Author Archives: Geoff Reid

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.

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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. 

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Class politics, race and UKIP-phobia

We should always take class seriously, especially in England, if we want to understand the society we live in and the route to a fairer and happier society. That is not the same as taking class as a key driver for the creation of a political party, philosophy or programme.

Meanwhile this doesn’t stop us taking poverty utterly seriously. I was born in the poorest part of Newcastle, spent my working life as a Methodist minister in some of the poorest communities of the North of England, and In May this year I was elected for the third time in one …

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First political memories: Geoff Reid

While the Suez crisis was unfolding some of us ten year olds in a junior school playground discussed our vague awareness of Government incompetence. It was not my first school. I was born in the tough Scotswood Road area of Newcastle. Crucially I was an only child so my parents, living in a two room flat couldn’t get on the council house waiting list. This led to my father joining a ground-breaking self-build housing scheme, which in due course led to us moving across town.

That may well have contributed to my assumption that alternative solutions to problems were part of …

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Peterloo: The Manchester Massacre

On 2nd November Mike Leigh’s “Peterloo” goes on general release following its premiere today in Manchester – a first outside London. Maxine Peake, a Corbyn fan, describes it as an ensemble piece. There are no leads amongst more than 100 actors.

Liberals, especially those in the north familiar with Labour’s authoritarian underbelly, should claim the Manchester Massacre of 1819 as part of our heritage, part of the slow march to universal suffrage. I spoke about it as I wound up a Lib Dem debate on Yorkshire Devolution in Bradford Council Chamber this week I said:

This year 2018 we have marked the centenary of votes for women.

Events from 200 and 100 years ago remind us that the extension of democracy , was achieved through persistent campaigning and a long, long struggle. It did not come through spontaneous generosity on the part of governments. People demanded it and kept on demanding, and some even died for the cause.

On the Lib Dem benches we do not see devolution as simply about moving money around, whether it be through combined authority, city region or, God help us, an elected regional mayor. Power to the people, power to Yorkshire, is about the extension and enhancement of our democracy. We should demand it, we should campaign for it and we see little virtue in a celebrity based substitute for the full monty of regional devolution.

On 16th August 1819 people converged on Manchester’s St Peter’s Field from various parts of Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire. The military commander for “the Northern District,” who should have been in charge of crowd control, decided that he had a pressing engagement at York Races.

People practised marching in step as a way of maintaining discipline but this was reported by Government spies to the Home Secretary as a threat to public order. On the road to Manchester many Methodist favourite hymns were sung as well as campaign songs set to hymn tunes. Many were unfamiliar with public demonstrations and as ever the avoidance of violence was crucial to getting the message across.

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