Author Archives: Katharine Pindar

It’s worse than you think

The other main British parties don’t care enough. Do we?

About the plight of ordinary working families with insufficient income to keep bread on the table. The distress of troubled teenagers unable to find a quick response to mental health problems. The struggle to make ends meet for single mothers with more than two children. The worry of people with disabilities facing proving again their need for Personal Independence Payments. The hopelessness of people losing their homes because of delays in Universal Credit payments. The alienation of young people who can’t see a future beyond gang culture and drugs. And the despair of people in dead-end ill-paid jobs or ill and alone at home who can’t see any prospect of their life ever getting better.

There are all these people struggling in Britain today, yet we have a Conservative government indifferent to them. Indifferent to what people have gone through with the austerity of the last few years, to the rising poverty levels, and to the expectation that the standard of living for ordinary people will worsen if Brexit happens, with or without a deal.

Professor Alston, the UN Rapporteur of extreme poverty, put his finger on it in his Statement, after his 11-day fact-finding tour of Britain last November.

In the Introduction, after describing in devastating detail the situation he had found here, he wrote, “It is the underlying values and the ethos shaping the design and implementation of specific measures that have generated the greatest problems. The government has made no secret of its determination to change the value system to focus more on individual responsibility, to place major limits on government support, and to pursue a single-minded focus on getting people into employment at all costs. Many aspects of this program are legitimate matters for political contestation, but it is the mentality that has informed many of the reforms that has brought the most misery and wrought the most harm to the fabric of British society. British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach.”

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The problem of sustaining Liberalism in Britain today

The joke of Conservatism in Britain today being defined by Boris Johnson is not much funnier than the joke of Socialism being represented by Jeremy Corbyn. Hence the fractures in both main parties, and the gap left for Liberalism in the shape of the Liberal Democrats. Yet when the constitutional crisis is resolved, whether in the way we want or otherwise, can the Liberalism we represent flourish and our party continue to grow? For we will then be up against parties, even if diminished, representing the  great traditions of Socialism and Conservativism, which will most probably be led by men and women of more centrist, moderate views – and this may well happen within a very few months.

Liberalism worldwide is threatened by populism, and it may appear to be the case here also, with the rise of Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, surely a classic case of popular sentiment being roused and directed by one strong and charismatic leader. However, there is no such thing as Brexitism. The Conservatives in choosing their own charismatic (if scarcely strong) leader hope to root out the alien growth, and if they succeed in achieving Brexit may do so. Or else, if we succeed in stopping Brexit through a renewed democratic popular vote, again it should wither. The British people are not attuned to populism, and if the proximate cause of this cancer is removed, they surely will mostly be relieved to have an amicable working relationship restored with our useful European neighbours.

Even so,  Liberalism in Britain and the continued growth of our party could still be threatened. That is partly because elements in British society have developed during this prolonged crisis a readiness to confront and go rapidly to extremes, even to violence, and there is greater public tolerance of these effects, for instance abuse of minorities, than there used to be. In the heightened atmosphere, Liberalism may perhaps not seem to convey a strong enough identity, to offer people security and some comfort and hope in their private lives.

For however much the main parties may fracture now, the ideas of Conservatism and Socialism retain their appeal to large sections of British society. And a Conservative party led by a more moderate figure than Johnson, once Brexit is resolved, will claim Liberalism, especially economic liberalism and freedom, as part of its DNA. Similarly the Labour Party, once Corbyn is replaced, through renewing the commitment to social democracy rather than Socialism will try to lure leftward-leaning social liberals away from our party and into theirs.

It won’t in those circumstances be much use to produce our traditional claim of strongly centralised top-down parties being different from ours and undesirable, because people have got used to the idea of strong central leadership being needed in these days of seemingly unending crisis. Yet there is still a way to show and continue the appeal of  Liberalism as exemplified by Liberal Democrats.

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It’s time for us to prove our progressive credentials

We want to hang on to the Remain voters who flocked to us in the Euro elections. We believe that our party could radically change our conflicted country for the better, while we see that the two main parties at present are, in the expressive vernacular, of as much use as a fart in a bottle.

This husk of a government continues to do harm. As if it were not enough that Chancellor Philip Hammond ignored the poorest in his March Spring Statement despite bumper tax receipts, the continuing impact of the roll-out of Universal Credit, the two-child limit on some welfare payments and the continuing benefits freeze will, according to research by experts, cause a big increase in families unable to make ends meet this year. Cover-up attempts by Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd to alleviate the effects have done little. For example, repaying the advance payments for UC will plunge one in ten low-pay households into deficit. Although UC has made 56% of households better-off by £172 a month, 40% are worse off and will lose an average of £181.

Amber Rudd’s latest wheeze to stem the flow of criticism is denial. She is to complain to the UN about the final UK report of its Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, which was published last month, apparently on the grounds that his personal fact-finding tour was only eleven days long and his conclusions on the Government’s approach to tackling poverty are ‘completely inaccurate’. The 20-page report, which upholds the statement made in November discussed here in LDV is in fact extensively referenced by many authoritative public bodies. 

