Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ed Davey.........LoozMuze Top Gun!

From where I sit Ed Davey has not always been top of my political heroes list. Not because I don't like him, I think he is a darling, but because we don't always see eye to eye politically.

However.............he has now been elevated to LoozMuze Top Gun!!!!! Here is a man after my own heart, dissent.........don't we just love it?! I did consider Nick's decision to move him to Foreign Affairs to be inspired, that has just been confirmed. Hey, walkout today, occupation tomorrow............where do I sign up????

Tomorrow some of us bloggernistas will have the privilege of interviewing him, is that gonna be good or what?!

Obama, Clinton, Dems - Show Leadership!

Another interesting article from across the water by Kevin Martin:

I must confess a dirty little secret - I don’t care what presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama say they will do to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq if they become president next year. Thousands more Iraqis and hundreds more U.S. troops will be dead by then, and for what? I want to know what Senators Clinton and Obama are willing to do to end the war this year. Surely I’m not alone in this desire, am I?
While George Bush, aided and abetted by a supine Congress, does his best impersonation of an extremely unpopular yet omnipotent emperor, especially on Iraq and foreign policy, Obama and Clinton are far from powerless in their current positions. As Senators, they could lead a filibuster to end funding for Bush’s occupation of Iraq. This would show real leadership, and if they succeeded, two grateful nations would sing their praises for generations, regardless of whether either ever became president.

Even better would be for there to be no bill for them to have to filibuster. Obama, Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha and other Democratic leaders should agree to simply not draft a bill to continue the war. They should tell Bush, “Sorry, the bank is closed; you’ll get no more of the taxpayers’ money to continue your quagmire” other than funds to safely and swiftly withdraw all of our troops and bases if money already appropriated needs to be augmented for this purpose (the merchants of death, I mean contractors, can pay their own way home from the windfall profits they’ve made in Iraq).

Furthermore, as a down-payment on the enormous debt we owe the people of Iraq and our veterans, the money that otherwise would go to continue the occupation (and Bush is expected to ask for well over $100 billion more for this year alone, on top of the more than $600 billion already spent over the last five years) should instead be appropriated for an interim United Nations or Arab League peacekeeping force (if the leaders of various Iraqi factions agree it is needed), reconstruction of Iraq’s devastated infrastructure and economy, and greatly enhanced health care and other benefits for our returning veterans. Besides being the right thing to do, peace is cheaper than war.

Unfortunately, it looks like a war funding bill will be put forward by the Democratic “leadership,” so we need senators to step up and lead a filibuster, which would require only 41 senators to sustain.

Many allegedly anti-war Democrats, including some who voted against the war (unlike Senator Clinton of course) in 2002, have voted to appropriate every penny for the war and occupation of Iraq, cowed by Bush , Cheney and the Republicans’ smear that they would be “abandoning the troops” if they vote against war funding.

My advice on dealing with this despicable political blackmail is to get over it. Senators, you know how to do photo ops - stand on a flag-draped stage in front of the Iwo Jima statue with leaders from Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace, Military Families Speak Out, the Appeal for Redress (comprised of active duty military personnel who oppose the war) and retired generals and military officials to announce you are ending funding for the occupation, and dare Bush, Cheney and the chicken hawks to call you abandoners of the troops. C’mon, you can do it!

My main purpose is to end the occupation of Iraq, not to get Democrats elected to the White House or Congress, but it’s no-brainingly obvious that in this case, with a historically unpopular president, a solid majority of the country against the war, and a presumptive Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, who thinks it would be fine if our troops remained in Iraq for 100 years (!), good policy is also good politics. Obama and Clinton should be tripping over each other running to the well of the Senate to announce they will filibuster to end funding for the war. The first to get there would doubtless become president in a landslide. It would be easy political ju jitsu –make Bush, McCain and others defend their indefensible desire to perpetuate an endless, bottomless (money-wise) occupation, instead of your having to defend doing the right thing, ending it.

Senators, get your act together. March 19 will mark the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Iraqi people, our troops and their families can’t wait another year, or longer, to end this calamitous occupation. And seriously, wouldn’t you rather have this problem resolved before one of you becomes president?

Kevin Martin is executive director of Peace Action
and Peace Action Education Fund , the United States' largest peace and disarmament organisation with over 100,000 members.

