Category Archives: Thinking Aloud

Ten Pieces Of Advice For Candidates

Ten Pieces Of Advice For Candidates

In my usual helpful way I thought I’d run through some tips I’ve picked up over many years of volunteering in and running election campaigns.  These are just my anecdotes and are targeted at nobody and nothing specific.

(1)  It’s a good idea if you live in the area you are standing for
You can stand somewhere you don’t live, for sure, but you will have to do extra work to cover the natural disadvantage this brings.  If you are well-known, popular, or live very close by, you may be okay.  If you have very strong ties to the area, you may be okay.  But if you are an unpopular character with an uncertain history – you are going to find it an uphill struggle.

(2)  Stop whining
People hate whiny candidates.  It makes for a terrible campaign.  If all you do is whine and whine some more, your campaign will never gain steam.

(3)  Don’t get stuck in your bubble
If you have a small group of friends who all keeping telling you that you are definitely going to win, its easy to believe them.  If they tell you they are going to vote for you, this is only of use if they do actually live in the area you want to be elected in.  Otherwise, their promises of support will simply end in an embarrassing trip to a polling station they can’t vote at.  in politics, we call this a “bubble.”  It is a self-sustaining miniature community of the like-minded.  It may feel comforting, but it’s false comfort.  If you just keep losing and losing, over and over again, it may be because you think your bubble is representative of the real world, when it really isn’t.

(4)  Stop attacking your opponents
You may think that spending most of your time running down your opponents is a powerful tactic because you heard once that “negative campaign works.”  But the people giving you that advice were only telling you half the story.  First of all, for negative campaigning to work, it helps if it is actually true.  You also need to be very clean yourself to pull it off or you’ll just look like a hypocrite or worse.  Just making up some negative attack lines will play well to the audience in your bubble (see (3) above) but will fall flat outside that.  You are much better to talk about the positive things you would like to achieve – be somebody with ideas and energy, not just a skinful of bile and regret.

(5)  Saying “I wont attack my opponents” and then going on to attack your opponents is a disastrous strategy.
People aren’t stupid.  If you treat them like they are stupid, they will not thank you for it.

(6)  Beware the Guru
Running an election campaign is like managing a football team – everybody has an opinion on it, and everybody thinks they can do it.  There are no prizes for second place (usually) and listening to bad advice is often worse than not taking any advice at all.

(7)  Stop blaming everybody else
When you lose, you lose.  It’s not the fault of the other candidates.  They ran their campaigns, you ran yours, you lost.  It’s certainly not the fault of the electorate – and moaning endlessly about them is a sure way to make sure you lose next time too.  Voters get irritated by you telling them how they “should have” voted.

(8)  Beware your endorsements
If you are going to be endorsed by somebody, make it somebody with some standing in the community.  Not somebody who has failed the community.

(9)  Don’t underestimate your opponents
You may think you are the big fish in the pond but election night is a harsh reality check and  you may find yourself gaping in surprise and horror as the votes stack up against you.

(10)  Have fun!
If your team are a miserable, moody, sullen, resentful bunch that will rub off on your campaign.  And you’ll probably lose.

I hope this is helpful.  But remember, it’s just one opinion.  There are almost certainly others.

Classic opposition tactic

Classic opposition tactic:

If you do a thing:
Attack you for doing it. Say you should not have done it, or don’t have the experience to do it, or can’t afford to do it, or are doing it for the wrong reasons.

If you don’t do a thing:
Attack you for not doing it. Say you should have done it, or you were scared to do it, or you are too worried about money and not about value, or decided not to do it for the wrong reasons.

Silly, really.

Love.

Love.

A few times recently I’ve had people say I “love foreigners.” I think its quite an interesting comment and one that says something about our world that they would think this is an insult.

But I disagree with the analysis.

I think that I just try and treat everybody the same. I believe in innocence until proven guilty. I believe that there are two sides to every story. And I believe that most people are inherently decent, and a minority of people are not. But that minority, in every nation and group, is often treated as though they are representative of the whole group.

This is something we all hate when it is done to us.

