Thursday, 6 March 2014

Imperfect peace is better than war

The political "crisis' or the wile handlin' in political circles in Northern Ireland last week was unedifying.

Anyone who has followed closely the process that has taken us from the dark days of 'The Troubles', through the Downing Street Declaration and Good Friday Agreement to today knows that the OTRs (on the runs) have been part of story and Republicans' list of issues for all that time. If I was Peter Robinson or anyone in the DUP I wouldn't have made the fuss they made last week as it exposes two things; they weren't paying proper attention over the last few years- they cannot credibly say they didn't know about the OTR deal as it is a matter of public record- and they weren't as effective as Sinn Fein at negotiating similar arrangements for loyalists or those soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday. The hand wringing last week did them no credit at all.

We must however separate two issues. The scheme itself- right or wrong- which has been around for some time, and the calamitous, incompetent decision to send a letter as part of this scheme to John Downey. The latter was a disgrace. The former an unpalatable but probably necessary part of negotiating a settlement to end a war.

Making peace is about compromise. Sometimes inelegant, ugly compromise. But compromise for a bigger purpose. Compromise for peace. The peace we have in Northern Ireland is imperfect but it is a million times better than the awful spectre that stood over that great island for so many years.

Two weeks. A lifetime.

I have been thinking about this post for the two weeks or so since our daughter, Aoife, was born. It has taken until the last few days for me to commit pen to paper, well, finger to iPad screen. Why? Three reasons.

One, there is almost too much to say. How can you summarise in a few paragraphs the feelings of becoming a parent for the first time and do it justice? How can you adequately sum up the lifetime of transformation we have experienced over the last two weeks?

Two, the fear of resorting almost entirely to cliché. I have fretted; is there any original way to express one's feelings on this occasion? Will I sound like the worst of lazy writers? Has it all be said before?

Third, the time to sit, think and then write has become somewhat condensed these last fourteen or so days. This is due in part to having new tasks to complete; feeding, changing, nursing etc but also to the time we now take just watching our little bundle of perfection. I imagine it being a similar experience to the days of the first TVs in the street when people from all around went to the chosen house to watch the box in the corner of the room. We can now very happily spend an hour at a time just sitting watching Aoife, even if she is doing nothing but sleep!

I have waited until the last few days when time and a clear (and less tired) head has allowed. I have gathered my reflections; things I learnt over the last two weeks or things I now know even more than I knew before. I will say sorry now if a cliché or two sneaks in. Here goes.

Meeting your child for the first time is the greatest meeting of your life.
The moment Aoife entered the world was heart-stopping. Is she ok? Is she breathing? Why isn't she crying? Then the feeling of relief followed by euphoria, followed by overwhelming emotion, when the crying starts and she is placed on he mummy's chest and she looks at you. It is a feeling of meeting someone for the first time who you instantly recognize and instantly know. I wasn't sure that love at first sight really existed until I met Aoife. It does. Cliché use apology!

Hospitals can be scary but doctors, nurses and midwives can make you feel safe.
The care we received- and I include myself in that as someone who received kindness and consideration in the two days of so we spent as a family in hospital- from the people of the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital was brilliant. It was all good but I pick out one moment. As our labour was getting to the final stages and tiredness was setting in (not just mine!) two doctors joined us in the delivery room. The way they took control- calmly, sensitivity but firmly- inspired confidence and gave us a feeling of security which as first time parents we really appreciated. My abiding memory of those moments were the clarity of communication from the doctors- simple language, calmly delivered with a strong sense of purpose. The atmosphere in the room changed as soon as they arrived and shortly afterwards our daughter arrived!

Grandparents are happy when they become grandparents!
Yes, this falls into the category of things I now know even more than before! I have never seen joy- pure, unstrained, uncensored joy as when our parents met Aoife for the first time. The look in their eyes, their bursting pride, their tears of joy were so wonderful to share. It is unlike any other expression of joy I have ever seen and a little bit of me enjoyed a moment of self satisfaction that I had played a part in making them that happy.

People are so kind and thoughtful.
We have been inundated with cards, presents, calls, emails, Tweets, Facebook mentions and good wishes from family, friends, neighbours, colleagues and friends of friends and family. It has been so humbling that so many people wanted to share in our joy.

