moderator, Kevin Schofield, of Politics Home was formerly chief political editor of the male chauvinist Sun newspaper, and it showed. It needed noisy protests from the audience to force him eventually to choose a question from a woman. It was worth it. A young lawyer from a big City firm drew attention to an alphabet soup of regulatory bodies in addition to the FCA which complicated her work for her clients.

It was altogether a depressing session, enlivened only by the evidence of a number of people who are untiring in their driving the regulatory agenda.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Tim Farron's speech to conference

It was as stirring as predicted. Caron Lindsay gives a taster of the text here. It was a powerful speech with a great peroration which, dare I say it, no previous Liberal Democrat leader could have matched. One would probably have to go back to the inspiring Liberal leader Jo Grimond, of whom I have only vague memories of TV clips, for similar power.

This being a Liberal Democrat conference, the speech was not listened to with unthinking reverence. There was a cry of "bingo!" from the gallery when Tim repeated one of his favourite turns of phrase.

If not seeking to present as a premier in waiting (which as previously noted is going to be a long process), Tim certainly positioned himself as a potential leader of the opposition. There were other key points in the speech which deserve comment, which I hope to give when the full text becomes available. Any criticisms will be no more than nit-picking. It was a great speech.

Reserved powers

I would expect Peter Black to comment (and am surprised that he has not yet done so) on the report that academic legal experts are unhappy with the Welsh Office's proposals for devolution. It appears that they do not meet the need for a reserved powers model for Wales to match that in Scotland. This was in the Liberal Democrat manifesto and, I understand, all the other major parties' as well.

I would only add that we already need a searchable public database of Wales-only legislation, to match that provided by the National Archives for England. The day when the Welsh government has unfettered power to legislate in its defined arena of competence will surely come sooner rather than later and the Welsh government needs to be ready with a database for statutes.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

On the last lap at Bournemouth conference

I usually slip off before leader's speeches, not being a devotee of the cult of personality. I did stay for Nick Clegg's York 2013 address, having heard the whispers that it was going to be a good one, and was not disappointed by his stirring defence of Liberalism, of the traditions of the United Kingdom and of his place in both. Today is going to be another exception. Memories of previous Tim Farron performances reassure me that this lunchtime's oration will not be boring and will be refreshingly short of politician-speak. In his new rôle as leader, Tim needs to begin the transition from conference favourite to trusted potential prime minister, something for all his qualities Charles Kennedy did not achieve. I don't expect an instant gear-change, but it is going to be interesting to see how he tackles the problem.

There were few dry eyes in the conference centre at the end of the screening of a beautifully-judged tribute to Charles which was shown yesterday. Linda Jack, in the chair for the session, had to intervene to prevent a standing ovation encroaching on some important following party business.

The contentious proposal to allow a "leader's veto" on any party manifesto was not discussed as a motion for "next business" was successful. I would have preferred the proposal to be fully debated and voted on, so that our rejection of such an undemocratic move could be on the record but the right outcome was reached. A set of measures to create an elected office of deputy leader to be created was found to have a drafting flaw and thought by conference, on a narrow majority, to be short of detail. The principle of allowing a deputy to be chosen from outside the restricted (currently by ethnicity and gender) circle of the parliamentary party met with approval by most speakers, though, and we would expect a tighter motion to result from the deliberations of a governance committee.

There was, to close the day, an excellent fringe meeting on Russia's intentions on its western borders. Speakers endorsed the EU's twin-track approach of trade sanctions on Russia while Putin continued his occupation of Crimea and effective domination of Donbas while keeping the diplomatic door open in order to progress other matters of common interest. The subject of the Baltic states came up late in the discussions; the most pressing danger seems to be to Moldova and Georgia. The Polish ambassador likened Putin's playing the Russian ex-pat card to a threat to put a thousand Polish troops on Ealing Broadway! Ian Bond listed several reasons why Putin is not likely to give up his present course of action.

This mix of genuine debate and a sense that all representatives participate in decision-making on the formal agenda, the fringe meetings which still attract some distinguished contributors in spite of our diminished parliamentary presence and the exchange of ideas and experiences with fellow-activists is what makes Liberal Democrat conference such a special time. What we need to do now is to make it possible for more members to share in it.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Conference trends

I have attended Liberal Democrat party conferences off and on for around twenty years. My dashes round the fringe meetings in the last two days, noting the general dearth of tit-bits, or even liquid refreshment, caused me to think about the changes in that period. Time was, even before the party hit the heights of its so-far maximum representation in Westminster let alone entered government, any self-respecting pressure group would have stocked its fringe meeting with a full buffet of which there would be enough left over to fill a doggy-bag or two. The present austerity probably set in around the time of the financial crash. There was certainly no sign of it at Brighton 2006. The timing may have been coincidental. The drop-off in goodies may have been due to host hotels upping their charges, spotting a hitherto unremarked profit opportunity. Certainly those few organisations which have provided snacks along with the regulation red and white wine, orange juice and coffee, have laid out the bare minimum.