The report’s summary points out that one-fifth of Britain’s population, 14m.people, live in poverty, and that the policies of austerity introduced since 2010 continue largely unabated. Its final conclusion is that Brexit presents an opportunity to reimagine what the UK stands for, and that recognition of social rights and social inclusion rather than marginalization of the working poor and the unemployed should be the guiding principle of social policy. The report combines recommendations of practical steps to tackle poverty with humane proposals for restoring our social contract.

So, its fourth recommendation demands reversal of the “regressive measures” pointed out by experts and ignored by the Government  (see above) –  continuation of the benefits freeze, the two-child limit, the benefit cap, and the reduction of housing benefit including for under-occupied rental housing. This is already Liberal Democrat policy, and we would also support the recommendation to eliminate the five-week delay in receiving UC benefits.

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Reject! Reject! Reject! We Demand Better

There is a lot of anger about in British politics today. But I believe we Liberal Democrats are not angry enough.

We write a whole pamphlet on Demanding Better, and pass an entire motion on what we want to Demand Better.

But we don’t condemn. We don’t say what we believe is rotten in the practice of government in Britain and the way it has allowed the decline in the state of our nation.

We won’t convince people about what we want until we say what we reject.

So what do we fiercely reject? These are what rouses most anger in me.

  1. The leaders of both main parties allowing the threat of leaving the EU to go on for nearly three years, and still choosing to risk a no-deal Brexit rather than unambiguously giving the people the final say in a People’s Vote.
  2. That so many top elected politicians appear to scheme for their own and their kind’s advancement instead of putting the needs of the country first.
  3. That the Government squanders the country’s resources on preparing for Brexit while ignoring the wish of ordinary people for secure lives without fear for the future, as well as the despair of industrialists facing continued uncertainty.
  4. The attitude of the Conservative Government in letting the weakest in society go to the wall. So ordering everybody regardless of circumstances to take any job they can find and look after themselves, and refusing adequate welfare benefits to those who struggle.
  5. The lack of response by this Government to the evidence of there being four million children now living in poverty here, and of the increasing necessity for poor families to use food banks, a disgrace in this rich country.
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Time to celebrate success – but what next beyond stopping Brexit?

It was a weekend for rejoicing, for most of us. Even if on Friday you were in a nerve-jangling contest which eventually you, unlike luckier colleagues, just missed out on (as happened by just one vote to an unfortunate North Devonian), or even if you were stuck for seven hours as we were in West Cumbria waiting for the single result we had interest in (eventually wearily won) – even so, every hour that passed we all had the glad spectacle on our smart phones of that orange bar rising on the BBC News round-up, and that blue bar sinking in defeat.

There was delight as the numbers of successful Liberal Democrats rose steadily and new councils fell to us. There was wonder at outstanding triumphs – how did they do THAT in Chelmsford or Cotswold? And there was also for me admiration at seeing in the detailed lists how often just one, or at most two, Liberal Democrats had succeeded. We know how many hours of patient hard work those new councillors had to put in to achieve those small, significant glories.

And the work goes on. Our new councillors have so much to do just shoring up the threatened local services, fighting vested interests, standing up for local communities, always seeking to Demand Better for the ordinary people we serve.

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Change for change’s sake wouldn’t be worthwhile

Change UK reports that among 3,700 applicants to be their candidates in the Euro elections are 105 former Lib Dems, along with 895 former Labour activists and dozens of former Tories.

Why would former Lib Dems join Change? Did they leave our party in the rout of the Coalition and haven’t been won back since? Do they think they have a better chance of getting elected now with Change? Or do they simply feel that in the current British political crisis some real change is essential to unstick it?

The trouble with the last argument is that it isn’t the Lib Dems …

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Our party’s not for merging

It has been possible to welcome The Independent Group’s eruption onto the British political stage without thinking of throwing in the towel and leaving the ring to them.

They seem to have helped stir up both the Government and the Shadow ministers to move   from the entrenched positions which had been vainly criticised by so many.  If so they have done some service to the country, even though their voting power in the Commons is as limited as is our own party’s.

Nonetheless, seeing the immediate popularity of this novel group while our own national poll ratings fell below 10% was hard to take. Even though the new group is tiny and not yet a party, some Liberal Democrats then decided that this is not like the other mini centrist parties we have seen briefly rise and as quickly disappear, but a genuine rival to us. The game is up at last, some seem to have sadly concluded, perhaps worn down by the continuing failure of the voters to appreciate us.

 Many other Liberal Democrats look with astonishment at that idea. We are a party of substance, with history and credibility, with 100,000 or so members and maybe 2000 councillors, a party with a credo and policies to match our beliefs, with structures and a programme of well-attended open meetings. What is The Independent Group compared with all that? What could it offer even if it becomes a proper party? Can the founder members even agree on a programme?

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What policy platform can we share with The Independent Group?

