January 31, 2020 § Leave a comment
So, today is happening. I thought before the referendum in 2016 that people as a whole were best off with Britain having full membership of the European Union. I thought that after 2016, through two General elections, seven Lib Dem party conferences, one European election, and hours of activism that I will never attempt to count.
It will, then, come as no surprise that I still think that today, and I fully expect that I will continue to do so tomorrow, and the next day, and onwards after that.
Today is not the end of the Brexit process – it hasn’t even taken the very real threat of a no deal exit off the table, and once again the Conservative government has a matter of months to try and cobble together some sort of deal with the EU. The flags may wave, but they herald the dawn only of further limbo. It is a victory hollow and unclear for its victors, and painfully bitter for its losers.
Today is not the end, either, of British struggles with our collective identity and our place in Europe and the world. Pro-European sentiment is more of a political force in Britain today than it was in 2015, and it will continue to be so. Political issues are not concluded by votes, of any kind: they are concluded when the political body in question is sufficiently content with the situation en masse that there is no call to reopen the question. The Conservative policy since 2016 has been to deepen that divide. As a pro-European I could not cross it whether or not I wanted to: the entire rhetoric and reality of the Brexit project has been an attack on things that are important to me. It offers nothing and takes much; it is a repudiation of the things I am and the things I stand for, by intentional design.
Today is not the end of hope, for me. It is painful, but the pain will fade. Who I am will not fade, and everything I am calls me to fight for rights and freedoms – freedom to move, live, and love where we choose, to have a say in matters that affect this whole continent, to defend the freedom from conflict that has underpinned European life for over half a century – that today are being curtailed. These things, for me, can never just be someone else’s problem: to call for liberty is intrinsic to my understanding of who I am and the world around me.
As liberals, we need to do better on those things than we have done in recent years, in which the European struggle has too often been reduced to psychodrama and removed from its very real costs and its wider context – a growing illiberalism that has seen great pain inflicted especially on non-EU migrants to the UK, whose voice was all too often lost or denigrated by people trying to make political points, and which has also seen an executive that has taken dangerous steps away from permitting scrutiny of its actions, whether that comes in the form of suppressing potentially damaging documents in the wake of an election or literally hiding in a fridge to avoid interviews. There is more need than ever for politics that is internationalist, compassionate, and sharply critical of overreach by a central state infrastructure high on a lethal cocktail of nation-statism. Liberal Democrats, your – our – task at least should today have in clarity of purpose what it lacks in optimism.
I don’t know if Britain will ever again be a member of the EU.
I do know that campaigning to achieve that outcome sooner or later is, and will continue to be, an integral part of campaigning for liberalism in Britain. Be it in sorrow, in anger, or in hope, this is a part of everything we seek to be.
Long live the European Cause.
And what of me, now?
I am torn in two today. My flat, my work, my life: my family, my passport, the places I grew up. I am not going to ask you to “think how that feels” because I know perfectly well that in 2015, before I’d ever contemplated moving to Europe or that Britain might seriously leave it on these sorts of terms, I’d never have been able to understand, empathetically, what I’m feeling as of Jan 31, 2020.
So I won’t ask you to understand. I’ll just tell you, and what you do with that information is yours. Ich bin Englisch, ich bin Europäisch; მე ინგლისელი ვარ, მე ევროპელი ვარ; I am English, I am European. And, like it or not, however much one tries to dance around claims that “Britain isn’t leaving the continent, just the EU”, the fact is that on a very practical basis Brexit is a statement in hard cold legal text of incompatibility between two of the most important parts of my self. Its purpose is above all else to make that duality of migrant existences more difficult: Theresa May’s comment that citizens of the world are citizens of nowhere comes across in retrospect not as commentary but as policy. Brexit is for Britain’s government to “take back control”, not of money, for we have spent profligately on this project, not of decisions, for it is giving up its power to influence the course of a whole continent – it is taking back control of people. People like me.
So here I am. Where is home, now? The country in which, as for all migrants, I live on the whims of successive governments in whose machinations I have not the least say, or the one where I can reliably vote every few years, get represented by a Tory regardless, and have a resulting government whose fundamental policy goals include making my life more difficult? Rejected from one and never accepted to another, I end up a stranger in two worlds.
That’s another part of who I am.
A stranger, beneath yellow lamp-light, with my books on one side and my hope – for there is nothing for it but to hope where hope is palest – on the other. I know less and more alike about who I am and where I fit in than I used to. But I don’t think my part in these stories is over yet. Today is not the end.
November 10, 2019 § 2 Comments
I’m hosting this open letter on behalf of Lib Dem parliamentary candidates who want to highlight our party policy of piloting an unconditional minimum income as part of the social security system. Too often, folk don’t hear about progressive Lib Dem policies beyond stopping Brexit, and I’m very happy to be helping spread the word about this policy, which is particularly important to me as something I’ve personally campaigned for in recent years.
We, Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidates for the 2019 election, wish to highlight the party’s policy of trialling an unconditional minimum income element in the social security system, as endorsed by conference this year within our A Fairer Share for All policy paper. It is crucial that a liberal perspective on this debate is heard as widely as possible: whilst our core aim of stopping Brexit is at the heart of this election, as a prospective party of government it is crucial that the electorate hear about the full range of effective, progressive policies with which we want to tackle the deep evils of poverty and insecurity in Britain.
In 2017, the Liberal Democrats pledged funds for a stronger renewal of social security levels than Labour or the Tories, and we are proud to stand again on a policy of abolishing benefit sanctions – but as a party we have rightly committed to going further and piloting a minimum income element, accessible to all. One of the most damaging features of poverty is the chronic insecurity faced by the worst off in our society; as liberals, our policy will give a route to tackle this and pilot a new, twenty-first century system that will give people the freedom to make use of opportunities and improve their lives. We are proud to be standing as candidates with a party policy to secure pilots of such a system, given its potential for putting our Liberal Democrat values into practice, and as such we wish to highlight our personal support for this policy and our willingness to work to secure such trials in the next parliament.
Adam Bernard, Harrow East
Lee Dargue, Birmingham Ladywood
Beth Waller-Slack, Blackburn
Iain Donaldson, Blackley & Broughton
Rebecca Forrest, Bolton West
Andrew Brown, Bristol South
James Cox, Bristol West **
Ben Goodwin, Broadland
Jasmine Joséphine Sakura-Rose, Caerphilly**
Stephen Richmond, Coventry South
Nukey Proctor, Coventry North East
Simon Sprague, Croydon Central
Susan Murray, Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East
Tom Inglis, Edinburgh South West
Charley Hasted, Eltham
Guy Russo, Enfield North
James Archer, Erewash
Austin Reid, Falkirk
Louise Harris, Filton and Bradley Stoke
Lisa-Maria Bornemann, Harrow West
Mike Beckett, Harwich and North Essex
Stephen Howse, Hexham
Thomas Clarke, Hornchurch and Upminster
Daniel Walker, Leeds West
Sarah Brown, Mansfield
Laura McCarthy, Meriden
Brendan d’Cruz, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney
Steffan Aquarone, Mid Norfolk
Alison Willott, Monmouth
Dr Craig Dobson, Morley and Outwood
Jack Davies, New Forest West
Rupert Moss-Eccardt, North East Cambridgeshire
Graham Cockarill, North East Hampshire
Richard Whelan, North Warwickshire
David Thomas, Norwich North
Dr Richard Brighton-Knight, Nuneaton
Ross Stalker, Paisley and Renfrewshire North
Gordon Lishman, Pendle
Beki Sellick, Peterborough
Graham Reed, Plymouth Sutton and Devonport
Craig Fletcher, Romsey and Southampton North
Rob O’Carroll, Runnymede and Weybridge
Katharine Macy, Selby and Ainsty
Stephen Porter, Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough
Colin Ross, Sheffield Central
Oliver Craven, Sleaford and North Hykeham
Nick Ireland, South Dorset
Chris Brown, South Norfolk
Chris Lofts, South Northamptonshire
David Beavan, South Suffolk
Josie Ratcliffe, South West Norfolk
David Campanale, Spelthorne
Alex Wagner, Stafford
Lisa Nash, Stevenage
Andrew George, St Ives
Dr Anna Fryer, Stretford and Urmston
Jenny Wilkinson, Sutton Coldfield
Rob Wheway, Tamworth
Dr John Timperley, Tiverton and Honiton
Jennifer Gray, Walsall North
Chris Bowers, Wealden
Chris Carubia, Wirral South
Neil Hughes, Workington
James Blanchard, York Central
** These prospective candidates will not be on the ballot paper, having stood aside as part of the Unite to Remain deal with the Greens and Plaid Cymru.
If you’re a Lib Dem parliamentary candidate and you’d like your name added to this list please email me at james (at) wavcott (dot) org (dot) uk. Many thanks!
Map of signatories (updated 10 Dec 2019):
October 26, 2019 § 1 Comment
I’m not endorsing anyone for president, as I mentioned in my previous post about endorsements. Here I give a brief explainer of the race, the campaigns, and their appeal, and the reservations and issues that have stopped me throwing my support behind one candidate or the other. I hope this is useful to readers, and is taken in the spirit of constructive criticism that’s intended – I will vote in this race, but I can’t fully endorse either candidate, and I hope the below will explain why.
