Friday, 29 February 2008

Llandudno.

That's where I was last weekend.Yep, it's where people from the North West of England go to die, but I'm not there yet by quite a few years. It's a surprisingly good place for a party conference too though - who knew?!

Some people don't like conferences. I love conferences. Love them. I like being in the room where a rousing speech is being made instead of watching it later on youtube. I like being taken seriously when I ask questions at fringe events - it makes me feel almost like a grown-up! I *really* like staying out, ummmm, "networking" with other Lib Dems from across the country until 3am. I like being accused of being a bad influence. I like feeling that network of support in close-up (though obviously not TOO close-up), and knowing that if I need help with anything, there are people there who go above and beyond the call of duty to provide it - here's where I publicly make a big point of saying thank you once again to Peter Black for driving me up and down the country just so I could attend and asking for nothing in return.

There is one tiny problem. Welsh Liberal Democrat conferences are the best place to practise my public speaking, in that it is best if I'm going to change my podium style from deeply uncomfortable, skittish bag of nerves into confident, inspiring young community leader with all the pitfalls that lie along the way exposed for all to see, it had best be among friends. But that is like saying that if you're going to have excruciating pain inflicted on you, it's best to have it done at a nice clean, fragrant dentistry practice. I find it just that appealing. And it's not even comfortable admitting it in writing - I mean, Fear Of Public Speaking - it's just such a cliché! Might as well be scared of heights and have done with it - oh yes, I am that, too. Just call me a walking cliché then I guess. Or a waffling cliché maybe. Anyway.

Last time I did any public speaking, it was with five minutes' notice because I hadn't read the agenda properly, hadn't realised that my dear colleague from North Pembs, Liz Campion, wanted speakers in support of her first conference motion calling for a review of health service provision in Wales, and felt duty bound to oblige despite having nothing prepared and despite it knocking me sick to even think about attempting it. This time, I once again spoke about local health service provision (condemning the merger of Pembrokeshire and Derwen health trust with two others), once again had only the five minutes between handing in my speakers' card and getting on stage to think about what the heck I was going to say, but there was one difference - I had spent the morning receiving specialist coaching on my public speaking skills from someone with a lot of authority on the matter (at the risk of being accused of constant namedropping, I do mean Lembit Opik). And even if I did moan afterwards until all my friends got sick of hearing it and wandered off, I have to admit the whole experience was a lot more palatable. Hurrah! Progress! The lack of preparation is still a concern - much as I know off the top of my head plenty of key facts about Pembrokeshire and exactly what my point of view is, it would be difficult for anyone to take those thoughts and condense them into a tidy three minute speech just 'on the hoof'. But I can work on that very easily, and as I looked around from that podium on Saturday, I saw people paying great attention to me, being engaged and dare I say it convinced by my words. I can see that becoming an addictive feeling if only I can get rid of the violent shaking that follows it.

Now it's time for me to tell you in the most sickeningly sweet and bordering on evangelistic terms what decisions were taken and what my favourite bits were from the conference.

The more time I spend with my party, the more proud I am to be a part of it. The buoyant mood of the conference was infectious and everything I heard about how well our councillors have been running Cardiff, Swansea, Wrexham and Bridgend made me itch to get into a position where I can make more of a difference in Pembrokeshire, even if I am some years of building capacity and support away from taking control (I know - steady, girl). I found the speeches by Nick Clegg, Roger Williams MP and Mike German, our assembly group leader, energising and enthralling. Of course the focus of the conference was on the rapidly-approaching local elections, but there was one more generalised policy motion that stood out over the weekend. I want to share the details: back in May 2007 I seethed with an indignant fury when I received this glib cut-and-paste response to the official petition to Downing Street to lift the ban on gay men donating blood. So you can probably imagine (and I hope you'll share) my delight when conference delegates voted unanimously to campaign on just this issue. There's an article here on UK Gay News with a fuller description of the motion for those who are interested.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Hard Work for Higher Purpose

I'm sure anyone who has been involved in political campaigns is well aware of what hard work it is. There are so many jobs to be done: press releases, leaflet writing, leaflet delivering (oh the pounding of pavements in the cold), interminable hours on the telephone, letter writing, database maintenance, canvassing, fundraising... the list goes on and on. And in a place like West Wales where the population is spread all over the place, and there aren't many willing people to be found to help, that work gets harder still as it is divided between very few committed and able bodies. It does feel like something of an uphill struggle sometimes. So, what motivates me to work so hard voluntarily for the Liberal Democrats? What makes someone who is naturally really quite lazy (and I believe all human beings fall into this category) get up and out and put in, then maintain all this effort? There are a combination of factors. In this post I aim to explain, for the benefit of new members or non-members specifically, what it is that keeps me enthralled and where my motivation comes from. I warn you in advance, this is likely to be an epic post!