The first area of campaigning on a common platform other than fighting Brexit might conceivably be a drive to alleviate child poverty in Britain once and for all.

Our party committed ourselves to that principle in the comprehensive motion Mending the Safety Net, passed at the Brighton Conference of 2016, which prioritised reducing child poverty.

Now Heidi Allen MP, one of the three ex-Tory Independents, who reportedly attacked George Osborne in her Maiden speech in 2015 over his tax cuts to welfare benefits, has lately undertaken an anti-poverty tour of the country with Frank Field MP.

A new urgency is required to tackle child poverty following a report last Wednesday, February 20, from the think-tank the Resolution Foundation, which states that child poverty is projected to rise by a further six percentage points by 2023-24 to a record high. It explains, ‘In our projection, the majority of children who either have a single parent, are in larger families, are in a household where no-one is in work, or live in private or social rented housing  will be in poverty by 2023-24.’ The report’s author, Adam Corlett, demands that the Government reassess the continuation of working-age benefit cuts which contribute to this dire projection, which comes despite the slightly more favourable present economic circumstances of household income.

We may therefore hope that our own Welfare Spokesperson Christine Jardine MP may eagerly pursue along with Heidi Allen an end to the benefit cuts, which are currently expected to last another year from April. However, the priorities of the current twelve Independents beyond stopping Brexit are less clear-cut, so far as they are yet known.

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Alleviating poverty in our country. How should Liberal Democrats aim to help?

Should Universal Credit simply be abolished? That’s not our policy. .Perhaps we should replace it with a new benefit, National Credit, as suggested here recently by Michael BG. But how about abolishing the Department for Work and Pensions?

That is the radical idea just advanced by a man who worked in national mental health policy for more than ten years, and who latterly was seconded to the DWP for 18 months to advise on mental health across a range of policy issues. 

Tom Pollard of the think-tank Demos has written a short paper, Pathways from Poverty: A case for institutional reform, published by Demos this month. He writes that the Government should consider abolishing the department after its failure to help ill and disabled people out of poverty. He maintains that the DWP is “institutionally and culturally incapable of making the reforms needed to deliver better outcomes for society’s most vulnerable.” 

Referencing the post-war Beveridge social contract, he declares that modern governments have failed to deliver a parallel radical agenda. Specifically, he complains that the DWP has a ‘benefit lens’ where case-handlers perceive employment as a condition for receiving benefits, rather than as a means for enabling claimants to pursue fulfilling work. Speaking at a recent Demos discussion with industry experts and senior parliamentarians, he maintained that for many claimants the problems were not a question of their motivation, but of their disability or illness that impeded their securing work.

His conclusions recall points made by the UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston, whose hard-hitting report  was discussed in LDV articles on November19 and 28 and December 2. 

Philip Alston observed a ‘command and control’ approach to Universal Credit which imposed harsh sanctions which the evidence tended to show were counter-productive. He too referred to elements of the Beveridge contract having been overturned, inflicting misery on the poor and the disabled. While discussing practical needs such as the restoration of local authority services, with the viewpoint of a compassionate outsider he also deplored what he saw as a decline in British traditional values of compassion and concern for everyone.

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Competition: Who we Liberal Democrats are, and what we have to offer

Who we Liberal Democrats are, and what we have to offer

The finding of a You Gov survey of 5000 people, reported in the Sunday Times and then here by Caron, that in the event of Jeremy Corbyn’s Official Opposition supporting Mrs May’s proposed deal with the EU there could be a massive switch of support among the voters from Labour to our party, raises the question of our identity, perceived and genuine.

The voters who told You Gov that they would switch to us knew our commitment to staying in the EU and demanding another referendum to try to secure this result. The issue of Brexit has become an overriding concern to British voters, and would-be Remainers who put their faith in Labour at the General Election last June may well be doubting them now.

However, do they see the Liberal Democrats as a single-issue party, only perhaps of short-term value till some way forward is found in this huge national crisis?

As to that, this is not a crisis which can be resolved in the short term. Moreover, while the two major parties openly display unprecedented levels of internal division and consequent inaction, the Liberal Democrats stand out as being the only major British party where the elected representatives and the majority of party members agree in their aims. Ours is a party which has shown consistency and stability of purpose throughout, qualities which appear somewhat rare and surely of continuing value in the current maelstrom of British politics.

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Liberal Democrats should promote a better Advent

Has Britain ever had an Advent with less expectation of a happy arrival?

On December 11, general expectation is that Theresa May’s EU Withdrawal Bill will be defeated. Nobody can tell what will happen next. All that seems certain is that no political grouping will be completely satisfied. There can be no fulfilment of much-touted aims, only grudging compromise.

Besides, for Christians, the joy this year surely should be qualified. To be shopping extravagantly now and feasting lavishly then, for those who can afford it, doesn’t feel right when there are 420 Trussell Trust food banks supplying more than a million people each year, and food parcels will shortly be packed for the children of the poorest families.

