February 2012

What should a Liberal Democrat do when a friend and political colleague becomes a Cabinet minister?

Lib Dems don't do status - we don't use titles, just first names all round. Lib Dems don't do power either; to be precise we are embarrassed by it.

One hundred years of identifying ourselves as radical, anti-establishment, even quasi-anarchist, has meant that being thrust into Coalition Government has created all kinds of conflicts and tensions within the party. I'm not just talking about the sometimes fraught relationship between Conference reps, the Federal Policy Committee, and the parliamentary teams - complicated as that is - no, I'm referring to the internal struggle that all Lib Dems experience (or perhaps should experience) when faced with power.

Of course, the issues have been played out already over the last 30 years or so in town and county halls across the land. As Lib Dems have gained control of Councils we have had to face the challenges of using that power responsibly. It's uncomfortable, for a start. Many of us would prefer being in opposition, where we can tear into the administration without the need to actually put together a coherent policy programme.

But controlling Council groups have gradually learned to distinguish what is feasible from what is merely desirable or crowd-pleasing. They have achieved some real successes which have both improved the lives of residents and made the places where they live more liberal and more democratic.

However, they are not always good at communicating those successes to the population at large, nor even to their own members. Sometimes they are accused of spending far too much time in meetings when they should be knocking on doors and campaigning on the ground - and indeed that may well be true.

But the fact remains that councillors are elected to make life better for their electors, and this can often only be achieved, when in power, through lengthy negotiations in meetings. I think back to some of the campaigns that I was involved in when I was a councillor - for the Hook Centre, pedestrian crossings nearby (about to happen, at last!), a new bus for pupils attending Hinchley Wood, funding for the new Chessington Community College, childrens' centres at Castle Hill and Lovelace schools, the medical centre in Merritt Gardens - all of these were brought to fruition through many hours spent, by me and my colleagues, in committees and meetings with council officers.

And yet some party members might have thought that I had gone over to the dark side, by being drawn into the internal politics of the Guildhall and aligning myself with the establishment. I worked hard to avoid that, to always maintain an edginess, to remind myself that I represented the people to the Council, not the other way round.

Here is the dilemma for Liberal Democrats. We are conscious of the dangers of power, so we tend to talk down those who have it, rather than grasp the opportunities it brings. We do not wish to become part of the establishment, but we find that we have to work with and through large institutions in order to bring about change. We dislike conformity to the extent that it is written into our constitution, yet we have to work within the constraints of formal decision-making processes to achieve anything.

All this is a long preamble to a statement about Edward Davey and his new role. On the one hand I am ridiculously pleased for him. And I know him for a decent, stable person who will not let it go to his head.

On the other hand, can the rest of us understand and cope with proximity to real power?

Where is our Assembly member when we need him?

Lib Dems have been campaigning for years for improvements to the crossings and lights at the corner of the Hook Centre. It has been a huge struggle because the Hook Road is managed by Transport for London, not by Kingston Council, so the local councillors have no direct influence. And it has not been helped by the complete lack of action by the person who represents us on the London Assembly.

To start with the problem - well, two problems, actually.

When the traffic lights were installed at the junction of Elm Road with Hook Road, they did not include pedestrian lights, which means that at no time is there a pause to allow pedestrians to cross Elm Road. Now this is on a busy walking route between the shops on the one side, and the Hook Centre and St Paul's school on the other.

The route across Elm Road was made even more dangerous in a way that is not really obvious until you try to cross it. There are dropped kerbs and a central refuge which indicate where you should cross, but if you stand waiting you cannot see any of the actual traffic lights in any direction. So you do not know what colour they are. You simply have to look at the traffic and try to guess what is about to move next.

When I was a councillor I brought this up regularly with Kingston's traffic engineers, and they did their best to persuade TfL to look at it, but it was always dismissed as a minor problem. And why was it considered a minor problem? Well, because no-one had been killed or seriously injured there.

I'm afraid it took a fatality to get them to listen to our concerns.

