Category Archives: Op-eds

A vision for us based on fairness: towards a new Social Contract

Liberal Democrats stand for fairness. “We exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society”, as the Preamble to our Constitution begins, and fairness is our continuing thought.

For there is little fairness apparent in our unequal society, with 14 million people in poverty, including close to 40% of our children predicted to be living in poverty by next year, as reported by UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty Philip Alston last May. Where are these people? They are in every nation and region, in cities, towns and rural areas, wherever there are food banks, wherever there are people with …

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Don’t carelessly jettison the European inheritance of the BBC in trying to modernise it (Part 2)

Part 1 can be read here.

The clinching factor for all continental Europeans from 1939 was the role of the BBC World Service during the Second World War; and the fact that the BBC World Service on medium wave could be received on car radios, and on transistors on European beaches and gardens in many of the present EU member states. The stupidest budget cut of the Coalition Government in 2011 was, in my eyes, cutting this medium wave availability, restricting the BBC World Service to local DAB+ stations, and to BBC4 at 4.00 o’clock in the morning.

Don’t underestimate the prestige and love that the impartial, objective reporting of news by the BBC (from disasters like Dunkirk to victories like El Alamein) acquired in occupied Europe, where all peoples suddenly lost freedom of speech and got 1984-like manipulated news. The BBC in 1939-’45 also hosted national exiled broadcasters in their own time slots, like Radio Orange for the Dutch. In so doing the BBC even helped establish an obstreperous French officer (marginalised in his army top brass; a political nobody) with a battlefield commission as a lowest tier general, as a pivotal figure in all French politics from 1944 until his death in 1969. The BBC thus helped form EU postwar history; ITV or Sky can’t possibly claim that.

The BBC programming and drama meantime had a huge influence on the continent; smaller national broadcasters such as those in the Benelux countries readily bought BBC programs and directly rebroadcast them or reworked them. I learned my first English from the BBC “Walter and Conny” language course around 1967. The socialist broadcaster VARA put out the Onedin Line; and the daily NTS/NOS radio and TV news readily quoted and quotes the BBC on British and international events.

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The Lib Dems must abandon their support for HS2 for the sake of our economy and environment

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Today’s report from the National Audit Office contains no surprises. But it is still devastating for High Speed 2. The complexity of the project was underestimated. Costs are ballooning. Value for money is deflating. The political uncertainty surrounding the project, especially the northern sections, will load in more costs. It is “impossible to estimate with certainty” how much HS2 will eventually cost, the auditors conclude. But it will be north of £100bn. That dwarfs into insignificance the cost of a third runway at Heathrow.

The drain on public finances is not the main problem. HS2 is environmentally destructive. Far from being green, it will destroy centuries old biodiverse landscapes. It will take a century for the scheme to pay back the carbon and environmental costs of construction.

HS2 is a London-centric vanity project. The Lib Dem leadership should withdraw support for HS2 and declare it dead in a ditch.

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Observations of an ex pat: Who’s on trial?

It is not just Donald John Trump who is on trial in the US Senate. In the dock before the court of world opinion are 100 senators, the American justice system, the rule of law and democratic institutions in the United States and in every other country which follows its lead in promoting liberal democratic ideals.

Like it or not, America has been historically viewed as the world’s leading exponent of the interlocking values of democracy, judicial transparency and the rule of law. It likes to think of itself—as the Puritans and President Ronald Reagan said—as “the shining city upon the hill.” The light has been dimmed by the current administration, but it is still spluttering away. But if the Republican-controlled Senate block the calling of witnesses in the trial of President Trump it will be pouring a bucket of water over that light.

American law is based on English common law. And one of the basic tenets of English common law is that everyone – regardless of their position in society– is entitled to a free and fair trial. The obvious question is: How can you have a fair trial without witnesses? How can you determine a person’s innocence or guilt until all the evidence has been heard and the witnesses have been interrogated and cross-examined?

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If Winter comes

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When Shelley wrote ‘If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?’ in his celebrated poem ‘Ode To The West Wind’ there are some who speculate that he wasn’t just talking about the seasons. The late Paul Foot attempted to claim Shelley for the left in one of his many books and there is little doubt the poet was a radical voice of his time.

