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.
This weekend, I headed down to the Timperley Taverners (the Liberal club next to the Metrolink station) for a hustings event for the North-West Lib Dem Euro list. There was a fairly standard format – each candidate doing a speech, followed by a Q&A session. This is a write up of my notes, as verbatim as I can make it. Bear in mind that I haven’t had my ballot paper issued yet so I’m writing everything including people’s names from scribbled notes.
Of the 11 candidates, three were absent (Aladdin Ayesh didn’t show, Stjepan Krizanaec sent apologies, Qassim Afzal at a Federal Exec meeting), and Neil Christian couldn’t stay for the Q&A session due to having to get to Cambridge for a wedding that evening. This is what 8 of the candidates had to say about themselves.
Neil Christian is a barrister, which makes him a good debater, and he specialises in European law. He’s been involved in the Britain In Europe movement for a long time, and been a Lib Dem campaigner first in York and more recently in Chester. He’s been to lots of training sessions at Conference. He thinks it’s important as a Euro candidate to get local parties reinvigorated and working together across constituency boundaries.
Jane Brophy is a local councillor in Timperley, and an experienced campaigner. She is particularly interested in health and environmental issues. She thinks that we need a credible, inspiring and dedicated Euro team with a multi-year regional action plan which supports candidates in local elections and builds up to the General Election in 2015. She thinks that we need to make a positive Euro case including the environment, trade, crime, diversity and human rights, but also to make the case for reform.
Sue McGuire is a councillor and former chair of the Regional Party. She was involved in the cross-party European movement and joined the Lib Dems after meeting the likes of Charles Kennedy and Nick Clegg. This has given her experience debating with Eurosceptics, who are getting bolder. She feels she can hold her own against them. She thinks that the focus for the North-West region should be manufacturing, based on the work that Gordon Birtwhistle MP has done in Burnley. Our Euro campaign should be on how Europe can bring manufacturing jobs to the North-West, both in terms of the common market and Euro funded partnership working between SMEs and academics. She has experience in industrial supply-chain management. Her other big issue is shale gas /fracking where she’s recognised by several eco groups. This will be a big issue for the Greens and Tories in 2014, and we need to have a strong and credible campaign position to back our regional party’s policy for a moratorium and tight regulations. She has a record of winning in Southport, and of building strong teams. “Bring it on!”
Helen Foster-Grimes started her speech in Russian, to point out that if your message isn’t right, then even if people hear your words they won’t listen or understand. She knows the region well and says that people on the doorstep are concerned about jobs. The EU can and does bring jobs to the North-West – we export £6.8bn a year to the EU. She’s worked for big multinationals across the EU member states and Russian Federation. This gives her skills in negotiation and consensus building which will be important once elected. She was the #2 candidate in 2009 and has been a leading campaigner for the last 5 years. She says that we need to rebut UKIP harder – they don’t care about ordinary NW people and their concerns, just their single-issue agenda which would harm the region. She said that so close to Remembrance Sunday we need to fight for a united, peaceful Europe to honour the war dead.
Peter Hirst is a passionate believer in the EU as the way for the UK to influence the world, particularly on issues such as the environment, trafficking and trade. He thinks we need to work with local communities and build our way up from there. We need to be resilient and press on with campaigning despite current unpopularity. Europe is built on cordial negotiation and we need people who can fight to achieve the most possible rather than people who generate ill feeling through brinkmanship and fail to get results. He’s good at working to deadlines, and graceful under pressure. As a business planner, he want SMART goals for the EU. He will repay the faith of NW voters if elected by working hard for them.
