Category Archives: Op-eds

The transfer of power

I am not a historian nor a constitutional expert but I was always a bit smug about the way the transfer of power happens in the UK. The evidence from the USA demonstrates that even in long established democracies the handover period can be fraught with danger. In comparison the changes from one Prime Minister to another, and from one Monarch to another, seem pretty seamless here.

The events of the last week have shown me that the processes are not as seamless as I had imagined. On Tuesday, for a short period between the visits of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, full constitutional power lay in the hands of the Queen. We were dependent on her acting in the interests of democracy and the country, which of course she did. Two days later we realised just how risky that short period had been. Although unlikely, malign interventions, or indeed death, could have thrown the process into unplanned chaos.

And then we lost her. Charles was immediately hailed as King and we all assumed that the powers that come with monarchy had transitioned smoothly at that point. But in fact there was an awkward wait until the Accession Council on Saturday, which showed that was not the case.  In Part 1 of the meeting the Council proclaimed Charles as King, without him present – this was the acceptance of him as King by the people. In Part 2, the King held his first Council during which he had to assent to a long list of Orders of Council put to him by the Lord President of the Privy Council, and then take an oath to formally recognise the status of the Church of Scotland.

Is there anyone still alive today who attended the last Accession Council in 1952, or even remembers what it was about? It was held in private and probably did not register in the minds of most citizens at the time. For some historians it has always been a matter of deep interest, but I imagine most of us were simply unaware of its complexities and risks.

Maybe you all knew that already and I am just showing my ignorance. But I think not, as judged by the many comments on social media deploring the ban on political activity until after the Queen’s funeral. At first I too thought it was excessively restrictive, and I fussed about the piles of undelivered Focusses sitting in my home and the dilemmas for people fighting by-elections this week, not to mention the cancellation of Conference. I too thought it was all about showing respect for Queen Elizabeth during a period of mourning, and I sympathised with the view that she would have wanted democratic practices to continue. But the events on Saturday were a revelation and changed my mind.

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Conference: the right decision even if it’s a regrettable one

I very much share everyone’s upset and frustration about the cancellation of our Autumn Conference. I’m set to lose a great deal of money on my non-refundable, fully-paid in advance hotel booking, and I’ve spent many hours and a great deal of angst on a speech that I’m not going to deliver. And, above all, I very much wanted to attend conference in person for the first time since my re-election in 2019 – now nearly three years ago!

But I fully support the decision. The death of her late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II last Thursday isn’t just the death of an individual. We haven’t cancelled conference just out of deference to the feelings of her family, or the many other people up and down the country who feel a personal sense of loss. This is the death of a Head of State, which demands a different level of response. It’s right that as a party, we respond at an institutional level, and pay respects to the long years of service Her Majesty gave to this country.

But more importantly than that, this is a period in which the powers of the Head of State transfer from one person another, and it’s a sensitive constitutional moment. Even more so, because it hasn’t happened in this country in most people’s memory. Of the six former prime ministers present at the Accession Council on Saturday, only one of them – John Major – would have had any memory of the previous accession, and even he was only nine years old at the time.

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Autumn Conference is cancelled

This afternoon, Federal Board met to discuss a recommendation from Federal Conference Committee that our  Autumn Conference should be cancelled. It was due to take place in Brighton from 17-20 September. The sad death of the Queen, and her funeral on 19th September, on the penultimate day, meant that  FCC had to think about what to do. They spent a lot of time looking at all sorts of options, working with party staff.

Both Federal Board and Federal Conference Committee are made up of people who love going to Conference. It’s one of the great loves of my life. There is nothing like the joy of being amongst the Lib Dem family. It’s not something I would take away from anyone lightly. And that is exactly the same for everyone else involved in the decision.

At the heart of our discussions was the impact on members, emotional and financial and the Conference Access Fund will be pressed into operation to help those with unrefundable costs. The more donations it gets, the more people it can help. Had I been going, I’d have been going out for dinner and drinking in the bar, so I will certainly be donating some of that money that I would have spent anyway to help others.

Nick Da Costa, the Chair of FCC, sent this email to members registered for Conference earlier. The text is below.

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Our memories of the Queen

I cried on the day the King died. And I surprised myself when I cried again yesterday when his daughter died.

I’m not an ardent monarchist but Queen Elizabeth has been a constant presence in my life, her picture all around, and her celebrations writ large across the nation. As my colleague wrote yesterday “It is difficult to think of a public figure who has been so well thought of for so long.”

This feels like a seminal moment and a date in history that we won’t forget.

Back in February 1952 the teachers at my school were huddled around a radio one lunchtime, looking very serious. Then we were told the news and sent home. I remember telling my mother that the King was dead but she already knew and was in tears. The words “God save the Queen” sounded very odd to us then, just as it did yesterday when the Prime Minister said “God save the King”.

I don’t remember anything about George VI’s funeral, but we didn’t have a television so it wouldn’t have had much impact on me. But I know that, to the adults around me, it seemed to bring closure to the long dark years of the war and the post-war challenges, as food rationing finally came to an end.

