Monday, August 29, 2011

Tulisa Contostavlos or Nadine Dorries - who would be your choice of Role Model?

Last week I watched "My Mum and Me" the inspirational documentary featuring Tulisa Contostavlos and exploring the challenges faced by young carers. She not only traced her own experience of growing up caring for a mother with schizoaffective disorder but introduced us to other young people in similar circumstances. It certainly struck a chord with me, having grown up with a bi-polar father and having a sister with schizoaffective/bi-polar disorder, I am only too aware of the impact living with someone with a mental health condition has on the whole family. For me, even at 14, it was terrifying when my father had his first "episode", but it only really hit me how terrible it was for my mum when at 18, stationed in Germany, I was sent home to care for the family since my mum had also had a breakdown, having been totally stressed out by watching for the signs of my dad becoming ill. She was always a buffer for all of us children, but even then, I know it had a negative impact on our schooling and sense of security. How can you concentrate on your studies when your father is seriously ill, behaving in a way that is at best unsettling and at worst terrifying? So how much more unsettling and terryfing must if have been for Tulisa, on her own, no father or brothers and sisters for support, being the only one having to deal with her mother's terrifying illness from 11 years old? No wonder it impacted on more than just her schooling!

So re-reading Nadine Dorries' self-righteous hypocritical rant against Tulisa becoming an X Factor judge has, I am afraid, initiated a right royal rant of my own! If Nadine was in any position whatsoever to pass judgement on anyone else, even then, what she says is cruel, self serving and ignorant. Her basic, flawed logic is apparently based on her view that no one deserves as second chance........oh, unless your name is Cameron or Coulson of course. So to take her argument to its logical conclusion, Cameron, who in his youth, despite coming from a privileged background, allegedly took drugs and smashed up places, really should never have been allowed to become an MP, let alone Prime Minister?

So this apparent paragon of virtue who pontificates on everyone else without allowing them the right to reply, thinks she can stand in judgement on a young woman who has taken on huge caring responsibilities at an early age, has had mental health issues to deal with herself and still managed to turn her life around? The most ridiculous comment in her blog claims "And for anyone who is even getting near to thinking it's ok, because she has turned her life around and what she is doing is showing teenagers that it's ok to behave badly, because they can turn it around too, let's get real shall we?" Who on earth would make that argument? No-one would argue it's OK to behave badly - but surely those who have been able to turn their lives around should be applauded? Where I do agree with Nadine is that not every young person can become a superstar, but whether we like it or not, many do look to the stars for their role models. What they also need are role models closer to home - sadly with the cuts to the voluntary and local authority youth provision many of those opportunities are being lost. And I haven't seen Nadine argue once against the swingeing cuts Central Beds have made to their Youth and Connexions services who for many young people would have offered just the kind of role models they need.

So, my message to Nadine is please, for once, start putting your money where your mouth is. If you really care about young people, demonstrate it by recognising the support they need and deserve. You clearly care deeply for children before they are born, if only that care and concern extended beyond the womb! I hope you will watch Tulisa's story with just a little compassion and perhaps think twice before judging her, or calling others "nutters" (something you also called me) without a modicum of understanding about the challenges many of our young people face. And I trust having watched it you may have the good grace to apologise.

And to Tulisa I would say thank you. Thank you for being so honest, for admitting to not only what you have done wrong in your life but also for speaking openly about what it is like to grow up caring for a parent with a mental health condition. Thank you for the genuine care and understanding you showed for other young carers and for drawing our attention to a group of young people who so often get ignored because they are not on the streets causing a problem, but dealing with fear, anxiety and isolation on their own. I think you are a fantastic role model and I am delighted that you are using that position to make a real difference to the lives of other young people.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Will Nick Clegg lead the fight for Liberal Values?

The last couple of weeks have strained many of the fault lines in the Coalition that up to now have been more or less papered over. As a party we signed up to a Coalition Agreement that presumably most members could live with (myself excluded of course!) - but a Coalition Agreement in retrospect which was more at fault for what it didn't say than what it did.

So we have had the unedifying spectacle for the last 15 months of our much loved parliamentarians tying themselves in knots to be able to justify their support for Tory policies that stick in the gullet of any self respecting Liberal Democrat - most notably the suicidal support for tuition fees. But up to now most of the issues which have resulted in Lib Dems voting against their consciences, could be seen as of more concern to social liberals and while we may make up the majority of the wider party, as David Laws has pointed out, it is the Orange Bookers who are by far the majority amongst our ministers.

However, now the political ground is shifting - in the wake of the riots our Tory partners are hitting at the heart of what it means to be a Liberal Democrat. Yes, we may have different opinions on economic and social issues, but what absolutely binds us together as a party is our commitment to those liberal values of freedom, civil liberties, equality, human rights, fairness and justice. And it is those values that are under attack as we speak.

So the next few months I guess will be dominated by the political fallout from the riots, Cameron's promise that if it moves he will review it, politicians of all hues competing for the title of "Tough Cookie". Never before has it been more important to stand up for our shared values, however difficult that may be.

There has been a debate recently in the party about which of our policies we should shout about and which we should whisper. Strange as it may seem (:-)) I am in the shout about everything school of thought! When we whisper about the issues we care passionately about but we know don't play well with the likes of the Daily Mail, for example immigration and knee jerk reactions to rioting, all we do is cede the ground to our opponents. When we let the likes of Melanie Phillips blame the "liberal intelligentsia" without pointing her to the facts, we cede the ground. When we try to frame our narrative in the language that talks rough and tough, illiberal, authoritarian counter productive nonsense, we cede the ground.

