Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Counting and reflecting individuals 

Given the argy-bargy on support statistics over the last couple of days, I hesitate (but only slightly) to note that Chris Huhne now has 666 supporters names on his website. At least that what it is when I convert his list back to spreadsheet-readable form. On the up!

With the option of including party membership numbers in registering support on each candidates site, I trust the great majority of all names for all candidates are potential Party Voters. I have noticed one name on one supporters list which is the same name as a prominent nonLibDem blogger. No doubt this is a coincidence.

Moving on, looking at the discussions online on the Reflecting Britain Campaign (to which I am linked and backing) I was exited by Chris Huhne's commitment, before this campaign was launched, to put his personal authority and energy as leader if elected to supporting and encouraging the development and election of candidates from different backgrounds. It is one reason why I nominated him.

But two interlaced sets of thoughts.

Firstly we are perhaps doing a bit better in some places that the campaign sometimes implies. In my patch off the top of my head I can identify active Libdems including senior elected members and current candidates who have 'ethnic connections' with Cyprus (Greek), Jamaica, Portugual, Italy, India, Ukraine (two quite different people), Lebanon and (I think) Iran. And if you include me, Lithuania.

Secondly, we need to keep our Liberal perspectives in working on this campaign - that is, what is important at the deepest level is the individual not the label. I draw here on my experience as a deaf person. It is all to easy to get draw into the role of being 'the ambassador' for some group, in my case to be the person asked 'what do deaf people think?' (or even more tenuously 'what do disabled people think?' as if a pair of wonky ears gives me special insights to the life of someone with another of life's variations). That emphasis on an ambassadorial or representative role can be subtly exclusionary and we need to watch it.

Anyone coming forwards to be involved with our party work has a rich set of experiences and insights different to those of other people. Part of our work to Reflect Britain must be to celebrate and draw on that richness to reinforce our basic principles and goals.

I look forwards to working on this, whoever wins, but hopefully under Chris' leadership.

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Sunday, January 29, 2006

Not so Super Markets 

A struggle on the state of shopping looks like it is on its way. The all-party Parliamentary small shops group recommends a thorough investigation of the commercial strategies of the big supermarkets. Now this could be interesting. Bear with me with what looks at first like a slight detour. But first question – who are the LibDems (if any) on the Small Shops Group?

The dreaded European Common Agricultural Policy has many excuses, one of them being stabilising the markets for farmers. Point being that raising a crop requires a big investment upfront, and payback at harvest time at very uncertain market prices many months later. So the CAP started as a kind of institutionalised Derivatives scheme providing protection against exploitation. It offers some long term price stability and the ability to plan a realistic working schedule. Famously, this scheme now absorbs thousands of millions of the EU budget much of it serving other purposes than its original intent.

Meanwhile look at modern food retailing. The supermarkets have developed a just-in-time buying policy, making contracts with farmers and suppliers to buy produce at very short notice at flexible prices. So a lettuce farmer might get an order on Tuesday for X tonnes of lettuce to be delivered by Friday morning at a price. Next week the order might be twice as much, on a Wednesday, but still for Friday delivery. What is more the buyers can alter the price unilaterally. If a supermarket decides to have a two-for-the-price-of-one offer it tells its suppliers to send in twice as much produce but only pays half the price per tonne for it. The growers bear the promotional risk.

So modern food marketing practices go directly against the ‘Public Good’ producer stabilisation elements of the CAP.

Furthermore, farmers can only operate in this re-imposed high-risk environment because of the ‘subsidy’ elements of the CAP. Those who oppose agricultural subsidies need to think about this. If we are to remove the CAP distortions burden we need some other way of protecting farmers from the modern exploitations.

Another point – the just-in-time delivery system requires the farmers to have very flexible work-forces. The only people willing to work under the uncertain and low-paid conditions they can offer are recent immigrants, many of them (let us say) of marginal formal legality. So our supermarket abundance depends on immigration scams.