Chris Davies has experience as an MP who worked hard after being elected in a by-election. He got good stories for his Focus leaflets but got little achieved. As our sitting MEP he’s been much more effective in the collaborative atmosphere of the European Parliament. The expenses scandal completely overshadowed the 2009 European elections in the media; to maximise our vote in 2014 we need a solid ground campaign to get out the Lib Dem vote. We need to tackle Europhobia and UKIP by asking them what we could achieve outside the EU that we can’t achieve inside it. We already have UK-specific trade agreements with other countries. The 4 EU policies disliked by the Tories in a 5 hour debate were the Working Time Directive (which Lib Dems opposed), the Agency Workers Directive (which Chris likes), the Common Fisheries Policy (which the UK is taking the lead on reforming) and the Common Agricultural Policy (but they’re not telling their rural supporters that they want to cut UK farm subsidies). An “In or Out” referendum is unclear – what does “Out” mean? moving from the EU to the EEA like Norway? They are required to implement European regulations they have no say over, in order to stay in the trading bloc, and contribute 70% of what they would as a full member. By 2030, no single European nation will be a member of the G8, but the EU as a whole will. We need some arrangement for Governments in Europe to work together to solve common problems. He thinks the EU needs a vision, and a figure such as a President to deliver that vision, and suggests the start of the Lisbon treaty as the vision to turn into reality: “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.”
Gordon Lishmann is a long-standing party member and President of the North-West Region. He says that we need to talk about Europe during the Euro elections, since it may be the last chance for us to put our case before a referendum which could be the most damaging political event for half a century. Even if the critics are right and the EU does stupid things and interferes, this is an argument for reform not abolition – as Lib Dems want to do with our UK systems of government. The EU stops wars and improves democracy in countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal and the former Iron Curtain countries. The 1930s depression which led to WW2 was caused by protectionism; free trade lets countries get rich off each other. It is central to the Liberal mission to take the lead and talk about Europe, fighting the case against UKIP, the Tories and much of Labour, for the benefit of future generations. We need to get people involved by being distinctive and strong willed. Gordon knows about how regional economies work worldwide, and observes that there’s a greater difference between London and South Wales than between Shanghai and the poorest rural Chinese districts. Gordon has worked within Europe advising ministers, and has both experience and achievement.
Jo Crotty is chair of the North-West region. She joined the party in 2003 over Iraq having been involved in various peace campaigns. She stood in Warrington South, a target seat, and had a strong campaign with good momentum when it looked like there’d be a 2008 General Election; by 2010 the Tories had the momentum and she’d lost Neil Trafford, and she didn’t win. She took a year off and came back having re-examined her reasons for getting involved in the party. She is particularly interested in civil liberties, womens’ rights and the environment. Specific to the North-West, she’s pro-HS2 and opening up direct train routes from the North-West to Europe. She also wants improvements on the M6 instead of focussing on the M25. She can build a strong campaign team and hopes that luck will be on our side.
After these statements came the Q&A and I got to ask the first question: “Imagine you’ve managed as a candidate to get a front-page headline in a national or regional newspaper. What would you want that headline to be, in around 8 words?”
Jane Brophy: “Lib Dem Health and Environment Campaigner Makes It to Europe”
Sue McGuire: “North-West Manufacturing Gains From Europe”
Helen Foster-Grime: “Liberal Helen says North-West Gains from Europe”
Peter Hirst: “Peter Hirst says Europe Can Work For You”
Chris Davies: “Davies’ Campaign for Your Town Wins Massive Support”
Gordon Lishmann: “Lib Dems Sweep North-West”
Jo Crotty: “Lib Dem MEP secures HS2 for Manchester”
The next question was about the swing away from democracy in EU countries like Hungary and the rise of the right wing.
Chris Davies: The Council of Europe can take away member states’ voting rights if they’re not democratic, but is not keen to push that. The European Parliament can keep up pressure on countries like Hungary. The EU is lacking strong defences against member states abandoning domestic democratic principles once they join the Union.
Gordon Lishmann: When far right parties win elections, they tend to peak, fragment and fall apart. Popularists are far more concerning than the true far right. We should use EU infrastructure and powers against fascists and anti-democrats, and work with other parties across Europe to advance liberalism, such as setting up a new liberal party in Hungary.
Jane Brophy: People turn to the right wing and to authoritarians when they feel insecure. We need to tackle that insecurity with positive messages on the doorstep.
Helen Foster-Grimes: We need to tackle infringement of civil liberties and the rise of the far right in the UK first. The BNP are still on the rise. Their success comes from fear over employment, and we need to stress that Europe can provide jobs.
Jo Crotty: There are problems with democracy in the Eurozone with imposed austerity measures reducing national sovereignty. People lean to authority in a crisis, but eventually realised that enough is enough, such as recent demonstrations against Putin in Russia. We must have faith in the citizens of the EU to resist anti-democratic authoritarianism.