So taking that theme to a political interpretation, it could be argued that those of us who stand opposed to the reactionary forces of Conservatism have been through some pretty heavy weather recently.

The important question now is what does Spring look like for us?

Well, as a liberal party we have been written off many times over the years but we have survived despite the prophets of doom and I would argue that we are in a pretty good shape right now in a time when we are needed more than ever. The recent General Election, although disappointing, did see our national vote go up and with it our number of potential target seats next time. I am positive about the local elections due in May this year and am confident our Lib Dem candidates will do well.

Looking forward we have to present to the wider electorate a policy programme and image that makes us relevant to their concerns.

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The Infinite Game: Finding a just cause for the Liberal Democrats

Sustained success is attained not through obsessing with winning in the short term, but focusing on a higher purpose. That is the idea put forward by Simon Sinek in his recent book The Infinite Game, which looks at how institutions from tech companies like Apple to the founding of the United States itself were built on a just cause, a future vision for which we are willing to make sacrifices.

This is the critical challenge I believe the Liberal Democrats need to engage with now as we search for our way forward in the new political landscape. It may be useful to understand why we didn’t win another six seats or the impact of certain policy or strategy decisions. We can debate our concerns about a drift right or left, economic competence, the merits of a rejoin versus EFTA campaign, or who the next leader should be. Ultimately, though, this lacks a longer term perspective; we need to play the infinite game.

How do we stay in the game? What is our just cause?

Here are three headline thoughts I would like to put on the table that I believe we need to address.

One. We should start by workshopping out our vision for a fair, free and open society and the values model that will underpin it.

It requires us to go beyond the tactics of winning elections and Brexit to look into our liberal, social democrat and progressive souls to shape what that better country and world looks like, the change we want to see – to define our just cause.

Two. We should now devote as much energy to changing the electoral system as we have to stopping Brexit.

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Don’t carelessly jettison the European inheritance of the BBC in trying to modernise it (Part 1)

I’ve just been watching the BBC Newsnight broadcast of Monday 20 January 2020, which was mainly filled with debate about what the future of the BBC could or should be in this Netflix, social media platform world we live and work in today.

I’m deeply concerned that Britain, while thinking of how to adjust to the 21st century mass- and social media landscape (and post-Brexit geopolitics), risks ignoring the inheritance of prestige, respect and exemplary performance the BBC has grown to acquire with all inhabitants of the EU.

Now that Brexit is upon us, Britain risks losing the mobilising force in the EU of its BBC broadcasts and programmes. This is just at a time that the whole gamut of its institutional ties in the EU framework (with Euratom, Erasmus, Eurojust, EMA, EU Social Fund, etc, plus the Brussels diplomatic channels and Comitology) have been cut in one great, very foolhardy swoop, only partially and years later to be replaced with special bilateral arrangements between EU and UK.

These EU branches never were important issues in the Brexit debate in 2015-’19; the only time Downing Street discussed Euratom was around the moment of triggering Article 50, when they suddenly realised that mechanism would be jettisoned too. Erasmus and EMA are mentioned in passing.  See Tim Shipman, “Fall out: A Year of Political Mayhem”, Harper Collins, London, 2018, p24, 39, 116-7; look for the other terms in the indexes of this book and his “All Out War” on the Referendum: none!

Let me fill in some personal and Dutch facts so you can see where I am coming from in this debate.

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It’s time to stop apologising for the Coalition – and use it instead

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We need a leader without the stench of coalition baggage

 
This is a phrase I hear a lot in the party. I see it under every Facebook post about the next leadership election. But by trying to scrub ourselves of the Coalition are we missing a powerful argument, one that rings especially true in those 80 conservative-facing second places?

When we were almost wiped out in 2015, most voters that switched from us to the Tories did so because they liked the coalition years – a period of relative stability following a deep financial crisis – and they credited the Tories with delivering this.

