October 2010

Susan Kramer meets the bloggers

Liberal Democrats are going to be electing a new Party President soon. The role is up for election every two years and Ros Scott, who has done an excellent job, has announced that she will be standing down this time. I'm only aware of two contenders now - our own Susan Kramer and Tim Farron, MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale.

Bloggers were given the opportunity to interview the candidates at Conference, but sadly I wasn't up in Liverpool in time to meet Tim Farron.

Susan's interview was booked for Monday afternoon, immediately before Nick Clegg's speech when the conference halls were pretty busy. Mark Pack caught us sitting on the floor in a huddle.

I began by asking her why she had decided to run for the Presidency. She said that she had heard questions from members about the Coalition, and that the reasons and views of those in the Government weren't always reaching the grass roots. It is important for us to remain a unified party and there was a real role for the President in achieving that. Ros had been so good with members and Susan would like to continue her approach by travelling and speaking to local parties across the country.

The President needed to develop the communications between the leadership and the grass roots. Although the methods of communications within the party had been greatly improved she was not always sure that the content was right. It should have a sharper focus on campaigning.

Andy Hinton asked the question that focusses on the main distinction between Susan and Tim: is the Presidency a role for someone who is not an MP? Susan agreed that there would be extra pressure on the President at this time, so it would perhaps be better undertaken by someone without constituency responsibilities.

Later Andy came back to the President's role and asked how she could correct the bias towards the South of England and Westminster. She said that there are strong regional, Scottish and Welsh parties, and that their significance needed to be reinforced - it was important to travel.

Stephen posed some standard questions from Alex Wilcock (who couldn't be there in person): What do Liberal Democrats stand for and why should people vote for us?

Susan believes that freedom and fairness are the factors that distinguish us from Labour and Conservatives. Social justice is at the centre of our tradition.

We are in tune with the kind of Britain that most people want, in which individuals are respected, communities are balanced and the vulnerable are at the core of the nation's concern. Freedom is central to the British tradition; think of the rhetoric around Britain's role in the two world wars.

Susan has always championed environmental causes, but her views were seen as strange when she first started campaigning on them, but are now mainstream.

At the time of the interview four people were seeking nomination, so Stephen Tall wanted to know what she brought to the table. She told us that although she now has the time to do the task, she brings a wealth of experience as an MP and in business. She is a strong media player with frequent appearances on Question Time, Today and other programmes.

Stephen also referred to the controversial debate that morning on free schools and academies, and Susan maintained that it was important for the party to devlop new policy, which may not necessarily be the same as that of the Coalition Government.

Susan was able to announce that one of the potential candidates, JasonZadrozny, had decided to withdraw his campaign and was now supporting her.

So here we are, standing up this time:

From left, Stephen Tall, Susan Kramer, me, Andy Hinton

The Song of Lunch

Ian's family have a great tradition - the annual Reid Family Party. Every summer, up to 40 relatives meet up in someone's home for Saturday lunch and tea. We always seem to be lucky with the weather and are able to expand into the garden. This year's gathering was just three weeks ago and was the reason why I arrived late for the Lib Dem Conference in Liverpool.

In 1982 Christopher Reid published a poem about these events, and I quoted it on National Poetry Day in 2006, adding cryptically 'I was there'. He described the tall trees and flowering shrubs that surrounded the garden belonging to Ian's Aunt Gladys and "The annual rustication of our indoor properties".

He couldn't make this year's party because he was speaking at a poetry festival in Belfast, but his mother and sister were there. There was some excitement around the garden tables about the BBC's contribution to National Poetry Day this year - a dramatisation of Christopher's latest work, a narrative poem called 'The Song of Lunch'. It's on BBC2 tomorrow evening at 9pm, starring Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, and has been heavily trailed all week.

I'll be intrigued to see how they manage to preserve the precise insights of the text whilst interpreting it visually. The poem itself is pretty much written in real-time - it takes about an hour to read, which is not much shorter than the events it describes - so it should work logistically. But how will they make it work dramatically?

Earlier this year Christopher was given a lot of coverage in the press when he won the Costa Book Award for 'The Scattering', which was a series of poems about the death of his wife, Lucinda, in 2005. I wrote about the award at the time, and also mentioned that I had read an extract at the Marie Curie Service when I was Mayor.

We chatted about Lucinda at the party, remembering her arty clothes and how she entranced the children one year by doing cartwheels across the grass.

So this is my contribution this year to mark National Poetry Day, and I'll end with some of my favourite lines from 'The Song of Lunch' (the bottle is significant...).

Once more she is distracted,
catching the eye of the waiter
with a demur flutter
of restaurant semaphore
and asking for more water.

And we'll need another
bottle of this.

The waiter goes:
one of those fellows
you'd describe as nondescript
if the word wasn't forbidden.
How many times
on some author's manuscript
has he crossed it out and written
There is nothing that cannot be described.
But in this particular case,
searching in vain
for any distinctive feature,
he may allow an exception.

CityCamp London unconference


Let's talk about unconferences first. These have been around for a couple of years, sometimes under the BarCamp banner, although this was actually the first one I had attended.

An unconference is an antidote to all those conferences where you pay good money to sit passively and be lectured at by a series of worthy people. I speak at enough conferences myself to know that the best part is always the lunch break, when you can actually network and exchange ideas with other attendees.

Instead, someone had the bright idea of inviting all the movers and shakers in a particular field and letting them decide what they wanted to happen when they met. It sounds pretty obvious now, but it was quite a departure at the time.