I can't understate the amount of support I have from the Liberal Democrat Party both locally, regionally and at large. This support comes from a variety of directions, and in a variety of ways.

Locally, I am part of a small and geographically spread but nonetheless cohesive and impressive team of active members. I make no secret of the fact that I have favourites among them - notably our PPC and his wife, John and Elizabeth Gossage, without whom I would know next to nothing and on whom I tend to lean quite heavily when I feel overwhelmed. They have decades of experience and reserves of patience that I can only assume took all those years to distill and I really don't know what I would do without them. They (particularly John) take on a lot of the necessary workload, along with other experienced local members - more than I do in fact - and do it well - better than I might in fact at this stage. So part of my motivation comes from them, both because I know they are there to support me and because I feel a desire to alleviate some of their burden. A huge part of my self-belief (such as it is) comes from the respect which I am afforded by the members of the local party. In common with the party at all levels, as a party member I have the right to contribute to any level of discussion and decision making, and every sensible suggestion I make is given equal weight and consideration as contributions from the more established and longstanding members. How wrong I was to assume when I joined the party that despite my enthusiasm and intellect I would be expected to defer completely to those who "knew what they were doing" and follow instruction. How delighted I am that I could have been so wrong.

Regionally, the Welsh party is a surprisingly strong political animal. We may only have six Assembly Members in the Cardiff Parliament, but despite this seemingly small presence the Welsh Liberal Democrats manage to spearhead some very successful campaigns, win debates (the most shining example in this parliament being the motion not to allow ID cards to be used as a requirement for access to public services in Wales which are within the remit of the Assembly) and achieve things that I as part of the same organisation can feel some pride in. As well as this more abstract stirring of my positive inclinations, the Welsh party endeavour to provide as much training and as many opportunities to have a say in policy matters as possible for all members. Three weeks ago, I attended a Kickstart training weekend in Llandrindod Wells organised by the ALDC, which gave me some really valuable insights and help for my new role as my own local party's membership secretary and for my own election campaign. Next weekend, I will be attending my third regional conference in the space of ten months. I am looking forward to seeing friends I have made over that time and kept in touch with online and by telephone - Cllr Mike Powell of Pontypridd, cllr Mark Cole of Ceredigion, Peter Black AM and party manager Ian Walton all deserve mentions for keeping me sane and providing me with experienced advice and some practical help at times, though they are by no means the only ones. I am also looking forward to some sparkling debates, to voting on motions which go on to form regional policy, and generally to coming home feeling more optimistic than ever, if a little tired!

Nationally too, my humble opinions count and whatever the grand titles of people I meet or converse with, I have yet to find anyone who is aloof or cold. On the contrary, though there are inevitably people with whom I disagree on some level, I found almost everyone to be warm, welcoming and pleased to share ideas and give advice. I attended my first federal conference in Brighton last Autumn (with financial support from my local party, who recognised that I was serious about becoming a candidate and wished me to benefit from training events there) and it was simultaneously the most draining and the most inspiring weekend of my life, with no exaggeration. I would recommend a party conference to anyone as an experience, regardless of how small an interest they think they would have in it. I came home with raised confidence in myself, a sheaf of notes from training sessions, a wallet full of business cards from new friends in high places, and a head full of ideas. Ever since then, when I have heard our MPs on the radio saying what I had been grumbling under my breath already about the news before they were interviewed, or read about their campaigns and comments on issues of the day in newspapers, I have felt a sense of pride only surpassed by that I have in my family members. I am part of this


Outside the party, I am lucky to find support too.

My partner, RJ, is a stoical, steadfast type and ideally matched to me. While I am fretting and stressing about how much I have to do, he is calmly taking control of mundane household affairs for me without so much as a word. Without him, I would not say this whole venture were impossible, but it would be highly improbable. The party provides creche facilities at conferences, but my four-year-old daughter is far happier to stay at home when I am halfway across the country for a couple of days at a time, and RJ has never once complained aloud about the amount of time he is forced to take on extra responsibility while I am away doing something which may be important to me, but doesn't bring the family anything tangible. I am not sure I could be so selfless. My mother is also a source of support and inspiration for me. She instilled in me from my earliest youth a sense of how important politics was, and has always been most proud of me when I am expressing myself, whether or not she necessarily agrees with my viewpoint. She has that special, indomitable spirit common to women of Northern stock throughout history, and my inheritance of that is perhaps her greatest gift to me. Since I joined the party, she has also been at the receiving end of more than a few telephone calls where her job is to talk me down from top-note can't-cope back to I-can-do-anything. My friends are a mixed bag - they are mostly puzzled by my interest in politics in general, but so supportive that I have even had a handful of them out leafleting for me when I've been under pressure. So, my family and friends back me up and that is invaluable.