Something needs to be done. And this is on top of the issues raised in the Small Shops Group report about local competition and collapsing high streets…

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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Three points for Chris 

Time I made clear my support for Chris Huhne as leader, if only so that any readers can judge my bias.

Each candidate has a strong case. Ming and Simon each have particular strengths that Chris must work hard to match, and there are very good reasons for voting for one or other of them.

Chris also has particular strengths and for me these tip the balance in my decision. Here are three for getting on with.

Firstly, his grasp of the economic issues, and the technical arguments involved in economics. This will be especially important if Brown becomes Prime Minister, as Brown will not be able to bully Chris with technical arguments. I believe both Ming and Simon can present a good brief in economics debates, but facing an ex-Chancellor PM we may need a bit more than brief-presentation ability right at the sharp end. And establishing a good record on economic matters is vital for our party.

An additional point is that Chris cannot be overawed behind the scenes by the other heavyweight economic experts on our own benches. That should stabilise our own internal debates right across the party, and help focus our treasury team.

On a related side-issue, handling economic affairs may yet be the big problem for the Tories if Cameron continues his attempts at unorthodoxy and gives his putative base supporters the willies. And Brown will, I am sure, try to bully Cameron on these issues.

Second, I think Chris has a sense of the European dimensions to British politics – not the bastardised Euro-politics of perpetual renegotiations of sub-clauses to treaties, but the real world of decisions made across our continent that impact our lives in our own communities. I see Chris as the first really modern politician in a British leadership role, comfortable and experienced and unapologetic in being both British and European, and capable of integrated campaigning on issues from street level to global level. Unsurprised, for example, by the niceties of devolved responsibilities within nation states.

Thirdly, Chris has clearly given serious thought to the Radical Liberal traditions we are re-discovering and rescuing today. My own very small experience of debating with Chris is that he listens and understands and if you make a good case will take it on board. I have a sense that we will be able to raise the game in our policy development work so that we not only produce good words in reports, but programs of action to make those a reality.

Three reasons for starters, for voting for Chris Huhne despite the great strengths and abilities of each of his opponents.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Hello can you hear me? 

Lots of new campaign presentations coming up from leadership contenders, including online videos and audio items. All very nice if you have the bandwidth to cope and no doubt more people will have access to this means of presentation over the next few years.

However as a deaf person all this spoken word is just noise. If the candidates want me to get the message they are sending out I need alternative pathways to their content. Transcripts for example, or subtitles to the videos.

I am actually feeling a little cut off from the current debates, even those presented by my favoured candidate.

About nine million people in the UK have appreciable hearing loss. So as I said before about saying ‘Mumble-illion pounds’ it might be helpful to give some thought to presentation of LibDem arguments taking account of that population…

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Monday, January 23, 2006

Positive and even cheerful points 

It has been a week or so needing some positive antidotes to events. One cheerful thought is that someone like Chris Huhne is standing for the leadership, and will have to be good to win because his opponents are good. That is a cheerful choice. But there are other positives to hang on to. Some thoughts from Milton Keynes.

Firstly real success on the ground from a LibDem council. This from Milton Keynes, as we reported in my local FOCUS a while back.

“The Home Improvement Agency (HIA) is an exciting new initiative from Liberal
Democrat Milton Keynes Council, in partnership with Age Concern. If you are a
home owner and over 65 (or receive certain benefits), the HIA provides FREE
advice, information and support to help you to adapt your home to your changing
needs, so that you can live at home safely and independently

HIA will: 1 advise you on practical building issues and preparing schedules for the work, 2 help you to find reliable contractors, and oversee the building work from start to finish. 3 offer information and practical help to get funding.

The HIA can help you deal with small repairs, major renovations, or adaptations costing thousands of pounds - from fitting new locks and security features to installing stairlifts or constructing bathroom extensions.