Sex, Halliburton and the State

One of the many email lists I subscribe to is After Downing Street, an organisation set up in response to the leaking of the Downing Street Memos, a story broken by my pal Mick Smith. Today I received this email from David Swanson of After Downing Street which I thought merited wider circulation:

On Wednesday, February 27th, from 8 to 9 p.m. ET I'll be interviewing live another female Halliburton employee who was subjected to an environment of constant sexual harassment in Iraq. Tracy Barker was sexually assaulted by Halliburton employees and - in one instance - by a U.S. State Department employee in Basra, Iraq. The State Department employee has confessed to part of what Barker alleges, but remains at the State Department, and has never been charged with any crime. You can listen to the live interview and call in with your questions on Wednesday at The People Speak Radio.
At the same link, you'll find the audio file of a recent interview I conducted with Jamie Leigh Jones, a victim of gang rape by employees of the Halliburton corporation in Iraq. Jones has become the best known of what appears to be a lengthy list of Halliburton employees subjected to sexual assault. U.S. contractors in Iraq cannot be prosecuted under Iraqi law and simply are not prosecuted under U.S. law.An ABC News 20/20 report last December focused largely on Jones' story, and Jones also testified before Congress that month. But if you watch the 20/20 report through to the end you'll see a second story as well, that of Tracy Barker. Barker has brought charges against Halliburton/KBR claiming that she was sexually assaulted, harassed, and falsely imprisoned while working at Camp Hope in Basra, Iraq. Barker is a military wife and mother of 3 who worked for Halliburton's KBR subsidiary as an administrative assistant in Iraq while her husband served in the U.S. military. According to ABC News, Barker claims that State Department employee Ali Mokhtare attempted to rape her.

"Mokhtare denied that he had attempted to rape her, but admitted that he had gone too far with Tracy, and signed a statement to that effect, which ABC News has obtained. In the document, Mokhtare states he 'admitted that he pulled her vest and shirt' and that he asked Barker, 'What do you have behind there?' He also says that he 'made a mistake and it was stupid,' according to the document. Despite his admission, Mokhtare, a U.S. citizen, still works at the State Department today....
"Mokhtare was a diplomatic official in Basra who first came to Iraq as a Farsi translator interviewing detainees. The U.S. Diplomatic Security Service investigated the allegations against Mokhtare and presented the case to the Justice Department for prosecution, but 'the case was declined for prosecution' states the document. Furthermore, investigators requested that the State Department suspend Mokhtare's security clearance, but according to a handwritten note at the bottom of the document, that request was denied."
Following the incident, Barker says, Halliburton confined her to a living container where she was constantly watched, including when she used the bathroom. Food was brought to her as if she was a prisoner, and she was denied medical attention and any outside communications. Barker says she was forced several days later to wear the same clothing she'd worn the night of the assault (ordinary pants and a long-sleeved shirt) and paraded through a crowded dining area apparently to humiliate her. This was part of the official investigation, aimed at determining whether she was sexually provocative. At this point she was still be refused medical attention.
Eventually, Barker says, she was able to use a cellphone belonging to National Guardsman Kevin Rodgers. Barker’s husband, 1st Sergeant Galen Barker, says that his wife contacted him through Rodgers. He then tried unsuccessfully to get to Kuwait so that he could rescue his wife from Iraq. Barker continued to be held against her will by Halliburton, and the State Department continued to stall her release. She was eventually rescued by Dr. David Pakkal of the State Department who took her to Kuwait.
When she returned home, Barker spoke out about what she had been through and began pursuing justice through U.S. courts. She says she was the first victim to do so. Several months after returning home, in July of 2005, Barker started receiving phone calls from other Halliburton employees who also alleged sexual harassment and rape while in Iraq. Barker learned that a State Department investigator and a Halliburton employee had given her home phone number out to gang rape victims because they thought Barker could help them.
Barker says the State Department offered her $3,500 in cash to drop certain charges, but she refused.
Halliburton has requested private arbitration instead of facing a civil suit and claims that this is required by Barker's employment contract. A judge ruled this month in favor of arbitration, arguing that sexual harassment, including assault, is a reality in today's workplace. Barker's attorney Stewart Hoffer is in the process of appealing this order.
Barker was invited to testify before Congress on December 19, 2007, by Congressman Bob Etheridge. Barker’s newborn twins were fighting for their lives, but Barker made the trip to Washington, only to be denied the opportunity to testify. Barker was permitted only to submit to the House Judiciary Committee a statement from Letty Surman, Barker's human resources manager at Halliburton/KBR and an eyewitness to some of her ordeals. Surman's affidavit detailed Barker’s workplace experience and described the men who assaulted Barker.
Barker has created the Tracy K. Barker Foundation to help other women who have also been victimized while working overseas.

Simon Hughes - 25 years.............and counting!

Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of the Bermondsey by election and Simon Hughes' historic victory. Of course that by election has always been mired in controversy, a controversy re-kindled 2 years ago when Simon was "outed" during the leadership election. However, there has also been a lot of tosh chatted about what actually happened, the focus, perhaps because it was Simon who won, being on "The Straight Choice" leaflet (a phrase that still appears on election leaflets of all shades). What gets completely forgotten is the smear campaign conducted by the Labour Party. So I found this Time Out article refreshingly balanced.

