Thought the Lib Dems were finished? As if!


Me, Joyce and team getting out the vote in the Witney By Election


Last night I headed out into a damp October evening in Witney with Joyce Onstad, a new member who joined the Liberal Democrats after the 2015 General Election.

Joyce and I had first campaigned together last winter in Greater Manchester at the Oldham & Royton By-election. We, and a few hardy activists, had travelled there in freezing weather and knocked on doors. Despite our efforts the polls refused to budge: we achieved just 3.7% of the vote.

9 months on things feel very different. The EU referendum has left the British electorate sharply divided. Jeremy Corbyn was re-elected to the dismay of more moderate Labour members, who have seen their party engulfed in an anti-Semitism row and have no idea what their position is on Europe. In the last three months 20,000 people have joined my party understanding, perhaps, Tim Farron’s message that only the Lib Dems stood between them and decades of Tory rule.

This new rejuvenation has been infectious. Despite only recently becoming a member, Joyce has been selected as the Parliamentary candidate for Hammersmith and is clearly enthusiastic about the challenges ahead. Campaigning in Witney, I felt the need to manage her expectations. “This is a safe Tory seat – one of the safest. If we can finish above Labour that would be a great result for us.” “Well yes. But I want to win!” said Joyce.

The reason for this optimism is that, away from the media spotlight, Lib Dem fortunes have been steadily improving which has led to growing enthusiasm amongst members and activists alike. A good set of local election results were followed by a flurry of gains in council by-elections and these haven’t been confined to local hotspots, but across the country. Gains have been made from Cornwall to Norfolk and from Sheffield to Poole with swings ranging from 20-44% against all parties, Labour, Conservatives and UKIP.

The Lib Dem resurgence has largely gone unremarked on by national media outlets. This is hardly surprising when political parties are judged between elections solely on opinion polls, not actual polls and what passes as political journalism is merely increasing attempts to goad parties into taking more and more extreme positions. It’s not newsworthy standing up for moderate Britain, when political news is increasing about being “for the clicks”. Research shows that 77% of the country self-identifies as being between centre-left and centre-right, yet it is the extremes that get the air time.

While other parties activists sit down to watch the increasingly unwatchable Question Time, Lib Dem activists instead wait for @BritainElects to provide our weekly dose of #libdemfightback. As one member tweeted: “Every Thursday is Lib Dem council by-election gain day.”  

Unlike Jeremy Corbyn, Tim Farron has always made clear that principles without power are worthless. There is a world of difference between being forced to moderate a policy you disagree with as the minor voice in a coalition, and that of taking ermine for services rendered, then abstaining on a vote that you have spent 13 years as head of an civil liberties organisation campaigning against. Now that is a real betrayal of principle.

The recent Lib Dem delivery of the ‘Alan Turing’ Law shows what can happen when you are driven to improve people’s lives by fairness and not dogma. The public are beginning to see that and as a result the Lib Dems are being given the chance to prove themselves again.

“We’ve got more momentum than Momentum” was the party’s message at party conference and you can see the effect in the Witney by-election. Tom Watson, complained that Lib Dems ‘shipped’ in their Peers and threw resources at it solely to force him on the Radio 4 Today programme. No mention from him of his his leader’s visit, where once again hundreds of Labour activists preferred to sit in a hall congratulating themselves on their political purity, rather than go out and face the actual electorate with policies and a clear message. 

The way we campaigned Witney was the same way we’ve campaigned since May 2015: credible candidates, positive messages and coach loads of enthusiastic members, many of them new. That was the reason Labour dropped in their share of the vote and came a poor third.

Witney was a real national test for the Liberal Democrats. Could our message of openness, tolerance and unity appeal to people not just in council elections but at parliamentary elections too? Was that silent majority of centre ground voters simply wishful thinking? Were the gains in council seats an indication of real movement or merely a political chimera?

Tim Farron has led the opposition to hard brexit, it is not what the country wants. No one knows what Labour thinks with their spokespeople speaking at cross purposes. The Lib Dems have positioned themselves as the real opposition to the Tories and on Thursday we passed the test at a national level with flying colours.

Thought the Lib Dems were finished?