So I find myself in total agreement with Chris Bowers on Dale & Co arguing that Nick Clegg now has a golden opportunity to promote a truly liberal response to the riots through, amongst other things, using restorative justice to confront the rioters with the consequences of their behaviour. We know that it works, for example in Northern Ireland the combined reoffending rate for youth conferencing in 2006 was 37.7% compared to 70.7% for custodial sentences (see the Prison Reform Trust's excellent report "Making Amends - Restorative Justice in Northern Ireland"). And alongside that, as Chris Bowers has argued, Nick's genuine concern for children and families I trust will mean he takes a far more considered long term view about what needs to happen.

Last year when I raised with Nick my concern about the impact of the cuts on young people during The Conference Question Time, he invited me to hold his feet to the fire if he didn't deliver. Well, he now has an opportunity to put his money where his mouth is - I have everything crossed in optimistic expectation that he will - with the hot coals in reserve if he doesn't!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Bring Back National Service............and the Birch........and Zero Tolerance..........and David Blunkett?....and Jack Straw?

The past week has seen a cornucopia of opinion and counter opinion in relation to the shocking events that swept so many cities in this country. From Melanie Phillips blaming the "liberal intelligentsia" (Melanie darling you are SO last season!) or the delightful Nadine Dorries citing the "moral vacuum"....ah yes dear, so that's what you are blaming for your own lack of moral fortitude is it? Now let's check out your alleged behaviour - hmmmm, adultery, lying and stealing? Not bad to be going on with. But of course, you haven't been caught looting Louboutins from Selfridges, no you were able to loot the public purse without breaking a single window! Rather like your millionaire pal George "we're all in this together" Osborne - you just don't get irony! This is in marked contrast it has to be said to the brave and perceptive Peter Oborne, whose analysis in his Telegraph piece this week was characteristically spot on. Ah, now there's a man the right could do well to look to for their moral compass.

Up and down the country, sorry England, sentences are being dished out like smarties. Sentences that on the face of it appear to betray a knee jerk response to a phenomenon that has at least unsettled and at worst shocked us all.

As a party we are committed to evidence based practice, now, more than ever, we need to demonstrate that this is what distinguishes us from our Tory partners. The likes of Phillips and Dorries may, rather like Cameron and May, want to absolve their class from any responsibility by dumping it in part on those immoral nasty liberals, but let's consider the facts. We have had decades of totally illiberal political leadership! Thatcher - liberal? Major - liberal? Blair - liberal? Brown - liberal? Cameron.........ah yes, claimed to be a liberal once, but prick him and does he not bleed pure illiberality?!

So this morning, as the dust of the last turbulent week (is it only a week?) settles - we have the unedifying spectacle of a prime minister, clearly out of his depth, calling've guessed it ZERO TOLERANCE. Oh and then we have that novel idea, being touted in the Express that the real answer is NATIONAL SERVICE (that'll sort them out, give'em some discipline in their joined voluntarily and look at me!). So let's look at what happens after people come out of the armed services - disproportionately homeless, disproportionately street drinkers, disproportionately suffering from mental health conditions. Now if our prime minister's argument is to be extended to its logical conclusion, given that our "feral youth" are the products of dysfunctional parents and a sick society, presumably there are some of our service personnel who are the product of our dysfunctional and sick armed forces??? But, maybe they're right, much better to train our "feral youths" to beat up and kill foreigners in Afghanistan Iraq or Libya than let them loose over here.

Having spent the best part of my life working with and for young people (and scarily that is now a very long time!) I have lived through many moral panics. The last week is no different. And frankly isn't that different from moral panics about youth throughout the ages. Even Socrates described the youth of his day as having contempt for authority, being disrespectful to their elders, tyrannising their teachers. But, what is different in every case is the environment in which such behaviour takes place - the values which people accept or reject - the messages our young people are getting from the society in which they either participate or feel disaffected from. And given this government's belief in "nudge" theory and behavioural economics, it seems extraordinary if they do not consider this as part of what must be a proper inquiry into what happened.

So it seems to me that what this country desperately needs is a truly liberal response to what are clearly complex problems. I may have been a little reticent in expressing my anxieties about the coalition, but surely this is a golden opportunity for us to stand up and challenge so much of this knee-jerk rhetoric? Most of us agree that short sentences don't work, and many Liberal Democrats (including myself) are ambassadors for
Make Justice Work, the campaign which highlights the wastefulness of short term sentences and promotes more intensive community sentencing. We also agree with using restorative justice as an alternative to custodial sentences, surely given what as happened and the evidence of how effective this approach is, our leadership should be making this point? Being faced with the consequences of your criminal behaviour can be not only far more difficult for a young person to cope with, but also is far more likely to get them to reform their ways.

At the moment there is talk of some 3000 arrests and no doubt there will be many more, like Cameron and Johnson in their youth, who will escape justice. Do we honestly believe ALL of these rioters were criminals? Or is it more logical to conclude that there was a hardened criminal element but that many more, particularly young people, were drawn in by the mob mentality? Those young people more than any will be far more likely to respond positively with being confronted with the enormity of the consequences of their behaviour. What's that saying about acting in haste and repenting at leisure? (both young people and politicians). Don't we know that our prisons are universities of crime?

What we need now is true political leadership, a recognition that if we truly are "all in this together" we all have to take some blame for what has happened as well as some responsibility for finding solutions. There are a good few things I disagree with Nick Clegg on (!) and we have had many arguments about, however, my primary reason for supporting his leadership was that I knew him to be a true liberal, I knew that on youth issues in general and youth justice in particular, he absolutely got the need to have a liberal approach. Nick Clegg, Simon Hughes, Lynne Featherstone (another two who absolutely gets it!) and our parliamentary team have never had a better opportunity to show that leadership, to take that opportunity we allegedly joined the coalition to promote - an opportunity to ensure we try that which has never been tried in living memory - that truly liberal response.