Tuesday, 24 June 2008

If Henley elects Stephen, we'll all be winners

We’re in the very last days of the Henley by-election campaign and excitement is mounting: see the latest video from Henley Lib Dems: stirring stuff -and it even contains a contribution from me!

The same day that my bit was filmed, a bunch of Lib Dem bloggers were at Campaign HQ to interview Stephen Kearney. It was my pleasure to take part, along with Millennium Dome, Elephant, Richard Flowers, Linda Jack and Alex Wilcock.

Our discussion with Stephen left us all fired up and saying, "For goodness’ sake, this man has GOT to get elected!" He is the real deal: when he talks about power, it’s because he’s excited about seeing it in the hands of people. He runs a charity, helped set up the UK Youth Parliament and has a detailed knowledge of the countryside. As he told us, “I think I’m just fully equipped to work in a constituency like Henley.”

Although I’ve worked with Stephen throughout the campaign, it was good to a) witness him sitting still for once and b) hear his story again, with some bits I hadn’t heard before.

Aptly enough, it began with a thing called FOCUS – but it was a project for young people hanging around with nothing to do, of which Stephen was one. Through this he met a youth worker who was interested in youth work which was completely experiential. The youth worker did some outreach work and brought young people back to a building which had been allocated to young people in that city. At that point, the young people set up a theatre group and a community cafe. What was unique about it was that the young people managed it themselves.

So from an early age, he learned the importance of people linking their personal growth with action. Stephen told us, "As a result of the action you take at a local level, you can influence policy at a higher level."

Therefore he set up a charity, RE:Generate, encouraging people to take action in their local communities. He found that the Lib Dems were the party who listened most and were the most encouraging about his work.

“The other parties didn’t really seem tuned in to the needs of communities from a third sector perspective.” Stephen wasn’t originally interested in party politics, but has now made the decision to put the next 20-25 years of his life (he’s 49 now) into seeing the Liberal Democrats move from the third force in politics to Government, “and that is my absolute ambition”

I knew that Stephen had studied at agricultural college for four years and I was interested to know why he'd picked this subject, and how it links into his current work. So Stephen gave us this account from his early life:

The same group of Youth workers, whom he met in Worcestershire as a young person, were linked in to the Young Farmers’ church: this gave him the opportunity at around 11, to visit local farms.

On one of the farms he made friends with the children, who were the same age as him. It was a 500 acre dairy farm, “I was completely in my element, completely at ease” He was being given responsibility all the time, delivering calves, being hands-on. Driving tractors, even, at 11 or 12, to take churns of milk up a mile-long drive.

In difficult times in his young life, this sort of practical work and responsibility sowed the seeds of an interest in rural development, and also in empowering other young people. Even when doing managerial training in WHSmith’s which was very town-based, he returned often to the farm.

He used the disciplines he learned in the country and applied them to his work in the town, getting up early and working hard. When he came out of WHSmith it was to go and run a farm.

He was presented with a "fantastic opportunity" by a woman to buy a smallholding in Wales. After a year or two there, he decided he wanted an agricultural education so he studied agriculture for four years.

Then he worked in agriculture for ten years, but came out of that because he was really unhappy with trading practices in the developing world, "very unhappy with our approach to farming co-operatives in places like Malawi. Although we had all the resources and intelligence when it came to agriculture, we were the ones who drove the prices."

In time he realised there was no way he could stay. All along, he had been doing lots of voluntary work and after coming out of the agriculture business, he worked for a charity for a year, before setting up his own: RE:Generate, which was about rural development initially, but also expanded its work into towns and cities, across the UK and Zambia.

He sees the work he wants to do in Henley as a natural progression from his earlier experiences. He notes serious problems around our current dependency on oil, thinks the LD agenda around localism will “inevitably, in due course, be the only way forward” .

Stephen feels the skills he’s developed over the years, the qualification he gained at agricultural college, the experience of working on a farm at the age of 11, and the development work within the charity, is going to be really useful in terms of getting to the root cause of problems in rural areas.

“So whether it’s the price of housing, the lack of opportunities and facilities for young people to develop into the community and stay in the community, working with organisations to develop a whole range of social enterprises locally so that commerce and business becomes much more sustainable, much more local, I think I’m just fully equipped to work in a constituency like Henley and to deliver that work.“

Stephen doesn't view an MP's role as that of a dictator - he wants more of them to engage in a different way: “Members of Parliament have got to up the game, and I think Liberal Democrats have got to lead the way. And the way we up the game is that we listen really deeply in community, we create networks of people around us and with us that we support and facilitate, that actually start to make the changes that have to be made."

Stephen expanded on this: “What I want to do is work with people within the constituency, first and foremost, to develop “listening teams” that are going to be working with me on a very regular basis in my surgeries. Those listening teams, when they hear about the concerns that people have got in the community, and the things that they want to be tackling, I’m going to be working with the teams to go out and explore the concerns in more detail, and start to look for leaders within the community who can tackle those concerns.