Christine “CJ” Jardine
As the MP for Edinburgh West, Christine Jardine is a key figure in our small parliamentary group. She’s also home affairs and equalities spokesperson, and so covers a huge range of issues on behalf of the party.
Christine is a solidly liberal candidate sitting about in the centre of the party, with a decent overall record and a long record of commitment to the party and its members. She’s a former journalist who’s included strong communication skills in her pitch, and she’s an effective, punchy speaker. Her main campaign pitch is primarily focused on the benefits of her being an MP, meaning she has far stronger day to day access to the parliamentary party, and her own place as a values-driven liberal who can connect the grassroots to the leadership.
If we look back to my seven-part theory of how the Lib Dems fit together, as explained in my lanes and runners post from earlier this year, we can start to see how Christine’s voting coalition within the party is likely to fit together. Before we consider lanes, there’s one obvious advantage for Christine that can override most of the voting coalitions, and that’s name recognition. There’s a vastly higher chance that an armchair voter who doesn’t really engage heavily with the party structures has seen Christine before than Mark, her opponent, and that’s a big starting advantage. Christine’s campaign has been a lot quieter than Mark’s on social media, that said – I feel reminiscences of the leadership election to some extent, where Jo’s campaign looked quiet, Ed’s looked pushy and strong, and Jo still won by a large margin, but the dynamics in this race may prove different. But outside that, what’s Christine’s base? Her appeals to her own values as a liberal are likely to be more resonant on the left of the party – the social and radical liberals – at the moment, after the disgruntlement from those quarters at the admission of certain former Conservative MPs to the Lib Dem ranks. Conversely, the True Centrist wing are definitely less likely to be in CJ’s camp for exactly the same reason. She’s also got an obvious advantage among HQ loyalists, due to her being an MP and being known for being close to Jo, although Mark has gained some high profile MP endorsements such as that of Layla Moran which may help blunt that appeal. An interesting feature of the race, on the other hand, is the general lack of appeals to policy or positioning, so there’s been little move from either side to try and claim the #FPBE voter mantle – Christine and Mark aren’t that far apart on that question, and have other differentiating features to their appeal, so haven’t tried to flank each other on that issue. This is a little surprising given the president’s importance in policymaking – they get to sit on the policy and conference committees, influencing what papers get written, whether they get to conference, and whether the results go in the manifesto – but it’s how things have panned out. Broadly, then, Christine is mostly likely to be reliant on her profile, but where she’s laid down specific appeals it’s been toward a coalition of HQ loyalists and the party’s centre-left.
So, I should probably say what my reservations are about Christine as president. These are threefold. Firstly, I think there’s a disadvantage in how close Christine is to Jo. As one of Jo’s most passionate loyalists, Christine isn’t necessarily the right person to be telling Jo when she’s made the wrong call. Second, I’m concerned that Christine will end up personally overloaded to an extent that detracts from the job – her home affairs brief is very wide, and something I think needs to be a core Liberal Democrat priority, so I’m not sure how well that would square with the equally very heavy additional duties of the presidency, where an extremely quick off the mark response time is needed. Finally, my experience of seeing her in action she’s naturally someone who is very good at holding a line and keeping a message, and that strength can become a weakness when you need to engage with people internally. When the president has to get on the phone to an expert advisor or someone speaking for a group of grassroots members, I want to be confident that if the party’s line is wrong or damaging, the president will see it as their job to hear that, keep people on board, and represent those views effectively to the leader, not to try and convince the expert or activist that it is they who are wrong. I think that’s something I’d like to be more convinced that Christine will be good at than I currently am.
A long standing member of various Federal committees, Mark’s main sales pitch is that he’s a party strategy guru – giving talks and devising ideas for how the Liberal Democrats can win elections. (He has a book on this subject. If you were unaware that he has a book on this, I can only assume that you have never met him.) He runs Lib Dem Newswire, his blog, which he’s built into one of the party’s largest internal news sources – the size of his mailing list has been a key launchpad for his campaign.
His key argument is that the presidency should be about organisation first and everything else second – that it’s fundamentally a platform from which to help get Liberal Democrats elected to stuff, and that he’s the person with a plan to do that. The plan in question is the ‘core vote’ strategy, which advocates the idea that the Lib Dems need to, well, build a core vote by connecting with people’s values and building up a wide support base. One of the key elements of this was Mark driving proposals for the Lib Dem supporters’ scheme, which whilst it’s had its uses doesn’t seem to have delivered a much enlarged base, currently taking in far fewer people than the actual membership. The most effective part of building a core vote for us in the last few years has fairly clearly been our switch to much punchier anti-Brexit messaging, rather than anything much we did in the backroom – the core vote strategy, in other words, has a lot to be said for it, but Mark’s modus operandi of technical changes isn’t likely to solve that jigsaw alone. What can be said is that Mark understands how the Lib Dems work and how the basics of modern communications work better than most, and there’s little question that he has an exceptional level of campaigning experience to draw upon.
