Tuesday, 26 May 2015

What's the point of the SLF?

OK, it's a spuriously provocative title. But if you can't be spuriously provocative on your blog, when can you be?

I joined the SLF shortly after they were formed, and have been a member ever since. At the time, they were a welcome voice standing up for the membership against a leadership that all too frequently ignored party policy in favour of 'tough decisions' that they never bothered to justify. When the party was dominated by the right (and by the Cleggbunker), they were a welcome counterbalance.

I was pretty turned off in the first days after the election. Their blogs, when they went up, were reasonable. But the tone in unofficial communication was too often gloating and sneery, and I don't like it. I get that everyone was tired, and it may be unfair to hold people to what they said and how they said it. But it made me wonder.

Thinking about it further, I think the reason for my discomfort is deeper - I'm not sure what they're for any more.

The SLF were founded to counterbalance the leadership. Then Liberal Reform founded to counterbalance the SLF... wondering how long it'll take for the Radical Liberal Movement to counterbalance Liberal Reform and for someone to shout 'splitters' at conference. They played a valuable role in the coalition era in doing that, in vocally standing up for party policy, for radical liberalism, and for the 'left' of the party.

But post-coalition, we all *agree* that centralist managerialism is dead, that we need to reflect party policy, and that we need to be radical in our liberalism. We're less at risk of forgetting our social liberal heritage than of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and renouncing the positives from our experience in government.

The likely leader, Tim Farron, is as SLF as they come - and is gathering significant endorsements from the party 'establishment'. Presumably, we're all SLF now.

If anything, as we react to coalition, Liberal Reform is likely to be the more important of the two. And now that we don't have one camp forced on us by Great George Street to react against, perhaps it's time to be less factionalist and stop dividing ourselves into 'left' and 'right', and concentrate on being 'liberal'.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

How Tim Farron saying what I think worries me.

In the Guardian this weekend, Tim Farron responded to his critics, explaining his votes on gay marriage. This is what I asked him to do, and in regretting his abstention on the third reading of the equal marriage bill, he's moved closer to my position. Great! Unfortunately, the interview as a whole has somehow left me more skeptical than I started out.

Obviously if Tim is now pro-equal marriage (or always was) then that's great. But he must have known at the time that abstention would be perceived as opposition - and it bothers me that he isn't willing to defend this position. And he also fails to mention the vote against the programme motion - where he effectively voted against taking the legislation forward - which feels like dodging the issue.

Even more so because if the basis of his opposition really was to do with conscience clauses and free speech, it is possible to mound a reasonable defence of this position on liberal grounds. If Tim felt that the bill did not adequately protect the rights of one minority (very religious people) while enforcing the rights of another minority (same sex couples), then either voting against it or abstaining is the right thing to do.

If Tim really believes that this was the case, then he should be willing to defend his record. The fact that he now 'regrets' his position looks weak and flip floppy - and I can't help wondering if he regrets it on its own merits, or because its harming his leadership chances.

I'm starting to worry that Tim is too keen to agree with the activist base on everything - I'm not sure I can remember a time when he's taken a controversial position and disagreed with the activist base. This makes me concerned that I don't completely understand what he believes - and I'm keen to have a leader willing to set out his stall on key issues and justify them, even when he disagrees with me (ideally as long as he doesn't do it too often!).

His interview with Pink News, today, was better. Talking about trans issues (yes!) and how the equal marriage legislation was a missed opportunity to do lots of good things (yes!). They put to him most of the questions I would have done (go Pink News!) and made him answer them.

In response, he offers the kind of liberal justification I've wanted to see all along - that you have to protect the right of people to say offensive things. That part, I'm convinced by - but if he's got good reasons, then why has he changed his mind, and what to?

In fairness, there's lots of good stuff in there - not just the liberal justification for his voting record, but also on disestablishment of the Church of England and internationalism.

But overall, the interviews have given me an impression of a flip-flopper unwilling to defend his record. If you're explaining, you're losing, and once the public starts to see you as untrustworthy or weak, then you're basically toast (see: Clegg, Milliband). And if the Lib Dems aren't the party of equal rights, then what are we for?

I started out wanting to vote for Farron - but I'm starting to feel that his votes on gay rights could be as toxic as Lamb's vote for tuition fees.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Meeting the New Lib Dems

On Friday we had a get-together for new Lib Dems in Sheffield (in an excellent pub with lots of real ale - of course). It was well attended, and I got a chance to speak to several people.

The similarity was in why they joined. With one exception, they said the same thing: they'd always (or usually) voted Lib Dem, and either just before or just after the election they'd felt the party and its values to be under threat, and had wanted to do something more.

Otherwise, their views were as diverse as the rest of the party. Right, left, middle of the road, interested in public services, civil liberties, or foreign policy - just like the rest of us. Don't let anyone tell you it's a lot of lefties joining now we're out of coalition - not a bit of it.

