Category Archives: Op-eds

Are tactical voting arrangements the key to Constitutional Reform?

Polls suggest that the coming general election will return a majority Labour government. While support for Constitutional Reform among the party rank-and-file has burgeoned (83% vote in favour at the 2022 Labour conference), and the major trades unions have come on board, the leadership is resolutely non-committal. Tony Blair’s New Labour took heed and included Constitutional Reform in its 1997 manifesto – only to ‘forget’ about it once the election result turned out to be a landslide. Thirty years on, and still the Labour leadership remains silent.

2024 presents arguably the best opportunity to introduce Constitutional Reform in decades. If only there were a way to contrive that the next parliament was hung, then the other progressive parties would have leverage – through Confidence and Supply arrangements – to require the minority administration to agree to introduce Constitutional Reform in the next parliament.

I suggest that a Tactical Voting arrangement could achieve just that result if only activists could swallow their pride and collaborate for the greater good. Many would undoubtedly find it difficult – even painful – to do what is necessary; but with such a prize to be won, would it really be so much of a sacrifice?

My proposal is to first develop a Campaign for Constitutional Reform; focusing on the PR‑Full element of Constitutional Reform (i.e. a fully-proportional representation process). All other issues relating to Constitutional Reform could then be developed in turn, once that electoral stranglehold was broken.

However, neither Conservative nor Labour would be willing to join a Tactical Voting arrangement which they did not dominate, and none of the smaller parties would be willing to join a Tactical Voting arrangement dominated by Conservative or Labour. Thus, in order to force a hung Commons, all parties other than Conservative or Labour must decline to stand in selected seats, and must encourage their voters to vote tactically.

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Paul Kohler and restorative justice

I switched on my car radio earlier this week and was surprised to hear a familiar voice.  It was Paul Kohler, the Lib Dem PPC in our top target constituency of Wimbledon. In fact I had been in a meeting with him the evening before when he was talking about his campaigning strategies.

But Paul was not engaging in a political debate on this occasion. Instead he was discussing a horrific incident that had involved him and his family some years ago. The series title is “Forgiveness: Stories from the Front Line” and each programme features someone who has had to, as the programme notes state, “struggle with forgiveness in order to be free”.

One day Paul answered his front door and was pushed over by four masked men asking him where the money was. Apparently they had gone to the wrong house, but they attacked and beat him badly, and also threatened his wife. Unknown to them Paul’s daughter and her boyfriend were in the house and they managed to call the police, who came quite promptly and probably saved Paul’s life. Two of the intruders were arrested immediately and the others were tracked down later. All four were given prison sentences.

The crux of the story was not this awful experience but what followed. The family were invited to take part in a restorative justice meeting with one of the assailants. It is this encounter that Paul describes in a way that I found powerful and moving. You really do need to listen to it to understand why. The meeting ended with the two men shaking hands, and Paul realising that he could forgive him.

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A Nation of Bystanders?

Bystander Society’ describes how or why vast numbers of otherwise decent citizens became implicit in the Nazi regime and the descent into World War II.  Historian Mary Fulbrook’s analysis of events in the 1930s extends to observations of the long aftermath (and after-myths) – a gradual and reluctant process of facing reality.  

Mary has produced a good book – a work that is surely relevant to a far wider audience than academics and historians.  Readers will demand that we heed the warnings and invest in the health of our democracy and its key institutions.

When data journalists present graphs that show decades of small incremental decay followed by rapid deterioration (whether concerning Climate or the NHS or the Poverty Pandemic) it is tempting to quote Orwell on institutional collapse – but the mere observation of tipping points does not clarify root causes.  The only immediate benefit lies in the shock value – exposure of our collective complacency.  As a Canadian poet wrote (hopefully) in the aftermath of WWII, ‘We rise to play a greater part’.

The Horizon, Grenfell, and sewage scandals (and countless other ‘canaries in the mine’) remind us that you can outsource systems, but you cannot outsource responsibility.  The enthusiasm for ‘small government’ and privatisation over the past five decades has weakened trust in institutions.

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Is regional devolution the way forward?

Many states around the world, such as the USA and Germany, are federations made up of relatively individual regions that enjoy varying degrees of autonomy. Here in the UK, we have devolution. Powers given to elected representatives (separate from those in the House of Commons) in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and a handful of “combined unitary authorities” in England. Each have had different successes and failures and each have their own problems and strengths. So how do we learn from these to make them, and new ones, better in the future and what form should that take?

I, for one, would advocate for the idea of more regionalisation via regional devolution. We have seen in countries like Portugal, Italy and already the UK that this can work but I would like to see it work everywhere. Manchester and the West Midlands are great examples of how giving political power to the areas closest to the action result in benefits such as better local economy, as seen in the West Midlands with the region having an economy similar to some European countries such as Slovakia, and greater political satisfaction, shown by Andy Burnham’s (relative) popularity.

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Welcome to my day: 5 February 2024

February already, eh? And, with a May General Election seemingly less likely – would you really go to the country twenty points behind in the polls? – and the Government apparently focussed on nothing more than sabotaging an incoming Labour administration, it’s going to be a long Spring and Summer of misdirection and guesswork. For example, the Lords February recess, which is usually just over a week, has been shortened to a long weekend. Does that suggest an attempt to clear the legislative “decks” in anticipation of a May election, or does it simply reflect the fact that Peers are doing their job of scrutiny in a way that the Conservatives hadn’t calculated? At least my timeline is full of campaigning Liberal Democrats, which is always reassuring.