Sue McGuire: The EU needs to support and encourage new forms of communication to help EU citizens organise against authoritarian governments, such as social media.
Peter Hirst: Dissent from the far right is a challenge but also a democratic strength, if they can express their opinion without violence. We need better education, and awareness that democracy is merely the least worst system we can envisage.
The next question was: 75% of this hustings time was dedicated to speeches. What will you do to make sure you’re talking about what the electorate wants to talk about, when the candidates are a middle-class clique?
Jo Crotty: 75% was the wrong balance. As a party, we’ve been hurt by taking the correct decision to enter Coalition. As a result we’re scared to knock on people’s doors and listen to people’s concerns. We need to get out here surveying and canvassing and listening.
Sue McGuire: We need to get our messages across, but also get feedback and refine our messages.
Chris Davies: There’s a balance between blindly presenting pro European arguments, and telling people what they want to hear. Telling people that we already surrendered sovereignty by joining NATO isn’t what they want to hear; Federal Europe doesn’t work on the doorstep. Talking about fixing problems in the EU so the UK can be more powerful does work. We need to be controversial to get noticed.
Peter Hirst: Coaching is 70-80% listening, not talking. We need to acknowledge people’s concerns even if we don’t share them, and ask open questions to get to the heart of people’s worries.
Gordon Lishmann: Politics by class or by focus group is illiberal and leads to “Tell us your prejudice and we’ll agree”. Talk to people about the things they care about – the economy, pensions and family – and show them how being in Europe makes these things better.
Jane Brophy: Liberalism is about helping people to achieve their potential regardless of class or background. We need to reach out and listen on the doorstep.
Helen Foster-Grimes: I’m working class and proud. We need to make Europe relevant to the working class by talking about jobs.
The next question asked about losing jobs to Europe, e.g. Siemens winning train contracts over Bombadier.
Helen Foster-Grimes: We’ve had plenty of wins, and the NW exports £6.8bn to the EU.
Gordon Lishmann: We need to look at the big picture – new jobs are less newsworthy than factory closures. The NW is a manufacturing region and is better off with a bigger market to sell to.
Peter Hirst: We need to recognise the emotional impact of job losses. The UK needs to gold-plate less EU anti-protectionism legislation since we lose out to other member states which don’t. It’s important to people in the UK to buy UK goods. We need an industrial policy, especially around renewable energy technologies.
Sue McGuire: Passionate about manufacturing. There’s a potential £3bn supply chain market in automotive parts which the NW needs to go after and she will work with Gordon Birtwhistle MP and the Lib Dem manufacturing campaign to promote this. Worries about the UK’s membership of the EU is scaring potential manufacturing jobs and investors from the country.
Jo Crotty: Our industrial policy has been mad for 25 years. We’ve lost home grown industry in nuclear power, jet aviation etc. We need policy on renewable technology and to take a holistic view of the jobs and skills and industries we can lose. Other countries ignore EU rules.
Jane Brophy: We need to articulate how the EU benefits the UK jobs market, especially in renewable energy.
Chris Davies: The Bombardier contract was lost because Siemens were more credit-worthy and could borrow the money they’d need to invest in building and maintaining the trains – the EU had nothing to do with it. As it turns out this hasn’t happened and the trains may not be available by the time the Manchester-Liverpool line is electrified; the contract may revert to Bombadier . The European Commission needs to be tougher on trade barriers in member states, but the fundamental argument on the single market is that Britain can sell easily to the EU. If we weren’t in the EU we’d have no powers to push the Commission to open up markets for us.
The next question was about how to fix the EU economy.
Jane Brophy: Climate change will hugely impact the European Union and its economy and make the problem worse and it must be tackled. People are starting to talk about more investment and less austerity.
Jo Crotty: There is no silver bullet. The UK’s currency flexibility and cuts mean we can borrow at 2.5%. Many EU countries have imposed austerity measures and are being propped up by Germany. It’s likely Merkel will lose her seat and there will be a Euro default. Some economies, which lied about the state of their finances to join the Euro, will have to go.