"Now, those leaders within the community - my agenda will not be to go out and get people to join the Liberal Democrat Party immediately. My agenda will be to go out and actually solve those concerns. And that means developing really good relationships with people who will obviously be associated with the Liberal Democrats ... and the work we are doing, but I am not going to be out there with that agenda which is all about dragging people into the party.

"And the reason I say that is because, I think that if you do some really good quality work in community around concerns, you build networks of people far and wide, get much deeper into the community than one person ever could. [for example] you need young people to listen to other young people, to really find out what’s going on, what the concerns are.

"I want to start to work with people to create initiatives that will really tackle those concerns. Those initiatives won’t be “Our Clever Ideas,” those initiatives will be the ideas of people who’ve got skills and talents and motivation, who want to do things themselves.

"Getting that kind of thinking into a constituency, with party members, with associates – I think if we do that, votes will come our way, because that’s deep work. It’s deeply respectful of communities. It’s not bashing people over the head with an agenda. It’s actually drawing people into the new political environment, and the new accountable environment."

As Richard pointed out: “a very liberal approach: empower the people rather than impose your own ideas.”

Put me down for Stephen Kearney's training sessions at Party Conference!

But first: please do whatever you can to support his campaign to get elected to Parliament this Thursday - it's looking very close!

And when he is elected, don't expect a quiet life. Stephen will be working harder than ever to motivate public and politicians alike, to reverse the trend of infantilisation and to increase engagement in local and national affairs.

Stephen summed it up when he said,"I’ll lead by example. It’s not a problem for me; I’m going to bring in the disciplined habits of a lifetime.”

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Monday, 23 June 2008

"Where is everybody?" They're all in Henley, Boris!

There's been a lot of water under the bridge since the last Mayor's Question Time in May! Since his last grilling by the London Assembly, Johnson has resigned as MP for Henley and, it is hoped, has more time to devote to the new job.

Last Wednesday I spent a brilliant birthday at two very different points on the Thames. Yet, as Bridget Fox says, it's a small world!

In the morning, I was at City Hall right beside the Thames in London - it was Boris Johnson's second Mayor's Question Time. Walking up the spiral ramp to the Chamber, I read the long inscription on the wall: the poem Lines in Potentis by Ben Okri. The part which reads, "City of commerce and the famous river, Tell everyone that the future Is yet unmade" always makes me smile. I thought of the by-election way upstream in Henley-on-Thames, where I would be heading that afternoon. (Oh for a speedboat...)

Boris's opening words in the meeting were, "Where is everybody?" Certainly a few Assembly Members were absent, and the public gallery was not as full as last time.

It was also more serious in tone, compared with last month, possibly because many tough questions remain, concerning the role and number of the new Deputy Mayors, and also about the state of public transport in London.

Johnson was accused by a Labour member of "delegating everything that isn't nailed down". Also Lib Dem Mike Tuffrey asked the Mayor to clearly define the difference between his advisors, as some are called "Deputy Mayors" and others are called "Directors". The answer boiled down to what Boris called a "fine gradation of honorifics". His campaign literature had promised that Mayoral Advisors should have a "clearly defined role" but it seems that this is as clear as it gets for now.

Later in the day, when I was signing in at Henley Campaign HQ, I saw that John Pindar (one of the London Euro Candidates and another Mayor's Question Time regular) had beaten me to it. He had been sitting beside me at City Hall in the morning and doesn't have a speedboat, as far as I know.

The last few days of the campaign in Henley will be great. Further up the famous river, the future is yet unmade.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Boris won't resign twice in one day

By-election HQ has just erupted in cheers as news of Boris Johnson's resignation as MP for Henley comes through.

While Boris won't be resigning as Mayor of London too, his stepping down from Henley has coincided with calls for him to apologise to London Underground staff. Saturday's last-gasp "booze party" culminated in chaos (funny, never saw that coming) as trains were damaged, arrests were made and revellers "celebrated" the Mayor's alcohol ban on public transport. Bob Crow, General Secretary of the RMT called it, "a half-baked gimmick designed solely as a publicity stunt and without a moment's thought for the people told to implement it." [Times Online] Very interested to see what BoJo's next policy announcement will be...

The Liberal Democrats have been looking forward to the Henley by-election and we expect the writ to be moved shortly. Lib Dem candidate Stephen Kearney is here now, so I grabbed him for this exclusive reaction:

"Liberal Democrats have been preparing for this by-election ever since Boris made it clear that his loyalties would be elsewhere in the near future. Boris Johnson will have his hands full managing London and I trust he will concentrate on that. In the Henley and Thame constituency, my job is to get on with tackling local issues, which is where my expertise lies. And I am looking forward to presenting that expertise to the electorate."