Many older home owners find getting involved with builders and building works a daunting task. The HIA, with Age Concern at the helm, will make it all manageable. Our aim is to help people to carry on living independently and safely in their homes.”

Note the emphasis on people setting their own goals and managing their own lives, with community and local state support to overcome particular obstacles. This frees up resources that can be targeted to people who really do need concentrated help – in MK we are developing Extra-Care Villages to support people in that situation.

Another thing from MK – the Open University is helping A-Level students especially those in technical subjects. And this opens up some exciting possibilities. Until recently the OU only took on students over 21. Now it is finding that some 16 year olds are signing on especially for maths and certain science and technology courses.

This raises for me an idea – developing national support for young people of exceptional talent who may be at schools really stretched to support them. A package to challenge the student and extend the skills of the teachers at the same time. Room for developments here, to draw on national initiatives to empower individuals and strengthen local educational resources? A way to bring real choice where it matters.

And yet again from my area, look at the work of the MK based charity the Helena Kennedy Foundation. This sets out to widen participation in Higher Education and tackle social injustice in Further and Higher Education. Higher education is still often perceived as unattainable by many poor, working class, ethnic, disabled and mature students. Take a look at its website to see the work it does. Apart from bursaries, it provide a support system for people who have never imagined going to such a place to cope with completely new and strange situations like an University. Closing date for applications this year is 24 March 2006 so if you know someone in your area who might benefit, point them this way. And of course if you are an individual or acompany who might wnat to support HKF...

And for us LibDems when we develop our education policies we need to draw on the experience and inspiration of organisations such as this.

So- anything in your patch that we can share and get cheerful about?

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Saturday, January 21, 2006

Liberalism - beyond the Valley of the Databases 

Three themes entwined for me this week – Liberalism, the Leadership contest and Databases. Thinking about databases may help think more clearly about the two Big Ls in this list.

I want to suggest a metaphor. New Labour is the political movement of database culture. Liberals can aspire to something richer. But we have to think about this.

Databases of course came up in the Kelly Uproar on List 99 and sex offenders in schools. It is quite right to be concerned about the slowness in setting up the new database on offenders, as Ming rightly stressed in the House and on Question Time. But databases are strictly limited tools and capable of damaging side consequences if we do not take care.

I have found a set of definitions helpful in looking at the social impact of IT systems and by extension in my Liberal politics. Broadly we need to distinguish between Data, Information, Knowledge and Wisdom.

1 Data is just lumps of facts and assertions and records which you can pile up and pass around and fit into slots. Some bits are accurate some are crap.

2 Information is data that has been organised for some purpose. It is data available in the right place at the right time in the right level of detail for someone to make a decision. Data is information organised to make a difference.

3 Knowledge includes not only the set of preceding data and information we have to ask the questions needed to turn data into information for this time and place but also the care and maintenance of the skills needed to ask these questions.

4 Wisdom is something we need to guide and deepen our knowledge. If you have a good definition of wisdom let me know. But its absence often becomes obvious.

There are huge problems in getting even basic data accurately. ‘Garbage In Garbage Out’ is not just a description of Celebrity Big Brother. We can too easily create ‘Data Artefacts’ where bits of data from sources of very different credibility and reliability are presented together in The Base as if all are of equal value. It is very easy to assume we are applying Knowledge in using a database when in fact we are falling for sophisticated versions of the three card trick. So we get ‘Spin’ and the New Labour culture of meaningless initiatives fitting people into database slots the better to manipulate them.

The problem is compounded when the ‘data’ is dynamic, that is entries are liable to change over time. This tends to happen for data about people. Date of birth may be reliable if entered correctly first time, but taste in seafood for a given person might change day by day. If you want to keep a dynamic database reasonably in line with reality it will (as a rule of thumb) cost as much per year to maintain as it did to collect the original data. This by the way is a key issue in the ‘Identity Card’ cost debate.