The best part - an overwhelming interest in getting involved. Admittedly, we're talking a self-selecting sample of people coming to a Lib Dem event on Friday night. But there was real enthusiasm about getting involved - coming to conference, delivering our thank-you focus, some street stalls, maybe even standing for council.

I was excited about the new members before - they gave us a boost when we were at our lowest, and I'm so grateful to them for that. But having met some of them, I think it's more exciting than that. They're excited about rebuilding the party - and they'll do it. Some of them will become the next generation of councillors, group leaders, party chairs and MPs.

I'm still crushed, and exhausted. I realised that on Friday night when I had to restrain myself from gushing at the new members when I told them how grateful I was. When I nearly cried right there in the pub because of it. The euphoria the new members initially excited has worn off - but having met them, I'm as hopeful as I've been recently about the future of the party.

Friday, 15 May 2015

My Heart Aches for Burundi

If you look way back to the archives of this blog, you’ll see that it started in Burundi, that I spent a few months there and fell in love with the country, as most people who go there do.

Now, the country that enchanted me is in the news again – and French-speaking countries in Africa are never in the British news for good reasons.

This isn’t an analysis of what’s happening. There are better writers than me out there who know the context better. I only studied it for a few short years, and only spent a few months there. I’m not an expert and I won’t pretend to be one.

But I can barely watch the news right now. My friends in Burundi – some of them have left and are refugees. Some still there, in the middle of it. I am afraid for them – they’d been through so much, and their tiny wonderful country deserves so much better.

Why did the country draw me in as it did? The beaches, the lakes, the brochettes and the fish, and the Congolese bands coming across from Uvira. The slow pace of life, a city small enough to learn to navigate easily by bus and where you run into friends on the street. But mostly the people. Generous, open-hearted, proud of their country and their heritage, and - above all - hopeful that the future would be better than the past.

There were always problems. The peace has held, but development has been slow and the government increasingly authoritarian. But there was enough positive news to cancel it out – the integration of the army (without which we’d have seen more violence and the coup may not have failed) and the return of refugees. And, mostly, we haven't heard anything - and no news is sometimes good news.

I became a humanitarian because we don’t know how to fix these problems, and in trying we can often make them worse. I am a sticking plaster, trying to help people get by while we wait for them to be able to go home. But right now, that doesn’t feel good enough.

I haven't been back to Burundi since I left. As a humanitarian, I only go to places where bad things are happening. Never having been back to Burundi has made me happy, and I hoped that when I did go it would be on R&R from Goma. 

Now I'm faced with possibly going back to work - and it breaks my heart.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Why I want to vote for Tim - but don't know if I can

Like many people in the Lib Dems right now, I want to see a change from the managerialist centralism that's constrained the party so long. I want us to mount strong conviction campaigns on civil liberties and human rights. I want us to talk about intergenerational justice and housing. I want us to make the positive case for immigration and stand up for the rights of minorities.

To do that we need a strong communicator, grounded in the party and it's values, not afraid to make the case for our relevance in a crowded political marketplace and rebuild our brand.

Unfair as we may see it, the electorate has given us a clear verdict on our role in government. It's pretty clear that they aren't fans. And we need to turn the page - which means we need a leader who has been outside that, and ideally one who didn't vote for Tuition Fees or Secret Courts.

I'm also, to put it mildy, mad as hell after five years of being trampled on by the party establishment, half of whom wouldn't know an action day if it hit them in the face, and being told to shut up and deliver leaflets whenever I dared complain. Of having conference 'managed' to prevent us debating important issues, or ignored when we spoke clearly. Of saying that 'when we work we win' the day after our council base is decimated and our MEPs all but wiped out.

I am therefore keen to stick two fingers up at said establishment by voting for an outsider, someone who they don't like, who's been on the wrong end of their kak-handed poisonous briefings, who takes me seriously, and who actually likes activists.

Norman Lamb is smart, was a competent minister who pushed important Liberal goals, especially on mental health. But he's tainted by coalition and he's the establishment candidate.

I also feel like some inspiring oratory might be in order right now to help me get through the years ahead. And, much as I respect Norman Lamb, I don't see him as able to push my liberal buttons on demand.

So as far as I can see, Tim's the man for the job.


The evangelical Christianity.

It's part of what makes him a conviction politician - and mostly I don't care that much. The faith healing and prayer breakfasts isn't my cup of tea - but I'm a Liberal, so if that's what he wants to do with his time, I'm not that bothered.

But his voting pattern on core Liberal issues worries me. His record on gay rights is patchy. In a party who boasts gay marriage among their proudest achievements in government, and which exists to promote freedom, equality and fairness, that's a big problem.