It doesn’t feel right to rejoice, when the recent report of the UN rapporteur Phliip Alston has shown the extent of suffering among the 14 million British people living in poverty, with so much of the decline in their fortunes set in train by our Government.

Liberal Democrats have to promote the vital measures we have agreed and put forward to tackle these towering problems, much discussed in recent articles on this site. But what our country is also surely waiting for is the restoration, the second coming, of its rightful values.

Values which have been ignored by the Government, says Philip Alston, in considering the likely impact of Brexit on people in poverty as ‘an afterthought’; and in meantime overturning ‘key elements of the post-war Beveridge social contract’ by inflicting misery on the working poor, on single mothers, on people with disabilities, and on ‘millions of children who are being locked into a cycle of poverty from which most will have great difficulty escaping.’

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“Not even a tin of baked beans!” A visitor shows the need for radical reforms.

Ten per cent – TEN PER CENT – of the population of Cumbria are using food banks!

said a fellow church-goer to me in horror, after a Sunday service in a West Cumbrian village church. We were discussing the local bearing of the damning findings by the UN rapporteur Philip Alston, reporting on the effects of austerity policies on Britain today.

After a twelve-day tour of Britain’s towns and cities, Mr Alston, UN expert on extreme poverty and human rights, spoke in stark term about his findings, in London on Friday.

Clearly shocked by what he had found, according to the Independent’s report …

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Can Lib Dems meet the Labour challenge?

Editor note – this article has been corrected to reflect our opposition to the proposed cut in corporation tax rates…

“Labour is offering a radical plan to rebuild and transform Britain”, Jeremy Corbyn declared at the recent Labour Conference. He said people knew the old way of running things wasn’t working any more, and boldly claimed that Labour had defined “the new common sense”.

Liberal Democrats had already agreed at our Conference, “The current British economy is simply not working for enough people today.” Passing the motion F27 on Jobs and Business, we had resolved “to work towards creating a new economy that really works for everyone.” This followed the declaration in our 2017 Manifesto that “We need a radical programme of investment to boost growth and develop new infrastructure.”

So how do the two programmes compare? The Labour plan described by McDonnell and Corbyn certainly offers radical transformative measures. They demand nationalisation of water, energy, railways and telecommunications. Companies of more than 250 employees are apparently to be obliged to grant 10% of their shares to their workers, to admit worker representatives on their boards and to allow every employee union rights. These and other overtly Socialist plans predictably have been viewed as a threat to capitalism.

We meantime had resolved, in passing motion F27, “Reforming the labour market to give control and choice back to workers, with additional rights for those in the gig economy, and a powerful new Worker Protection Enforcement Authority to protect those in precarious work.” We want a new Companies Act for the 21st Century to oblige large companies fully to reflect the interests of all stakeholders, serve the common good and be accountable for their actions, and for there to be mandatory reporting of pay ratios with “corrective action plans”. On share ownership, we are to seek a big boost to employee ownership by extending the Liberal Democrat ownership trust scheme. 

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Extremist moderates, now is the time for us to lead!

This was a title that just grew at the Brighton Conference. Paddy Ashdown started it by remarking at one of the huge Consultation sessions on Vince’s new ideas,“You’re all extremists! Or you wouldn’t be here!” By the end of Conference, extremism had attached itself to the formerly scorned idea that we activists are moderates, adherents of the Centre ground where the majority of the British public live. So, we are happy to admit a connection to the moderate majority, so long as it is known that we are extremists too!

Of course, we are not THAT sort of extremist – a rabid Brexiteer of the Right, or fanatical Corbynite of the Left. But we are pretty extreme in our demands from the leadership, not least to be consulted before ideas leak out to the voters we want to attract. Vince admitted in the Saturday Consultative session to being himself “a bit of a Stalinist”, but added wryly that this party would quickly have seen off Stalin.

There will surely always be a conflict between an open-minded, Liberal and democratic party and its leader, when the leader chooses to put forward radical new ideas in ways that attract the media’s attention but annoy the party faithful. For Vince to start talking about stepping down seemed a crazy distraction at first, given his security compared with that of either May or Corbyn, but it got some publicity, especially as the date remained vague. Then his proposing the extraordinary idea that his successor might not be a Lib Dem MP, or even possibly an MP at all, naturally aroused the media while infuriating the non-consulted party. That Gina Miller had been booked to address the Conference also titillated the media to speculate on a possible connection.

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A challenge for Labour on the development of jobs and businesses in Britain

What can the Liberal Democrats offer Labour voters who don’t like the way their great party is heading under Jeremy Corbyn? What, particularly, has our party to offer the working people of this country who have seen their standard of living drop under the Government’s austerity programme and can’t expect better if Brexit happens?

As the party that supports neither unbridled capitalism nor full-blooded socialism, we allow markets to operate as freely as possible, but intervene to ensure they are well-regulated and competitive, and to offer individual citizens greater powers and rights. “We want to build a new economy that really …

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Inequality in society harms our mental health – how can we fix it?

