J D Salinger and Whipsnade Zoo

One thing I learned last week was the fact that the American author J D Salinger, famous for his 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, visited Whipsnade Zoo on a 1989 trip to England.

This revelation comes from private letters recently given to the University of East Anglia.

Luton in Harmony birthday celebrations

This month marks the first birthday of Luton in Harmony.

This afternoon the town centre was full of people who had come together to celebrate. As you can see from the photos it was a colourful event. The diversity and friendliness of the crowd was a true demonstration of Luton at its best.

Qurban Hussain introduced into the Lords

I wrote in December about how my friend and colleague Qurban Hussain was given a peerage by the Liberal Democrats in the recent honours list. Qurban is the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats on Luton Borough Council and was our candidate in Luton South at the last two General Elections.

This week Qurban was introduced into the House of Lords by Liberal Democrat peers Lord Rennard and Baroness Hussein-Ece. Qurban has been created a Baron and his title is the simple Lord Hussain. He gave the solemn affirmation and an undertaking to abide by the code of conduct in a formal ceremony on Tuesday afternoon. Two other new peers were introduced alongside Lord Hussain, the broadcaster Dame Joan Bakewell and sportswoman Rachael Heyhoe-Flint.

I was pleased to note that fellow Luton peer, Labour’s Lord McKenzie of Luton, was in the chamber for the ceremony.

You can see Lord Hussain being introduced in this video.

More on the EDL rally from the public information and reassurance meeting

I spent some time on Monday afternoon at the “public information and reassurance meeting” organised by Luton Council in preparation for the rally planned by the English Defence League in Luton for the 5th February 2011. I blogged about these last week.

The meeting was well conducted, despite the fact that it was obvious that emotions were running high. Its purpose was to calm and reassure those concerned and explain the legal situation and the role that the Council and the Police are playing. Overall, I am reassured by the way the Council and the Police are handling a very difficult situation.

It seems clear that on Saturday 5th we should expect to see the EDL holding their rally, and a counter demonstration by anti-facism groups, in Luton town centre. This will be accompanied by a large police presence. It was claimed that on the day there will be more police officers in Luton than are employed by the whole of Bedfordshire Police. The local police will be supported by officers from surrounding authorities.

It is also clear that no one in authority in the town, and very few people in the community, want this event to take place. The EDL rally is unwanted and unwelcome. It will cause great inconvenience to residents and business, cost the tax payer considerable expense, and, while many are working hard to prevent this, cause strains to the fabric of our community. Also, with such events, comes the risk of violence and disturbance. So it is right that the priority is finding a way to ensure that the event takes place without incident.

However, in this country people have a right of assembly and peaceful protest. This is an important part of the democratic values of our society. So while Luton doesn’t want the EDL to come here, we can’t stop them. The Council has applied to the Home Secretary for a ban on any procession or march and they are still waiting for a response. But they cannot lawfully stop them assembling for their rally.

At the meeting there were representatives from groups that are planning to hold a rival demonstration in response to the EDL’s rally. I think it is important that there is a counter demonstration. There needs to be a response that makes clear that the views of the EDL are not the views of the people of Luton. However, managing this causes further headaches for the Council and the Police.

So negotiations are taking place between the different parties about how the day will be organised and where the rival demonstrations will take place. A particular issue of contention is the potential use of St George’s Square by the EDL. The Square is the primary area of public space in the town centre, it has been used in the past for concerts, events, and for anti racism demonstrations, so it has great symbolic significance. There are some very strong feelings that the EDL shouldn’t be allowed to use the Square. I have a great deal of sympathy with that argument. However, ultimately the decision should be taken on what will best serve maintaining public order.

However, the most important message to come out of the meeting for me was, regardless of what the EDL want to achieve, is as the Leader of the Council said, the fact that Luton is a town of harmony.

Finally, I thought I would pass on the news that there will two further public meetings:

  • 2nd February in Bury Park
  • 4th February in Farley Hill

Remembering Becky Harvey

More sad news. This week I learned of the death of Becky Harvey. Becky was someone who I met and worked with during the early days of Liberal Democrats Online. She was a vital figure within LDO and played a critical role in getting the Liberal Democrats to wake up to the importance of the Internet.

