Private Eye has lamely tried to imply that Lib Dem policy supports paedophilia by linking Conference’s decision to refer back motion F17, to the investigation into Sir Cyril Smith. The piece on P5 of Eye 1349 begins:
Last Sunday, as the Lib Dem conference voted against toughening up controls to protect children from online pornography, little thought was given to the party’s own record on protecting childhood innocence
This is pretty sloppy reporting from Private Eye, an organ which generally does a good and diligent job. F17 was not voted down, it was referred back for further discussion. It was referred back because it did little to protect children from online pornography and had some major side-effects and drawbacks. I am writing the following response to the Eye‘s editor:
You recently claimed that the Lib Dem conference had voted against toughening up controls to protect children from online pornography. This is untrue. The policy motion was not voted down; it was referred back for redrafting as it was not fit for purpose. The motion presented to conference introduced the kind of web filtering and snooping the Eye has opposed on many occasions, would do little to protect children, and would deny them access to educational resources.
The Lib Dems who spoke in the debate, including many technology experts and young people, made a clear case for educating children about healthy relationships and good sex education to protect them against the unrealistic expectations set by pornography far better than web censorship can. This became Lib Dem policy in a later conference motion.
Not only was your reporting factually inaccurate, the attempt to conflate this conference debate with paedophilia was cheap and crass. Please return to your usual high standard so I can encourage you to keep up the good work.
As one of the people who campaigned for a reference back on F17, including sacrificing my Friday night to designing flyers for Liberal Youth and LGBT+ Lib Dems to distribute, and organising an all-member mailing for Plus to vote to refer the motion back, I am particularly annoyed by this sloppy reporting and shameful attempt to correlate genuine concern for childrens’ welfare with child abuse. Teaching our children about healthy relationships, rather than pretending we can solve this problem with web filtering, will protect them from abusers.
We do need to continue the #TalkNotTech conversation; it’s something I’ve been thinking about particularly since this F17 debate, and I suspect we may want to pursue a wide-ranging liberal policy on relationships, respect and consent which I’m nominally naming “Destroy the Heteronormative Patriarchy”.
There are many people interested in getting this right, from the anti-F17 agitators James Shaddock and Alisdair Calder McGregor, through excellent speakers including Jezz Palmer and Sophie Bridger, super-blogger Caron Lindsay and many, many others. LGBT+ Lib Dems and Liberal Youth are interested, and I’m hoping this is something Lib Dem Women will want to contribute to as well. Hopefully by Spring Conference 2014 we’ll have a motion we can put to the Conference floor which is truly radical, concentrating on the root causes of sexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, rape culture etc. without being too unwieldy to ever implement.
In the meantime, get writing to Lord Gnome!
UPDATE: Sadly, the Eye‘s response leaves a lot to be desired:
Thank you for your letter, however we stand by the fact that conference did actually vote against motion F17 (and rightly so). A “reference back” is a rejection of the motion, even if, as mentioned elsewhere in coverage of the vote, it’s a polite lib dem way of doing so. Nick Clegg even acknowledged as much in his joke about the Syria vote.
It’s a shame you choose to nit-pick over conference semantics rather than acknowledging that the party’s handling of the Cyril Smith situation and failure to apologise to his victims.
The Eye‘s assertion ignores party procedure, the terms of the reference back, and the speeches given by members in the debate, which clearly demonstrate that the party is very keen on finding a good way to protect children from any potential harm from exposure to porn – and indeed the fact that the party voted for more comprehensive sex and relationship advice for children later in the very same Conference. The motion as presented did not protect children from harm and may have caused worse harm in other ways.
The Cyril Smith “situation” is indeed very serious and worrying. It deserves better treatment from the Eye than being juxtaposed with tawdry and baseless assertions that the party is opposed to the protection of children. Better education for our children about the risks they face, and healthy and appropriate relationships, will help protect them from abuse from adults, whether or not they’re Liberal MPs.
September 23rd every year is Bisexual Visibility Day. This day attempts to highlight the existence of bi people, what bisexuality is, and raise awareness.
It’s needed because most people assume everybody’s either gay or straight. In the Lib Dems, people tend to assume I’m gay because I’m heavily involved with LGBT+ Lib Dems and most of the men who do that are gay. When I’m out with my female partner, people tend to assume we’re straight because most male-female couples are straight; when I’ve been out with a guy, people have tended to assume we’re both gay.