So, the outcome for us as a party has been to have had one of the most dedicated and hard working MPs serving not only his constituents but also his party. Yesterday was no different. Simon arrived at the EMLD AGM having just been to a Fair Trade event, to inspire and encourage those of us who were there to continue the struggle for a truly representative party.

Simon is someone who is always prepared to put his head above the parapet on behalf of others, to be a voice for the voiceless and a tireless campaigner against injustice of all kinds. After 25 years service he is still one of our party's greatest assets, here's to the next 25 years!!!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Male Chauvinist Piggery?

I read Bob Shaw's piece with interest......I started to leave a comment and then felt a blog coming on! OK, I admit it, I am a weak little woman......all 5 feet of me - I have never been strong and I have never been tall! Plus, I am left handed which of course makes me sinister too. In reading Bob's piece I was reminded of the time I went to a meeting with a bunch of Unison members I was due to be representing. There was clearly some dissent in the ranks and the woman who had invited me in had been concerned. At the end of the meeting she said "When you walked in and I saw the size of you my heart sank, but you've been brilliant!" Hmmmm, yes of course, my ability to represent members and deal with dissent, is directly related to my size. But that story for me illustrates what we all do to a greater or lesser degree, make, often subconscious, judgements about people and their ability/lack of it based on their gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, age, accent, height, clothes sense (or lack of), body language........... It seeps in all over the place, the former we have legislation to try and mitigate, the latter, none.

The issue Bob had taken up was to do with Brian Paddick's idea to have women friendly carriages on the tube. As someone who regularly takes the tube late at night I feel perfectly safe since there are usually lots of people around - I am more nervous waiting on deserted train stations like West Hampstead late at night. But as Nich Starling has pointed out in a comment on Bob's piece, it is actually men, and young men in particular, who are more at risk of crime than women. However, if I was attacked by a strong man I wouldn't have much of a chance...........if I was attacked by a strong woman I wouldn't have much of a chance either!

So, Bob is concerned that he may be seen as a male chauvinist. I don't think so. A male chauvinist is someone who wants to treat women differently because he sees them as inferior. Bob wants to treat women the same because he sees them as equal. (If I have misrepresented you Bob please let me know!) This is why we are continuing to have this difficult debate within the party. Where I part company with Bob is that his position doesn't take account of the historical context which has meant we do not have a level playing field, for all sorts of reasons. For anyone to be able to compete they need to have had the same opportunities. This clearly has not been the case. It is not that long ago when I was in the army, that I would have had to leave had I got pregnant, and was not allowed to go on a Chinese language course for fear I might get pregnant! And not that long before that women teachers had to stop teaching if they got married. We still have a long way to go and part of redressing the balance, not only for women but for others who are discriminated against, has surely to include some forms of positive action.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Oooh 'eck Looz Muze (SHOCKING!) Nuze!!!!

Today I got a surprise pressie, dropped into my inbox from an unlikely source. No...........it wasn't a belated Valentine............it was a message from James Graham to inform me that along with fellow women bloggers Meral Ece, Alix Mortimer, Charlotte Gore and Lynne Featherstone, I had been nominated for the Gender Balance Best Lib Dem Blog! Now, included in the message was a request for me to add the button to my blog with a link to the Gender Balance Campaign - this I am unable to do, so this is the temporary compromise until I find out what I need to do.

Whilst I know I have a few fans, I also have a lot of detractors. There was a little chatter and speculation when I wasn't in the shortlist for last year's blog awards, was it because I was a tad off message? Was it because I had been a weeny bit challenging about Ming's performance? Actually I was quite clear, it was a) because I wasn't good enough and b) because I was the archetypal intermittent blogger!

Then, last month I discovered I was number 7 on the list of most "popular" bloggers for last year. This caused me to revise my understanding of the word "popular" given that it is very clear many of my dear readers do so as an alternative to wearing a hair shirt!

So I was genuinely delighted that I was regarded as worthy enough to end up in the top 5 for the Gender Balance Award. I said at the time that the existence of the award is an admission of failure not success, but "If we can encourage more diversity in political debate through this award then I fail to see how this is a bad thing." We have seen many more women enter the blogosphere over the last year which is great, but we are still outnumbered in blog entries and blogs at around 8 to 1.

So, many thanks to those of you who were kind enough to nominate me, I am really thrilled that my ramblings have on occasions touched a chord and I hope will play a part in encouraging other women to see that you don't have to be a Polly Toynbee or Jackie Ashley to express an opinion!

Stable Cable's Able

There is no doubt, Northern Rock was a crisis waiting to happen. As was noted in a really great profile of Vince by Michael White in today's Guardian, it is he who has been warning for years of the consequences of overindebtedness.

"When Northern Rock went belly up and went to the Bank of England for help in September, Cable immediately urged nationalisation as the course for the Treasury to adopt.
Voters may not notice the nuances, though some will remember that puritan Cable had been warning against Britain's growing personal credit card debt for several years. Now Cable's early call on the Rock had been vindicated, in sharp contrast to the havering of the Conservatives. Cameron and Osborne are clever too - and have more of a political future - but they lack experience and judgment. On the Northern Wreck, Dave'n'George have been all over the shop. Osborne's attack on Monday missed its target, and Cameron has been awkward too."

At a time when a beleaguered Brown bleats wanely on about his legacy of stability, it seems to me that all he does is draw attention to the understated brilliance of Vince Cable; a fact that has not gone unnoticed in the media.

It is clear that there is a continued nervousness in the financial markets. We are looking at legislation with application beyond Northern Rock. How many banks will the government be prepared to nationalise before the country itself is bankrupt I wonder? We are already looking at a commitment in the region of £100 billion for one bank. Don't get me wrong, I fully support the nationalisation, it is our money after all. But, where will it all end? Somewhere, sometime we need to fez up and recognise the rod we have built for our own backs with our obsession with house prices. We need a local tax system that takes the heat out of the market. For those of us who already own our own homes we can sit back smugly and baulk at any legislation that may lessen the value of our homes. For those who don't, in particular young people with no prospect of parental support, owning their own home is completely out of their reach. More worrying is for those who think they can do it, encouraged by irresponsible lending (the nonsense of 125% mortgages for example) they have been lead into a nightmare, often left with not only broken dreams but broken lives and broken families too. Northern Rock is a wake up call. Vince is no longer a lone voice calling in the wilderness. Let's hope his warning was not heeded too late.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

My evening with a Lib Dem, a Tory and a Socialist.......

I am feeling particularly ecumenical today. Yesterday evening started with a meeting with Lynne Featherstone to talk about youth policy. This is a subject very close to my heart and as fellow FPCers will know I was disappointed it was not prioritised. In December I met with Annette Brooke and Stephen Williams to discuss how we could take forward developing a policy on the back of a spokesperson's paper. Since then of course Nick Clegg passed responsibility for youth to Lynne. Anyhow, I was impressed by Lynne's approach - looking to get something out quickly - with a strong campaigning element, and having a long term objective to develop a more detailed youth policy over the coming year. You only have to look at the UK Youth Parliament Manifesto to see how closely our policies chime with the aspirations of young people.

Then I called one of my "Tory Boys" who works in Westminster to see if he was free, he was. Whilst waiting I spotted dear Norman Lamb. I asked him for a favour - I was amused today to get an email from him promising to help if I promised not to cause trouble at conference! Moi??? Always impeccably behaved -n'est pas?!

Peter Hand is a councillor on both the borough and county councils. At other times he moonlights in Nadine Dorries' office (sorry Peter!). So it was interesting to catch up on both borough and county "news", having been a councillor for the former and an employee of the latter. I was amused to hear that he and fellow Tory boy Andrew McConnell were in deep dooda having failed to turn up at the budget meeting. Apparently they, along with 6 other Tory no shows, had a "super bug"............but they were spotted in the champagne bar at St Pancras!

Then it was off to a meeting about the situation in Gaza chaired by one of the few remaining "socialists" in parliament, Jeremy Corbyn. I have a lot of respect for Jeremy, he is a good friend of the beleaguered Palestinian people. But I still cannot fathom why he, and others like John McDonnell, didn't resign the whip over Iraq. I will say more about that meeting later, suffice to say that I questioned the fact that yet again the only parliamentarians on the platform were Labour MPs.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Northern Rock - Time for Brown to fez up and ask Vince to be his Chancellor!

Sorry to go all military again, but, when you are in a war you need to assess the situation quickly, decide how and where to deploy your resources, and get on with it. This clearly hasn't happened in the Northern Rock debacle. Dithering has been the order of the day and much misery has been the result. I don't work for Northern Rock, I can't imagine what it must feel like to be one of their employees at the moment. I do work for the FSA (though not as a regulator) so I have a little insight into the wider impact.

Vince is a wise and canny man, he understands economics in a way very few others in parliament do, and yet, presumably due to the political imperative to keep face, his prophetic voice has been deliberately ignored. This is not and should not, be about political point scoring, but it is sadly ironic that the government has ended up doing what Vince advised from the beginning. Last year Brown attempted to divide and rule by throwing out his favours to a few potentially compliant Lib Dems, his "Big Tent" - if he is serious about consensus politics and using the talents of all for the benefit of the nation, I would suggest maybe now is a good time to offer Vince the position of Chancellor......one thing is for sure, the incumbent has clearly demonstrated his incompetence!

What was all that about jumping into bed with Cameron?

Having been away for a few days I missed all the chatter about Nick Clegg allegedly threatening to do the unthinkable and jump into bed with the Tories. But the subject came up this morning when Simon Hughes was being interviewed by Steve Richards on GMTV. He made it quite clear that we would be looking at which party was adopting Lib Dem policies and would decide on a vote by vote basis unless we secured agreement on PR. I am still nervous about what this may mean, it has to be said.