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Chosen family – making sure loved ones are respected

The loss of a close friend, the death of a life partner, even a long standing neighbour can hit us all hard. The processing of the loss along with the recollection of times well spent can be emotionally draining.

Yet for many as well as being emotional in and of itself, a friend or partner dying can also be a time when people can demonstrate harsh and unremitting cruelty. And unspoken truths about sexuality and identity are used against those mourning.

I am naming no-one but I’m sure many of us know stories of a person dying, their life partner is upset and processing the news. A relative arrives, reveals that they are the next of kin, take over control of the situation and exclude that same sex partner – the denial that the family member was LGBT+. There are too many cases that document the exclusion of the life partner – “you’re not married and I’m the sister/nephew/next of kin”. The power of the standing of “next of kin” has been used to whitewash over a truth about a same sex relationship that due to historical context or lack of legal protection has never been protected through a marriage or civil partnership.

That is why I have written to my local hospice to open a dialogue with them about people’s “chosen family”. Who do they wish to have decision over their effects and their send off? How do we, as a society, give some humane protection to those who have for years stood alongside, helped, cared and laughed and make sure that they are not cast aside in the sadness of the situation.

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Towards a Fairer Society: Universal Basic Income vs Guaranteed Basic Income

The country faces an immediate cost of living crisis – requiring drastic action. This needs short term measures which can be funded through taxes on the additional short term profits of energy companies or through increase in debt. Measures which wouldn’t be sustainable long term but are needed to address today’s issues.

But we also need a long term strategy to make our unfair society better, and in particular, to reduce levels of poverty which pre-existed the current crisis. The conference paper and the debate on a Fairer Society address this. The paper covers policies which will make society fairer including lifelong employment support, more power to local communities and better workforce protections.

But in one specific area the paper offers a choice – and conference will vote between two ambitious long term proposals to end poverty – a Universal Basic Income (“UBI”), and a Guaranteed Basic Income (“GBI”).

(There is also a third option which reserves judgement until both of these have been fully tested over a number of years.)

The UBI proposal scraps income tax and national insurance personal allowances for everyone of working age, so that we all pay tax and national insurance on the first pound that we receive. That costs anyone currently paying tax £78 a week. The proposal also introduces a new payment to all working age adults of £78 (the ‘Universal Basic Income”) – so if you were previously paying tax you end up in the same place as before, but if you aren’t earning enough to pay tax, you are better off.  The current benefits system is retained but the UBI is treated as ‘income’ under it – so that benefits are reduced; someone on Universal Credit would typically see a net benefit of £35 a week.  This way of delivering UBI is the output of two years of development by working groups – on which I served – and is very similar to proposals by some of the leading think tanks advocating UBI.

The GBI proposal is more directly targeted on ensuring everyone has a decent minimum standard of living. It establishes a commitment over time to get all households to a certain income level, and uses a reformed version of the existing benefits system to steadily increase the amount of this ‘guaranteed base’. An independent commission is set up to hold the government to account in terms of setting the right level over time – in much the same way as has been successfully done with the minimum wage.

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Kicking off Conference: The Lib Dem Newbies Pint

For the first time since 2019, Autumn Conference is hoving into view, and a welcome sight it is too.  Brighton 2022 will be our first in-person Conference since Bournemouth 2019, and for many members, it will be their first experience of an in-person Conference with the Lib Dems.

Ever since 2015, the Lib Dem Newbies admins have hosted a Newbies Pint the evening before Conference, to welcome members to Conference, with a focus on welcoming new and first-time attendees.  All are welcome – as we’ve found, Newbie-ness is more a state of mind than it is a date on a membership card!

Our 2022 Newbies Pint will take place in the North Laine Brewhouse in Brighton, at 7pm on Friday the 16th of September.  A £2 entry fee will help cover the cost of the venue, and as always, we’ll donate any profits to Newbies standing for election up and down the country via the Newbies fighting fund.  We have four exciting informal speakers confirmed for the Pint, including Sarah Green and Jamie Stone, and our fab PPCs for South Cambridgeshire and Eastbourne, Pippa Heylings and Josh Babarinde.

Please use this link to book your ticket in advance to avoid disappointment on the night – on-the-night tickets will be first-come first-served.  Attendance is for Brighton Conference attendees only – https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/lib-dem-pint-autumn-2022-tickets-403731922047

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What is ‘The Science’, anyway?

When Boris Johnson locked us all down in March 2020, he did so on the advice of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). At the time, the group contained no molecular virologists, immunologists or social scientists. Despite Boris’ inability to attend a meeting, instead preferring to make speeches filled to the brim with vague Churchillian platitudes, practically all of his decisions throughout the pandemic were taken on the advice of SAGE. In fact, the only major instance of the PM ignoring SAGE was his decision not to increase restrictions beyond Plan B – incidentally, the COVID deaths in the following period were lower than SAGE’s predicted ‘best case scenario’ for this policy.