Finally but by no means least important, a lot of my strength of conviction, and my motivation to put work into Liberal Democrat ventures, comes from my own values and lifelong interests.  These also spell out why it is the Liberal democrats I fell for a long, long time ago and not any other party.

Put simply, the Liberal Democrats' ideas fit with my own. Having lived on the edge of what is considered poverty in the Western World for more of my life than I care to admit, how can I fail to be attracted by a party which is genuinely concerned with creating a fairer society, eradicating poverty and increasing social mobility? Why would I support anyone else when the Liberal Democrats are fighting for a local income tax to replace council tax, for example - lifting many people out of poverty by ensuring that they only need pay what they can actually afford for local services. As someone who has suffered ill health, and dental problems, and relied on the National Health Service in its current guise to get better, how could I not support the policy of a patients charter which spell out minimum rights and standards of access to care, and an extension of the individual budgets system so that patients can choose to some extent how they are treated, rather than getting what they are given? With a bright four-year-old daughter to bring up, I believe the Liberal Democrats have all the right ideas about education, with aims to bring funding in the most needy schools up to private education levels, ensuring that the next generation are well equipped to lead the world into the future.

Finally, since I was very young, I have been aware of global problems. The news as I grew up in the eighties was dominated by issues such as the hole in the ozone layer and famine in Ethiopia - it occurred to me even as a child that these problems should not be the responsibility of charities to solve, that they should be eradicated at source if the world worked the way it should, if
resources were used ethically and shared responsibly. This may seem remote from Liberal Democrat policy at first glance, but there is an important link: the Liberal Democrats have had green issues at the heart of their policies and agenda since long before it was fashionable. the Liberal Democrats are and always have been in favour of Britain's integration into Europe. If we could put aside our notions that national sovereignty is more important than the survival of the planet and the human race as a whole, we would see that a federal Europe is an important step in establishing a more global view of the biggest problems that face us all. Look at the power and influence of the United States - that didn't come overnight. The states within the union have differing characters and if history had taken another course, they may be as distinct and subject to infighting now as the nations within Europe. It was only because of the threat of rule from Britain that they banded together so tightly, under one government, but even then it was not done lightly, and the constitution was met with considerable social resistance - but I don't think you would find many Americans now who would argue that generations later they do not benefit from the arrangement. And, importantly, generations later, those individual states have retained dispersed powers and their individual characters have been largely retained - a model if ever one were needed to prove that integration under a larger government need not mean a loss of identity. With two such superpowers co-operating with one another and working for the benefit of the planet rather than their individual gain, it is conceivable that we could achieve world peace and enough food to go around. A lofty aim indeed and you may call me an idealist for it, but if some of us don't work for it and believe in it, it will never happen

Friday, 15 February 2008

Where to start?

I gather it's always the problem, when writing anything. And the perennial answer is "start at the beginning". It's not quite as simple as all that, though, is it? Do I start from the beginning of my interest in politics? Best not really, or you will get the last twenty-four years of my life, from the three-year-old who could tell you the name of the prime minister and leader of the opposition on up.

No, I think it might be best to begin by explain what caused me to join the Liberal Democrats, after a good ten years of following them, knowing more than is healthy about their history, and agreeing with more than nine tenths of their policies. That particular story commences, rather unusually, with a life-threatening illness.

Last January, I was unfortunate enough to suffer a tubo-ovarian abscess. Look it up if you must, and if you have a strong stomach, but here it suffices to say that I was literally at death's door for some time, and my life was saved by a timely emergency operation in my local hospital, Withybush General. During my recovery, which was long and boring, I discovered during my long hours on the Internet that the aforementioned hospital was under threat from Welsh Assembly Government proposals which might have seen it reduced to a mere clinic and many of its vital functions moved to Carmarthen. My alarm and concern was sufficient to see me board a bus to a protest in Cardiff, where I met John Gossage, our local PPC (Prospective Parliamentary Candidate) and Bill Powell, another candidate and a councillor in Powys.

I filled in my form to join the party there and then, and was warned that promotion comes quickly. I raised an eyebrow and said "oh yeah, so you'll have me posting leaflets in no time then?" Little did I know.. 

You know, the difference between involvement and commitment is best explained in terms of a bacon and egg breakfast: the hen was involved, the pig committed. Over the course of the last twelve months I have definitely moved on from being the hen to the sacrificial pig in this equation! On the first of May there are local elections across Wales. I am most concerned with a small town called Pembroke, where my name will be on the ballot paper.