If a woman says “all Men are rapists”, the vast majority of decent men are horrified. If a Man says: “All women are docile” (somebody really did say this today!) the many fiery and confident women can’t believe what they are hearing. If a French person says: “All English are hooligans” the very many English who are not that way inclined feel aggrieved. If an older person says: “Young people are all disrespectful” the many polite young people are offended.

So to a person who just plain hates anybody who isn’t from our country, somebody who tries to treat everybody the same appears to “love them.”

In fact – when somebody acts illegally or harmfully I’ll condemn them wherever they are from, whatever language they speak and whatever Gods their worship.

What I wont do is join in a witchhunt based on a scare story and a pack of lies – something we’ve seen happen and then unravel quite a few times on Facebook, in public and in the local media.

But please be assured that in the same way I wont join a witchhunt against a foreign person, neither would I join one against an English person. Because any of us can find ourselves “the minority” in the right situation. And when that happens to you, God forbid, you will be glad that not everybody buys immediately into it.

Observations On Teamwork

Observations On Teamwork

There are many hundreds of books and schools of thought about how to work in a team and be a positive addition.  The comments herein are just my own thoughts, which I do not claim are in any way authoritative – just a personal opinion from somebody who has worked in many teams.  The comments below do not relate to any group or individual in any way and are just my generic ideas.  I hope people who have recently joined new teams find it useful.

Toeing The Line

Unless the definition of “team” being used is: “One person holds a view and everybody else does as they are told” then automatically agreeing with everything the rest of the team say does not represent being a useful part of the team.  If the team is such that it is considering solutions, problems or policy – failing to be a “critical friend” is, in fact, the opposite of being a useful part of the team.  Inanely nodding through every proposal regardless of content is useless, adding nothing whatsoever to the team beyond some vague capacity as a cheerleader.  (Not that I have anything against cheerleaders, in a sports environment.)

Of course, criticisms can be harmful if they aren’t handled politely and respectfully.  Therefore, its important to present such things reasonably, sticking to logical arguments and presenting them in the proper way.  If you feel very strongly that your team is on the wrong track then metaphors and allegories are your friend.  Humour is also your friend.  They can be used without giving direct offense to individuals, no matter how misguided or poor you may think their actions.

Finally, it is important to remember that even in a situation of group responsibility – you are not bound to agree with the team in areas where the team has not yet taken a decision.  Those used to trying to bully their way to the result they favor may suggest that your criticisms – no matter how logical or sensible – should not be made.  They are wrong.  It is absolutely vital that ideas are aired, challenged and debated.  Failure to do so leads to bad decisions, weak policy and stagnant teams.

Analyse, consider, Speak up!  Stay polite.

Backstabbers

You will occasionally encounter backstabbers.  There are lots of reasons why these people exist.  Sometimes they feel threatened by you.  Sometimes they just can’t bear the idea that anybody might not agree with them.  Sometimes they just want to get their way, but have struggled to counter the logic in your arguments.  In almost all cases they will be too cowardly to say anything to your face and will be nice as pie when they meet you, but will constantly try and run you down to everybody else behind your back.  Although this might seem counter-productive within the team and although it can be irritating, you should not rise to it.  It is, in fact, an accidental compliment you are being paid.  Your duty, as part of a productive team, is to do continue to do your best to help the team realise its aims.  And if possible, to help that individual realise their aims too – where that is not counterproductive to the team.  The old adage of “two wrongs don’t make a right” is true here, the team is bigger than the petty comments of this rather sad individual.

Understand The Teams Makeup

A team that you are assigned to in a work environment, with a clearly defined Leader and structure, is quite different to a team of volunteers in a Community Group.  And both are quite different to a Council, where each Councillor is elected by the constituents of their own area and has their own mandate in their own right.  Understanding what your role is, and how it works alongside the roles of all the other team members will help avoid you over-stepping your mark.

Know The Rules

Every team has some kind of ethos or constitution behind it.  Sometimes that’s as simple as “common courtesy” and other times there are hundreds of pages of guidance.  Whatever the case, know the rules.  Know them well.  I cannot recommend this highly enough.  It will serve you well.

