Author Archives: Geoff Reid

The Miners’ Strike forty years on

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The fortieth anniversary of the start of the Miners’ Strike that began on 5th March 1984 is almost upon us but Channel 4 and BBC2 have already offered their acts of remembrance. I remember the start and had the television permanently on during the Battle of Orgreave, but some of my sharpest personal memories are about the ending and the aftermath.

Throughout the strike I was living and working opposite the Yorkshire National Union of Mineworkers(NUM) Headquarters in Barnsley. Arthur Scargill and his colleagues regularly appeared on the other side of Victoria Road. Our Communist next door neighbour was high up in the Engineering union. Roy Mason, the right wing Labour MP and former member of a Labour cabinet, lived round the corner. I had been the Liberal Alliance candidate for Barnsley Central in the 1983 General Election (where alas my 19.2% still holds the record vote share). So it could be seen as a highly politicised corner of the town centre!

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Let’s hear it for hardworking customers

Emerging in the 1990s, one of the most vacuous phrases used by politicians is “hardworking families.” The brain-numbing emptiness of such clichés can usually be exposed by considering what the opposite might be. Is it lazy families? People who can’t get work? Millionaires cushioned by their wealth or tax avoidance/evasion? Or is it about making an effort to avoid being vaguely feckless?

The phrase is the Japanese knotwood of political press releases and it will take some eradication. I want to suggest a variation and highlight “hardworking customers.” The IT revolution offered us liberation from all sorts of drudgery, often living up to the promise, but when it comes to paying for goods and services new forms of enslavement have kicked in.

Some retailers have made self-service checkouts the norm, while retaining a minority of staffed tills. Some have made self-service checkouts obligatory but provide a customer assistant to help anyone experiencing difficulties. Last week I shared in a pantomime at our local branch of W H Smith as I tried to buy a newspaper. The passing assistant kindly helped me with a scanning operation and then vanished to do something more pressing, leaving me to pay. Unfortunately the machine insisted on giving me my money back. I hung around for 90 seconds and then absconded with my paper feeling not in the least guilty of shoplifting!

Many retailers proclaim the benefits of digital alternatives but they become discriminatory when they become compulsory rather than optional. In many parts of the country certain goods can only be obtained online from Amazon or relatively smaller competitors. It is still possible to buy a household shopping trolley but you will be fortunate indeed if you can find a shop to sell you it. The recent u-turn over the proposed closure of rail ticket offices may look like a victory for inclusivity but I suspect the issue will return once Conservative MPs are over the hurdle of defeat or re-election and the pressure from constituents feels less urgent.

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Achieving electoral reform – the common good comes before personal ambition

Anyone who has stood as a paper candidate knows that this is a selfless task that normally has nothing to do with personal ambition. This is the basis on which I stood in three General Elections. I was regarded as a good candidate for hopeless northern seats – and endorsed as such by Richard Wainwright MP! In October 1974, when the Liberals stood in every seat for the first time, the Region told me that there was nobody else for Rother Valley. As the first candidate since 1918, I saved my deposit after we managed to address folded leaflets (by hand) to the 93,000 electors. I suppose that was the fulfilment of a very modest ambition.

I do see myself as achieving a few things in my time but that is different from fulfilling personal ambition. I still hold the percentage vote share record for Barnsley Central, where I stood in 1983, but, as Yorkshire and the Humber Region know full well, that’s nowt to boast about. My final outing in Eccles in 1992 was utterly unmemorable!

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Liberation from cars – at least in cities …

I came to the Spring Conference for free and was dropped off at a bus stop outside my hotel, returning home three days later from a stop across the road. The travelling was on two routes operated by Transdev, one of the most forward looking bus companies in the country. Changing in Leeds Bus Station from one stand to another was my longest distance pulling a case, with no need to cross Leeds or York City Centres.

Since gaining my all-England concessionary bus pass a decade and a half ago (thank you Gordon Brown) and as a rail card user, I had become increasingly multi-modal in my travelling habits. Shortly after the 2022 Autumn Conference which never happened, I gave up driving completely.

