Monday, October 30, 2006

The Gallipoli Landings

Sunday 29th October

The Discovery headed south from Bulgaria on Saturday evening and in the early hours of Sunday morning was makings its way through the Bosphorus from where we started nearly two weeks ago. As it was the early hours and I was tucked up in bed in my cabin, I missed the chance to see again the Bosphorus suspension bridges again. Other passengers did stay up til 3am to watch as we sailed under them. Frankly I was too tired!

The ship was at sea for the whole day, heading through the Marmara and then the Straits of Gallipoli. It did a detour close to land so we could see the main Gallipoli landing beaches from the 1915 campaign. This was followed by a wreath laying ceremony (special permission had to be sought from the Turkish authorities for this as dropping anything overboard is not permitted.)

The evening saw the dinner jacket being dusted down for the second time on this holiday. Yes, it was the Captain's farewell dinner! Quite what the dinner will be called on Monday evening we are yet to be told.

We also went to a party for people who have previously travelled on the ship. Over a free glass of champagne, we were told about forthcoming tours. I have my eye on the Antarctic one! All I have to do is remortgage the house to pay for it!

Another day, another country - Bulgaria

Saturday 28th October

Neseber is a small town on the Bulgarian coast - too small in fact for the ship to be able to dock at the port. So we had the challenging experience of taking the tenders to the shore.

The town reminded me of North Wales - every street corner seemed to have a redundant church. Meanwhile a walk around the place also showed that is has become something of a tourism mecca. There were as many souvenir shops as there were churches, selling everything from Nazi and Soviet military paraphenalia to post cards of the same churches to jars of rose petal jam (we bought the latter!)

After a visit to the town's museum we headed off to a Bulgarian village for lunch and more folk dancing. This ended with a couple of the dancers walking over hot coals. I've seen this done before, in Kandy in Sri Lanka.

We hot footed it back to Nesebur in the early afternoon. Our original plan had been to stay in the town for a bit but we had had all the churches and souvenir kiosks we needed in the morning. So we took the first tender back to the Discovery we could get. The ship left port at 5.30pm which made for some good sunset photos (watch out for framed editions appearing at forthcoming Lib Dem coffee mornings!)

The housekeeping crew are nearly all Philipino and they put on a show for us in the evening. Carlotta our wine waitress turned out to be a first class dancer! - pole dancing (no not that sort). I have forgotten the name for this type of dancing but it's the sort where you have to step rapidly between heavy bamboo poles which are smacked together. I have also seen this done before - in Borneo (I turned down the opportunity to take part!)

Friday, October 27, 2006

Heading south: Romania

Friday 27th October

The morning was spent at sea, sailiing south westward across the Black Sea to Constanta in Romania, the 2nd biggest port in Europe (largest being Rotterdam). This really was a whistle stop tour. We got off the boat at 3pm, an hour late and then had rushed visits to the museums of the city and some of the Roman remains. Our tour guide was very entertaining and kept slagging off the Communists and talked the wonderful language of the free market economy!

We are back on the ship now and will be heading for dinner in about two hours. We have now taken over 1100 photos and nearly an hour and a half of video. Seems as though I will have a lot of material to put on YouTube!

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Inside a secret Soviet submarine base

Thursday 26th October - Sebastopol

As with Yalta, Sebastopol was a place I visited last year whilst exploring the Crimea. We had three tours fixed up for today. The first was to look at some of the war memorials in the city before heading over to the excavations at Chernosus, the ancient Greek settlement overlooking the city's northern bay. The site also contains the recently restored St Vladimir Cathedral (I visited it last year). We saw a second St Vladimir Cathedral in the morning as well. this one was new to me.

Back to the ship for lunch followed by our next excursion. I always knew this was going to be one of the highlights of the whole holiday - a visit to the former secret Soviet submarine base in the hills overlooking Balaklava. I visited the town last year but the base was not then open to visitors though it has not been used since the 1990s. There was, however, no way I was going to miss the opportunity to see it this time!

The entrance to the base is on the opposite side of the bay to the town and from there all that can be seen is the gateway in the side of the cliff through which the subs sailed plus a personnel entrance. Each has nuclear bomb proof doors.

The base itself was dug out of the hillside in the late fifties and early sixties to house the subs of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet. The base itself is under 125 metres of solid marble. To get into it we had to enter via the personnel entrance which took us along a long, curving tunnel (curving to help deflect the blast of a nuclear explosion should the Americans have decided to nuke the place). This was like entering a Hollywood worrld of Indiana Jones and James Bond combined.

We followed railway tracks to the nuclear bomb assembly area deep inside the base, and then followed more tunnels to the actual submarine bays, huge caverns with the waters of the Black Sea flowing through them, bringing no more submarines now, but only the local jellyfish that seem to exist in vast numbers. All we were missing were 007 fighting the baddies and stopping them from taking over the world! If you get the chance to visit this area (which was closed to the western world and even most Soviet citizens until 1995) this submarine base is a must see.

And then we entered into the Valley of Death - literallly for this was a visit to the location of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War, north of Balaklava. Again, it was a place I visited last year. Apart from the war memorials, all there is to see now are the vineyards.

Tonight we had our third excursion of the day and - we really have been spoilt today - one of the highlights of the tour. If you ever get the chance to see the Black Sea Fleet Choir, do so. Yes I did see them last year in Yalta! But they have to be seen to be believed. This is industrial strength campness, camper than a row of pink tents at an annual gathering of unbelievable camp people. It was a cross between a gangshow and Pans People on viagra! (Pans People - I really am showing my age!). Absolutely well worth it. We bought the cd and dvd afterwards!

Well, this is my second visit to the Ukraine nearly over. As I write this (at 9.50pm local time on Thursday), the ship is getting ready to leave for Romania.

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Back to Yalta

Wednesday 25th October

By a quirk it is exactly a year ago this week I was in Yalta visiting Crimean and World War Two battle sites. So here we are, a year on, back in Yalta. The ship docked before we were up this morning but at 7am we saw from the top deck daylight starting over the town.