“Wealth is not a measure of worth. But low income is related to feelings of inferiority.” Across a range of countries, studies have shown, the experience of poverty leads to people believing they have failed themselves for being poor, and accepting that others feel like that about them.

This is part of the remarkable findings of professors Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, epidemiologists, whom I heard giving a talk on inequality on Wednesday night in a Keswick church.

Speaking alternately and informally, the professors reminded an attentive audience of how common it is for people to feel inadequate in social gatherings. They may feel they aren’t dressed correctly, can’t make small talk, and are scared of being judged. Sometimes people find social contact so difficult that they withdraw from social life. 

“Yet social contact is crucial to health and to happiness”, the speakers said.

They explained that income inequality is linked to anxiety about social status. There has been a study across 28 European nations of social anxiety, looking at it in relation to different income levels in these societies. The study found that there is more anxiety about status in unequal societies, and the more inequality, the greater the anxiety.

It was apparently known ten years ago when the two professors’ important book ‘The Spirit Level’ was published that there was more mental illness in more unequal societies. But studies of social psychologists, they told us, had led them to understand how this may happen. People made to feel they are inferior will sometimes struggle against the feeling, but others will accept it, internalise a feeling of subordination and submission, and become more prone to depression.

Other psychological effects of living in a more unequal society, the speakers continued, include more wrong self-estimation. Apparently in the USA 96% of drivers think that their driving is better than the average! In Sweden it is 66%. The greater the inequality, the greater is the tendency for people to be narcissistic, so that it becomes difficult to tell the differences between self-esteem and narcissism. (And “It’s awful if narcissism gets to a position of power!” they added, to rueful laughter from the audience.)

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Trump’s awful, but we need to put our own house in order

We expect President Trump to turn our long-held values on their head. Whether it’s banning Muslims or building a wall against Mexican migrants, withdrawing from the world’s agreement on limiting climate change, cosying up to Russia’s President Putin and doubting if NATO is still valuable, Trump’s Presidency seems like a bad dream from which we, and America, will only awake when his term ends.

But that will be years hence, Meantime he will visiting Britain next week. Has America changed so much that this presidency is not an aberration but a consistency?

Britain has to stand strong against that fear with Europe, with the EU and with our NATO allies. Our rocky, deplorable government has to be made by the progressive forces to stand up for our national values and our continued security.

So, when we hear that the government is to give ‘careful consideration’ to calls for a renewed judge-led inquiry into our country’s involvement in human rights abuses after the Iraq invasion, Liberal Democrats must assert the necessity for that enquiry until it is granted.

The necessity arises from the two reports published by Parliament’s intelligence and security committee. They show a shameful slippage of our own intelligence services’ values when assisting American operations in Iraq after the 9/11 attacks. It is reported that the UK had planned, agreed or financed 31 rendition operations. In addition, on 15 occasions, British intelligence consented to or witnessed torture, and there  were 232 occasions when the intelligence agencies supplied questions to be put to detainees whom they knew or suspected were being mistreated.

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How Britain staying in can help hold the EU together

 Little by little, the Brexiteers are losing their battle to force our country out of the EU. Although it isn’t yet generally recognised that the vaunted ‘will of the people’ is being exploited by wealthy individuals who have no interest in the economic well-being of ordinary citizens,  moderate pragmatists in both the UK and the EU seem to be strengthening our ties, to mutual benefit – all the more desirable, in a time of trade war.

First, there was the acceptance by Mrs May’s government that things will stay the same, in UK  contributions and rule-keeping and access, throughout a ‘transition period’ up to the end of 2020. Now we hear that the EU Council, representing the individual states, has invited Britain to help determine the EU’s budget up to 2027, in the expectation that we will still be paying large sums to Brussels for years after Brexit.

According to a report in The Times on Tuesday, our government is accepting this invitation, to the fury of both Brexiteers and, interestingly, the EU Commission, which has just presented its seven-year budget proposals for the years 2021- 2028. The Commission is proposing that the gap in finances caused by Britain’s departure should be filled by higher national contributions and spending cuts. The Council apparently prefers to keep Britain’s contributions flowing in. If so, May’s wish for ‘greatest possible access to the single market’ could be granted for several more years, at a suitable price.

Yet this is surely just another sip from a poisoned chalice for Remainers. As with the transition period, acceptance of a further period of ‘belonging’ – like a foster-child bound to leave ‘home’ eventually – obscures the fatal date of the end of March next year when we are pledged to leave. Later rather than sooner, all the ills of severance from our greatest trading partner must happen, unless the British people are given the chance to vote to stay in through a referendum on the deal arranged this year. 

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Time to appeal to youth, and to enrol more students

Liberal Democrat members on campuses, tell your friends. Parents and grandparents, contact your offspring at University. Teachers and lecturers, get active on Facebook and What’s App!

A lot of young people won’t have heard yet. But Sunday’s Observer broke the story – that student organisations representing almost a million young people studying in UK colleges and universities are starting a campaign for a ‘People’s Vote’ before a final Brexit deal can be implemented, and I believe they will be a potent voice.