As a former member of a Transport Authority and a lifelong student of public transport, I felt that I was as best placed an anyone else I knew when it came to making the best of inadequate bus services, which is possible in northern cities. I’m not sure I could say the same about trains. Of course it ought not to be like that. Other European countries do it differently. In or out of the EU, the UK has been woefully negligent in learning from our closest neighbours in terms of best practice in punctuality, frequency, cleanliness, safety, costs and convenience.

Round our way, a number of bus services get cancelled, often at short notice, “due to shortage of drivers” which means that constant tracking of vehicles takes priority over using timetables. If we are in a crisis caused by an absence of qualified staff, most passengers would probably settle pro tem for fewer journeys that were guaranteed to happen. I’d like to think that settling for this relatively unpalatable solution was one of the functions of management but this doesn’t seem to be case. The only way in which the whole mess is the fault of users is that we have failed to elect politicians willing to opt for radically new ways of paying for public transport. This would be preferable to control ultimately resting at the other end of the country, or indeed in other countries, with bosses constrained by the priorities of private sector shareholders.

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The perils of nostalgia and boosterism

I think most political activists outside the Conservative party will have worked out that Liz Truss tries to combine the style of Thatcher with the boosterism of Johnson. The Iron Lady will always be “that bloody woman” for many of us. She can be accused of promoting profoundly destructive policies but I don’t think she went down the road of cheap optimism as far as Johnson/Truss have gone. Most politicians will use the word “hope” in their speeches and leaflets but it is important to distinguish between the hope that flows from a vision of a better world and a more civilised society and the promise of a golden future which simply ignores reality. The latter is, of course, the stock-in-trade of populist authoritarians. Few nations wish to dominate the world but Hitler and Goebbels managed to sell the plan for doing so to the German people even when the Nazis started to lose World War 2.

I would be hard pressed to say which is the most dangerous between nostalgia and boosterism. Both refuse to face and communicate reality, or perhaps an interpretation of reality, and in different ways both can have cruel consequences.

In England nostalgia played a powerful part in the EU referendum and in the Conservative so-called Red Wall gains in the 2019 General Election. Looking back to imperial glory has contributed to the UK’s steady decline over the post-war decades. Other European countries managed to get over the loss of colonies, with the exception of Putin’s Russia! English nostalgia for the past is a grim drag on our politics. At a time when generations have never hitherto been so polarised both in political outlook and political participation, it is perhaps a cliché to suggest that hope for the future lies with younger generations. The best political legacy that my generation could offer (apart from continuing to die off!) may be discussing politics with grandchildren and persuading them to vote.

While recession looks inevitable in the midst of so many other crises, we must hope that people will realise the hollowness of the promises of sunlit uplands emanating from Truss and her ilk. My parents lived through the 1930s in one of the poorest parts of the North-East but they claimed that never being without shoes helped to get them through tough times. Between the wars some working class communities were lured into voting Conservative, expanding the minority ongoing working class Tory vote. They insisted that the harsh realities of the thirties resulted in the “never again” approach, reflected in the 1945 election result.

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People are complicated – not necessarily tribal

I shall say this only once. I have some sympathy with David Cameron not recognising what was coming down the track. It’s not just about the referendum itself. I still believe that he was wrong to go for a referendum after the 2010 General Election in a representative democracy, but there is another powerful factor in play which has become clearer in the years since the 2016 vote.

Six years is a long time in terms of the role of social media in the political arena. The polarisation of positions/opinions/allegiances has deepened in the UK partly because of an oversimplified binary vote and partly because of the corrosion and distortion which comes with certain uses of social media in the political or quasi-political realm.

When I became an elected representative fairly late in life (after a lifetime as an activist), I had a fairly settled view of what politicians were for. I saw them as people’s representatives who had some ability at explaining complicated stuff in relatively simple terms so that people were  better equipped to make some choices at elections. With this honourable understanding I can justify the shortest of Focus headlines and a press release which is well under half a page of A4.