Never Stop Being Creative

There is no such thing as a “settled idea.”  There is no such thing as “perfect.”  Always keep looking, examining and rethinking the Team’s makeup, its purpose, its decisions and its future.  Most particularly its policies and ideas.  The day you stop trying to challenge, improve and evolve is the day you should think about joining a different group.  If you have reached the point where all you are doing is “going through the motions” it is time to move on.  If you have reached the point where you don’t even think about the team’s proposals anymore, but simple raise your hand and then ask when the coffee is being served, it is time to move on.  If you have reached the point where you are infuriated when somebody challenges your idea, or are unable to respond their challenges, or both, it really is time to buck up, or move on.  Never think you have nothing useful to add.  You do.  Everybody has unique experiences and skills – some of the greatest solutions come from left field, the last place from which you might expect their arrival.

Conclusions

A team is at its best when it is a dynamic and varied group of individuals, questioning everything, debating everything, in a friendly and supportive way.  Empowered, where appropriate, by a Chairman who understands their role is to facilitate and pace discussion, not control it.  Empowered, where appropriate, by a Leader who values the expertise, knowledge, passion and input of the whole team, rather than just forcing their own will, or the will of another.  A strong team is not a battle of wills.  It is not one will.  It is co-operation and creativity and work from the whole group.

On The Wagon

On The Wagon

Once Upon A Time, there was a group of men at the top of a mountain.  They all wanted to get different places on the mountain, but the one thing they all had in common was that all the places they wanted to be were lower than the top.

The mountain was dangerous.  There were thieves and highwaymen lurking in the shadows.  The roads were treacherous and poorly-kept.  There were sudden and frightening vast ravines and crumbling cliff faces.  You could die.

The men decided there was safety in numbers and so when two of them, Kurt and Pierre, suggested travelling together the others agreed.  It took a little work to get them to agree though.  After all, the men were all quite different to one another.  They had different mannerisms and personalities, they didn’t always get along, sometimes they were downright grumpy with one another.  But they did all share the goal of being lower on the mountain and that was enough to bind them together.

The men built a huge wooden cart.  It was an impressive vehicle.  Vast wheels would eat up the downward miles easily and cling to the narrow roads, heavy construction would protect from external threats, clever suspension would cushion the bumps on the mountain passes.  Almost everybody was impressed and climbed in.  But one of the men, John, hung back.  An Independent fellow who had long lived on a part of the mountain quite separate from the others and learnt self-sufficiency (and was, frankly, a little more suspicious of the others because he had fallen out with them so many times), was not quite ready to commit to the unknown.  Instead, he trotted along behind the wagon as it began to roll.

Things went well, the wagon began to roll ponderously along the paths and around the corners.  John kept pace okay, he was fit and healthy and didn’t mind the exercise.  But he could see his fellows up front, whooping with joy at the ride, safe from the rain and the robbers, and he remained unsure about his decisions.  He wasn’t lonely because his old friends Dafydd, Patrick and Hamish had stuck by him and were trotting behind too – even though they were less sure than he that this was ideal.

Hamish, Dafydd and Patrick were urging him to rethink, and often Pierre or Kurt would call back: “Come on John!  Join us.  This is a grand adventure.”  Eventually, John became convinced that he was being a fool.  His fears about the enterprise were groundless.  He agreed to take part and his little group caught up with the wagon and pulled themselves inside.

Perhaps things could have continued like that forever, with the cart rumbling in the right direction and everybody feeling safer together?  But some of the people inside were convinced that the exciting endeavor could be improved.  Whenever they rolled past somebody they would invite them inside – even if they were nothing like the individuals who had began to journey.  Inside the wagon, in an attempt to prevent minor squabbles some of the men began telling the others when they could look out of the windows, which bits of the mountain they could or could not visit in future.  Rules began to be made about everything – what they should wear, what they could carry, when they could be active and when they should rest.  Many of the individuals inside were used to deciding these things for themselves and balked at being told what to do like children.

At some point, somebody added extra paneling.  A few robbers arrows had penetrated the hull and the response was to thicken the shell and seal the exits.  They were safer now.  It was a bit darker without windows and getting out for some fresh air was more difficult with so many locks and bolts on the doors.  But security was important.