Rwanda, and Labour’s quest not to be controversial

A Bill which breaks international law, is opposed by the legal profession, human rights activists and which wasn’t in the 2019 Conservative manifesto? If ever there was a justification to vote a Bill down at Second Reading, this was it, yet Labour Whips in the Lords instructed their benches to stay away. And, whilst eight Labour peers did break ranks to support the Liberal Democrat motion to vote down the Bill, it was left to sixty-seven Liberal Democrat peers to provide the overwhelming bulk of the opposition. And yes, it will doubtless be claimed by Labour that they will seek to amend the Bill at later stages but how do you amend a Bill whose fundamental premise is illegal under international law?

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Four ways you can help Liberal Democrat Voice

The Voice is only a success because of the interest and support from our readers. For many people just lurking and reading the site is all they want to do – and that’s fine, we’re grateful for people taking the time to read the site.

You can though help us continue to produce interesting content for a growing audience. Here are four simple ways:

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Wednesday Debate: What do you think of Governments’ plans to ban a generation from buying cigarettes?

It’s Summer 2049. Peter and his friend Mark are doing their weekly shop in Morrisons.

They stop at the cigarette kiosk on the way out. Peter, born on 31 December 2008, shows his compulsory ID card to prove that he is old enough to buy tobacco products. Mark, born just a day later has never been legally allowed to buy them. Instead, he gets them from various sources, including a dodgy bloke down the pub. Every year, he hires a van and hops over to France to fill it up with an unhealthy supply to keep him going for a few months, paying duty to the French Government rather than the UK Government.

All of this assumes, of course, that we aren’t doing our shopping via Elon Musk’s chips implanted in our brains, but never mind.

In a rare move, this week Governments across the UK announced a plan to prohibit anyone born after 1 January 2009 from ever buying cigarettes. I don’t think any of us think it is ok for a 15 year old to buy cigarettes. But do we really want a situation where 40 year old Mark is legally prevented from doing what 40 year old Peter does legally?

Health charities and organisations are delighted at the Government’s plans. Of course they are, because reducing smoking is obviously going to improve public health. They are doing their job.

The British Heart Foundation’s Chief Executive, on their website, said:

When we have known for many decades that smoking kills, it is utterly unacceptable that smoking continues to take so many lives, causing at least 15,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease every year across the UK.

“On top of this, smoking is a significant driver of health inequalities, disproportionately affecting the health of the poorest in society.

“Tough measures are needed to put a stop to this ongoing heartbreak, and we welcome the UK Government’s bold proposal to create a smoke-free generation by raising the age of sale for tobacco every year.

“It’s right that the Government is taking action to make vaping less appealing. Children and people who have never smoked should never start vaping, which is why we need effective measures that make it harder for young people to buy vapes in the first place.

“There is clear public support for this Bill and we now urge every MP to support this once-in-a-generation legislation when it is brought to the UK Parliament. We hope to see this policy adopted by administrations across the UK.

So what should the Liberal Democrats be saying about this? As a liberal party we hold personal freedom for adults to do things, even if they harm themselves, as a core value. I have to say that I’m surprised that the proposals put forward by three Governments who spend most of their time rolling their eyes at each other have been accepted with so little controversy. Only a few voices, such as our controversial ex Prime Minister Liz Truss, have spoken out, calling the measures “un-Conservative.”

This is one of these issues where you can use liberal principles to reach either conclusion in the debate. You can argue that the health of a generation is more important and that smoking rarely harms just the person doing it and that this measure is important to stop deaths which are entirely preventable.

On the other hand, we know that prohibition rarely works. In the example above, Mark has found ways of obtaining his cigarettes. What is likely to happen is that there will be a flourishing underground market in tobacco products for those who don’t or can’t head across to Europe to replenish their supplies.

As a party, we have long argued for the decriminalisation of Cannabis. Surely supporting this measure would be inconsistent.

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Mental health – we need to talk

Mental health, we need to talk. In 2020, a study suggested that mental distress had risen almost ten points, in less than one year, to 27.3% of the population and others, more recently, suggest the number may be even higher today. It frustrates me that it is only in recent years that the conversation around it has become mainstream. People have been having to deal with it for centuries, way too often alone, yet today some people ostracise the younger generation for now actually wanting to talk about it, even with the discussion around it being mainstream. I find that to be massively counterproductive.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

India

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has kicked off his election campaign with a prayer. And it was a prayer in the most controversial ethno-religious setting that he could find, thus further strengthening his ethno-religious claim to be the standard bearer of Hindu Nationalism.

The setting was the consecration of a partially-constructed Hindu temple in the town of Ayodha. It was controversial because the temple is being built on the site of a 16th century Muslim mosque which was torn down by Hindu nationalist rioters in 1992.

The destruction of the mosque led to nationwide religious riots which left 2,000 dead, most of them Muslims.

The Hindus tore down the mosque because they believed that it was built on the birthplace of Lord Ram, the chief deity in the Hindu pantheon of gods.

Modi made it one of his key election pledges that a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Ram would be built on the site of the former mosque.

And to insure the maximum political return, Modi pulled out all the stops for the consecration of the temple and placed himself at centre stage. For a start, the Indian Prime Minister dressed in the saffron robes of a Hindu monk and publicly fasted for five days before the consecration.

Then he invited every possible Bollywood star, businessman and politician – except Muslims and the opposition Congress I Party – to the consecration.

A military helicopter was ordered to fly overheard during the consecration ceremony showering flower petals on the crowd. Modi, of course, led the prayers.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was immensely proud of the fact that the Indian constitution declared India a secular nation. Modi is doing his best to reverse that.

NATO

NATO this week launched its biggest European military manoeuvres since the end of the Cold War.

Codenamed Exercise Steadfast Defender it involves 91,000 service personnel from 31 NATO countries and Sweden. It is the first time Finland will be participating as a full member of the Alliance.

Sweden’s NATO membership was finally approved by Turkey this week and is expected to get the final nod from the Hungarian parliament next month.