This article isn’t about disparaging the hardworking men and women of SAGE. I have no qualms with them as scientists. I do, however, have an issue with them as ‘The Science’. Certain scientists, and indeed non-scientists, discovered in the early stages of the pandemic that all they had to do to be taken seriously was to label themselves as ‘The Science’, in a statement of authority and arrogance that would make Emperor Palpatine blush. Independent SAGE, an organisation set up, confusingly, to oppose SAGE by pushing for harder restrictions at every turn, even used ‘Following the Science’ as their tagline.

The issue, of course, is that science is not fixed. It is built on discussion, disagreement and scepticism. There were a number of high-profile scientists – such as Sunetra Gupta (Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at Oxford), Carl Heneghan (Director of the Centre of Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford) and Jay Bhattacharya (Professor of Medicine at Stanford) – who raised their concerns about the efficacy, ethics and negative consequences of non-pharmaceutical interventions such as lockdowns. That is not to say that they were right. On some things, they were certainly wrong, just as on some things the likes of Neil Ferguson, Susan Michie and Eric Feigl-Ding, the quote-on-quote ‘other side’, were wrong. But the dismissal of these fine scientists as ‘fringe’, and in some cases ‘right wing’ – Sunetra Gupta had to reveal that she was a Corbynite to rebuke this particular attack – should concern us all. Science is not settled overnight. SAGE are not ‘The Science’, and nor are the signatories of the ‘Great Barrington Declaration’. ‘The Science’ is the illusion of authority and certainty in a field that is built on disagreement and scepticism.

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Jamie Stone writes: The UK’s nuclear deterrent

The question of the party’s stance on nuclear weapons has often been a hot topic at conference.

Our most recent policy was passed in 2017. It committed the party to supporting a step down the nuclear ladder – with a move away from the current continuous patrols of Trident submarines, to a stance where submarines are not continuously deployed. The thought was that this would require the construction of three new Trident submarines, rather than the planned four.

Spring 2017 now feels like a very long time ago – indeed, since that policy was passed we’ve had two elections (and three Prime Ministers), Brexit, the Trump presidency, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

I was asked by the FCC and the FPC to write a spokesperson’s paper, and an accompanying motion, to bring to Autumn Conference 2022. I consulted widely across the party and spoke to external experts too – thanks to everyone who helped inform the paper.

It was clear that the dramatic deterioration of security in Europe necessitated a review of our previous stance.

We have long been the most forward-thinking UK-wide party on global disarmament, and the 2017 policy is part of that tradition.

But we have also always argued for flexibility – indeed, our proposals always included the possibility that changes in the strategic environment might require steps up, as well as down, the nuclear ladder, were that necessary to keep the people of this country safe.

At a dangerous time such as this, we must be realistic. It’s clear that choosing to take a step down the nuclear ladder of the kind proposed in 2017 – in the face of Vladimir Putin’s veiled threats of nuclear use – would send entirely the wrong signal to that despot. It risks encouraging him to be even more gung-ho with his nuclear brinkmanship.

And it would send the wrong signal to our NATO allies, who are protected under our nuclear deterrent, about the UK’s willingness to come to their defence. At a time where we should be showing European leadership, it would instead send a message of insularity.

Nor would taking such a step in this environment do anything to improve the chances for global disarmament.

That’s why I am putting forward a new proposal – at the heart of which is for the UK to maintain the current posture of continuous, at-sea deployment. That would mean a Trident submarine patrolling UK waters at all times.

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Lord help us all….Lib Dems react to new Cabinet

So Liz Truss is now ensconced in Downing Street appointing her new Cabinet. And it looks like it is going to be one of the most socially as well as economically conservative governments in over quarter of a century. This is somewhat surprising given that she is the first Prime Minister of my lifetime who is younger than me.

After a 1000 mile round trip to see the Queen, she went  to her private Commons office  to send Rishi Sunak supporters Grant Shapps, Steve Barclay and Dominic Raab packing.

Every time a new Conservative PM announces their top team, you think it couldn’t get any worse. Remember when Theresa May appointed Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary? And then when Boris in turn made Priti Patel Home Secretary.

So far, Liz Truss has made some very worrying appointments.

First of all, someone who opposes abortion and same sex marriage to health:

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Another day, another new Conservative Prime Minister to muck up our lives

Boris Johnson and Liz Truss are in for an absolute treat today. It’s more of a faff to get to Balmoral than a quick spin up the Mall to Buckingham Palace, but the journey from Aberdeen through Royal Deeside is absolutely gorgeous. The heather in the hills round about Aboyne is particularly stunning, even if it is, as forecast, tipping it down.

I am so glad that they are going north to see the Queen. The 96 year old monarch has earned the right to say that they should come to her.

I wonder what arrangements have been made for Boris and Carrie to get back from Balmoral. Normally the outgoing PM gets a taxi from Buckingham Palace. Will the estate manager drop them in Ballater so they can get the bus back to Aberdeen to catch the Easyjet back down south? Probably not, but it’s an amusing thought.