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Greenpeace climate change petition – shouldn’t we be doing this sort of thing rather than still having “STOP BREXIT” on our home page?

The home page of the Liberal Democrat website, 10:55 22nd January 2020

This week, Greenpeace UK have collected almost 600,000 signatures for their petition to the government to act now on Climate Change.

The text of the petition gives a succinct list of initiatives which the government should be embarking on now to minimise the climate emergency:

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Watford Liberal Democrat newsletter celebrates golden jubilee edition

This month sees the 50th anniversary of the first publication of Oxhey Opinion, the regular Liberal Democrat newsletter published in the ward I represent on Watford Borough Council.

In January 1970, Tony Poole the Liberal candidate for Oxhey, wrote the first edition and printed it himself on a Roneo machine, in two colour orange and black. This was an era when Liberals were increasingly developing ‘community politics’ techniques, including what we now call Focus-style newsletters.

Yet Tony’s reasons for launching the newsletter arose from local circumstances. Oxhey has its own distinct identity and he felt that a newsletter that went beyond simply issuing election addresses once a year would go down well in the local community.

The strategy was vindicated when the following year when the Liberals won the ward, in the process gaining their first ever seat on Watford Borough Council. By 1973 the Liberals held all three seats in Oxhey and six out of 36 on Watford Counci. The future looked bright. Unfortunately, the national party’s difficulties in the mid to late 1970s had their effect in Watford and by 1976 there were no more Liberals on the council.

It not until the 1990s that the Liberal Democrats were able to regain all the seats in Oxhey, but in the intervening time Oxhey Opinion continued to be published (sometimes intermittently), meaning that there was a strong legacy to build on when I became the candidate and by extension editor in 1990.

We have now won every local election in the ward since 1991. Both of Watford’s Liberal Democrat elected mayors, Dorothy Thornhill and Peter Taylor were first elected as Oxhey councillors. And although Tony Poole was not among the Liberal councillors in the 1970s, he served as ward councillor for 14 years from 1998 and was an excellent chairman of the council.

Looking back at the very first edition, one realises how many issues are with us always: the featured issues of local development, streetlighting, traffic management and amenities in Oxhey Park are just the sort of thing we have covered in recent editions.

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The next general election will be a Conservative-facing one: some stats

Following the 2019 general election, we are now second in 91 seats, of which 80 are held by the Conservatives and just 9 by Labour (the other 2 are held by the SNP). Of the 10 seats where we are closest (less than 3000 votes behind), 8 are currently held by The Conservatives.

You can model some interesting seat projections based on various swing scenarios. As shown by Electoral Calculus:

In other words, when we take votes off Labour then The Conservatives win, Labour lose and we barely move. When we take votes off The Conservatives then they lose, we win and Labour also win.

From Labour’s point of view, the story is similar:

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An election review from the front line

I downed tools and stopped almost all my usual work as a videographer for five weeks this winter. Here are some of my observations from the frontline…

I’ll say this first so that anyone with a short attention span understands the root cause of all our problems. It really is very simple and everything else I mention after this one cataclysmic issue, is a significant order of magnitude less important.

The reason this country is utterly broken is First Past the Post.

Sadly you can’t change it until you take power and you will only take power if the system works for you, in which case you are unlikely to change it when you get into power!

That’s the ‘exciting’ bit out of the way, the two other bits that I want to focus on here are Messaging and All Women Short Lists.

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Did we spend 2019 expecting a 1980s-style realignment of politics?

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At conference you have all sorts of conversation and all sorts of unusual things happen. I could tell a tale or two but I am reserving them for my (never to be written) memoirs.

In September 2018, excitement in the party was high. One almost needed a brown paper bag handy to breathe into, should things get overly hyperventilatory.

The gist of the excitement was:

We have to be more relevant! There are rich people going round with large truck loads of cash, looking for somewhere to dump it.

We’ve got to be in on the conversations to set up a new centre party, otherwise we will be sidelined and irrelevant.

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Could a Tickbox campaign drive Right and Left back together?

What is tickbox? When I published a book with that title it was strange how obscure this was for some people – and how others knew immediately what I was talking about.