To correct the inevitable, and I stress inevitable shortfalls and inaccuracies in even a good database we need a culture of Information Integrity and that needs a politics of Knowledge Support. For that culture we need to support enquiring minds, the possibility of heretics, an insistence on the value of different experiences applied to current questions, and a resistance to groupthink.

That culture means people can build up the Knowledge needed to get real information for themselves, at the right time in the right place in the right detail for their own needs, and make as many decisions as possible without having to depend on others.

For me Liberalism is a key part of any such Knowledge Culture and the Libdems as a party are at least partially working in that area. I don’t claim perfection. But we can have a Nemawashi on this. I hope all Leadership candidates in their own ways recognise this and find ways to get this theme across to the wider public, not just score points in our LibDem world.

To go back to list99 and the new database, the effective deployment of this will need a costly but necessary programme of repeated data review and a culture of evaluation amongst those that access it. Otherwise it will become so out of date and contain so many false positives that the information content will degrade – it will act as a smokescreen for some instead of a searchlight. At the best data incapable of making much difference. It is the support of the Knowledge Culture that will protect our children, not the simple tool itself.

Just to back up the importance of this theme, see this article in yesterday’s (20th Jan) Guardian on the data capture culture and this in Today’s (21st Jan) on the Google row.

Note that in our sense they are talking about data pickup and the kinds of information that can be extracted by people asking questions we don’t give permission to be asked.

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Friday, January 20, 2006

Nuclear matters warm up 

Meanwhile in the wider world – where LibDems intend to fight the Tories on the Nuclear Energy question – there are political shifts that do not improve our position.

It is likely that plans will come forwards for a new Nuclear Power Station in Lithuania, with the backing of the EU Energy commissioner. This will involve a private company in Nuclear Power construction for the first time in decades.

One factor is the perceived need to be independent of Russian bullying tactics, as noted in a previous post of mine. The neglect of this fear so far by western European countries will not improve chances of arguing in east Europe against the Baltics nuclear developments. Note that Piebalgs, the EU Energy Commissioner, is from Latvia. I think we need to co-ordinate our UK political action with our MEPs here.

I show below an agency report before it disappears behind a firewall.

Of course going ahead with an European Nuclear plant is a great beginning for anyone trying to persuade Iran to build new Nuclear power stations, but that consideration would be a bit too much like joined-up thinking…

Repost from Lithuanian Agency ELTA begins:

Vilnius, Jan 17 (ELTA) - The construction of a nuclear reactor in Lithuania
will be considered at an international seminar to be held in Vilnius. At
this forum, ministers of the Baltic states intend to sign an agreement
concerning the intentions of the Baltic states to build a nuclear reactor in

The international seminar entitled "Development of Electrical Energy Markets
and Assurance of Energy Supply Reliability in the Baltic Sea Region" will be
held on 26-27 January by the Ministry of Economy in conjunction with the
company Lietuvos Energija.

The Latvian, Estonian, and Polish ministers responsible for energy, European
Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, representatives of the European
Commission Directorate-General for Energy and Transport, and representatives
of energy companies, regulatory bodies, and consumer associations from
Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Sweden have been invited to
the seminar.

In the judgment of the Ministry of the Economy, achievements and future
challenges in the energy sector, the supply and safety of energy sources in
the Baltic states, common energy policy in the Baltic region, and the energy
markets of certain states, are some of the topics that will be discussed at
the international forum.

ELTA has already announced that Piebalgs is encouraging more nuclear power
plants to be built. "Europe has to erect more nuclear power plants if it
wants to avoid ever increasing uncertainty in the oil and gas markets," he

The commissioner stated that one third of the energy we use is now produced
by nuclear power plants. In his opinion, this is a considerable amount that
should not be allowed to decrease.