Another bonus in those days was the quality of the give-aways. I remember the mid-noughties when the Independent gave each representative a bag containing a copy of the newspaper. I still carry a pocket torch given away by the TUC's education department then, though the bag containing it and a pocket rule have gone the way of all plastics after several years service.

One departure which I do not regret is the heavy security from the period when Nick was deputy prime minister, culminating in really oppressive checks and a heavy police presence in Sheffield 2011. Lessons were learned, and the efficient but brisk and friendly checks in York 2014 were a welcome relief. Now we are back to a simple bag-check, for which much thanks - and conference is back in York next spring.

Monday, 21 September 2015

One member, one vote

You lose some, you win some. At least the OMOV motions were successful. Now all members, not just those approved by local parties, may vote on policy motions. It also enfranchises those in dysfunctional parties.

There was a noisy minority, which turned out to be a small minority when the vote was taken, who feared entryism. Mark Pack, summing up, dismissed that with the argument that one-issue entryism was only a danger to small parties. We were already growing, and the extension of the franchise would clearly encourage new members who would, in the words of another speaker, reward the party with commitment, enthusiasm and loyalty.

The other major objection was that only those who could afford to attend conference would take advantage of their new rights. Those who hold this view should realise that that is the case now, as I have moaned over the years. Something should be done about this - the development of secure online voting, or even online conferencing, or a charitable contribution to deserving cases to attend physical conference - but these considerations are outwith the principle of greater democracy.

As to large parties swamping decision-making, one can point to the year or so since the York decision to hugely increase the previous representation numbers. No such swamping has occurred.


The speech I would want to make if I were half as photogenic as I used to be (n.b. must change that photo in the sidebar) in today's debate in Bournemouth about Trident replacement:

I have not worn sandals as an adult, and my last beard was a generation ago. I am not a pacifist, and I do not shrink in horror at the mention of nuclear power. I admire the ingenuity of the Trident concept. My objection to renewal of a UK seaborne nuclear weapon system is I believe a logical and practical one. The nuclear deterrent may have been just that in an earlier age but it is not one now and the cost of Trident replacement - conservatively, £15bn for the hardware, and £2bn annual running costs - could be better diverted into more relevant areas of defence.

The immediate threat - and one that frightens me more than the remote possibility of nuclear war - is the salami-slicing by conventional means of eastern Europe by Russia. Crimea and Donbas have practically been ceded already. Trident did not protect our friends in the Ukraine - and neo-Nazis whose presence Mr Putin has played up apart, I believe they are our friends - and Trident will not deter Mr Putin from using remnant Russian-speaking populations there to shoe-horn an invasion of the Baltic states.

What will protect what's left of the eastern flank of the European Union is the support for the intelligence services called for by Rory Stewart MP, no soft liberal, and restoring cuts to our conventional forces. Mr Cameron promised at the NATO summit in Wales that we would continue to contribute 2% of our GDP to NATO. Although this seems to be an outmoded concept in some quarters, I believe that promises once made should be kept.

A British first-use nuclear weapon would be no more than a symbol - the phrase "willy-waving" comes to mind - and a very expensive one. We should think logically about our true defence needs and not be bullied by the scare campaign mounted by vested interests into a costly irrelevance.


In the event the motion was passed after emasculation, or refinement, depending on which side of the radical/conservative split one sits. Paul Walter has posted the amended text but helpfully also the lines that were taken out.

It was a splendid, lively, debate with only the occasional heckle (contrast that with similar debates in Old Labour conferences) and although the amendment was clearly carried, it was not overwhelmingly so. It was noticeable that all the women who contributed to the debate, apart from those in the party establishment, wanted away with nuclear weapons unconditionally.

Much was made of the brevity of the original motion, as if that were a fault. It had actually been edited down to the essence around which all opponents could gather, by a process in a Facebook group. (Much credit is due to Kevin White of the Liverpool party, who did not get a name-check on the agenda.) Myself, I could do without the standard LD format motion which tends to resemble an overlong sermon but I realise I am fighting against the tide.

I was sorry that so much of the debate was conducted on an emotional level, though in his summation Julian Huppert echoed the economic points and the effect on our conventional forces that I independently made in the earlier part of this post.