They want another referendum, on the proposed deal with the EU. From 60 of the country’s universities and colleges, student union leaders have now written to their local MPs asking them to back the idea. They argue that promises of the Brexiters haven’t been fulfilled, and point out that there are now thousands more young people eligible to vote. They plan a big summer campaign.

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Lib Dems can heal divides with useful answers to people’s problems

Between the two big parties, the Liberal Democrats are significant now, uniquely placed to be able to work for the health and healing of our divided and unhappy nation, having proved our capacity in the local government elections.

In these elections, Labour and the Conservatives reached stalemate again, neither being able to see how these results could foretell sufficient success in the next General Election. Their divisions are deep and their failings clearer than ever, the one tainted by the Windrush scandal, the other by voters’ lack of confidence that they could tackle anti-semitism amongst their members.

The divisions in the country are just as lamentable. Whether it is town versus country in the voting, old versus young, Leavers versus Remainers, British people are head to head in pointless confrontation, 

It is our job to show how the country can come together again. For what everybody wants is for our country to be successful. For our people to thrive, our jobs and businesses to flourish, and our country to continue to occupy a proud place in the world.

Nobody wants our economy to grow at a lesser rate than in the leading countries of the G7, for industry and services to face uncertainty and obstruction, for our place in great international co-operative ventures to be at risk, or for our people to see their standard of living in decline. 

Yet Government is stuck, unable to decide on how a customs arrangement to keep trade flowing freely between Britain and the EU can be made without preventing new deals with the rest of the world and threatening the open Irish border. Opposition is equally stuck in wanting the deal that only remaining in the EU can provide while refusing to oppose Brexit. Both fear the Brexiters as well as each other.

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Keep the faith: our party should not consider any merger

There is a lot of talk about a possible new centrist party forming, given the deep divisions in the two main parties and the lowly position of the Liberal Democrats in the opinion polls.

People can’t seem to decide whether we are more pro-Tory, on the basis of our Coalition involvement, or more pro-Labour, on the basis of our commitment to social justice and community. We have some claim to be different from either of them.

But we lack a cutting edge to seize public imagination. Is that because we don’t have any passionate commitment to good causes? What do we care most about? What makes us tick?

In switching back from demanding action on poverty and inequality to a renewed focus on fighting Brexit, I wondered, why does that seem so natural to me? What links my fervour for Europe with my concern about the increasing hardships endured by fellow citizens today?

Perhaps strangely for a social liberal, I think it is pride in my country.

I am proud of Britain being still at the centre for world affairs: a member of the UN Security Council, able to intervene militarily in the Middle East struggles against evil movements, at the same time donating 0.7% of national income to UN development projects. I am also proud that we have had a place in European history that stretches from sharing Roman civilisation to running an Empire to taking a lead in defeating Nazism and Fascism, and that we are still one of the big players in Europe at a time when the Continent needs to stand up to the big powers of the USA, Russia and China.

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How can we be seen as relevant again?

We have to offer people what they need, and I don’t think we are doing that.

The Southport Conference earlier this month, besides passing many useful motions, agreed a Strategy, grandly entitled, ‘Ambitious for our party, ambitious for our country.’ We are good on noble ideas. ‘Create a political and social movement which encourages people to take and use power in their own lives and communities’ – that’s a natural extension of our famous Preamble, ‘We seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community’.

But is anybody heeding us out there, even in the less than half of the population which takes some interest in politics?

Well, let’s be fair. Even in our diminished state, 7% in the national polls, we attract many more voters in Local Government elections. Our councillors are often known as work-horses who eat up local problems. Community Politics is still a big belief for us – ‘we will empower the individual in his or her community’. A current article here by Oliver Craven emphasises the point.

But I’ve come to believe that it is not enough for us to campaign locally to make a big impact. That’s because there’s precious little ‘community’ in our deeply divided country today for us to work with.

This week is what Christians call Holy Week, leading up to Good Friday, but fewer and fewer British people go to church to find a community. In the workplaces, ever fewer people join trade unions as more people take ill-paid non-unionised jobs. So the Conservatives win elections in formerly working-class areas, and Labour penetrates prosperous south-east towns.

Who feels part of a community in Britain today? Not, certainly, working families on the minimum wage who with curtailed benefits can’t afford even the basics and have to resort to Food Banks. Not people forced out of privately-rented homes into emergency accommodation, sometimes ending up living in another city. Not those trying to make ends meet through ill-paid temporary jobs or chancy self-employment.

There’s little sense of community either for sick folk obliged to stay in hospital for want of social care, or stuck caring for family members themselves at home, or for lonely old people sitting on park benches to talk to somebody. There’s no community for the depressed or for the oppressed.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged , , and | 76 Comments

What should we do about Labour?

We need to talk about our relations with the Labour Party. Are they essentially still the centralised, top-down, union-led anti-capitalist party of the past, or are they sufficiently on our wavelength now for us to work with them against the baleful effects of austerity? Should we minimise opposition to them in strong Labour constituencies and regard them as likely future Coalition partners?