Source: Vilnius ELTA WWW-Text in English 1236 GMT 17 Jan 2006

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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

More on liberties 

The elephant that must not be mentioned stirred in the interview of Chris Huhne on Westminster Hour. He was asked in effect if we had underperformed in terms of seats last time out and said not really. Well.. I can see why he is cautious about this because a contrary position otherwise invites tricky judgements on the performance of the immediate past and some continuing senior leadership and on that road might be more heat than light on why we have an election at all at this stage.

We can expect more probing on this over the next few weeks so the candidates need to get focussed. And we in the wider party need to beware of the common ailment of responsibility-free advice ‘if only the party had done so and so we would have triumphed’. We are not the ones who would personally have to face Paxman.

Having said that, I look back at the high spot for me in the 2005 campaign, our adoption meeting in Milton Keynes where Lord Dholakia raised the roof with an impassioned statement on protecting our freedoms. I know we recruited and mobilised key new activists (including potential councillors) just on the basis of the power of that speech.

This link shows what I said then, and you can see my hopes.

But despite the superb manifesto commitment (page 8 if you still have it to hand) nothing else in the campaign, not in our national literature actually going through doors, not in the Leadership statements from any source, approached the power and clarity of that moment.

I am not saying it would (necessarily) have swung us masses of seats, but if we had put out a national message of that power nobody could ever again ask what the Liberal Democrats are ‘for’. A key part of the answer would be clear and spoken heart to heart. Protecting our Freedoms from whatever threat emerges, foreign and domestic. If not us, who else?

I did actually feel an opportunity was lost in 2005. Sorry.

Currently we are seeing the domestic threat of what I called the Sovietisation or the ancien regime transformation of our justice system so we have work to do right now, not just in the leadership stakes.

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Monday, January 16, 2006

Let Freedom Ring 

One opportunity offered by the Leadership Publicity it to get some strong common ground into the public attention. A thousand years of resistance to the arbitrary state is a tradition Liberals most be proud to continue.

In his speech today (Martin Luther King Day) former US vice-President Gore reviewed some of the great historic crisis in his country’s history and said:

“It is simply an insult to those who came before us and sacrificed so much on
our behalf to imply that we have more to be fearful of than they. Yet they
faithfully protected our freedoms and now it is up to us to do the same.”

And up to us too. To our LibDem leadership hopefuls, make this a powerful message in British terms please, perhaps put out as a joint statement by all the Leadership Candidates to emphasise how important it is to us as a party. I will certainly evaluate the candidates on the basis of how thet themselves approach this theme.

One of Gore’s points is certainly relevant to us:

“… we need to be aware of the advances in eavesdropping and surveillance
technologies with their capacity to sweep up and analyze enormous quantities of
information and to mine it for intelligence. This adds significant vulnerability
to the privacy and freedom of enormous numbers of innocent people at the same
time as the potential power of those technologies. These technologies have the
potential for shifting the balance of power between the apparatus of the state
and the freedom of the individual in ways both subtle and profound.”

The fight is never-ending.

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Saturday, January 14, 2006

When shall we four meet again... 

Some thought from the first mini-hustings at Facing the Future… I am giving ‘impressions’ of the candidates performance as I think a semi-interested outsider might have seen them. More detailed analysis on content another time perhaps.

There were clearly four Libdems up there so sucks to the wedge wielders.

On the delicate matter of ‘Past Events’ Mark Oaten scored the big risky hit of the day by (in effect) calling on us all to make the Facing The Future review a positive memorial for Charles Kennedy’s hard work as leader. That hit a certain button and grabbed the audience. There has been some niggling about Mark’s performance in this campaign so far, in cricketing terms alleging some careless strokes playing and missing outside the stumps and edging a ball just short of slips. But this was a hit into the stands of Pietersen quality inclkuding the 'oh no' moment when the ball goes into the air. It made Chris Huhne’s complete non-mention of Charles (as far as I could hear – apologies if I got this wrong) more noticeable.

