Wednesday, July 28, 2010

OK......So Now I Love Theresa May.....?

Working from home today I had the sadly rare opportunity to listen to WATO and the wonderful Martha Kearney over lunch. Imagine my delight (being in the middle of emailing our own Tom McNally about our Youth Justice policy) when I heard dear old Theresa May chatting about abolishing ASBO's - Lib Dem policy.......well almost! I wondered if Lynne Featherstone had been working her magic? Having worked with Lynne on our youth policy I do know we are totally on the same page about youth issues and her tenacity and inscrutability in seeking to ensure we are a far more liberal society, is for me one of the few bright sparks in this gloomy coalition.

I have to be honest, this was one of the issues where, given previous experience in our region, I thought we may have had a bit of a spat at conference, but hey, who will oppose it now when even the Tories get it?!

However, I am not holding my breath for too long. Already there are murmurings about what this may mean on the ground for the police - short sharp shocks? Clips round the ear? Summary justice? We will have to watch carefully - "reviews" can be little more than dipping of toes in water, retreating like lightening when the Daily Mail sharks start to bite!

So, for those of you who think this was one of Labour's flagship policies and I am a bleeding heart liberal - soft on crime and soft on the causes of crime..........this is WHY I am so vehemently opposed to this policy.

ASBO's, anyone know of anywhere else, anywhere in the world where they exist? - this is a British phenomenon - and one we should be ashamed of. It flies in the face of one of the most fundamental British values that we like to refer to as an example of our legislative superiority - INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY! We are criminalising a generation of young people without due process and then wondering why our prisons are full. And creating something that is more often than not breached, or else seen as a badge of honour. I am sorry, but this is one of the barmiest most damaging pieces of New Labour Stalinist legislation they ever thought of (and there were a lot!) if anyone doesn't understand why I am not a Labour member, this is the embodiment of the bits of New Labour (along with marketization) that I cannot stomach.

So, we will watch and wait. I hope Ms May will deliver (remind me to tell you the tale of her, Trevor Phillips and yours truly - but not here!), and I hope too, that she will recognise what our Youth Justice policy recognises that this is not just about repealing idiotic legislation, it is also about ensuring our young people have somewhere to go, something positive to do, investing in our youth services (currently under demolition) especially detached youth workers (a cause Simon Hughes has always championed), supporting inter-generational community projects, giving our young people something to believe in, hope for and aspire to. Only then can any of us have any right to talk about being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime...............

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Simon Hughes calls for Campaign to Scrap Trident

"Expensive, dangerous and useless" the words of a senior military witnesss to describe Trident when giving evidence to the working group a few years ago. One of the things that persuaded my good pal Jo Hayes to vote against the fudge that became party policy and for the minority report. As a "risky radical" party, all too often we fall at the final hurdle of the Daily Mail filter when deciding policy, this was one such time.

So imagine how thrilled I was last night at the AGM of Liberal International British Group (and if you are not a member why not?) to hear newly elected President, Simon Hughes call for LI to reassert our party policy to scrap Trident. He made it clear that the coalition agreement gave us as a party licence to argue for scrapping – so that's surely what we have to do. With over 70% of the population against renewal and a massive budget deficit, it is incredulous that all but those who stand to gain financially or politically by carrying on supporting this nonsense, should continue to prop up a dead duck.

I have to confess that I did make the case for removing the words "like for like" (remember this was LIBG so they don't have to support party policy word for word) but was met with short shrift – Simon having two objections, one that it was not 3 words but 1 (hyphenated apparently!) the second that our policy was not unilateralist. He did concede however that whilst my arguments were usually incredibly persuasive and cogent (well something like that ;-)) on this occasion they were........hmmmm – less so (surely not I hear you murmur).

Someone else who took a view diametrically opposed to mine made the point that the argument would be easier to make if it was clearly not a unilateralist one. I have to say, that makes a lot of sense if your objection to Trident is the cost and the uselessness of the system, however, since my objection is a moral one while I will support this campaign it will have to be from a unilateralists position. Never the less, I of course applaud Simon and trust this will be a campaign we can all get behind.

