Wednesday, 20 January 2016

The (Coffee) Chain Gang

"Please show your support for a decent independent going head to head with the chain that is coffee#1"

The above is a quote from a post on a local Facebook page. The poster is setting up a coffee shop in North Street, Bedminster, having failed to get premises on the Wells Road in Knowle, where he would have done well. He will probably still do well in Bedmo, but will be up against stiffer competition (and not just from 'the chain that is coffee#1').

Now, I've never had a coffee in a branch of coffee#1, so I'm unable to comment on their wares but this comment piqued a certain interest in me. Namely: the tendency of thought that says: small business good, big business bad.

Here's the thing: From my viewpoint, the world is not that simple.

Sharp practice, tax evasion/avoidance and poor treatment of staff can all be found amongst small, local, independent businesses as well as large.

On the flipside, some of the largest businesses in the country/world have exemplary approaches to corporate social responsibility and employee relations.

Reducing things to simple binaries is foolish. We all benefit from a mixed economy with different types and sizes of shops/chains, and a mix of differing ownership models. Do I think there is room for change? Hell yes. But do I think large companies have no good points at all? No.

The post above also reminded me of something that has long puzzled me: at what point does a company go from being 'good' (local, independent) to 'bad' (large, corporate, spawn of the devil)?

Whilst many people set up businesses in order to achieve/sustain a certain lifestyle, many more dream of making it big: opening a second outlet, expanding their offering, maybe taking their services to a neighbouring city. Some dream of going national, or international.

Good for them, it's a natural inclination. Sometimes this will be achieved through organic growth, sometimes they will have to seek additional funding: a bank loan, another investor or (cue pantomime boos) private equity investment.

At what point does their bright, shining example of local success become soiled. When do they cease to be a local business with multiple outlets, say, and become a chain?

When they have more than certain number? When they have spread to multiple towns and cities? When they accept funding from unrelated investors?

Here are a few local(ish) examples - where do you think the line to being a big-bad-chain is crossed:

Cafe Grounded - 7 outlets
Caffe Gusto - 8 outlets (including a concession for staff/visitors to The Engine Shed)
Pieminister - 11 outlets (2 'coming soon') plus wholesale distribution to pubs/cafes and supermarket retail.
Boston Tea Party - 17 outlets (2 'coming soon')
Coffee #1 (started in Cardiff, I believe) - 58 outlets
Loungers - 65 outlets, 3 'coming soon', and 13 Cosy Clubs

(For comparison, Starbucks has c. 800 stores, Costa c. 1,800)


P.S. This was going to be a Facebook status update but rapidly grew too large... obviously not good...


Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Thursday, 12 November 2015

My email to Tim and Sal re: Lord Rennard and the Federal Executive


As a follow up to my last post, here is my email on the subject to Tim Farron (Leader of the Liberal Democrats) and Baroness Sal Brinton (Party President):


Dear Tim and Sal,

I'm deeply concerned about the reputational damage to the party caused by the election of Lord Rennard to represent our Lords' group on Federal Executive.

Whatever one's views of the allegations against him, the resultant internal processes, the lack of police action or the Morrissey report and subsequent statements by Helena Morrissey, his name has become a byword for sleaze and harassment within the party - and amongst many in the public: in particular many who might otherwise vote for us.

By electing him to the FE, the Lords have cemented his circle of influence both there and more widely within the party, and sent a signal to many members and potential members that they (and by extension the Party generally) still don't get the impact of his behaviour.

I'm sure you have both had much correspondence on this but I would like to add my name to calls for public statements distancing yourselves from this decision and reinforcing a commitment to rebuilding our party with a culture inclusive of all, particularly those alienated by this turn of events. Whilst we need to respect the processes of the party, I believe that your mandates from the membership give you both the platform from which you can make these points more forcibly than any other senior party figures: and that doing so will be essential to repairing the reputation of the party.

Kind Regards,


Andrew Brown
Bristol

Chris Rennard and the Federal Executive: It's about rehabilitation.


First things first. I'm a Liberal and I believe in exercising due process. I believe the rule of law and, within the party, the fair application of the rules. I believe in innocence until proven guilty and restorative justice. And I believe in rehabilitation.

I'm also a Liberal Democrat. I want to see the party succeed. Indeed, I want to see the party rebuilt, re-energised - resurrected, even, if I can use such language. And I want to see all parts of the party play their role in that. New members, old members, activists, Councillors, MPs, and Lords.

It's no secret it's been a bruising few years, culminating in a catastrophic election performance in May. There's been compound losses of many Councillors and councils, disastrous results in Scotland and Wales, the loss of all but one of our MEPs as well as the reduction of our MPs to just 8. You don't need me to tell you that it hasn't been fun.

Good things have followed, though: thousands of new members swelling our ranks, our new leader with his distinctive voice on Europe, Refugees, Immigration, Welfare cuts; and his willingness to use our Lords to oppose the Tories, and show up Labour's weaknesses.

Indeed, our Lords have done some sterling work in recent weeks. We may not agree with the institution - but we will work within the system to make lives better for the people of this country.

Against this background, then, it was with dismay that I woke up today to discover that our group in the House of Lords had elected Lord Rennard as their representative on the Federal Executive.

Now, there are those who say: "Lord Rennard has not been convicted of any crime, nor has he been subject to any disciplinary action by the party. Not only that, but Helena Morrissey has said there is no reason he shouldn't play a full role in the party."

And they'd be right.

And as someone who believes in rehabilitation you might expect me to agree with them.

But you'd be wrong.

Now, my active time within the party started after Lord Rennard's tenure as Chief Executive. I've never met him, nor have I had any dealings with him online or by any other means. My only experience have been second and third hand tales from fellow-conference attendees, as well as the media reports. Despite this, he has repeatedly tried to add me as a 'friend' on Facebook*. I'm not alone in this, as it's been part of an ongoing pattern of extending his sphere of influence that has also see him take increasing part in the discourse of the party.