As the mountain roads descended they grew steeper and the wagon gathered pace.  Corners were taken at speed rather than use unnecessary energy to slow down.  This meant that when sharp corners were navigated everybody had to be instructed to lean inwards, towards the mountain, to prevent the wagon falling over an edge and crashing to the rocks below.  During these regular scary twists and turns all the men were on top of one another, leaning inwards, pressed close and frightened.  Even though they managed each time, somehow, to stay on the road, they became tetchy and surly with one another.  Partly due to the unwelcome proximity and invasion of personal space, and partly to cover how terrified they were.

Some time later the wagon reached breakneck pace.  It was now barreling down the road, screaming around the corners, everybody was clinging to their seats and making small talk – pretending there was nothing to fear.  Pierre and Kurt had declared that slowing down was no longer even an option.  They proposed that the most important thing was the continuing mutual journey, which had been taken with the best of intentions and was still the best option for them all.  Their solution was to remove the brakes entirely.  This would discourage anybody silly enough to even consider a slower pace.  From now on, the route down the mountain was going to be an ever faster journey.

John had tried his best.  He didn’t want to be a bad companion.  But he had spent his life as a self-sufficient independent man.  Being cooped up in here, being unable to change the way things were done, having Kurt and Pierre tell him how much they liked him being there but overrule most of what he suggested was really irritating.  And he really really didn’t like the speeds they were at.  He worried that sooner or later they would take a corner too fast, or hit an obstacle they couldn’t avoid.  So one day he announced he was thinking about getting off the wagon.

They didn’t want him to get off the wagon.  Partly because John was a useful guy to have around and they liked making use of his many skills.  Partly because John was well-known and respected and they needed him there.  But mostly because they had convinced everybody else that you simply couldn’t get off the wagon.  It was going too fast now.  Leaving a moving vehicle on a steep mountain road was suicide.  Was he crazy?  And if John managed to do it – others might think they could do it too.  Kurt and Pierre didn’t always agree on everything, but they did agree that a huge wagon like this needed lots of people to keep it rolling.

“Listen,” said John, “You give me some changes and then maybe I won’t get off.  I don’t want much.  If you guys don’t want a brake, fine.  But I’d like one put in for emergencies, even if its only me that pulls it.  Also, maybe I could choose a different colour coat when you all agree to wear green ones?  And I’d quite like to still be able to sell the wooden ornaments I carve to peaceful folk on the road as we pass them.  Oh, and in the night, I don’t want everybody laying all over me, I’m getting almost no rest at all with so many people trying to share my sleeping space.  It’s cramped and I don’t love garlic as much as some of you.  No offence intended, old chaps.”

John had meetings with Oto and with Leon, with Daan and with Alfons.  He tried to get them all to see that in order for him to stay he just needed them to be reasonable and a bit less bossy.  He wanted to sell stuff when he could and sleep in his own bed, undisturbed.  Was this so much to ask?  They listened politely.  They agreed that instead of a green coat, John could wear a light green coat on Thursdays, in the afternoon, sometimes.  He could sell his wooden widgets, but only if he could conduct the transaction with the person on the road as the wagon passed by at fifty kilometres per hour.  And only if he could get the goods to the buyer in one accurate, careful throw.  (And as long as he didn’t mind paying a tariff.)  They even promised not to be so bossy – on the condition that he did as he was told afterwards.  The bed thing was a no go though.  Being in the wagon meant sharing beds and that was that.

John pondered what to do.  Hamish was absolutely refusing to leave and John was worried about their friendship.  The others had agreed to some reforms, so that was good.  But he couldn’t ignore the fact that the wagon was still getting faster and the mountain roads were not getting any safer.  They had nearly lost Alexandros earlier in the week in a particularly nerve-racking maneuver.  John looked at the mountain wall, flashing by in the late afternoon sun.  He looked at the vast cliff on the other side of the wagon.  He wondered if, as he leaped off, he would be dashed on the rocks or plummet over the edge.  His friends wouldn’t be there to help him – they’d be rolling off ahead and into the sunset.