Update - "Liberal Democrats fought the election as a party committed to multilateral nuclear disarmament. Above all at this time of spending cuts and financial austerity, the like for like replacement of Trident is illogical and unaffordable. Rather than continuing Trident as before, Britain's public finances should be spent on other areas of our national defence and priority public services" quote from Simon Hughes today. GO SIMON!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Coalition Budget – Real Life Consequences

I am sure, like many of you, I got involved in politics in order to do my best to be a voice for those who had no voice, to challenge injustice, discrimination and oppression. I guess I can trace it back to speaking up on behalf a black friend when I was 5 and I didn't understand much about racism then, but understood a little about bullying. Since then that trait in me, among other things, has lead me to being threatened with a charge of mutiny in the army, become President of my SU, Unison Branch Secretary and chair of their national Youth and Community Workers Forum, a local councillor and parliamentary candidate.

So whenever I read the kind of comments that have been left on my recent blogs about the coalition budget, that sense of indignation is reignited in me and I would challenge anyone not to be moved by these stories.

Firstly there was this comment from Big Doug,

My wife has Schizophrenia, some days she's good, other days bad. Quite often its a case of not letting her illness manifest itself to such an extent she feels compelled to leave the house on some task or other. In the past she has gone missing and the police have taken her to hospital after being found miles away in a confused and distressed state. She has a fortnightly injection to keep her stable. She is shortly to have her DLA claim looked at again. I make no political point about this, I'm sure it would have happened under Labour. But I do wonder what will happen if she is assessed on one of her good days, and how many other people in a similar position will suffer as a result. I haven't told her about the medical test she has coming up as this will lead to stress ,anxiety and heaven knows what else. I have no real interest in politics, when you are at the bottom politicians rarely do more than pay you lip service, sometimes they'll kick you around like a tin can. To be honest my life is crap, limited and each day is as likley to bring horror as it is to bring a smile. And to cap it all my wife, and I as her carer, are now a burden on the system, scroungers no less. Well bring on the pain we all have to bear, down here no one hears us anyway. Sorry for the semi rant. At least you sound as if you realise there are real people out there somewhere.

then this one from Dan

Linda, I have become a follower of your blog recently, and I can't understand why people in Mid-Bedfordshire decided to vote for their MP on the back of her being a Tory, instead of voting for somebody who had their head screwed on. No offence to Nadine Dorries, of course. I personally think she did well on Tower Block of Commons, and she seems like a nice woman. But you make some really valid points and as a 21 year old care-leaver under the London Borough of Camden, all my friends who lived in care under my local authority (apart from two, who were girls and had babies) got dumped into hostels full of crackhead and were denied our right to a council flat. I've lived in over 20 placements in the care system and then to be put into hostals is like repeating the whole process all over again to the point where my education got affected and where as I once was labeled "gifted and talented," I was now labeled as "challenging behaviour." I left school with 2 poor gcse's, and 5 years later, not much has changed. Having a stable home is absolutly essential to ones upbringing. Unfortunatly, I don't know when I'm going to have a stable home, and as I'm currently unemployed, I don't know how I'm going to surive the 10% housing benefit cut as my hostal rent is pretty steep as it is. But I don't want to move out as it's my only hope if I wan't to eventually get a council flat. With no family around for support, things are only going to get harder... the tories have NO idea! I'm going back to college to do a 1 year access course in social work so hopefully I can go university next year. I am going to have to find a part time day job and a part time night job asap to make ends meet! Anyway, Linda, you write an excellent blog. Keep it up, I'll definatly continue to follow you :)


And finally this from the Queen of late night tweeting ;-) and one of my fellow Narnians, Humphrey Cushion

Thanks for writing this Linda, I blogged on this too:

As I said in that post, I failed to qualify for ESA recently although I can only stand or sit for a few minutes at a time without pain and any movement of my neck increases the damage.. what sort of a job that qualifies me for I dont know..

These benefits should be Health Service generated, the specialists and GPs know their patients best. Currently, the Medical Examiners meets the claimants for 15 minutes and sees no health records at all. Hardly able to make an informed decision are they?

I defy anyone not to be moved by these stories, regardless of political persuasion. So, if anyone can't understand my opposition to the regressive, vindictive, short sighted Tory budget (please don't tell me this is the kind of budget we would have come up with on our own!!!) – you clearly don't get it. And please don't bleat on about this being necessary because the alternatives would be worse. In order to become part of the coalition our party was sold a pup. Hmmm, George Osborne or Vince Cable – who would I trust to have more economic nous? Cut now, cut later??? This is ideaologically driven and no mistake and unless our party grandees wake up to this fact I fear we are condemned to the footnote of history, but far worse than that, many of our fellow citizens are condemned to poverty, misery, hopelessness and in some cases, death.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Leaving the Party? PLEASE, DON'T DO IT!!!