It’s needed because some people get upset or feel betrayed when their assumption about my sexuality turns out to be wrong, and blame me rather than themselves. It’s needed because some people get uncomfortable around bisexuals, as if we’re some different species it’s hard to relate to, rather than people who generally feel the same about gender as most people do about hair colour – we might have a preference, but it’s not a deciding factor in who we find attractive.
It’s needed because when a celebrity comes out as bi, people assume they’re doing it to be trendy or for attention, whereas they’re celebrated for their bravery when they come out as gay. It’s needed because there are a load of damaging stereotypes about bisexuals being nymphomaniac, untrustworthy, greedy, prone to cheating, or even psychotically violent. Many of these stereotypes even come from the gay and lesbian communities, even though a good number of gay and lesbian people have slept with different-gendered people while still identifying as gay or lesbian – peoples’ sexual identities being a damn sight more complicated than what they’ve been doing with their genitals recently.
It’s needed because even most organisations that refer to themselves as LGB or LGBT tend to concentrate almost exclusively on lesbian and gay people; bisexuals are tacked on as an afterthought, or bundled in with L&G people, while 2012′s ground-breaking Bi Report clearly demonstrates that bi people have different needs and outcomes than L&G people do. Stonewall have a very poor record of support for bi people and described mixed-sex civil partnerships as “a matter for heterosexuals” rather than something which affected a bunch of people they invite donations to support; most of their bi work was a direct response to a heavy “Some People Are Bi” community lobbying effort.
I’m proud that in LGBT+ Lib Dems we make serious conscious efforts to include all sexual and gender minorities. I did a “Queer Question Time” event on Gaydio last year in which the Labour and Tory representatives (Manchester City Council’s lead member for gay men, and the chairman of LGBTory) described bisexuals as “the grey area of the gay movement” and complained that “nobody knows what they want”. On this topic in particular, we advertised Bi Visibility Day at our party conference stall last week complete with some back issues of Bi Community News. One of our reasons for opposing web filtering in motion F17 at conference was that the word “bisexual” is seen as a porn term rather than an identity even by Google which blocks access to educational resources (including our SAO’s own website). We avoid using terms like “gay marriage” in favour of “same-sex marriage” – it’s not as glib, but it doesn’t contribute to the erasure of bisexual and other identities. We haven’t quite gotten this message through to the Deputy Prime Minister’s speech-writers yet, but we’ll keep trying.
Most of my audience is political – think about your last Pride press release, or your council’s non-discrimination policies, and whether they’re inclusive of people who aren’t lesbian or gay (Manchester City Council used to claim that bi people were, at any given moment, either “being gay” and protected by their policies, or “being straight” and in no need of protection). Is your local Pride actually inclusive? A couple of years ago, a bisexual friend left her first Manchester Pride in disgust because the opening ceremony had biphobic vitriol spewed onstage from the compére, an incident which was not deemed serious by the organisers who assured us it was “just a joke”. If one of the UK’s biggest LGBT Pride events isn’t a safe space for bisexuals, where is?
On Bisexual Visibility Day, which happens to affect me personally, I’m highlighting the way that sexuality can be political, and public policy affects different sexualities differently. Read the links in this post – particularly the Bi Report – and reflect on how you, and the institutions you’re involved with, relate to and think about bi people.
A quick reminder to those at Conference that this is a great opportunity to invest in a Lib Dem table flag, which is all you need to organise simple socials to engage your local membership.
There are also a lot of AGMs on the fringe today for you to get involved with party organisations.
I believe that it’s important for the Liberal Democrats and its members that more people get more involved more widely in the party. I’ve been trickling out posts about background and procedure, but it’s time to flip around the Kolb learning cycle from Abstract to Active, and encourage you to do something. Mostly, I’ve been talking here about local parties because it’s the most obvious and geographically proximate way for people to get involved.
For this post I’m going to talk about party interest groups, because it’s Conference now (it wasn’t when I started this post a week ago, but I’ve been busy) and most party interest groups have their AGMs at Autumn Conference. The Lib Dems has a wide, eclectic, federal structure. There are many ways to get involved, if you know about them. Unfortunately, few people do know about them and it’s not easy to find out. New members get details about Specified Associated Organisations in their member packs now, which is a vast improvement; there’s a horrible hard to navigate list of party bodies on the party website. But if you’re at Conference, go look around the Exhibitions to find party bodies which are at least organised and funded enough for a stall.
