...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, June 16, 2008

Day 2716: We Can be Britain's Baracks – Why you should be in Henley this week! aka Millennium Elephant meets Stephen Kearney (who is BRILLIANT!)


It has been QUITE a week hasn't it, what with the 42 days, the madness of Mr Davis David and the Euro No in Ireland… and unfortunately it has also been a busy time for Daddy Richard which is why it has taken so long to write up my interview with the frankly BRILLIANT Mr Stephen Kearney, Liberal Democrat Candidate to… well I COULD say "replace BoJo the Clown" but it's about time the people of Henley, Thame and South Oxfordshire had a PROPER MP and Mr Stephen could be it!

So get yourselves to Henley. Or to Thame. Or to any of the pretty little Oxfordshire villages in between. Get out there and do some delivering, or canvassing, or just talking and listening to local people because they deserve an MP of the quality and charisma of Mr Stephen.

I was lucky enough to meet him in the Liberal Democrat HQ in Thame, along with Daddy Alex and Daddy Richard and Ms Linda and Ms Helen. (And best wishes from Citizen Alix who was in BED… had to go to her mummy's birthday later!)

Meet the Candidate (He's Brill!)
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Our interview, by chance rather than design, takes us through Mr Stephen's fascinating story from his beginnings and growings-up to his inspirations and hopes for the future.

So, after a TRADITIONAL round of DOUGHNUTS and talking with your mouth full, during which we pried Mr Stephen's middle name from him – it is Andrew – I picked on Ms Linda at random to start us off with a question.

What Ms Linda wanted to know is what inspired him to stand.

This took Mr Stephen back to his ORIGINAL motivation, from his childhood. As a teenager, one of those young people hanging around with nothing to do, he was lucky enough to get involved in a project called – funnily enough – Focus. Their youth worker was interested in outreach work, and met young people and encouraged them to make use of a building that the town had allocated to the project, to set up theatre groups and community café. And almost more importantly allowed them to manage it all – to be everything from managing directors to cleaners – and to make their own mistakes and learn from those mistakes. It taught him to be reflective about what went wrong, and WHY it went wrong.

He's taken forward those lessons always to be thoughtful about what we do and the impact that it has. That leads to an understanding that links people's personal growth with action, and how our actions at a local level influence policy. That is why he got involved in setting up the charity Regenerate.

They met people in their own communities and encouraged them to grow out of the difficulties in their own lives, encouraged them to take action and then looked at how that action could influence the Labour, the Conservatoires and the Liberal Democrats.

The party that listened most, over a good twenty years, was the Liberal Democrats, working with people like Alex Carlile, Lembit Opik and Simon Hughes.

He was quite frank that in the Nineties NONE of the Parties impressed them, but he was particularly angry about the Conservatories and what they tried to do to the voluntary sector, trying to get charities to deliver public services on the cheap, something – he feels – that they are trying to do AGAIN!

However, it was the encouragement of Mr Alex and Mr Lembit, and of the local chair in Henley, that drew his interest in Party Politics more and more into working with the Liberal Democrats, so that now he is convinced that he wants to spend the NEXT twenty years moving us from the third force in British politics to being the party of government.

Next Ms Helen introduced herself with a laugh – this is FUNNY because Ms Helen has been working as a case worker in Henley for the past FORTNIGHT!

Why, she wanted to know with genuine wide-eyed wonder, did he choose to leave retail management (for the WHSmug company) and go to agricultural college?

This, said Mr Stephen, goes back again to his youth, and the youth-working teams having close ties to the Young Farmers and the Church and so on. At what HE calls the very young age of eleven (and I will have you know that eleven is ANCIENT when you are eight [R:seven] like ME!) he got to spend time working on a dairy farm. He found he was completely in his elephant element, being given responsibility all the time. It was all HANDS-ON experience, from taking a little tractor every day to deliver the churns of milk to the top of the drive to being sent to help a cow who was calving! Er how? Well if you don't try you won't find out!

And so all the time that he was working with WHSmug, and training and managing their branches, that was all very town-based and so he was always going back to the farm, and eventually he left WHSmug to go and run a farm – he was helped by a lady that he knew, who coincidentally enough is a member of the Liberal Democrats, to join her son in buying a small pony farm. And a couple of years into that he decided that he wanted a proper agricultural education.

During his time at college he was spotted as bright and energetic by one of the big agricultural companies and got offered a job in his year out. All of his friends were very jealous! But ten years in he found that he had become very disillusioned, because of the practices of agri-business in international trade, particularly in respect of our treatment of small farm collectives in places like Malawi. With our resources and business intelligence we were the ones who were able to drive the prices and keep them out of the business.

But fortunately for him he had been doing a lot of voluntary work already, and so he was able to come out of the business and within a couple of years had set up Regenerate.