Simon, as ever, was as powerful an advocate for liberal democracy as we have........just a pity it was at such an ungodly hour! I would have missed it but for having been up since 3am due to what has now been diagnosed as a frozen shoulder........sympathy vote please!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

David Heath.........Hero or Villian?

I have been reading the blogs on the David Heath situation with interest. To some a hero, to others a villian.

Whilst I have read and inwardly digested the wise words of various of my esteemed fellow bloggers, my position remains the same. As a party we supported a referendum on the constitution. I know that many fellow Lib Dems thought we were foolish to do this to start with, however, we are where we are. To attempt to take the moral highground on this by arguing that the Treaty is not the Constitution shows a complete disconnect with the electorate. Frankly, I don't give a fig for whether this is a Tory position or not, I don't make my judgements on whether on some occasions they accord with my opponents, but on what I personally believe is right. To the vast majority of people who can't be arsed to read either the failed Constitution or the new Treaty, the message they are getting is loud and clear. The Treaty reforms the existing treaties in a way that means 95% of the failed Constitution remains. Semantic points ain't gonna cut the mustard and we are in danger of looking foolish.

Another issue, one close to my heart, is that this u-turn on policy has never been debated at conference. It is an example of the leadership making policy on the hoof and then using emotional blackmail to try and get the parliamentary party and the membership's support. This is one of the outstanding legacies of Ming's cosy relationship with Brown and I am sorry Nick finds himself saddled with it.

An in/out referendum may have some merits, but it misses the point. So, David Heath? I actually think he is right. If we had clear party policy on this position I may think he should bite his tongue and take the whip, but we don't, he is a champion for those of us who have not had a chance to get our voices heard and he deserves our admiration and gratitude not our criticism.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Multi-culturalism, the latest Moral Panic?

I have just read Paul Walter's excellent post on multi-culturalism. Paul hits the nail on the head "Oh dear. "Multi-culturalism" is another one of those code phrases. It means 29 different things to different people and to a large number it means "too many foreigners". Just like the word "immigration". Absolutely! It is one of those words that we all decode in our heads according to our own beliefs and values.

My take is to look at what may be the opposite to "multi-culturalism", "mono-culturalism". How boring is that? My only reference point for mono-culturalism is the United States, aaah yes, the kind of mono-culturalism that expresses itself in the dark corners of Abu Ghraib, or the quiet streets of Fallujah. The Royal United Services Institute report, that has lead to this issue being raised suggests deference to multi-culturalism is to blame for the terrorist threat. This morning, one of their spokespeople on Today suggested that we had the evidence in the 7/7 bombings. But he failed to explain this logic in relation to 9/11. There was also a suggestion that immigrant Muslim communities were at fault for not integrating. Well, integration is a two way street.

I know a little about this having spent a good deal of my working life working within the Muslim community. I also know from personal experience how difficult integration is, I was estranged from most of my family for many years because I married an Asian. I also witnessed the discrimination he suffered, for example when he was looking to buy a house in Luton the estate agents only ever sent him houses in Bury Park, the Asian area of town. When we were looking to buy a house in Stockport, if I went to estate agents on my own I would be told about areas which were very nice, no foreigners............I used to enjoy going back in and introducing my husband! So, as I say, to crack this nut we need a little more honesty about the underlying racism that still impacts upon our ability to truly build community cohesion. We cannot insist that people adhere to this or that culture, that way lies facism. And yet, to hear some of the commentators one would be forgiven for thinking it was just a question of Mr Brown announcing that from now on we were to be a mono-culture nation and that would do it!

So, let's have some honesty. It is not multi-culturalism (the existence of a number of cultures?) that is the issue, it is the nervousness about Muslims who appear to live in closed communities, with an idea that out of them springs an anti-western anti-Christian discourse that feeds the minds of the young who then become suicide bombers. But, we have one important missing factor. The young people who get radicalised are often on the surface very well integrated, or, if not, they are estranged from their own community as well. So, what are we saying? As a former youth worker I am well versed in the idea of "moral panic" - it seems to me this is exactly what we are witnessing. A notion that distorts and exaggerates reality, fuelled by a sensationalist media. Yes, there are young people, disaffected and angry, driven to become involved with terrorism, but I think that has more to do with the idealism of youth, the power of a strong religious belief and, dare I say it?, frustration at our foreign policy. It has little or nothing to do with a notion of "multi-culturalism". This nonsense would be amusing if it were not so dangerous. All the time we are being deflected by a misplaced moral panic about multiculturalism we are unlikely to begin to even scratch the surface of a solution.

The scandal of ill-equipped troops - blood on Brown's hands?

Whatever our feelings about the various conflicts our troops are engaged in around the world, I think there is one thing we all ought to agree on. If we are to ask our young men and women to put their lives on the line in pursuit of our national political objectives, the least they should expect is that we honour our duty of care.

The news today that a coroner has criticised the MOD for failure to provide troops with basic equipment is inexcusable. James Phillippson was killed in a firefight with Taleban, part of a troop with 3 or 4 kits between 30 men. Mr Walker, assistant coroner for Oxfordshire, said: "They (the soldiers) were defeated not by the terrorists but by the lack of basic equipment."
He said sending troops into a combat zone without basic kit was "unforgivable and inexcusable" and "a breach of trust between the soldiers and those who govern them".

I can't imagine the anger James Phillippson's family must feel. His father commented that the real blame lay with the Treasury and then Chancellor Gordon Brown, for starving the troops of cash. It is surely time to withdraw from Afghanistan where we are now clearly seen as being part of the problem not the solution. But in the meantime, let's ensure that pressure is put on this government to honour the military covenant.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

My Valentine!

Last week my daughter asked if I was doing anything this evening, my reply? Well, apart from fending off the queue of handsome young men knocking on my door to take me for dinner...........nothing?! Valentine's Day must be a little like Christmas Day for those without family or friends to celebrate with. On every other day of the year us "singles" get along just fine, but on Valentine's day we are made to feel like specimens from the planet Zog. Even Women's Hour, that champion of women's rights, talks to you as if you must be in a relationship, anticipating that romantic candlelit meal in an overcrowded overpriced local hostelry......bovvered.......??? Moi???!!!

It has to be said, I did get a kindofa Valentine's card, from someone probably well known to a few older members of our party....... (at this point I could give a huge clue with reference to the Glee Club............but I won't!) but well.........

So I have just listened to the awesome "Down the Line", followed by the unmissable speed dating on the Archers (who is that continuity announcer reflecting "I wonder if we have set a new world record for gooseberries listening in?"), followed, at some point, by Question Time. Romantic Dinner? Question Time with Melanie Phillips?......There's no contest really, is there?!

You've been Quango'd!

The news today that quangoes are totally unrepresentative of Britain comes as no surprise. The BBC reported the results of a NLGN survey that found four London Boroughs - Camden, Islington, Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea - control 15% of the quango membership in England. The report draws the conclusion - “Looking at England as a whole, within each region there are clear concentrations of power, postcodes which are clearly more likely to produce the ‘great and good’ for seats on quango Boards. We suspect that the poorer the area you live in, the less likely you are to climb to the heights of quango board membership.”

Of course, the focus of this report is on geography - nothing about diversity in terms of gender or ethnicity for instance. Now, I am sure that would produce even more shocking results. Only this week I was chatting to a friend who had been on a PCT in one of the most ethnically diverse areas of London, where there was now no BME representation whatsoever. What contributes to this perpetuation of inequity? I was thinking aloud on Saturday, as a guest of Epping Forest Lib Dems, about whether the fact that we had never had a revolution in this country contributed to the malaise that leads to a continuation of the concentration of power with the "great and good" elite? (It's OK, the only revolution I am advocating is one that revolutionises our political system!)

At the moment our policy for localism has been considering part of the picture, but the whole system of unelected unaccountable quangoism merits our further attention. Nick Clegg has rightly been drawing attention to the "broken" nature of our political system, at the moment it seems to me our approach to mending it is a tad piecemeal. Let's look at what our ideal system looks like, at a macro and micro level. Of course, one of the most powerful ways to achieve a more representative legislature is PR, but what about all the other decision making, at a national, local and individual level? Are there decisions which can only be taken by a quango? What are they and why? If we end up with a more politicised system, what checks and balances are needed?

If it does nothing else this report should spur us all to action, the tragedy is that, as the saying goes, if we always do what we have always done, we will always get what we have always got!

Nick - There is no shame in admitting you got it wrong

One of Nick Clegg's USPs as far as I am concerned is his transparent honesty. Now is the time for him to demonstrate this by knocking this referendum bunkum on the head once and for all. From where i sit he was bounced into this position by his predecessor. If we can't understand the reality that our apparent U turn on a referendum on the constitution/treaty looks like that to our electorate we understand jack (!) Whatever our position on the need or not for a referendum, we committed to it, we were prepared to argue our case. I hope Nick will reflect, will demonstrate his undoubted metal, show he has listened to the party and more importantly the country and show we can be trusted to keep our promises. As a champion for people to have more control over the decisions that impact upon their lives, he has little choice.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Where's God?

I am at Belfast Aldergrove waiting for my flight home......sadly I had logged it in my brain as being at 5.40 when it was 7.40. Hey ho, it was ever thus! But recalling my journey over here yesterday. I was sat in a row with a mother and her small boy. I am not sure if it was his first time of flying but as we climbed above the clouds he turned to his mother and asked "Where's God?". She didn't reply, so he asked "Is he invisible?" "Yes" says she. I couldn't help reflecting on how the conversation may have continued had Laurence Boyce been sat in the same row!

On arrival I had a surprise, bumping into Chris White. I don't know about you but it always seems really strange seeing people out of context, doesn't it? He was en route to Derry for a conference, but told me he about his blog which I am just on my way to have a look at.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

BME Shortlists - the same as Criminal Shortlists?

There are days when I think something I have heard takes the biscuit. Today was one such day. Today reminded me why, whilst I may have my own pet Tory boys, whilst I have the greatest respect for many individually decent Tories, the fact that their party not only tolerates, but nurtures, the most despicable racist, homophobic, sexist views, fills me with dread and horror.

Keith Vaz had proposed an amendment to the Race Relations Act to allow for BME shortlists. Now, there is a debate to be had about that, even in our liberal party, but the approach taken by one of the Tory opponents not only defied reason but for me reinforces what a mountain we still have to climb if we are to truly "Reflect Britain". Philip Davies MP for Shipley (I had never heard of him before either) said........yes really, I couldn't believe my ears either so I have cut and pasted from Hansard

"I believe in equality. Surely true equality should mean selecting people on merit, irrespective of their racial background. Selection meetings should be colour blind and people should not think, “Shall I pick this person simply because of their colour?” I believe in equality of opportunity, but I do not share the right hon. Gentleman’s desire for equality of outcome.
The right hon. Gentleman talked of a Parliament “that mirrors the society it represents.” I hope that he understands what that means. Part of our society is made up of dangerous criminals. Is he arguing that a proportion of Members of Parliament should be dangerous criminals? The Bill constitutes a slippery slope."

Now, I take issue with people who talk about being "colour blind", apologies to those who have heard this tale before, but I always remember attending a youth work conference where the perennial debate about who was more oppressed took place. This issue came up. One of the white women said to her black friend that whenever she walked into a room she didn't notice the colour of her skin, her friend replied "No, but I do."

So, if a man who represents a predominantly white constituency close to Bradford, but still responsible for representing some ethnic minority families, doesn't get the difference between ethnicity and criminality, heaven help us all! MR DAVIES.............INCASE YOU HADN'T NOTICED..........YOU DIDN'T CHOOSE THE COLOUR OF YOUR SKIN, OR THE IMPACT IT HAD ON YOUR LIFE CHANCES...........IF YOU ARE A CRIMINAL, YOU MAY HAVE HAD A MODICUM OF CHOICE IN BECOMING ONE.......GET THE DIFFERENCE???? ANYONE CHECK WHETHER YOU WERE THE BEST CANDIDATE FOR THE JOB???!

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Caroline Flint - Let's chuck our children out on the streets why don't we?

This morning I am back in spitting blood mode. The news that Caroline Flint has come up with a novel idea of throwing people out of their homes if they don't look for work has left me dumbfounded. Clearly the New Labour strategy for taking on the Tories is to be even more Tory, playing to the Daily Mail/Express gallery. So why do I think she is wrong?

Now I am not defending those who just don't want to work, but firstly, those on "Job Seekers Allowance" are already supposed to be seeking work, the clue is in the name, if the DWP are failing, despite all their investment in various schemes to get people back into work, that is the problem they need to fix.

Secondly and far more importantly, how does making a family homeless help them to become gainfully employed? How does it contribute to the life chances of their children who are already facing an uphill battle to compete with their more affluent peers?

And thirdly, how does this square with the government's alleged commitment to ending child poverty?

My wonderful life!

One of the problems I have with blogging or writing letters to the press, is that I need to be wound up and sent off spinning. This is why I have been uncharacteristically sparse over the past few weeks, unbelievable as it may seem, if I don't have anything to say.............I find it hard to say it! (OK Mr/s anonymous I am sure you will disagree!). I have even managed to get a couple of letters in the Telegraph (one about Iraq the other about the outing of Simon Hughes), both written when I was spitting blood and deciding the best bet was to attack the "enemy" (what is the point of preaching to the converted?)..........so I have been reflecting on the fact that my web-log is more of a vehicle for venting my spleen than recording my life. This is rather unbalanced, although I suppose the problem is, very few people, save my family and closest friends, would be that interested in how I spend my days.............

But, I do do things other than politics, honest! This weekend I.............went shopping(!), and..........had coffee with one of my Tory boys Andrew McConnell, always a golden opportunity to catch up with the Bedford Borough gossip. It's very odd, having sat on the council for 5 years, not to be involved anymore. Then out with another pal, deputy ed of our local rag Beds on Sunday, Liz O'Reilly. A lovely meal in Cellar V (somewhere I didn't even know existed) followed by a live band in the Kings Arms.

Next weekend I am off to Venice for a Mums and Sons break with a friend from work. Apart from the odd weekend at my friend's on Exmoor, this is the first holiday I have had with Ravi for 7 years, so I am really looking forward to it.

