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Tim Farron’s Resignation

June 15, 2017 Comments off

Tonight I was planning on writing some posts about the need for British Proportional Representation. However, the resignation of Tim Farron MP as leader of the Liberal Democrats has occupied a lot of my attention. I’ve been discussing it on social media but obviously that’s not a place for nuance, so I figured I’d put something here. The tl;dr version is the bullet points at the bottom.

I’ve been on the executive of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, the party’s body for LGBT+ equality, for about a decade. In that time I’ve worked with various party leaders and presidents to keep the Lib Dems at the forefront of the ongoing struggle for equality for sexual and gender minorities – a position we’ve held since the 1970s when we became the first party to support gay rights in a General Election manifesto, and the first party to host a debate on gay rights at our conference. Of the Lib Dem politicians I’ve met in this capacity, Tim Farron has been one of the most proactive in reaching out to us to offer the party’s political and infrastructural weight to aid our causes – both as President and as Leader.

Tim Farron at the LGBT+ Lib Dems Summer Strategy Conference 2012

Concerns about Tim’s beliefs and how they might impact his policy stance surfaced during the debates on Same-Sex Marriage – a Lib Dem policy pushed through in Coalition by equalities minister Lynne Featherstone. Tim abstained on some votes, along with Simon Hughes (who has had a complicated relationship between his Christianity and his bisexuality), claiming to want a more French-style system of civil marriage with optional religious blessing, and later to include further protections for trans people against the human rights-denying “spousal veto”. These explanations of his voting reassured some, but failed to convince others.

In 2015 when he became Leader, he faced his first test at the hands of Cathy Newman where refused to answer questions about whether gay sex was a sin. At the time, I was Chair of LGBT+ Lib Dems, and I really wasn’t bothered about the interview – as an atheist, the concept of religious sin means nothing to me; somebody else believing I’m going to hell for my sexuality doesn’t affect the way I live my life. However, a number of people in the party were deeply upset, including a few who resigned over the issue.

Two years later, the same questions were revisited by the same journalist and Tim still didn’t have an answer for them. This, I think, is where Tim must accept some of the blame – he’d had two years to prepare a snappy answer and failed to do so. Theresa May was asked the same question, and gave a quick off the cuff reply which shut down further debate despite her voting record. Tim’s line of “I’m running for Westminster, not the Vatican” was good, but it came far too late in the day.

PrEP on the NHS – one of the Liberal Democrats’ policies in the 2017 General Election

LGBT+ Lib Dems made sure that the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto in 2017 was the most progressive on LGBT+ equality ever seen. As usual these policies have been passed by Conference and are the official positions of the Liberal Democrats, not a wish-list from an internal lobbying organisation as some of our opponents have. It was intensely frustrating to see the years of hard work that went into that being derailed in the campaign by Tim’s poor media handling

We had, for example, a fantastic story on Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) to prevent new HIV infections; unlike the Tories and Labour, we agreed with the Scottish NHS that enough research had been done to justify an immediate roll-out. In the short term we had a plan to fund it, and in the long term it would save money as preventing HIV is cheaper than treating it. It tied in with our national campaign message on funding the NHS and social care. But we didn’t get to tell that story – we were too busy on the defensive about Tim (including Jennie’s excellent HuffPo article).

Ending the spousal veto, from the Lib Dems’ GE2017 Manifesto

Of course, a lot of the people stirring this particular pot were opposition activists, telling everybody that Tim is a homophobe. That isn’t true, but Tim’s actions made it an easy lie to believe, and to quote Swift, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it”. It derailed the election campaign, put us on the back foot, and cost us votes. I’m not sure how many, but in a campaign where we lost so many seats by so few votes, and so many activists report it coming up on the doorstep around the country, it’s highly likely that it made the difference between 12 MPs and 13 or 14.

Yesterday was an interesting day for me as a Lib Dem member. Lots of speculation about who should stand for Deputy Leader, and whether Tim should stand down as part of the constitutionally-mandated leadership election inside the next 12 months. Then Lord Brian Paddick resigned as Shadow Home Secretary. Then, a few hours later, Tim was gone. A lot has happened quickly and there’s a lot of hurt and anger flying around, not least in Tim’s resignation statement – understandable, but rather unhelpful.