So, is standing in Henley a logical progression, asked Helen.

Of course, it's a hugely rural constituency, Mr Stephen replied, and we have a lot of problems in the rural community at the moment, whether it is the cost of housing; or the lack of facilities for young people to develop into the community and stay IN the community; or the price of oil and indeed DEPENDENCE on oil. The Liberal agenda around LOCALISM is inevitably going to be the only way forwards.

And he believes that his wide range of skills, from working in business to agricultural training to all the development work in the charity, will be really useful in getting to the root of the problems. He can work with a whole range of enterprises locally to ensure that business and commerce becomes more SUSTAINABLE.

He strongly believes that Members of Parliament have got to "up their game", and Liberal Democrats have to lead the way. And by "up their game" he means listen really deeply to the community, create networks of people around them that they support and empower them to take action to solve their problems themselves.

Then it was MY turn. I wanted to ask about what Mr Clogg calls "broken politics". With the Conservatories once again mired in an expenses scandal it would be all too easy to point and laugh. But that is a SHAME, especially since we all know people – from ALL Parties – who went into politics with nothing but the best intentions. So how would HE go out and make people feel better about politics?

On the SPECIFIC question of expenses, Mr Stephen noted that in all of our jobs if we want to make an expenses claim we put in the receipts and if we don't have receipts then we don't get the money. If we can do that in our jobs, why can't MPs do that in Parliament? Well, whatever the rules are, he'll lead by example and bring the discipline of thirty years of work to the office of MP.

But what was much MORE interesting was his whole approach to the JOB of being MP.

He wants to use the job to work with people within the constituency in order to develop what he calls "listening teams", who will work with him on a regular basis in his MP's surgeries. When they hear about the things people want to be tackled, he will work with them to explore those concerns in more detail, and look for leaders WITHIN the community who can work with us to tackle what needs to be done. If you build a network that goes far and wide and reaches much deeper into the community than one person ever could you can work with people to create initiatives that will tackle their concerns. But they won't be OUR clever ideas; they'll be the ideas of people with skills and talents and motivations and it will be the solutions they want themselves.

His is a very LIBERAL idea of trusting people and empowering them; not imposing a one-size-flattens-all solution from the centre.

People are already out there doing things but how do we join it up? Because when it's joined up we're in a position to be very accountable. Mr Stephen says that each week when he gets back from Westminster, on Friday morning he would meet with keys leaders from the community teams that have developed to tell them what he has been doing for the constituency for the last four days in Parliament; but in return, he would be asking them what THEY had achieved during the week on the agendas that they had set for themselves.

This combination of REFLECTION and ACTION helps to build solid teams; he knows this from his experience in business and voluntary sectors. Once a month, he suggests, he would want to do a social event specifically designed for the team to discuss their successes and failures. (And it's quite all right to make a mistake – he recalls the old proverb: "show me someone who's never made a mistake and I'll show you someone who's never made anything!")

Inspired by all this, Daddy Alex focused in on Mr Stephen's specific plans: if elected what's the first thing he would do… and if NOT elected what's the first thing he would do?

Mr Stephen thought this was a key point. One of the problems that politicians have, he said, is that although they have some solutions as expressed in our policies, they don't have an action strategy to put them to work. I hate to come back to the Conservatories but Mr Balloon is THE prime example of this, always carping on about what is wrong and never offering any solutions.

So, if he DOES win, Mr Stephen will first want to sit down with his team and with key people in the Party to get the guidance and support that he'll need to take him through the first days of a totally new job: being an MP.

He'll want to talk to the local Party too, to start to work on plans for not merely holding but DEVELOPING the seat.

And he'll want to set up a programme of meetings in the community, in order to start to meet people and field the questions that they are bound to have, and to trigger setting up of the networks of listeners as soon as possible.

If he DOESN'T win, then he felt it was important to start by giving feedback to the press about what we feel and how we intend to carry on from here. And then talk tactics and strategy with the local Party about the best way to go on to win the seat at the General Election. And, if he's lucky enough to be selected to carry on as PPC, then he'd want to work on the same listening groups, so that we can get a full picture of their concerns and find the key issues and really develop the Party as the way to deliver solutions, or rather to empower people to deliver THEIR OWN solutions.

Having been once around the table, we returned to Ms Linda who asked what Mr Stephen LIKES and DISLIKES about Lib Dem policies? She confessed that SHE had a particular interest in Trident but she wasn't trying to lead him in that particular direction (she said, while trying to lead him in that particular direction!).

Mr Stephen did not rise to the bait. What HE loves about our policies is the very strong thread of environmental protection running through all of what we do; that is KEY he said, as opposed to the short-termisms of the other Parties.