Chris Davies: The Euro won’t go. Countries which are in debt and borrowing more to cover interest payments have less sovereignty. Greek restructuring has led to a rise in exports and drop in imports, but all countries need growth. Japan’s debts are much greater than the combined EU debts, but Japan can borrow at much lower rates. This is because there’s less trust of the EU since nobody is in charge. The Eurozone is rapidly evolving new institutions to oversee the Euro and gain that trust, and the UK needs to be a part of that.
Helen Foster-Grimes: The Eurozone crisis is all over the media. The UK must keep up the pressure to keep interest rates low. We must encourage bank lending to businesses and R&D. The EU supports trading between countries.
Sue McGuire: There’s a balance to be struck between cutting public spending and encouraging growth. We should learn from Japan and the US who have solved this problem in different ways. The Coalition took action to satisfy the financial markets, and the Eurozone must do the same.
Peter Hirst: Green jobs are a strong way forward for Europe as the UK. We are competing with Asian markets like China and Korea with a stronger work ethic, and our education may not be suitable. We need to think about job skills and retraining, and also work (such as carers) which doesn’t directly contribute to GDP.
Gordon Lishmann: The “European economy” is the sum of multiple relationships between producers and consumers etc. It’s like wallpaper bubbles – you need to work out where to push to get the bubble where you want it. Greece’s financial problems date from the 1940s civil war settlement; Germany fears 1920s hyperinflation and we need to help them realise this won’t happen again. We need a voice in the Euro supporting the Germans, encouraging banking union and Euro bonds.
The next question was on how the EU can extend liberalism beyond Europe.
Gordon Lishmann: Peace, freedom, democracy and human rights are part of the economic benefits of the EU. We no longer have a 1st/2nd/3rd world relationships, but billions of rich people supporting billions of poor people.
Chris Davies: The EU is the world’s largest buyer from developing nations, and has no trade barriers from them. It is a moral imperative for the EU to tear down trade barriers through bodies like the WTO.
Peter Hirst: We need to use social media and petitions to push for liberalism worldwide.
Sue McGuire: Microdonations and microloans can get people involved in foreign aid and liberalism, through social media.
Jane Brophy: We are citizens of the world and political issues often don’t have national boundaries. We need to promote our liberal values through the UN and other bodies.
Jo Crotty: The EU can promote microloans and social business for huge job creation worldwide.
Helen Foster-Grimes: We are all internationalists. We must concentrate on eradicating landmines, and trade tariffs so people can help themselves.
The final question asked whether the candidates are experienced in taking the message to the public with street stalls.
Peter Hirst: Used street stalls in Stroud town centre as parliamentary candidate in 2005.
Sue McGuire: Holds street corner surgeries constantly in her ward.
Joe Crotty: Held monthly street stalls in Warrington in run-up to 2010 General Election, has fortnightly stalls in her ward.
Helen Foster-Grimes: Has a big reputation for street surgeries.
Chris Davies: Was leafletting in Manchester City Centre a few weeks back as part of the Manchester Central by-election, but prefers a street table and discussion.
Gordon Lishmann: Burnley was won by a street stall every Saturday morning. We need a new way to have constructive political discourse; social media just encourages people to shout slogans at each other.
Jane Brophy: Street surgeries are her life blood as a local councillor, including some street stalls, but most ly getting out there.
If you’ve made it to the end, I hope you find this interesting and useful!
I’ve been having real fun recently out campaigning for the Manchester Central by-election. Even last week in the torrential rain, on my own, soaked to the skin, in the pitch dark, leaflets rapidly turning into papier mache. Obviously today was much better – a sunny and bright October day, cool but not cold, with friends, and nice and dry.
I’ve gotten out of the habit of getting out there and campaigning. It all seemed too much a chore, or I didn’t have the energy, or I thought my time was better spent organising things, usually from behind a computer. I’d gotten out of the loop, and wasn’t feeling very inspired.
One of the things that turned things around for me is the social events I’ve been organising in and around Manchester. These monthly pub events were advertised on Facebook, Twitter, Flock Together and e-mail because doing postal members newsletters means going through near-defunct local parties begging for cash, and communicating with some of your members is better than not communicating with any. These events have routinely seen 5-15 people getting together with no campaigning or fund-raising agenda. This has been a good way to rekindle old friendships and make new ones, to catch up on the gossip and have some fun. It seems to be encouraging a few people to be more active.