Here, for the sake of argument, are some dfefinitions:

tickbox (noun) The phenomenon where organisations are able to dodge the letter of what is demanded from them by a simple tick (as in A tickbox exercise).

To tickbox (verb) Ticking a box rather than taking personal or human responsibility.

Tickbox (noun) A system for taking automated decisions of the kind that used to be taken by bureaucrats, managers, officials or

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Javid is cutting the UK’s nose off to spite our faces

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Last week, the Chancellor Sajid Javid sat down in the Pickles sandwich bar, Westminster, for an interview with the Financial Times. You can read the interview in full here, but you may have to subscribe or join the FT’s trial membership scheme.

In it, he talked tough about the UK post-Brexit trading scenario. Hopefully, this is pre-negotiation chatter, but what he said was alarming nonetheless:

There will not be alignment, we will not be a ruletaker, we will not be in the single market and we will not be in the customs union — and we will do this by the end of the year.

He said there would be no Treasury support for the big manufacturing sectors to adjust to the new trade rules. Rather peevishly he added that they had had since 2016 to prepare for the new scenario. Of course, they have not known what the Sam Hill they were needing to prepare for during those three years.

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Labour, Starmer and Stalinism

The Labour Party leadership election is underway, with Keir Starmer the current front runner. This particular election is the first where candidates require not just nominations from their fellow MPs but also constituency parties, trade union and other affiliated bodies. The nomination process has already demonstrated that Stalinist political practice is alive and well in the ‘people’s party’ with the UK’s largest union, Unison, backing Starmer without any consultation with its membership. Transport union TSSA have proudly announced that they will give their members a say but only offer a choice between two candidates, Sir Keir and Rebecca Long Bailey. …

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It’s Johnson’s responsibility – hold him to account!

Today, for the first time since this debacle began all the way back in 2016 we find ourselves with an odd sense of certainty.

For better or (definitely) for worse, at the end of January the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be leaving the European Union under a majority Conservative and unionist Government, headed by Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (yes this is his actual full name to those who aren’t aware).

This may not be the certainty we ever wanted but there is an odd sense of relief in it; sort of like that feeling when you …

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LibDems failed to shift enough Tory remainers – Electoral Calculus on 2017->2019 voter migration

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Martin Baxter’s Electoral Calculus website has an excellent Infographic on Voter migration 2017 – 2019. Using human figures (voters) to represent one percentage point of the voters, he not only shows where 2017 voters and non-voters went in 2019, he also graphically shows 2016 EU referendum preferences.

His conclusion on the LibDems is interesting:

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Kicked into the long grass – the Lib Dem leadership election

Long Grass In Rainy Days
18.6 Should the post of Leader become vacant before the election of a new Leader, the Acting Leader of the Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons and the President of the Party shall jointly assume the responsibilities of Leader of the Party until the new Leader is elected.
Federal Liberal Democrat Constitution

This afternoon, the party announced the timetable for the election of a new leader of the party. This was agreed at the first meeting of the Federal Board chaired by our new President and current co-leader of the party, Mark Pack.

Nominations will open on May 11th, which is the Monday after the elections on May 7th. Nominations will close on May 28th with ballots opening on June 18th and closing on July 15th, after which the new leader will be announced.

I’m not privy to the Federal Board discussions but it does not take a mind-reader to, at least, pick out some of the themes behind this decision.

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Should we be prouder and more vocal about our membership of the Council of Europe?


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Should we celebrate Europe Day every May 5th?

An LDV reader, John Probert (who has the rare distinction of being a remaining former councillor on Middlesex County Council) has made a suggestion along these lines.

After January 31st we will still be members of the Council of Europe, who celebrate Europe Day on May 5th (EU members celebrate it on May 9th).

Such a celebration would publicise the fact that we remain members of the Council of Europe, which was first suggested under such a name by Churchill in a wartime broadcast on 21st March 1943.

Its Statute says:

The aim of the Council of Europe is to achieve a greater unity between its members for the purpose of safeguarding and realising the ideals and principles which are their common heritage and facilitating their economic and social progress.

