Sunday, June 27, 2010

Apocalypse Now, Apocalypse Later

You know when you eat something bad and feel like you want to throw up? For ages you think you couldn't feel any worse - then you actually do throw up and its horrendous. That more or less encapsulates how I have felt since the coalition was formed. That sick feeling in my stomach started on that infamous Tuesday evening when the coalition nuptials took place and has continued, getting worse with each new announcement - leaving me devastated this Tuesday with the budget - and culminating in the meeting of CHYPS (Confederation of Heads of Young People's Services) I went to last Thursday.

When I warned at the special conference that we would find ourselves locked into all sorts of things that would turn our stomach, I had no idea how prophetic my words would turn out to be, nor how quickly they would be fulfilled. I find myself surrounded by Lib Dem friends beaming with delight, constantly pointing out how much of our manifesto is included in the coalition agreement and the budget.........but to me its a bit like this. The doctor tells you what a wonderful job he has done in mending your broken leg while totally ignoring the fact that he has chopped the other one off! Oh yes, a modest increase in CGT is to be welcomed, but a devastating increase in VAT? Oh yes, great to give an additional £150 to poor families, or to take so many more out of paying tax, but what a joke when those same people will find themselves far worse off with benefit cuts and additional regressive taxes - and for so many, no job at all not to pay taxes on!!!!

Some of my dearest Lib Dem friends think I have made a mistake speaking out and should try to be a little more diplomatic, well frankly that is a bit like saying you should let your enemy overrun your country, raping and pillaging at will, with just the odd polite "would you mind stopping please?"

Of all the budget measures this week, for me the most worrying is something that has gone relatively uncommented on. That is a the promised 10% cut in housing benefit for those unemployed for over a year - so not only are we going to rub your nose in it, we are going to tip a load more shit over you while we do it. The massive cuts in the public services, particularly in some areas like the North East where 60% of all jobs are in the public sector, will not only take away people's livelihood, possibly for years to come, but they will also face the double whammy of either losing their homes because they can't pay their mortgage, or losing their homes because they can't pay their rent.

So, back to last Thursday. I had been invited, as chair of the Youth Policy Working Group, to go and speak to the heads of young people's services from across the country. Like me they were gobsmacked that there was virtually no mention of young people in the coalition agreement. Given we had some key commitments to young people in our manifesto, votes at 16, equalising minimum wage, additional educational, training and job opportunities for that lost generation of nearly a million "NEET" young people, statutory youth service, the fact that none of this appeared in the agreement is deeply worrying. Not only that, but sending the opposite signal by cutting the Future Jobs Fund. Nearly everyone there reported having to make massive cuts, usually around 30% and this is BEFORE the budget measures kick in. There is a very real fear that in many areas the Youth Service and Connexions will disappear altogether. The fact that youth services are non statutory means they are top of the hit list - and after all, young people can't vote until they are 18 and then they are less likely to vote anyway.

Following my input was a brilliant presentation predicting the future for the sector, central to which was a warning of the apocalypse to come. The fact that given the 25% cut in public sector and the fact that cuts would not be evenly spread, unprotected services like the youth service were very vulnerable - the predicted cuts in the long term being up to 50%. Equally as vulnerable will be the voluntary sector, for whom 50% of their funding comes from the public sector. Ironic really, given the Tory mantra of the "Big Society" which will rely so heavily on the voluntary sector.

The impact of these cuts cannot be underestimated. And this is where I am afraid I totally find myself parting company with Nick Clegg and Vince Cable. Nick rightly points out that we have a responsibility to our children to get out of this mess - but the irony is that by cutting services to the most vulnerable, by decimating youth services, the very children and young people he wants to protect will have their life chances blighted before they even start! Even more ironic is that we know all this is likely to cost more in the long run. We know crime rises when youth provision is cut. We know that if we don't provide adequate children's services more children are likely ultimately to end in care, or worse. We know that poor housing, poor nutrition, social exclusion, means worse health outcomes and a greater burden on the NHS. Only this week a report by David Stuckler warned the budget cuts would increase the death rate and today we hear that poorer families will be hit 6 times harder. Or Professor Joseph Stiglitz quoted in the Indy saying this strategy will ensure the recession is longer, slower and harder than it needs to be. Calling this a progressive budget is a bit like calling the Pope an atheist.