Today we actually tied a social in with campaigning – just over an hour before the campaign session started at the by-election HQ, we met up in a nearby coffee shop and half a dozen people showed up for a chat and a drink. Many of them would have come along campaigning anyway, but given that I didn’t see most of them after we went on our separate delivery rounds, it was great to spend a bit of time together at the beginning. We’ll be repeating it for the rest of the by-election campaign in addition to other events.
I’m sure some will criticise me for not being dedicated enough to slog on without the social aspect, saying that an hour drinking coffee is an hour not door-knocking or delivering. I’ll admit that I’m not as dedicated as I once was to the on-the-ground stuff. But I’m still a lot more dedicated than most party members; using uber-dedicated Lib Dems as the benchmark makes ordinary people feel unwelcome, so it’s important to treat our volunteers like human beings and make sure they’re getting something other than sore feet from their involvement.
Doing things that motivate your campaigners means you get better campaigning. This isn’t news to anybody, I’m sure, but this practical example may be instructive even if the theory is obvious. These social events seem to have had a real positive effect on people’s enthusiasm and commitment, in a relatively short period of time. All this for very little organisation and zero money – apart from the 5 quid I spent at Lib Dem Image buying an 8″ high Lib Dem flagpole for newcomers to identify our table at social events. Here’s some top tips for organising social events:
- Organise on Facebook because it’s easy to invite non-members too. Now Lib Dem Voice has a sidebar of upcoming Flock Together events it’s worth listing events there too – but make sure the city name is in the title of the event, and put the Facebook URL in the listing.
- Make sure your promotion for the event makes it clear that it’s welcome to people who haven’t been before, highlight the easy way of locating the group in the venue, and include a contact mobile number. When new people turn up, make an effort to welcome and involve them, and steer them away from the people who will bore or depress them (you know who they are!). Get photos of people having a good time, and use them to advertise your next event.
- Mix it up a bit - pubs, coffee shops, milkshake bars; midweek and weekend events; daytime and evening. Do them as frequently as you like, provided you’re routinely reaching critical mass. And make sure there’ll always be at least two people you know will be there.
I meant this to be a happy post a few weeks ago when Curiosity landed on Mars. Instead it’s going to be a melancholy post now that Neil Armstrong is no longer with us.
“Onward to Mars!” is a phrase I first heard at ThinkCon, a part of the Cambridge Science Festival organised by stand-up comedian, stand-up guy and skeptic Andy Holding. Helen Keen was telling us how NASA was founded by NAzis and SAtanists. But even before that in the history of space technology, in the 1920s, there were fans of rocketry in Russia, and in Germany, who formed clubs to discuss rocketry. This was before the Nazi V-weapons programme, well before the space programme. And their greeting to each other was “Onward to Mars!”
They didn’t talk about rockets as a weapon of war, they weren’t bothered with reaching our nearest neighbour… they were heading straight for another planet. The phrase has become a personal mantra (along with Holly) of positivity, and aspiration, and I was enormously chuffed that musical hero Akira the Don included the phrase in a song on his awesome Unkillable Thunderchrist album.
As a Liberal Democrat activist, I try to practice a sort of pragmatic radicalism – being aware of how you might reimplement a system from the roots upwards, then looking at what you can do in practice to move the status quo towards that radical vision. Introducing the mansion tax is a pragmatic step towards the radical concept of replacing tax on income with tax on wealth. Equal marriage is a pragmatic step towards the radical concept of interpersonal relationships being legal arrangements between two or more individuals, with optional religious and minimal state involvement.
It’s important that we’re realistic about what we can achieve at any given moment – that’s the reason I support the Lib Dems in Coalition, because I think we’ve been doing pretty well with the hands we’ve been dealt ever since May 2010. But it’s also important to keep our eyes to the heavens, to have a vision of where we want to end up.
Tears of joy ran down my face as I saw the first pictures coming back from Curiosity, just as they had during Spirit and Opportunity’s first days on the Red Planet. And they’re running down my face now at the thought that one day one of those images may be of a human footprint like Neil Armstrong’s. We must dare to dream of the future we want to see. And then we must fight to bring that about.
Onward to Mars!