It is, of course, understandable that he is keen to redeem his reputation and he clearly has lots of experience and skills to offer. As a member of a party he (says he) loves, it's only natural that he wants to offer his talents to party.

But the party are well within their rights to decline such offers, and indeed has done through not re-appointing him to any official post.

The Lords could have exercised this right by opting not to not elect him to the Federal Executive. Why? Because it's not just Lord Rennard's reputation that needs repaired - it's that of the Liberal Democrats. Although the (flawed) process was completed and no action was ultimately taken - the party suffered a great deal of reputational damage. Furthermore, despite what Helena Morrissey has said, Rennard has not fully complied with the suggestion of Alistair Webster QC - a point well made by Jennie Rigg, here.

It's time Lord Rennard, and our other Lord's, realised that if - and for as long as - he is seen to hold influence, he holds back the ambitions of the party.

The party is holding a variety of reviews of how it works, including internal party governance. Getting things right will go a long way to making us electable again, not least through improving the internal culture of the party and allowing all our members opportunities to contribute. Getting them wrong can only hamper us.

The processes and structures that have brought us to this pass are no longer fit for purpose - and need to be overhauled. In the immediate term, it's hard to see what can be done** but one thing is clear: in pursuing his own rehabilitation, Lord Rennard has held back that of the party.


*as it happens, I very rarely add people I haven't actually met in real life as friends on Facebook in any case.

**but I'm emailing Tim and Sal to make my feelings known.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

What it means (to me) to be a Lib Dem today.

This post was first published on Lib Dem Voice here.

The party has held an essay competition as part of it's Agenda 2020 review of our beliefs, values and approach. Members were invited to submit essays of up to 1,000 words on "what we mean when we say 'I am a Liberal Democrat' - what we believe, what we think is important, and what underlies our support of or opposition to specific policies."

I deliberately avoided reading other entrants to the competition (you can see some here) and to focus on what I mean when I say I'm a Liberal Democrat - although as you will see, this has developed over time for me.


The given title was "What does it mean to be a Liberal Democrat today?"

Anyway, here are the words:



For me, it means what it meant in 1986/87 when in the early years of Secondary School, I was taught about different electoral systems. As the Modern Studies teacher explain the ins and outs of First Past the Post and alternative forms of Proportional Representation.

I pointed at PR: "I support that, and the people who support that." I said.

It means what it meant in 1992 when I cast my first General Election vote. Still politically naive (despite many hours of listening to Radio 4 over the years prior: the demise of Thatcher, the election of Major, through the first Gulf War and the scrapping of the poll tax...) but knowing that I wasn't Tory (I had seen how Tory policies has decimated large parts of Fife, with pit-town upon pit-town in ruins) but also that I wasn't Labour - even though, in those days, Labour votes in Dunfermline West were weighed not counted.

I may not have been able to articulate it, but I knew in my heart that my outlook was different. That Labour didn't speak for me any more than the Tories, for all that you may have they should have done. I voted Liberal Democrat because I knew they offered something different.

It means what it meant in May 2010 when I (re-)joined the party, post-coalition. Here was a party prepared to work with their political opponents, in the interests of a stable government. Here was a party not content to take the easy road of opposition-ism but instead to step up to the plate and make the hard choices. Here was a party prepared to be pragmatic, not dogmatic.

It means what it meant in March 2013 when conference took a view at odds with the coalition/party leadership on the issue of Closed Material Procedures in civil cases. To be a party that defends Civil Liberties and speaks up for open justice. (And that isn't afraid to tell its leaders when they are wrong.)

It means what it meant - although may not have clearly said - on May 7th 2015.

I'm sure you remember May 7th:

Stability. Decency. Unity.

Look Left. Look Right. Then Cross.

Giving Tories a Heart and Labour a Brain.

Stronger Economy. Fairer Society. Opportunity for Everyone.

What these slogans tried to say, in varying degrees of cack-handedness, was that Britain needed balance. We could foresee the line the Tories would pursue (although they have surprised me with their haste, spiking the Green economy and screwing the poor faster and harder than anticipated), and the ever more interventionist approach favoured by Labour (who have also, in their way, gone further down the track that failed to work for them.)

But what arguing for balance does is define us in relation to others. By seeking to split the difference, we conceded ground to both sides. Those who wanted (so-called) fiscal responsibility went for the industrial-strength version of cuts. Those who wanted social responsibility perceived Labour as better placed to offer that.

We do stand for balance - but we need to better at articulating liberal means to achieving the end, rather than seeking to split the difference in any given argument. We need to (re-)learn how to define ourselves, distinct from our opponents.

When the other parties are also fighting on the centre ground, our voice becomes diminished. Our challenge is to fight on the liberal ground that exists on a separate but intersecting plane. To argue that balanced outcomes are achievable but through different, not just amended, routes than those pursued by our opponents.

It means what it meant on May 9th, when as local membership officer I checked our database and saw the scores of people joining. After near-annihilation, there were people prepared to stand with us. A recurring chorus of "Britain needs a Liberal voice, and it's not enough now for me just to vote for it, I need to do more."

Voices that, when otherwise I would have moped, moaned and despaired gave me hope.

And it'll mean the same on May 7th 2020 (yes, I checked a calendar...) when once more we will face the electorate. When we will be able to lay out our vision of a Liberal Britain: a society where people are free to be want they want to be, are treated with fairness by the state and where no-one is enslaved by conformity.

What does it mean to be a Lib Dem today?

It means to be for Fairness. For Difference. For Pragmatism. For Civil Liberties. For Balance. For Hope. And for the Future.