If there’s an area of Lib Dem policy you’re interested in, stand for election to the executive committee that runs the interest group – pretty much all of them are elected democratically at each autumn conference, either at the AGM or by postal ballot shortly afterwards. If you can’t get elected, ask the executive to co-opt you to any vacant spaces. Get involved and become part of a team – rope in a friend to stand with you, for moral support. If you’re not sure what to do, I’d make sure the following are happening:
- The organisation knows who its members are and chases up renewals
- The organisation communicates with its members through some combination of post, email or social networking
- The organisation asks for feedback and input from its members
- The organisation advertises its existence and actively seeks new members
- The organisation is creating, sponsoring or supporting policy motions to achieve its goals within the Party
- The organisation’s executive communicates effectively, regularly and frequently
In my experience, an executive list on the party list server or another mailing list provider is very helpful for the last point.
This is the bare minimum that an organisation needs to do to self-sustain. It’s not enough to make it an effective and useful organisation, but it’s a way of getting more people more involved and engaged to achieve that. People can’t do everything themselves, and organisations need to encourage strong teams of diverse talents. Once those requirements are being addressed – not necessarily perfectly, but things are moving in the right direction, think about:
- The organisation is promoting the party’s action on its policies and goals outside the Party
- The organisation is campaigning on its policies and goals outside the Party
Party bodies don’t exist just to sell the party to outsiders – that’s why these external goals are secondary. But they should exist to make the Lib Dems do the right thing (in their opinion) and to engage the public with these issues. Organisations need to be inward-facing to sustain themselves and grow, but they also need to look outward for fresh ideas, and to make sure we’re either representing or persuading the public in liberal directions.
This guide is nearly short enough for a Lib Dem Voice article (and following LDV is not a bad way to find out about some of the things happening in the party, particularly in its member-only forum). I hope it sets out how you can get involved in an SAO and what you can do. Getting more involved in the party can be frustrating at times, and can involve a lot of work if you haven’t got a strong team pulling together – or if you’re trying to bite off more than you can chew. But it can also be incredibly rewarding, from the small victories to the big ones. It can teach you skills, and lessons, and talents you can put to use in the rest of your life. It’s worth it for you, and it’s worth it for the cause of Liberal Democracy.
Nominations are open for the Liberal Democrat Voice awards, affectionately known as the BOTYs. Despite having a blog, I don’t really think of myself as part of the Lib Dem blogging scene; I’d have to update a damn sight more regularly for that! I started this blog to put up discussion drafts of articles intended for print, and sticking things on a piece of paper and putting them through somebody’s letterbox is still my authorial intent one way or another.
However, I am a LDV reader, and I do have opinions about who should be recognised for doing things online. I remain cynical about the merit of online campaigning as a replacement for real world activity (or indeed for online support, development and retention activities), but there is some good stuff happening online in two specific categories:
- Liberal Democrat Tweeter/Facebooker of the Year
- Best online campaign run by a Liberal Democrat
Many moons ago, when the Coalition was young, I posted about the negative narrative, and how uniformly negative comments about the Lib Dems (justified or otherwise; this is about narrative, not facts) tend to breed and reinforce themselves. Over on the party’s Facebook page, every post will attract at least half a dozen negative comments, most of them irrelevant to the post (usually about tuition fees, still).
Over time I noticed somebody called Pete Brown routinely going in and responding to critics – rebutting outright falsehoods, and contextualising the statements which were at least partly true. Where he led, I and others followed and now most posts by the party will have some positive comments from supporters, and most negative comments will be challenged where possible.
The immediate thing to note here is the disruption of negative reinforcement – the overall level of negative comments goes down. The more reasoned and reasonable the Lib Dem side of the argument, the more antagonistic and illogical the opposition seems in comparison. And occasionally, just occasionally, people do engage in debate which leads to understanding each others’ position a little better.