But I now need to explain the second problem. The Hook Road is, of course, much busier than Elm Road. The traffic lights in Hook Road at the Hook Road/Elm Road junction were designed to make it safe for vehicles turning in or out of Elm Road. The main pedestrian crossing across Hook Road is just 50 yards away so I do understand why they did not install another pedestrian crossing across Hook Road at this point.

But for years people have taking the risk and crossing the Hook Road between the Hook Centre and the Lucky Rover. I have seen elderly folk walking very slowly across after the lights have changed and two lanes of traffic are ready to move. There have been accidents, but the worst one resulted in the death of Mike Cowley, a local man known to many of us.

That tragic accident happened four years ago. I was Chair of the Neighbourhood then so I made sure that TfL were contacted immediately. Eventually, we persuaded them to carry out a feasibility study of the junction, which they did. But nothing followed for ages.

Now at last, after persistent questioning from the councillors, TfL have promised that they will carry out the improvements. Proper pedestrian crossings will be installed across both Hook and Elm Roads.

But why has it taken so long? Haven't we got an elected member of the London Assembly who should be acting on our behalf?

Yes, we do, but you could be forgiven for not knowing who he is. His name is Tony Arbour and he has been the London Assembly member for SW London for 12 years. I have never seen him around here, except at election time. He never makes contact with the local councillors, who are the people who know what is going on.

You might think that representing a constituency that covers the boroughs of Kingston, Richmond and Hounslow would be a full-time job. But Tony Arbour is also a councillor in Richmond, where he is a Cabinet member. Indeed, for four of those 12 years he was Leader of the Council.

Now when I was a Cabinet member (known as an Executive member in Kingston) I reckoned it took around 50 hours a week to do the job properly. It's no wonder he doesn't have the time to work for the residents of Chessington and Hook.


London Assembly members are each paid £53,439.

In Richmond in 2010-11, the Leader of the Council received an allowance of £33,515. Cabinet members received £17,648.

The Johnson-Livingstone crime file

Diary of a Games volunteer - and still no chocolate

Apparently they didn't use any volunteers in the last Olympics. I learnt this from a Chinese student as we were queueing up to go into Wembley Arena for our Orientation session last weekend. She told me that although her home was in Beijing she had to wait for the London Games to get a chance to be part of it.

That's the phrase - be part of it. We heard it over and over again. From Jonathan Edwards, from the ubiquitous Eddie Izzard, from Seb Coe. And I must say they have done an excellent job in motivating people to sign up.

In fact, in 2010 over 240,000 applied to be volunteers - or Games Makers, as they insist on calling us - at the Olympics or Paralympics. Of those 80,000 were shortlisted and 70,000 offered roles, with others being kept in reserve.

There are dozens of different roles - from driving VIPs, looking after athletes in the village, writing press releases, accreditating journalists, catering, venue management as well as supporting each one of the sports.

I've looked back at my application form and have been trying to see what criteria they used to shortlist me.  I offered no sports skills, no first aid skills and only basic language skills. I had to fill in my experience in three skills area, but only allowed 80 characters (yes, characters) for each. That clearly favoured the tweeters. 

I was hoping to work in Government Relations, or alternatively Website and New Media, but got shortlisted for my third choice, Events. I can only assume that the number of hours of volunteering that I already do was the clincher.

The organisation of applicants has been excellent - we are regularly updated by email and have a dedicated website which answers all the questions we could possibly ask.

So last August found me with another 20 or so applicants at the Excel centre where we were welcomed in person and given some insight into the processes. A short film (Eddie Izzard again) exhorted us to sell ourselves to the interviewer, but the interview that followed was rather disappointing. The young man (who was also a volunteer) said he hadn't read my application form and seemed intent on getting exactly the answers he wanted, discounting anything peripheral. 

Further disappointment followed. Eddie Izzard had also promised chocolate from Cadbury's, the 'Official Snack Provider', but there was none left.

So I was somewhat surprised to get an email on the very first day that offers were made, offering me a role as an Events Team Leader in the Paralympics based at the Excel Centre, which I accepted straightaway.