Mark also walked away from the lectern for some of his contribution, giving a sense of dynamism and command of the stage. Good professional presentation techniques well executed. The others stuck to the lectern, Huhne being the most immobile and most nervy looking of the four. I have heard him speak a bit better. One problem might be that his speech was essentially his launch speech from yesterday (Friday) and I (and everyone else there probably) had just read it off the web and it also might have gone a bit flat for him internally. In hard content it was probably the strongest.

Simon Hughes – well it was a Simon Hughes speech which means good and he knows exactly what to say to rally a LibDem audience. But I have seen a lot more speeches by Simon than for any of the others so it was familiar in tone, presentation and humanity.

The revelation was Campbell. Ming was alive in every word of his speech, clear emotion backing up every position. I have never seen him like this before. Forget the careful buttoned down image of TV shorts interviews. Ming looked unchained, full of energy. I hope it is not controversial to say liberated.

So, all in all, nobody dropped a brick. Everyone made a decent case for their own positions without stabbing at each other – no circular firing squads (yet, anyway). Hughes performed with the decency and competence we expect so goes on steadily. Chris carried on from his launch and keeps his momentum (but probably hasn’t added to it yet). Ming is casting off the age issue.

At this stage everyone can make decisions about what to do next with respect and dignity.

On the trivia front though just imagine the excitement if Mark Oaten had been the only contender to turn up in a blue tie…

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Friday, January 13, 2006

Hair Today 

One thing about internal elections is that we get to see the campaign process as non-politicians do instead of just being the people dishing it out. Suddenly the leaflets, the sound-bites and the tricks of image presentation look just a little less brilliant than we think.

Maybe some valuable lessons… if we chose to reflect.

It is often the small matters rather than the big issues that swings the final vote. Irrelevant ones like the Great Hair Uproar. So many bald or close cropped heads amongst the contenders. One of our local councillors has the perfect riposte - a notice in his kitchen saying ‘God gave a few men perfect heads – to the rest he gave hair’. But I am not here to make anti-Huhne points!

I am one of the people way back in the 60s and 70’s who landed the Liberals with the long hair and sandles image, so I suppose I should finally apologise to the modern Party even though I still do defiantly have muesli for breakfast. In my day long hair for men was an issue in society and I scorned the bigotry of the short back and sides mafia. But now I find that I am uneasy with men with very short haircuts as I associate this with the old repression – and of course repeat the same prejudices in reverse. Sigh.

Back to learning about elections…

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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Enterprises for localism? 

It is a new term for many people – “The Social Economy’. What is it, and what does it mean for us? How does a Liberal approach relate to this, particularly our commitment to localism? Should we specifically look at this as part of the Meeting The Challenge exercise? What are LibDem councillors doing to explore the possibilities of such enterprises contributing to services in their areas? If I get the workshop I asked for, I hope to raise some of these points at the One Day Conference in London on 14 January.

In Britain we know about Charities, Co-Operatives and non-profit organisations. These are defined by some firm legal and practical structures. The idea of a 'Social Economy' concentrates less on how an organisation is structured and more on what its aims are.

Broadly, a Social Economy organisation or a Social Enterprise is a business with primarily social objectives whose surpluses are principally reinvested for that purpose in the business or in the community, rather than being driven by the need to maximise profit for shareholders and owners. In short it

· Accepts the need to generate income from its activities to meet its costs and obligations.
· Has a wide range of criteria for success. Not just the financial ’bottom line’ but some agreed set of public goods.

A Social Economy organisation could be a Co-Op or a charity, but it could also be very like a commercial organisation in its structure. The difference (it is claimed) is the use of business methods to achieve public goods. It works (in theory?) under market disciplines to achieve its ends. To expand this sector a new legal form (the Community Interest Company) has been created for Britain. The law regulating this (the CAICE Act 2004) came into effect in July 2005. A Regulator has been appointed for this new sector. It is not possible for a CIC to be a Charity, something LibDem MPs tried to change when the legislation went through Parliament as we feared this would divide the Social Economy field.