The news yesterday that Liverpool Lib Dem leader, Warren Bradley had spoken out about coalition cuts and his fear that the party would be wiped out, sent a shudder through my spine. His description of feeling physically sick when he heard about the cuts to the BSF budget reflects the way I have felt since that fateful day in May. More worrying for me was the news that many of his Lib Dem councillors were considering leaving the party - my huge plea to them is don't do it!!!!

Now, more than ever before, those of us who love this party, who have chosen it over others because it most reflects our values, surely must now stay and fight - the alternative is the wipeout Warren warns of. And then what? A return to less choice, to the "big boy" bullies who think they have the right to rule, be they on the left or right (although ironically we were always seen as to the left of Labour - hey those were the days!) and a far more disaffected electorate, particularly those who already feel marginalised and ignored.

OK, I know we have a wing of the party that is far more economically liberal and has a lot in common with the Tories, but at our heart we are a progressive party, we rightly champion our belief that "noone should be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity" and yet right now we are joining forces with those who will further impoverish those already struggling to survive financially. What is sticking in many folks gullet is, I believe, what looks like a lack of integrity on behalf of the party. Vince looks uncomfortable and squirms - he doesn't display the body language of someone who is saying what he truly believes. The wonderful Michael Moore, someone who I have always rated, looks similarly uncomfortable on Question Time trying to justify the unjustifiable. To hear our MPs defending what are Tory not Lib Dem values is excruciating. No wonder people are wondering what we stand for now!

A few short weeks ago, when Nick Clegg (rightly) was wowing the crowds, it seemed we really were going to break the mould of British politics, the vision of the "Gang of Four" all those years ago. Now we are left with what by any standards is the rump of an idea for electoral reform - of course I will join the campaign for AV, it's better than what we have, but frankly the whole point of it diminishes somewhat if the consequence of us getting it is the return to two party politics! And as someone pointed out recently, for those of us who really don't have a second choice it is totally meaningless.

As someone who has always been prepared to challenge when I think something is wrong I realise I will continue to upset some folk. I am truly sorry. It would be far better for my blood pressure if I could genuinely applaud what our party has signed up to, if I could find it in my heart to be happy about our role in government. Unfortunately, given the prospect of up to 40% cuts, over a million extra on the dole, the condemning in particular of so many of our young people to unemployment, poverty and misery, the prospect of families becoming homeless because of housing benefit cuts, forgive me if I don't sound too enamoured at the moment.The rationale that our presence in the coalition would somehow mitigate against the worst excesses of the Tories kinda rings hollow now, would they have been looking for 60% cuts without us then?

However, it is precisely because I care about the future of our party that I can't keep silent. If you saw your dearest friends, rushing like lemmings to the edge of the cliff - would you just stand by and let them get on with it?

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Coalition Budget – “It’s not Fair!” part 2

OK, we've dealt with housing benefit, now what about the rest? I have absolutely no problem with trying to get people off benefit, I have absolutely no problem with bringing to book those who are abusing the system, what I have a problem with is the catch all approach. So for those who are genuinely unable to work because of a disability or an illness (did anyone hear that poor desperate man with terminal lung cancer on the phone to Gordon Brown on 5 Live during the campaign, who kept getting forced to go for assessments?) to include them in our attempts to catch the rogues is totally unfair and unproductive. It's a bit like expecting us all to cough up for the tax dodgers, don't see quite the effort going into calling them to account.

The idea that there is enough slack in the system to cut benefits because after all, "we're all in this together" is a total nonsense. What this budget will cost me is a reasonable meal out once a month, what this budget will cost those on benefits will be choosing between eating and keeping warm. Apologies to those of you who have heard this story before, but I will never forget my meeting with the Children's Commissioner in Northern Ireland last year, when we had had that exceptionally cold spell in February. She told the story of a young 17 year old who had come out of the care system and was living on her own. She had gone to her social worker to beg that instead of having £20 a week in food vouchers she could just have £10 in vouchers and the other £10 in cash – because she said "I'd rather be hungry than cold". This was a young woman who had not had the best start in life but was doing her best to try and get a job and make a future for herself despite everything being against her (and let's not forget care leavers are far more likely to be unemployed than the rest of the population).