All the places visite today I did last year with one exception. In 2005 I went to the Massandra Winery for a wine tasting session. Today we sampled the same wines, though not in the Winery itself. Instead, we went to a wine tasting hall. Other locations visited today included the Vorontsov Palace (which looks like a Scottish manor house and indeed was designed to look precisely like one) - Churchil stayed here during the Yalta conference in 1945. After the wine tasting we went to the Swallow's Nest. This is a tiny mock castle on a rocky outcrop at the top of a cliff overlooking the Black Sea. Much of the rock face collapsed in 1927 due to an earthquake so the building sits precariously on a concrete plinth overhanging the cliff edge. In Britain it would have been condemnded as unsafe. Here it is a rather pleasant though small Italian restaurant. Alas we were not eating there (I ate there last year) but we were there just to take photos.

Next visit was the Livadia Palace, the Tsars' summer home and venue for the 1945 Yalta conference. It was at this location I suddenly got hit by the emails of the previous 2 days. The network out here in the Crimea is rather odd. There appear to be narrow strips of land where I can receive my emails and the rest of the place appears to be a no go area for them. So I rattled off as many replies as I could whilst looking at photos of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt. I also sent the previous couple of blog entries that were waiting on the blackberry. The moment I left the Palace, I lost the GPRS signal.

Then to lunch in the Hotel Yalta which is where I stayed last year. This was another of those occasions where we were completely caught out by the number of courses and quantity of food. The two old ladies sitting next to us didn't want their vodka so it was handed on to us. Went well with the glass of local champagne.

Then to Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and following that, a visit to Anto Chekov's house. Back to the ship at that point to drop off our bags and then we went back out through passport control - we were waved through with no checks at all - and took a walk along Yalta promenade and around the inevitably named Lenin Square (his statue is opposite McDonalds).

The ship left later than usual, 11pm. The distance to our next port of call - Sebastopol - is a short one.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Who will rid me of this turbulent war

News reached me today (Tuesday 24th) that Margaret Beckett, that useless non-entity of a Foreign Secretary, has admitted that history may judge the Iraq invasion as a 'disaster' for British foreign policy. It is worrying to think that as a senior member of the government she has taken this long to see the problem she was a party to creating.

My impression is that ordinary Labour members have fallen into 2 categories in terms of the war: opponents who whinge about it but have sat on their backsides ever since and done nothing to remove those who took us into such a ruinous operation, and those who blindly accepted the war and have continued to back it.

I found the first group to be the most objectionable. Typically (and so many Labour members from my home patch in Gateshead fall into this category) they whinge and whine about how dreadful their own government is but deny any responsibility for getting them elected. They behave as if Blair and the government have nothing to do with them yet come election time they claim the Labour government are the best thing since sliced bread.

The other group, the slavish supporters, who unquestioningly accept anything Tony and Gordon say and who regurgitate the meaningless soundbites they have been spoonfed when placed in a position where they have to argue their corner, are at least consistent over the war. They have been trained to think it was the right thing to do and it will be interesting to see how they respond to the recent Beckett pronouncements. Perhaps in the style of the sheep in Animal Farm they will be trained to say the opposite of what they have been saying since the war 3 years ago.
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From Russia with love

Tuesday 24th October
This is our 2nd visit to Russia, though it is our first to the southern part of the country. Our first visit was in 1999 when we went to St Petersburg, Moscow and Novgorod. As is now becoming something of a habit, the ship arrived in port - this in Sochi - before breakfast. Border controls here are much more thorough and without a visa, you cannot just step off the ship and wander around. To go ashore you either have to get a visa before coming here or be part of an organised group. And clearly we are part of the latter. Border control means passport stamps! I was rather disappointed that the passports were not stamped in Georgia. Same as in June this year when I went to Cuba, no passport stamps then either.

Our first trip today was to Mount Akhun. On its peak is a viewing tower that gives a tremendous view of the town to one side and the Caucasus Mountains to the other. From there we went on to Stalin's dacha, fully restored to its former glory from when Uncle Joe was alive. I was worried I might stumble into a meeting of the Canterbury Lib Dems' policy committee! But apparently they were off meeting Trotsky to get policy tips!

All excursions had to be over by 1.30pm as the ship was leaving at 2pm for Yalta. The good news is that tonight we put the clocks back an hour as we move back a time zone.

As the ship was sailing through the day, the lecture programme kicked in again. The first was by Sir Richard Parson on The Ukraine which was interesting and the second was on the Gallipoli operation which I found a bit disappointing.

We have now taken over 600 photos and an hour of video. The memory card on the camera is close to being full so the photos are being transfered to a dvd (too many for a cd). I'll need the memory card back tomorrow morning for the Yalta visit.

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Fw: Georgia

Monday 23rd October

The Discovery arrived at Batumi, the main port of Georgia, around 7am so we were able to go up on deck to watch the docking. This ship is a floating eating factory and since my waistline is beginning to feel the effect, I decided that this day must be the start of a food intake reduction programme. Well sort of. Fruit for breakfast.

Georgia is the 43rd country I have visited (and the 7th former Soviet Republic). The first visit of the day was to the Botanical Gardens which dated back to the Tsarist times. In the intervening 90 odd years some of the trees have grown so well in the sub tropical climate that they are now much bigger than what they would have been if they were grown in their native conditions - the garden contains trees native to the other continents.

I wasn't sure why we went to the next location: the border with Turkey. We saw a customs office and highlight of the visit was a lorry heading into Turkey. Perhaps the point the tour people were making without saying it or alluding to it was that this was the frontline of the cold war 16 years ago and is now relatively open. Or perhaps they were just filling in time.

Next was a visit to the Roman shore fort of Gonio which has a remarkably intact outer wall though the buildings inside were long gone. The walls themselves were about 6 metres high. The tour guide suggested that "the young people" may want to climb to the top of them up the extremely steep and narrow steps with no barrier to stop us falling over the edge. Sounded perfect to me so I headed up there only to find David was not in the mood for experiencing vertigo. Meanwhile a stream of "older people" followed me up though I had to lead one down a little later - I think I was there in case she needed a soft landing!

Lunchtime saw a temporary abandonment of the eating go slow. A Georgian meal which included a large amount of walnuts and aubergines was provided which ran to about six or seven courses. Actually very enjoyable. The meal was then followed by "folk dancing". Normally I can be a bit cynical about how genuine this sort of thing is when I see a "folk" show. This one however was bloody amazing! So I am pleased I went.