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We let the remainers down – now we need to focus on a Green New Deal


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The Liberal Democrats let the EU Remainers down, right from the 2016 Referendum.

On Nick Clegg’s recommendation the architect of our disastrous 2015 election campaign was appointed as chief of strategy for the remain campaign. The result was entirely predictable.

The party then spent four years in the wilderness. A steady, but uninspiring, leadership from Vince and hard work from our local government activists saw the party slowly improve its position.

In the 2019 Euro Elections the Remainers put their faith in the Lib Dems, only to be let down again at the General Election. This time a combination of a terrible campaign, inexperienced and badly advised leadership, fear of Corbyn and First Past the Post ensured that faith in the Lib Dems was once again misplaced. Not all our fault, but with a good campaign and steady leadership we should have made 50 seats, and the picture today would have been different.

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We need to shift from a class identity debate to a consensus around our core values


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With the dust still settling from the December 2019 General Election, it is necessarily a time for the Liberal Democrats to regroup, refocus and plan for the coming years.

One question which I hear being asked is how the Party can appeal to working-class voters, as part of a strategy to make it more inclusive, representative and, of course, electable. However I believe we need to first take a step back and ask whether the underlying assumption here is valid in 21st Century Britain and, moreover, is it liberal?

With our political rivals in opposition currently locked in heated internal argument as to which of their potential leaders is authentically working-class, it is worth exploring just what that means. Is one born working-class, or indeed middle-class, or does one somehow acquire the designation and accompanying self-identity during one’s lifetime?

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Is being bullied by Donald Trump the future for British foreign policy?

The news, as broken by the Washington Post, that the Trump Administration threatened to levy a 25% tariff on British car exports to the US unless Britain warned Iran of violations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a deal in which Iran would accept strict rules and oversight of its nuclear activity in exchange for being allowed back into the international community, should concern us all.

Of course, it wasn’t just Britain – the French and Germans were threatened too.

But the difference between us and them is that the French and Germans are part of a bigger group, and …

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Observations of an Expat – Capitalism—New Lease of Life?

The resounding defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has revived the cries for “Responsible Capitalism.”

Corbyn is a not so thinly-disguised old style socialist. He and his supporters believe that the only route to a fair society is through socialism based on public ownership. The problem is that historical experience says otherwise. There have been successful mixed economies, but every attempt at full-blown socialism has ended in political, economic and social disaster.

In every instance they have hit the brick wall of human nature and its hand maiden the survival instinct. Humans are greedy. That greed has dragged us out of damp caves into centrally-heated bungalows. Conversely, the same greed has ignited wars, destroyed the environment and created social inequalities.

The bastion of world capitalism—the United States—is a shining example of these inherent contradictions. Its national entrepreneurial success has created the wealthiest country in the world. But that wealth is not equitably shared. Two-thirds of America’s wealth is owned by five percent of the population. Forty percent of Americans earn less than $15 an hour; five percent earn the minimum wage or less and 28 million Americans do not have medical insurance.

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Paddy & President Jed Bartlet can’t both be wrong – Education should be our flagship

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Pretty much everyone has a view on why we had a bad election and, more importantly, what we should do next. I’m a member of Barnsley local party and here are my two cents…

Johnson’s Tories look like they have weathered the storm and are in for a few stable years as a version of Trumps Republicans, appealing to the English rustbelt and the odd white supremacist.

They may be untouchable for a while.

We have just experienced our third bad (so very bad) election in a row.

However Labour, by its standards, has had a shocker. They have not won an election now in 14 years.

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We need to seriously address the issues of work

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Back in 1980 I entered the world of full-time employment as a sixteen year-old school leaver. Relatively secure jobs, with pensions and other benefits (in my case luncheon vouchers), were the norm. Thirteen million people were in trade unions.

But the Thatcher revolution was just beginning. It involved targeting those unions which the self-styled Iron Lady said had become too powerful. As a clerical assistant in the Civil Service, I ended up being involved in one of the initial battles when the government refused to implement the recommendations of an independent pay review body. We went on strike and lost. Others followed, notably the printers and miners, who also lost.