I didn’t know Becky particularly well, and I didn’t have much contact with her after my involvement with LDO declined, but I do have some fond memories from that time of a funny, energetic, and very striking woman.  It seems appropriate to blog about them.

She was always a presence on the LDO stall at party conference and I remember one year her being very geeky and enthusiastic about a new handheld computer she bought. Another memory is of an enjoyable meal with some of the LDO guys at an Ethiopian restaurant in North London and discovering that Ethiopian’s don’t do desserts. But a particular memory is of her taking a couple of us, after some meeting, through the Parliamentary estate to have a drink in the House of Lords bar. I think it was one of the first, if not the first, time someone with a pass had taken me into Parliament. I remember feeling almost immediately lost – but being very impressed with Becky’s sense of direction as we followed her striding confidently through the maze of corridors.

You can read the tribute paid to Becky by my friend Jon Ball on Liberal Democrat Voice.

My sympathy to her friends and family.

Happy first birthday to Luton in Harmony

In contrast to the divisive nature of the planned EDL rally, this month marks the first birthday of Luton in Harmony.

This campaign was launched at beginning of last year to celebrate all that is positive about the diverse and vibrant community of Luton. Those running it have been very active, it seems to have developed a high profile within the town, and so has had a successful first year.

I signed up to the Luton in Harmony pledge early on, joining over 13,000 other people who have done so, and I have been wearing my badge with pride ever since.

On Saturday 29th of January birthday celebrations will be taking place in the town centre. Carnival style entertainment will be being provided on Market Hill outside Debenhams from 12.30 pm.

Update on the EDL rally in Luton planned for the 5th February

It is now about a fortnight until the rally planned by the English Defence League in Luton for the 5th February 2011. This unwelcome event is causing anxiety within Luton’s communities and requiring considerable work from local agencies and bodies. So I thought I would post a brief update with the latest information I have about this event.

Firstly, earlier this month a letter, signed by all three party leaders on Luton Borough Council, was sent to the Home Secretary expressing concern about the event and asking for a ban on any march that might take place. The letter said;

“we write to seek your support in the event the Police and the Council decide to formally request a ‘banning order’ on the English Defence League (including any proposed counter marches or protests). Such an order, if sought and imposed, would prohibit the EDL from marching/processing through the town and would send a strong signal to the diverse community of Luton that the preservation of strong community cohesion is of paramount importance.”

You can read the letter in full on the Luton Borough Council website.

The Council is also arranging three, somewhat curiously named, “public information and reassurance meetings” for concerned members of the community. The first one was held last night at the Bury Park Community centre. There will be two more – one tonight and one on Monday:

  • Friday 21st January 6pm Farley Community Centre
  • Monday 24th January 4pm Council Chamber Town Hall

Bedfordshire Police also have an information page on their website with a useful FAQ.

Finally, I blogged last month about how the invitation to speak at the rally for the controversial American pastor, Terry Jones, was withdrawn. It seemed he was “too extreme” for the EDL. Now he has been banned from entering the UK.

I’ll post more news when I have it.

Why won’t the No campaign defend First Past the Post?

Today I signed up to the  Yes to Fairer Votes campaign’s petition that is challenging the No campaign to a debate about First Past The Post’s (FPTP) merits.

The point is that, while they are urging people to vote ‘no’ in the referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV), the No campaign aren’t able to make a coherent argument about why we should keep the  system. Indeed they seem to want to avoid defending FPTP. So the Yes campaign are asking people to;

“Join our call to Margaret Beckett, president of the No campaign, for an honest debate about the merits of first past the post.  The No campaign can name the time and the place – all we ask is that they bring clear, honest arguments for the status-quo system they’re campaigning to uphold on 5 May.”

You can read their letter to Margaret Beckett and sign up to the petition.

On funeral oration

On Friday we held the funeral for my Nan. It was a simple, mostly christian, ceremony held at Luton’s crematorium. It was a lovely service, very fitting for the woman she was, and along with the tears there were many smiles as we celebrated the life of a lovely woman.