Steadfast Defender is meant to demonstrate NATO – and especially American – commitment to the defense of Europe. It involves all three branches of the military – army, navy and air force – and will focus on moving troops as fast as possible into the new frontline states of Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Greece, Poland and Slovakia.

The Russians have lodged the usual protests, but more importantly they have used their bases in Kaliningrad to jam military GPS devices in the Baltic Region.

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Observations of an Expat: In a Potsdam hotel

Towards the end of last year a group of far-right German political leaders gathered in a country hotel on the outskirts of Potsdam.

They included key members of Germany’s Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) party including the personal aide to the party leader Alice Weidel.

The AfD is currently riding high in German opinion polls. It is number one in Germany’s five eastern Lander (states) and placing second or third in several Lander in the Western half.

The meeting was organised to hear a proposal from Austrian Martin Sellner, former leader of the Identitarian Movement. Sellner has been banned from Britain and the US. His Identitarian Movement is a proscribed organisation in Germany.

But the AfD politicians still wanted to hear his ideas, especially Sellner’s proposed “remigration” programme. The plan was simple: Should the AfD come to power it would forcibly deport to an unnamed North African country millions of “non-assimilated peoples” and asylum seekers, even if they had German citizenship or permanent residence visas. Sellner also suggested that people who campaigned against the measure could also be deported.

This is not the first time in German history that such a measure has been proposed. In June 1940 Adolf Eichmann persuaded Hitler that the SS should take over the French colony of Madagascar, turn into an SS-run police state, and deport Europe’s Jews to the island. The plan failed because of the wartime British naval blockade.

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Defending Britain: A call for preparedness, inclusion and investment

As I reflect on the current geopolitical landscape and the looming possibility of conflict, I can’t help but feel a sense of urgency for Britain to be ready to defend itself. Recently, General Sir Patrick Sanders, the outgoing Chief of the General Staff, issued a stark warning about the potential for war with Russia, sparking a crucial conversation about our nation’s preparedness and the necessary investments to safeguard our future.

The need for preparedness echoes loudly in today’s uncertain times.

The consensus is clear – we must be ready to repel any potential misadventure from Russia. History has taught us that readiness is not a luxury but a strategic necessity. From military leaders to concerned citizens, the call for preparedness emphasizes the need for a robust defence apparatus.

However, preparedness alone is not enough. General Sir Patrick Sanders, a vocal critic of troop cuts and military spending reductions, urges substantial investments in our armed forces. He emphasizes the urgency of expanding the size of the army and highlights the importance of well-trained, well-equipped soldiers who are adequately compensated for their service. Our strength doesn’t just lie in numbers but in capabilities and resilience.

Amid discussions of military strength, we must also recognize the unique power embedded in Britain’s diversity and inclusion. Our nation’s strength extends beyond military might to the unity forged by individuals from diverse backgrounds who call Britain their home. To harness this strength, it is imperative that all citizens, regardless of their origins, feel included and valued in matters of national defence. Inclusion is not only a moral imperative but a strategic advantage.

True national strength is not solely measured in the might of our armed forces but in the collective will and resilience of our people.

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Fighting where we can’t win (yet)

In the coming election the we will be focussing  (sic) on the Blue Wall seats where we have a chance to beat the Tories.  I have no quarrel with that, although it does leave those of us who have spent most of our lives fighting Labour feeling a little bit out in the cold.  I accept that  the priority in this election must be to restore our position in Parliament as the third party.  The penalty of being fourth has become plainly evident in the last nine years when, however sensible and relevant our parliamentarians and spokespersons have been, the media have barely noticed.

However,  if  (when) the prioritising of the Blue Wall  has proved a resounding success, that does not mean the rest of the UK can be neglected.

Liberal Democracy is in danger, not just in this country through the shredding of the “good chaps theory of government” by Johnson and his cronies, but in other parts of the world, not least in part of Europe, South America, and, perhaps most dangerously of all, in the USA.  As one of the nations that has pioneered both Liberalism and Democracy, we, the inheritors of the tradition, have a duty to fight for its survival.

For this reason, I believe it is important to use the coming election, not to attract votes for token candidates of whom the electorate might never hear of again, but to attract activists who are inspired by our values – once they know what they are.

So we should not waste the “free post”  which is the great gift of general election to distribute leaflets excessively highlighting the families, hobbies, virtues and worthiness of our candidates and how they will fight valiantly for the re-gilding of the town-hall clock and other hot local topics.  Rather we need to spell out the values that are fundamental to Liberalism.  I suggest the following five areas.

A Fairer Britain

Britain is one of the most unequal societies in the developed worldAt the top are a few with immense wealth.  At the base children live in poverty though most live in families with at least one working adult, our Health Service is starved of resources and our schools are crumbling and  underfunded, limiting the chances of many for a fulfilling life.  Our care services are totally inadequate.

We are still one of the riches countries in the world, so this is not acceptable.

Liberal Democrats would fund the health, education and care services properly and provide a much more generous social security safety net for those, deserving or not, who  fall through the cracks.

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Poverty in the UK is deepening – how should Lib Dems respond?

Poverty in the UK is deepening.

We knew this, we can see it all around us in the rise of expanded food banks, the active community charities, the special price reductions on basic supermarket foods and the increase of homelessness. But now Joseph Rowntree Foundation in its annual report on poverty levels reveals the grim facts.

More than one in five people in the UK, 22%. 14.4 million, are living in poverty, having less than 60% of the UK average for the type of household they are in after adjusting for housing costs. And 6 million of them were in very deep poverty at the last count, having less than 40% of the UK average – a category that has increased by 1.5m over the past two decades.

The report says:

A couple with two children under 14 living in very deep poverty would need an additional £12,800 a year – more than double their household income – to get out of poverty.