He is very proud that we are really fighting the surveillance society; he is extremely concerned that the Labour are building the paraphernalia of State Oppression. If "fluffy" people like the Millipede Brothers (hmmm, more OILY than FLUFFY, I would say!) are naïve enough to believe that they ARE doing this for nothing but the best reasons (and Mr Stephen doubts that) then if we get a right wing Government in place (or ANOTHER right wing Government) like the Conservatories who PRETEND not to be right wing but they are, we could lurch into a State that is most UNCOMFORTABLE for the British people!

He believes that British people treasure their freedom, and when it goes there WILL be a reaction.

Ms Linda interjected with a query about our policy on ROAD PRICING and isn't that CONTRADICTORY to our opposition to the surveillance society?

Mr Stephen thought that it was as simple as finding a way to pay ANONYMOUSLY for our use of the roads, and we have the technology to do that.

Daddy Richard insisted on helping Mr Stephen out here, by saying that it is quite simple to have black box in your CAR that picks up a signal with the price point as you drive down the road, rather than the other way around where the road detects AND TRACKS your car. That way it is the individual CAR that knows how much it has cost, and not some Government computer. Then when you go to get your tax disc, you can take along, say, a smart card from your car's road-meter and that tells the person at the till how many road-miles you have racked up WITHOUT telling her or him WHERE they were or where you WENT! It's not difficult to think up a system where the information is PERSONAL and ANONYMOUS… and SECURE from being lost on a train by the Government!

Mr Stephen agreed. We need to avoid shooting ourselves in the foot here, he said. People are crying out for some real LEADERSHIP, they want environmental solutions that make sense. And as Liberal Democrats we need to speak with one voice. We can't have some members of the Party starting to think that others are not opposed to the surveillance society, because all of us are. Anyone turning up at conference in FAVOUR of the surveillance society… well, they probably ought to be looking for another Party.

Lured back to talking about Trident, he said that his response to someone saying "we should immediately get rid of Trident" would be "We should immediately get a PLAN to phase Trident out over a proper time scale." That's not a "politician's answer", or being "woolly"; it IS about showing LEADERSHIP. There are, for example, parts of the country that are very dependent on the nuclear industry, and it would be wring to say let's just get rid of that and leave a big hole. Rather than just abandon them we need to develop a transition so that that same skill set that is turned to innovations in the atomics can be put to making Britain a centre of excellence in alternative energies.

He is against nuclear weapons, but he is also against destabilising the local communities or destabilising the world too. Pressed on whether he would REPLACE Trident, he restated the Party policy of a fifty percent cut, but added that the remaining fifty percent is going to be no good if it's all gone past it's best before date. It's about a REASONABLE timescale, and he has to admit that that is sadly going to be about twenty-five years. We have a goal; let's take our time to get there safely!

After that we needed a brief pause to pass refreshment to Ms Miranda, Mr Stephen's agent, who was so lovely in helping me set up the interview, and we briefly discussed the Feng Shui of doughnuts. No really. It was a twisty spirally one with a rustic look to match what we'd been saying about Henley.

Ms Miranda just wanted to add what an exceptional candidate Mr Stephen was, how unusual it was to find someone who understands so much about teams and who is so interested in making the teamwork work, with bonding events and socials.

This is Agent Miranda (She's ALSO Brill!)
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Anyway, then Ms Helen asked what got Mr Stephen involved in setting up the UK Youth Parliament?

Mr Stephen started by taking us back to the work he was doing with Regenerate, working on the street with young people, and they were funded by, among others, Children in Need and Comic Relief.

In investigating the wider community's problems, a lot of what they heard was that people wanted something doing for young people, because there wasn't anything for young people to do. And in keeping with the philosophy of helping a community to solve its own problems, those people who said that were generally the ones who went out to talk to and listen to young people.

They would ask what young people were concerned about, what they loved about their community, things that they were frustrated, worried, angry, sad about and their vision for the future.

And one of the key projects that started to emerge was the young people wanted to have more of a voice.

What Regenerate would do was teach them and train them to put their point of view across by sitting them in front of their member of Parliament asking them a whole range of questions, but not letting the MP off the hook! The MPs answers would be scored as they went along and if they hit a dud, they would have to try again!

(Apparently you should ask Mr Alex Carlile about this! He says it's one of the hardest interviews he's ever had to do, in his political life or his legal life!)

The young people would learn how to hold politicians to account, starting to do a power analysis of local areas, reading the papers, checking out what was going on and deciding on actions they were going to take with local councillors or the mayor or the Member of Parliament.

In doing this they started to run into other people who were doing the same, and gradually it drew together into forming the start of the Youth Parliament.

But it was important not just to appoint people. That way you end up with how the Youth Worker thinks is good, or who the Head Teacher thinks is good. What you need to do is get out there and meet people in order to find who would be able to build up the networks and REALLY become the representative.