“What to do, what to do,” John wondered.  It was a stay of execution, or a leap of faith.  The familiarity of the known versus the fear of the unknown.  “I didn’t used to be so scared,” He said to himself.  “When did I become so dependent?”  The wagon had changed everything.  John just had to decide whether to stay on and see where the ride ended.  Or throw himself off the back and take the fall and its consequences.  Anybody who said there was an easy answer simply wasn’t paying attention.

Not The End.

The Limitations Of Surveys

The Limitations Of Surveys

A survey is a tool.  A method of gaining information.  Like all tools, it is useful for the purpose it was intended.  Like all tools, it can be used correctly and it can be used incorrectly.

The problem with surveys is that the way the questions are phrased can both lead (push people towards a desired response) and mislead (confuse people over the nature of the question).  This can be accidental, as a result of poor design.  Or deliberate, as a result of a wilful attempt to rig the responses given.  The results can be deliberately misinterpreted in order to support one side of an argument or another.

Another problem with a survey is that it seldom allows for any variation in response.  If you are asked whether you would be willing to pay £10.00 for an ice cream and the boxes allow a “yes” or a “no” answer, you can’t say: “It depends on how wonderful the ice-cream is” or “it depends on how large the ice cream is” or even “it depends on how much £10.00 buys at that given point it time.  This risks missing the nuance, and sometimes the entire meaning of the response given.  A space at the bottom of the survey for comments does not count as providing space to vary your answers, since those answers will still be quantified by the box you ticked and the comments become a (mostly ignored) footnote.

None of this matters very much as long as the survey is simply used as a tool.  After all, an intelligent person can weed out the invalid or misled responses simply by examining the methodology of the survey.  But if the survey is used to actually determine a set result, then that is bad news.

You can’t do democratic decision-making with tick boxes and you can’t make sensible decisions with limited or invalid information.  There is simply no substitute for proper and open debate.

Hellholes & Crack Dens

Hellholes & Crack Dens

When I first left home, many years ago, I spent two years living in what used to be called sharehouses. It was both affordable and convenient, allowing me to get my own space even though I was earning very little. I was able to use my time there to save up and buy my first house. Some of the other tenants became very good friends of mine and at least one of them still is to this day. I have fond memories of that first simple, affordable and comfortable room that was my first home on my own.

First time home buyers often find that to help them afford that house, they take in a lodger or two.  Sometimes, one of the family loses a job and a lodger or two are the perfect way to avoid losing the home while the job hunt proceeds.  Very often these would qualify as HMOs.

Recently, as part of their ongoing agenda, certain people have been trying to dirty the name of HMOs, which means House Of Multiple Occupancy. The suggestion is that all HMOs are dirty, or nasty, and that they represent some attempt to “rip people off” or to treat them in an unpleasant way.

This is completely misrepresenting the facts – something that is being done deliberately by a few individuals and which is then taken up by gullible folk. This is easy to demonstrate for anybody who is bothered about the truth, rather than the spin.

Your home is a House in Multiple Occupation (HMO) if both of the following apply:

  • at least 3 tenants live there, forming more than 1 household
  • you share toilet, bathroom or kitchen facilities with other tenants

There are hundreds of thousands of HMOs, by the Government definition, in the United Kingdom. If a young couple in a two bedroom house let their friend and his wife live in the spare bedroom for a while, that’s a HMO. If a landlord has a four bedroom house and rents the rooms out to individuals – what used to be called a “sharehouse” – that’s a HMO. Any University town is inundated with sharehouses / HMOs.  I remember an ex-girlfriend of mine who was studying to be a Veterinary nurse, living in a HMO with other nurse trainees in her student years.  This is incredibly common.

Although I don’t know for sure, I believe that quite a few of my neighbours on Alexandra Road are living in HMOs.  They cause no trouble, keep their houses very nice, and are excellent neighbours.  Of course there are houses out there which are not so nice to live besides, but that is also true of some houses with families in them – if the family behave in an antisocial way.

There are hundreds of variations of HMO and the vast majority are perfectly nice, perfectly comfortable places to live. Running, or living in a HMO is not illegal and I very much hope the fools who say “HMOs should be illegal” never get their way. Because then we really WILL have a housing crisis in the UK. A crisis when huge numbers of people suddenly lose their homes, and when thousands of others can’t afford theirs because they can’t rent the rooms anymore.