Final call was to a market - not a tourist one but one used by the locals. This is the sort of place I really love visiting abroad. They make for fantastic photos though the women serving on the fish stalls were rather amused that I should want to take photos of their goods. Nevertheless,there was a succession of mini sharks, sword fish and flat fish paraded for me to photograph. (They make good pictures to hang up in kitchens which will be on sale - ready framed - at forthcoming Lib Dem fayres and coffee mornings!)

Back to the ship after that. The Discovery left at 7pm and headed north to Sochi in Russia.

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Monday, October 23, 2006

More monasteries, mosques and museums - a day in Trabzon

Sunday 23rd October

My body clock was screaming at me in the morning. "Okay so we're now operating two hours ahead of UK time but does the alarm really have to go off at 6am?" Well, yes actually. We had an early start for the one hour drive to the Sumela Monastery. Prior to leaving the ship (at 7am) we went onto the upper deck to watch her dock at Trabzon, on the North East Turkish Black Sea Coast.

Sumela is a Byzantine monastery built onto a cliff face well into the mountains.. It is currently under going restoration. The coach could only get so far before we had to transfer to mini buses. And then after a while we had to abandon them and head off on foot along some steep and winding paths through the hills. Yet more photos taken to add to my burgeoning collection.

Back to the ship in time for lunch and then a general tour of Trabzon including a working mosque (shoes off at the door), one of the homes of Kemal Ataturk and St Sophie, the church the last Byzantine emperor built before the empire fell to the Ottomans - at which point it was converted to a mosque (it is now a museum with the original wall and ceiling paintings and iconography undergoing restoration).

Back to the ship again. Instead of eating in the main dining room, we had booked the Yacht Club, the restaurant on the top deck. On our last cruise on the Discovery, we had planned to eat in this restaurant but never got round to booking it. This time we are a bit more clued in so we booked the restaurant on Friday for Sunday evening and as we had such a good meal we have booked it again for this coming Friday. Tonight the meal was Far Eastern - mainly Japanese and Korean. This coming Friday it will be Italian.

The ship left Trabzon at 7pm to head for Batumi in Georgia. And unfortunately, the clocks went forward another hour. The maritime network still can't cope with emails (it happily does texts - and David keeps texting me from the other end of the ship when he can't find me!) so I wrote this originally on my blackberry last night (Sunday evening) only to find the damned thing still sitting there hours later. But I have at least got internet access on the ship to update the blog directly. And at 10p a minute, blogging has suddenly become expensive! (Meanwhile the phone network in Georgia I discovered this morning won't deal with emails either!)

Sunday, October 22, 2006

All at sea

This entry probably won't get onto the blog til Sunday as the maritime network sends text messages but for some reason won't deal with my emails. Nevertheless I am writing this at the end of Saturday with 7 hours to go before we arrive at Trabzon in North East Turkey.

Saturday is one of two days we will spend entirely at sea on this holiday. So we started this morning with a visit to the bridge and then went to a lecture by Sir Richard Parsons (a former UK ambassador to various countries inc Turkey and former Foreign Office adviser to the late George Brown) about Turkish history.

After lunch we had a lecture on the Crimean War by Major Colin Robins. Then a bit of time catvhing up on my own reading before having to get dressed up in dinner jacket for a more formal captain's reception and dinner.

Yet again I have fellow holiday makers at my dinner table who are Lib Dem supporters (one of whom lives in Vince Cable's constituency and of whom she spoke very highly). Somehow, whenever I am asked what I do for a living, and I explain I work for the party, people become very interested in what my job entails. Years ago, saying I worked for the Lib Dems was a bit of a conversation killer. Not anymore. If anything it is the reverse.

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Caught Short

News that Clare Short has resigned the Labour whiip has reached me today. It is not massively unexpected. It was not a case of jumping before being pushed. The non-entity Labour chief whip Jacqui Who-The-Hell-Is-She Smith had already reprimanded her for her comments about campaigning for a no overall control parliament in the next generql election.

But let's hope no one thinks she should join the Lib Dems. I am yet to hear anything that suggests to me she is liberal, liberal democrat or Liberal Democrat. I don't want our party to be a recycling bin for old Labour leftwingers. Yes let them join if they are genuine converts to liberal democracy. But otherwise, no.

Anyway, Clare Short is better for the cause of voting reform if she is outside the Liberal Democrats. Somehow everyone expects use to be in favour of PR so arguing for voting reform from inside the Lib Dems is hardly going to make the house come crashing down. The more people we have outside the party arguing for PR the better chance we have of getting it.

And finally there is something about her judgement that leaves something to be desired. She waited until after the +raq invasion, when Robin Cook had already resigned, to leave the cabinet. Where were you when we needed you Calre?

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Friday, October 20, 2006

Iceberg right ahead!

We have just had lifeboat drill in case the ship hits an iceberg or something and sinks. Somehow the relaxed way people sat around in the muster point listening calmly to instructions on how to step over the edge into the water or which lifeboat we need to get into will not be repeated if we were to be holed below the waterline. Somehow panic will inevitably replace polished practice. The life jackets are an appalling dayglo orange colour better suited to LiB Dem election posters! Anyway, we set sail from Istanbul in 5 minutes and head into the Black Sea for Trabzon, on the North Turkish coast.

So far we have taken nearly 250 photos on this holiday, but only about 20 minutes of video. Much of it was taken this morning when we took a cruise around the Bosphorus Straits. This afternoon we hit the bazaars of Istanbul and stocked up with Turkish Delight and herbs and spices. Lots of pictured taken to be added to my photo collection of markets of the world I have visited!

Believe it or not, dinner on board comes with a suggested dress code. So I am sitting in my suit at the moment waiting for the 2nd sitting to be called at 8.30pm. We are liikely to abandon the bar shortly with its morbidly mediocre live band playing the hits of yesteryearand take our GTs out onto the promenade deck. We can feel the engines just rumbling into life now. So it's goodbye to Istanbul.

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Just what Cameron wanted

I saw the Telegraph headline yesterday about the Conservatives proposing the scrapping of stamp duty on share purchases. Today I have had the chance to read a bit more about what the Tory Tax Commission has come up with - 21 billion pounds of tax cuts but from what I gather no explanation as to how to pay for them. So the expectation is that public spending will have to be cut. A defeat for Cameron? Nothing of the sort. Indeed quite the reverse.