I for one am praying for our backbenchers, lead by Simon Hughes, to rebel - to at least push for amendments to the budget that make it fairer. To challenge the notion that it has to be like this, this is not the universal view of economists after all. Lets face it, this approach has far more to do with neo-liberal ideology than economic necessity. As someone who rejects the simplistic solutions of both left and right, I am frankly far more interested in what works. Yes, make cuts, there is slack, there are the trappings of a Big Brother state, the unnecessary targets and bureaucracy, the quangoes, the attempts at social engineering, the ASBOs, Trident.......oh forgot, we won't even consider Trident. But for goodness sake, don't cut the roots off the very measures that contain the prospect of recovery. Don't condemn another generation to the very thing you bleat about, namely a welfare dependent culture. Don't get hoodwinked by the ideology that cares more about monetary than human cost.

My worry is that the debate is being framed around the merit of cuts or tax rises, rather than the far more fundamental question about what sort of society we want to be part of, my worry is, that when the dust has settled and cleared, when we discover we have cut off our noses to spite our face, no amount of hand wringing and apologies from Osborne and Cameron will disguise the fact that it was us, the "progressive" Liberal Democrats, who held their hands while they destroyed our future. Broken society? We've seen nothing yet.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

BP, Banks, Budgets.........and Pink Fluffy Handcuffs


I don't know about you, but there is something that puzzles me. BP is enemy number one in the US, Hayward is vilified for taking a day off, while this disaster destroys the livelihoods of countless thousands. President Obama is clear – not only will BP pick up THE WHOLE TAB, the administration of this compensation scheme will be by an independent body, NOT BP.

Last evening, like many of you, I got an email from Nick Clegg, preparing me for bad news tomorrow, "why we have to do this" – hmmm, that's what tends to happen when you jump into bed with someone who whispers sweet nothings in your ear and then pulls out the handcuffs, however pink and fluffy they are! Tomorrow, let's face it, is the price our party is paying for having a seat at the table of power. Is it a price worth paying? Anyway, what jumped out at me from the email was Nick's description of the "reckless" banks. These "reckless" banks, who are universally blamed for the current financial crisis (allegedly aided and abetted of course by the Labour Party), these "reckless" banks, who have allowed this financial oil slick to render moribund, or to destroy, the hopes and dreams of so many. So my obvious question is this – if BP are being expected (rightl y of course) to compensate those whose lives have been destroyed by their negligence.........what is the difference when that destruction is perpetrated by the negligence of the banks?

So, given the billions that BP is being expected to shell out to compensate for its negligence, surely the answer tomorrow is to expect the banks to shell out the lion's share of the savings the government is insisting we need to make.

Ah, and there's another thing. Look, I'm no economist. I know some........and I know if you put 2 economists in a room you'll end up with 3 opinions. I also rather like the joke about how many economists it takes to change a light bulb? None, the market will take care of it. This weekend I heard an economist arguing that even if Boy George did nothing, the deficit would half by 2015. And this excellent interview with Robert Skidelsky in the New Statesman, takes the position our Vince did a few short weeks ago and offers a real warning about cuts now. Adam Ramsay in TMP takes a similar line "Tories love to talk about wasteful public services, but the truth is that the biggest waste in our economy is not public spending, it's unemployment – and their measures look likely to make things much worse. Cutting public spending in a recession is to pay off your debts like a fisherwoman selling her rod to pay off her debts, rather than waiting till she catches some fish"

The Birmingham Special Conference was not easy for me. Contrary to popular opinion, I don't actually find being the arsy one easy. Sadly challenging ones elders and betters is often equated with disloyalty. The "loyalists" will tie themselves into knots supporting and justifying the leadership – ending ultimately in the nonsense best expressed in the "Kings New Clothes", when actually, far from being loyal they have allowed their leader to make a fool of him/herself. They will begin the day believing the sky is blue, but by the end of the day, in order to support their leader they will have discovered it is yellow – they will find every kind of explanation of why what they have always believed was blue was really all the time yellow......and woe betide you if you question the logic. Frankly my first loyalty politically is to my fellow citizens, I am a Liberal Democrat because I believe liberal democracy – based on our values of liberty, equality, justice and fairness – rooted in a belief that "no one should be enslaved by poverty ignorance or conformity", offers the best hope for a better society where all have the freedom and opportunity to make the most of that precious gift of life we all have been given. I am not a Tory because I don't share their values – or beliefs, frankly, if I did what on earth would I be doing in the Lib Dems? And yet, I find myself being joined to them by proxy – and it makes me feel dirty.

OK, I understood all the arguments at the conference, Simon Hughes speech was probably the best I have ever heard him make – and if anyone has the capacity to convince me I am wrong, it is he. But I wasn't convinced, for the very reasons I gave in my speech – I think we have been seduced – and as every day goes by the more convinced I am that this is the case. In order to get a deal they hoodwinked us. They drew us in to their bed murming sweet nothings, but hey, once we are there – once there is no way out, we find ourselves "handcuffed" to deals we never ever would have agreed to had we known.

