Author Archives: Katharine Pindar

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.

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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. 

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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!? 

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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 …

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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…”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Open a golden gate to grow power

We Liberal Democrats want power. Leader Tim Farron has stated that we want to be in government again, to have power to enact our policies, and we also seek power in local government through our elected councillors.

At present though we seem all too far away from having power. The ’fightback’ after the grim 2015 General Election results seems to have petered out. Yes, numbers of council seats have been won back, and yes, we now have 12 MPs instead of 8. But highly valued MPs have lost, scores of deposits have been forfeited, and we reach only 7% in the polls. We hoped to have massive support from Remainers, now that the country’s economy is faltering and the promises of the Brexiteers being shown up, but in the highlighted clash of May’s Tories and Corbyn’s Labour, pro-EU voters found other priorities.

Then the vote on the amendment to the Queen’s Speech to stay in the EU single market and the customs union gained only 101 ‘ayes’, as the Government and the Labour Party maintained their extraordinary negative alliance. What we Lib Dems actually want is for the British people to realise that Brexit is not only harmful but need not be carried through. But it hasn’t happened yet.

So we are as powerless as before. Or are we? It’s interesting that a Corbyn ally, Ian Lavery, says that the Labour Party is now ‘too broad a church’, and that Momentum voices are suggesting that 50 moderate Labour MPs might like to join us. Previously, Tory commentator and former MP Matthew Parris had similarly said in a Times column that his party may be too broad a church, though he didn’t go so far as to advise a breakaway movement, remarking that ‘Liberal Democrats aren’t serious about government.’

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Tim’s resignation: Wrong reasoning, wrong cause, wrong result

There is a clear irony in this car-crash. Prejudice against Tim’s supposed prejudices appears to have led to his resignation. Since he neither expressed such prejudices, nor, if he had them, allowed them to influence in the slightest his work as Liberal Democrat MP and Leader, what he has experienced is itself prejudice, an attack on his freedom of thought.

It seems a disgrace that he should have been confronted by senior party figures and asked to resign, apparently because of the supposed views which he has not expressed. It was unfair, and the more so since the delegation to him was apparently of unelected peers accountable to nobody, overriding the wishes of members who had elected him.

To the watching world it looks as if he has been forced out on the basis of aspects of his Christian faith. So, whether from an internal or external viewpoint, our party grandees seem to have acted from prejudice, rather than supporting the leader over the media voices which have tormented him with persistent, intrusive but irrelevant questioning.

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‘Fiery Farron’ will fight false Mayism – but so may leading Tories

Lib Dem leader Tim Farron was given a new title by the Mail on Sunday. Under the striking large-caps headline, THE WRATH OF FIERY FARRON, Tim was reported as  fired up to denounce the Tory manifesto declaration that the value of people’s homes will be taken into account in future to help pay for extensive home care. People will only be able to safeguard £100,000 of their total assets, including their home. ‘If you have dementia’, Tim is said to have told the Mail journalist Simon Walters, ‘Theresa May is coming for you. Your house is up for grabs.’ He said it showed the hardness of May and her party. ‘She’s making the Tories nastier than ever.’

This is the Prime Minister who pledged herself when taking office last July to ‘a vision of a country that works not for the privileged few but that works for every one of us.’ Here is a May policy which seems likely to dismay every modest home-owner in England and Wales who contemplates retirement without much other wealth, in fear now that the lottery of life may make them or their partner housebound with long-term illness.

Mayism in practice already seems far from the Prime Minister’s vision. Inflation has reached its highest level in almost four years, with consumer prices at 2.7% now rising faster than earnings at 2.3%. As always, it will be the poorest families who suffer most, with the greater part of their income going on necessities including food and energy. And there is no relief proposed in the Tory manifesto for families on frozen or reduced benefits, already suffering from the government’s austerity programme. Instead, pensioners will lose the present guarantee of a 2.5% annual rise in their pensions, and primary-school children are to be denied their nutritious free school lunches, reversing policies initiated by the Liberal Democrat ministers in the Coalition government.

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The country goes a-Maying now, but is being led a merry dance

England has a long tradition of May Queens, but never before had a May who sometimes acts like a queen. ‘This is the most important election in my lifetime’ she insisted to Andrew Marr on one of his Sunday-morning BBC 1 shows.  ‘It’s about the future of the country and about the national interest’. She made plain her belief that to get the ‘tough’ Brexit negotiations right the country needs her in charge, which will also ensure a strong economy and ‘a country that works for everyone’.

She put over the same message even more explicitly on a visit to Scotland on April 30, stating that ‘every vote for me and my team will strengthen the Union, strengthen the economy, and the UK and Scotland together will flourish’.