Much has been said about the new Prime Minister’s bulging in tray. Competing economic, energy, international and health crises require urgent action. I don’t think we are emphasising enough, though, the extent to which all these issues have been made worse by the foolish actions of the Conservative Party in Government since 2015.  From David Cameron’s ill-advised pledge to hold a referendum on our EU membership, to Theresa May’s and Boris Johnson’s choice to pursue the most extreme form of Brexit, they have helped create much tougher economic circumstances than in similar economies.

Sectors like social care are falling apart because of their anti-immigrant ethos. As care workers went back to the EU, our disabled and elderly friends and family found that the help that they relied on disappeared.

Boris Johnson’s boasterish farewell speech this morning didn’t mention this. He didn’t get Brexit done. He left a predictably impossible situation in Northern Ireland and the new PM intends to take the nuclear option of breaking international law rather than find a more pragmatic solution.  Deaths from Covid in the UK are the highest in Europe and the long term consequences of their pretence that the pandemic is over are being felt by too many people.

It takes some brass neck to deliver such a bullish speech when you have been forced from office in disgrace after the resignation of half of your government. Tim Farron summed it up this morning:

Jo Swinson said back in 2019 that the worst thing about Boris Johnson was that he just didn’t care. He simply couldn’t be bothered to understand how his Government’s actions affected people. Liz Truss, similarly, shows no sign of giving a damn and she doesn’t have anything like the charisma of her predecessor.

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Your last chance to put in a question for Party Leaders at Conference

Do you fancy putting Party President Mark Pack on the spot? Or any other party committee chair?

Or asking Ed Davey something important to you in his leader’s question and answer session?

Maybe you want to ask Federal Conference Committee about making Conference more accessible, or affordable.. Maybe you want more information about the party’s diversity strategy from the Federal People Development Committee. Or perhaps you want to ask Chief Whip Wendy Chamberlain about what MPs are doing on a particular issue.

You only have until 1pm tomorrow to submit your question. Do so here.

One of the advantages of asking a question is that you get the chance to do a follow-up actually in the Conference hall. This can be a really good way of getting the feel of speaking at Conference.

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Tributes to paid to former Brentwood Councillor Karen Chilvers

The world has lost another brilliant liberal. Former Brentwood Lib Dem Councillor and Parliamentary candidate Karen Chilvers died on Wednesday at just 51 years old. She had a stroke at the end of July and subsequent complications were just too much for her body to deal with.

We never met in real life, but for over a decade she has been a cheerful, supportive, friendly presence on Facebook and I loved reading about her adventures with her dogs Louis, Bailey and Tiffany.

Karen had had many health issues over the years and she would often talk about her frustrations about trying to get round an inaccessible world.

Karen was a much-loved Councillor in Brentwood between 2007 and 2021. I remember how devastated she was when she lost her seat in 2011, but she won it back the following year.

Her colleague David Kendall paid tribute to her in The Echo

Karen was a driving force of energy in the Brentwood Liberal Democrats over many years and encouraged a number of people to stand for the Council and helped to get them elected.

She was a champion for many vulnerable people in our community particularly on disability and equality issues.

She also helped many people on planning, housing and environmental matters.

“She led the campaign with residents to stop the housing development in Honeypot Lane and was a key figure in the campaign to stop “Go Ape” from changing the face of Thorndon Country Park.

Back in 2012, she appeared on ITV quiz show The Chase, as I wrote here:

Karen, pictured here with her dog Louis, was incredibly calm and cool as she answered the quick-fire questions. I was very impressed with her performance. She has written about her experience here.

She wrote for us back in 2013 when the BBC discovered her dog Bailey’s Twitter account. For Karen, her beloved dogs helped her become closer to her constituents. Being an approachable councillor was incredibly important to her.

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Observations of an expat: Gorby’s object lesson

Mikhail Gorbachev is an object lesson in the dangers inherent in moving a corrupt, highly-centralised autocratic government in which the individual is a servant of the party and state to a fairer and more open society in which the state is the servant of the people.

That is not to detract from Gorbachev’s greatness. His policies of perestroika and glasnost helped to bring an end to the Cold War. But it also opened the door to the rise of dangerous Russian nationalism and Vladimir Putin.

Gorbachev did not set out to topple the Soviet empire. He was a true believer who was convinced that communism was the path to political nirvana. His mentor was Mikhail Suslov whose primary role was to keep the Politburo on the ideological straight and narrow.

The problem was that the Soviet Union of the 1980s was not communist. It was a planned economy with the financial levers in the hands of the Party. But even more so, it was a corrupt, oppressive geriatric oligarchy with a rapidly failing economy that was unable to support its military establishment and political control of Eastern Europe.