I still buy into the basic model.  I am a kind of professional simplifier but the last few years have alerted us to the dangers of not giving sufficient recognition to the complicated reasons as to why people hold opinions which we profoundly disagree with or which fly in the face of expert opinion. Sonia Sodha, a distinguished leader writer for the Observer, encapsulated her view in a non-leader article with the headline “Question Time showed that you can’t counter anti-vax myths with cold reason alone”.

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The necessity of satire

Over the last decade or so I have regularly asked myself what forms of resistance are appropriate in the face of populist/authoritarian/power grabbing regimes. Ultimately they have to be removed at the ballot box so some of us doggedly carry on organising and campaigning in spite of outdated electoral systems and huge amounts of money being fed into elections and pre-election PR machines. In the UK we can throw in a very lopsided set of national newspapers and the future for our politically diminished country does not look bright.

I keep coming back to satire. When I was in the former Czechoslovakia a year after the Prague Spring of 1967, our hosts were distributing clandestine leaflets criticising the puppet government reimposed by the Soviet Union. Quite a bit of this “samizdat” material was satirical and cartoons had a significant part to play. Democracy was not established until decades later but the satire and accompanying laughter provided hope in dark days.

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The long history of working class Tories and Labour paternalism

If anyone who does not come from Newcastle upon Tyne has heard of Walker it will probably be as the birthplace of the singer Eric Burdon of the Animals, and possibly their song “Gonna take you back to Walker” which was a metaphor for serious punishment (i.e. being sent to a very run-down area next to the shipyards).

My first council by-election in 1963 was in the Walkergate Ward. The Young Liberals were helping and I remember a young woman in tears coming back from canvassing on Walker Road, shocked by a string of Conservative voters in some of the least salubrious housing in the city.

As in many parts of the north, there has always been a core working-class Tory vote. It rarely elected Conservatives because for decades in working class wards Labour defeated the Tories on the basis of a “vote for us on polling day, we have the right ideas and we will look after your interests” strategy. This paternalistic, top-down approach has reached the end of the line. Thus, the Tories have exploited a political vacuum in many areas and got elected. Whether they can work with local people to make a difference to their communities and their individual lives is another matter.

I said this in Tuesday’s Guardian, where with others I was responding to a piece by John Harris, who had suggested that the seeds of Labour’s renewal lie at the grassroots. Many Yorkshire Lib Dems know that the Eccleshill Ward where I have been a councillor since 2010 is one of the most working-class three member Lib Dem wards in Yorkshire and the Humber. So I finished my letter by saying:

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Book review: Billy Bragg – The Three Dimensions of Freedom

One of the joys of the opening up of “non essential retail” is the opportunity to browse in bookshops, not least with respect to stuff that barely got a mention in mainstream reviews (although this got a paragraph by Melvyn Bragg in the Observer). I wasn’t aware of it until last week.

The singer/songwriter Billy Bragg is not every Liberal Democrat’s cup of tea but he is worth taking seriously for a number of reasons. We are woefully short on political songwriting and he can do that better that most in our day, even if like most of us he can be a bit off-target occasionally. Crucially, he is a committed socialist but flexible in both thought and deed. He is broadly Labour supporting, perhaps a musical latter-day Orwell.

He endorsed the Lib Dems in 2010 and is passionate about PR and other constitutional reforms. In recent elections he campaigned to get Labour, Green and Liberal Democrat parties to stand down in some constituencies to maximise the anti-Tory victories – and we all have our views on that one!

The Three Dimensions of Freedom is an extended pamphlet, a pocket-sized volume of little more than a hundred pages, but I found it well worth the six quid. Published by Faber and Faber in a “Faber Social” series, it is a glorious rant, worthy of affirmation and debate at the same time, if that is possible! It was written in the year Coronavirus minus one but it addresses a central issue that has become ever more urgent during the pandemic – accountability.

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Book Review: “Why the Germans Do it Better, Notes from a Grown-Up Country”

As Liberal Democrats know only all too well, democracy comes in many versions as does totalitarianism. One of the paradoxes of history is the way in which a country which caused so much harm in its first fifty-five years grew up into what John Kampfner describes as “a bulwark for decency, competence and stability.” For two decades after 1945 West Germany struggled to come to terms with what happened in the Nazi period. Then over the next half century Germans engaged in a process of atonement which has affected every aspect of the nation’s life. Kampfner sees overcoming the threat to democracy presented by the spirit of 1968 being perverted by terrorism and the Baader-Meinhof Group as a key staging post.