Of the 14.4 million people living in poverty, 8.1 million were working age adults, 4.2 million were children, and 2.1 million were pensioners. Around three in every ten children in the UK live in poverty, and the proportion rose between 20/21 and 21/22, as did overall poverty. The report says that poverty rates across the different groups has returned to around their pre-Pandemic levels.

Of the different groups affected, informal carers were much more likely that those households with no caring responsibilities to be living in poverty: 28% compared with 20%. In 2021/2 nearly one in ten adults, 4.8 million people, were informal carers.

Around two-thirds of working age adults in poverty lived in a household where someone was in work, evidently unable to get out of poverty through employment.

Among the worst affected groups were Pakistani and Bangladeshi households, around half of whom were living in poverty, compared with 19% of households headed by someone of white ethnicity.

After recording these grave findings, the Report says:

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The Tories start on the authoritarian road

This week marked a bleak precedent for the UK. On Wednesday, the government passed a bill that begins the erosion of the independence of our courts, goes against the European Convention of Human Rights and puts the civil service in an impossible position, not to mention the £400 million of potential money to be sent to Rwanda, when 320 Tory MPs voted in favour of the ‘Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill’.

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Welcome to my day: 22 January 2024 – so, about those Presidential primaries…

Well, that was unexpected. Ron DeSantis is gone, and has endorsed Donald Trump. And, unless Nikki Haley gets a respectable showing in New Hampshire, it’s surely all over in the absence of any other opponent. Biden versus Trump it is then…

Meanwhile, nearer to home, the Post Office Horizon scandal continues to unfold. For what it’s worth, I do wonder whether or not the various ministers involved were persuaded that there was nothing wrong by the evidently unwise presumption that public officials will tell you the truth when pressed. After all, the Civil Service Code has at its core the values of integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality and, in my personal experience, most of us live up to that every day – we tend to take a dim view of those that are found to have fallen short. And politicians should be able to take that for granted – they need civil servants to provide them with a picture of what’s going on in their departments and of the impacts of political decisions, both before and after the event, and should be able to rely upon the advice they give, even if they don’t accept it.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Surprise, Surprise, Benjamin Netanyahu is opposed to the two-state solution.

The Israeli Prime Minister has never made any secret that he believes that the only guarantee of Israeli security is Israeli control of Palestinian security. On Thursday he reiterated his position.

Any Palestinian state, Netanyahu argues, would be dedicated to the overthrow of the Israeli state. And even if they publicly committed themselves to peace, Netanyahu wouldn’t believe them.

The primary responsibility of every country is defence. Ipso facto, there can be no Palestinian state—according to Netanyahu.

Most of the rest of the world believes that there are basically three possible outcomes to the Arab-Israeli Crisis: The Israelis wipe out the Palestinians. The Palestinians wipe out the Israelis. Or the two sides somehow work out a modus operandi that allows the two groups to live side by side in peace.

The Biden Administration was hopeful that the experience of Gaza would show that the only long-term opportunity for peace is a political solution which involves a Palestinian state.

But Netanyahu appears unfazed by Gaza. He told a press conference this week that Israel must have security control over all land west of the River Jordan, which would include the territory of any future Palestinian state.

This is a necessary condition, and it conflicts with the idea of (Palestinian) sovereignty. What to do? I tell this truth to our American friends, and I also told them to stop the attempt to impose a reality on us that would harm Israel’s security.

John Kirby, the US National Security Adviser, replied: “Israel and the US see things differently.”

Donald Trump, on the other hand, sees the Middle East very much through Bibi eyes. His Abraham Accords were designed to circumvent the Palestinians and the two-state solution. Netanyahu’s continued intransigence could—at least in part—reflect his hope for a Trump victory in the November presidential elections.

A Trump Landslide?

Iowa was a Trump landslide. Or was it? Only 15 percent of the state’s 718,000 registered Republicans voted—the lowest turnout in years.

Why? There is no certain answer but here are a few possibles, starting with the MAGA camp: The weather was atrocious. Nobody in their right mind would risk leaving home to caucus in the sub-Arctic temperatures.

Also, the media named Trump the big margin winner before the caucusing started. Why bother risking frostbite to vote for one of the losers or even for the winner? Best stay warm.

Now, for the non-MAGA Republican perspective: We don’t want Trump, but none of the others can win, so why risk hypothermia for a wasted vote?

Everyone is an individual, even in Iowa. So chances are that there are 69,000 reasons why 85 percent of the state’s Republicans failed to caucus. But if that figure is extrapolated across America—then Trump is in trouble come the general election.

As any seasoned campaigner will tell you. The key to winning elections is to persuade as many as possible of your registered voters to get out and vote. Apathy can result in political disaster.

Taiwan

Conspicuous by its near silence in the aftermath of the Taiwanese elections is the voice of Chinese President Xi-jingping.

To briefly re-cap, the Chinese leader was loud in his election support for the Kuomintang but and condemnation for the incumbent Democratic People’s Party. This is because the KMT favoured closer relations with Mainland China based on the 1992 “one country two systems” concept. The DPP, on the other hand, is moving Taiwan closer to a quasi-sovereign independent state.

The DPP’s William Lai won the presidency, although the party has lost its majority in  parliament.

The US is in two-minds about the result. They want Taiwan in the democratic capitalist camp. But not necessarily as a sovereign Taiwan. This could provoke Beijing into a military solution which would drag in America’s Pacific-based Seventh Fleet.

So the State Department issued a rather anodyne statement which welcomed the fact that Taiwan held democratic elections, without focusing on the possible repercussions. Statements from Japan, the EU and NATO countries followed suit.