Which brings me to last weekend, when I turned up with 10,000 others for my first training session. All volunteers had to attend one of these. During the afternoon some imaginative presentation techniques were used to introduce us to many people working in the organisation, to athletes and to other volunteers. And to the uniform - hmmm...more of that later.

Cadbury's provided entertainment but we still didn't get the promised chocolate. 

The next three training sessions will be specific to roles and venues - more about them later.

You will have gathered that I am not indulging in the prevalent cynicism about the Games. I have always enjoyed watching them in the past, and have managed to buy some tickets for athletics and handball (eh?). I intend to watch the three cycling races as they go through Kingston, and to cheer the Olympic flame as it sets off from the Hook Centre on 24th July. And next week I'm off to watch a trial event in the Velodrome - I can't wait to see the Olympic Park for the first time. London has done a terrific job; the buildings are actually finished (remember Beijing, or Athens for that matter?).

So, yes, I'm unashamedly enthusiatic about the Games.



Liberal options

I am actively involved with the Social Liberal Forum, which is an organisation open to Lib Dem members. As it mission statement says "The Social Liberal Forum campaigns for the adoption of policy - by the Liberal Democrats and the government - that seeks to promote social justice and actively narrow gaps in power and opportunity between rich and poor".

You can read the rest of the statement here.  The SLF claims that it represents the mainstream of the Liberal Democrats, and exists to ensure that social liberal ideas permeate throughout the party. 

SLF was founded over a year before the Coalition, but since the General Election its stance has been to welcome the Coalition and the opportunities it provides, whilst trying to influence its policies.

For example, it was heavily involved in the opposition to the NHS Bill. In fact, our policy motion to Spring Conference last year directly led to a number of concessions and amendments to the Bill.  It has recently put out a statement entitled "Unworkable and unnecessary elements of Heath Bill should be dropped".

I was elected to the SLF Council in the summer of 2010, and soon found myself taking on a number of roles, including that of membership officer.  Membership has grown very rapidly from around 100 to over 1500.

Last summer SLF held a well-attended conference and drew in, as a speakers, Vince Cable, Chris Huhne, Simon Hughes amongst others. I'm now in the throes of planning the next conference in July and we already have an impressive line-up.

A couple of weeks ago a new group that opposes the Coalition, Liberal Left, was launched. A number of its key people are also on the SLF Council, and they don't see any conflict, as they all support social Liberal values.

Then last week Liberal Reform emerged, set up by some party members to promote economic liberalism amongst other things.

Confused? You'll be even more so when you've read Introducing… Lib Dems Against Factionalism

I enjoyed the humour, but the key thing for me is that these groups are not in any real sense 'factions'. They are not fighting each other, but all trying to encourage healthy debate about the party's policies.  It's a matter of emphasis, not differentiation.

Every Lib Dem membership card carries these words:The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

Those are the principles we all agree on and I'm proud of them.

I want to say one more thing about all this. I am Chair of Kingston Liberal Democrats and one of my tasks is to encourage and develop members. I would guess that many members are not interested in aligning themselves with one or other of these party groups, but have joined because they like the things we are doing on Kingston Council, or have been inspired by our MP, or feel comfortable with the general principles of the party.  Others take clear policy positions from right across the spectrum of the party. Locally I am careful to embrace all our members (well, not quite literally) and make them feel at home in the party that I love.


Cycling round

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

VelodromeI had such a good day yesterday in the Velodrome watching the Track Cycling World Cup. We had applied for tickets for the cycling in the Olympics, but didn't get any, so jumped at the chance to see this test event at the venue.

The building itself is stunning. The timber external facing echoes the steeply curved wooden track inside.

In fact, seeing the whole Olympic Park for the first time was a bit of a revelation. All the main buildings are now ready, and they are working on the landscaping, including a bumpy BMX track next to the Velodrome. I've been impressed by the designs of the sports venues which all capture the essence of the sport within. The only really dull building is the media centre ...

Chris HoyThe crowd of 6000 were hugely enthusiastic, but kept their loudest cheers for Chris Hoy (left) and Victoria Pendleton.