However the strength of contemporary German democracy has its roots in the constitutional settlement forged in 1949, which Britain helped to create. The “Basic Law” (Grundgesetz) has been amended dozens of times (by two-thirds majorities in Parliament) but its fundamental strength is unquestionably robust. A commitment to a democracy which is almost existential is the backdrop to Kampfer’s “notes” on foreign policy, immigration, the economy, housing, social cohesion and environmentalism. Inevitably Angela Merkel is a recurring presence, unheard of as the Berlin Wall came down but a huge figure in ensuring the steady embedding of unification.

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What is the point of winning?

As the local elections come down the track, sooner or later, it is worth rehearsing the philosophy of why Liberal Democrats fight to win. In 1980 Bernard Greaves and Gordon Lishman were insisting in their “Theory and Practice  of Community Politics” that the latter aimed “to secure for individuals within their communities greater control over their living environments and a deeper sense of involvement in decisions affecting their lives.” This was echoed twenty years later by Tony Greaves who spoke of a strategy concerned with asking “what can we actually do to change things in this patch on the ground?”

One of the reasons why, on our Council, Labour and Conservative councillors think we are not proper councillors is our refusal to regard attending meetings of Council and committees as the most important part of our political activity. We do our fair share on committees. We hold surgeries but they are not the pinnacle of engagement with constituents. We are probably more likely to pick up casework from a shout across the street than from people walking through a surgery door.

We do casework, as do other councillors, but I suspect our style can be rather different. Depending on our lifestyles, we can set our own standards for going the extra mile. For my part I tend to be free most of the time to respond to emails immediately, even if it’s just a holding acknowledgement. I am fortunate in representing a very compact ward and live one bus stop away from its boundary, so it is no great hardship to do a prompt site visit before reporting a problem. Checking out a complaint about a street light not working can be a chore at high summer but one of the benefits of winter is being able to inspect much earlier in the evening. Officers respond to reliability and accuracy. But there is much more to it than general competence. It is about pro-active campaigning which helps people to make their place better.

A few years ago one of our members died who rejoiced in the name of Joan Collins. She smoked like a chimney which may have shortened her life slightly, but I would never have challenged the consolation this brought her after she became largely confined to her bungalow. She had some rather more admirable liberal habits in her nonconformity and willingness to ask awkward questions. She had a proud history of offering her house as a committee room on polling days.

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The Best of England

In debates about the nature of England and “Englishness” some, with justification, have turned to George Orwell. But there is an earlier 20th century literary figure who is worth listening to, even if only for one quotation. In 1992, for the third and final time, I stepped up to the plate as a reliable parliamentary candidate for hopeless northern seats. This was in the Eccles constituency, part of which was formerly in the Salford South constituency represented by the Liberal MP Hilaire Belloc from 1906 to 1910.

The 1992 Good Beer Guide contains an entry for the Ashley Brook in Salford: “New pub, cleverly blended into adjacent, terraced properties. Licence was first sought in the 1920s, but a local campaign, led by a methodist minister, helped permission to be granted in the 90s! Good wheelchair facilities.” For once local people at the opening ceremony outnumbered bosses from the brewery (Joseph Holt) and their guests. As I pulled the first pint, I quoted the pub-lover, churchman and writer Belloc, “When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England.”

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Mistakes, trust and power

A long time ago, students on my English Language and Literature course were invited by the Language professor to come to the next lecture with a new word that had been coined in the previous year. I knew exactly when mine had appeared and who invented it. A certain Jo Grimond had said we needed an Ombudswoman. I shan’t go into the gender politics here, but my example had a short shelf life. Others had more clue about new words which would last.

However the crucial aim was getting us to recognise the fluidity and development of the English language which has been going on since Chaucer’s version of English triumphed over a number of other regional varieties. Grammar and syntax can change but at a much slower pace. Even slower are changes in spelling.

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Civilised disagreement – a target for 2021?