Beijing was, if anything, more anodyne, it has said virtually nothing about the election result itself. Instead it focused on the statements from the Western countries and basically said they had no right to make any comment because Taiwan is part of China. The diplomatic conversation then ended.

There could be lots of reasons for the Chinese not to take the argument further. There is no point. Xi is busy purging his military and party structures. The Chinese economy is sluggish. Or, he could be waiting for a Trump victory in November.

Is honour now satisfied in the Iran-Pakistan tit for tat missile exchanges?

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Following the ‘five families’ of the Conservative Right

As the Tories continue to tear themselves apart, have you checked whether any of your local Conservative MPs belong to any of the factions of the Tory Right, scheming and plotting so actively that moderate Tories have dubbed them after the mafia families of southern Italy?

 There’s no point in putting on leaflets that many Tory MPs have lost touch with reality.  But it’s very useful to do some quick research on which groups particular Tories belong to, what they stand for (and against), and what they’ve said about key issues.  Even the right-wing press has concluded that that ‘plenty on the government benches are living in a dream world’, as Harry Cole commented in the Sun.  The Times parliamentary sketch on a December Commons debate Rwanda protested that ‘many of the contributions to the debate were fantastically unhinged.’  Peter Lilley, a member of the ‘Common Sense Group’, insisted in the Lords the other week that Britain is being run, and ruined, by a liberal conspiracy of which our party – together with the BBC, the universities, lefty lawyers and the like – is an active component.  He believes that passionately; he shouted it across the chamber at us.

The European Research Group is the oldest of these factions: the Brexit dinosaurs, still fighting to cut further links to Europe.  Mark Francois is now its chair, Jacob Rees Mogg, Steve Baker and Suella Braverman having gone into (and out of) government. Francois was nicknamed ‘Corporal Francois’ when a junior defence minister; it was not meant kindly.  Since the Referendum the ERG has campaigned for the hardest possible Brexit. Nine of the 40+ MP subscribers to its shared research team were appointed to Liz Truss’s Cabinet. Six were retained in Sunak’s Cabinet, although Braverman has since resigned; Chris Heaton-Harris, who opposed the Northern Ireland Protocol, now struggles as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to reconcile conflicting pressures.  The group condemns ‘foreign courts’, and demands that we leave the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Northern Research Group – deliberately modelled on the ERG, with funds for research support – is larger, and has the most practical agenda: to strengthen the voice of the large number of northern MPs in the southern-dominated Tory Party, and in particular to support Boris Johnson’s Levelling-Up promises.  Jake Berry, MP for Rossendale, was its chair and driving force until briefly made a minister in Liz Truss’s government, when John Stevenson, MP for Carlisle, became chair.  54 MPs signed a letter in support of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ in 2021. But its influence has shrunk; Levelling Up was never funded, northern infrastructure continues to deteriorate, the Conservative Government is still run from southern England.

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Lai wins but DPP lose majority in Taiwan

Phil Bennion with William Lai

With other members of the Liberal International Bureau and senior members of CALD (Council of Asian Liberal and Democrats) I flew to Taiwan for a 5-day mission in solidarity with the Democratic Progressive Party, our sister party in Taiwan, who were facing a challenging election.

The emergence of the Taiwan People’s Party as a third force made the election results less predictable and unprecedented and relentless messaging from China was urging the Taiwanese to “choose peace” by ditching the Democratic Progressive Party.

Our first meeting was with the International Republican Institute, a refreshingly centrist group of people considering the current direction of their US sponsors. Their work in Taiwan is outward looking across East Asia, including mainland China, but they have now closed their office in Hong Kong and programs in China are now virtually impossible to deliver. Some of their work is related to influence and disinformation emanating from the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP narrative on voting  Kuomintang (KMT – Chinese Nationalist Party) for peace or DPP for war were being amplified by Chinese state operatives through online media.  Internally they work cross party on democratic principles with youth across Taiwan. They find that the younger KMT supporters are not interested in any form of unification with China. They are generally third generation since the 1949 influx and have grown up as Taiwanese. Hence the actual positions of the two main parties is now much closer and both are supporting the status quo, albeit with differing levels of enthusiasm.

Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) are working on similar themes and told us that the CCP were also pushing the idea that the US is an unreliable ally and may abandon Taiwan, or that the DPP would use conscription to force young voters to take up arms against China. The CCP is now mainly using Tik-Tok to spread distrust of democracy and antipathy to the DPP amongst Taiwanese youth, but research shows that only 6% of Taiwanese support unification with China at any point in the future.

Our questions included some regarding the issue of same sex marriage introduced by the DPP, which the two opposition parties officially support, but comments by TPP leader Ko has cast doubt on this and many KMT legislators have openly stated their wish to abolish it. Despite this lack of commitment by the opposition, the DPP have been losing support from the youth vote. This is partly due to the Chinese Tik-Tok barrage of messaging, but also due to lack of affordable housing which affects young voters most. The TPP and Ko have seized on this issue in the election campaign. Ko has also attracted younger voters with his vulgar style, somewhat similar to that of Trump.

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Wood burning fireplaces – a hot campaign issue

An unusual campaign is emerging in London over adverts for wood burning stoves. The context is the Mayor of London’s drive against air pollution, with the extension of the ULEZ across the whole of Greater London.

ULEZ = Ultra-Low Emission Zone. The driver of any vehicle which does not meet the ultra-low emission standards has to pay £12.50 per day to drive through the zone. Nationwide about 10% of all vehicles do not meet the standard. In principle, Lib Dems in London support the measures to reduce air pollution although we have many concerns about the implementation – inadequate scrappage schemes and some rather odd boundaries around the edges.