Given all the comments recently about the coverage of women's sports in the media, I was struck by the egalitarianism within track cycling - male and female events were given equal status in the programme, and the crowd gave them equal support. In fact, we have to thank a former Mayor of Kingston for that.

Eileen GrayEileen Gray CBE, who was Mayor in 1991-92, was almost single handedly responsible for turning women's cycling into a high quality international sport.

Eileen was a top class cyclist herself, and was one of the first three women to cycle for Great Britain, back in 1946. She then founded the Women's Cycle Racing Association and served as its President for 13 years. Ten years in, she broke through any remaining gender barriers and was elected President of the British Cycling Federation, which she also did for 13 years.

Finally, in 1984, due to her pressure, women's cycling became an Olympic sport.

But ever onwards - she then became the first female Vice Chair of the British Olympic Committee.

In the meantime, she got herself elected as a Conservative councillor in Kingston, and was a very popular Mayor.

Now you might think that would be enough for one life, but Eileen then did something that has benefitted literally hundreds of thousands of young sportspeople. She dreamt up the London Youth Games.

But it was more than a dream - she made the games a reality in 1977, chairing the committee for many years.

Each year, 25,000 young Londoners take part in the games, in 33 different sports. Teams are entered for each London Borough, and Kingston always does pretty well considering it is the smallest Borough (apart from the City of London, which doesn't really count!).

In 2010 Eileen was celebrated in the British Cycling Hall of Fame at the age of 90.

It's only fitting therefore that Eileen should be chosen to carry the Olympic torch as it makes it way through Kingston on 24th July. I imagine she will be one of the oldest in the country to do so, too.





Young Kingston matures

I took a bit of a gamble when I was Mayor. All Mayors use their year to fundraise for their chosen charity, but in my case I decided to set up a new one, Young Kingston. There was a risk that people would not get behind my vision, that little money would be donated and that the charity would not be sustainable.

But it worked. We raised over £23,000 during the year, which was a terrific start, and we have added to that figure since, with sponsorship from Chessington World of Adventures and Kingston Philharmonia among others.

For me, the most important thing is that in the last five years we have given away many thousands of pounds to young people in the borough to fund their dreams and their projects.

The criteria for the awards are simple. The applicants must be in the age range 5 to 19 (or 25 if they have a disability), and they must live or study in the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames.

Young Kingston will awards grants of up to £500 to support projects that are led by young people and that provide some benefit to the wider community. They are allowed to have adult help and we can supply CRB checked advisers if the young people need advice and extra encouragement. (If you're wondering how to apply, go to the website).

We have backed dance performances, a film festival, and the construction of a garden in memory of a teacher, amongst others.  In several cases we have provided grants to cover training which will allow the young person to then share their skills with others - these have included a range of sports coaching courses.

Another strand of our work is the encouragement of excellence. Young Kingston gives grants to young people who represent the Borough at a national level - this is particularly important for minority sports, where there is little national funding for competitors. We are particularly pleased to have helped members of the Special Olympics ten pin bowling team. We have also supported a young actor who had been accepted into the National Youth Theatre. In all these cases the benefit to the community lies in the glory they bring to the Borough.

Last year Young Kingston sponsored the International Youth Arts Festival, which is based in Kingston, providing funds to train a key volunteer and backing some of the performances.  The same offer is available this year.

The decisions about grants are taken by a Grants Panel whoich is made up of young people aged 14 to 19. They also act as ambassadors for Young Kingston in their schools.  Inevitably, they grow up and move on, so we constantly need to find new volunteers. This week I went along to the Schools Council Forum, which brings together the members of the school councils in each of the secondary schools in the borough. I told them about the opportunities that Young Kingston offers and asked if anyone would like to join the Grants Panel. To my delight ten young people volunteered, so our future is assured.

I should add that Young Kingston is not, strictly speaking, a charity but a charitable fund administered by the London Community Foundation. They provide us with admin services and invaluable advice to our steering group.


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