To sum up my feelings on this:

  1. Tim is not a homophobe. As a Liberal Democrat and a Parliamentarian he’s been one of the more helpful people in the party most consistently dedicated to LGBT+ equality
  2. Tim was not hounded out because of his Christianity. There is a long and proud tradition of Christians in the Liberal Democrats, from our nonconformist roots, through to Charles Kennedy as leader, and Brian Paddick himself
  3. Tim’s inability to come up with a good answer to an entirely predictable question, two years after it was first asked, hurt the Lib Dems among a core demographic in a very tight General Election
  4. The dirt that stuck to Tim as a result would have remained throughout his leadership; I felt that he would have to stand down within 12 months
  5. Brian Paddick did the right thing in not making this more of an issue before Polling Day; he did the right thing in making sure it wasn’t forgotten about like it was in 2015
  6. I am sad that Tim has stood down, but not surprised, and slightly relieved
  7. I hope Tim is OK and has good people looking after him, and continues to play an active role in liberal and Liberal Democrat politics much as Nick Clegg has for the last two years

And a final word – the Lib Dems are the best party for LGBT+ equality because for decades we’ve had committed volunteers as activists for LGBT+ Lib Dems and its predecessor organisations. If you’re at all interested in these issues, and especially if you want to help the party campaign on them around the country, please join LGBT+ Lib Dems.

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The Next Elections we need Newbies to Win

October 23, 2016 Comments off
thankyou

Liz Leffman, helped to a storming second place by our newbies.

This week, the Lib Dems stormed to a strong second in the Tory heartland of Witney, leapfrogging from fourth. Thousands of volunteers from across the country piled down to David Cameron’s former constituency, and sent a shockwave through British politics. Life-long Tory voters, disgusted by Theresa May’s lurch to the hard-Brexit right, supported our hard-working local candidate.

As important as the ground-breaking result however was that many of the Lib Dem volunteers who pounded the streets, hit the phones or reached for their wallets in this campaign were new members, since the 2015 General Election and the EU Referendum. Turning members into activists is vital to the success of any political party, but more so to the Lib Dems who don’t have much budget for paid staff operations. The activists in Witney learned from the best, whether it was Candy Piercey, John Aylwyn, Neil Fawcett and many others on the ground, or the phone bankers trained by Claire Halliwell and James Baker at ALDC in Manchester, or many more.

Between now and Christmas, pretty much every local party in the Liberal Democrats will hold its Annual General Meeting, at which it will elect its volunteer committee to run local affairs for the next year. It’s really important that we empower our newbies to get involved at this level, rather than just see themselves as footsoldiers, and support them in their endeavours – they will bring fresh ideas and energy to the local party, hopefully some often-needed diversity, and enthusiasm. And most importantly, they will help break down barriers between the local party executive, and the membership. We need every local party in the country to be actively engaged with its membership, bringing liberal values to local communities as best we can. If we can’t manage that, keen liberals will drift away from the party and find themselves homeless and disengaged.

So if you are a new member of the party, please do stand for election at your AGM, whether it’s as an officer with a specific portfolio, or as a member of the executive, and make sure your local party engages all its members and plays its part in bringing about Our Liberal Britain.

Policy without the Wonks?

May 30, 2016 Comments off

I’ve often said here that people join political parties because they care about specific issues, and they think the party is the best way to advance that issue. Having policy on an issue is one way to encourage people to join in the first place; being the kind of party that would do the “right” thing is another. If we want more people to join the Lib Dems, and to be enthusiastically engaged in our activities and campaigns, then we need to make sure that they’re getting traction on the issues they care about, and that often starts with a policy – a statement of what the Lib Dems think should be done about a particular issue.

Currently, policy making requires a certain amount of expert knowledge. There are a lot more people that care about issues, than know exactly what levers of power are available to be pulled, particularly at different levels such as council and Parliament. So how can we make policy formation more open to non-experts and more responsive? Firstly, we need to know what makes our members tick – what are the issues that move them? You’d be surprised how few local parties can answer this question, particularly about the members who aren’t already activists. Member surveys as part of your member communications process (whether that’s by phone, online or by post) can play a key role here, as can collecting this kind of data at a social event – get people to write down one reason why they joined on a post-it note, and collate them on a handy wall.