I over heard a conversation whilst at the Conservative conference in which a well know journalist was telling others that in the conversations he had had with people in Cameron's office they were positively gagging for a showdown with "Norman" (Tebbitt?) and the right. Being able to score a victory over them by forcing them to accept public spending over tax cuts is what they are after. And this tax report is therefore likely to be a battle that Cameron knows he will win anyway. Afterall, in the Conservative Party, there is no mechanism for forcing the leadership to accept policy. In effect the Leader decides. The vaccuousness of their recent conference is an indication of that.

So my belief is that Cameron will be seeking battles of precisely this nature in which he takes on the old right (the people who gave the Tories the nasty image) in an attempt to change public perceptions. That's what this is all about - realigning public perceptions. Just as Kinnock attempted in the late 80s and Blair did more successfully in the 90s.

In a sense our own tax debate was tackling for us a perception issue: high tax party.

So I can see the angle Cameron is coming from and I can see the neanderthals of the old right playing straight into his hands.

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Mosques, minarets and museums

Holidays are meant to be for relaxation. So they say. The reality is that you get up modestly early local time (7.30am) even though your body is saying it's 5.30am. All to be able to do a tour of Istanbul.

The itinerary was the Blue Mosque, Chora Museum, lunch, the Byzantine cistern and then St Sophia, now a museum and prior to that a mosque and prior to that an orthodox cathedral.

Typical that over lunch an email should arrive from the Newcastle Evening Chronicle asking me to do an interview later this week or early next week, on my favourite subject of the moment, video newsletters for constituents. Hopefully they can be persuaded to hold off a little longer.

I have been asked by a fellow passenger what I feel about being surrounded by so many elderly people on this holiday. I was tempted to reply that having this month been to the Tory conference (as an observer) people on this cruise are positively young! Tempted to say it but actually decided not to!

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

We have arrived

We have been in Istanbul for about three hours now though we have seen nothing of the city as yet as we arrived after sunset. The ship is moored here til Friday evening.

Just had dinner in the main dining room. We are seriously young compared to the other passengers but at our table tonight we got onto the subject of politics. It started because someone asked me what I do for a living. After all they are all retired so the presence of David and myself representing the "younger generation" has caused a minor ripple of interest. So when I explain what I do, it means a conversation about politics. I thought this was supposed to be a holiday! The couple I was talking to were from Devon and were Lib Dem supporters. They like Ming but said he should have gone for the leadership when Paddy retired. Quite an interesting conversation.

Tomorrow we do a tour of Istanbul and then head out into the city in the evening. We are 2 hours ahead of UK so it is now 12.15am and we are in one of the ship's bars enjoying a GT.
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Wallace voting for Turkey

Well, here I am in the queue at Gatwick for the security checks. Having experienced the chaos of getting through the laughable and incompetent security at the Tory conference two weeks ago (when attending as an observer) this seems positively professional and highly efficient.

We are off for a cruise on the Black Sea, flying out today to Istanbul where we board our ship, Voyage of Discovery, a modest passenger ship for about 600 passengers. We sailed on the same ship two years ago when we visited North Africa and Italy.

This holiday starts in Istanbul then along the North Turkish coast to Georgia, up to Russia, over the the Crimea, then south to Romania and Bulgaria before heading through the Bosphoros to western Turkey and finishing in Cyprus.

Mother is looking after the house and Freda (our Gateshead cat). Dad had been lined up to do this but he only came out of hospital yesterday after his appendicitis op. He's staying at my sister's house instead.

Norman Lamb as usual makes a lot of jokes about my going on holiday. In the days when we both attended DTI Parliamentary Team meetings, comments would normally be passed about where I was heading to next. So at dinner last night the jokes flowed freely before we all got onto the rather heady political stuff. The taxi back to the flat cost me more than the train ticket I got to come from Newcastle to London on Monday morning. I suspect the cost of taxis in some of the places I am visiting shortly will be less than the cost of the cup of tea we have just bought. We are now through security and are sitting in the BAA tax free shopping mall (given the prices perhaps "maul" would be a better word given David's wallet has just been mauled by the visit to the cafe here.)

Five minutes to go before we board. Then a holiday of sun and sea sickness!

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Michael Brown and that donation

Whilst The Times almost single handedly thinks the Michael Brown donation is a legitimate line of attack, I heard recently that the Special Branch gave him a clean bill of health when he made the donation. Whilst some feel the need with the advantage of hindsight to question the donation, and whilst the guy at the time simply seemed to be a rich eccentric, it seems to me that he checked out at the time.
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1000 video viewings in a week

I checked my YouTube channel this morning. There have been 1000 viewings of the various videos on it in the past week. The biggest increases usefully have come with my local news stories which for once beat the various clips of Rio de Janiero, Egypt, Cuba and so on. The reason for the increased viewings of the local material is down to the email news letters I have sent out in the past week or so to residents in Gateshead. Circulation list is now nearly 1000 directly but there are many who receive efocus via family and friends.

I have changed the style of the videos as well. They are each single issue and the link to the video is at the end of the article about it in the efocus. This means they are much more "dog whistle" - we have found that most people reading efocus stroll down the screen looking for the stories that are of intterest to them. The result is that more people are viewing the single issue videos than the "local news headlines" style I had previously tried.

I filmed one video on Sunday afternoon about bus services, though I did one clip on Friday outside Parliament. We have had bus service cuts in our area recently so we carried out a survey on the impact. The video explained the results (the outline of which was given in the efocus).

The week before that I filmed one about an application for an opencast mine in my ward. This one was viewed by over 100 within about 24 hrs of the link being sent out.

In total, preparation, filming and editing takes about 2 hours. Cost is zero (once you have the equipment). This is definitely a system of communicating I would recommend. Compare that to the cost and time of doing a target letter!

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

I did warn you – Northern Regional Awards

Don’t say I didn’t warn you! I said in my blog entry yesterday that I would annoy you all by putting up the video filmed of the Northern Lib Dem awards presentation held at Gateshead Civic Centre on Saturday 14th October.