Her messages are evidently working, as the local election results seem to show. The tide of approval and trust evidenced by comments of ordinary people who may never have voted Tory before almost suggests a developing cult status for her. When she held that queenly audience outside No.10 to announce that ‘some in Brussels’ want to sabotage Brexit, try to affect the election result and harm the UK, she was not noticeably received with incredulous laughter. Her words were not generally regarded either as paranoid or manipulative, but instead brought solemn head-shaking about our erstwhile friends apparently becoming enemies, in a newly Manichean view of Europe.

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Of eggs hatching, plants springing up, and polls rising for us

 

Easter is a time of new beginnings, wrote my local Vicar in his April newsletter. New beginnings for whom? I wondered. If the followers of a 2000-year-old religion can talk about new beginnings, can there be anything in the idea for the rather younger Liberal Democrats?

This is a time of working and waiting, for us – working for the May elections and waiting for Brexit-related developments. But could this be a pregnant pause, with our party about to burst into new life after the nine-month post Referendum hard grind? I believe so.

What strikes me first about this time is the sound of silence. All the fierce denunciations by Brexiteers of supposed backsliding by Remainers (who actually thought they were lucky to get a word in edgeways) has ceased. The angry headlines in the right-wing press, stirring up ordinary folk to stay agitated about immigrants and Brussels and rulings by foreign courts or even our own – all gone.

The intimidation of Remainers had its effects. Canvassing in Gorton last Saturday, I didn’t quite convince a young man who believes we are right in our demands over Brexit and for a referendum on the final deal, will vote for Jackie Pearcey but feels May is too entrenched with too many backers for our national aims to succeed. He had evidently been silenced by the angry clamour which claimed to represent that elusive ‘will of the people’, who ‘wanted their country back’.

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Now we must stand firm, and proclaim our own powerful vision.

So we come to the crunch. We have voted against triggering Article 50 in both the Commons and the Lords. We are being attacked, as Tim Farron was on Radio 4’s Any Questions last Friday night, for being anti-democratic.

I have read this accusation many times here on Liberal Democrat Voice. I have occasionally heard it on Copeland doorsteps too, during the recent by-election. No amount of pointing out, as Tim did again that night, that the people who voted Leave in the Referendum had not voted to leave the EU Single Market has cut much ice with those voters who simply demand, ‘We voted to leave – get on with it!’  Theresa May’s government will shortly obey them.

Were we wrong in what we insisted on? And if so, are our electoral chances being harmed by that public perception? Maybe the latest Tory wins in local elections, maybe the commanding Tory lead in the opinion polls, maybe the too-few votes for us in the recent by-elections – perhaps they all had some small connection with public disagreement over our known stance. Could that be the case?

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This is our time now: a time for assertiveness and for anger

This country deserves better than to be ruled as it is by an Alice–in-Wonderland government, feebly countered by a Humpty-Dumpty official opposition.

I am angry that, as a result, in my neighbouring Copeland constituency our Liberal Democrat candidate Rebecca Hanson was sidelined by the clash of these tottering Titans. Of course she did well to double our share of the vote and beat the hollow UKIP, but not nearly as well as such an excellent standard-bearer deserved.

Instead the representative of this uncaring, and ultimately incompetent government of ours went to Westminster.

The Liberal Democrat campaign in Copeland was focused. ‘Who is fighting hard Brexit?’ demanded one leaflet, which explained how the Liberal Democrats are the only party fighting to protect jobs, jeopardised by the Conservative plan to leave the Single Market. Rebecca’s support for the further investment in the local nuclear industry was there, with back-up details.

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Campaigning in Copeland

In Copeland we’re energetically getting on with promoting our excellent candidate, Rebecca Hanson in the by-election which takes place on 23 February. Willing helpers are flocking to this huge constituency. There is immense Facebook support, but the pleasures of reaching out to the towns and villages between the fells and the sea are considerable, so we invite many more of you to come to share them with us in the next, crucial, ten days.

Yesterday morning Roger Putnam, Vice-Chair of our Copeland and Workington Executive, and I managed to beat the rain, leafletting in Seascale in the south-west of the constituency under only a slight drizzle. This was our third visit to Seascale, delivering the Health Facilities survey, a second  leaflet, and now the tabloid glossy proclaiming, Rebecca Hanson and the Liberal Democrats. Fighting to protect local jobs from hard Brexit, improve local schools and safeguard our NHS.

A lone Tory was out at the same time, delivering an eight-page A4 breezily entitled Cumbria View, of uncertain purpose. As with the Labour Party here, it feels as if the Conservatives are relying on past loyalties for their votes. Well, we aim to bring the focus firmly into the present. For a start, Rebecca seems to be winning the leaflet contest; the house porches blossomed with orange leaflets, the freepost delivery having just arrived as well.

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Is this the beginning of the end for May’s Government?

 

In this age of the image, when pictures are flashed around the world in an instant, I believe the image of a smiling Theresa May hand-in-hand with President Trump may be the most iconic of her Premiership, and, because of the power of images, will hasten her decline.