I love my wife more than words can express.
I consider myself to be a very lucky man to not only have met, but to have married, the best, most special person on the planet. I do of course have great judgment so I take some of the credit for this meeting and subsequent marriage! The downside of this love- this all encompassing, gut-wrenching, can’t imagine life without each other love- is that you hurt when they hurt. And there doesn’t come much more pain or hurt than giving birth- I am reliably told. Watching the person you love most in the world experience the worst pain of their life is awful- you would give anything to take their place and yet you are left feeling totally helpless. Mercibly my wife is braver and tougher than me so she took it all in her stride but it was hard to watch. Thankfully those few hours are a memory now but my memory will always be full of my wonderful wife’s amazing determination to bring our darling daughter into the world and now I have seen her add the title of planet’s most incredible Mum to go with her wife world crown. So I go back to where I started; I am a very lucky man and my daughter is a very lucky girl.

Oh yes, one last thing; sleep is over-rated!

We have known our daughter for just over fourteen days. It feels as if we have always known her. Our world now revolves around her (cliché klaxon!). Our lives will never be the same again and we thank God and all our blessings for that.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Are you positive?

I really liked recent comments by Nicky Morgan MP about the need for the Tories to be more positive in its language. It is a coincidence that I have been saying this for some time- honestly!

Elections in Britain are won in the centre ground. The people who win elections are not tribal. They sometimes vote Conservative. They sometimes vote Labour. They sometimes vote Lib Dem. They sometimes vote for someone else. But whoever they vote for gives them a positive reason to vote. If British electoral history tells us anything it tells us that these key voters need to be inspired.

Parties of all colours have captured this crucial vote election after election by offering a positive message- something that could make the lives of them and their loved ones better. The NHS, a welfare state, the white heat of technology, owning your own home, keeping more of your own money, a country at ease with itself, things can only get better, more money for better public services, fairness for all, the list goes on. All of these ideas have been positive ideas of what government can do to make life better.

Granted it has been a tough few years to be positive but if this government wants to be re-elected in one form or another it needs to find a positive voice- it needs to give people a reason to move off the sofa on election night or make a detour on their daily journey to vote. The same is true of Labour. Give the people something to shout about; something to get excited about, something to get behind. Be positive or be in opposition.

The language of life sentences

The recent Court of Appeal case following last year's European Court ruling has thrown the debate about life sentences or life terms back on the public's agenda.

For the purpose of this post I am not concerned about the legal position- important though that is- but the language used and the reason it is important.

For the justice system to work effectively it needs to do more than be a technical delivery of the law- it must carry the public's confidence. I believe that the biggest cause of public disquiet and loss of confidence is when sentences don't do what they say on the tin. This lack of a Ronseal moment is seen most acutely when considering life sentences- as by their nature they are the most serious cases and the people who pose the greatest risk to our safety.

If someone is sentenced to life in prisonment, the public expect them to spend the rest of their life in prison. The fact that they don't concerns and confusing folk. We need much more honesty in our language. 'Life' should be used when that is what we mean; not ten years, not twenty years, not thirty years, but life. The whole of the rest of that person's life. We are not doing that in hundreds of cases and these few that are the subject of this current case provides a great opportunity to start to get it right. In the States the concept of 99 year sentences is appealing as it carries a certainty- something exact. 'Life' almost always does not mean life- it means something else.

If life sentences were a brand or a product they would have very little customer loyalty. No-one would be buying. Whether the law as it currently is applied properly or not is not my concern here, it is the language used. We should always try to say what we mean as simply and clearly as we can. Why would it be different in the most serious judgements over someone's freedom? The language really matters. Let's call it as it is.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Two jobs and a bar

It has been a hugely rewarding start to the year.

I am now two weeks into my new job at PwC and enjoying every minute. It is so invigorating and energising. It offers that brilliant combination of working with very smart, talented people, who recognise their best chance of success for their clients, their organisation and themselves is to work with their colleagues- supported by a set of corporate values and an environment which encourages this team working but also embraces diversity. So far so good and I've only got lost in our various offices once or twice (ok, maybe three or four times!) so far.

Alongside this new job, Mrs J and I are preparing to take on the greatest, hardest job in the world as we contemplate impending parenthood. We are thrilled, excited, scared and nervous but as ready as we will ever be. We just hope and pray that everything goes well over the next few weeks. We are also reflective about the awesome responsibility we will soon have and in awe of those who have gone before us.