On female political heroes and why they matter

I wrote this piece before the Referendum. It got slightly overtaken by events,but I still think the things I wrote need saying.

We heard too little about Jo Cox in her lifetime, but her approach to politics will inspire generations of future female politicians for years to come.

This is not coincidental. Outstanding female politicians are generally unheralded in their own life times.Not only are there fewer of them (just 29% of our Parliament), but our political culture is institutionally sexist in the way it excludes women and fails to recognise or report their success.

When it comes to celebrating and commemorating female achievement in politics women are routinely overlooked. On its release last year Suffragette was the first film to be made of the movement. As Allegra Stratton has pointed out there are currently no statues of women in Parliament square.

But it’s not just the way women are written out of political history: our political discourse, driven by our national media, focuses on the ‘who’s up, who’s down’ tribal minutiae of politics not the substance. Loud voices, posing as confidence, as has been seen in the EU referendum debate has been prioritised over competence meaning female politicians have been almost invisible.

Women in politics are often judged not on their effectiveness but their appearance, something Nicola Sturgeon has acknowledged.

It is therefore shameful that it seems to taken the death of Jo Cox to not only rehabilitate the role of the backbench MP as something to be admired but to elevate the status of female politicians.

Women were recently elected mayors of Rome, Madrid and Barcelona.Female political leaders are on the increase everywhere but in England .   

We often have to look further afield to Germany, America and Angela Merkel, Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton for inspiration precisely because we hear so little about our own homegrown talent.

A study by MIT economist Esther Duflo found the existence of female political role models to be critical in closing the gender divide in politics.

She wrote ‘seeing women in charge persuaded parents and teens that women can run things, and increased their ambitions. Changing perceptions and giving hope can have an impact on reality,”  

When I think back to the reasons I got involved I remember the female candidate I campaigned for and  the MPs (Lynne Featherstone, Jo Swinson in particular) I looked up to.

Aside from her trailblazing campaigns, Jo Cox’s approach to politics will inspire thousands of women who have perhaps never been a member of a party or contemplated a career in politics.

Reading the tributes it’s clear that it’s not just what Jo Cox achieved as an MP but the way she did it will be as influential.

The fact Jo Cox pursued her passion and remained true to herself throughout her time as an MP will be as much as an inspiration for young women, refusing to conform to stereotypes of what politicians are supposed to be like.

The fact that Jo’s reputation in Parliament was built on her track record and her knowledge in relation to humanitarian and development causes not her appearance or her political allegiances will encourage other women to pursue a career in politics.

But her personal style of politics will also be hugely influential to people who are put off by the confrontational, adversarial politics we are presented with in the media.

Historian John Bew wrote ‘She was not a contrarian or a troublemaker and much preferred getting on with people.

Jo’s own style of politics was above all collaborative and practical as Kirsty Mcneill wrote:

‘the revelation of Jo’s life was not just what she did, but the how she did it. Jo believed in the power of common action, never just asking, “What do you think?”, but “How should we do it?” In her mind there was no question that could not be answered in working together.

Crucially, as Nick Clegg commented Jo’s approach was not tribal, calling her: ‘unusually free of the tribal pettiness of politics – always friendly, cheerful and kind to friend and foe alike’.

Jo’s own doubts about herself, as hard as they are to believe, were both real and relatable.

As Jo’s friend Jess Phillips MP wrote ‘don’t think she wasn’t terrified every time she took to her feet in the Commons. She was, but she did it anyway. You see she was human.’

Allegra Stratton wrote that despite her obvious talent her friend felt ‘lack of confidence set her back a decade’

Another friend and colleague Rachel Reeves MP said: ‘Jo’s main hesitation about a parliamentary career was her young family. She worried, as many of us do, about whether she could be a great MP and a great mum at the same time’

Jo’s doubts, both her acknowledgement of them and the way she overcame them will inspire other women who wrestle daily with the same fears and anxieties.

Taken as a whole Jo Cox’s approach to politics was mould-breaking and defining.

Her inspiring words will be remembered long after her death but her approach too will appeal to many people, not just women, who have previously thought politics was not for them.