This was a catastrophic mistake of image presentation by the Prime Minister. To be pictured smiling in the company of this President who is so widely disliked, condemned and feared in this country, and to be recorded admiring and praising his victory, was bad enough. These were cringe-making, teeth-gritting sacrifices, perhaps, for the necessity of the continued international leadership of Britain and the USA.

But to hold hands with someone in public identifies you with them. It signifies friendship, closeness and shared values. British values do not appear compatible with some of those already declared and now being acted out by President Trump. Within hours of his meeting Theresa May, the President was signing the Executive Order imposing a three-month ban on entry to the USA of refugees and other incomers from seven countries with mainly Muslim population.

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Maybe not! We must not let Theresa get away with it.

We have two by-elections to fight within five weeks, so this is urgent.

It was bad enough that Prime Minister May declared on January 17th her intention for Britain to leave the single market and make a definite break with the EU. But it was also made clear subsequently that, when the negotiations on terms of leaving are completed, the options she intends to put to Parliament will be to either accept them, or reject them and leave without a deal.

The option of rejecting the deal, but also deciding to remain in the EU, will not be offered.

Of course, Parliament could refuse to endorse this, probably involving a vote of no confidence and an early General Election, but that looks unlikely. The Liberal Democrats alone demand that the final decision should be between leaving with the negotiated terms or staying in, and that this should be decided by the people in another referendum. We maintain that what voting out in the first plebiscite on June 23 would mean for the country was not fully explained or foreseen, and when the full consequences for Britain’s future out of the EU have become apparent in two years’ time, the people should have the final right to decide.

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How could Liberal Democrats influence EU Reform?

This question has been raised by various contributors here lately, since the Referendum result revealed the depth of anti-EU feeling in the country. Some have wanted changes so radical that, if carried out, the EU would scarcely be recognisable afterwards. However, I realised that even those promoting more modest reforms had very varied ideas, which did not neatly split Leavers and Remainers either. Broadly, opinions seemed divided as to whether competency or constitutional reform was the main issue to be tackled.

Competency arguments have focused on the EU’s painful attempts to deal with the vast influx of migrants and refugees of the last two or three years. As the Dublin Accord was quietly set aside and eastern EU states in the Schengen area set up physical barriers at their borders, it seemed doubtful that the EU’s basic rule of freedom of movement within its borders could be sustained. While states argued about migrant quotas, contributors looked on with scepticism mingled with dismay, What were the rules now, what sort of people could be free to move? Maybe the EU should allow free movement to workers rather than people in general? All this needs rethinking.

Constitutional reform questions have centred rather on the ‘democratic deficit’ of EU government: basically, that legislative powers appear to belong to the Council of Ministers, executive powers to the non-elected Commission, and not much power at all to the Parliament. Moreover, the whole institution and its courts appear remote to ordinary people, and repulsive as a trans-national body with sovereign powers over us.

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Goodwill towards us is growing, and so it should

 

More than 2000 years ago, so the story goes, angels sang ‘Goodwill towards all mankind.’ It’s a sentiment that Liberal Democrats can generally support. The point I want to suggest, however, is that the British people feel an increasing goodwill towards us, which seems likely to grow and enhance our electoral chances.

The first essential was that we should be seen and heard. Now Sarah Olney’s magnificent victory has given us the media coverage that dispels the 18-month myth of our irrelevance.

The next essential was that the image projected should be an attractive one. For the voters of Richmond Park and Kingston it obviously was, and for us Lib Dems the sight of the beaming faces of victor and Leader together in front of the cameras was a delight.

Image is vital for success in politics, but what did that image amount to for the public? What, for a start, was the new MP saying? “I knew I was a Liberal – I believe in openness, fairness, compassion, working with our neighbours at home and around the world”, Sarah said in her acceptance speech. She spoke of the rise of anger and bitterness in politics, and pledged that “We will stand up for the open, tolerant, united Britain that we believe in.”

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Liberalism is our solid ground, but also our springboard for the future

‘Liberal values are always worth fighting for.’ That statement is self-evident to Liberal Democrats, who believe they know what they mean by the term, and are committed to that fight.

Is it not evident in Tim Farron’s leadership of us towards a Britain ‘open, tolerant and united’? Do we not recognise the liberal values in our Preamble, as it begins, ‘ We seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community …’? Yes, we know what we mean.

But those words, ‘Liberal values are always worth fighting for’, were actually spoken, according to The Times on Monday, by the Tory sage and ex-Cabinet minister, Sir Oliver Letwin. In the report by Rachel Sylvester, under the heading ‘We all made a terrible mistake on immigration’, Sir Oliver is quoted as saying, ‘properly controlled immigration enriches the country in every sense’, and as asking Theresa May to challenge the xenophobic mood.

Good luck there, Sir Oliver. You have a surely impossible struggle to persuade your divided party to unite on that. But, welcome to the Liberal Democrat viewpoint! It is our party which has constantly stressed the values of immigration to Britain.

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