The “Era of Stagnation” – As Gorbachev dubbed it – started in the mid-1970s under Leonid Brezhnev with a clampdown on human rights and emphasis on heavy industry and the military establishment. Soviet consumers were ignored. Between 1975-1985 the Soviet economy grew at a miserly average rate of 1.8 percent a year. The income of Soviet man dropped. Bribery, long queues and shortages were endemic. The state-controlled media and statistical bureau reported the exact opposite. Everyone knew they lied.

The exception to this economic plunge was the Party faithful. They were allowed to buy Western consumer goods in special hard currency shops and the Politburo were chauffeured from office luxurious dacha in Zil limousines.

When Brezhnev died in November 1982 there was a power struggle between the reformist wing led by Yuri Andropov and the old guard led by Konstantin Chernenko. Andropov won and then died 15 months later. Chernenko succeeded him only to die after just 13 months in the top job. The hierarchy swung back to the reformist wing and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Gorbachev immediately announced that he wanted to improve living standards and political freedoms and was prepared to cut non-productive military expenditure to achieve those aims. His policies were summed up by the terms perestroika (economic restructuring) and glasnost (political and social openness). The economy was decentralised, incentive schemes were introduced for workers and managers and state subsidies reduced along with Soviet aid to satellite countries. Nuclear arsenals were reduced and Soviet troops were pulled out of Afghanistan.

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William Wallace writes: The chaos of single-party government

Conservative HQ has briefed the media that it plans to attack other parties in the next election campaign for offering ‘a coalition of chaos’ instead of the ‘strong and stable’ single-party government the UK has benefitted from since 2015.  Liberal Democrats should be rubbishing this fantasy.

In the past seven years we have suffered two early elections and three prime ministers – with a fourth now coming into office.  We have had four Chancellors of the Exchequer, five foreign and business secretaries, and six cabinet ministers for education – seven if we include Michele Donovan’s two-day term.  Junior ministers have turned over at an even faster rate, many moving on after less than a year without time to learn their jobs.  Rapid shifts of policy, inconsistent announcements on priorities, officials having to start again briefing new ministers often arriving without any relevant expertise about their responsibilities: chaotic government by any definition.

We can expect another round of ministerial churn in the coming week.  In 2019, what’s more, 21 MPs were suspended from the Parliamentary Party.  Only 10 had the whip restored; two former chancellors and two other former cabinet ministers were among those expelled from the party.  Ken Clarke remarked that the party that expelled him was no longer Conservative; ‘it’s the Brexit Party, rebadged.’

At a Liberal Democrat Business Network gathering last week people were telling me how they longed for the stability that a coalition government might offer after the twists and turns, factional plotting, and inconsistent ministerial directives they have suffered since 2015.  We are likely to face more infighting after the embittered leadership contest we have seen this summer, which will make it even harder for the Conservatives to present themselves as a model of stability at the next election, and easier for us to make the case for institutional change to give Britain better government.

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The perils of nostalgia and boosterism

I think most political activists outside the Conservative party will have worked out that Liz Truss tries to combine the style of Thatcher with the boosterism of Johnson. The Iron Lady will always be “that bloody woman” for many of us. She can be accused of promoting profoundly destructive policies but I don’t think she went down the road of cheap optimism as far as Johnson/Truss have gone. Most politicians will use the word “hope” in their speeches and leaflets but it is important to distinguish between the hope that flows from a vision of a better world and a more civilised society and the promise of a golden future which simply ignores reality. The latter is, of course, the stock-in-trade of populist authoritarians. Few nations wish to dominate the world but Hitler and Goebbels managed to sell the plan for doing so to the German people even when the Nazis started to lose World War 2.

I would be hard pressed to say which is the most dangerous between nostalgia and boosterism. Both refuse to face and communicate reality, or perhaps an interpretation of reality, and in different ways both can have cruel consequences.

In England nostalgia played a powerful part in the EU referendum and in the Conservative so-called Red Wall gains in the 2019 General Election. Looking back to imperial glory has contributed to the UK’s steady decline over the post-war decades. Other European countries managed to get over the loss of colonies, with the exception of Putin’s Russia! English nostalgia for the past is a grim drag on our politics. At a time when generations have never hitherto been so polarised both in political outlook and political participation, it is perhaps a cliché to suggest that hope for the future lies with younger generations. The best political legacy that my generation could offer (apart from continuing to die off!) may be discussing politics with grandchildren and persuading them to vote.

While recession looks inevitable in the midst of so many other crises, we must hope that people will realise the hollowness of the promises of sunlit uplands emanating from Truss and her ilk. My parents lived through the 1930s in one of the poorest parts of the North-East but they claimed that never being without shoes helped to get them through tough times. Between the wars some working class communities were lured into voting Conservative, expanding the minority ongoing working class Tory vote. They insisted that the harsh realities of the thirties resulted in the “never again” approach, reflected in the 1945 election result.

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The curious case of a major capital city whose people are disenfranchised (but there could be a bright side)

One of the privileges of bucket-list-retirement has been to spend a little time in Washington DC.