It all links up with the things that he had already told us, the things about listening to people and about building networks and empowering people to find their own solutions.

Tying in to this, Helen asked what he thought the voting age should be. Obviously he answered sixteen. Any lower? asked Helen. There's a school of thought that suggests fourteen, she added. But Mr Stephen stuck with sixteen. It's a good age, he said, and it's also the age of consent, but what SHOULD be happening between the age of ten and sixteen is a really GOOD political education. The Labour's ideas of citizenship – the "games that they play" as Mr Stephen put it – falls really short of the mark. He gets very angry with people who say "sixteen is too young; how on Earth can young people make a decision like that?" His reaction is to say: "How on Earth have you ALLOWED a situation to arise where young people CAN'T make that sort of decision?!"

So, and this answer links back again to my question about "Broken Politics", let's get political education back into people's lives and get them EXCITED about politics when they get to voting age.

So, speaking of people who are EXCITED about politics, I asked what he thought of Senator Barry O in Americaland.

That, said, Mr Stephen, is a very good question. Because what is interesting about Mr Barack… apart from all the OTHER things that are interesting about Mr Barack… is that in the Nineties he was trained in political organising by the same people who trained Mr Stephen!

A lot of the things that Barry O has done relate to the things that Mr Stephen had already described to us that he does and wants to do.

This was FASCINATING. Of course, the media love to tell the story as though Barry O has come from nowhere and done this all on his own, but that is obviously NONSENSE. The FIRST thing you have to do after taking the training, is to go out and find ten people and train them, and then have them find ten more each…

Over a ten-year period, what the Illinois Senator has done is listened in communities, and built a team of good people to listen in communities, and build up a climate of goodwill and trust. And THAT is why people believe that change can come.

And Mr Stephen believes that change is coming in Britain too. He thinks that British politics is really STALE. But the fact that Barry O has used these techniques to build a successful and ACCOUNTABLE power base means that he thinks we can do the same in this country. In fact, he's sure we can.

He returned to Daddy Alex's question, what he would do if he didn't win. He said he'd go to bed and the next day carry on with this work.

He thinks it's terrific what Barry O with a massive team behind him has achieved, and he thinks that if we in the Liberal Democrats can put it to work here we can have a MASSIVE impact.

What is wonderful is that the Liberal Democrats INSTINCTIVELY understand this sort of work: it is Community Politics… the Next Generation! It is the "Rolls Royce" version, to use Mr Stephen's words.

People are already fed up with the Labour; they will get fed up with the Conservatories, who will behave just the same. And the Liberal Democrats will be in Government in the next ten to fifteen years. And Mr Stephen is absolutely determined to see that that happens and to be a part of it.

There are key people in the Liberal Democrats who obviously UNDERSTAND this work, and Mr Clogg is clearly one of them. So we all can, and we will, be Britain's Barack Obama.

Daddy Alex saw how this connects with the Federal Policy Committee discussing just the day before a totally-top-secret-that-he-wouldn't-even-tell-ME-about "narrative document". A lot of the discussion that we did not discuss was around whether we as Liberal Democrats use "negative" language – attacking Labour and the Tories – or more positive – like Barry O's "yes we can" message. And yet in a closely fought election like the one in Henley, all the candidates will be saying broadly similar things about the economy and schools and pies made with locally grown apples. Supposing, then, that we meet a punter on the doorstep saying "oh, you're all the same", in a sentence or two… how should we summarise our message?

Mr Stephen would say: "We are going to build trust, respect and relationships within communities. And we're going to take action WITH communities."

Which isn't just good but actually IS a sentence or two!

Mind you, he went on to add that they had been brainstorming strap lines for Focus leaflets the night before. Having to come up with a PUNCHY sentence to describe our team it was: "we are Principled, Practical, Purposeful Politicians who put People at the heart of our work." And that's not bad either.

Having met him and talked to him, even for just an hour, I really have to say what an absolutely CORKINGLY splendid chap our candidate is. Intelligent, thoughtful, charismatic and passionate, he is EXACTLY the sort of person who ought to be a Member of Parliament and if people voted based on CHARACTER rather than Party then he would walk it.

Apparently the Conservatories have picked a real PLANK as their candidate, someone who has managed to keep up the BoJo GAFFE tradition by campaigning against developing on the Green Belt whilst lobbying FOR it.

But frankly that should not matter, because Mr Stephen is just so much better anyway!

GO to Henley. This is NOT a foregone conclusion, no matter what the Westminster Village Idiots in the media might be telling you. Get some momentum behind him and GET MR STEPHEN ELECTED.

Britain needs him!

You can also meet exciting locals and help them with the campaign... e.g. here I am explaining how the computer printer works to Mr Dr Evan Harris!

Mr Dr Evan Harris (You guessed it: Brill!)
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