In reaction to the Tories failing to deliver on their Coalition Agreement over Lords reform last week, there have been some ponderings as to what the Lib Dems should ask for instead. A common thread is Vince replacing George Osborne as Chancellor, as proposed by Millennium Dome and Richard Morris among others.
Personally, I’m with Andrew Hickey on this one – our democracy is fundamentally broken, deeply in hock to vested interests, biased towards the already rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised. Given Millennium’s previous post about Lords reform, full of Liberal passion, I’m surprised he’s suggesting throwing it away for a few years of Vince in Number 11.
It’s not that I’m against Vince in Number 11, of course – as we saw during the Chancellor’s Debates before the 2010 General Election, he can wipe the floor with Osborne (and Darling) when it comes to both practical experience and theoretical knowledge of economics. But it’d be a short-term victory. Not even Vince could sort out the UK economy before May 2015 – largely because anything a UK Chancellor can do is tinkering around the edges as the Eurozone crisis rages on our doorstep. Sure, he’d make things fairer and more progressive, for a while – more so than Osborne, and less disastrously than Balls. But come 2015 the chances are we won’t be in Government any more, though I’m not anticipating the wipe-out that some Lib Dems almost seem to welcome as penance for having dared go into Government.
Andrew is right. We need to take the opportunity to get as much democratic reform in place while holding the reins of Government. As junior coalition partner we don’t have all that much power, but it’s infinitely more than we have in opposition. We always knew the Tories would resist reform, and now we’ve had our suspicions confirmed that Labour are all mouth and no trousers when it comes to democracy. Now is the right time to do these things, because we have some power now, and there’s less than 100% chance of us having this much power in future.
So if we are going to compromise on this element of democratic reform, it needs to be for other long-term democratic reform. So far we’ve achieved fixed-term Parliaments – most people haven’t noticed, the rest think it’s just for the Lib Dems’ advantage to stop Cameron kicking us out when he wants to (which contradicts the same peoples’ opinions that the Lib Dems aren’t achieving anything in Government and just capitulating to the Tories every time).
We failed on AV, due to Tory and Labour betrayal and a campaign run by Parliamentary lobbyists rather than grassroots campaigners. Lords reform is looking wobbly. STV for Euros would be nice but not make enough of a difference. Party funding reform is the obvious big thing to go for – take some of the big money out of politics, make parties have to listen to more ordinary people and get them onside. I’d like to see a £20k donation limit, with union donations either a specific extra-cost opt-in or similarly capped.
That said, I don’t think we should bargain. If the party leadership have a plan B, I hope it’s party funding, but they should keep it to themselves and push as hard as possible for Lords. I’m not that bothered about the mechanics – I don’t see the need for a referendum, but we need to reform PPERA to stop No2AV-style libel before one could happen; I’d like 100% elected but as long as it’s at least 50% elected I don’t mind; I think the Bishops’ days are numbered with a majority-elected house whether they’re still in it or not; if there’s a one-term limit, people shouldn’t be able to stand under party banners.
But if Labour and the Tories are so opposed to democracy, and their own manifestos, that Lords reform is impossible, then let’s make a difference for the future, not just for the next few years.
Social mobility is in the news again recently. Nick Clegg is using it to promote the Pupil Premium and is today announcing forward-looking social mobility indicators which will apparently allow the Government to observe and possibly intervene earlier rather than later. There’s also been a lot of talk about public schools and Oxbridge university admissions. I think that a lot of the debate here is rather skewed – from enforcing minimum admission quotas through to banning public schools altogether.
To explain my position, I went to public school on a scholarship, and my parents worked their arses off to send me there nonetheless. I was the first person and only in my family to go to preparatory and public school. Academically, I did well at school – my A-level grades were AAAB. I liked most of my teachers, and a few of them really spurred my intellectual curiosity, particularly the maths teacher who, having finished the A-level curriculum early, spent my last summer term teaching us cryptography from Caesar to Diffie-Hellman between revision classes. It’s difficult to say how I might have fared at another school – one of my prep school classmates who went to the local grammar ended up getting better A-levels than me and a Double First in pure maths from Oxford, compared to my booze-soaked Desmond at UMIST. Certainly I was expected to go to Oxbridge, and chose not to out of a desire to escape the pubic school system in favour of a large student population in a vibrant city.