There is much to admire in the US constitution and some elements of its democracy. The democratic status of its capital city is not admirable. It’s a “special federal district” – the District of Columbia – not a state. So, it does not have voting representation in Congress. That’s an estimated 536,768 people (Stacker.com) eligible to vote, without someone to vote on their behalf in Congress.

Compare that to the state of Wyoming’s voting-eligible population of 434,852, who elect a voting US House representative and two – count them – two US Senators (out of a total of only 100).

It is an egregious case of disenfranchisement. It is an downright ungrateful way to treat hard working staff (bearing in mind that much of the DC population is employed by, connected to employees of, the federal US government.)

It should also be noted that “DC” is heavily Democrat, as any casual walk along its residential streets will tell you – just going by the posters up in house windows.

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Saying hello at a mosque breaks down barriers

Opening doors and saying hello is incredibly powerful. The gesture of being welcoming and having a chat can breakdown barriers, increase understanding and create opportunities. This is why I am so pleased that this weekend is #VisitMyMosque, a chance for anyone to visit their local mosque, ask questions and even make friends.

Since the pandemic, the event has been conducted online. Now that we can meet in person again, this is a fantastic opportunity for everyone to make the most of this great initiative. I was proud of a day I arranged for the London LibDems candidates to visit several mosques back to back, finishing at Regents Park Mosque.

This is the iconic Central London Mosque which was officially opened by King George VI in 1944. Ed Davey was the first LibDem leader to make an official visit there last year. He told the Iman ‘this was his chance to listen and learn’. This surely is the main message for all such visits.

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Should parliament sit through the conference recess?

Parliament returns from the summer recess on Monday with a new Conservative Party leader and, shortly afterwards, a new prime minister when the Queen gives her approval at Balmoral.

The details and consequences of those events will be discussed here on Lib Dem Voice. And just about everywhere else. But the Commons will only sit for 14 days from the end of the summer recess before it takes a month’s break for the party conferences. Some of the conferences. MPs will sit for two days during the Lib Dem conference.

The summer recess lasted for 53 days. Nearly two months at a time of growing national crisis, around 30 sitting days. The Lib Dems called for a recall of parliament during the summer recess, including to act on the energy price hikes.

MPs need their holidays, as do their staff and civil servants that support them. But while the Conservatives have been distracted while they gaze at their political navels, the nation has not been distracted. The world is more unstable than before the war in Ukraine and the tensions in the Asia Pacific. The cost of living crisis is getting scary. Very scary. There are issues to be resolved that cannot wait until after the conference season

MPs could sit for 11 additional days in between the party conferences, three more if parliament sits on a Saturday. We should be calling for that.

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PR is not enough. We need to redistribute power!

“Power corrupts”, and I am afraid that what we have seen in the past 2 years is no worse than what went before it. Throughout my adult life not a year has gone by without some political scandal or other being in the news.

The simple observation that our leaders are not using their power with our interests at heart is a part of the problem our country faces, for the powers they exert are not theirs they belong to us, the people. From the abuse of power stem all the other problems we face. At elections power switches from one unchallenged central government to another, with the regional and local of our society set aside for some mythical greater good.

We must stop focussing on the single issue of our voting system, it is the system that is the problem and needs to be changed. Our bicameral system of government (Commons and Lords) is supposed to offer scrutiny, but when most of the Lords are political appointees how can that be so?

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Schools struggle to meet energy bills

The crisis in energy bills is not just a impending disaster for households, but it will also affect all kinds of public and private organisations. Local councils, retailers and leisure centres all face huge rises in their energy costs and are not going to be “protected” by the cap in prices.

There has been a lot of talk about warm hubs (like these in Wales)- public places like libraries, museums and churches which could provide a warm, safe place for cold people.  But how will they afford to heat their own premises?

Schools too are affected.  The BBC reports on one academy trust that runs 11 schools. One of their schools has been quoted a staggering 414% price rise. If that was replicated across all their schools then the total energy bill would rise from just under £1 million to £4.6 million next year. This is on top of the 5% pay rise for staff.  Although the Government is increasing funding to schools it is clearly not going to be enough to meet these unprecedented financial challenges.

The CEO of the academy trust that is featured in the BBC article said:

Schools need to be places that are going to be warm and safe, especially as there are families whose homes won’t be warm.

The problem was echoed in a report in the Guardian. Sean Maher, the Head of one of the secondary schools near me, is quoted thus:

I’m really terrified about what’s going to happen to some of our parents. I’ve been a headteacher for nine years. I’ve dedicated my whole professional life to trying to give young people the very best opportunity to shine and grow and develop. I feel like I’m fighting against the government who are actively undermining what we are trying to do for young people.

How can it come to that in this country? Where we would be asking children to wear coats and gloves in the classroom because we can’t afford the heating? But it will happen. In schools up and down the country teachers will turn round and say: ‘Keep your coat on – we won’t put on the heating until the end of November’.