Well, here it is! Regional Awards video

Saturday, October 14, 2006

I have been certificated

Well, here I am in all my glory, complete with my old university chum Tim Farron MP. In the dim and distant past, when I was candidate in Hexham (1992 general election), Tim was one of a number of students from Newcastle University I dragged around the wilds of Northumberland delivering leaflets. 14 years later, having beaten me to Parliament, he is the special guest at the Northern Region conference where he hands me the prize for best political campaign, best Focus leaflet (highly commended but not 1st prize) and I stood in for Winlaton and High Spen ward in Blaydon who were unable to get to the conference. I collected their best election campaign award (but I did write their leaflets!)

And then afterwards I went with David to see Dad in the QE Hospital in Gateshead. He is up and about after his appendicitis op but has lost some of his appetite.

I'm currently writing a script for a video I'm doing tomorrow on bus services. I shot a scene for it on Friday outside the Commons. It only took me six goes to get it right! Meanwhile my video camera is uploading all the video I took at conference this morning. Just to bore everyone tomorrow I'll stick up on the blog the bit about me getting the prizes!

And keeping to the video theme, I sent out another email newsletter on Friday to about 300 addresses in the northern half of Blaydon constituency. There have been 25 hits on the video that was linked to it. Not too bad. One of the videos I linked to the eFocus I sent out in my own and neighbouring wards a week ago has as a result had nearly 200 viewings (it was sent to 650 so a 30% response rate is not bad!)

Hot news from the regional conference

Gateshead has won in the four categories we made entries for in the regional campaigns awards. We have won Best Political Campaign, Best Focus Team Achievement, and highly commended in Best Election Campaign and Best Focus Leaflet. We didn't win the Best Local Party category on the grounds we didn't put in an entry. Will have to make do with 4 out of 5!

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Friday, October 13, 2006

Regional conference tomorrow

Am I a stickler for punishment? I jump on a train at 10pm at Kings Cross to head for Newcastle after a slightly hurried meal in an Indian restaurant at Victoria. The big event this weekend is Northern Regional conference. If I haven't had my fill of conferences this year, then there must be something seriously wrong with me!

This is the regional AGM so most of the motions are party business. There is one policy motion whining about super casinos and the "moral" implications. Not exactly liberal, or logical. I may find myself speaking against it.

The real highlight is the regional campaign awards. I spent a mini fortune posting off 6 entries for 4 categories. I did not put in an entry for the fifth category - best local party. So I am hoping (especially given the time I put into the entries) that Gateshead wins something. It is useful for a focus story and a news release and for boosting my ego. But the prize is simply a certificate. Nice photo op if I were to receive one though. I'll be there tomorrow taking photos. I just need someone to arrange to take mine! (Should I win something of course!)

News from the home front is good and not so good. Dad is out of high dependency after his appendicitis operation and according to my sister Esther (via Mother then David and then me - why am I at the end of the information chain?) he is in the recovery ward talking and eating. He may even be home tomorrow no doubt to the relief of his brother John who has for the past few weeks been over here from Canada.

The not so good news is that David has come down with a heavy cold. The fact this is on the eve of our going on holiday is probably not a coincidence.

Anyway back to conferences and another Wallace gripe about the way we do things in the Lib Dems. Local parties are rightly invited to submit motions to spring and autumn conference. Fewer and fewer do so each year. And there is a tendency for just a handful of parties to submit large numbers of motions and amendments. I wonder how representative of the views of the local members those submissions are. I can't for a moment imagine that all of Canterbury Local Party's members are raving trots from the party's revolutionary sandals wing. But glancing at the submissions to the Brighton conference Canterbury did strike you as being on a Leninist day trip to the planet Mars.

I haven't any answer to this but how do we encourage local parties to put in more and better motions and amendments than some of what comes in now? One solution is to have themed days worked out in advance. My gripe about the Brighton conference is that in some respects, the daily themes were decided after the motions had been submitted and tabled. That meant the process was much more accidental. If for example Sunday at spring conference was decided in advance as having crime and policing as the theme, this may stimulate some more focused interest by local parties. And such an approach could link in more closely with campaigns that were being run by the party nationally. It would of course mean better coordination between FCC, media centre, campaigns, policy etc. But they have achieved this with the Green Switch campaign and I'm sure it could be a model accepted as the standard rather than the exception. Well, here's hoping anyway.

Train is now approaching York. Should be home by 2am. I need a holiday!

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Ming - a man of detail

I edit 2 publications which, as standard, contain quotes directly from Ming as Leader. Parliamentary Campaigner goes to Parliamentary Candidates Association members. North East Democrat goes to over 400 members in the North East by email (plus a number of others who for whatever reason have been put on the circulation list). It is a mark of Ming's diligence that he reads all content in his name before it goes out. Happily, for both new editions of these publications the changes were minimal. Though on previous occasions he has been good at spotting my typos! Very good on the details.

So emailed out tonight was The North East Democrat, just in time to remind everyone of the regional conference this weekend in Gateshead. And tomorrow Parliamentary Campaigner is emailed out to members. Beats me how we coped before emails. Somehow we did. It just cost us an arm and a leg in printing and postage!

Parliamentary Campaigner and Appendicitis

At last, the first draft of the next Parliamentary Campaigner is completed. I finished it last night. This is the fastest turn around of a single edition we have achieved - the editorial board only met last Friday to decide on content. It is normally the case that there is amonth between the board meeting and PCA members receiving the final edition in their inboxes.

It will of course have to go through the inevitable correction of typos stage and there is bound to be a decision to change the layout to make the bits with heavy text look more interesting. But hopefully it should be with members in a matter of hours rather than days.

But with the first draft done, I could then switch to doing the North East Democrat, which is emailed monthly to 400 members in the North East. I have 2 and a half pages left to do on conference but fortunately I press ganged some unsuspecting members to cover various debates for me!

News from the home front not so good last night. 2 days ago my mother emailed me to tell my Dad had gone into hospital for suspected appendicitis. Yesterday he had the operation. He won't be out of hospital for a few days.

That sort of sinks my plan to win the jam war in Cowley St (see blog entry for 30th September). He was being lined up to pick a load of fruit this week that I could use on Sunday to make a new set of jams that would knock Linda Seeking's lemon curds for six. May have to call this one a draw now.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Ming and PMQs

I watched PMQs today. Biased though I may be, I have to say I think Ming's performance was solid and statesmanlike. This image was assisted by the Punch and Judy show of Blair and Cameron that preceded his question (which was on the Northern Ireland peace process).

