Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Proud? I Wish!

Like most of you I guess an email headed “Proud” just popped into my inbox from Simon Hughes. I plucked up the courage to read said email and found myself closer and closer to the verge of vomiting. Sorry, but I’ve got to be honest and I wish I didn’t feel this way, if anyone can suggest a way to help me not to please email me asap. But somewhere along the line we have surely lost total touch with our declared values and aims? Yes, we have taken people out of tax, but no, they weren’t the poorest, the poorest weren’t paying tax in the first place and those who have had the additional cash will find it nowhere near compensates for the drop in living standards. Yes, the pupil premium is certainly a Lib Dem win, but frankly, if on the one hand we give the school (who may or may not choose to use the money to support disadvantaged children) money while on the other kicking the child’s family out of their home – what contributes most to their educational success? Yes, we are doing our best to help unemployed young people, but at the same time we are slashing the services that in the past helped them, Youth Service, Connexions – I don’t know about where you live but they are practically wiped out round here. 

Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander have virtually admitted that the Youth Contract isn’t working (see my CYP Now blog here) so we claim credit for getting 100,000 into work er no, work experience. Work experience?! Of course that may be an important step on the road to a job, but surely what we want is 1 million young people in work?

Having been involved with our last Manifesto process and as a candidate in the 2010 campaign, I was happy to campaign on our priorities. They were costed. They didn’t rely on taking money from the most vulnerable in order to deliver. They were “as well as” not “instead of”. Any Liberal Democrat would have been proud of that. But what we have now is as a result of massive cuts elsewhere. If we have the choice between Pupil Premium and homeless children - which would we choose? Raising the tax threshold - or cutting benefits to the most vulnerable? 

Of course there are some great initiatives; increased support for child care is wonderful. But I have to say my daughter has given up claiming it because it means equivalent cuts to her housing benefit. When I suggested we should resolve that anomaly in our party policy I was told it would be too expensive. So, yet again, the poorest in our communities miss out. 

I must applaud the increased investment in mental health talking therapies. Having lost my sister last year I am sure she would have benefited if those therapies had been around earlier. But… knew there was a but (!)…….the link between mental health and financial worries is well documented. We know that nearly half of unemployed young people have mental health conditions. More and more people are being pushed into debt, especially into the arms of unscrupulous lenders and loan sharks. Oh, and if you need support to get justice…..forget it, we just cut legal aid. So yet again, no evidence of joined up thinking, let’s try and stop people getting ill in the first place.

And of course, there are stand alone achievements that the party is rightly proud of, such as equal marriage and blocking some of the worst excesses of the Tories. But it reminds me of the ethics debates we used to have as students – at what point does what you get in return make  it OK to sell your soul to the devil?!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Letter to Vince Cable

For those of us in Manchester for SLF Conference one of the highlights was Vince Cable's speech, which it has to be said raised as many questions as answers. As a result Liberal Left supporter John Cole was moved to write this letter.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Spending Review - A Case of Balancing the Books on the Backs of the Poor

Yesterday's spending review demonstrated like nothing else just how our party leadership have betrayed the values we erstwhile all held dear. I have no doubt that many of our ministers in government worked hard behind the scenes to make it all "Less Bad" - but the ultimate impact, and their complicity in policies which seemed predicated on a belief that while someone is down they should get a kicking - is hugely disappointing. We have just issued a statement here on Liberal Left. But that doesn't express my own personal disappointment, that the wider parliamentary party appears to have nothing to say about Osborne's statement yesterday, other than to roll over and have their tummies tickled.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

"An Educated Party, but not actually expanding that Education"

A quote from Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera during a session at the EMLD/SLF Race Equality conference last week. I have been reflecting on that, particularly given the news today that Michael Gove is approaching education with the typical reforming zeal of a blinkered idealog - I wait with interest to hear what the party response to this will be.  

For anyone lucky enough to attend the conference to launch the Taskforce report on Race Equality, it was a truly brilliant day - all credit to EMLD and SLF - and I personally thought it was important to get the message out to those working with children and young people that tackling discrimination is still a priority for Liberal Democrats. For that reason I used my Children and Young People Now Blog to draw attention to what is an excellent report - now the pressure is on all of us to make its recommendations a reality.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Rose by any other Name.....

I spent Monday at home and yesterday in parliament, listening to the Same Sex Marriage debate. It was at times infuriating, moving and challenging. There is no doubt that this is an issue that divides opinion, often, but not always, along religious lines. To be honest it highlights, maybe like no other issue, the need to disestablish the church.