Perhaps in this country now equality as an ideal should trump freedom, and in practice the need to fight gross inequality and strive for social justice may demand our party working with Labour for similar ends.

Yet if the price is accepting Socialism, Liberal Democrats can’t go there. As well as having a different economic approach, we have a different outlook. We want an open, outward-looking, tolerant society where individuals count, not one focussed on class divisions and workers versus bosses. So Liberal Democrats welcome the EU as a co-operative enterprise while Labour leaders are suspicious of it as a capitalist club. Labour’s approach to Brexit is closer to the Government’s than to ours, so how could we be allies?

However, look at the demands Labour made of the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, in the lead up to his autumn Budget. They were:

  1. Pause and fix Universal Credit.
  2. Provide new funding to lift the public sector pay cap.
  3. Spend on infrastructure to boost the economy and create good jobs.
  4. Have properly-funded public services including health, education and local government.
  5. Launch a large-scale public housebuilding programme.

What’s not to like in that, considering how much it fits with our own proposals?

But the Labour General Election manifesto last June had been very different from ours. Its radical demands such as ending student tuition fees and nationalising water and energy companies and the rail services had an instant appeal that brought voters flocking in. Acute analysis indeed showed major flaws. Their package would have meant an economic cut in welfare for the poor, saving funds which would be directed to services for the middle classes. While our own manifesto sought reversal of £9 billion-worth of the 2015 and earlier welfare cuts, Labour allocated only £4 billion to this. We were much more oriented towards the poorest, in a well-costed progressive manifesto. Thoughtful voters may have grasped that; unfortunately it is unlikely to have been widely understood. 

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 102 Comments

A Happy New Year For Liberal Democrats?

To begin at the beginning, at least 2017 is over! It wasn’t a great year for us. Our 24-month climb back to prosperity since May 2015, buoyed by thousands of new members and encouraging Council election results, was paused at the June General Election. The two big parties in their nose-to-nose confrontation swept up more than 80% of the vote, leaving us with less than double figures, though now a dozen good MPs.

It seemed our progress was no more. We lost an inspiring leader in Tim Farron, though gained one of great experience and knowledge in Vince Cable. (It felt a bit like living in the old Rose and Crown joke routine. “They’re closing down the Rose and Crown. Boo! And building a new one. Hurrah!” But yet too serious to joke about just then.) Besides, our commitment to a referendum on the negotiated deal was continually queried, even within the party, though it was reaffirmed at the September Conference. According to the national opinion polls, the Leave voters weren’t coming over in droves to Remain, and our share of voting intentions stayed at around 7%.

All in all, we couldn’t rejoice too much that the quasi-presidential campaign of Theresa May and the Tories’ ill-conceived manifesto failed, so that a hung Parliament unexoectedly emerged. It still meant that the country would have to put up with a Tory minority government backed with expensively-purchased DUP votes. It still resulted in the Government backing a potentially ruinous ‘hard’ Brexit, with the apparent acquiescence of the pallid Janus-faced Official Opposition. The EU negotiations moved at a snail’s pace as impossible outcomes were sought. The Brexiters demanded minimal payments, no further jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, and all to be as usual on the Irish Border – and,  Why can’t we have trade talks NOW!? 

Posted in Op-eds | 66 Comments

Make Britain Great Again! First, though, the sacrifices…

Deep in our human consciousness is a memory handed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. It is that to propitiate our gods, whoever they may be, it’s necessary to sacrifice something valuable on their altars. This will persuade the god to look favourably on the giver and be good to him. Gods could shape Fate, so to make a sacrifice, part of an act of worship supervised by priests, was a necessary ritual.

I believe that this folk memory of necessary sacrifice to keep oneself safe has surfaced again in the unconscious of British people today, and affects …

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 84 Comments

Just who are we, really?

Are we Liberals, radical liberals, or Liberal Democrats? It’s interesting that a current piece aired here about radical liberalism doesn’t mention democracy or refer to the second part of our name. Is democracy then less relevant to our party identity?

This set me thinking, and there seem to be three different aspects it may be worth beginning to consider.

  1. Our party’s own understanding of its identity. Are we here to promote liberalism more than democracy? What do we mean by that, if so?
  2. The party’s identity in relation to that of the Conservatives, Labour and the nationalist parties.
  3. The party’s identity as understood by British voters.

On the first, although personally I was a Liberal member long before we became Liberal Democrats, I should be concerned to think that democracy is less important to us. That is partly because liberalism is closely identified with freedom, which idea, extensively considered in past threads here, is susceptible to being hijacked by the Tories.

Consider, for instance, the statement of principle in our Agenda 2020 party consultation paper.