Mark’s campaign base is likely to be among what I termed the party’s moderate and parochialist lane – people whose focus is “can I win my ward”, and who want a president who’ll say “yes, and here’s how”. Of course, people in every lane of the party campaign very hard – but it’s the subsection of the party who prioritise their own campaigning in how they vote on internal issues who are likely to be the #BackPack base by and large. Mark’s spent a lot of time cultivating those supporters, and has done so effectively by all accounts, and this gives him an important voting bloc from the start that are likely to be more loyal than much of CJ’s support base. Mark has meanwhile strenuously tried to stay out of things like the Orange Book/Social Liberal fray, so is unlikely to be strongly favoured or heavily penalised in either of those camps (with radicals the story is a little different, and dealt with below). My “True Centrists” may not be a fan of a core vote strategy which tends to imply the idea that we’re not there mainly to Hold The Centre, but Mark’s not been pushing the actual details of the CVS heavily in his campaign so this is unlikely to matter to more than a tiny handful of voters. By and large, Mark seems to think that a campaign that stays on topics of broad agreement – we all want to win, after all – and functions more like a job interview than a clash of visions is one that suits him, and he may well be right. Whilst HQ loyalists may initially lean to Christine, Mark has pulled out some impressive backers, Layla Moran notably but also Tom Brake and Wera Hobhouse, which is likely to blunt that appeal to some extent. The might of the fabled-in-scale Lib Dem Newswire mailing list may also help Mark level the playing field in terms of recognition – he’s probably slightly likely to do better if turnout is somewhat lower, where the cut-through of his better oiled social media campaign can have an impact, whereas the more disengaged voters who vote, the more Christine’s better name recognition outside party circles is likely to be telling.
What are my reservations about voting for Mark Pack? Again, three major ones. Firstly, I find that whilst Mark clearly does want Liberal Democrats to win, he isn’t good enough about articulating why he wants that to happen, or where he stands on core issues of party policy and even positioning. Indeed in this campaign he’s actively avoided discussing policy matters on the grounds that the presidency shouldn’t be elected on that basis – given that the President has an automatic seat on all three core federal committees, though, they do get a vote on policy and their views therefore do matter. Second, he’s on record as actively disliking the idea of “radicalism” as an idea of where the Lib Dems should go, which unsurprisingly doesn’t endear his campaign to me on a strategic level. I think Mark is very much wrong to dismiss radicalism, as he did on his podcast, as being mostly either a vapid want that’s not backed up by policy or it being a way of people banging the tub on their own favourite single policy initiative. Whilst like all political terminology – indeed all words – radical has some fluctuations in meaning, there are good arguments for a bold, unapologetic, core policy driven tone to our messaging, and more fundamental and structural changes to the status quo and less managerialism in our policy outlook. I don’t expect all Lib Dems to agree with me on the need for those things, but I do expect candidates to take those arguments seriously and I think Mark could do better on that.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he hosts a podcast alongside a severely transphobic co-host, Stephen Tall, and apparently doesn’t think that’s a problem. For a Federal Board member, there’s a much lower profile and different bars that get set. For the president, though, running shortly after the two most prominent trans women in the party resigned over mishandling of relations with the party’s LGBT organisation – relations which will now be the incoming president’s job to handle – the fact that Mark seems to be tootling along with this as if it were a non-issue is deeply concerning to me. The party president also needs to be prepared for scrutiny in a way that Federal Board members don’t get – “Lib Dem Party President Gives Platform to Transphobe” is not a headline I want to see LGBT media pumping out in the near future. It’s disappointing that this issue hasn’t come up more in the race, but it really should have done.
I’m sure some of the above may come across as combative or heavily critical, and I know that we as Liberal Democrats tend not to like adjudicating the flaws of others in our Lib Dem family. On a personal level, I’ve only ever had amiable interactions with either candidate, and I hope that both of them – if they see this post at all – see the above as what it is, a set of sincerely meant points for them to take on board and for the membership to consider. The presidency is an exceptional role, and any candidate who goes for it will face exceptional challenges – I wish whoever wins all the very best for their term of office.
October 26, 2019 § 1 Comment
OK, ballots are dropping, so here’s some suggestions on how you might want to vote, based roughly on how I’ll be voting for the federal Lib Dem elections.
A few notes on all this. For the three major federal committees, I’ve put them in two rows: row one are mostly people I know or have worked closely with personally, or who I think have such an exceptional contribution to make that they should be in the running for your first preference. Row two is people who I may have less personal experience working with but who also endorse and who I think would make good members of that committee. I’ve only endorsed for the committees that I can actually vote for, so if you get a vote in the councillor elections then I can’t help you! I’ve discussed the presidential race and how it’s panning out in a separate post, but I’m not publicly endorsing either candidate for that.