You see, there is a very big difference between a house with three couples in three double rooms, where the premises is clean, the regulations all kept to and the landlord reliable and fair – and a monstrous den with no carpet or curtains where people are sleeping on dirty mattresses on the floor, abused, and trapped by their circumstances.  They are like chalk and cheese.

The individuals who seek to muddy the name of a HMO act as though all HMOs are like crack dens. They are not. The very very vast majority of HMOs are just places people share a house but don’t happen to all be family. It is very dangerous and ignorant to spread this cack about them as though they are a plague, when in fact they are a vital part of our housing infrastructure which has existed for hundreds of years and will continue to exist for hundreds more – perfectly legally.

A few years ago, the law was changed to require *some* HMOs to apply for planning permission when they started out. The purpose of the change was that some University towns were being overrun by large, packed HMOs full of students. The laws on when you do or do not qualify as a HMO or a Large HMO, when you do or don’t need a license and when you do or don’t need planning permission are complex. Because the purpose is to require registation, payment and regulation, rather than prevention, Councils try to work with landlords rather than against them. And different Councils do take different views, just to add to the complexity.  Unless a place really is a hellhole, like one of these aforementioned crack den types, they will usually prefer a constructive dialogue that corrects whatever minor omission they may notice.

HMOs are just homes that a few people share. Large HMOs are just bigger homes that a few people share. Not everybody can afford to buy a house or even rent a house and not everybody can get into a Council House or Housing Association Home. Sometimes, it suits people to share. Often, in fact. It takes a special sort of snobbery to automatically presume there is something wrong with that. save your outrage for the hellholes and the crack dens – the places that actually deserve it.  Unless it’s not actually snobbery at all.  Perhaps what you really dislike is the fact that foreign people live in some of these places?  If, in truth, that is your reason – there’s a word for that too.

Military Opt-Out

Military Opt-Out

This from the Telegraph:

British taxpayers should be allowed to opt out of funding the Army, Jeremy Corbyn once proposed in an idea former generals have called “stark-starring bonkers”.

The Labour leadership front-runner suggested voters should be able to act with their “conscience” and order the Treasury not spend their tax money on soldiers.

Britain’s leading former generals warned the “corrosive” idea could undermine public support for soldiers and was “absolutely ludicrous”.

It has emerged after Mr Corbyn triggered a backlash by saying he “couldn’t think” of a situation in which he would deploy troops.

Interesting stuff.

Putting aside the sheer lunacy of leaving us undefended against external threats, Corbyn’s idea opens all sorts of avenues.  He appears to be making the case for “conscience based taxation” and its intriguing.  Let’s take his idea a stage further.  If people are able to withhold a portion of their taxes because their conscience doesn’t allow them to support the Armed Forces, then that suggests that taxes should not be forced on people who don’t agree with the tax’s purpose in good conscience.

So what about people who don’t agree with welfare payments in good conscience?  What about people who don’t agree with the Police?  What about people who don’t support the NHS and the BBC.  What about people who don’t support the Climate Change Act and don’t want to see money thrown at wind farms and solar panels?

Jeremy, looney leftie that he appears to be, probably believes such people don’t exist.  But of course they do.  Every policy you can think of, every organisation, every reason for taxation will have people who don’t support them in good conscience.  You and I may not agree with them, but they are out there.

What about people who don’t support taxation at all – in good conscience?  Anarchists and hardline Libertarians and the like?  Plenty of them out there.

Imagine your Council tax bill comes, but instead of a fixed amount it has a load of selections.  Each selection has a description of what it is for and a box so you can indicate how much tax you want, in good conscience, to pay for it.  This is a truly revolutionary idea, comrade Corbyn.

Do you see where it leads?

Who Do You Follow?

Who Do You Follow?

Watching this Friday’s Daily Politics I was struck by the long argument caused by the fact that some Scottish MSPs are apparently “following” cyber-bullies, an example being a Twitter account whose name was “Yes! Thatcher Dead.”  Andrew Neil continually asked: “Why are you allowing your colleagues to follow these people?”  To which, the SNP lady kept saying: “But Labour do it too…” and so on.

What a stupid argument.