Secondly, we need to know what’s possible; this is where the policy experts do come in handy. We need to put the people who have the knowledge in touch with the people who have the desire. Ask around your current and former councillors, candidates and Parliamentarians. Nearby local parties or regions might be able to lend an expert; ALDC might be able to give guidance. How you put these together is up to you; different approaches will work for different local parties. Currently I’m planning some free-form discussion online, either using a forum over the space of a couple of weeks, or some online chat sessions, to flesh out proposals. I’d like to finish this with a day-long face-to-face event, perhaps structured like an Unconference.

Of course, the Lib Dems have a regional, state and national policy process for “official” policy which involves detailed policy motions being debated, amended and voted on at a conference. This requires a certain amount of expert knowledge, and the time and money to attend the conference. The approach I’ve outlined above is hopefully a little more flexible and can serve not only for local manifestos which tend to be a bit more ad-hoc, but also as a way of generating policy input into Conferences.

Inspired to Empower

March 30, 2016 1 comment
libertea-small

Libertea in Manchester

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceThis sounds like some massively cheesy slogan for some TED Talk or “motivational guru”, but it’s mostly how I’m feeling after an evening at my local Libertea – our Liberal Drinks / #libdempint evening that takes place in a coffee shop rather than a pub. We still do the pub on alternating months, and get a slightly different crowd coming to each.

I’ve been reminded of something I may have lost sight of in recent months; the devastation and loss of the General Election gave way to the elation of the Lib Dem Fightback, which slowly but surely ebbed into routine, and perhaps I’ve been going through the motions of campaigning and organising events without stopping to think what it means.

I’ve been reminded that when people joined the Lib Dems in the aftermath of the General Election, they did so because they had an instinct that the fight for liberalism was important. I’ve been reminded that people join political parties to achieve things for the causes they care about, not to act as footsoldiers for an unaccountable clique. And yes, getting people elected is almost always a key part of achieving those things, but we need a holistic view – what we want to achieve and how winning elections helps us achieve it – to inspire people to campaign enthusiastically.

I’ve been reminded that not only can peoples’ attitudes and behaviour actively put people off getting involved, but also frustration at not being able to achieve what they joined the party to support. I’ve been reminded that it’s the job of us not-so-newbies to use our experience to help our new members experience the power of a political party to achieve positive liberal change, to see the whole picture of how an idea becomes a policy, becomes a campaign, becomes a candidate, becomes a councillor or Parliamentarian, becomes a victory, and how the cycle repeats and overlaps.

So thanks to all those at Libertea who have inspired me to double down and help our newbies get a real sense of achievement out of being a Liberal Democrat, to clear the obstacles and smooth the road so we can deliver a Liberal vision of the future, together.

Where Next for Diversity in the Liberal Democrats?

March 14, 2016 4 comments
beckythomas

Becky Thomas moving the East Midlands Lib Dems amendment opposing All-Women Shortlists

Unfortunately, the amendment to remove all-women shortlists was defeated at Conference earlier today. The debate was generally good on both sides, though the summation was patronising in the extreme. Ultimately though, the strength of the leadership support and the long-trailed campaign including paid Facebook and Twitter adverts, helped to win the day. Sarah Brown’s excellent canary speech swayed a few undecided voters to support the amendment, but not enough.

Still, the voice of Conference has been heard, and it is time to look forward. I do not believe that AWS will solve all our problems, and I believe they need solving. This means I need to play a part in changing my party for the better, and help obviate the arguments made to support AWS before they become entrenched. Thinking more about the points from my last post on this, and from talking to members at conference, it seems that the problems that need to be tackled can be divided into a small number of intertwined areas:

  1. Direct discrimination and harassment, particularly of young and female members. This is effectively a pastoral care issue. We know from the Morrissey Report that the pastoral care in the party has been lacking. We now have a Pastoral Care Officer at LDHQ who is highly praised, but the party hasn’t managed to embed a culture of challenging harassment using the pastoral care system. I get the impression that people still think it’s too awkward, too much red tape, or too unlikely to get results. Perhaps we need another update to the Morrissey Report following the preliminary December 2014 review to give more confidence to members, or the Rock the Boat group to become some sort of support group for those making complaints.
  2. Concentration of power among unaccountable cliques, which entrenches unconscious (and conscious) bias in ways that are difficult to challenge through the democratic processes of the party. Changing the processes to improve transparency and accountability is a governance issue; the current Governance Review may be a good opportunity to challenge this at an institutional level, but practical suggestions must be made.
  3. Bias in recruitment and retention – this is a membership issue. The idea of my previous post, that development and target seats must meet local membership and leadership diversity targets to receive support from LDHQ, still seems to have merit; this would go some way to tackling the bias in winnable seats. As with the membership rebate scheme, giving ownership of this problem to local parties is likely to be the best way to see concrete results.
  4. The expectations we have of potential candidates, and the criteria we use (consciously or otherwise) to select them. This is a campaigns issue. We expect our candidates to primarily be “good campaigners”, rather than people who will make good councillors or Parliamentarians. This biases us towards the able-bodied, those without caring responsibilities, those who do not work long hours, and those who are able to handle the stress of being the focal point of the campaign trail. This even goes against our own best campaign practice about building strong teams and identifying candidates who will be good at the job once elected.

These problems are all interlinked to some degree – for example, if your local party isn’t diverse, then the power will always be held by a homogeneous group no matter how transparent and accountable the members of that group may be. And the solutions to these problems will be far more complex than the glib outlines I’ve made above. But I think that trying to tease the issues apart into different areas of responsibility may be helpful in finding a starting point. So what have I missed? Let me know!

lytokenwomen

Liberal Youth members protesting all-women shortlists, with “I Am Not A Token Woman” T-shirts

On THAT Motion, and Diversity within the Party

March 12, 2016 1 comment
New Liberal Democrat chair of candidates, Mitt Romney

New Liberal Democrat chair of candidates, Mitt Romney

I’ve been following the discussions on motion F20, “Electing Diverse MPs”, for a while now. It’s also known as “the All-Women Shortlist” motion as that is one of its recommendations. It’s certainly controversial, particularly among women, and I honestly don’t know which way the vote is likely to go tomorrow morning. I am not going to get into some of the antics surrounding the establishment campaign to push this through, though I’d really like to rant about the (white cis male) person who told me I don’t care about diversity if I don’t support this motion.

When you strip away the reams of facts and figures in the run-up, what it’s proposing seems fairly limited to me:

Conference therefore resolves that to increase the proportion of Liberal Democrats from under-represented groups in the House of Commons the Liberal Democrats will:

  1. Continue and extend support for individuals seeking approval or selection as Westminster candidates from under-represented groups, thus building on the work that has been done in the past including the Leadership Programme.
  2. Create a ‘2020 Candidate Diversity Task Force’ to co-ordinate partywide efforts to actively recruit parliamentary candidates from underrepresented groups from both inside and outside the Party. This will include a focus on recruiting candidates with more than one protected characteristic and from minorities who are under-represented even within under-represented groups. The Task Force will work with ALDC and our cohort of councillors, recognising that, whilst local government is important in its own right, it can also be a good recruiting ground for potential Parliamentary candidates. It will report to the Federal Executive, working with the Diversity Engagement Group as appropriate. The Task Force will have one representative each from the three state parties, the Federal Executive, ALDC, EMLD, LDDA, LGBT+, LDW, Liberal Youth and PCA and be led by a Candidate Diversity Champion appointed by the Leader and the President. The Federal Executive Report to Conference will include updates on the work of the Candidate Diversity Task Force.
  3. Through the work of the 2020 Candidate Diversity Task Force and Candidate Diversity Champion, in association with SAOs, AOs, ALDC and parliamentary candidates, examine the party’s approval and selection processes, and the role of PPCs after selection, to identify barriers that may exist for under-represented groups, including those identified in the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Selection, as well as disadvantaged groups including those from a low socioeconomic background. Solutions will be proposed to overcome these barriers; to seek to make proposals to increase diversity at all levels in the party; and to bring forward proposals on how to address the emotional, practical and financial challenges facing candidates from under-represented groups.