Some while ago, I was taken to task on this site for declaring that people had been the victims of conmen before and after the 2016 referendum. Apparently this was highly insulting to leavers although I was trying to emphasise the pain that goes with being lied to deliberately and made to feel stupid. It was a generalised statement and I can’t ever remember saying to an individual “You’ve been taken for a ride.”

In my own council ward two-thirds of the referendum voters opted for Vote Leave. This does not mean we treat them with contempt nor vice versa. The voters at local elections carried on voting for us. Some of them actually said explicitly that they disagreed with us about the EU but they supported us for other reasons.

As we move into the economic pain that is inevitable in 2021, the last thing on our lips should be “We told you so.” There will be those who will continue to see the EU as the source of all their woes but since there are now Conservative MPs who realise that they were sold a dud in the election of a party leader there will be ordinary voters who will sooner or later come to the same conclusion.

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Thinking about both sides of the letterbox

I was born in the same year as Donald Trump and Dolly Parton. No problems deciding which is one of my favourite Americans! Actually I was born on exactly the same day as the late Freddie Mercury (infinitely more Dolly than Donald). Do the sums and you will realise that I was surprised to find myself an endangered species – sorry, vulnerable category, when the virus came knocking on too many doors.

My colleagues were quite firm as to what I should and should not do. I consider myself pretty fit for my years, which is mainly due to delivering a few thousand Focus leaflets, or some other pieces of paper, every time we go to press. My legs do not take kindly to an absence of walking the streets but by temperament I am not into exercise for its own sake.

So after a few weeks of little more than telephoning constituents to see how they were faring, online casework and zoom meetings, I was very happy to join in our Ward Audit programme. I went out most days, without speaking to a soul, but peering down gullies, taking pictures of fly-tipping and noting faded road markings.

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Optimism, hope and trying not to be Scrooge

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I’m not channelling Ebenezer Scrooge but at one level Christmas is the last thing we should be worrying about at the moment. Yet it drips through media headlines almost on a daily basis. I’m not against bank holidays although many people have had too much in the way of non-working days this year. I suspect I am irritated because Christmas has been put firmly in a political context this year.

Our Prime Minister seems to think he has a supreme obligation to cheer people up while blithely unaware of how much he is capable of depressing us. He does apologise, of course, but he apologises for the wrong things. Managing a country in the midst of a pandemic should not be about saying “I’m sorry but we are all going to have to do the right thing”.

Unsurprisingly I am not against Christian festivals! However for those who see Christmas as a high point for affirming one strand of religious faith there are good models to remember. Easter was for the most part done differently this year. Mosque leaders should be commended for their discipline and messaging during Eid. We should be taking seriously the possibility of the same pattern being required over the Christmas season.

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Does unity require amnesty?

What will America do with Mr Trump when he ceases to be President? There will be those who believe that the relatively narrow margin of Biden’s victory means that America is still a bitterly divided country and that the healing process means that any question of prosecution would be a non-starter because it would ‘re-open the wounds”. Trumpism will not go away even in the unlikely event of the man himself disappearing into the sunset sometime in January. But national divisions are nothing like as simple as the binary choices of a two-horse race or a yes/no referendum.
Going against a majority view can be difficult for politicians but if it matters so much the voters have the option of sending them packing in due course. MPs who voted for the abolition of the death penalty were not, for the most part, punished by their constituents. We didn’t have council elections in the Mets in the May following the UK referendum but in 2018 many of us in the North were happy to be elected or re-elected in wards which voted heavily Leave, myself included. Because voters are human beings their political views can be more complex (sometimes contradictory) than we might like them to be.
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Getting the reshaping of the state centre-stage

John Harris of the Guardian began the week with a piece on the reshaping of the state which is packed with observations that many Liberal Democrats have taken as read for decades. Harris’s view on the set-piece stand-off between Andy Burnham and central Government was of “things that had long been kept on the political margins suddenly bursting into the foreground.” Those of us who have long histories of inhabiting political margins will recognise “things” as constitutional reform and a need for a massive shift of power within a dysfunctional hopelessly over-centralised British state. And power shifting is at the heart of what we are about. As I have said before on this site, Labour tend to prioritise moving money and Liberals tend to give priority to shifting power. Yes, they are related and partially overlapping, but basic instincts are important!