I do not believe that this changes the minds of the people posting negative comments. But there are over 90,000 people who follow the Lib Dems on Facebook, more than the membership of the party. Not all of them will support us, of course – but for those who aren’t steadfastly opposed, seeing the negative narrative being challenged in the comment threads will help present a counter-narrative which will encourage them to make up their own minds.
It’s not fancy, it doesn’t have its own hashtag or the might of Campaigns Department behind it. But Pete Brown and his campaign to challenge the negative narrative and spread a bit of truth are, in my mind, the best online campaign we’ve got going right now, and well worth recognition. If my nominations make the shortlist, please consider voting for them.
(trigger warning: discussion of domestic violence) Read more…
The ever-so-lovely Alex Wilcock has invited people to blog about Lib Dem Values. Typically, I didn’t respond in a timely fashion ahead of Spring Conference 2013. Although in a sense I did, because one of my first posts on this blog asked “What does being a Liberal Democrat Mean?”. In the 2.5 years since that was published, I think it still stands up, but is not sufficient. The key argument is this:
However, Liberal Democracy is about finding the balance between the individual as an entity in its own right, and the individual as a member of a wider society; between a free market which encourages competition, and regulation which restricts that competition to efficiency rather than exploitation. Balances are always precarious things to maintain, which is why you often see news headlines about the party leaning towards “the left” or “the right”. It’s worth remembering that those shifts are compared to the party itself, and are relatively minor compared to our positioning relative to the other parties. These shifts are also within the context of the preamble itself.
However, that post is more about the Liberal Democrats from the perspective of a member, while I think what Alex is asking about is from the perspective of an outsider. I guess if I were to start again, inspired by that post and some of the others I’ve written here, and by Alex’s writing which is always my starting point for discussions on liberalism, and by the thoughts and words of other liberals I respect, it might look something like this:
The Liberal Democrats stand for increasing people’s freedom to enjoy their own potential, helping everybody to get on in life. We believe in meaningful representative democracy to balance people’s conflicting priorities, and in ensuring protection for the individual from the State and other powerful organisations.
We believe that nobody should be constrained by lack of opportunity, particularly by the circumstances of their birth. We believe that Government should set the rules by which society operates, so people are rewarded for hard work and innovation, but not for exploitation or pollution. We believe that people should be respected as individuals regardless of their gender, colour, wealth, sexuality, or any other quality – not as homogeneous groups defined by those qualities.
We believe in accountable, democratic institutions giving people more of a say in their immediate lives and local communities, as well as more of a say in the issues too big for one person, or one country. We believe in solutions which get to the root of the problem rather than just addressing the symptoms.
That’s closer to 200 words rather than 150, but I’ve thought about it and tweaked it a bit, and I think it’s both accurate and distinctive; what do you think?
This was going to be titled “Why You Shouldn’t Campaign for Mike Thornton”, but I was too busy campaigning for Mike Thornton to do it earlier. Now you shouldn’t campaign for Mike Thornton because the polls have closed for the Eastleigh by-election so there’s not much point. I’ve written this before the count finishes, so my prediction is Lib Dems, UKIP, Tory, Labour in that order and none losing deposits. By the time you read this you’ll know if I was right and can laugh at me.
Politics will take as much of your time and energy as you can give it. There’s no real point in politics at which you have achieved all your aims – or if there is, it’s usually beyond the capacity of any one person. While some people can dedicate their entire lives to politics, others have different commitments and interests – whether it’s education, a day job, a partner, caring responsibilities, a hobby or just taking some time to chillax. It’s important to realise that it’s OK to have a life outside politics. Indeed, given the complaints about identikit politicians with no experience outside politics, it’s positively encouraged. Doing something unrelated to politics gives you some distance and perspective. Similarly, identifying full time as a politician means you put a lot of pressure on yourself to be a politician. This is why I took the Lib Dem reference out of my Twitter username and started using it for less political ends.
It’s also important to set reasonable expectations for yourself, and for others about you. We can achieve nothing if we take on more than we can handle. As a party we rely on too few shoulders bearing the load (which is why I’m also a fervent believer in recruitment and engagement – find people who want to do some of the stuff you feel obliged to!) One of the hardest skills is learning what you have time to achieve. Many people take on multiple responsibilities and then fail to do any of them well; since I stepped down from one Executive at the start of the year, I’ve done a lot more on aggregate for the Lib Dems as a whole. And my replacement should do more for the body I left than I could. One or two people have made negative comments about my stepping down, which is a shame, but I don’t feel guilty for it.