And the moves on DLA are also distressing. Bad enough that you are suffering a disability or debilitating illness, now we will make you jump through all sorts of hoops, even though it will cost us more to do this than we will save! The fact is that for some illnesses (like ME) folk have good and bad days. For those with serious mental illness, they may have long periods of being well, punctuated by crises when they just can't work. Far better to find ways of supporting employment for these people when they are well surely? My sister is one such case. At the moment she is as well as she has been for several years – she is happily volunteering in the church coffee shop and is so appreciated they want to employ her to run it. This would be great and would help so much with her recovery, but we and she know she couldn't take the stress of actually being in charge. But if the church were able to have some back up support, to be adaptable enough to have contingency plans for the days/weeks when she may not be able to work, then this would be a real possibility. And of course, as we all know, work can be a real boost to someone's mental health and sense of well-being and self esteem. If we are serious about enabling people to work, then we have to be serious and far more creative in our thinking about how to support them. Sadly it seems this is not part of the package.

My one tiny spark of hope in all this is that having Steve Webb in DWP will perhaps help ultimately in securing a more humane approach to benefits in general and that having other ministers and MPs like our own brave Lynne Featherstone, who are also anxious about these proposals, may ultimately lead to some sensible amendments. It's a tiny spark, but maybe one that together, we can fan into a flame?

Monday, July 05, 2010

Coalition Budget - "It's not FAIR!" Part ONE

During the many and lengthy debates about the manifesto on FPC I found myself disagreeing with the notion that the theme should be fairness alone. Not because I don't believe in fairness, but because the concept only has any meaning when more clearly defined. After all, can you imagine any party campaigning on a platform of unfairness? The reality is that what I may regard as fair is more than likely to be totally at odds with what a right wing head banging Tory regards as fair. So, I unsuccessfully argued that we should be talking about fairness, freedom and equality - interesting that one of those was picked up in the Coalition Agreement!

Fairness is hardwired into our thinking, from early childhood we meet every parental decision we don't agree with bleating "it's not fair", "It's not fair that I should have to share my sweets - you gave them to ME", "How come (older sister) can go to bed at 9 and I have to go to bed at 8? It's not fair!" No wonder it is such a popular concept for politicians. Everyone wants things to be fair, from their perspective. Therefore the banker with his 6 figure salary, supplemented by a 6 figure bonus, may well think fairness is not having to shell out so much in tax to keep the feckless poor on benefits - Georgie boy will be a hero not a villain to him.

So, I have to confess that from my perspective I find the coalition budget anything but fair. And I say that as someone who personally, will be nowhere near as badly hit as others, so this view is not based on self interest.

To start with I want to consider the proposed cuts to housing benefit. This for me is probably the most insidious of all the proposals. There is nothing as fundamental as the need for a home, in particular a stable, safe and secure home. To me one of the most disastrous policies of Thatcher was the right to buy, based not on a belief that people should have the right to own their own home, but rather that homeowners were more likely to vote Tory. Far better to have sponsored shared ownership or affordable home building, rather than to sow the seeds of the situation we now have. Not only did this policy reduce the housing stock, it also stopped councils spending the receipts on building new homes - and thus we find ourselves in 2010 with a horrendous housing shortage.

So, the coalition government were bleating about the horrendous cost of housing benefit - too right - but the irony is that this ill judged, ideologically driven Tory policy was what lead to these ridiculous costs! Local councils, selling off stock to private landlords who then charge 3 or 4 times more rent which then has to be met through housing benefit! This is the real reason housing benefit costs have soared. Not only that, but those who would have had the security of renting from the council or a housing association, now find themselves subject to the vagaries of private landlords, who despite the legislation, always have the upper hand. Security is a thing of the past. As someone who has privately rented for the last 6 years I have moved 7 times, twice having had an eviction notice because the landlord wanted to sell, or do something different with the property. I now have a year's tenancy, but no guarantee that this won't mean having to move again if the landlord changes his mind about renting at the end of that year. And its not just the monetary cost (deposits, removal vans etc) it is also the emotional cost of moving.

I recently attended a Barnardos seminar where they were stressing the importance for the development of children of a safe, secure and adequate home and yet so many have anything but. This is one of the reasons I cannot see the pupil premium in isolation. Great that we will be able to implement that policy through the coalition, but frankly meaningless if we are going to throw many of the children we seek to help out of their homes. What good additional resources in your school if you don't have a decent secure home?

So, of all the dreadful measures in this budget, this for me is the worst. To threaten someone's home, particularly those with children, is to undermine one of the most fundamental human needs. At first I was incensed at the decision to cut housing benefit by 10% if someone had been out of work for a year, particularly in the current climate when we are anticipating over a million additional folk in the dole queue, but now I am even more incensed by the decision to cap rents at the 30 percentile rather than 50. In many areas this will mean the poorest in our society having to find outrageous amounts of money to make up the shortfall. I would find it difficult to find an extra £3,000 a year to spend on rent, how much more difficult for those living for example in Bedford where this is the estimated cost for them? And where are all these low rent properties they will be expected to live in? Ah yes, what we used to call social housing - a rapidly diminishing resource.