Now it was Labour who decided to take failing schools out of local authority control and hand them to the charitable sector as academies – and I have some sympathy where the local authorities were not doing a good job. But it was the Conservatives who had a vision for all schools, irrespective of the quality of the support they received, to become independent of local Councils, and to be taken out of democratic control and accountability. Initially academies were standalone institutions, but they quickly learned that they worked best when under an umbrella organisation – hence academy trusts, which are effectively privatised education authorities.

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On Artemis and Pakistan

Pakistan floods. A thousand, possibly thousands of lives ended. Homes and businesses destroyed. On the other side of the world, billions are being spent on trying to get back to the moon and onwards to Mars.

But does the world, even among the rich nations, have enough money to pay “to boldly go” while countries flood, suffer drought and people starve? Isn’t more important to give relief and tackle the real horror of our age, climate change?

But if we lose the lose our sense of adventure, the desire to explore, the need to imagine, will we ever solve the world’s problems?

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Holiday Oddities

Holiday Oddities

It is bank holiday weekend in the UK. Around the world conflict, droughts, floods and other crises continue unabated. UK government has ground to a halt while the Tories fight amongst themselves unwilling to recall parliament and unable to govern. To get away from that as much as we can, here at Lib Dem Voice Towers we have been looking at recent silly season stories. Some are funny, some stupid, some sad, some tending on the serious and some very scary.

In compiling this compendium, we have consulted with Larry, the No 10 cat. He says that if the prime minister had not been on a one jolly after another, he could have kept the country laughing for weeks. Larry is of the opinion that it is the job of a prime minister to keep us all amused, which is why Teresa May didn’t last long.

If you have your own silly season stories, whether political or not, please add them to comments.

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Ed Davey interview with Tory think tank, Bright Blue

Ed Davey has been interviewed by ‘Centre Write ’ the magazine of Bright Blue – who describe themselves as “an independent think tank for liberal conservatism. We defend and improve liberal society.”

The interview is billed as talking to Ed about “about coalitions, what it means to be a liberal, and what the future, holds for the party he leads” and Ed provides some robust answers  to their questions. When asked if he regrets entering the Coalition he talks about his fighting the Tories over renewable energy – but as a result of winning those fights we have cheaper energy and lead the world in offshore wind. He doesn’t answer the question about whether he regrets us joining the Coalition but could not be clearer when asked “ Would you ever enter into a coalition with the Conservatives again?: 

“The answer is no. It’s quite simple.”

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What next for our GCSE Students

I was actually quite surprised with myself. I thought that I would be nervous and stressed when I went with my eldest daughter to collect her GCSE results. Is it because, as a family of European migrants, we have never experienced before the actual exam period in the UK? Often, not knowing what to expect can actually be quite helpful! Having said that, 5-6 weeks of exams and revision were a true rollercoaster of emotions; tiredness, happiness when the exam went well, encouragement and motivation to continue learning even when the energy levels were low. 

I decided to accompany my daughter to her school to collect her important envelope. After a moment of hesitation, she decided to open it in her library. I was worried a bit that she might be unhappy with her grades, however she wasn’t. In actual fact, she did very well, in particular in the key subjects; Maths and English.

As a History teacher by profession, I found the English educational system interesting and at times, confusing. It has, like any other, advantages and disadvantages. Students are asked, as early as in Y.8 or Y.9, to drop some of the subjects and encouraged to select their GCSE options. Too early? In my view, most definitely. The same scenario applies to young adults, who decide to continue A-Level Education. After completing a few Sixth Form documents, my daughter was asked whether she is planning to go to University. She said yes, however she is still unsure what exactly she wants to do next. For her, making this decision is actually becoming a problem. She enjoys learning at least 5-6 subjects, however she needs to choose 3 topics/ courses. She still hasn’t made up her mind. 

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Sweet 16: Happy Birthday to LDV

Sixteen years ago today, a new website appeared on the scene. Liberal Democrat Voice’s first piece suggested Simon Hughes was “certain” to be challenged for the Party Presidency.

Word reaches the Voice that weeks before the position had been advertised in Lib Dem News, party officials in Cowley Street received a call requesting a copy of the nomination papers for party President – the caller was not acting on behalf of Simon Hughes.

Word also reaches us that one potential candidate is positioning himself to blitz Autumn Conference with an army of supporters bearing nomination papers, to seize the momentum.

A Presidential contest is no bad thing – though there is an argument that there are better ways to spend the money. The Voice has been told that a proposal is being put to the Federal Executive to double the campaign expenditure limit – to  £5000 per candidate.

Since then, we have been there in excellent, good, bad and absolutely bloody awful times. We’ve published 34033 posts and 491588 comments.

The make-up of the team has changed a lot over the years, but it has always put a huge amount of time and effort into bringing you a flavour of liberal ideas and news about what’s going on in the party. I am particularly grateful to the current team, Mark, Mary, Andy, Charley as creative, imaginative and eloquent day editors, Tom Arms our insightful foreign affairs editor and Ryan and Alex who keep the site running and bills paid. I’ve not been well this past wee while and they have been brilliant at keeping the site going.