“Liberal Democrats stand for liberty, the freedom of every individual to make their own decisions about how to live their lives. We trust people to pursue their dreams, to make the most of their talents, and to live their lives as they wish, free from a controlling, intrusive state…”

Posted in Op-eds | 34 Comments

Liberal Democrats must be radical now

Liberal Britain must be neither a country of entrenched privilege riding over the less fortunate, nor a nanny state shepherding and corralling its people.

Liberal Democrats stand for liberty, the freedom of every individual to make their own decisions about how best to live their lives. We trust people to pursue their dreams, to make the most of their talents and to live their lives as they wish, free from a controlling, intrusive state and a stifling conformity; a free and open society that glories in diversity.

That statement of our principles contained in the Agenda 2020 party consultation paper makes me doubt the ideas of Universal Basic Services and Universal Basic Income, discussed here lately.

“We stand for equality”, continues the declaration of Agenda 2020. Yet UBS and UBI could be argued as likely to reinforce structural inequality in Britain. The benefits might be intended to keep the mass of the population reasonably content in having enough to live on and being looked after, while the rich and privileged might willingly pay for the right to continue to accrue wealth and power in unchallenged peace.

The policy would then be the equivalent of the bread and circuses of Roman Emperors, so Liberal Democrats should shun it. It is too easy for us in our middle-class, educated way to avoid facing the glaring inequalities of our country by offering palliative measures, as we did in lifting poorer people out of income tax but ignoring the poorest who didn’t pay tax at all.

Posted in Op-eds | 36 Comments

Loss, connection and happiness. Is Liberal Democrat activism good for us?

Happiness, social psychologists like Jonathan Haidt have suggested, may be found more in the single-minded pursuit of good aims than in achieving them. If this is true, Liberal Democrats should be some of the happiest people around – always striving, always hoping, yet too often actually failing to achieve our aims.

Ridiculous, retorts common sense. We fail, and that is depressing and debilitating. Yet there must be something in the theory to keep some of us for fifty years or more committed to the cause of Liberalism – not always activists, deflected by our personal human dramas and careers and families, yet always resuming.

You’re just fanatics to do that, say scornful pragmatists. And it’s true that this commitment depends on your being a certain type of character, raised in certain circumstances such as, maybe, growing up in a politically concerned family.  Perhaps also you have to start young, when you can’t anticipate the long unproductive years to come.

There has to be resilience in your character to keep going, and certain social conditions to help sustain you. Liberal Democrats become used to long disappointment brightened by moments of triumph and joy, but actual loss is hard to bear.

The loss of a political position, whether a council or a parliamentary one, may never be as devastating as the loss of someone you love, or getting a life-threatening illness, or seeing your child come to grief, but it’s still a terrible blow. All that effort to get there, all that hard work in office, all that useful accomplishment, suddenly finished, seemingly wasted. How did our Liberal Democrat champions feel, as one by one they fell, from 2011 to 2015? The pain of having failed their closest associates, family, employees and fellow campaigners would have been combined with deep frustration and probable impotent suppressed anger. How many vowed never to subject themselves again to that? It took a certain cast of character to resolve to carry on, probably resisting the plea of loved ones not to be masochistic. They had the imperative of finding other paying work speedily, as well.

Posted in Op-eds | 38 Comments

Lib Dems must lead the fight against the calamity of Brexit

Whatever motion we debate at Conference next month, we already know that the majority of us oppose Brexit. We all need to persuade the people around us of what a developing calamity it is. We also need to take the lead nationally. No new party is required to campaign on this: the Brexit Exiters are us.

But we need to shout about it, not leave it to retired government ministers and would-be leaders from other parties to grab the limelight.

For the country is in dire need of Brexit being called off.

Poverty worsens. Austerity bites harder as living standards sink. Health services decline with too few doctors and nurses. Councils struggle to keep meeting local needs, Young people lack decent rental accommodation at an affordable price. Working people with zero-hours contracts or temporary jobs can’t pay all the bills, fall into debt and resort to food banks.

Yet we have a disunited government which, so far from tackling these ills, is almost entirely occupied with the enormous, wasteful task of trying to accomplish a Brexit which will make conditions worse. Negotiations with the EU on all fronts are stalled – rights of citizens living abroad, the Irish border, the size of the bill to be paid, and future trade relations.

As for the Labour opposition, with a better will to tackle the ills but no power to do so, it is no less divided on the terms of Brexit yet firmly keeps step with the government on the necessity of it.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 58 Comments

What should Liberal Democrats expect of our leaders?

 

Members are sovereign in the Liberal Democrat party. Members will be consulted on the overall party strategy at the next Federal Conference, prior to a motion being passed. Yet the party leader is expected, both by the membership and by the country, somehow to embody the image of the party. He or she is identified with its perceived success or failure by the media, regardless of how much control they may actually have had.

So what do we members think the first duty of the Liberal Democrat leader should be?

Surely he must show in outlining his political priorities that he is true to the party’s principles and values. This Tim Farron did, when elected in 2015. He said, for example,

We see people as individuals. The Liberal mission is to help us to be the best we can be. Standing up for the individual is not what we do – it’s what we are.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 86 Comments
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