Ming is the only politician in the Commons who can perform the elder statesman role. Forget any attempts to portray him as a young cool dood. It doesn't wash and it detracts from his clearly sellable advantages of a wise head on calm shoulders.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Broad beans and Parliamentary Campaigner

I did some work tonight on the next edition of the Parliamentary Campaigner which is due out shortly. There's quite a bit in it about the Green Switch Campaign and a bit of a round up on conference. Which reminds me, I must get my report done on the Conservative conference. (Shouldn't take long to write up the policy side.)

Some of you were spared my blog contribution this afternoon in which I went head to head with Stephen Tall about politicians and baby photos. Somehow, there was a 2 hour gap on libdemblogs so I wonder if other blog updates from that time have been missed as well.

I got kicked out of Cowley St tonight at 9pm when Lib Dem Calling came calling at my office to give me my marching orders as they were wanting to lock the building and set the alarm. So I headed back to the flat, via Sainsburys for some cat food - I didn't realise how expensive that damned cat of ours would be when, as a stray 6 years ago, we foolishly started feeding it. It wasn't long before she finally moved in. She gets to eat meat. All I had tonight was a bowl of bean soup (made from broad beans we grew in our London back garden).

The cat's black and white and called Jess.....yes I know my Postman Pat!

Baby pictures - beating Stephen Tall at his own game!

Stephen Tall, Blogging Queen of the Year (2006), wanted to hide from public view a photo of himself holding a baby by putting it onto his blog so that it would be hidden from view by anyone else on the planet. (A Liberal Goes A Long Way).

In an attempt not to be outdone and with like minded spirit of not wanting it seen by anyone else on the planet, I have sorted through my folder of photos on my pc in Cowley St, found this picture of me and my niece Lily taken during the elections in 2004, a few days after she was born, and put it on the blog for no one else to see.

In digging up photo relics of the past, I could of course do a raid on my election photos from 1987 when I was first elected, and looked a bit younger than I do now! But I won’t inflict that on bloggers…well not yet!
Opencast Appeal at Skons Park

For anyone interested in producing videos for constituents, you may be interested in this one. This is a single issue video, about an appeal over refusal to grant planning permission for an opencast development in my council ward in Gateshead.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Fiona Hall Question Time Success

I was beginning to fear that we would get no one to the coffee morning and question time I was hosting with Fiona Hall, North East MEP, before the event this morning. I didn't have to entertain these fears after all. It ended up being standing room only in my living room. The question time was videoed and the raw results look good though there will need to be some editing to get it down into useful size chunks.

I have just been out shooting a video about a planning appeal over a rejected opencast application in my ward in Gateshead. The link for this will go onto the next email newsletter to constituents.

My next job is to finish editing the videos I took of the LDEG meetings at conference though I have just been reminded by David I need to choose the excursions we are going on during our forthcoming holiday. Difficult choices ahead......

Is there a Doctor in the House?

Just back from a Marie Curie fundraising event held in one of the community centres in my ward. The theme of the night was "goodies and baddies" so I went as James Bond!

At the end I was press ganged into doing a starring role in a series of on stage gags. Being the shy, retiring sort, I had to be forced to do it! I was picked on as they wanted a doctor to play a doctor and since there were only 2 doctors in the room, and the other one was the dj (amazing what consultants from the Royal Victoria Infirmary do in their spare time) I ended up playing the starring role. Not that I have the appropriate doctorate! I wouldn't know my bunnions from my backside. I was given the worst set of doctor gags in creation. Fortunately by then, a large number of people had left.

I nearly didn't get to the event myself. I got back late from a Post Office petition gathering exercise. 165 petition forms delivered in the morning. I collected 45 tonight.

Photo: Dr Jonathan checks whether or not he has a heart!

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Francis Maude not organising a piss up in a brewery on video

When I got stuck queuing for my pass as the Lib Dem observer at the Tory conference on Monday, Francis Maude arrived to tell everyone he was terribly sorry about the cock up and it was all the fault of the police. I just happened to video it!

The best bit is at the end. Enjoy. Francis Maude video

Friday, October 06, 2006

Aunt Margaret a star in my latest video

No this is not an attempt to boost my viewing numbers on my YouTube channel (but should you feel you want to, click on the link on the left) but rather another experiment in video for constituents.

My experience of putting videos on YouTube is that the non political ones get the most viewers. Hence my recent jokes about my Copacabana Beach video doing a great deal better than the blogger of the year clips! (My Petronas Towers and Pyramids and the Shhinx videos are doing rather well as well!). Last night however I sent out my latest email newsletter to over 600 addresses in the Whickham area (where my council ward is in Blaydon constituency). It included links to 4 videos: one was the official opening of a local fire station, 2 were of the Tall Ships Race on Tyneside last year and the final (and longest) was a human interest story.

The last one was of my Aunt Margaret who, at the age of 92, visited for the first time in 80 years Ravensworth Castle last year. The Castle was actually a stately home but throughout the later twentieth century it fell into ruin. Back in the 1920s however the Castle was used as a girls' boarding school and Margaret was a day pupil there. Most of Ravensworth estate is represented by me on Gateshead Council.

The aim of the visit was to bring back memories of the school and many of these came out on the video. Responses from constituents have been very positive and within a few hours the video had been viewed over 100 times. I expect this to grow further over the weekend. I have also had a number of emails from residents about it.

The issue here is about how to catch people's attention using this new information medium. Get an interesting real life situation with a clear local connection and people will be interested in watching it. The 3 other videos have been viewed but not to the extent of the one about Ravensworth and Margaret.

This weekend however I will be filming a couple of single issue videos, one on cuts to bus services and the other the decision by a mining company to appeal against rejection of its opencast plans (I led the campaign against the plans last year). On top of that I am hosting a Question Time with Fiona Hall MEP in which we have asked constituents to send in questions. I will video the answers and put the link on the next email newsletter to constituents.