Today will be the first demonstration of the real objective of the Tories – to destroy the public sector, firstly to meet their overriding aim to cut taxes and secondly, so that if and when it ever gets rebuilt it will be their pals in the private sector who get the rich pickings. And what really sticks in my gullet is that we are helping them to do it.

Will I wonder, my visual aid at conference,(pink fluffy handcuffs for those who weren't there) turn out to be prophetic?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Simon Hughes election – reassuring the malcontents?

Well, I realise this may come as a bit of a surprise to some...............but I am delighted at the election of Simon Hughes as deputy leader. It is a bit like finding the corner of a threadbare blanket on a cold night. A glimmer of light in a in a dark room. Oops turn off melodrama (reluctantly).

Seriously, this is certainly reassuring for me – and I trust for others too. Simon is nothing if not true to his roots, he is not one to stand idly by and watch while the party he loves and has committed so much of his life to, gets swallowed up by the carnivorous Tories. So, I for one will sleep easier in my bed tonight.

Nick Clegg rightly paid tribute to him as the most hard working MP he knows. Not only that, I know that commitment to serve his fellow human beings extends far beyond his constituency. You only have to hint to him you have a problem and he will be on the case, asking for the paperwork and doing all he can to help you.

Simon will, I know, work tirelessly to ensure that we continue to function as one party. That we don't find ourselves drifting apart – the government elite, far too busy to be accountable to the party, and the activists, watching from the sidelines and wondering whether liberal democracy was just a childish dream.

For those of us who are still incredibly uncomfortable with the coalition we know that in Simon we have someone who will never be afraid to speak his mind, which may make the Tories a tad uncomfortable and I trust will be the perfect counterbalance to the 1922 committee :-)

His ability to challenge in a way that is effective without alienating, will, I trust, ensure that the bright flame of Liberal Democracy will continue to offer at least a little warmth and light in what by all accounts is likely to be a pretty bleak and cold summer for so many. Oh and I am sure, Simon is someone who cannot and will not, buy all this "we're all in this together" nonsense.

He will be an incredible asset to Nick, being able to challenge him in private and support him in public, offering wise and considered counsel.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Why it Has to be Hughes

Long suffering readers of my blog may remember that it was Simon's bid to become party leader that was the reason Looz Muze ever got going in the first place, so as you might suspect, despite the sad reality that members don't get a say in who becomes deputy leader (why not?) I am afraid I still feel compelled to lob in my own 2 penneth on the subject.

A while ago some droll soul commented on a blog post where I had mentioned that a fellow councillor referred to me as "the late Linda Jack, "oh that must be why you are a fan of Simon Hughes." Er.............well, it may help that I can fully appreciate just how hard it is to constantly try and fit a quart into a pint pot.......unbusy people are rarely late let's face it...but no that is not my reason for supporting him. Despite the fact that he made such an impassioned speech at the special conference, enough to solicit a hug from Nick, despite the fact that this was one of the reason I left Birmingham feeling even more marginalised and bereft than usual, I still, along with 60% of members it seems, really hope he becomes deputy leader. For me it will be a little reassurance as I try to steady my Liberal Democrat dingy on a sea of uncertain murky blue waters.

Recently I was chatting to a pal, who though not affiliated to any party, but who had been thinking about joining us, is now seriously considering becoming a Labour Party member because she feels so let down and betrayed by us. This is someone who is such a kindred spirit on so many levels, we laugh at the same things, we cry at the same things. We both feel desperate about a society where so many are still excluded because of poverty, or who they are, what they believe or feeling they "aren't clever enough" to have a right to have a say (sounds a bit like no one should be enslaved by poverty ignorance or conformity doesn't it?). It is because of her and people like her, who share our values, who can't understand why we have hopped into bed with a party that doesn't even understand our values, let alone share them that it is essential we keep the flame of Liberal Democracy burning brightly.

The advantage of having Simon as deputy leader will be that he will not be muzzled in the way Nick Clegg clearly is now. Already I am beginning to feel a bit of the "I used to know him before he was famous" – he seems to have slipped out of sight a bit, I am worried that he may well just get absorbed by some kind of osmosis and completely lose connection with the grassroots, the backbone of the party. So having Simon in what has suddenly become a far more significant role, I believe will help to counteract that. Bizarrely it will be the deputy leader who becomes the voice of the party, the guardian of our values, the figurehead. As I have said before I have a lot of time for Tim Farron, he is clearly a "one to watch" I don't believe he yet has the degree of gravitas, kudos or credibility both within the party and the media, to be able to ensure the voice of Liberal Democracy continues to be heard. The danger also would be he would be easier to ignore, Simon, as we know, is adept at making sure he isn't ignored!