People who sign up to an unconference put forward suggestions for sessions, speakers and workshops. Convenors are then sought for the most popular topics. Whilst there is necessarily some organisation behind this, there is no overt leadership.

The general idea is to work towards some clear outcomes, such as project proposals, by the end of the event. The mix of people should include both visonaries and practitioners, so this is networking with teeth.

The participant list at an unconference hopefully draws down high quality sponsorship, with offers of good venues and catering, making the event itself free. It is also very friendly, with everyone talking to anyone they meet.

Then back in January the first CityCamp was held in Chicago, using the unconference approach. On Saturday I had a good conversation with the inspirational Kevin Curry, who dreamed it up. You can watch his opening speech, where he explains how CityCamps came about and what they do.

To quote:

"Each City Camp has four main goals:

  • Bring together local government officials, municipal employees, experts, programmers, designers, citizens and journalists to share perspectives and insights about the cities in which they live
  • Create or maintain patterns for local government transparency and effective local governance using the Web as a platform
  • Foster communities of practice and advocacy on the role of information and open data in cities
  • Create outcomes that participants will act upon after the event is over "

Several CityCamps have followed across the world, and last weekend was London's turn. If there's one phrase which sums up the ethos of CityCamps it is 'open source' - open source deliberations, open source collaboration and open source solutions.

I could only get along to the second of the three days, but in spite of a substantial attendance it was buzzy and intimate. I joined four different round table workshops on topics like local democracy, the London media and 'politics for good'. On Sunday the ideas was for participants to pitch ideas to the whole community. Huddle has offered 20 free accounts to keep the projects moving, and there's talk of another meetup in 6 months. It will be really exciting to see what emerges.

It was always going to be bloody

I've been finding it pretty difficult to blog over the last couple of weeks. I do take a little time to formulate my views on current issues, and no sooner have I digested one major Government announcement than another one is launched into the ether.

And I also admit that the last few days have not been altogether easy for Liberal Democrats. We always knew the Spending Review would be a bloody process, and it is disingenuous of Labour to suggest that things would have been more comfortable under them. The cuts were bound to be severe, and the fact that none of the parties would specify before the election what cuts they were going to make only demonstrated that all of them were contemplating very tough decisions, but none was prepared to commit political suicide by revealing their hand.

Now when the unique dynamics of a coalition government are added to the worst economic crisis since the Second World War, the result is very tense and strange.

I do appreciate that we have signed up to a proper coalition, not a loose compact between parties. That means two things: negotiated policies, but collective responsibilities.

As far as the negotiations have gone, Liberal Democrats have achieved far more than most of us ever dreamed of, in all our years of debating policy at party conferences. Indeed, to our surprise, we have delivered on all four core manifesto pledges:

  • We will cut tax on low and middle earners (by increasing the basic tax threshold by £1000 now and incrementally during this Parliament)
  • We will give every child the fair start they deserve (by introducing the Pupil Premium)
  • We will rebalance the economy, to create 'green' taxes for a fairer, more sustainable future (by setting up a Green investment bank)
  • We will build a cleaner, fairer politics, where every vote counts and where voters can sack corrupt MPs (by introducing a power of recall, and a referendum on AV)

...plus a lot more, such as restoring the link between pensions and earnings, scrapping ID cards, postponing Trident (perhaps indefinitely), ending child detention for immigration purposes,

But the price has been that we are also associated in the public eye with the implementation of some Conservative policies that we do not agree with. I am very unhappy with some of the stuff in the Spending Review. My position is best expressed by the Social Liberal Forum's response. (I'm on the SLF Council).

Coalition is grown-up politics, I'm afraid, and not unlike the kinds of family negotiations that we all get involved with. Dysfunctional families share their disagreements widely and don't understand the need for compromise; functional families discuss differences fully between themselves and come to an agreed position with good grace. (How else would any of us manage to agree on where to go on holiday?)

The Liberal Democrats are in this for the long term. We need to show that we can make coalition work, and that we don't fall apart when things get tough.

Post offices at the core of communities

It was only two years ago that we were all backing the Save our Post Offices campaign. But the Labour Government just went ahead with its latest closures. In fact, they closed around 2,500 post offices altogether, (eight in Kingston alone), and many of them were in small rural communities where their significance went well beyond the purchase of the odd book of stamps.

At that time, I was pretty pessimistic about the future of this unique service. We all know that emails have replaced letter writing, so the original function of post offices had decreased dramatically.

But we must remember that, in parallel, online shopping has taken off so there is huge demand for parcel distribution. Although the Royal Mail is the key player in this - and has had to compete with many other companies - post offices are the most convenient places to send parcels off on their journeys. I've often wondered why the post office doesn't offer a parcel pick-up service that could be used by any of the delivery companies. It would be so convenient for many people to give the local post office as their delivery address when ordering from Amazon or whatever.

Over the years post offices have been adding to the services they offer, distributing pensions and benefits, providing straightforward banking services, issuing car tax, validating passport applications. Some councils, like Kingston, have an arrangement that allows people to pay council tax at a post office. In fact, they are already the human and local face for many public services.

I would like them to develop this even further. They could become the contact point of choice between public services and the public; real hubs, in fact, lying at the core of their communities.

Edward Davey is the Minister responsible for post offices, amongst other things. He was behind the announcement, made this week by Vince Cable, that the funding for the Post Office is to increase dramatically from £150m to £180m next year, then to £410m, £415m and £330m in subsequent years. This is excellent news and will ensure that no more branches have to close. It will also give time for new business models to emerge, which I'll follow with interest.

Published by Mary Reid, 126 Clayton Road, Hook Chessington KT9 1NJ
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