Surprisingly, several speakers cited the Russian incursion into Ukraine as an argument for the nuclear deterrent, reminding us of Ukraine's giving up its legacy of nuclear missiles. The logical extension of that argument is that Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Finland should become nuclear weapons states in order to defend themselves against Russia. That is clearly irresponsible nonsense. The real reason for the Ukrainian situation is that one guarantor to that peace agreement, Russia, reneged on it and the other parties stood idly by.

Those who voted to water down the original out of fear of electoral annihilation after being labelled pinko unilateralists by the Mail, Sun and Express should recall the progress of same-sex marriage. Until quite late in the twentieth century, Conference Committee would have thrown up its collective hands in horror at a motion proposing that. Now it is accepted orthodoxy in the UK.

At least the final resolution does reassert our opposition to like-for-like replacement and does hold out the hope of a working party producing a more realistic defence policy.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Fringing (continued)

Working backwards, there was the ... well, actually my last action was to travel back on the bus from the centre of Bournemouth to the B&B in the east of the city. I mention this because it is remarkable that there is a frequent (ten to twenty minute interval) seven days a week, from very early to very late (the 21:20 I caught was by no means the last on a Sunday, and the buses run up to midnight on a weekday) modern and well-patronised bus service along the coast from Poole to Christchurch. Oh, how I wish there was a similar service from Swansea to Margam via Skewen and Neath. The people in south Dorset benefit from uncrowded roads. A well-used bus service through Skewen would reduce the snarl-ups in New Road.

Anyway, the fringe meeting I left in order to catch the bus was hosted by Liberal Democrat Voice and dealt with foreign policy. Chaired by Caron Lindsay and featuring William Wallace, Julie Smith and Nick Tyrone, discussion centred on Liberal Democrat relations with USA, Russia and the nations of the middle and near east. I thought the appreciation of the situation in Syria and Iran was simplistic. While there was general agreement that once having intervened one should be in for the long haul, there were one or two regrets that UK had not indulged in the "hit and run" bombing exercises against Bashar al-Assad's defences, a move which would in my opinion have done no more than bring forward the situation which now exists.

The meeting before that was a joint Electoral Reform Society/LDER session on how to go forward with electoral reform. Chaired by Miranda Green, guest panellists were Owen Winter from the Youth Parliament who is now on the ERS council, Katie Ghose, chief executive of the ERS, and Katherine Trebeck of Oxfam. (No male dominance in either meeting!) Much of the ground had already been covered at the LDER AGM, but there was a big contrast in numbers. It was standing room only at tonight's meeting. I had been looking forward to seeing the billed Stephen Kinnock MP and asking him whether he would recommend fair votes for local government to his party colleagues in the Welsh Government. However, he had found he had been double-booked and preferred to joust verbally on Radio 4's Westminster Hour with Antoinette Sandbach and our own Norman Lamb. At least he had sent a statement declaring his passionate support for electoral reform, reinforced by the mathematical absurdity of the general election results. Katherine Trebeck shared some lessons from her native Australia's governance, and from her experience of campaign successes in other areas.

The final session for Sunday of the conference proper comprised reports from the Diversity Engagement Group, which is meant to engage in party activity and hopefully in elected office people who are from ethnic minorities, and from the Campaign for Gender Balance. There were attacks on both on grounds of lack of progress and careless use of language, but both were eventually accepted by conference.

The debate on a Welsh Liberal Democrat motion calling for a 15 percentage points cut in VAT on tourism is covered elsewhere and Liberal Democrat Voice will no doubt provide a report of the Q&A session with the party leader, for which I could not find a seat.

Previously, conference had discussed education and health matters, but we have our own troubles in Wales so I occupied myself with more exploration of the city centre. I missed the first minutes of a lunch-time Welsh campaign meeting, at which there was robust discussion, due to overrunning of the morning's EU business, capped by a super speech by D66's Sophie in 't Veld, richly laced with jokes and flattering remarks about Britain and the Liberal Democrats.

Painful memories of the AV and Scottish Independence referendums clearly influenced conference's endorsement of a resolution to set up our own campaign for "remain" in next year's EU referendum, though an amendment accepting cooperation with other bodies with similar interests was accepted. David Cameron's ideas as to who should be permitted to vote came in for criticism and we voted to include 16-18-y-os, EU citizens resident here and UK citizens residing in the EU in the ballot.

I'd like to take Mr Whippy to Sky News

The Sunday Times has taken a minor point (calling for a ban on diesel-powered vehicles and locomotives running their engines while stationary) in a LibDem conference motion drawing attention to the increasing evidence of the danger from particulates in diesel exhaust. It has extrapolated this to a threat to ice-cream vans (assuming that these are all diesel-powered, which I doubt). Sky News* (under the same proprietorship) takes it further and implies that banning Mr Whippy is the only item on the conference agenda.