There are a number of support organisations working in some specific areas (such as London Bristol Birmingham and Scotland). There are also a number of national support organisations to give help and advice to potential Social Enterprises. If you need some further information try these links.

Social Economy Network

Social Enterprise Coalition

Nearbuyou National Social Trading Network

Social Enterprise Partnership

School for Social Engineers

Social Enterprise Training and Support

The Guild (Training and Consultancy to Social Enterprise Sector)

Business Link Social Enterprise Knowledge Centre

Social Economy Bristol (example of a Local Support and Development organisation)

What do you think?

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Some good process thoughts 

How to assess candidates for the leadership? This for starters is what will impress me.

Above all put our own LibDem case on our own merits, not trying to be the Liberal Democrat version of this or that.

As far as possible, no casual personal slagging-off on another candidate. We know each candidate has strengths and weaknesses. Let us note those as they emerge. I want each candidate to emphasise what they themselves positively bring to a leadership role. That will be contrast enough to the others without sour sniping.

I do want to see awareness of the major challenges ahead for Britain and a sense of how we can organise to tackle those, and why Liberal principles will be important in that work. I will be looking for signs of the way each candidate thinks, how they organise their researches and exploration if you like, rather than settled or packaged answers. So I am not necessarily looking for huge new policy initiatives to differentiate each candidate. We can do without candidates daily dragging Cameron-style anorexic rabbits from a hat. (I didn’t say we couldn’t slag off our opponents sometimes!).

In fact I will be quite happy if on many issues each candidate maintains the same overall policy stance, and competes on the ability to present, integrate and enthuse. How good are they at selling the party’s position? That is a key issue.

Of course we are going to find policy differences. Important as this is (and I admit my vote may yet swing on a few key gut issues) I hope we don’t get too fixated on these. Candidates who show an ability to listen to different views from their opponents and deal with them constructively will impress me. It is a skill we will need to help build a dynamic and unified party strategy for the next 5 and 10 years. An important skill for the leader of a non-dictatorial party.

Real life goes on while we do our internal campaigning. The so-called respect agenda from Labour for example, and the latest troubles out of Iraq. I hope our candidates can compete by making our case in Parliament and elsewhere, and supporting each other as they do so. In some cases maybe joint statements to emphasise the point. The ability to do that task will impress me heavily.

And if possible give some sense of the excitement and fun of politics.

Oh and show that they (or at least their staff!) know about, read and appreciate the LibDem supporters debates online…

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Sunday, January 08, 2006

Nemawashi anyone? 

Nemawashi was one of the more interesting concepts I came across doing my postgraduate work on Japanese Business Systems. The literal meaning is ‘binding the roots’ and it started off as the word for planting a tree - everything that needs to be done before during and after planting to make sure the tree takes life. I think this has relevance to out political situation today.

According to the Japanese, in business and organisational terms Nemawshi means the process by which everyone affected by a decision works through what the implications are and accepts the necessary consequences for their own actions and behaviour. If you deal with a Japanese organisation you may be amazed how long it takes to get a ‘decision’ made as everyone seems to be passing ideas around without commitment. But once a decision is made it can be implemented pretty rapidly as it has been internalised – it really becomes the ‘policy’. Contrast this with what the Japanese characterise as the abrupt Western way of decision making. Someone with power decides on a major change. That becomes ‘policy’ and enormous effort has to be expanded after the decision fighting through opposition coalitions and wrecking tactics.

Over in the Tory encampments, David Cameron is doing the opposite to Nemawashi – he is making extreme statements (from the Tory perspective) and leaving his own followers stranded as they struggle to understand and internalise the positions he is taking. I suspect that he will find many troubles in coming weeks and years, even from his strong allies.