I understand there will be an opportunity in the autumn for this legislation to be amended, I trust that those MPs who call themselves Liberal Democrats will be prepared to put the needs of those most vulnerable in our society before the need to protect their career - after all, I thought that was why most of them got involved in politics in the first place?

Friday, July 02, 2010

The AV Eggs and the Coalition Basket

The commitment to a referendum on AV was the price the Tories allegedly paid for securing our support in the coalition. It wasn't quite what we were after - and the irony is, that if the prophets of doom are right and the Tory boa constrictor squeezes the life out of our party, it may be an irrelevance anyway. What would be the point of having a second choice when there were only two real choices anyway?

Much has been made of this apparent "climb down" by the Tories - but they, with their stranglehold in the press, and unimaginable financial backing, will do all in their power to secure a no vote. Simon Hughes on WATO was upbeat and optimistic about a win - I hope he is right - it at least will be a small step on the way to PR, which I still hope to see in my life time. However, if he is not, then we run the risk of shutting the door on PR for a generation at least. I can hear the argument now. Despite the fact that AV is no way comparable to PR (and of course there are many who would vote against AV while supporting PR), it would be taken as a demonstration that the people of this country were perfectly happy with FPTP.

This is why the battle to secure a proper referendum on PR has to intensify now. The coalition agreement, Section 24, states "We will ensure that any petition that secures 100,000 signatures will be eligible for formal debate in Parliament. The petition with the most signatures will enable members of the public to table a bill eligible to be voted on in Parliament."
Take Back Parliament already has over 56,000 signatures – can we get it up to 100,000 or 1 million? Surely there is scope to campaign now to get this petition to a point where we can force a debate? And if we could get that level of support behind the campaign, could any self respecting MP who allegedly believes in giving us back power, Cameron who claims we are now all in government with him, not even allow us to answer the grown up question about how we want to be governed? It would totally undermine and make a mockery of all the current drives to supposedly involve us in the decision making process.

But if we are to influence the referendum next year, time is short, let's all get behind this campaign now, let's show Mr C what the "Big Society" really looks like!

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Nick Clegg - My idea of freedom

I have to say I was delighted this morning to see the debate moving to more traditionally Lib Dem territory with Nick Clegg's invitation to us all to let the government know what our idea of freedom is. I will be responding to the invitation, although I would be interested to know what will happen with the suggestions. For example, what if 12 million of us said the legislation we wanted to abolish was raising VAT and cutting public services? How will they decide what to implement and what to keep? How much say will we really have? Do we need to start campaigns in order to ensure our voices are heard, or do we just accept that every suggestion will go through a coalition filter of whether or not it is in line with Tory/Lib Dem policy?

Anyway, I relish the opportunity - and rather than come up with a list, I thought I would come up with a few principles.

Firstly - freedom to me is being able to live my life without fear, and like most people I guess my biggest fears are around losing my loved ones, my health, my job. At the moment I think I am in quite a good place, I have a great job that I love and pays well, I don't have to worry about whether I can afford to heat my house or feed my family. I have my family close by, I am feeling OK. My health isn't being affected by worries or stress or living in poor housing.

Secondly - freedom to me is about being able to be myself, to shout the odds about what I want to shout the odds about (!) to protest on Parliament Square if I want to, to go where I want to, see who I want to, to wear what I want and believe what I want, in as far as that doesn't infringe upon anyone elses freedom (OK I promise not to come to conference in my bikini!).

Thirdly - freedom to me is about being able to learn and grow, to have access to information, knowledge, opportunities that enable me to develop my full potential as a human being.

Hmmmm, sounds a good bit like the preamble to our constitution that no-one should be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

So my response to Nick, when he says “So be demanding about your liberty, be insistent about your rights. This is about your freedom, and this is your chance to have your say.” Is to do exactly as he says (he knows how obedient I am when it comes to obeying the diktats of my leader :-)).

My demand is quite simple - in every decision you make, whether that is in repealing, or creating new, legislation - remember the freedoms we say we stand for, remember that it is our party that calls for a society where everyone is valued, where no-one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance, conformity or fear. To subject every legislative measure to this simple may find you come up with a few different answers to the ones the new coalition insist will be good for all of us. You may find you have to challenge your senior partners about that facile notion that "we are all in this together."