Well, it's 11.30pm and I am on the train to Newcastle. I'm due in at 2am.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Cameroonie Luv Fest - absolutely final report

Dare I say it, but it's great to be back at work after experiencing the Cameroonie Luv Fest. Sorry to all those readers who were hoping for a live update from Bournemouth today! Nevertheless, the entries from Beautiful Bournemouth appear to have been well read with 236 hits on the blog yesterday, the largest number I have received in any one day.

There are a few things we can learn from the Conservative conference - no I don't mean dropping the idea of having motions and debates! I don't think we should go down the "Who wants to be a millionaire" style voting on "hot topics" but we should look further at allowing txt messaging and emailing during debates from people who may or may not be members and may or may not be at conference. we could put the most interesting up on the screen in the hall. It could be a useful way of boosting participation without having to attend conference.

I also think we need to make more use of video as well. We have made a start at our own conference with interviews with Ming and senior MPs. I videoed a couple of fringe meetings myself. At the Tory conference, I saw a team of Conservatives randomly choosing people to interview about conference. When in the queue for the sandwich bar the person behind me was interviewed about what he thoguh of the venue and the way the conference was going. It was a relaxed and quite amusing approach that nevertheless would make for a good video story about conference.

Anyway, we are about to watch on tv Cameroonie serenade the Tory faithful. So sick bag at the ready.......

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Cameron Luv Fest - final report

I'm leaving Bournemouth now. Thank goodness for little mercies! So here are my thoughts on the Tories. Well, they are in good moral and think they will win the next election. They have however a significant fear that that will be put at risk by having policies. Anything that can be attacked by opposition or media must be swept off the Tory stage. This was a common theme that ran throiugh speeches and presentations. Turn over the Tory stone and you may spot the odd right winger flashing his tax cutting tail at you but all the rest of the Tory leadership insects are hurrying for cover. Just how long the Tory world can survive as a policy free zone is yet to be seen. Mind you, Labour did it for the 3 years they were in opposition under Blair.

Watching the speeches has been interesting. George Osborne, once he was over his vomit-inducing luv-in with Darling David in his speech this morning gave a competent performance on attacking Brown. He outlined where things had to change. But he offered no solutuons other than we need better education and economic stability.

Is there method in his madness? If you have no policies, what can you be attacked on? Having no policies is one line of attack. No solutions, no right to ask people to vote for them. Perhaps the Conservatives have looked back at the 90s, saw Labour at the time move to a policy lite position, decided that was how Labour won and therefore they need to copy it. For Labour it worked then because the gut instinct of the country was to get rid of the Tories as a party that was in chaos and at war with itself. That was the cover for Labour's policy nakedness.

Now is somewhat different. Whilst Labour are unpopular at the moment, and they have their leadership difficulties, the people do not regard Labour as so rotten to the core in the way they regarded the last Consercative government. Afterall, the Conservatives are only a few percent ahead in the polls, not the 15 to 20 percent repeatedly gained by Labour when under Blair in opposition.

So I wonder just how long they can survive with not policies which, as Oliver Letwin described in one fringe meeting I attended yesterday, could be torn apart by media and opponents.

Nevertheless, there is another extreme that parties can suffer from - having too much policy. And I think Lib Dems are prone to that at times. The local government paper is an example. It was short and succinct. One reason it was referred back was because it was "too short"! Filling a policy paper with vacuous statements just to make it longer does not amount to good policy making, though it does make for good hostages to fortune.

But back to the Conservative conference. Despite the leadership line on having no policy, there is an underlying tension with the activists who wanted tax cuts and are more right wing. (Though I don't regard tax cutting as right win on its own.) The loudest applause tended to be for right wing causes such as grammar schools and no to the Euro. And I overheard one conversation that went as follows:

Person A: "don't like dumping our tax cuts policies."

Person B: "well, I suppose we have to talk about the environment and all the other things Cameron wants to stop us looking like the Nasty Party.

Person A: "well I suppose so."

Hardly a ringing endorsement.

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Cameron Love Fest - enemy at the gate

I was a bit delayed at my hotel this morning as my laptop kept rejecting the audio files I recorded yesterday. I needed to clear them off the audio recorder or risk running out of memory space. At the third atempt I managed to load them onto the laptop.

So I got to the conference entrance when the queue consisted entirely of myself and James Girling who is here on business (James is a Lib Dem cllr in Southwark and Sarah Kennedy's brother). Well, James was allowed through but they took one look at my badge and said, "Sorry you can't come in this entrance.." "But I came through here yesterday," I replied.

No way would they let me through. Turns out I have a media pass and media are only allowed through the media entrance. Why separate them in this way was beyond me.

So I got through the media gate and am now in the main hall in the debate on the economy. Sorry, debate is probably a bit too misleading a term. It seems as though even the floor speakers are decided and stage managed in advance. All the floor speakers are sitting in the front corner of the hall. None of them have been critical of the Cameroonie leadership. But there are some hints by speakers at the frustration Tories are suffering about not being able to call for tax cuts. So that brings me to my next point: the Centre Forum is hosting a meeting at lunch time on the Lib Dem tax plans. I'll be attending that. I wonder what the response of the Tories will be to it.

And today's hot topic at conference is "Pink rinses are better than blue at conference." Heady stuff.

George Osborne is on the platform now. I am right to call the blog entries on this conference "Cameron Love Fest". I'm reaching for the sick bag now......

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Monday, October 02, 2006

At the Cameron Love Fest - an evening with Ian Dale

I am sitting in a meeting organised by the Hansard Society called "Listen to me - can politicians ignore the new media?". Tim Sullivan, a big knob from BT is speaking at the moment. Some pretty impressive figures he has just given, such as 12 million homes in UK with broadband, 35 billion txt messages last year in UK, 63 percent of households with internet access. He's also just mentioned that it is difficult to avoid seeing people writing messages on blackberries, which is just what I am doing now.

Anne Widdicombe speaking now. Bless her. She looks worse in real life than she does on tv. But she is saying some sensible stuff on the need to reach young people on a medium of their choice. However, she won't become a "slave to the technology" and won't have a blog.

The conservatives here are talking about being the party with the most advanced use of technology for communication. They are arguably right, at the moment, though frankly we need to learn what they are doing and nick the best ideas and use them ourselves.

Iain Dale speaking now. Website speak at people, he said, not to them with little interaction. Blogs have to allow people to express their opinion, they're meant to be a conversation. Blogs such as Guido Fawkes now get more hits than the Conservative website. The Tory party needs to harness this technology to reach young people.