My view is that the most sensible way to have resolved the differences of opinion would have been to accept the amendments proposed by Greg Mulholland and Simon Hughes making the distinction between religious and civil marriage clear. It would have then been far easier to have made the case to faith groups that what they choose to do with regard to recognising same sex marriage, or second marriages or whatever else, is their business and what the state does is the state’s business. To quote my dear pal Colin Ross (who was also quoted by Greg in his speech):

“I am a gay man and not religious. If I wanted to spend my life in a loving relationship recognised by the state I want to be able to do that – without any religion having their opinion on it – but what is more I want to have the same rights as everyone else. The current Marriage (same sex couples) Bill does not offer equality, the legislation is flawed it still doesn’t provide equality especially in respect of pension rights when one partner dies and issues affecting the Trans community, likewise the Civil Partnership legislation was not about equality – as it neither gave equality to marriage and also did not allow opposite-sex partners to have Civil Partnership as well. Mr Mulholland’s proposals would for the first time deliver equality for everyone who wanted to spend their life in a loving relationship recognised by the state and enjoy the rights that come with that.”

As someone who was christened a Catholic, baptised in a Pentecostal church, and at times a member of the Church of England, Baptists and Free churches – I spent much of my life in the same bubble that many Christians find themselves in now. The teaching on marriage was clear and until recently remained unchallenged. Through having the privilege of having many gay friends some with a strong faith, some without, I have been on my own journey in squaring the circle of church orthodoxy and my own experience. 

One of the biggest influences on my thinking has been Desmond Tutu whose position is beautifully summed up here. More recently the brave decision of Steve Chalke, a leading evangelical, to speak up in favour of same sex marriage has pushed the debate on in the church. But as the past couple of days demonstrate, and contrast Gerald Howarth’s outrageous “aggressive homosexuals” comment with the moving speech by Katherine McKinnell on Monday, it is clear that no uniform Christian understanding of the nature of marriage exists any longer.  Let’s be clear, marriage is an institution that predates the church, the mosque and the temple. And clearly is defined differently in countries where polygamy is permitted. So the idea that there is one, universally agreed definition, is ridiculous. 

But, having said that, I would expect my fellow Liberal Democrats to have more appreciation of just how difficult it is for those who have grown up with the church’s understanding of marriage to square their own circles. Simon Hughes is a good friend of mine and I know just how much he has wrestled with this. My advice to him throughout has been that he had to do what he believed was right, and because he couldn’t please both sides he had to make his priority hanging on to his own integrity. However hard many fellow Lib Dems may have found his decision yesterday, I would hope we could respect that, for him and others, their faith came first. 

Much has been made of the fact that we have party policy on equal marriage. Yes we do, we also have lots of party policy that has been ignored while we have been in coalition. Yesterday was a free vote because it was seen that this was a conscience issue. To be honest I actually think issues like the bedroom tax, attacks on welfare benefits and legal aid are conscience issues too (!), but there was not the same furore about the fact that our MPs were whipped against party policy in those and other cases. 

So as the dust settles, credit must go to Adrian Trett and Lynne Featherstone for all they have done to get us to this point. This is a reason to celebrate. But we must also respect the reality that for some people of faith balancing their religious and political values is often an excruciatingly painful process. 

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Leaving the Coalition - If not now - when?

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” George Orwell, Animal Farm

I've just blogged about this at Liberal Left here

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Shock and Awe - Confessions of an Anti-War Campaigner

It's hard to imagine it is 10 years since that fateful day we found ourselves dragged into an immoral, illegal, unjust war. Last night I was in the Palace of Westminster for a Defence Working Group meeting - reflecting on that day, 10 years earlier, when myself and three friends had sat through the debate which sealed the fate of thousands.

Yas, Avais, Sharon and I had got tickets through our local MP Patrick Hall and found ourselves on the front row in the gallery, directly above the Lib Dem benches. I had been distraught at what was happening and had been agonising about what I could possibly do to protest. I'd looked into the possibility of absailing into the chamber to make my point - but had been persuaded that wasn't the safest thing to do. Instead, Yas suggested we took red paint in to make our point. Both being somewhat 'well-endowed' we concealed bags of red powder paint in our bras and nervously awaited an opportunity to make our point. 