Since when does it matter who you “follow” on Twitter?  The only people who that would matter to are people who don’t understand Social Media, or people who just want to score points at any cost.  It’s ridiculous.  Following somebody on Twitter, or on Facebook, doesn’t indicate that you agree with the things they say.  That’s such a bizarre notion and yet it tied several commentors on the program up in argument for nearly ten minutes.

Following somebody doesn’t mean you like the person, that you agree with the person, nor even that you want to draw attention to the person.  Following somebody on Twitter is no different to reading about somebody in a newspaper.  Everybody who reads about some terrorist in The Sun isn’t suddenly condoning terrorism, are they?  They are just reading about it.  That’s what following somebody is.  You do it because you want to see what they say.  It might be because you liked something they said in the past and wanted to see what else they came up with, but even in that instance it doesn’t tie you to some tacit agreement of everything they ever say after that.  It might equally be that something they said shocked and appalled you in the past and you want to keep an eye on them, perhaps to counteract their arguments, or to demonstrate the paucity of their ideas through debate.

It gets muddier still though.  On Twitter you can change the name of your account any time you like – not the original signup name, but the screen name.  Even in the early days when you only have a few dozen followers nobody is going to check them all constantly to see if their names have changed.  Neither are you always watching their comments, so you certainly can’t be expected to always see what they are saying.  And even if you did see what they are saying, the fact that you are following them doesn’t indicate support of those statements.  So let’s say you follow somebody whose Twitter name is “happy_Cat.”  Then, while you are sleeping they change their name to “Iluvhitler” and post a load of anti-semitic hogwash, then go quiet for a few weeks.  Next morning you won’t notice they’ve changed their name, their nasty comments will already have been lost way down the Twitter Feed, you will have no clue.  So if you are asked, three months later, why you are following somebody called “Iluvhitler” who has expressed a desire to commit genocide, is that in any way reasonable? Of course it isn’t.

This is a really slippery slope, as anybody who watched Daily Politics will have seen.  The SNP lady could have said: “Who I follow has no bearing on my views, that’s crazy talk” but instead she responded with accusations about politicians from other parties and the people they follow.  Before you know it, the Social Media Police (self-appointed) will be scouring the lists of who everybody follows and compiling all the most “juicy” ones into a damning – yet utterly nonsensical – list.  Members of the public who don’t understand Social Media, and they are legion, will simply nod and say: “I knew they were all wrong-uns.”  It’s yet more destructive hogwash and everybody should challenge it before it goes too far.

Before you know it the focus will have moved from who you follow, to who follows you.  This is even more crazy than the original assertion and will then lead to some activists and politicians deliberately following their rivals with dummy accounts which then switch names and profiles to sound horrific.  It’s all just so pointless and overblown, but potentially very destructive.

Finally, every politician at every level will be forced to run a dummy “public account”, sanitised by constant scrutiny and terrified censorship of online links.  This will lead to a withering of genuine debate and the anodyne politically-correct responses that everybody hates to hear from the mouths of those that represent them.  As ever, we are encouraging a regime which strengthens and normalises all the worst things about our political communications.

Don’t let it happen.  Online connections are just like telephone connections.  You are no more responsible for who you follow than you are for the people who answer the phone when you ring out.   it’s just another witch hunt.  Don’t be a part of it.

Bumpy Ride

Bumpy Ride

Independent Councillor Virginia Bucknor made the following Facebook statement today:

FDC have already outsourced Building Control. Staff from Peterborough Planning have been contracted to Fenland Council for a long time as we’re under-resourced, FDC are planning (if the Conservative-controlled councillors support) to outsource Parks and Open Spaces later this year – this will be a particularly terrible loss for Wisbech.

FDC have agreed to contribute £850,000 to the A14. (I was the only councillor to vote against as there was no evidence of how Fenland residents would benefit).

We are now paying £1/2 million for a Pensions gap as we have one employee in the Port pensions group.

I suspect Licensing will be moved to King’s Lynn.

What do I think? The council is driven by difficult budget cuts, easy options (cut staff or move them elsewhere) and short-term goals. The expertise and local knowledge will be gone and FDC will cease in 4 years and the community will be much the poorer as our current committed officers who are already suffering low morale and some working under extreme lack of staff, will be small fish in a big pond – based somewhere else.

We will also be left with councillors whom residents will hope are competent to fight Wisbech’s corner – probably on Norfolk County Council and King’s Lynn. Whittlesey will be part of Peterborough. March and Chatteris probably moved to Huntingdon council.

A very sad future for Fenland.

Unusually, her comment was lacking in any political “sting” and was broadly factual.  With that in mind, I thought I’d have a look at it.

So first – what she is right about.  She’s right about the things that have been out-sourced and she’s right about the things that might be out-sourced – as much as you can be right about a “might be” situation, anyway.  She’s also right about the contribution to the A14.  But what about her gloomy prognosis?

I would be surprised if Licensing moved, but then I was surprised by today’s announcement in the press that the Leader had decided to share Planning.  Don’t get me wrong, I have some information which wasn’t in the public domain and so I was not yet able to share, but I am unsure why any of this appears to be a foregone conclusion?  It hasn’t been to Overview & Scrutiny as a pre-decision item.  It hasn’t been discussed by Full Council, nor by the ruling political group at this point either.  So if it is a foregone conclusion, then I guess it’s one of those things decided behind closed doors.  I very much hope this isn’t the case, since this is precisely the sort of thing which backbenchers always complain about, and which new leaders always claim they won’t do.  If the full level of input that non-Executive Councillors will have on something this significant is going to be a seminar and a brief chat, then that would be a real shame and, in my opinion, a mistake.  But let’s hope not.  Maybe everybody has the wrong end of the stick?

Mrs Bucknor talks about “easy options” and then refers to staff cuts.  I’m not sure I would agree that its an “easy option” to cut staff, particularly not now that the Council is quite lean.  These are, after all, real people with real families who have worked hard for us for years.  There’s nothing “easy” about telling people they might lose their jobs.  But I understand what she means – if you’ve got difficult budget decisions to make then its probably easier to just slice here and dice there and share the other thing than to really use your imagination to look for innovative solutions.  Where I differ from Mrs Bucknor is that I’m prepared to admit that such imaginative new ways to do business are not easy to find.  Which is why neither she, nor I, are suggesting any in our critique.  Though I have a few ideas I will suggest over the next few weeks.

I do agree with her on the danger of a “cuts at any cost” approach, though.  Rushed, ill-considered, or even Officer-led cuts can be counter-productive and can indeed be a false economy.  Incorrectly applied, we could well end up with the situation she describes – losing experience and skills, sacrificing local service and knowledge before an altar of “savings”, many of which may turn out to save nothing at all. Some of which will ultimately come to cost, rather than save, money.

And yes, I am genuinely concerned with a quiet momentum that seems to be building.  A momentum that points to Fenland eventually doing and managing so little that it is mothballed, that services and representation is fielded out to a variety of other authorities, while Wisbech – which sits so comfortably on two borders – is stretched like a medieval torture victim on the rack.

None of this has to happen, though.  It is one outcome of many possible ones.  And it would be such a shame because – moaners and naysayers aside – Fenland District Council has been a rather successful authority.  It has managed to weather the austerity storm, because of sound financial management, strong leadership and no small measure of luck.  I wont deny that I am worried by the speed and nature of some of the proposed changes.  I’m worried by the way things seem to be rushed through with little input or scrutiny from any but a select group.  I’m worried by the way we seem to totter from one situation to another, like a boat tossed on a violent sea of public opinion.  I’m worried by the way communication seems to be an afterthought, rather than an intrinsic part of a strategy.

But most of all I’m worried because I don’t know what the Big Plan is.  Beyond some fancy buzz words I don’t know what the vision is for Fenland.   And without a vision, you are simply reacting to events, rather than being proactive.  It’s a very difficult position to maintain successfully.  I have every faith that there is a Plan – because I’m a glass-half-full kinda guy and I like to believe the best.  I would hate to believe that Mrs Bucknor is right about the “sad future for Fenland.”   But now, leaders and higher-ups, would be the time to start talking about that vision.  To start telling us how all this fits together, and where it goes.  If we’re going on a journey, that would be a great way to avoid a bumpy ride.