A couple of technical notes: FCC’s gender balance will be very poor regardless due to the candidate composition, but high preferencing people who aren’t men won’t help a great deal with that because the number of candidates running who aren’t men is equivalent to the gender quota – every candidate for that committee who is not a man will automatically be elected to it.
Some notes on what these bodies actually do:
Federal Board is the party’s governing body. Disciplinary matters, finances, the constitution, strategic decisions, and so on all run through it. For FB, I’ve prioritised people I think will be strong on ensuring the party’s new disciplinary system gets implemented effectively, people who will be good at voicing activists’ concerns to the president and leader, and people who will overall favour a progressive strategy for the party.
Federal Policy Committee does what it says on the tin – commissions policy papers and writes the manifesto. For FPC I’ve prioritised people I think will give us a more radical liberal manifesto, both on social issues where we need to keep strong pro-LGBT stances, civil liberties, and policing reform at the heart of what we do, and on economics where we need to build on things like the party’s policies to support cooperative/mutual business models, boost NHS funding, scrap benefit sanctions and pilot a minimum income.
Federal Conference Committee organises, but more crucially controls the agenda at, federal conferences, and is important in deciding whether member-led policy gets onto the table, what amendments are allowable and so on. For FCC I’ve prioritised people who I think have a really strong commitment to ensuring actual debate takes place at conference, and don’t get scared off debating more radical out of the box ideas any time there’s an election coming up (which, after all, is “pretty much always”).
International Relations Committee and the ALDE (our European party) delegation are reasonably self explanatory.
Final note: all the committees can and do cross over, and that’s worth remembering – the different committees get to nominate reps to one another, many of whom are voting representatives, so your Federal Board choice may get to sit on Federal Policy or Conference committee as well, and that’s worth thinking about a little.
And so, to the endorsements!
April Preston, Caron Lindsay, Lisa-Maria Bornemann, Ross Pepper, Ross Stalker, Luke Cawley-Harrison
Neil Fawcett, Jo Hayes, Candy Piercy, Elaine Bagshaw, Joyce Onstad, Kishan Devani, Theo Butt Philip
FEDERAL CONFERENCE COMMITTEE
Adam Bernard, Joe Toovey, Bex Scott, Jon Ball
Liz Lynne, Geoff Payne, Nick da Costa, Toby Keynes, Keith Melton
FEDERAL POLICY COMMITTEE
Alisdair Calder McGregor, Oliver Craven, Paul Noblet, Ryan Mercer
Alyssa Gilbert, Gareth Shelton, Nigel Quinton, Duncan Brack, Mohsin Khan, Christine Cheng, Adam Corlett, Jeremy Hargreaves, Elizabeth Jewkes
FEDERAL BOARD – ENGLISH PARTY REP
FEDERAL INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS COMMITTEE
Ruth Coleman-Taylor, Hannah Bettsworth, Paul Reynolds, Phil Bennion, Mark Valladares
Hannah Bettsworth, Belinda Brooks-Gordon, Ruth Coleman-Taylor, Joyce Onstad, Merlene Emerson, Mark Valladares
October 6, 2019 § Leave a comment
In January 2018, I outlined 8 scenarios for Austria’s future, from a slow reversion to the mean through to an Orbanising right-wing coalition slowly steamrollering its opponents. With Austria just having just had another election, years ahead of schedule, it’s pretty clear what the outcome was. Here’s the second scenario I outlined as a possibility two years ago:
Scenario 2 – Kurz Wins
This is almost certainly Kurz’s planned or hoped for victory condition. In it, the FPO, unused to government, are wobbled by scandal – though not sufficiently to hurt the OVP – and government successes in lowering middle & upper class taxes, looking tough on migration, and cutting back red tape reward the OVP whilst making the FPO’s policy goals look comparatively weak. FPO voters abandon the party for the now-proven Kurz as a better guarantor of their interests, and the party begins to collapse into infighting, locked in as a decidedly more minor coalition partner in future.
The FPO have been more than wobbled by the Ibizagate scandal – the traditional third party of Austrian politics, they were only a couple of points away from coming fourth. The polls showed their vote holding up rather better at around 20 percent, but in the event they did around four points worse, and Kurz conversely better, than expected. Considerably lower turnout than the previous election may have been partly driven by FPO voters staying at home, demoralised by multiple scandals. Indeed, the major difference to the scenario I proposed above indeed seems to be that the FPO seem to be planning to drop out of coalition talks altogether in order to lick their severe electoral wounds.