Thank you, too, for reading and contributing to the site. If you haven’t written for us before, check out our guidelines for writers here.

Here’s a highlight from each year to mark our Sweet 16.

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Memories of the Chester-le-Street By-election

Reading of the death of Giles Radice reminded me of the 1973 Chester-le-Street by-election, the first time I ever canvassed.  The constituency put the rotten into borough.  It was run by Andrew Cunningham, father of Jack, effectively a Soprano to the main Labour mafia family led by T Dan Smith in Newcastle.  Cunningham went to jail in 1974 for his role in the Poulson affair, former Labour MP Eddie Milne wrote a graphic account of his experiences in Blyth in his book ‘No Shining Armour’.

I have to say that Winchester-educated Giles was in no way associated with this.  He was a charming and intelligent man whom I got to know much later.  In 1973 he had been parachuted into Chester-le-Street  as Labour candidate by the GMB union where he was head of research.  The Tories had Neil Balfour who campaigned with his wife Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, who later married Richard Burton – you couldn’t make it up.  The Liberal candidate was George Suggett, an antiques dealer from Berkshire who had at least been born in the constituency and was a miner’s son.  He became ‘Geordie Suggett’ for the campaign.

The Labour council owned all the property.  Initially they refused to let any premises to the other parties to use as headquarters.  The Tories ended up in a caravan parked in a lay-by on the edge of town.  Labour had the ground floor of a redundant library building.  There was an empty upper floor accessed by a separate stair and Andy Ellis as campaign manager demanded that we be allowed to let it.  As soon as we moved in, a banner across the front proclaimed ‘Liberals are on top’.

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To fix our politics, we need to fix our voting system  

These past twelve months have seen some of the worst assaults on trust in public life I have ever witnessed.

From the second jobs scandal, to Partygate, to an avalanche of allegations of sexual misconduct against MPs, hardly a week has gone by without a story dominating the headlines that our leaders are not using their power with our interests at heart.

We would be naive to assume that this is not having a long-term impact. Last December, trust in politicians reached its lowest level on record. Polling by Ipsos shows lack of faith in politics / politicians as the third most important issue to voters, after inflation and the economy.

This is not some second order issue, but an urgent priority facing us.

Writing a piece in Lib Dem Voice about the need for electoral reform is doubtless preaching to the converted. But what I urge today is that we take a much broader view of what’s wrong in our politics as stemming, at least in part, from our Victorian voting system.

MPs like Owen Paterson and Neil Parish were lords of the manor in all but name until the eye of national scandal turned on them. Boris Johnson possessed a near-regal authority with an eighty-seat majority, only able to be unseated by palace intrigue within his own party.

What’s more, First Past the Post enables feudal distribution of funding from the public purse, with the Chancellor even admitting to spending money in areas like Tunbridge Wells rather than where the money is needed most.

Even the numerous allegations of sexual impropriety against sitting MPs can be, in part, traced back to First Past the Post. While countries with PR are by no means guaranteed bastions of gender equality, Westminster culture cannot be helped by a male-dominated House of Commons. A record number of female MPs sit in the House of Commons, but even now 65 percent of MPs are male.

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Widening income inequality and pay differentials

My post Take Back Control yesterday on the cost-of-living crises and energy prices was primarily about the obscene profits (gas and electricity £30bn plus) and high salaries paid to the Chief Executives in the utility industries, paid for by consumers, and ways of helping the least well off customers and small businesses in a none stigmatising way by charging for the first so many units of gas, electricity and water at a reduced tariff – or possibly making them free.

It prompted a very lively debate with much of it focussed on the salaries of the Chief Executives which ranged from £1m per year at EDF to £6.5m for the Chief Executive of the National Grid.

The article drew comparisons with the public sector and the Chief Executive of Birmingham City Council who is paid £186,000, for arguably a more complex and wider ranging job, and suggested a salary of £200,000 for just two Chief Executives, one for gas and one for electricity, in nationalised services. Several people questioned whether £200,000 would attract the right calibre of Chief Executive? It would be interesting to see the “person specifications” of the existing posts and the CVs of the incumbents. Capacity is the product of intellect x knowledge x experience.

Are the right people in the jobs now? Is the aim of the utilities to make a profit or to provide a cost-effective service? What do we expect of these Chief Executives? Is anyone worth 30 times more than the Chief Executive of Birmingham City Council – do such beings exist – and what impact must it have on the motivation of those on whose efforts the Chief Executives are dependent?

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What if the Tories lose an Autumn 2022 General Election?

The temptation for Liz Truss to call a General Election soon after becoming Tory leader might be too much to resist. A shiny new leader might enable them to win. But I’m wondering about the other side: might they be planning to lose? In an ideal world they’d have done that before Boris Johnson’s position became completely untenable, but there’s a narrow window in which Truss might be able to lead per party to defeat and survive as leader by blaming her predecessor.

We need to think about this because it would inform our campaign and shape some difficult decisions afterwards.

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