Just maybe we could benefit from thinking on Nemawashi lines in our own debates. This does not mean shying away from hard and controversial topics but realising that we are part of a process. And an important part of that process is a respect for listening and learning,

One of the disciplines of Nemawashi is knowing that you cannot ever get complete agreement from all participants on the final goal for a serious action. What you can get however is an ‘agreement to proceed’, to move on to new ground and learn from what taking that new ground implies. Building up an ‘agreement to proceed’ gives an organisation great strength and helps establish the possibility of further ‘agreements’.

Another discipline is internalising a realisation that ‘carrying a narrow vote’ in a meeting or conference does not make that decision the ‘policy’ of all its members, not deep in their hearts and guts. If a vote is narrow it may be a current operational arrangement, it may decide on a bias in power relationships, it may settle questions of legitimacy but much much still needs still to be done.

We have an opportunity for some Nemawashi processes on 14th Jan and I hope we can ‘agree to proceed’ from what we learn there. I certainly hope that those of us with strong ideas for direction for the LibDems learn from watching Cameron’s errors and realise that bouncing parties into planting new trees without proper preparation leads to stunted and disappointing growth, the initial excitement be what it may.

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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

More on Gas and politics 

Just an update on the Gas Row. Some of the best commentary on this is on the European Tribune Weblog with postings by a French economist who used to work for the Gaz de France collaboration with Russia’s GAZPROM. Previous postings on this by him here and here. His earlier (20020) Wall Street Journal article is still relevant

One thing to note is that the Soviet Gas Industry grew up in Ukraine and the distribution centres for southern Russia are now in Ukraine. Some fascinating details…

It remains crucial that we back Ukraine and keep an eye on the wider political ramifications.

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Sunday, January 01, 2006

More than Gas in current row 

In a globalised world we need to keep track of many things. So lets see… there is a lot more in the current Gas Row between Russia and Ukraine than meets the eye.

GAZPROM, the Russian gas supply giant is today (Jan 1st 2006) cutting of the supplies to Ukraine as Ukraine cannot or will not pay a 400 percent price hike. Since Russia’s supplies to western Europe run through pipelines routed through Ukraine, and GAZPROM does not want Ukraine tapping transit supplies, this may lead to gas shortages in countries like Germany (not yet directly to Britain but we may get an impact as Germany and others look to alternative supplies).

Now GAZPROM has close ties with the Russian Government and this could, let us say, also be a way of putting Russian political pressure on Ukraine on other matters. However this pressure is restricted by the need to keep long term supplies to the West, as we will see in the current arguments.

But Russia is about to build – with EU funding – a pipeline along the Baltic seabed which will supply Germany and Sweden and points south and west (including the UK) but which of course avoids transit across Ukraine – and which will have no branches to Poland. Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania. When the new pipeline is built Poland and the Baltics, to say nothing of Ukraine, will find their direct Russian gas feeds very vulnerable to cut-offs. And Russia could cut these supplies without future commercial complications from the rest of Europe. What’s more Poland and the Baltics could not build a pipeline to Norway for alternative supplies because Maritime Law forbids two pipelines to cross under the sea…

Poland and the Baltics increasingly feel that the rest of the EU is simply ignoring the special interest of these countries and ignoring the continuing Russian campaign to destabilise and them and isolate them from their EU (and European NATO) allies. They note that the pipeline treaty was negotiated under the strong leadership of Schroeder when he was Chancellor of Germany and that after relinquishing the Chancellorship Schroeder has been appointed to the board of the GAZPROM subsidiary that will build the pipeline. They ask questions.

So these countries are especially vulnerable to the parallel split-the-EU campaign being covertly run by the USA (and especially by various Neocon activist groups). These aim to build up bilateral relations with European countries bypassing Brussels. There is a strong political feel in those countries that only the USA is taking a public interest in their welfare. One consequence of this is the recent rightwing and pro-USA drift in Poland and the decision by the incoming Polish government to keep its contingent of Troops in Iraq.

Busy, busy, busy

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