I have spent a lot of time over the last few months thinking about everything our parents have done for us and everything we owe them. The two greatest gifts that we have been blessed with are the unending and unquestioning love of our parents and the unshakeable values and ethics they instilled in us. Some of these are rooted in the Catholic Church in which we were both raised- and for all it's failings we are still very grateful for that- but also in own family's values. Working hard, being honest but streetwise, treating people fairly, having confidence in yourself with a healthy amount of questioning of others, having an iron will to succeed but the humility to accept that things go wrong, and a love and belief in family. Not a bad gift to give your children and a legacy we plan to embrace and perpetuate.

If we do half the job with Junior Jones that our parents have done for us we will be doing very well. They have set a very high bar.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

2014; big year ahead

The start of a new year is always a time of great promise and great opportunity. Plans are made. Goals are set. Excitement is high.

This year is no exception.

2014 looks like being an absolute cracker with lots of exciting change and amazing new challenges.

Mrs J and I are due our first baby in February. Whatever we think and however well prepared we are, we know the change about to hit us will be huge. We are so excited and can't wait to become parents. I know my wife will be the best Mum ever. We are so lucky to have such great examples to follow in our families and to be surrounded by such amazing support. It is fair to say that excitement levels are now reaching fever pitch on both sides of the Irish Sea!

To the new role of Dad, I am adding a new work role too. Tomorrow, I start my new job as a Director at PwC. I will become the new Communications Network Leader in the UK. Another fantastic new challenge with a great organisation and great people- I can't wait to get started.

2014 is only a few hours old and already it is filled with wonderful opportunities and excitement. Bring it on!

Monday, 30 December 2013

Highlights of 2013

With just over 24 hours to go in 2013 my thoughts have turned all reflective. It’s time to look back on my highlights of the year.

How was my 2013? Well, pretty good. No, really good.

On the home front it started with gut-wrenching worry and awfulness with Aileen in hospital and ends with joy and wonder as Aileen stands (not for long these days!) thirty-three and a half weeks pregnant and looking and feeling amazing. We feel so blessed that we are on the verge of becoming parents for the first time. We are just holding our breath and keeping everything crossed for the next few weeks.

The wonderful Mrs J and I had a wonderful trip to the States in May, which I documented in nauseating detail earlier in the year on this blog. A memory that stands out above all other was the incredibly moving scene in Boston as we spent some time at the impromptu memorial built near Copley Square following the Boston Bombing. It was quite a year for Boston with an amazing last to first turnaround to win the World Series. I spent many a happy night and early morning glued to in 2013 watching the “Boston Strong” Red Sox bring much excitement and pride to that wonderful city and its adoring fans. I discovered that my allegiance to the Red Sox is something I share with Ed Milliband who ends the year much as he started- in the lead but not leading.

Whilst we’re on politics, it is worth noting again that the coalition still stands and the long game they have been playing on the economy looks like it is paying off. Will it pay off in time for a 2015 Tory outright victory/Lib Dem recovery in polls and holding of their seats only time will tell but things are looking up for them now..….especially if Mr Milliband continues his current level of performance.

The coalition also delivered on a key reform this year. I was very proud to see the Equal Marriage legislation pass if a little ashamed to see the behaviour of some of my party during its passage. I fear we will see more of the worse of the Tory party in 2014 as no doubt some believe the best way to outsmart UKIP in time for the European Elections is to out-sceptic them. This would not be in Britain’s interests. I just hope we get the referendum on Europe soon so that those of us who believe we need to be at the heart of a reformed Europe (not run by Europe) can put our positive message and we can put to bed the nonsense idea that we should leave the EU. We can then bid goodbye to Mr Farage and his friends.

On a personal political note, I stood down from the candidates list in 2013 to focus on becoming a Dad. I look forward to returning to more active politics in the future but I look forward to becoming a Dad more.

It was fantastic and very moving to hear that the Attorney General quashed the risible original Hillsborough inquests and order new ones, due now in 2014. It continues the process of vindication of so many, including the extraordinary Anne Williams, who lost her own fight against cancer in 2013 but not her fight against the British legal system and the injustice that had stood for too long.

A mention of the families takes my thoughts to Anfield and despite some awful behaviour from you know who- I try not to speak or type his name because although he is one of the best players in the world he doesn’t deserve to wear the red of my great club- we are making progress. I like what Brendan Rogers is doing and with the continued support of FSG and the fans the top four is in reach.