There, I do do normal too...........it's just it's not really that interesting!:-)

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Crunching Credit - why is Vince Cable still a voice crying in the wilderness?

Vince Cable has been warning for many years about spiralling debt in this country. But, rather like Noah, his words have, until now, fallen on stony ground. The stoniest ground it seems to me being in parts of the financial services industry, closely followed by the opposition parties. Now we are all paying the price for this palpable neglect, but none more so than those who face the threat of the repossession of their homes.

With my work hat on I addressed a very well attended conference on debt in Norwich on Friday. I shared a platform with, amongst others, Charles Clarke and our own Norman Lamb. Whilst it is encouraging that concern about over indebtedness is shared by all political parties, there are clearly political decisions which could have and should have been taken earlier.

At Federal Conference in 2005, Vince said "The economy has become seriously unbalanced. Its growth has not been driven by investment or by overcoming Britain's long-standing weaknesses in investment and productivity, particularly skills. Instead, there has been a binge of debt-financed consumer spending. British families have acquired unprecedented levels of personal debt, in relation to their income. I warned, over three years ago, about the dangers of unsustainable personal debt. It is now much worse. I fear that the rising personal bankruptcies and repossessions are the first signs of bigger problems to come and personal debt - Gordon Brown's legacy to millions of Britain's families - will hang like a millstone around the neck of the British people for years to come."

The tragedy is that this is people's lives and futures we are talking about and I have a particular concern for our young people. They are growing up in a very different landscape from that a generation ago. I know I sound like a granny (well I am one!) but, I remember the days when HP was a dirty word, if you wanted something you saved for it, as a teenager the challenge was to look as if you had spent as little as possible on your clothes, and if they came from Oxfam, or you had tie-dyed your own t-shirt.......well that was the height of cool! Now it is the £100+ Nike trainers that give you street cred. In my day..........I got a grant (!) I occupied the admin block to protest against overseas student fees, never imagining that had I wanted to study now I would have had to borrow huge amounts in order to afford to do so. When I started work final salary pension schemes were the norm. I bought my first house 23 years ago for £16,000 - the same house now would be worth about 10 times that, but if I was earning commensurately now, I would be on around £140,000 a year! In fact, the job I had then is now paid at about £24,000 a year.

Last week the FSA issued a stark warning about the potential for 1 million home repossessions in the next 18 months. This is truly shocking and taking place in a choppy sea where the loan consolidation and debt management sharks are circling, often resulting in people getting into more debt. Turn on commercial radio or TV any day of the week and these firms will be targeting the most vulnerable. I was surprised when working at home on Thursday to receive two automated calls, one offering me a "free" cruise in the Caribbean (I'm used to those), the other asking if I was in debt and needed help. Sadly, excellent debt advice services such as those offered by Citizen's Advice and the Consumer Credit Counselling Service, don't have the resources to advertise their free services.

So now we see the closing of the stable gate approach - Egg withdrawing credit cards and credit allegedly becoming harder to obtain. But, I have no doubt we will still have the situation which recently happened to a friend of mine, receiving two letters from her bank on the same day. One threatening legal action because she hadn't repaid a loan, the other offering her further credit!

The Tories, not known for their love of regulation, shout loudly but offer not a jot of an idea of how to tackle the problem. So, what should we be doing? Firstly, get the regulation right; secondly legislate for an upper limit on interest charges(some doorstep lenders charge in excess of 400% APR); thirdly explore the scheme suggested by Vince of a shared ownership solution for those in danger of losing their homes through repossession, fourthly (yes it's that old chestnut) taking up Nick Clegg's call for risky radicalism..........revisit Land Value Tax.

There are other measures which will contribute, the Thoreson Review will report later this year on the establishment of a Generic Financial Advice service. Also the inclusion of Financial Literacy on the school curriculum from 2008, although this should be statutory. The work the FSA are doing through the Financial Capability Strategy is already having an impact, but that is long term, it is not just about people having the right information and skills, it is also about behaviour and attitudes, as no doubt those who work on the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy are well aware, this takes time!

This will be a miserable year for many of our fellow citizens, we must ensure that as a party our voice is heard above the din and that Vince Cable is seen as the person most able to manage our economy, maybe I am biased, but I have absolutely no confidence in Alistair Darling and the thought of George Osborne holding the purse strings makes me want to go and hide behind the sofa!

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Tony Blair - President of Europe? Heaven help us!

I suppose, given there is no vacancy for pope, it is the next best option in his undoubted drive for world domination! Particularly worrying is his declared desire for an EU President to have more powers over foreign affairs.........I find myself taking back that sigh of relief when he stood down as PM. With the potential for the last vestiges of the neo-cons being swept away in less than a year as Bush vacates the White House, it is really scary to think that their influence may continue through their compliant lapdog taking on this key role in Europe.