My sister and my father both spoke. My sister read a poem, ‘The Rose Still Grows Beyond The Wall‘ by A L Frink, which appears to be a popular poem to be read at funerals. My father talked a little of his memories of my Nan and of things she’d seen and done during her long life. The vicar also spoke. I thought she judged what she said very well. In fact they all did. It was well done, moving and very appropriate.

I was asked if I wanted to say something but I chose not to. One of the reasons for that was that I couldn’t really find the words for what I wanted to say. That may be thought odd as if there is anyone in my family who is practised in public speaking it is me. But speaking at someones funeral is a very different kind of thing to that which I usually do.

As a result I have been thinking a little over last few days about the art of speaking at funerals. How do you use words to sum up the life of an individual? Well of course you don’t, you can only give a flavour or an impression of the person. But you can tell stories about what they meant to you. Confronted with the hard finality of someones mortality you can look for words to tell the story of what their life meant to you, to their family, or to the wider world.

In truth I think funerals are mostly for the living. So speeches and readings at funerals are an attempt to give meaning to the sadness and grief of those present. In the case of a funeral or memorial held because of a tragic event this is even more important.

Aside from my recent personal experience the other reason why I’ve been thinking about the nature of speeches at funerals was watching President Obama’s speech at the memorial to the victims of the Arizona shooting. It is one of the most extraordinary pieces of oratory that I have ever heard.

The event was a personal tragedy, but one that had achieved national significance, and then become an issue of political controversy. What Obama managed to do in his memorial speech was to bring together each of those three elements and then go further. He told simple stories about the victims. Talking about who they were, what their lives had been about, what they meant to their families, and then he looked for and found wider meaning in their stories. In doing so, and then asking his audience to learn lessons from that wider meaning, he managed to transcend the situation and give the Arizona tragedy a place within the story of his nation. But he was not neutral in doing this. His words had a purpose. He wanted to appeal to the better nature of the American people and challenge them to change the way they approach political discourse.

Key to this was Obama’s telling of the story of nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green who died in the shooting;

“Imagine — imagine for a moment, here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that some day she, too, might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council. She saw public service as something exciting and hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted. I want to live up to her expectations.

I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us — we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”

As an example of political rhetoric, in the best sense, it is superb. I was impressed and moved.

If you haven’t seen it I would recommend you watch it in full:

More on Obama’s memorial speech here:

The Liberal Democrats at the start of 2011

At the beginning of the year I thought it would be useful for me to set out my thoughts of where my party, the Liberal Democrats, sit at the beginning of 2011. Reflecting on the state of the party I find that my views are very much the same as they have been throughout the latter part of 2010. If there has been any change it is that they have become more strongly held and, I think, confirmed by events.

Firstly, I still strongly believe that it was right for the Liberal Democrats to enter and form this coalition government. Although the political risks were, and remain, huge; it was the right and the responsible thing to do. Even if it results in a Liberal Democrat wipe-out at the next general election I will still believe it was the right thing to do. This is because at its roots, in entering the coalition, the party was acting in what it saw as being the national interest.

However, a wipe-out at the next election is only one of the potential outcomes. The assumption held by so many that the Liberal Democrats will automatically lose out from participation in the coalition is just that, an assumption. While it may be considered a brave thing to say given our current poll ratings, the possibility that we could gain, and gain significantly, when the voters come to give their judgements in five years time is a real one. A range of outcomes is possible and none of them are predestined.

I think that the electorate is cautious, nervous, and sceptical about the coalition and the Liberal Democrats role within it; but have yet to definitively make up their mind. The jury is still out. And yes, I still believe the coalition will last the full five years.

Secondly, I think that the coalition government is, taken in the round, delivering good government. I also still think that the Liberal Democrats are being playing an effective role within the government. While there are many issues where I am disappointed, frustrated or irritated by what the government is doing; I understand and I’m happy to accept the compromises.

My views are very similar to those held by my colleague and chair of my local party, Cllr Barry Neale, who wrote the following article; “”Defending the Liberal Democrats’ brave decision to join the coalition“.