Strache, the FPO’s front-man who pulled them back and brought the party through the years of challenge from the BZO and Team Stronach, is not only gone but increasingly persona non grata after being identified as the possible source of an extremely damaging expenses leak which hit the paty just day before the election. His successors, the more extreme-presenting Herbert Kickl and the softer spoken but less than energetic Norbert Hofer, may be more focused on duelling for whatever sits in the void where the FPO’s soul ought to be than trying to plug the gap. Even if the OVP were short on options, declaring a minority government, daring the FPO to vote it down, and then attempting a further raid on their voters might well be more tempting than putting up with a coalition partner in disarray.
So, and since governing without him is essentially an impossibility, who will Kurz turn to? The most likely answer now, and the other big winners of the night, were the Greens. Campaigning with the word “comeback” prominently emblazoned on posters, and sweeping a big left-liberal voting belt in Vienna, the Greens have surged back into parliament (after an embarrassing set of catastrophes prior to the electionlast time) with enough support to be a viable sole coalition partner for Kurz’s OVP. They will however be understandably nervous about coalition with the right, with the risk of the social democrat SPO nipping at their heels. Whichever more progressive party agrees to join with Kurz, they will run a severe risk of losing out due to the taint of coalition with the right. The Greens have their recent time outside parliament to glance back at, while the SPO have just had a historically bad result themselves and are doing a great deal of rather public soul searching. Nonetheless the Greens, perhaps in combination with the right-wing liberal NEOS to beef up the parliamentary majority, are now in pole position to form a coalition given Kurz and the SPO’s mutual antipathy, but whether Kurz will be able to satisfy Green demands without fear of risking his more socially conservative voters is unclear and may depend on how bad the cracks in the FPO turn out to be in the coming months. Another election in the face of deadlock should not be entirely discounted as a possibility.
I’ll maybe do another post on the next coalition and how it could pan out, but that’s best done when a coalition or minority government actually forms, which that could be some months away yet…
September 28, 2019 § Leave a comment
After three and a half years of very solid Lib Dem activism, I’m taking a break, dropping most of my party activism and planning to spend the next two years outside the cycles of internal Liberal Democrat politics and campaigning activities. This may seem an odd time to do so, with the UK hammering towards a pivotal moment in the international debacle that has dominated most of the time I’ve been active, but the fact is that there come points in life when you can’t just keep walking in the same direction and carrying the same load and hoping you’ll come out the other end sometime.
Fundamentally, I’m tired, both physically and mentally, of wading through a political system that takes much and gives back little. and whilst based in Austria and doing the other things that comprise my life, something had to give somewhere. The world’s problems are not going away any time fast, and destroying my health working on them in my mid twenties may not be the best long term thing I can do either for them or myself.
I’ve been weighing this up for some time – my PhD is going to need more time in the coming years, and I’d like to get the book I’m writing finished and make progress on my comic and songwriting, besides recurrent issues with stress related health problems this year which have made things more difficult. Recent experiences have tended to confirm the necessity of doing so, however.
In particular, the party’s gross mishandling of the defection of Dr. Phillip Lee proved an exhausting and upsetting episode, in which I was at times pulling twelve hour or more days getting people to sign letters, talking over with them whether or not they would end up resigning and from what, and trying to help people deal with the fact that the party let in a man who even at the point of writing is in flat denial about the effect of a grossly xenophobic legislative amendment that he himself wrote five years previously. I and over eighty other members, including a number of federal committee members, parliamentary candidates, and councillors, wrote to the party leader, president, and chief whip about the issue. As of the time of writing, none of those three people had even bothered to acknowledge receipt of the letter, much less respond to it. I accept that these are extraordinary times and many people in politics are under excessive strain, but quite honestly this makes it more, rather than less, important to keep people on-side and keep things together. To date the party has lost organisers responsible for over sixty recent Liberal Democrat election victories, two chairs of its LGBT+ group, has an unnecessary by-election to fight in a key recently held council, and has lost several of my closest friends and colleagues entirely. Whilst I’m retaining my membership card, the leaden footed and at times actively discourteous response from the party leadership over this issue has undeniably made me less inclined to go sit on the proverbial front lines for them.