The industrial landscape was being redrawn and times they were changing. After my stint in the Civil Service, I spent 25 years in Royal Mail, where I lived through a heavily unionised workforce grudgingly accepting erosion of pay and hard-won working conditions. For those in non-union workplaces it was usually worse, particularly where jobs were privatised.

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Antony Hook MEP writes… Co-operation to win in 2024? It comes down to four questions


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The 2019 General Election was the sixth since I joined the party as a student in 1998 and its result was by far the most frustrating. The consequences of the 2019 election will be more considerable and long-lasting for our country than any I saw before.

How this happened, and what needs to change to do better next time, will be subject of a General Election Review, which I expect will be rigorous and take an objective, honest view based on evidence.

If I quote a football manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, do not think I am trivialising. Sir Alex understands more about successful leadership (including managing resources and dealing with the press and a support base) than many people in politics. One of his maxims was “defeat does not matter, what matters is how you come back from defeat.”

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Confessions of an amateur activist


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I confess. I came late to the Party, almost three years late after post 2016 referendum ruminations on what life might be like on this small island, stranded at sea from our nearest European neighbours, reliant on our back gardens and allotments for a staple diet of root vegetables and tuber crops. We were taking back control of our borders, our people, our values, hell, even our bangers. As our nostalgia for the post-war period grew, so did our ability to stomach xenophobia in all its ugly guises, holding our metaphorical noses at the whiff of French saucisson or its bigger, brasher Bratwurst cousin.

Well, bollocks to that. Like nearly half of the electorate who voted Remain, we too felt stranded. We had a fight on our hands to stop Brexit and stand up for progressive pro-European liberalism. I joined the Liberal Democrats in early 2019 and took part in a couple of marches, the first time I had taken to the streets since my student days in the late 80s protesting against Maggie and the Poll Tax.

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Are we fiddling while Australia burns?


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The good news for Australia is that temperatures have fallen and rain is forecast.

I was born and brought up in Australia, so can imagine all too vividly what it is like to live through the horror of out of control bushfires. I’ve seen one from a distance, and even though I was safe it was frightening. Having to flee to the nearest beach in order to save yourself from burning to death is terrible to contemplate.

Although bushfires have always been part of the Australian experience, the number and intensity of the fires has increased. In the 1950s and 60s we had bush fires, but no ‘bush fire season’, as there is now.

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Our MP voted against helping child refugees – and I’m angry

Our MP’s work on behalf of their constituents – or at least they are supposed to. That’s supposed to be an important principle of our democracy. But in recent days Cheltenham’s MP, Alex Chalk has voted and supported the government in NOT providing help to unaccompanied refugee children. I’m saddened, disappointed and upset, let me explain why.

Cheltenham has bucket-loads of kindness, empathy and compassion. This I’m sure is replicated across the country, and throughout our history this has been highlighted time and again in how we all have responded to natural disasters or humanitarian crisis.

Whenever and wherever …

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Recent Comments

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    Of course this is right, but no society wants disease, want and squalor. They don't want it in the drug and crime ridden slums and...
  • User Avatarclive englisjh 27th Jan - 12:42pm
    Here in Maidstone we have had a number of Neighbourhood Plans reach this stage, the very first was not by a Parish Council, but by...
  • User AvatarJohn Barrett 27th Jan - 12:35pm
    A much smaller example of costs rising and the project being reduced in size was when Edinburgh decided to build a tram network at a...
  • User AvatarKatharine Pindar 27th Jan - 12:27pm
    Thanks, Jenny and John, but just a bit more on the Social Contract idea first. Philip Alston, the UN Rapporteur, wrote in his initial Statement...
  • User AvatarJohn Barrett 27th Jan - 12:18pm
    The time for a change in the law has arrived. I appreciate that there will be different requirements for different circumstances, but this should not...
  • User AvatarPeter Martin 27th Jan - 11:42am
    @ John Probert, Expensive housing isn't a phenomenon that's been imposed on us by forces beyond our control. As wages and salaries have risen it's...