And finally, it’s important that we look after each other. One of my favourite tips from the world of bisexual activism is one piece of activism that you can do in five minutes – make a cup of tea for another activist. Organising Liberal Drinks social events is one of my favorite things. A night in the pub relaxing with friends, and yet somehow it’s a Lib Dem thing too which makes it look like your local party is active and encourages newcomers out of the woodwork! During one particularly tense polling day row in the committee room, I ordered the candidate and agent to separate rooms away from the activists, got the delivery rounds out, made tea and toast for the candidate and agent and told them not to come out until they’d finished. I spent quite a bit of time that day refuelling hardworking pavement-pounders to help them get back out faster. When I see a friend struggling, my first questions are whether they’ve had enough food, drink and sleep – and whether whatever they’re struggling with is honestly as urgent as they’ve convinced themselves it is.
These techniques can be applied inwardly. We’re all terrible at taking our own advice, but sometimes I consciously ask myself what I’d advise a friend to do in the situation I find myself in. I have studied mindfulness and meditation at the Manchester Buddhist Centre, and have a reasonable handle on how my brain works and its failure modes. I have friends who look after me and show me the same love and concern as I show them. I’ve suffered medically from stress in the past due to having more day-job work thrust upon me than I could cope with, and it’s not something I’d wish on anybody. Years later, I still don’t have as much energy for politics as I used to, and I’m grudgingly coming to accept that that’s OK too. The odd evening at home cooking dinner mindfully, or chilling out with a movie with the activism-filled laptop folded shut, is OK.
It’s OK to cut down on your activism. It’s OK to take a break entirely until you’re ready to come back. It’s OK to put your energy into making things easier for yourself and others. It’s OK to have not made it to Eastleigh because you couldn’t spare the time, money or energy. It’s OK to strike a balance between doing enough to avoid feeling guilty, and not doing so much you burn out. It’s OK to try and avoid feeling guilty in the first place – we shouldn’t feel bad about doing for the party only what we can spare time and energy for.
During Eastleigh, the party has relied heavily on e-mails, phone banking and SMS to encourage activists to come and help. This works out well for the party – I probably donated more money and time to the campaign as a result than I otherwise might. And it was great to be there with friends old and new, enjoying the buzz of the headquarters, running a canvassing board one minute and taking direction from a colleague the next. The quiet canvas round on my own and the group of 7 running up and down terraces. Driving around farmhouses with a bemused city dweller. Phonebanking upstairs with campaign staff. People’s favourite crisps. Spending a naughty ten minutes on one doorstep explaining why the Lib Dems and Labour couldn’t have formed a workable coalition. Night driving through the New Forest, full beams picking out sleepy donkeys. These are all good memories I will cherish.
But I went down when it worked for me, a fortnight before polling day; I could in theory have taken more days off work and gone down today, but it would have caused more stress and hassle than I could reasonably spare, so I did a spot of phone banking after work instead. And that’s OK too. I know people who didn’t contribute any time or money to Eastleigh, and that’s OK too – they had their reasons and priorities, and I respect that and don’t demand that they justify themselves to me. They are good people and good Lib Dems and they will do what they can when they can.
To summarise then – let’s be a party of enthusiastic, mutually-caring part-timers that people might want to join, rather than being guilt-tripped into self-flagellating martyrs competing to deliver more Focus. It’ll be better for us, but it might just be better for the party too. Be excellent to one another.
PS: If you liked this post, you really should be reading Louise’s blog. She’s great at this kind of stuff.
Constitutionally, the local party is a key organisation in the Liberal Democrats. It is the principal route by which ordinary members can influence party policy, receive training, and meet other members. The principal route by which groups of Liberal Democrats can fundraise, campaign, select candidates, and fight and win elections.
I’ve not had much experience of effective local parties. I believe them to be a minority, and not a large minority, of all the Lib Dem parties. Most local parties don’t have enough engaged members to form an executive which engages its members, leading to a clear downward spiral. Some local parties are fiefdoms, with the same people gripping onto power year after year, ineffectually lording it over an ever-declining membership and actively keeping volunteers away in case they do something productive.