Of course, this was at the tail end of a long streak of burn-out, as such things tend to be. Frustrations with party systems that have ended up more increasingly leaning to unduly favour passing unamended any policy papers proposed by party elites, even if flawed, are another concern. Frequently, a level of stringency is applied to the text of amendments to motions (largely submitted by party members) that is not applied to the text of motions submitted by spokespeople or the federal policy committee, and this double standard is making real debate at conference and the ideal member-driven policy a more tiring set of things to achieve. A system where sloppy wording like the suggestion that we want to “reduce unnecessary imprisonment” – as if we felt there was a reasonable level of unnecessary imprisonment that could be achieved – gets through on a spokesperson’s paper, whilst far stricter standards are frequently applied to amendment texts – has certain problems. Coupled with that are issues with conventions adopted by the federal committees. For example, on the topic of a minimum income, for two years after the 2016 paper the FCC convention was that social security was in a “cooling off” period, and thus ineligible for a new paper. At the start of this year, that having ended, campaigners on the issue were told that a paper on minimum income would be inappropriate because a new working group had been formed which we could feed into or amend the paper of. Come Autumn, and despite no concerns over the text being given in conference committee feedback, our amendment on this motion was rejected out of hand. And now, of course, the two year “cooling cycle” begins again. This ‘blocking cycle’ problem is an issue that should be under serious discussion for the upcoming federal committee and presidential elections, and I hope suitable questions will be asked upon it.
Much of the rest of what I’ve done in the past few years has been exhausting to say the least. Whether it was doing research for parliamentary candidates, knocking on doors, writing policy motions, advocating for ideas in internal party discussions, writing letters and opinion pieces, or simply the daily grind of being told I was a monster, traitor, et cetera by supporters of other parties, it all combines to drag one down over time mentally. As tired and fed up as I am with aspects of Liberal Democrat activism, there is nothing like being a Lib Dem to help one discover the least pleasant corners of all the other parties, many of whose activists have kindly taken time out of their days to ensure I am aware that I am lower than dirt in their worldviews. The psychological effect of things like being told by a stranger to go and lie down in the road and wait for a bus does accumulate after a while (I was in Norfolk then and would have died of starvation well before a bus arrived thanks to Tory underspending on local transport, which I noted at the time, but that’s somewhat beside the core point).
With all that vent given, I think I should probably note for myself as much as anyone what I have achieved in the last few years of policy activism. Along with others, I’ve helped move the Lib Dems from coalition era positions on social security to a firm position on abolishing the sanctions system and, as of this autumn, promising pilots for an unconditional minimum income benefit (this last part especially supported by Jane Dodds MP and my friend Dr. Adam Bernard, PPC for Harrow East). The clause of party policy promising the complete abolition of benefit sanctions is my writing, and the pilots pledge came in part as a result of my working with the relevant working group putting them in touch with experts and advocates for the policy. Labour have just this weekend followed suit in publicly pledging the abolition of sanctions for the first time, knowing they cannot risk being outflanked from the left on this – moving the Liberal Democrat position does, I think, move the Overton Window for the country as a whole.
Another area in which I hope I’ve helped make an improvement is on immigration policy, where in 2018 I led the move to commit the party to scrapping the No Recourse to Public Funds rule for foreign-born spouses as well as the income cap. Holly Matthies moved, and I summated, an amendment that replaced a planned commitment to roll back to the pre-2010 Labour policy of NRPF, effectively a lower but more arbitrary cap on the income a family could have before being allowed to live together, as opposed to the current higher flat cap. Instead we put forward what is now Lib Dem policy – that spouses should be able to live together no matter what their income level. That we passed this despite opposition from parts of the party front-bench, and managed to move the support of senior figures (including the late Paddy Ashdown, who kindly stopped to congratulate me afterwards – the only time I ever met him), is a source of pride and one of the moments I’ll most carry with me from the last few years of activism.
Some other areas of party policy have my fingerprints on them. This conference, that meant incorporating an additional condemnation of Boris Johnson’s Stop & Search expansion. Last Autumn, it involved committing the party to measures to support cooperative startups and looking forward to an end to business models in which shareholders are treated as the sole stakeholders, as well as writing a clear and unambiguous civil liberties clause into the party’s overall priorities motion which will set the outline for a future manifesto. Besides those bits which I’ve actually written, I’ve been able to contribute to a range of other motions and amendments worked on by friends and colleagues. I hope those changes have been worthwhile, and that they help the party to help people in the years ahead.
Outside policy, party strategy has been a concern for me as well. One of my more controversial, but in the event I think justified, decisions was to advocate and organise a large open letter backing the idea that it was untenable for MPs supporting Theresa May’s deal to continue to hold the Liberal Democrat whip. I have great respect for the MP who resigned the whip as a result of that internal discussion and I’m glad he retains membership of the Liberal Democrats, but think events have shown that his not sitting in our parliamentary group was the right call both for him and for the party, as it’s on the basis of the clarity of our opposition to Brexit that we’ve finally broken through and started making spectacular gains in the polls, in local elections, and in the European parliament in the past few months. Not all my advocacy within the party has gone so well – see the unfortunate case of Dr. Lee mentioned above – but I think what I have done has been worthwhile.