I think that the public school environment had a lot to do with my liberalism. Being surrounded by kids who largely had very few concerns about their future life in term-time, then going home to my rural village and drinking cheap lager on the Scout Hut roof with council house kids who were struggling to get menial employment gave me a sense of perspecive. Seeing some of the biggest vindictive bullies appointed to authority positions like Prefect and Head Boy, giving them more undeserved power to torment, made me very wary of unearned power.
In terms of University admission, Nick Clegg has already done one thing which has been widely ignored in this debate even when talking about admissions. He has required the Russell Group of “elite” universities to publish their admissions criteria. From this we learn that students who have studied core subjects at A-level, like Maths, Physics and English, are valued over students with equivalent grades in only more niche areas – even if those niche areas relate to the University course. We also see that public schools are getting more of their A-level students to take at least one of these core subjects at A-level.
This to me is highly interesting, and demonstrates an approach to University admission that isn’t based around quotas (which instinctively feel wrong to me as a liberal). We should look at why state schools are not getting more of their students good grades in these core subjects – if they find the niche subjects easier to teach and are chasing league table ratings, perhaps those ratings should be biased towards core subjects to make sure schools are encouraged to teach the subjects valued by top Universities. Perhaps the extra funding from the Pupil Premium is enough to help deliver that outcome, perhaps not – but if headteachers are chasing two contradictory goals, confusion will result.
However, in terms of social mobility, there’s more than just potential academic benefit. Part of what I missed out on by being a relatively poor pupil was the extracurricular activities with fellow pupils and the networking that goes with that. As part of this whole chicken-and-egg, my peers were more likely than average to end up in good jobs and good positions, and by rubbing shoulders with them I might have been able to build up useful relationships which would benefit me in my future life. This failed for me on two fronts – firstly, I was a geeky kid who didn’t fit in, and secondly, while my parents’ hard work and my scholarship got me into the school, it didn’t get me sent on the skiing holidays outside termtime and other places where my peers went to hang out together and form strong friendships. I remember a particularly cringeworthy school camping trip to the Lake District where my inability to afford a reliable pair of hiking boots meant I ended up staying at base camp with one of the teachers, sorting out the shopping and washing up while the rest took enjoyable romps over the hills.
I’ll admit then that I have no evidence that the friendships my peers made at public school were of material benefit in later life, but if that conventional wisdom is true, I don’t think that getting poorer pupils into public school, or Oxbridge, will automatically give them access to the kinds of networks and contacts that they’re supposedly missing out on. Or maybe just not being the fat geeky one who’d rather read Asimov than play football suffices; I don’t know.
To summarise then – getting kids from poorer backgrounds into public school won’t necessarily improve their ability to network at that age (though I doubt it’ll hurt it). It might make those kids more likely to get into Oxbridge through good teaching in core subjects, but there are other ways to address that problem. If employers look more favourably on Russell Group degrees and public school educations, then it might be useful to make sure a wider range of people get them. However, it still seems a little like tinkering around the edges rather than making sure that everybody gets a high quality primary and secondary education, has good literacy and numeracy by 16, and a wide range of both academic and vocational opportunities after that – this is where the Lib Dems are delivering in Government, and where I’m satisfied that the priority is correct.
As an aside, there are a couple of things, such as the charitable status of public schools and the new free schools and academies programme, which I haven’t mentioned here. While the former is worthy of debate I don’t think it’s directly relevant here, and I don’t think there’s enough evidence in terms of the social mobility outcomes to make any determinations about the latter – though Clegg’s new metrics announced today should help us make a determination sooner rather than later. Nor will I address George Monbiot’s claim that all private schools should be abolished, other than to say that it’s clearly fundementally illiberal, and attempts only to address the symptoms rather than the problems.
And on a finishing note, I’d like to point out that I’m not claiming to come from a poor background. My parents are solid middle class, probably the upper end of that, and I’ve had a privileged and comfortable upbringing – we just weren’t as well-off as many of the families we rubbed shoulders with at through my education, and I suspect that had an impact – which says something about the effects of getting people from poorer backgrounds into these institutions. I will also confess to getting one break out of public school – my first IT job was a summer programming job working for my maths teacher’s son, who later invited me back for future employment, giving me a useful CV boost.