The sporting chat runs short there really. A summer of two halves in the Ashes and despite a brilliant Wimbledon- delighted for Andy Murray- the sporting year of 2013 was always going to be a come down after the highs of 2012. Personally my annual pilgrimage to the Cheltenham Gold Cup stands out as did a number of trips to the Royal Opera House and Coliseum for amazing drama of another kind. I will however point out one or two predictions I feel especially smug about now that I made in 2013 (often with the help of Paddy Power!). These include the sacking of AVB at Spurs, the Red Sox World Series Win, Liverpool being top of the league on Christmas Day (made in July), England winning the first Ashes 3-0 and Phil Taylor losing in the first two rounds of the world darts. I of course reserve the right not to mention all the other predictions!

We said goodbye to two political giants in Thatcher and Mandela this year and I can’t help but think it also marked the end of an era in how politics and big events are covered in the media. Both of these- and other big stuff during the year- were not done justice by our traditional- particularly- broadcast media. Coverage of both events lacked insightful analysis and fell back on lazy questioning of guests and cliche. Unforgivable really when discussing two such colossal figures and incredible lives. Btw, saying the death of 87 or 95 year old is “tragic” as some at the BBC would have us believe is the sort of laziness I mean! I have spent much of 2013 with three great defenders of high journalistic standards and brilliant use of technology: the FT, Times and New York Times. My daily iPad fix of all three has kept me sane in a world of sloppy news coverage and analysis in 2013.

We also said goodbye to Sir Alex Ferguson this year- goodbye from winning trophies that is, thankfully! If I was Mr Moyes I might have wished his goodbye would have been more permanent and him a little less visible with his book and regular appearances in the stands for matches but I guess that is the least of his worries.

2013 also saw the re-emergence of the Papacy as a force for good. Credit must be given to Pope Benedict for taking the extraordinary step of retiring but more to Pope Francis who has set a new positive tone for the church. As others have said, he is taking the church “out of the palace and into the streets”. His first nine months promise so much. Hello to real modernisation. Goodbye to the forces of deep conservatism that have been strangling the church for so long.

I end the year saying another type of goodbye; to the General Medical Council after great six years; and a big hello to PwC. A huge highlight in 2013 were my discussions with PwC, who I joined in a few days time. 2014 is shaping up to be a fantastic year of exciting challenges, opportunities and change.

So these are my (slightly random) reflections on 2013. But what about the marks I hear you ask? Nine out of ten for 2013! I’m hoping for a ten next year and some blogging about Junior Jones!

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Goodbye GMC

On 31st December I will go to 350 Euston Road for the last time as an employee of the General Medical Council to hand in my laptop, blackberry and security pass. It brings to an end an eight and a half year journey- the first two and half mostly on secondment from KPMG- the last six as an employee.

It has been a fantastic experience- a period of incredible change and massive challenge. It has been a great privilege to play a small role in helping the organisation through those changes and to share in its success, especially working with my brilliant Strategy and Communication colleagues over the last few years.

It has also been a period of great learning for me. I reflected on this with my team earlier this week; If you want to trust people, you have to let them make mistakes. I've learnt to pick my battles more. I've learnt not to measure achievement in volume or activity, whether that's in numbers of projects or emails you send or receive at weekends! I walk slower than I did three years ago- realising I used to rush everywhere but not get there any quicker. And I have learnt that you often have more impact by doing less.

As well as reflecting on recent achievements, the enormous change the organisation has been through and my own personal journey and learning, I was able to thank my team for all they have done. They are a brilliant group of people. I am immensely proud to have shared in their recent success and delighted to have worked with them. It has been a blast.

In closing, I drew inspiration from a previous GMC leader, Sir Graeme Catto, who was fond of this quote from Hilaire Beloc.

From quiet homes and first beginning,
Out to the undiscovered ends,
There's nothing worth the wear of winning,
But laughter and the love of friends.

Great words from two great men as I close the page on a hugely rewarding chapter in my career.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Stepping down from the candidates list

I have stepped down from the Conservative Party's list of approved parliamentary candidates. I have included below the text of the letter I sent to Head of Candidates explaining my decision.

Dear Gareth

I would like to step down from the list of approved parliamentary candidates.

It has been a tremendous privilege to represent the party in this way over the last six years- and I hope to have the opportunity to do so again in the future - but I know that for the foreseeable future I will not be able to give the time and commitment it requires to be on the list and I do not want to take up a place on at the expense of others.

My wife and I are expecting our first child in February- something we are overjoyed about. Our life is about to change beyond all recognition at a time when I, like all candidates, would rightly be expected to be giving every possible minute to the upcoming general election campaign. At this time I will be giving every possible minute to being the best father and husband I can be- whilst working full-time.