Finally on this front, I should note my bequeathing the party its Radical Association, which I think will be greatly needed in the coming years and whose members and committee I hope will come together to provide a radical liberal critique of our politics as a country and as a party. I am always hesitant to attribute things to myself – no activist is an island, and I have had huge support both practical and emotional from so many people in the party – but I think I can with some justification say that the Association would not exist today had it not been for the work I have put in across recent months and years. As its first chair, its constitution writer, its back-office manager, its conference guide writer or its social media support, I’ve supported the Association in a range of ways because I think room for an anti-statist, progressive, radical liberal position is something there needs to be within a successful and meaningfully liberal party, and without which such a party cannot succeed and will not improve people’s lives to the extent that it could do.
There are many brilliant radicals in the Liberal Democrats, and my biggest sadness about stepping back is that I will be less able to see and support them. Activists and candidates like April Preston in Manchester, Cllr George Potter in Surrey, Joe Toovey in Hertfordshire, Oliver Craven and Natasha Chapman in Lincoln, or my own excellent parliamentary candidate Josie Ratcliffe are all people I hope to see providing strong voices for liberalism both inside and outside the party in the coming years. I encourage readers of this post to find ways to support strong liberal voices where they can, to ensure a broad church of debate within Britain’s liberal movement, to strengthen the cross-party commitment to social justice and civil liberties in the UK, and to help ensure any future administration in which the Liberal Democrats take part is one that is as committed as possible to our constitutional values, expanding our moral circle as a country beyond the narrow confines of citizenship and ensuring that nobody is enslaved by poverty, ignorance, or conformity. For them as much as anything else, my party continues to receive my passive support even if my activism has for the time being proven a spent resource.
As for myself, there is an autumnal damp sinking into the Vienna air, and I am gearing up to teach my first full university seminar, on the reception of Medieval topics in computer games, as well as to try and make some further progress on my core project database. My creative projects are more than ready to have some dust blown off them, and the beliefs and hopes I hold for myself and for the world will no doubt in the coming months echo in the hills of stories, even as I hand over to others for a while to ensure they echo in policy papers and the chambers of power. Time to tread quieter paths for a while, but hopefully no less valuable ones for all that.
September 6, 2019 § 2 Comments
Of the various Lib Dem activities I’ve been doing in the past couple of years, one of them has been acting as a council member for the Social Liberal Forum. The SLF was founded as an anchoring and organising group for the party’s centre-left and left in February 2009, and functioned as a centre of opposition to the Nick Clegg’s centrist and centre-right policies during the coalition years. As someone who has never believed in the wisdom of coalition-era austerity, and whose policy focus has always been towards the redistributive end of the spectrum, I stood for SLF council last year in the hope of providing a useful voice and support for its activities.
Today, with great sadness, I resigned from the organisation’s council, primarily because of the persistent failure of its executive to deal with a serious transphobia problem.
Without going too deep into the facts of the case, at the same time as myself a member of the SLF’s council was elected who is known to hold deeply transphobic views and who has campaigned strongly against trans rights. This issue was flagged up last year shortly after the election, with one member of the council resigning very soon afterwards.
For the last few months, I have attempted to ensure in my role as an SLF council member that the Forum was doing the things it is nominally there for – fighting for, discussing, building and promoting social liberal values, including fighting for a minimum income as party policy and pushing for more redistributive tax policy in the Liberal Democrats – as well as lobbying to get it to take the transphobia issue seriously. The SLF lacks an effective constitutional process for dealing with disciplinary issues either on its council or amongst its members, but I hoped that this situation, if properly handled by the executive, could provide the impetus to solve that problem as well.
Today, I cannot reasonably continue to hold out hope for a solution to this. It has been a long and frustrating year, and at the end of it an extreme transphobe who shares social media posts from fascist-adjacent American news sites is still treated as a member of the SLF council. That person is still frankly having their activities covered for by certain members of the executive who, if not sharing those views, appear to strongly differ from me on the question of whether having bigots signing off on the council decisions of a liberal organisation is a workable way for such an organisation to proceed. My attempts to discuss this, despite providing both evidence and explanations for my concerns, have failed.
In view of this, I came to the realisation that I could not in good conscience ask fellow liberals, especially LGBT+ fellow liberals, to join and support an organisation that would fail them if a complaints process about their senior members was needed, and which does not appear at an executive level to see transphobia as incompatible with their vision of the organisation right now. My position on the council is as a result fundamentally no longer tenable, and my resignation email was sent in earlier today.
I have a great deal of respect for many of the SLF’s council and executive members, but fundamentally they have failed on this one and this is an issue on which they cannot afford to fail. I wish those who remain all the best in getting the organisation to a better place, if indeed a change of direction can be made. I am sorry that I was unable to achieve that myself, but there are some days when it is important to admit when a problem is making things impossible and step aside rather than throwing energy at a project you no longer have enough faith in to keep going with.