In his plea for alternative ways of running the state Harris notes that the Tories want to shake up the British state “but in a way that will leave its chronic power imbalances unchanged.” In a crucial sentence he also claims “Labour also has longstanding centralising instincts that always make conversation about redistributing power far too difficult, when the outlines of a different system actually seem pretty straightforward.”

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Interpreting confusion

Can people insist on being confused? I am no behavioural scientist but I have been struck by the way many people in the UK respond to the rules/advice for combatting Covid-19 with “I am confused” or “I don’t understand”. These may be British/English euphemisms for “I disagree” or even “I don’t trust you”. The latter is particularly important because in a representative democracy the deal is that politicians are given decision-making powers and have time and resources to exercise them that are largely unavailable to most people. So if trust goes then there is a high risk of non-compliance. The blurring of the lines between law and guidance has probably been a genuine source of confusion.

Meanwhile the very notion of different rules applying in different areas is difficult for people to get their heads round in this highly centralised state. We have been brought up to see disproportionate power for central government as part of the natural order of things – something Liberals have fought against for many decades. Even in the non-English nations of the UK devolution has proceeded very slowly and current schemes for devolution in England look more like an enhanced rate support grant than a serious shift of power to the regions. Thus in our political culture closing the Welsh border for legitimate reasons seems truly shocking. So whatever slogans the Government comes up with (reflecting the Prime Minister’s own confusion between fighting an election and running the country) people will continue to say that they don’t understand.

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Escaping from the authoritarians

People who have come to this country because they cannot put up with the political trends in their homeland are often worth learning from. I have supporters in my ward from Eastern Europe who came to the UK despairing of the post-communist rise of the authoritarian right in their country of birth. Interestingly they want nothing to do with the Labour Party. It is the socialist element they are wary of. As for the present UK Government, I feel for my friends, whose citizenship ceremony I shared in, but who now say “But this is the sort of unacceptable government …

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The ethos of the service

My late father was at the opposite end of the Civil Service hierarchy to Sir Mark Sedwell. He never rose above the humble rank of Clerical Officer. However, one of his claims to fame was being (as a “Paper Keeper”) one of a small team of a dozen or so in 1940s Newcastle, who in the early stages of the implementation of the Beveridge Report started the Central Office of what became the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance – always known on Tyneside simply as “the Ministry”. This went through various mutations (DHSS, etc.).

A phrase which my father explained to me at a tender age was “the ethos of the service”. It affected the way he did his job in the office including, for example, how you dealt fairly with members of the public however difficult they might be, or how much effort was required to ensure that traveller family got their payments despite unpredictable movements. It also occasionally found its way home. If there were amendments to regulations that needed inserting (a laborious scissors and paste job), or if there was a fraud case (literally tied up with red tape!) that needed to be dealt with very urgently, he was liable to stuff the papers into his saddlebag before cycling home for tea. 

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Seizure of power and strong leadership

If I get the 10 pm bus out of town on a Wednesday night (usually after a session with the Campaign for Real Ale), I can look forward to a decent political discussion on the way home if Michael gets on. That’s actually his real name but in political and folk-singing circles he is better known by a pseudonym which I shall not reveal here. Michael is happy to have me as one of his councillors but we have no illusions about our political differences. He is an honest Marxist within the Labour Party and he will say, “You are …

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What would resistance look like?

Dictatorship, populism, authoritarianism are all slippery terms of political shorthand. But then so is democracy. Even Hitler reckoned he was offering an alternative form of democracy because he, “ein Fuhrer,” was serving “ein Volk.” Authoritarian regimes tend to defend their crimes with reference to “the people.” Following the Second World War the communist bloc spawned a plethora of “People’s Republics” in Eastern Europe.