So the election next week becomes hugely significant. The deputy leader, whoever he is, will have a hugely demanding task. Can he retain both the trust of the leader and the activists? Can he reassure those of us who are feeling extremely wobbly about where we find ourselves and who are concerned about the long term future of the party? Will he be able to successfully articulate what it is that defines us that distinguishes us from the Tories? Whoever wins, I wish them well, our collective future depends on it.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Flotilla, Israel and Nick Clegg - an uncharacteristic rant!

There are times when you think; surely something has to be done now? This must be the tipping point? Those terrible images of the father in Gaza trying to protect his 13 year old son who was shot to death. The last intifada when 13 citizens of Israel were killed for merely demonstrating against their government. The outrage of Lebanon and then last year Gaza. For me, as I suspect for many of us, the brutal attack on the flotilla this week was another such time. Surely the international community is not once again going to wash its hands, turn its back, walk by on the other side?

Instead, we have seen more of the same hypocrisy – one rule for you and another for me diplomacy. Of course I welcome William Hague's statement – but it is the verbal equivalent of a chocolate teacup! All the appearance of concern and mild outrage, but absolutely no substance. And that is why I am devastated at the way Nick Clegg has been muzzled on this. OK, I've read all the explanations about cabinet collective responsibility – and despite my misgivings about this coalition – I do have some understanding of why this is necessary. But, just as there are some issues which for some folk are of such moral importance that a free vote is given, surely the same should apply in the cabinet? Do we really think that if the cabinet took a line on abortion, or euthanasia that the same constraints would apply to those who took a different view? Now I know there are those who will argue this is not a moral issue for them. Fine – but it is for me and I believe it is for Nick – and frankly I don't want anyone else defining my morality for me! And this is why I am devastated that Nick has not been able to speak his mind. One of the things that endeared me to him in the first place was hearing him speak at a CAABU fringe some years ago. His frankness and commitment to hold Israel to account, was so refreshing. Also in the wake of phenomenal opposition from the Zionist lobby, he stuck to his guns on the issue of Gaza last year and was the only party leader to condemn the Israeli government and call for an end to arming Israel. I have no doubt his views have not changed.

If I was in Nick's shoes I can't imagine how I would feel. I hope as a fly on the wall in the cabinet I may hear him making a robust argument for taking a stronger line against the continuing illegal practices of the Israeli state. No doubt resignation is out of the question as it would destabilise the coalition and the country. But I am afraid if I was in his shoes I would be more concerned about the destabilisation of the world. Frankly we can do all we like to try and sort out the economy etc etc etc but it will be worth diddley squat if all we end up with is a totally destabilised polarised world. As a nation our credibility is already close to zilch after Iraq and Afghanistan – to continue to tacitly support Israel by failing to condemn her outrageous actions against innocent victims, be they on a ship carrying humanitarian aid, or in Gaza or against her own citizens, will further undermine any right we may feel we have to be a player on the world stage. The irony is that all this is counterproductive for Israel too. It's a bit like seeing an abused child abusing others and turning a blind eye, or tut tutting – the child will know it is quite OK to continue – there are no sanctions. What the child will not understand is just how damaging their behaviour is to themselves!

At a UN conference in Brussels a few years ago I coined a metaphor that I believe sums up the situation in Israel/Palestine and the desperate need to end the occupation. If you are sitting on my head I may need to you to get off my head before I can be reconciled to you. If in the course of sitting on my head you broke my nose and blacked my eye, I may need you to apologise to me when you get off my head before I can be reconciled to you. If while you were sat on my head I kicked you where it hurts to try and remove you, you may want me to apologise to you too. There has to be an end to the occupation, nothing less. It's no good just calling for the end to the siege against Gaza (this was clearly what the Israeli government had in mind when they cleared the settlements to enable them to create this open prison), it's the end of the occupation that is the imperative.

Just before Christmas I was at a Palestinian event where the wonderful Bruce Kent was a speaker – he spoke eloquently about the need for a new anti-apartheid campaign against Israel. Even Desmond Tutu has declared that what we are witnessing in Israel/Palestine is worse than the South African apartheid regime. If ever there was a time for that campaign to find its feet it's now.

Every time the Israeli government commit an outrage the only response they get from their protectors is a slap on the wrist. Each time they push the envelope a little further – each time they get away with it. Is this the time they stop getting away with it? I hope so, but I'm not holding my breath.