To be fair, the policy of free school meals in England, under threat by the Treasury, has been correctly ascribed to Nick Clegg while in government, and Greg Mulholland has been featured in his fight for better conditions for junior doctors in the English NHS. But it is Mr Whippy which will catch the eye of Sky viewers.

* I was only watching Sky as the only news channel available in my B&B's TV service. It was either that or a re-run channel or one of four "adult" offerings.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Fringing in Bournemouth

There is broader coverage of events in Bournemouth on Liberal Democrat Voice and many official LibDem blogs. This is just a catalogue of initial impressions of autumn conference.

It was good to be joined by Cen Phillips, which means that Aberavon & Neath party is better represented than it has been for yonks. Conference Committee chairman Andrew Wiseman confirmed that other parties were sending more representatives than ever before, though there was still a significant minority of constituencies which were unrepresented. Attending conference is an expensive business (especially in a place like Bournemouth). Something should be done to redress this imposition.

It seems that Peter Black AM from Swansea & Gower will be joining us later in the week.

I should praise the courage of the party to dedicate around two hours before the formal opening to a review of our general election performance. However, there was to my mind too much concentration on process - the failures of strategy and the shortcomings in technological tools - to the exclusion of examination of the message we were putting over. The loudest applause was for speakers from the floor who criticised the "brains and heart" slogan and called for an end to defining Liberal Democrats in terms of their relation to other parties.

The response to the surge in refugee numbers was heartening, but I had to slip away for the AGM of LDER (Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform) before the end of that debate.

It was good to see that the AV referendum fiasco has not deterred LDER, but it was felt that renewed effort was needed to convince other people (including many LibDems) of the need for reform. There were signs that more in the Labour Party were coming round to the long-held views of Alan Johnson MP that first-past-the-post was inimical to democracy. The TUC's recent conversion to proportional representation was welcome. More publicity needs to be given to the successful introduction of fair votes to Scottish local government. Similar moves for councils in England and Wales might seem less threatening to the public than going straight to PR for Westminster. Wales in particular looks promising as there is an excellent case for PR in the super-councils which the Welsh Government wants to impose. The views of Stephen Kinnock, Labour MP for Aberavon, at a fringe meeting organised by the Electoral Reform Society for tomorrow should be interesting.

My last fringe of the day was a drinks function launching the rebranding of Liberal Democrat Lawyers Association as "Rights, Liberty and Justice" in order to embrace a wider membership than only practitioners. The list of assaults on civil rights by the Conservative government which came out in discussion and by the keynote speakers was depressing. The House of Lords may prove a road-block to the worst of their proposed future members, but even there authoritarian socialists formed an unholy alliance with the worst of the Tories. Given that the government has a manifesto commitment to replacing the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights, the fight was on to ensure that the BBR comprised all the protections of the HRA plus the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Conference time

Off to Bournemouth today, not to body-board on the Boscombe surf reef waves, nor even to see whether one of my fantasy league predictions comes out well, but to attend what promises to be a crucial Liberal Democrat conference and AGM*. It may not receive much attention in the national media (unless the Trident vote goes the right way), but it will set the tone for the Farron leadership for the rest of this parliament. I hope to cast my vote for more democracy: to prevent party managers riding roughshod over the will of conference, and to endorse the one-member, one-vote, constitutional change which is already in force in the Welsh party.

So blogging will either be sparse or profuse for the next few days, depending on what sort of Wi-Fi connections I can find in Dorset.

* Our agenda has been public for weeks now. Labour meets next week but I have seen not a trace of their plans. Surely they were not waiting for a diktat from their new leader?

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Concert audience participation

The great Sir Henry Wood used to indicate (by gesture) his discouragement of applause intruding between the movements of a symphony or similar work. The brilliant performances of the last night of this year's BBC Promenade Concerts (Danielle de Niese's wobble aside) were marred for me by the applause after the first movement of Shostakovich's 2nd piano concerto. But it seems that inconsiderate behaviour is even worse in the south of France, if this tale by Pliable is anything to go by:

At a recent concert by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille [...] I found myself sitting behind two parents and their three young children. Now the youngsters were as attentive as you can expect sub-teenagers to be during a performance of Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn; but the same cannot be said of their parents. For the first fifteen minutes of the song cycle the father answered emails on his smartphone. He then proceeded to unwrap a picnic with much rustling of paper, and consumed - among other culinary delights - a large and very crunchy baguette stuffed with seriously malodorous cheese. This Marseillaise audience was now on a roll, or rather a baguette; so they followed the fashionable example of Proms audiences by not waiting until the end of the Mahler to express their appreciation. But they were less familiar with Des Knaben Wunderhorn than their London counterparts. Which meant they applauded during, rather than between, the song settings; which prompted conductor Yaron Traub to raise his hand in admonishment. But at this point the audience was three goals up over the music, and victory was sealed by another killer move. Liszt's First Piano Concerto came after the interval, and during the Concerto the mother's phone rang loudly. She then proceeded to answer it, following which she discussed the call with her husband - all while the band played on. Now I may be a grumpy old concertgoer; but this is not the first, second or third time that my appreciation of a concert has been destroyed by the intrusive behaviour of audience members in general, and by the curse of the mobile phone in particular. 

In a way I am glad that I am no longer able to afford to attend concerts by the star orchestras if this is the way audience behaviour (no doubt influenced by stadium rock) is going.

Anonymous landowners Pt 2

Further to my earlier post, it transpires that the once-magnificent Kinmel Hall near Conwy, in the top ten of threatened buildings listed by the Victorian Society, has its beneficial ownership shrouded in off-shore secrecy.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

New style PMQs?

The start to Jeremy Corbyn's first essay as leader of the opposition was not auspicious. The preamble to his first question to the prime minister today was surely the longest since the modern format began, longer even than Ed Miliband's. David Cameron's response was apparently constructive, but so had been his first session with the last Labour leader. Over the next few weeks, the exchanges had swiftly degenerated into the habitual Punch-and-Judy show. So one should suspend judgment on Cameron v Corbyn until the clocks go back at least.

There was also a repeat of classic point-missing by Cameron. Corbyn's first three questions concerned the genuine cases of those people who were in work but yet had difficulties in maintaining decent living conditions. It is not enough to say that there are more people at work in this country than ever before. The government must either set a genuine living wage, maintain tax credits which are in effect a subsidy to employers paying low wages or move to reduce the costs - such as rent - which disproportionately affect the low paid. On the last, the message from the prime minister seemed to be that his governments had moved to make it easier to buy ones first home, another case of a missed point.

The innovation of naming members of the public who originated questions was striking, but could become tedious over time. I also predict that Conservative members will parody it if it persists. Besides, how many of the Maries cited as ordinary voters are in reality more part of the political process (e.g. trade union organisers, as the new leader himself once was) than Corbyn implied?

On the positive side, it was refreshing to see a leader of the opposition who actually listened to the answers and tailored his follow-up questions accordingly. Sticking rigidly to a script has been the bane of question times, not only at noon on Wednesday.

It has been stated that Corbyn intends to share his duties at PMQs with other members of his front-bench team. As one who urged a similar move on Liberal Democrats when Paddy Ashdown was originally elected leader, I can hardly object to that. My rationale then was not only to make better-known members of a small parliamentary party which was receiving little media coverage, but also to help dispel the myth of the Great Leader who knows everything, bringing to the fore experts on their subject. The first reason clearly does not apply to the Labour Party, but the second does.

On balance, it has been a promising start. It will be worth watching in future, especially if Corbyn keeps his questions short and sharp. I admired his style of incisive questioning when he was a back-bencher, especially when he exposed the differences with the then leadership of his own party, and trust he will revert to that style.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Cameron cuts the green crap

If clear evidence was needed that the slogan "the greenest government ever" was no more than rhetoric to keep his coalition partners onside, and that the more recent report of David Cameron's remark to a supporter that once the Liberal Democrats were off his back, he would "cut the green crap" was credible, it came in the "emergency" budget in the summer. CAT's Clean Slate magazine of autumn this year has an article by Martin Kemp which draws together all the Conservatives' moves to set back the cause of sustainability.

In reading Clean Slate's side-bar (reproduced on the right) it should be noted that Labour's First Minister in Wales anticipated Cameron and Osborne by cancelling the Technical Advice Note on sustainable building. The subsidy for onshore wind need not be mourned, since the break-even point for this form of renewable energy has been, or will shortly be, reached.

To me, the most iniquitous move is to reduce the climate change levy to a simple undirected tax. Martin Kemp explains that the levy was

charged to fossil fuel producers owing to their carbon emissions. Renewable energy sources [got] a 'levy exemption'. This exemption [was removed from 1st August]. In other words, the renewables industry now has to pay for carbon produced by the rest of the energy industry.

The levy bears on industries such as steel production and acts regressively on lower-income households. If it no longer serves its original purpose, it should be scrapped.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Brian Close

I've just heard of the death of Brian Close, the great Yorkshire and Somerset all-rounder. He still holds the record as the youngest player capped by the England selectors. True to form, they dropped him too soon and forgot about him until they needed someone to stand up to the West Indies fast bowlers then cutting a swathe through the world's brightest and best. Next to Wilf Wooller, Brian Close was the bravest batsman John Arlott had known, as he stated in a memorable reminiscence on Test Match Special. Brian Johnston agreed, as this excerpt shows:

Brian Close was one of the bravest cricketers I’ve ever seen. Remember him batting against the West Indies in 1963, against Hall and Griffith? Rather than risk giving a catch, he bared his chest at them and let the ball hit him. You could see the maker’s name all over him. He was very brave and, of course, he always fielded near in at short-leg.
      There’s a story about when Yorkshire were playing Gloucestershire and Martin Young was batting; Ray Illingworth was bowling and Close was right in there at forward short-leg.
      For once, Ray bowled a bit of a short ball outside the off stump, which Martin Young pulled and he got Close above his right eye. The ball ballooned up over Jimmy Binks, the wicket-keeper, and into the hands of Phil Sharpe at first slip – caught!
      Blood was pouring down Close’s face. It didnt’ worry him, he just wiped it away, and fielded for about another ten minutes. Then the lunch interval came and he walked back – blood still pouring down – and as he went in, one of the members said, ‘Mr.Close, you mustn’t stand as near as that. It’s very dangerous. What would have happened if it had hit you slap between the eyes?’
      He said, ‘He’d have been caught at cover!’ (as told by Brian Johnston)

This 70th birthday tribute is also revealing.

In retirement, he was a popular after-dinner speaker no doubt helped by his mordant wit.


It is good to see that BBC is featuring women in computing this week. It seems that there has been little progress since the initiative of seven years ago referred to here. Indeed, with the increased publicity given to games programming which lads and laddishness dominate, things seem to have gone slightly backward.

This pdf redresses the balance in respect of the contribution women made to the development of high-level programming languages. On this side of the ocean, women contributed to the first business computer, LEO, and other pioneering developments.

So, fascinating though Ada Augusta, Countess Lovelace, Dame Steve Shirley and Commodore Grace Murray Hopper undoubtedly are, I trust that the BBC will spotlight the many other non-male pioneers on radio and TV in the coming days.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Refugees: we should be on the streets every week

The demonstrations in support of Syrian refugees are heartening, but in some ways irrelevant.

Firstly, although David Cameron appears to have responded positively to the media coverage of recent tragic events, he has practically not shifted the government's line on immigration, as Steve Richards has pointed out in the Indy. Moreover, the minister directly responsible, Theresa May, has not spoken publicly on the issue. They are more concerned about the gut feeling against immigration shared by a majority of voters in the parliamentary seats that matter. Opinion polls on the matter have hardly changed even after the media storm.

Secondly, there is still a backlog of  thousands of  asylum cases, a situation which has only marginally improved since the dysfunctional UK Borders Agency was done away with. Many refugees will be deported on specious grounds, which they will not be allowed to contest until they are already back in their supposedly safe country of origin. Liberal Democrats in coalition were able to improve on the shambles which Labour had left in 2010, in that child refugees are no longer routinely imprisoned. At least no Labour MPs had the gall to appear prominently in the refugee-welcome rallies - apart from the new leader Jeremy Corbyn who was entitled, having voted against all the anti-immigrant measures moved by governments of all persuasions.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Gwynoro on Jeremy

Gwynoro Jones does not allow comments on his blog, so I shall post my reaction here.

In his sketch of the background to the post-war splits in the Labour Party, he fails to point out that, attractive as Hugh Gaitskell's democratic socialism was to many in the centre ground of British politics, his was a divisive, cliquey, leadership. Harold Wilson, who succeeded him, was said to refer sneeringly to "the Hampstead Garden Suburb set". Wilson was successful because though he came in from the socialist Bevanite wing of the party he made the necessary compromises to unite the party, so far as it can ever be united.

The conservative/socialist split widened again with the election of Jim Callaghan and it has never been healed. The party in the country is more socialist than its MPs, many of whom have been parachuted in by the apparatchiks in Westminster, and is suspicious of them.

Gwynoro hits the point that so many commentators have missed when he writes:

Corbyn has captured and articulated far better than the other three candidates the public mood and the increasing clamour for more transparency; fairness; justice; freedom and equality; defending human rights and responding to the humanitarian crisis; pursuing a wider understanding of international development issues; the ever present apprehension over the environment and climate change and concerns over deepening world poverty and so on. It is interesting that these are issues that motivate Tim Farron and the Liberal Democrat too.

The difference is that Tim leads a party which has shown itself to be sound on the economy. Corbyn will not succeed with the wider British electorate unless he disowns both Gordon Brown's record at the Treasury and also a state socialist approach to industry and commerce.

Voting for women

Sadiq Khan beat two high-profile women to the Labour candidacy for London mayor.

Tom Watson beat three women, two with extensive front-bench experience, to the deputy leadership.

Most tellingly, Yvette Cooper, whose chances were being talked up in the latter half of the contest, and Liz Kendall finished bottom of the poll for leadership of the party on first preference votes.

Perhaps now we will have that long-overdue academic study on how women candidates are perceived by voters. It is however unlikely that Labour will cease to lecture other parties on gender equality.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Staying in the EU

There have been a few designs of placards intended to advertise the Liberal Democrat support for staying in the European Union. The one combining components of the union flag and the EU stars with Libby is probably the best so far, but one which recognises our aspiration for a federal UK would be better. At least we can translate "Remain", which is to be the positive option on next year's ballot, into Welsh (though I am prepared to accept correction from the experts):

I hope to attend a re-launch meeting of the European Movement in Wales in Cardiff this evening. The UK European Movement is a cross-party organisation (former Conservative MP Laura Sandys chairs) but clearly there will be some coincidence of aims.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Cheryl James: justice coming closer

It was announced today that the mortal remains of Private Cheryl James, one of the fatalities of Deepcut Barracks which have not been explained to complete satisfaction, were exhumed last month. Physical evidence was taken and is believed to be undergoing forensic scientific tests.

It is to be hoped that the re-opened inquest, scheduled for next February, will settle unresolved questions and bring some peace to the family.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

All or nothing at all

When the allies conquered Nazi Germany in 1945 and confirmed that Hitler was dead, they did not immediately retreat to leave the remains of the nation to be scrapped over by communist militias, the remnants of the Wehrmacht and whatever liberals had the capability to fight. By delineating and occupying four zones, the US, USSR, Britain and France practically set up a protectorate under which German industry could be reconstructed and new democratic structures could be formed. (It is a matter of regret that the Soviets went their own way, forming a puppet régime in the DDR. Stalin was clearly partly motivated by fear of a once-more united Germany, a fear which was revealed later to be shared by Margaret Thatcher.) The system of proportional representation which served West Germany and eventually a reunited Federal Republic well was devised by the occupiers. The Basic Law had the effect initially of ensuring that the only viable government was a conservative coalition of Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union - coincidentally, I feel, though conspiracy theorists on the radical side of politics like my father felt that it was a deliberate ploy to keep socialists out of power. On the industrial side, the UK's Royal Engineers rescued and restored the Volkswagen works. (Short-sightedly, British motor magnates refused the operation which was offered to them on a plate.) Marshall Aid money contributed to the rise from the ashes. The Cold War ensured that even after the zones of occupation were dissolved in 1955, there was a continued US and UK military presence in Germany for some time, which must also have helped the domestic economy. The total result is the stable, democratic and humane state which we see today.

In our own time, Afghanistan is another example where a continued presence by the West has established some stability. The watching brief of the US Army has allowed the Afghan forces to mature and establish an esprit de corps. The EU maintains an interest in civil society. While there are still bomb outrages, these have become less frequent and are less destructive than those in Iraq.

Iraq (twice) and Libya are object lessons in making conditions worse by only half-doing a job.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

An Orwell prediction

In an essay "Toward European Unity" of 1947, George Orwell saw three future scenarios. The third was:

"the fear inspired by the atomic bomb and other weapons yet to come will be so great that everyone will refrain from using them. This seems to me the worst possibility of all. It would mean the division of the world among two or three vast super-states, unable to conquer one another and unable to be overthrown by any internal rebellion. In all probability their structure would be hierarchic, with a semi-divine caste at the top and outright slavery at the bottom, and the crushing out of liberty would exceed anything that the world has yet seen. Within each state the necessary psychological atmosphere would be kept up by complete severance from the outer world, and by a continuous phony war against rival states. Civilizations of this type might remain static for thousands of years."

This is very much the background to the following year's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Opinions are divided as to how much it has come to pass.

Orwell saw the need for a western European union to counteract this and his other forebodings. (This was four years before even the forerunner of the EU, the European Coal and Steel Community.) He would no doubt be pleased at the outcome, though despairing that the EU does not act strongly or quickly enough to defend its common interests and that it is a liberal/conservative body rather than a socialist one.

Asthma Cymru closing

It has just been announced by BBC Wales (but not confirmed on any of the Asthma UK web sites so far) that the charity is to close its Cardiff office, along with the one in Scotland. I believe this is a mistake for two reasons:

1. Much exciting progress is being made in Cardiff research facilities; and

2. There is need for a campaigning presence near the Welsh parliament, at the very least because the provision of free prescriptions is constantly under threat.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Bloated BBC

It seems [from] that the World Service costs three-and-a-half times as much as al-Jazeera. Even allowing for the probability that WS broadcasts in more languages than the Qatar-funded news orgnaisation, this is a large discrepancy, especially as the latter's global news-gathering and documentaries are superb.