He has just praised blogs by Lib Dems as they tend to be more openminded and free with their comments. "It's useful to trawl through them," he says. Watch what you say guys and gals!

Meanwhile New Labour, he says, don't like blogs because they can't control them.

"We should embrace the technology for the Conservative Party.".

So Liberal Democrats, are we going to let the Conservatives stay in the lead? Certainly in my constituency, Blaydon, my determination is to put ourselves so far ahead of the other parties (the Cons barely exist there) in terms of using ecommunication that they will never catch up with us.

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Cameron Love Fest - I'm about to vote

I've just walked into the main conference. And the Cameroonies are discussing the environment. The hot topic is "cheap flights are a false economy". Oh dear, the environment hugging Conservatives have just voted for cheap flights.

We have been given a handset as we came into the hall on which to send txt messages about the hot topic some of which appear on the main screen on the podium. Now that idea I like. We don't have to give people a handset at our conference but we could give people the option to send messages during a debate and choose good ones to put up on the conference screen.

The handset here is also used to vote on the hot topics. Just voted in the next one. This is just like voting in "Who wants to be a millionaire". Anyway, hot topic "the Conservatives can't organise a piss up in a brewery" has been voted on. Oh dear, can't get the result. They've lost it! They can't organise a piss up in a brewery.
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Cameron Love Fest update

Well, after 2 hrs I got my pass. I didn't even have to give any ID. It was just unceremoniously handed over.

Stephen Tall refers in his blog to Cameron's vomit inducing sunshine speech of last year. Well, he hasn't brought sunshine to Bournemouth. Quite the reverse. It is throwing it down biblical flood style. (Why is it that it is always sunny at Lib Dem conferences - except when we have the misfortune of going to Blackpool?) A veritable army of wet Conservatives clung for safety to the doorway of the Theatre, waiting for a break in the clouds. One arrived so I made a dash for the conference centre. I just made it and went through the airport style security whilst a flood of rainwater washed over the floor of the marquee in which security is based.

So I've done a tour of the stands. I get the impression there are very few internal organisations with stands than there are out our conference. But the Fur Traders Assn and Countryside Alliance are here.

Not been into the main hall yet for any debates but I have now moved on to the Independent's fringe "have the Conservatives changed enough?". I got a thorough drenching whilst walking from the BIC to the Highcliffe Hotel.

First speaker John Bercow has just finished. His view is no they haven't change enough. Conservatives, he says, should stop talking about tax cuts. Those who do are the Bennites of the Conservative Party.

Now speaking is Tim Montgomerie who runs who is arguing that there is a need to talk about issues of traditional interest to Conservatives. Otherwise the Cons will lose these people, just as happened in the Bromley byelection, he says.

Oliver Letwin on now. Known as Oliver Leftwing by the Conservative Rightwing. A rather dull speaker. He says Conservatives stand for social responsibility. Apparently Cameron said that in a speech last night. Now that the Conservatives have been told what they stand for they can now presumably have some policies! No way! Not 3 years out from an election, the first 2 speakers have said.

Frankly I'm finding it difficult to follow what Letwin is on about. He mentions some stuff about how terrible it is to have poor people and that the Cons have to find solutiins to them. He seems clueless about what those solutions should be.

He has however just said he will not announce policies too early as he doesn't want to give something to opponents and the press something to tear limb from limb. How terribly like Labour in opposition under Blair.

This meeting is in a marquee. Bit of a circus act me thinks.

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At the Cameron love fest - another update

Well, the latest news is that everyone is still experiencing the Cameron Love Fest from the inside of the Bournemouth Theatre where after 2 hours, we are still waiting for our passes.

Over an hour ago Francis Maude promised us screens to watch the conference. Fortunately we have been spared that ordeal.

However I can exclusively reveal today's conference hot topic: "The Conservatives can't organise a piss up in a brewery."
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At the Conservative conference: it's a fair cop

Well, I'm still stuck in the auditorim of the Bournemouth Theatre but Francis Maude has just done a star turn on the stage, telling us the delay is all the fault of the police who are still checking the identities of people. But it's all okay, says Little Frankie, as the problem was the same last week at the Lab conference. All the fault of the security alert of August. However, they have not yet stopped us bringing in bottled liquids and mobile phones!
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Chaos at Conservative registration

It's Monday morning and it's my first day as an observer at the Conservative conference. And it's pandemonium at registration. No one should ever ever again complain about the regsitration at Lib Dem conference after experiencing this.

We first joined a long queue for late accreditation. At the front of the queue I was asked for my name and date of birth that was then written onto the back of a cloakroom ticket. I was then sent to another queue to be told to go and wait in an auditorium where there are a large number of people sitting around wondering what wll happen next. Occasionally someone's name will be called out. Apparently we are waiting for the names on the scraps of paper to be checked on the computer. So we are waiting and waiting and waiting.......

Next report later today.

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Sunday, October 01, 2006

Heading to Bournemouth

Having managed to beat the road closures for the Great North Run this morning, I have now caught the train to London and from there I will head to Bournemouth as an observer at the Cameroonie Policy Free Zone Annual Love Fest.

I have looked through the agenda and I kid you not but there are no motions. The Camerlunies have however introduced a novel idea into their conference - voting! Not, I might add, on policy but on "hot topics" which look more like the sort of question Sky News would have a viewers' poll on. For example Monday morning has for its hot topic "it's time to consider a ban on marketing to children." And in the afternoon "cheap flights are a false economy." And as the agenda states, "make up your own mind and vote at the end."

It makes you wonder what all those Conservative policy officers and advisers do?

For a party that says it wants to re-engage with people and the grassroots, the fact their conference is so centralised and the membership are absolutely powerless suggests the Cons may fail in their task.

Just found another hot topic: "global companies are a force for good"

Perhaps if they had genuine debates on substantive motions which actually stood as policy, then having hot tpoic votes, perhaps by email or text, for anyone outside conference could be an interesting innovation. But the way the Conservatives do it, no way!

Just found another hot topic "Conservatives are a bunch of clueless no-hopers."

Other ideas for hot topics for the Conservatives to vote on will be greatly appreciated.

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