Apparently the use of wood burning fireplaces has increased by 124% between 2011 and 2021 – they are pretty fashionable, after all. I imagine many people who installed such fireplaces were under the misapprehension that they were a green alternative to gas or electricity. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. It seems that the main source of PM2.5 (which is recognised as the most harmful of all air pollutants) is domestic wood burning fireplaces.

Hina Bokhari, Member of the London Assembly, has been working on this issue alongside the campaign group Mums for Lungs. She is calling for a public awareness campaign on the dangers of wood burning, and a ban on adverts on the Tube network, like the one in the photo.

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Mothballing the UK’s amphibious assault ships would be short-sighted and foolish

Image available with for reuse under the OGL (Open Government License).

At a time when the world is at its least stable, possibly since the end of the Cold War more than 30 years ago, the mothballing of two of the Royal Navy’s most critical assets is under open consideration by the Tories.

The Government are once again considering mothballing – ie. indefinitely laying up – both HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, two amphibious assault, command and supply ships operated by the Royal Navy. These are the only two ships of this type which are still in operation in the fleet, capable of operating with hundreds of Royal Marines onboard and carrying a well-equipped landing force. Both of the ships would otherwise have service lives well into the 2030s.

These ships are critical for the kind of security environment we are approaching. The effects of climate change will be profound across the globe, and these effects are already springing new threats and conflicts, including in both Syria and Nigeria. Some significant states are critically exposed to security threats around climate change, and some are already perilously close to state collapse. If there has ever been a moment we have needed the kind of ships that allow us to operate in theatres outside of our immediate neighbourhood, it is now.

However, not content with short-termist policymaking applying to the NHS, planning, housing, local government, and virtually every other area of the public realm, something as fundamental as defence and security is now in the crosshairs.

Even if we park the point about security for a second, these ships are mainstays of our international capacity. As a party we firmly believe in our responsibility to offer humanitarian assistance and international aid, which must in turn commit us to resisting the apparent fate of these ships. HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark have been essential for British humanitarian efforts across the globe, with deployments around the world, including to the Mediterranean during the climate-induced civil war in Syria.

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Mark Pack’s January report – Our positive vision versus Conservative desperation

Beating the Conservatives isn’t enough

That was the thrust of Ed Davey’s new year message, majoring on the importance of how our politics operates:

We must do nothing less than transform the nature of British politics for good.

Fight for a fair deal, that empowers everyone, and holds the already powerful to account.

Smash the two-party system, reform our elections, and give everyone an equal voice.

Because that is the only way we can build a fairer, greener, more caring country.

You can watch his new year message in full here.

But while that’s our positive message for the country…

Brace, brace, brace

When the newspapers appeared on the morning of 22 April 2010 there was a wall of negative front page stories about the Liberal Democrats. It was a well-timed hit, being the morning of the second TV debate in an election that had been upended by Nick Clegg’s performance in the first debate.

But there was a dirty secret behind those front page attacks which was only revealed when academics Phil Cowley and Dennis Kavannagh wrote a book about the election after. It was a secret about desperation on the part of the Conservatives: “All but one of the stories to feature on newspaper front pages that day came from the Conservatives”. Not that the papers told their readers this.

Nor did the stories stand up. Most notoriously the Daily Telegraph splashed that morning on its front page making claims about Nick Clegg’s bank account. Yet just a few hours later their chief political commentator and assistant editor was admitting he didn’t even know if anything wrong had happened. His admission that even he didn’t know if the allegations were true didn’t make that story, of course. Nor did he explain why his paper didn’t pause to research the story first rather than rushing to put in print what the Conservatives had handed them.

As Cowley and Kavanagh quoted a Cameron campaign source: “‘We did a pretty comprehensive job on them… However dirty it was… that was the machine swinging into action.”

Much has changed since 2010. But the willingness of Conservative HQ to do absolutely anything it takes to stay in power has not. We can expect them to brief negative stories about us continually.

It’s going to be a bracing year. But that shows we are a real threat to the Conservatives.

(And of course if you do see a story where you’re not sure what the full picture is or want to know the party’s response, do drop me a line on [email protected]).

A cracking quarter of council by-elections

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Welcome to my day: 15 January 2024 – trying a little harder…

Today is, apparently Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year. But not here at Liberal Democrat Voice. Whilst Christmas is just far enough behind us now to be becoming a distant memory, the shops are full of Valentines stuff and Easter eggs, and there are at least two more by-elections for the opposition parties to get their teeth into (with a double dip in Blackpool still to come?). The Conservatives continue to find ways of tripping over their own biases and the Telegraph (yes, really) seems determined to add to their woes with polling that suggest that Rishi …

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REPRISE: Adventures of a Liberal Democrat at the Iowa Caucuses Part 2

Editor’s Note: Eight years, at the beginning of the 2016 year of Brexit and Trump Hell, Kevin Lang, now our Group Leader on the City of Edinburgh Council, found himself in Iowa during the caucuses. Across three articles, he gives us a great insight of what happened at the Democrat caucus. 

Much of what he says about the Hillary campaign is worth our own opposition politicians thinking about as we approach our own election later this year. I thought you might like to re-read Kevin’s posts. 

Of course this year it’s the Republicans going mad in Iowa with the front runner, Donald Trump, not bothering himself to take part in the debates.

I always find the Pod Save America podcast, presented by former Obama staffers Jon Favreau, Dan Pfeiffer, Jon Lovett and Tommy Vietor a great source of information on US politics. Vietor has returned to Iowa to see what’s happening on the ground there with two special episodes of the On the Ground in Iowa podcast. Have a listen here

Over to Kevin:

Sunday 31 January

After a rather dramatic and delayed journey to the US,  I’m finally in Iowa. Most folk on my flight from Chicago are either news reporters covering the caucuses or members of the US Congress stumping for one of the candidates.