Anyone who listened to that debate will agree there were some magnificent speeches, not least by John McDonnell. So magnificent was his indeed that Sharon couldn't help but respond by standing up, holding onto the railings and shouting down into the chamber "I absolutely agree with everything that gentleman has said. The British people don't believe your lies......' As many in the public gallery and then chamber broke into spontaneous applause the men in white tights rushed over and carried her away. The men in white tights then came and surrounded Yas, Avais and myself - warning us that if we continued applauding we too would be removed. It was at that point Yas whispered to me "I'm chickening out. I've got 14 unpaid parking tickets and I don't want to get arrested!" I thought long and hard about what to do - this was shortly after the anthrax incidents and I 
confess, the sensible side of my nature got the better of me - not least because I was sitting directly above Simon Hughes' and it wasn't him I was angry with! But however ill advised such a demonstration may have been, it merely showed just how utterly powerless most of us felt in the face of such blatant lies and deceit.

For me the most disturbing memory of that evening was seeing Blair and Straw laughing and patting each other on the back at the end of the debate. Even if they genuinely believed they were right, the fact that they had just condemned so many Iraqi and British sons and daughters to certain death I felt called for a rather more solemn response. My later encounter with John Reid rather reinforced my view that parliament had been well and truly hoodwinked.

As we sat up waiting for operation 'Shock and Awe' I exchanged emails with my pal who was defence correspondent for the Telegraph at the time. 'If he's got them (WMD) why isn't he using them?' I asked. 'He's waiting til they get to Bhagdad' was his reply.

As soon as news broke that the attack had begun Sharon and I met in the middle of 
Bedford with the black crepe ribbons we had prepared to tie round the lamp posts as a mark of our horror at what had happened. As a councillor at the time I managed to get a 
debate - but sadly couldn't persuade the Mayor to agree to fly the flags at half mast. We had an active STWC group in Bedford so were able to arrange a number of demonstrations and meetings. 

Before the war started I found myself in a spot of bother at work (I was a Youth Service Manager at the time) since I had passed on an email about student action to Richard Angell (now of Progress) who was the regional officer for the Youth Parliament at the time. He had passed it on to the local MYPs one of whom had shown his head teacher. The fact that my name was on it (I was Weerasirie at the time so immediately identifiable) lead to the local press being involved and my boss threatening me with a disciplinary - not helped when my then 16 year old daughter lead her whole school out in protest - er.....with a name like Weerasirie it was rather obvious we were related! But I was immensely proud of her when the following week, along with her pal Amber, she spoke at the People's Assembly - thus began an interest in challenging injustice that has lasted to this day. 

Ten years on I am surprised at how little attention this anniversary has attracted. Yesterday on Today we heard from one of our ex servicemen who is still suffering from PTSD and is homeless. We haven't even been able to properly care for our own let alone the countless thousands still suffering in Iraq because of a war conducted on a false prospectus. 

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

What the Lib Dem's Stand For. My response to Alex Wilcock's Meme

Never knowingly one to shirk a challenge I was delighted to get an email from Alex Wilcock inviting me to join his Meme restating what we as a party stand for. I am someone who constantly quotes the preamble to our constitution – and have only just returned from speaking at an International Women’s Week event, where I quoted it to explain why I am a member and to underline the importance of matching political allegiance with personal values. 

I didn’t have a lot to argue with about what Alex has already said. The challenge though it seems to me, is saying something which doesn’t turn out to be a truism. Trying to incorporate the Ryan Cotzee shorthand of “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” is slightly problematic for me, to use that old test, would anyone sign up to the opposite – “Weaker Economy, Less Fair Society”? Fair can be a bit of a weasel word in so many ways which is why I appreciate the preamble because it actually explains what we have in mind. After all, many Tories think fairness is about getting rid of inheritance tax and cutting benefits to the most vulnerable. 

Like Alex I love the line “no-one should be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity” which underpins everything I believe, along with our commitment to equality. This brings me to the issue many of us are struggling with at the moment – it is no good having a statement of beliefs if it isn’t reflected in our values, and no good claiming to hold core values if they aren’t reflected in our actions. That is what should define us, that is what should determine our priorities. 

So if I were to try and encapsulate the essence of who we are and what we stand for it would be this. 

We believe that everyone should have the opportunity to thrive and make their most of their lives, free to do as they choose so long as it doesn’t harm others, free from those obstacles that prevent them from enjoying their lives such as poor health, discrimination, injustice, living in poverty or fear. We believe that the state’s role in this is three-fold. Firstly to be a safety net, protecting us by providing public services such as the health, fire and police services, the welfare state, adequate regulation to protect us as consumers, employees and employers, access to justice whoever you are. Secondly to provide a ladder – through education and other opportunities to develop our full potential. Thirdly by ensuring the right infra-structure is in place, through for example road and transport networks, housing, or the right environment for business to develop. That is why as Liberal Democrats we are committed to policies that achieve those ends, that ensure those with the most contribute more, recognising that a fairer, more equal society is good for all of us. 

And now I’d like to hand over the baton to the following: