Author Archives: Judy Abel

How can the Lib Dems get back to the centre of the pitch?

In January, I wrote a piece about the Liberal Democrats needing to ask themselves some tough questions about their low poll ratings. At the time, I also promised to write a follow up article on some potential solutions. Here it is – for what it’s worth!

There is an open goal in the centre of British politics, but somehow the Liberal Democrats are not really scoring in the polls, despite some positive announcements on education, for example, which received good media coverage. What do we need to do to turn things around on a significant scale? It’s certainly not easy. …

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As we see disarray in so many aspects of public life, do the Lib Dems need to ask themselves some very tough questions?

As I read the news, probably like you, I am astonished at the almost unending stream of bad news in the UK – before we even get to Brexit.

Over just the past few weeks we’ve seen debilitating and potentially life-threatening patient logjams in A&E Departments, not to mention non-urgent surgery being cancelled across the NHS in England during January. Rail transport is becoming dire with constant delays for commuters, despite rail fares in the UK being amongst the highest in the world. And what of crime? Law and order may not always have been a top policy priority for the Lib Dems, but Caroline Pidgeon has done much to highlight knife crime in the capital over the past couple of years; nonetheless there were a staggering 80 fatal stabbings in London last year.

Random, incomprehensible, inequalities also abound across the UK. Why is it in England that students pay tuition fees, when in Scotland no such fees apply? Also, how can it be that students are having to repay their loans at extortionate 6% interest rates? There are also no prescription charges in Scotland and Wales, only in England. How can that be right and fair? Don’t get me wrong, I am neither in favour of tuition fees or prescription charges, but it’s the blatant lack of a level playing field in different parts of the UK which is astonishing.

Other stories continue to paint the picture of a society in a state of degeneration: just one such item caught my eye in the Guardian this week: educational support for England’s 45,000 deaf children is reported to be “in complete disarray” by the National Deaf Children’s Society with a dwindling number of specialist teachers in mainstream schools. Such losses of essential services point to a degradation of our public life and values. The inhumane conditions in some prisons, reflected in high prisoner suicide rates, is another example of decline and disarray in the public sector. On and on it goes.

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In this campaign let’s not focus too hard on Brexit: other things matter to people too

As well as appealing to the 48% of voters who are deeply disenchanted with Brexit, I think there are many other policy areas we need to focus on, if we are to make an electoral breakthrough.

In this week alone, there have been three fatal stabbings in London, innocent people (all men) aged 17, 40 and 60, robbed of their lives because of mindless violence. We have to show that we care about violence and people having the right to live in peaceful streets and neighbourhoods.

Let’s also tackle the inequitable housing situation, whereby overseas buyers are buying up London’s properties at prices that are completely unaffordable for locals – who often aren’t even given a chance to buy them before they are marketed overseas, as apparently happened with the new Heygate development in South East London. Switzerland has placed restrictions on foreign buyers, why can’t we?

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The EU: did we ever really belong?

In just over two weeks pro-EU people have gone from despondency to incredulity as we have seen a succession of Conservative MPs topple each other over Europe, seemingly unconcerned about the damage that has been done to the country by the Leave vote. The Labour Party too are in disarray over this issue and only the Lib Dems are going forward on a pro-EU footing – even though it looks like the country is now heading for the exit door.

But Europe has actually been a divisive issue for political leaders since we first joined the EEC in 1973 and this whole saga, sadly, feels like the final scene in a 40-year soap opera. The political pundits tell us that Europe was the undoing of John Major, and David Cameron has now lost his job because of it. And ever since we joined, successive governments would go to Brussels with the begging bowl, always wanting special treatment for Britain, rather than wanting to get stuck in and build a better Europe.

It seems to me that many of our leaders – and clearly many in the nation at large – never really embraced Europe or, perhaps, even understood it. Many people just wouldn’t know that over many years, a lot of our best social and environmental legislation originated from laws passed in Brussels, and that much infrastructure was built in the poorer regions of the UK with EU money. It has now entered our common folklore that the most searched for term on Google the day after the Referendum was, “What is the EU?”

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It must be possible to be 100% pro-EU, but still question how things are run

 

I’m half Danish and consider myself to be a European. I have never really felt particularly English or British at all and if Denmark is playing England at football it’s a tough call, even though I’ve lived in the UK almost all my life and spent a total of only two years in Denmark.

I have always been pro-EU. I believe in political co-operation and the European ideal – and have often considered other European countries to be more enlightened when it comes to matters such as social justice and environmental protection. Without the EU, I am sure we wouldn’t have had Blue Flag beaches or the equivalent, tighter car emission regulations (although they’ve been flouted badly in recent years) and proper food labelling. Whereas, in my experience, Danish Governments of whatever shade tend to want to ensure the quality of life and wellbeing of their populations, that enlightened approach sadly hasn’t been a particularly strong feature of British life – although it does appear to be something Scotland wants to follow (hence no tuition fees and prescription charges).