I am proud of what the party is doing for our great country. I am proud too of the leadership shown by David Cameron, including in his sense of duty in entering a coalition in the national interest in 2010. I am proud of his leadership in helping put our economy back on its feet after the disaster we inherited from Labour and in extending Conservatives values into policy- from bringing greater choice into education to extending fairness and justice through his support of equal marriage. I will also never forget his powerful and much-valued apology to all of us deeply affected by Hillsborough and the sickening and disgraceful cover-ups that followed.

I have been a member of this party since 1992 and will continue to be a member and give it my fullest possible support between now, the election and beyond. But family must come before politics and I want to be honest and direct about my priorities. It is right therefore to step aside at this time but I do so with great pride in our party and safe in the knowledge that our country’s best days lie ahead.

Thank you for the opportunity to serve the party as a candidate.

Yours faithfully,

Ben Jones

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

MPs pay and reforming our politics; time for a real and fair debate

There is never a good time to propose increasing the pay of MPs. Not even a Lions and Andy Murray-fuelled feel good factor has enough power to move that issue from the political third rail to the safety of the mainstream. But I can't help but think that we are focusing on the wrong question.

I started to write this blog post yesterday when contemplating the recent discussion of the issue before Ed Milliband made his speech on the link between Labour and the Unions. Depending on your view he either bravely or cravenly touched on some of the wider issues in this debate- but these are issues that I think should concerns us all.

We should be asking ourselves not how much should MPs earn but how do we strengthen our democracy and the link between MPs and the people who employ them; us. One of the great missed opportunities of the last few years has been the collective failure of the political class to tackle issues of the health of our democracy. Long before the expenses scandal (or the dodgy looking events in Falkirk) trust in politics and politicians were on the slide- and very little has been done to arrest it. Let's put aside MPs pay for a moment and look at some other measures that we need to radically reform of our politics.

Instead of major reform we desperately needed we've had insipid electoral reform proposals- by the way I voted yes for AV not because I love AV but because we need to start changing our electoral system to make it fairer- and fixed term Parliaments. Yes, there has been a strengthening of the select committee role which has been welcome and a number of petitions have been used to trigger parliamentary debates- although the rules and procedures are too hard to follow and leave too much discretion in the hands of the government- but not enough has been done.

In no particular order and not trying to be exhaustive here are some issues we need to address: political funding reform is stuck in the mud (I am personally against state funding- I think the market should decide whether a party deserves support not the state) - this needs unsticking with clear limits and total transparency for all donations, loans and financial arrangements (including with trade unions). We need open primaries for all seats; a proper recall mechanism for MPs- the people choosing not MPs letting the people choose when to kick their MP- it works in the US; a fairer voting system with everyone's vote carrying the same weight; the House of Commons needs to look different- our MPs need to look like the rest of us (as a start I would drop the rule that means all men must wear ties but we also need a better diversity of people and people who have had real non-political jobs before entering the House- I would also redesign the shape and layout of the chamber to make it less confrontational) and change how votes in Parliament are counted- surely we should be using technology from the 21st not 18th century; the same is true of vote counting in parliamentary seats (speaks someone who has sat up unit 3am many times with lots of volunteers and bank staff earning extra money to hand count paper votes in a sports centre!); we need to end £30k golden goodbyes to MPs who lose their seats; boundary changes needs to be made to make all seats of equal size and population; and yes, we do need to look at the pay of MPs. We need a package of reform that covers all aspects of democracy from candidate selection to part funding; how our votes are cast and how they are counted. This current lamentable debate about MPs pay is trivialising the issue of real reform.

There is never a good time to look at MPs pay to be increased. That is why an independent body should- does- now look at this. Yet the politicians can't help but get involved again and try to force their view on the system. We need an honest debate about what we should pay people who work often 90 hours week, across seven days with massive sacrifices to home life and privacy. But I would rather we did that at the same time as tackling the wider issues of the health of our democracy. As with all things in life we need fairness. A fair electoral system. A fair way of parties financing themselves and choosing their candidates. A fair wage for MPs.

We need to start asking the right questions about how we strength our democracy and then perhaps we will get a full and fair answer. Whatever the motivation of Mr Milliband in raising some of these issues today and whatever the political outcome for him and his party we should welcome the opportunity to debate these issues in full.