And he's been conspicuously absent whenever MPs have been called on to defend abortion. And I can't bring myself to vote for someone who won't defend my right to choose what happens to my body.

I want to vote for Tim - but I don't know if I can do it.

So there's a challenge to Tim's campaign - I want to be convinced, and I'm looking for ways to justify it.

If it turns out the gay rights thing has been misrepresented, and the reason he didn't vote on abortion was because he was rushing a little old lady to hospital (or something) then I'll be happy as anyone. Hell, I'll even volunteer on his campaign.

It seems at the moment that Tim's likely to win by a landslide. Which is fine. But I hope that his team won't rely on all of us wanting to stick the establishment, and address some of the real concerns that people have about his leadership.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Why the election result really IS like being hit by a van

I read this on David Boyle's blog, with the same title. He took it it a very thoughtful direction about authenticity reacting to loss. I'm not as clever or as thoughtful as he is, so started thinking about it more literally, and here you have it: the election results, and their aftermath, explained in terms of being hit by a van:

Stage one (Thursday night, Friday): doing my thing, crossing the road. 10pm exactly, turn around and... holy crap, bright lights approaching. BAM! Pain, misery, suffering, I must be dead.

Stage two (Saturday, Sunday): I blearily open my eyes and realise that... I'm alive! Adrenaline surges through my body. Since I've survived such a horrendous blow – I feel more alive and active than ever. I want to sing and dance. And better yet – other people, some old friends, some new people, have come to help me to my feet again. The world is a wonderful place because despite it all, I'm alive.

Stage three (Monday): All the people who helped me up. I'm still so happy to see them, and I'm still happy to be alive. But the adrenaline and the oh-my-God-I'm-alive joy are wearing off, and I'm starting to feel the pain, realise I've broken some bones and probably done all sorts of other damage, and it's going to be a long, hard road back to recovery.

Stage four (late Monday): I hear a siren in the distance. It's the ambulance coming to collect me. Is it a Tim-shaped driver, or a Norman-shaped driver?

Either way, they'll take me to the hospital and with good luck and the help of all my old and new friends, I'll be out eventually. And I'll be stronger and wiser than I was before.

And once I'm out, I'll start a community campaign for a pedestrian crossing. Because I'm a Liberal, and that's what we do.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Why Now is the Time to Join the Lib Dems

5,000 people and counting have joined the Lib Dems since polls closed on Thursday. As a long-term member and activist, I've always known we would bounce back from whatever fate threw at us. That so many people agree is both thrilling and humbling. Here are some reasons why I think other Liberally-inclined people should join us – and why now is the time to do it.

1. There's a leadership election coming up
We're the only major party to elect our leader by one member, one vote. Out of our remaining crop of MPs, we're expected to have two strong, and different candidates in Tim Farron and Norman Lamb. Who we elect will have a major impact of the future of the party – and anyone joining before June 3rd gets to vote. If you want to help shape the future of the party – join now!

2. We're more relevant than ever
Bear with me on this one. Yes, we've lost a lot of MPs and been reduced to a rump in the commons. But the issues we'll face over the next five years are fundamentally liberal issues – human rights, the snoopers charter, Europe, devoluion and EVEL. Labour have consistently been horrendously authoritarian and anti-democratic on these issues, and in any case are about to engage in a protracted bout of navel-gazing so won't be effectively opposing anything. We need a strong Liberal Democrat party to lead the fight to uphold our rights and liberties. It'll be hard work, but it'll be fun and exciting and we might just make a difference – so please join and help be part of that.

3. Big changes ahead – but we don't know what yet
It's now clear that the centralist managerialism that the party has cleaved to for the last decade has failed, and that the pavement politics that have been our fallback have limits. To revive, we're going to have to become a campaigning party of radical liberalism again – but we don't know what that looks like yet. In the Lib Dems, all our policy is made by conference, which means that by joining, you get to shape what that looks like. I know someone – an ordinary member – who drafted a motion for conference on shared parental leave, which eventually got into the manifesto and is now an actual thing. Which is a pretty good day's work – and you can do the same. Whatever your idea for how we should take the party forward is, we want to hear it, and we'll listen, and discuss it, and if we all agree then it becomes our policy. And one day we might be in a position to implement it – and then you get to say that you made policy happen.

4. It's fun
OK, I'm a politics geek – but if you're reading this, then you're probably one too. But I can honestly say that joining the Lib Dems has been one of the better things I've done in my life – I get to know that I've made a difference in my community, and when bad things happen I know I did everything I could to stop them. Plus – we're only likely to go up from here. By joining the party now, you can be the old warhorses of the future, with bright-eyed young activists hanging off your every word as you prop up the conference bar! You can say you were part of the Great Liberal Revival (the second one)! That's got to be worth some leaflets, right?

Convinced? You can join here: http://www.libdems.org.uk/joining