Whilst agreeing with the provisions of the Single Market in terms of the free movement of goods, service and people, this doesn’t stop me asking certain questions about the efficacy of the EU and what we might be able to do better. All institutions need to adapt and evolve to changing circumstances and the EU cannot be an exception to that.

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Is regulation becoming the new religion?

 

In whatever field you care to mention – whether it is education, services or business – employers and organisations are checking up on us as never before.

Recently my car broke down in Glastonbury, so I called the AA. Out came the AA repair person, who did a great job, but he then asked me to rate the service he had provided on a tablet, by clicking on a happy face, sad face, or categories in between. Not only that, I got a follow up phone call asking me whether he had done a good job. Why couldn’t the AA just let me call to complain I there had been a problem? This all creates so much pressure on working people.

Last time I went to my GP surgery there was a plastic plinth asking me to rate my experience, with the happy and sad faces again. I tried to type in a message saying “Stop checking up on people, the pressure on staff must be intolerable”, but the message box vanished! On the back of many lorries there is a number to call, inviting us to rate the lorry driver’s performance – and on it goes. And, in my experience, when performance-related pay is introduced in a company the spirit of collegiality can quickly turn into one of competitiveness and dissatisfaction.

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Party membership: is it possible with a ‘coalition’ mindset?  

 

In the autumn, I received reminders about my soon-to-lapse Lib Dem membership. When I joined last year, I partly did so in response to the Christians in Politics ‘Show Up’ campaign which argued that it didn’t matter so much which party you joined, so long as you got involved and  made a difference. It was a really good campaign, but this time around I have been thinking more carefully about what it means to be a member.

Like many people, I suspect, I’ve a ‘coalition’ mindset:  probably around 65% Lib Dem (agreeing with the party on issues such as Europe, health, green issues, housing and the freedom of the individual); 25% Labour  (supporting more state ownership of assets such as the railways, and better employment rights for working people); and 10% Conservative (for example, I supported Michael Gove’s education reforms which put a greater emphasis on formal English and Maths skills: my children’s generation weren’t taught spelling and grammar, which has put them at a significant disadvantage compared to graduates from other European countries).

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Is aiming at Coalition shooting at the wrong goal?

 

I couldn’t go to Conference so listened to Tim Farron’s speech on i-player afterwards. What a great speech: full of idealism, commitment and determination. We’re so lucky to have Tim as leader.

But there was one thing that really worried me.  I had already seen reports in the news that morning that Tim was going to talk about getting back into Government again in 2020 – about how going into Coalition had been the right thing to do. Looking at the decimation of the Party and the loss of so many first-class MPs I am still not so sure about that, but leaving the past aside, is Coalition what the Lib Dems should be aiming for now, and more importantly saying what we are aiming for? I would generally say not.

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The Lib Dems: We need to fight back for the many, not just the few

 

I am really pleased that Tim Farron won the leadership election, because of his energy, commitment and strong sense of social justice – and I am really impressed that Tim went to Calais to see for himself what is going on there – but I do have some concerns about where the Party may be heading. Of course, it is early days, but over the summer the coverage of the Lib Dems in the media has been mostly around ‘fringe’ issues such as Tim’s comments about the SNP and his faith perspective. That may fit in nicely with the media’s ‘Lib Dem agenda’, but we shouldn’t be boxed in as a minority party that has little to say to the wider electorate. Having just read Tim’s policy priorities in Caron Linday’s article posted a few days ago, with the exception of housing, I remain concerned.

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Opinion: Sexual Assault and Fear of Sexual Assault: A Civil Liberties Issue

I recently went to the Lake District for a short break. I was walking alone in a relatively remote area with no one much around and when going through a small campsite a man came out and stared persistently as I went past. The thought went through my mind I wonder if he’s going to follow me. He didn’t, but I sat down some yards on and the thought dawned on me that for virtually my entire life I have had to process the risks of sometimes travelling alone, walking in remote places alone and going home late alone. That’s when I decided to write this article for LDV.

When I was at university there was a serial rapist on the loose in Bristol so we were told to ‘be careful’’ Friends at a better university down the road had to deal with a similar scenario. Every once in a while, and certainly too often, we hear of a woman who has disappeared after leaving a nightclub, a scenario that usually ends in tragedy. Those of us old enough may remember the fate of Rachel Nickell some years ago, innocently jogging on Wimbledon Common in broad daylight. This situation represents a basic infringement of women’s human rights. Women are used to making risk assessments all the time, about where it’s safe to go, particularly late at night, by what mode of transport and in what clothes, but why should we have to?

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Opinion: We shouldn’t position ourselves as the ‘Middle of the Road’ Party

 

I am hesitant to write another article for LDV so soon after my last one on polling, but with the General Election so close now, I am going to put my head above the parapet on the matter of the Party’s seeming decision to steer us right down the middle.