There are many good things the government is doing that it would not be doing if it were were not for Liberal Democrats participation. The list of achievements is an impressive one:

I am pleased that we are seeing the introduction of some really healthy changes to civil liberties and political reform. For example, we have the AV referendum, I’m looking forward to the proposals for reform of the House of Lords, and was pleased to see in the last few days Nick Clegg’s comments on libel reform.

Yet, I know that it is the economy which will be key to whether this government fails or succeeds. If you scrape off the layer of party political rhetoric that surrounds discussions of the economy you will find that the differences between the parties, as was the case during the 2010 general election, are not as big as you might think. The need for measures to carry out deficit reduction is accepted by all. Actually doing it though is difficult. I will cause pain and hardship for many and lead to unpopularity for the government that carries it out.

Again, I have the issues with some of the details, but on balance I think the government is getting the economic judgements right.  My key area of concern, however, is still economic growth. However sensitively and fairly the austerity measures are carried out, if we don’t get growth in the economy we are all, to one extent or another, screwed. So in policy terms for 2011 I will be less concerned about the nature of the cuts, I’m accepting that they will be bloody, and more concerned to see the government taking actions which will help to stimulate growth in the economy.

Finally, while accepting that we were right to enter the coalition and that in governing the country we are in general terms doing a good job, I remain extremely concerned about the political direction of the Liberal Democrats. Looking at our party organisation, our capacity to campaign, and our ability to clearly and effectively communicate an understandable and credible message to the public I think we are failing. It is in the realm of electoral and party politics where the Liberal Democrats are currently not stepping up to the mark.

It is here that I want to see change. The great challenge for my party in 2011 is to put that right and turn that around. Crucial in this will be the role of the new party president Tim Farron, but it is an inescapable fact that the lion’s share of the burden will fall upon the party leader. Where I have criticisms of Nick Clegg it is not of how he conducts himself as Deputy Prime Minister, they are criticisms of party management and political communication. In my judgement, in 2011 Clegg needs to make changes to those aspects of his leadership. In short, he has shown that he go do the governing, he now needs to show that he can do the politics.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

New Year messages

Well it seems my vigour and determination for starting the New Year off in the right manner ran smack bang into the nasty cold which I have been suffering for the last week. Although I have been cruelly mocked by those who have called it “man flu”. But I’m mostly recovered now and ready to write up those New Year posts that I had been planning.

Although we are already on the 12th January I thought I would start by catching up with some of the new year messages I have been sent. The two videos below nicely reflect  two of what I think will be my three main political preoccupations for 2011. The three are: the state and fortunes of my party, the Liberal Democrats; the crucial referendum on AV this May; and, also this May, the local elections here in Luton and what they will mean for the Town.

So, the first message is the Liberal Democrats leader, Nick Clegg’s, take on the Liberal Democrats and our role in the coalition as we start 2011.

The second is from Jonathan Bartley from Yes To Fairer Votes on the next steps of the Yes campaign.

The what I did on my holidays post

I’ve had a busy, and rather emotional, couple of weeks and haven’t been online much.

My nan, who had been ill for some months, died just after Christmas. The family had gathered together and we all were able to spend some of Christmas Day with her. But it has been a sad time. She was a kind woman with somewhat conservative views, whose gentle and diminutive appearance hid a very strong and determined spirit. She had remained fit and active well into her 90′s and will be very much missed by those who knew her.

For New Year I joined a group of friends in a cottage in Cornwall, just outside Bodmin, for a few days. I had a great time. The cottage itself was lovely. A lot of wine and food were consumed, board games were played, jokes were told, and I ended up doing a fair bit of baking. I have come away feeling very relaxed.

As a taster of my stay here is some Cornish countryside:

I also visited a number of really good tourist attractions. I was slightly disturbed by the gruesome history of Bodmin jail, was educated by the Eden Project, and impressed by the rather brilliant National Maritime Museum Cornwall at Falmouth.

So Christmas 2010 has been about sharing things, both good and bad,with family and friends, which I suppose is how it should be.

I am back now and back online. Starting 2011 with what I hope will be a new vigour and determination.

Happy New Year everyone.