So point (A) is doing what we’re already doing; point (B) is also doing what we’re already doing – the groups mentioned are already represented through the Diversity Engagement Group, so this is just recreating the same organisation and giving it a task it should already be doing. (C) is an expansion of the thing that the group in (B) should be doing.

Conference recommends that:

  1. Any local party should be able to vote for an all-women shortlist or an all-disabled shortlist, or reserve some spaces for candidates from other under-represented groups.
  2. As a minimum the three state parties should follow the Canadian Liberal Party practice of requiring the relevant Local Party to provide documented evidence to their region or state (as relevant) of a thorough search for potential candidates from under-represented groups before being granted permission to start their Westminster selection process; this should apply in those seats where the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate received more than 15% of the vote in the 2015 General Election but the seat is not held by the Liberal Democrats.
  3. In Scotland, Wales and each Region of the English Party, take measures to move towards a slate of candidates that reflects the diversity of the state or region, in line with the Leader’s ambition of having at least 50% women candidates and at least 10% BAME candidates across Great Britain.
  4. If any sitting MP elected in 2015 decides not to contest the next General Election, his replacement should be selected from an all-women shortlist.
  5. In Scotland, Wales, and each Region of the English Party where there are two or more non-held seats which gained 25% or more of the General Election vote in May 2015, the regions should designate as a minimum of one seat not held by a Liberal Democrat MP to select its candidate from an all-women shortlist. Where these seats are affected by boundary changes, the party’s rules on re-running selection processes will apply.
  6. In addition to the one seat identified in 5. above, where the Liberal Democrat parliamentary result at the 2015 General Election was in the 10% of seats which had the highest percentage vote without returning a Liberal Democrat MP, the selection shortlist for the 2020 General Election should, subject to sufficient applications, include at least two candidates from under-represented groups.

Most of the points are aimed at all-women shortlists, and some of the others are vague, particularly the unspecified measures in (3). I was speaking to a regional candidate’s chair who was hard pressed to find enough people to stand in the 2015 General Election, who feels that the requirements to “provide documented evidence” and include candidates for under-represented groups will be either meaningless or impossible to meet based on the current ratios of women and BME people in particular who put themselves forward for candidate approval. He anticipates finding one or two token potential candidates to ship around the region to selection meetings to make up the numbers where local parties haven’t made any real effort to address diversity. I think this hits the crux of the problem for me – this motion is a top-down solution to a bottom-up problem.

I’m not going to get into whether doing this, or failing to do this, is “fundamentally illiberal”. That’s a silly argument, and I believe that most people, however they plan to vote, have good intentions. There are of course some people who deny that the Lib Dems have any diversity problem at all, but there’s no accounting for whatever planet they’re on. The question is, what problem are we trying to solve? Given the number of women who’ve told me they won’t stand for Parliament if the party adopts AWS, I’m not sure it’ll get us many more female candidates. I don’t think it’ll do anything to address some of the sexist attitudes within the party, nor the concentration of power among the typically male, pale ad stale usual suspects, and I fear that it may engender ill-will among activists which will make us less likely to elect female candidates selected under AWS, since we don’t have any safe seats to speak of.

Fortunately, the Federal Conference Committee has selected two good amendments for debate. The one from Ethnic Minority Lib Dems which aims to improve the motion’s approach to BME diversity is a no-brainer. The second, from the East Midlands Liberal Democrats, keeps the working group and the requirement for state and regional parties to take measure to reflect diversity, but removes the proposals for all-women shortlists. Since the proponents of the motion have been telling me that it’s about more than AWS and is a comprehensive strategy for diversity, I’m sure the same people wouldn’t describe this as a wrecking amendment. My hope is that the motion passes with both amendments, and that’s what I’ll be supporting. If the East Midlands amendment falls, I’m not sure how I’ll vote on the main motion – it comes down to whether perceived inaction on the part of the party will do us more harm than the negative effects of introducing AWS, and that’s a tough call to make.

Where Next?

As I mentioned in my conference diary post, I’m feeling a bit guilty that I didn’t engage with this motion sooner. I’m sure this blog, coming ten hours before the debate, won’t influence too many people ahead of the vote. But whatever Conference decides, we’ll have to live with it and move on. One argument in support of the motion is that “we’ve tried other things and they didn’t work” – this is unarguably true, but I think we need to consider why those other things didn’t work, and why we think that AWS might succeed where they failed. If we don’t understand that, and I haven’t seen any real attempt to do so, then this motion simply follows the “Yes, Prime Minister” adage – something must be done; this is something, therefore we must do it.