One year after the tanks rolled into Prague as the vanguard of an invasion to crush the Prague Spring of 1968 by Soviet and other Warsaw Pact forces, I visited Prague, Bratislava and Brno with a small group …

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An evening with General Franco

One of the strange, perhaps dubious, pleasures of lockdown is straying into obscure Freeview channels while looking for something different to accompany the next cup of coffee. I suspect PBS America (Freeview 91) comes into that category. This is a site for curate’s egg documentaries, rather like some aspects of Channel 5. Sometimes they are a waste of electricity, sometimes they can be rather good, indeed educational. PBS America has its share of US military history but it does not really compare with the Yesterday channel’s obsession with World War 2. It is pretty good at looking at the wider …

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Liberal and Co-operative

What does a Liberal look like? That is not some test for choosing a leader. The beginnings of an answer are more likely to emerge at a local level.

A reprint provoked the question in the current Liberator of a 1980s piece by Roger Cowe in which he argued: “I believe that the most important challenges to Liberals are firstly to live out their ideals, and secondly to convince others that they are right, and this is long term and somewhat nebulous”. Lifestyle issues can be very sensitive, and you can spend a lifetime learning how to live like a Liberal! However, I believe Roger’s challenge is still valid after all these years.

For the moment, I want to highlight just one element of that. At a time when government ministers are echoing David Cameron with the mantra “We’re all in this together” (which invites the response – oh really?), I suggest that a good subsidiary question is “What does a radically co-operative way of living look like?”

The Co-operative Party has been in alliance with the Labour Party since the Cheltenham Agreement of 1927, and I often wonder if any of our historians can shed light on pre-1927 attitudes towards the Co-operative Party within the Liberal Party. Presumably, the decline in Liberal votes was part of the reason for the Labour-Co-op pact. Come what may, Liberals should not be afraid of articulating co-operative values and indeed living by them.

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Vive les différences

Winston Churchill made a speech in the cabinet before declaring: “Well, gentlemen, I think we can all agree on this course.” Attlee politely but effectively responded, “You know, prime minister, a monologue by you does not necessarily spell agreement.” I have never been a supporter of Attlee’s political creed, but he set a good example of how to do politics in a democracy facing a crisis.

During my last fifteen years in the day job, with a small specialist team, I was responsible for helping local churches strengthen relationships with other faiths, particularly after the 2001 Bradford riots, which I observed at close quarters. Interfaith dialogue is a little too pretentious a label to describe what we did. It was rather more about interfaith conversation and deliberately shared experiences as human beings. Anyone who has gone beyond dipping their toes into this particular pond (which in our city includes the Humanists these days), soon realises that this sort of activity is not primarily about looking for similarities amongst different faiths. It is about gaining a clearer appreciation of the differences. Time and time again, I have heard people say that it has helped them understand their tradition better. In the quest for human solidarity, celebrating diversity is infinitely more satisfying than blurring differences.

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Getting beyond “All politicians are liars”

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The most dangerous of political myths in a still functioning democracy is  “They’re all the same”.  It goes hand in hand with “All politicians are liars”. I believe that we have to be explicit in insisting that in our country a small number of our politicians really do tell lies but most do not. There are plenty whose ideas, values and political aims we can disagree with but that does not mean they are liars. Someone’s interpretation of an issue may appear to be false but that is not about telling lies.

There is of course a grey area between truth and deceit. If people are to be equipped to make democratic choices there is inevitably going to be a place for the simplification of some issues. In a representative democracy people make their choices in the ballot box and the people who get elected carry on the debate in more detail. That’s why we pay them and give them really good research facilities.

There is even a limited case to be made for seeing “spin” as a positive so long as there are competing spins. But that is not lying. Tom Barney in the latest Liberator rightly questions the extent to which our campaigning depends on a PR model. We need to clean up our act but we cannot get away from deliberately shaping messages than can communicate clearly and effectively.

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The Skeleton in the Cupboard

On Referendum Night in 2016 I did a tour of the polling stations in Eccleshill Ward to get a late indication of turnout. I had done virtually nothing in the campaign since I had recently started a sabbatical from active party politics. It was our turn to have the Lord Mayor and the Council Group decided it should be me. However I felt that I could offer the campaign this small contribution because I would not be talking to voters.