In practice, party members don’t need local parties as much as we used to. Many (most?) of us are on the Internet, and we can hang out with other party members online. Groups of conference reps can sponsor policy motions directly. So why bother with local parties at all?
I believe that the Lib Dems is and must remain a grassroots organisation. We need to be rooted in local communities. The federal structure exists to allow the grassroots to exert power upwards as well as allowing the Federal Executive to distribute organisation downwards. I also believe that as Liberal Democrats it is healthy for us to mix with other party members with whom we might not agree on every policy issue, and to work alongside them. The problem with online membership engagement is that it’s very easy to form inward-looking cliques.
If we can’t hone our skills at persuading others where possible, or agreeing to disagree on some issues but collaborate on others, within the party then what chance do we have of working with potential supporters and voters outside? Meeting local people face to face remains the best way to bring more people into the Liberal Democrat family, introducing them to our beliefs, philosophies and policies.
The difference between being a member in a strong local party and a weak one is one of energy and vitality. A local party with good leadership and engagement makes its members want to get out and do stuff. It gives them a reason to be a Liberal Democrat and stay a Liberal Democrat. It gives them a voice at the highest levels of the party. Some people find reasons outside their weak local party to stay involved, but that’s a minority. People who get enthused and join a weak local party will fade away when their membership first lapses, lost to us. Strong local parties are vital to the future success of the party and of liberalism.
Liberal Youth are having a fresh set of executive elections. I am not and never have knowingly been a member of Liberal Youth or LDYS, its precursor organisation when I joined the party. Since I’ve got more involved in the party, I’ve met a lot of LY members and worked with the organisation on several levels.
It’s obviously not for me to say how members of Liberal Youth should vote for their executive. However, there has been a lot of discussion within LY about what role the organisation should take within the larger party among its members and candidates, and I thought an external perspective would be interesting and hopefully useful. I know a lot of people have voted already, but it may still be relevant.
I’m explicitly not talking about policy or campaigning here – it’s clear to me that LY should encourage and enable young people to be involved in both, without either being its raison d’etre. But LY has a great role to play in getting more people more involved in the party as a whole. If you agree with my points below, pick the candidates who you think will best support them!
Recruiting New Members
Some people complain that Liberal Youth put so much effort into Fresher’s Fairs. And your average LY branch does more than your average local party towards recruitment. That’s not a sign that LY branches should do less, but that local parties should do more. Liberal Youth’s recruitment is a fantastic source of new members into the party, and the organisation’s use of its LDHQ staff member and national Executive to support local branches’ Freshers Fairs is a very sensible use of resources. LY should consider this a big priority, though it shouldn’t try to shoulder the burden alone (apart from its Federal funding).
Working with Local and Regional Parties
Since most Liberal Youth branches are based around Universities, there’s a fairly short lifecycle for student society executives. Local parties can provide valuable support, advice and longevity to the branches which are unlikely to have a member for more than three years. That doesn’t mean that LY branches should be subordinate to or controlled by local parties – just that the the two should work together where possible, for mutual benefit. Local and regional party events between September and December can be added to first semester term cards, and give LY branches more to offer new recruits for no organisational effort.
Ideally, every local party’s annual development plan should include support for the local LY branch in the first half of the year to make sure there’s a stall booked and a good term card ready for September – and every LY branch’s annual development plan should include having a strong organisation to hand over to the next generation.
Introducing the Wider Party
This is partly mentioned above, but the Liberal Democrats is a big place for a small party, and there are plenty of ways that people can get involved as a member. If LY exists as a bubble, and its members aren’t involved with anything outside of LY, then a problem with LY can seriously affect somebody’s membership. This is no different from a local party, and LY is set up as a “virtual” local party for young people.
I believe it’s important for local parties, including LY, to encourage members to forge links with different parts of the federal party – constituencies, AOs and SAOs, online communities, regional executives, and others. That way, if one link fails (say an LY branch fails, or the student graduates, or the SAO becomes defunct) there are other things keeping them motivated as members.
I can see the temptation for Liberal Youth to think of its members as being part of a special clique, and a desire to keep their energy focussed within LY. This is as counter-productive for LY as it is for any other party body. Encouraging members to be active in different organisations means a fresh flow of ideas, energy and support throughout the party structures, and it will feed into LY as much as, if not more than, it takes out.