When challenged to provide an alternative to AWS, I thought back to the party’s membership rebate scheme – by giving tangible rewards to local parties for improving recruitment and retention, we saw a massive grass-roots recruiting effort which has increased our party’s membership base for eleven consecutive quarters. I’m wondering if we can do something similar here; since the motion is talking mainly about Parliamentary elections, let’s try to solve the diversity problem that way. I propose two simple tests; the more I think about them, the more I think this approach has legs.

  1. A constituency can only qualify as a “development seat” with regards to support provided by LDHQ if its Liberal Democrat membership reflects the diversity of the people it seeks to represent.
  2. A constituency can only qualify as a “target seat” with regards to support provided by LDHQ if its Liberal Democrat local executive reflects the diversity of the people it seeks to represent.

Of course, (2) is rather at the whim of the people who choose to stand for internal election, and the people who vote for them in those internal elections, but the same applies to Parliamentary candidate selection, so I’m not going to rule it out straight away.

There are other noble things which we can attempt – for a while, I thought that carrots and sticks to get people to attend the party’s excellent diversity and unconscious bias training would help, but the adage about taking a horse to water applies here.

We also need to tackle the big cultural problem that we select candidates who have plenty of personal time and money to invest into the election campaign, rather than selecting the candidates who would make great Lib Dem MPs and working around their current personal circumstances.

In any event, the only way we’re going to tackle this problem is by getting enough people at the grassroots to grasp it and address it head-on in their local community. I am sad to say that there is not enough of this in motion F20.

Conference Diary at First Glance

March 11, 2016 1 comment
Harry Potter Time Turner

Possibly the only way to take part in most of the Conference activities.

The last few weeks for me have been absolutely hectic, and not in a particularly good way. So it’s only this evening that I’ve cracked open the agenda for Spring Conference and had a skim-read. As I’ve said before, there is loads to do at a party conference, and that’s just the formally scheduled activities; the seeing friends, going out for a drink or meal, catching up and swapping gossip and stories will comfortably fill any remaining gaps.

I figured I’d post my first-pass itinerary as some indication of what I intend to get up to. I expect I will put more policy debates in once I’ve had more of a chance to read them and think about how I can contribute and vote. Let me know what I’m missing!

I say this every time, but I need to get more organised in advance of Conference; I wanted to get an amendment in on the All-Women Shortlists motion (I wanted to write about this in some length but fortunately Jezz has done a great job on LDV), and I wanted to submit a question to the Federal Executive asking why we didn’t appear to have any contingency planning for staffing levels at party HQ in the event of the beating we took in May, which has left us flailing over the summer while trying to pick ourselves up. I hope that others will have done this for me, but I need to strike a better balance between the stuff I do to help promote and run the party, and using my power as a member to hold it to account.

Friday

3:00 Check in to Flat
Consultative Sessions @ Novotel: Liberty and Security
6:30 – 7:30 Conference Rally, Barbican
8:15 – 9:30 “The Ideas that built the Liberal Democrats”, Novotel MR4

Saturday

9:00 F1 – F3: Opening of Conference and Reports
11:00 Training: Campaigning and Engaging with Diverse Communities, Novotel MR6
11:45 F7: Regulatory Framework for Cannabis
1:00 – 2:00 Fringe: EU Referendum & Immigration: Turning Tide of Opinion, Hilton Minster
2:20 F8: Report of the Federal Executive
Lunch!
3:45 Policy motion – “Privacy and Security in a Digital Age”
4:50 F16: AOs and SAOs to enrol
6:15 International Perspectives on Winning Referendum Campaigns, Novotel MR3
7:00 – 9:00 EMLD on Diverse MPs motion, Melbourne Centre, Escrick Street
10:00 Glee Club, Novotel, Fishergate Suite

Sunday

9:40 F20: Electing Diverse MPs
10:00 Check out of Flat
11:45 F22: Tim Farron Speech
1:00 Close of Conference
Categories: Conference