What I saw at all the polling stations gave me a shock. I returned to the Lib Dem office and said,“There …

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Coping with the hate

On Friday 25 October the Guardian reported on some research from Cardiff University and Edinburgh University which suggested that most leave voters who took part thought that violence towards MPs “was a price worth paying” for Brexit to be delivered – 71% in England, 70% in Wales, 60% in Scotland. The majority of remain voters also felt that potential violence was worth it if it meant staying in the EU – 58% in England, 56% in Wales, 53% in Scotland. The co-director of the research project at the Cardiff end declared that he was “flabbergasted” by these results.

These “violence worth it’ responders were of course talking about people’s violence, not theirs! But the easy tolerance of such hate crimes needs to be taken seriously. Lay that alongside Jennie Rigg’s account on this site of verbal abuse on social media at a time of severe family stress.

I felt as bad about Jennie’s departure from the Liberal Democrats as I did about Michael Meadowcroft leaving for a sustained period post-merger. I have huge respect for Jennie and it was good to share office premises with her when we had a Member of Parliament in Bradford East.

Lay alongside that my own experience in the summer/autumn of 2017. I was due to defend my council seat in May 2018. Along with other Board members, I had to take some very difficult decisions about the local Mechanics Institute, of which I was Chair, but the rescue operation was portrayed as a determination to close it. There was a scurrilous Facebook campaign which accused me of hypocrisy and betraying the local community. The perpetrators used language clearly intended to undermine and destabilise, alongside some nasty cartoons – replete with haloes and dog collars! One of them declared his intention to stand against me as an Independent.

We took the view that fighting this stuff head on was pointless and the best response was to carry on our usual campaigning to the best of our ability in the circumstances. Our organiser, also one of my ward colleagues, advised me not to read the more vicious posts. He would read them and keep me in the picture. In May, in a ward which voted 66% leave, I was returned with the usual majority of 200+ over Labour. The Independent was hammered in the only place that ultimately mattered – the ballot box.

Politically it worked out OK but I still bear the personal scars. I have never been a good sleeper but that summer my sleep patterns were shot to pieces. Fortunately I have found ways of managing this with strong support from my brilliant GP. She is very familiar with my political lifestyle!

So what do I learn from all this? Jennie asks “what are the solutions?” I have no easy answers. But  a rather less complicated question is “what are the responses?” I suggest three. First of all we need to recognise that we simply need to avoid reading most of the stuff from the keyboard warriors. This is not denial. Often it is having a care for our own sanity.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 13 Comments

Where are the extremists?

Most Liberal Democrats will live their lives in blissful ignorance of a weekly publication called the Methodist Recorder, to which I occasionally contribute book reviews. This week one of its more conservative readers, a retired minister (in Methodist parlance a “supernumerary” like me, which I think means “surplus to requirements”) appeared on the letters page raising some interesting points about extremism. He was concerned about one of the demands at the school pupils’ strike over climate change which he claimed had nothing to do with climate change. This was the demand for the voting age to be lowered to 16. He clearly didn’t see any great value in encouraging an age group, who are going to be at the sharp end of the consequences of  our success or failure at combatting climate change, to put their concern and energies into democratic political processes.

However he then went on to suggest that the Socialist Workers Party banners visible in the demonstration represented political extremists using children for their nefarious purposes. It takes a remarkably eccentric understanding of extremism to persuade me to defend the SWP! Liberal Democrats who have shared in broad-based campaigns with Socialist Worker members on a variety of issues will know that the SWP are very open in saying who they are. They turn up with as many red banners as possible emblazoned with “Socialist Worker” in large letters. In my experience these tend to be occasions for observing that flogging copies of the SWP newspaper appears to be a rather thankless task.

Provoked by my fellow Methodist minister, the serious point I want to make is this. “Extremist” can be as imprecise and slippery as the term “moderate.”  Some people will see the SWP as an extremist socialist party. Some of its members may find their way into other forms of less visible political activity that can give cause for concern. There are other groupings that are far more dangerous than this small political party. The extremists we should worry about are those who conceal their identity and intentions, operating through front organisations, or even infiltrating mainstream political parties. 

Posted in News | 5 Comments

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