The buzzword is ‘turnout’. There’s hope the numbers turning up to tomorrow night could break all records. Folk seem most excited about the weather….or the lack of it. At this time of year, Iowans are normally wading through feet of snow. Not this year. It’s cold but not painfully so and there are no snow storms predicted. “It’s perfect caucusing weather” my car rental guy told me.

The latest polls suggest a tight race on the Democrat side with the respected Des Moines Register poll showing it too close to call. There’s some scepticism about whether all these young students who have gone nuts for Bernie Sanders will actually turn out. I remember hearing something similar in 2008 about the supporters of some guy called Obama…

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Donald Trump and NATO

While NATO and its partners pull together to protect world shipping it has emerged that ex-president Donald Trump has been doing his best to pull the Western Alliance apart.

According to French EU Commissioner Thierry Breton, who is responsible for EU defense issues, Trump told commission president Ursula von der Leyen that NATO is dead and that America would refuse to defend Europe.

M. Breton, told the European Parliament this week, that the threat was issued in 2020 during a private bilateral at the World Economic Forum between Trump and Ms. Van der Leyen.

According to Breton, Trump told the commission president: “You need to understand that if Europe is under attack we will never come to help you and support you. NATO is dead, and we will leave. We will quit NATO.”

Trump then made reference to van Der Leyen’s previous job as German Defense Minister and added: “By the way, you owe me $400 billion because you didn’t pay. You Germans, you had to pay for defense.”

Trump is odds-on favourite to win Monday’s Iowa caucus for the Republican nomination.

Israel

Israel was the first to sign the 1948 Convention on Genocide. This is not surprising as the international law was a direct result of the horrors of The Holocaust.

This week, however, the Israeli government is appearing before the International Court of Justice at The Hague charged with the same crime that they levelled against Hitler.

The case is being brought by South Africa’s ANC government. It should be noted that there is little love between the ANC and Israel.

There is historic animosity between Jewish state and the ANC. Israel provided South African Whites with nuclear weapons technology and Mossad and the Bureau of State Security (BOSS) regularly exchanged information. Many South Africans also believe that the Likud government’s policies on the West Bank and Gaza are at least partially modelled on the Bantustans and pass laws of the apartheid era.

So, it is unsurprising that the South African government took the lead this week in pursuing a charge of “genocide” in the International Court of Justice in relation to Israel’s attack on Gaza. They claim that Israeli attacks and blockades that have so far cost 23,357 lives qualify as genocide under the 1948 convention that Israel was so keen to sign.

The lead lawyer, Adila Hassian, told the 17 judges of the ICJ that Israel’s actions show “chilling” and “incontrovertible” intent to commit genocide.

At the end of the first day of a two-day hearing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retorted: “We are fighting terrorists. We are fighting lies. Today we saw an upside down world. Israel Is accused of genocide while it is fighting against genocide.”

The 1948 convention states that “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” is genocide. It further states that acts of genocide include: “killing members of the group; causing them serious bodily or mental harm; imposing living conditions intended to destroy the group; preventing births and forcibly transferring children of the group.”

Usually the ICJ takes months to make a ruling. But South Africa has asked for an interim ruling which means that a decision may be published as early as next week.

ICJ rulings are final. There is no appeal. But they are not enforceable. Russia, for instance, was recently branded guilty of genocide in Ukraine. Putin ignored it. If the court rules against Israel Netanyahu will likely do the same. But Israel’s democratic mantle will be severely damaged.

Ecuador

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Lib Dems Abroad urge overseas voters to register for the General Election

Tuesday, 16th January heralds big increase in eligible overseas voters – let’s ensure it makes a difference in key Lib Dem marginals

With a crucial UK General Election on the horizon this year, Liberal Democrats Abroad (LDA) are urging millions of Brits living overseas to make sure they register to vote so they can exercise their full democratic rights.

Up to now, British citizens living overseas have only been able to vote in UK elections if they had lived in the UK in the previous 15 years and had been registered to vote. But on Tuesday 16 January, all that changes as 2.1 more million UK citizens are now eligible to vote, bringing the total number of Brits abroad eligible to vote to about 3.5 million. That’s an eligible electorate almost the size of Scotland’s.

Please tell your family and friends abroad to register to vote, or to renew their registrations from 16th January 2024 here.  

Lib Dems Abroad – made up of Lib Dems in Europe, Lib Dems in France andLib Dems Overseas Local Parties – are spearheading this effort on behalf of the party which will then evolve into the General Election campaign which will be waged by the party for the first time across the globe. 

In line with party policy, we will be working closely with local parties, especially our target seats. We have created the Overseas Voter Hub – for local parties where we will be putting up information useful for their campaign teams; register for access on this page. You are most welcome already to book a briefing online there to find out more. We will also be present at our 2024 Spring conference, where we’ll have a stand and hope to run a training session. Come and find out how we can help you welcome your new overseas voters !

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REPRISE: Adventures of a Liberal Democrat at the Iowa caucuses, Part 1

Editor’s Note: Eight years, at the beginning of the 2016 year of Brexit and Trump Hell, Kevin Lang, now our Group Leader on the City of Edinburgh Council, found himself in Iowa during the caucuses. Across three articles, he gives us a great insight of what happened at the Democrat caucus. 

Much of what he says about the Hillary campaign is worth our own opposition politicians thinking about as we approach our own election later this year. I thought you might like to re-read Kevin’s posts. 

Of course this year it’s the Republicans going mad in Iowa with the front runner, Donald Trump, not bothering himself to take part in the debates.