Having looked at the Lib Dem Manifesto in some detail when recently writing some articles for the LDCF, I was surprised to see how many progressive and innovative policies there really are in there. I am worried though, that if we keep saying we ‘Won’t spend as much as Labour or cut as much as the Tories’, we will simply become more and more ‘invisible’. The whole ‘Look Right, Look Left and Cross’ thing also seems to present the same image of the Liberal Democrats as standing for nothing in particular – and certainly nothing to get excited about.

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Opinion: Has the polling got out of hand?

May2015In this run up to the election we have been bombarded with opinion polls on who is going to win the election – or not to win it, as it now seems.  Looking at the May2015.com website, which tracks polling results, in the month to 18th April, 53 polls were published, an average of almost two a day. On 9th April for example five separate polls were published. I don’t know if the same people have been asked several times, but the results seem amazingly consistent!

I, like some others, have some concerns about this plethora of polls. Firstly, if two or three polls are published every day, quite frankly, what is the point? They completely lose their impact and are quickly discounted because new opinion polls – and betting odds! – appear the very next day.

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Opinion: Plain Packaging: Will Tobacco Be the End or Just the Beginning?

While I think I was pleased to see the vote by MPs earlier this month, introducing plain packaging for tobacco products, it did also set off faint alarm bells – with me at least. There is something rather drastic about passing a law that requires legally produced and distributed goods to be wrapped in plain card or paper – even if the move was approved by Parliament based on medical evidence. I almost feel it would have been better to actually ban tobacco products altogether.

To be honest, obesity is not that far behind smoking as a leading cause of early death. We know that obesity is partly fuelled by attractively-packaged foods, high in sugar and fat, freely available on every supermarket shelf in the UK. High-street fast food chains – whose rise has been, seemingly, unstoppable – are another contributor to the problem. Britain now spends over £45 billion each year dealing with the health and social care costs associated with an increasingly overweight population.  

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Opinion: Why don’t we throw out the spending plans and start again?

When parties come up with their public spending plans, one gets a sense of deckchairs being rearranged on the Titanic, with a bit more spending on something one year and then a little bit less the next, parties micromanaging (and re-announcing!) their spending plans, making compromises and trying to spread the ‘jam’ ever more thinly.

Of course no one is really fooled. We all know that the number of district nurses has almost halved in a decade, that libraries have closed all over the country, that adult education services have been cut to the bone and that those on benefits such as Jobseekers Allowance are having to jump through ever more hoops to get their money. There have been serious cuts in social care services for the most vulnerable too. This may sound harsh, but it is the reality of living in Britain today.

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Opinion: Mental health – is prevention a potential solution?

Just as public health experts develop strategies to tackle binge drinking, smoking and obesity, do we need to develop a more comprehensive approach to preventing mental ill health? With youth depression, alone, having doubled in the last 20 years, maybe it’s time to look again at ways to prevent mental health problems from taking their toll at different stages in our lives. It’s complicated, but here are just some thoughts on what might help.

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Opinion: Should we take the ‘Mental’ out of Mental Health?

Thanks to the work of Norman Lamb and other Liberal Democrat MPs, mental health has risen up the political agenda. For many years, NHS spending on mental health has lagged far behind that of other conditions and research into treatments for mental illness has also been disproportionately low.  MIND recently estimated that local authorities in England spend, on average, only 1.36 per cent of their total public health budgets on mental health – even though such problems cost the country an estimated £100 billion a year.

The aspiration of policymakers now is to achieve ‘parity of esteem’ between mental and physical health, the subject of much debate in the health policy world.

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Opinion: The legalisation of drugs – let’s not take the line of least resistance

drugsIt’s 1977…. a hot summer evening in Chicago (no – this is not the start of a Raymond Chandler novel). I’m getting a lift back from an outer suburb to the city which takes around an hour on the freeway. It’s late. The driver is going illegally fast. He’s desperate to get home he tells me – so he can smoke some dope. I am desperate to get back in one piece.  I suppose the only thing that might have made his driving worse is if he had actually already smoked the stuff. But that’s what addiction does – it makes people a bit desperate. And make no mistake, cannabis can be addictive.

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  • User AvatarGordon Lishman 23rd May - 11:34am
    Thanks to contributors. A few thoughts on people's comments, although if LDV will allow me, they may come in several tranches: Phil: You're right, of...
  • User Avatarexpats 23rd May - 11:25am
    David Raw 23rd May '18 - 10:44am...........According to the Guardian, “The EU has leapt ahead of the UK in the pursuit of free trade deals...
  • User AvatarNeil Sandison 23rd May - 11:20am
    Anyone who has been following Grenfell could not fail to notice what happens when communities become dislocated from those who have authority over them or...
  • User AvatarRuth Bright 23rd May - 10:59am
    Lord Greaves - The current position is that there are no rules on maternity leave for candidates. This led in my case to me having...
  • User AvatarRuth Bright 23rd May - 10:51am
    Gordon - thank goodness. A piece which is the perfect antidote to the totally uninspiring "parish magazine" school of FOCUS.
  • User AvatarRuth Bright 23rd May - 10:47am
    Thank you for sharing this Elizabeth.