The total cost of running BBC's News channel in 2013/14 was apparently £114.2m. However, its coverage is not as wide as the other two outlets and it also relies extensively on cheaper domestic news and relays.

Yvette Cooper: Corbyn wants to turn the clock back

Consider this: the NHS, post, telephone, water, power, rail and most bus services are all under public control after four years of a ...  Conservative prime minister. Forgive the historic present tense; I am thinking of sixty years ago.

Yesterday's conservative is today's raving lefty.

Do not get me wrong. I believe Corbyn is mistaken if he wants the state to take control of commerce and industry. However, much of the criticism of his programme is too apocalyptic, seen through a Thatcherite prism. It is not only Labour rivals who should be considering how to adjust to a Corbyn leadership and whether they have metaphorically burned bridges. Other party leaders will have to do so. Only six Conservative seats need to change hands between now and 2020 for No Overall Control to rear its head again.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Elected emperor of Bavaria

Today is the centenary of Franz-Josef Strauss, the very conservative Bavarian leader of the Christian Social Union, a habitual coalition partner of the Christian Democrats in the federal parliament. One wonders what he would make of the way that Germany today acts as a magnet to migrants.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Dr Albert Schweitzer

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Albert Schweitzer. Extremely famous in his own day, his reputation as a humanitarian has slipped since, as his paternalistic attitudes have slipped from favour.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Anonymous landowners

I thought the difficulty of identifying the final owner, operating behind foreign-registered shell companies, of property in the UK was associated only with the big cities and large country estates. However, thanks to the interactive online map provided by Private Eye magazine yesterday, it seems that Neath Port Talbot is also affected.

We already knew about the scandal of the open-cast restitution money which vanished into the British Virgin Islands (Land Registry titles no. CYM503759 CYM521522 & WA303502), relating to land mostly outside the county borough. Within the borough boundaries, it should not have been a surprise that St Modwen, the company developing Llandarcy Village among many other former industrial sites, had availed itself of an offshore holding company.

A name that did strike me as new was Link Holdings (Gibraltar) Ltd. Unfortunately, Companies House in Gibraltar is not as open as our own in providing any details from its register, so I cannot be certain of the purpose of this company. There are clues. One is that the company appears to own the land on which a nearby care home sits. (Clwydi Gwyn was one of those bought out of the Southern Cross crash.) Other properties are sets of houses on modern estates like Bay View Gardens, Cwrt Herbert and developments in Llansamlet, over the border in Swansea. (I have not checked for wider ownership.) So Link is presumably an old-fashioned landlord of mostly residential property, with added secret identity. Surely Link's tenants have a right to put a face to the name?

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Threat to ancient woodland

Coed Cadw has alerted us to a threat to ancient woodland at Cwm Nant Lleci, Pontardawe. The deadline for objections is tomorrow.

Local councillor details are here.

Refugees: justice delayed is justice denied

It occurred to me when posting yesterday's piece about food parcels that mid-twentieth-century opinion in the US was divided. For Bob Hope and his conservative friends, Brits were whining scroungers, taking undeserved advantage of Uncle Sam's generosity. (As the son of immigrant English and Welsh parents, Hope was a great example of the "pull up the ladder, Jack" syndrome.) To thankfully rather more of his fellow-citizens, the poor people of Britain had fought on the Home Front to keep the world safe from dictatorship and needed support in their time of great need.

Similarly today David Cameron categorises all would-be immigrants to the UK as free-loaders taking advantage of the thriving economy created by the Conservative long-term economic plan. (Of course, he neglects to mention that national debt continues to grow and that most migrants prefer to go to the more successful economy of Germany.) Liberals would give the benefit of the doubt to the brave souls who have endured incredible dangers and privations in fleeing their homelands to reach Europe.

The truth must lie in between. Surely most reasonable people would endorse border controls which facilitated the speedy acceptance of genuine refugees, for as long as they need our shelter, while resisting the claims of others to settle unless they had special qualities to bring to our society or genuine close links to Britain?

The true crime of the Home Office has been the extraordinary delay in examining the cases of probable refugees. The relevant agencies have been under-resourced both in terms of numbers and in expertise, resulting not only in leaving claimants in limbo, living on a pittance and barred from any paid employment, for an appalling length of time but also in refugees suffering poor decisions at the end of their wait.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Food parcels

I can't say that I can remember the family receiving food parcels from the US at the end of the war. I do remember the sneering jokes by Bob Hope about the recipients of the generosity of his fellow-citizens, less well-off than himself, in helping out the victims of war-time and immediate post-war austerity. The scheme went on until 1955 as the organisers, CARE, now remind us.

On the seventieth anniversary of their founding, they are looking for stories from anyone who benefited from the scheme, or who has relatives who did.