I always find the Pod Save America podcast, presented by former Obama staffers Jon Favreau, Dan Pfeiffer, Jon Lovett and Tommy Vietor a great source of information on US politics. Vietor has returned to Iowa to see what’s happening on the ground there with two special episodes of the On the Ground in Iowa podcast. Have a listen here

Over to Kevin:

As if Scottish and UK politics aren’t enough, I’ve long had a curiosity, a voyeuristic fascination with politics and elections in America.

It’s not just that elections there really matter and have an impact well beyond the US domestic border. It’s also the energy and enthusiasm (no matter how superficial or manufactured) that I’ve found infectious. It’s why I, along with my best mate (and 2016 Holyrood candidate) Alex Cole-Hamilton, went to help Obama’s first campaign in 2008. We did our little bit to help the Democrats win Virginia for the first time in a presidential election since 1964.

I also learned a lot about campaigning, especially the impact of reaching out and meeting voters face to face along with the importance of continually making your volunteers feel valued and appreciated. That said, as a Liberal Democrat, it was somewhat unnerving to campaign in a place where door to door leaflet delivery was against the law and subject to pretty stiff fines.

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Should Ed Davey apologise for his role in the Horizon scandal?

One question which is being widely asked is whether Ed Davey should apologise for his role in the Horizon scandal.

Those who think he should base their case on the need for the victims, who had their lives ruined, to hear a sincere apology from someone. And, as Ed has already said that he regrets not doing more at the time, why shouldn’t it be him?

But what good would that do? Let’s look at where the heat on Ed is coming from. It’s mostly from the right wing press and so-called news organisations such as GB News. So what are they up to?

The Tories want to simplify this whole 20 year scandal down to Ed Davey’s actions in 2 years as a minister for cynical political reasons. They want a clip of him apologising, alongside a clip of Nick Clegg apologising for tuition fees to play ad nauseam to the very blue wall Tory voters both of us need to vote for us in the upcoming General Election. That’s it. It’s not about justice. It’s not about learning lessons. It’s about them fighting as dirty as they can.

Was Ed’s interview with ITV News yesterday the best one he has ever given? No. But Paul Brand’s agenda was very clearly to get a 30 second clip of Ed looking awkward. His line of questioning was more about public scapegoating than it was about actually getting answers.

In recent years, politicians under scrutiny have just avoided any sort of questioning, hiding in fridges or whatever to avoid prying journalists. At least Ed has showed willing on several occasions to proactively give media interviews and to acknowledge that he wished he had one more.

The victims of the appalling scandal deserve better than singling out a scapegoat. It’s not justice for the prevailing narrative to be “It was all Ed Davey’s fault, we can all pack up and go home now.” That is patently not true. There have been around 16 ministers with this responsibility during this time. And we might have a special mention for those in the past 5 years since the court judgement who have moved with the enthusiasm of a glacier to give justice to the victims.

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Annie Nightingale – fantastic, brave radio pioneer

It’s worth listening to the Desert Island Discs of DJ Annie Nightingale, who passed away this week (not least because it contains one of the best put-downs of the Daily Mail ever).

I first started listening to Annie Nightingale when she did “Sounds of the 70s” on Radio 1 in the evenings with Alan Black. It was a revelation in radio, not least because it was a rare Radio 1 show in crystal clear stereo FM. The music and sensible presentation style just seemed so refreshing, in contrast to the saccharin daytime output of Radio 1.

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Leg before Democracy: How Pakistan finds itself in no mans land

Pakistan, the land of my birth, holds the memories of my childhood spent in our family house in the village – a time I consider truly memorable. Born in 1995, the next seven years of my life were dedicated to learning about the nation-state I called home. I was made aware that, if all else failed, the boys in Khaki (the army) were the last line of defence. At the age of 4, General Musharraf took control of Pakistan in a coup d’état, ousting Nawaz Sharif. The narrative presented Sharif as corrupt, while General Musharraf portrayed himself as a righteous leader – preferring to be seen as the liberal and benevolent CEO of Pakistan rather than the chief martial law administrator.

By the time I turned 6, I witnessed tanks rolling down the streets during another standoff between Pakistan and India. Although Pakistan possessed a nuclear option, the spectre of the MAD doctrine loomed. Living in an open area with natural protection from trees and forests, I recall coming home and seeing tanks in the field behind my house. As a child, I was intrigued but lacked an understanding of the events unfolding around me.

Fast forward to 2024, and Pakistan grapples with the same issues as in 2002. Democracy is nowhere to be seen, the rule of law is non-existent, and the Army continues to exert significant influence over Pakistan’s policies. The arrest of Imran Khan illustrates the army’s disinterest in the prosperity of Pakistan as a democracy, showing a lack of concern for the average person, especially with inflation reaching 29% by the end of 2023. This indifference doesn’t bother the top brass, residing in gated communities shielded from the realities faced by the average Pakistani. However, it’s important to note that not every soldier is complicit; like spoiled food, it only takes a small amount to taint the taste.

Journalistic rights are being curtailed, and speaking against the state leads to arrest and torture, followed by a coerced transformation into a supposed Pakistani patriot. Despite being an ally of the United Kingdom with ties dating back to the partition days, Pakistan now faces a stark disconnect in views on democratic principles and basic human rights.

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The Gaza conflict and the hierarchy of oppression

Many years ago Winnie Mandela, wife of Nelson Mandela was considered to be a hero. She had to suffer for years whilst her husband was in jail, maybe for life. Yet she still carried on the struggle for freedom against apartheid South Africa.

I also considered her a hero, then one day she announced “With our boxes of matches, and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country”. What she was describing was a horribly sadistic method of murdering someone. In that instant, for me, she was no longer a hero. She was in fact a very nasty person. I was pleased that Nelson divorced her, although I also felt sorry for him that she had turned out this way when he was in jail. Yet for many people she remained a hero, including by left wing progressives who normally oppose the death penalty, presumably for it’s cruelty.

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