‘Very simply, she was passionate about helping people, and doing good. That’s why she went into parliament.’ wrote historian Jon Bew

In politics, plaudits without power are worth nothing

After the last miserable five years of press coverage for Lib Dems, the last five days of journalists acknowledging the positive influence of our party in government have been blissful.

Like the first warm and sunny spring day after a long cold winter articles praising Lib Dems for putting a brake on the Tories, promoting fairness and blunting Tory axes have come thick and fast.

Articles have appeared recently in The Economist, The Independent and Politics Home to name a few. The occasion has been the publication of ‘Coalition’ by David Laws coupled with the Tories abject failure to govern either fairly or effectively without the Lib Dems – something I’ve written about.

Andrew Grice writing in The Independent  conceded

‘Mr Clegg was right, and the restraining hand of his party helped to blunt the Tory axe’

George Parker acknowledged in Politics Home the  role played by Lib Dems in

‘providing stable government in unlikely circumstances over five years and – quite often..saving the Tories from saving themselves’

At last, we think to ourselves, the press are seeing the Tories for what they really are –  nasty, welfare-cutters. Finally those misguided journos are giving us the credit we Lib Dems deserve – for stopping them!

Where were these articles a year ago?

Might they have stopped a Lib Dem wipeout?

Unlikely. Quite simply, politics doesn’t work like that.

How comforting, how seductive, above all how easy it is to sit at home retweeting articles between Lib Dem supporting friends comforting ourselves counting our blessings and polishing our halos.

I’ve done my fair-share of cheerleading of Coalition achievements and renouncing our achievements also does us no favours but we must be careful not  to let celebrating our party’s past glories become a lifestyle choice.

We are a living, breathing political party not a historical society for the Preservation of Liberal Principles.

Like the lottery winner who finds his missing ticket in their jeans pocket the day after the eligibility period has expired, the last few days have been enough to make most of us want to run screaming to the nearest council offices and demand a recount.

However, we live in a winner takes all electoral system. We must avoid blaming the electorate. There are no prizes for second, third or fourth. We gambled and lost and in British politics there are no refunds.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t celebrate our achievements. We absolutely should and clear which ideas were ours  and which definitely were not.

We’ve overcome the hurdle where voters didn’t take the Lib Dems seriously because we had never been in power. Now it is Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party facing that credibility gap.

Without power, we are nothing

Power is for spending not hoarding, says David Laws in his new book.

I agree. However, we spent what political capital we accrued in government and in so doing we ran up a massive overdraft.

Now is the time to start paying in once again – to show British voters what voting Lib Dem will give to them: hard-working, community champions with an inbuilt suspicion of elites and entrenched establishment power.

We are in politics not to be something, but to do something. Not to be grand but to do grand things, said Tim Farron in York at our Spring Conference.

Having power in itself if not important if you squander the opportunity to make things better.

We are a political party and not a pressure group. We exist to change things or we are nothing.

Now we are in opposition we must use our time wisely: to develop new policy, support liberal causes and set out clearly what we would do differently in government next time.

As Westminster outsiders once again and we must use our new status to rebuild trust with the public and that way our electoral base.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”  said Kierkegaard. Food for thought for Lib Dems.

Call this a proper debate? oh do grow up

We’re used to pretty poor media coverage of political debates in this country but we’re barely a week into the  EU referendum campaign and  barrels are already being scraped.

‘all the interest, plainly, is in the intellectual and political battle  within the Tory party.’ declared the Sunday Times Leader today, if we needed any clue as to what our diet was going to be from the anti-European press for the next four months.

The Dave vs Boris sideshow may be light entertainment for political geeks and lobby journalists but to misappropriate The Smiths that Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore.

Did the rolling news coverage of Boris’s ‘tussle with his conscience’ rather than his tussle with his hair leave anyone watching feeling more and informed about the forthcoming vote?

I’ve seen more serious discussion in the press about an episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians than this crucial debate.

This referendum is about the future of our country, not the future of a divided Conservative party as Nick Clegg rightly said in the House of Commons.

If standing on a wet and windy high street in Yeovil on the #StrongerIN campaign stall has taught me anything, it’s that the vast majority of people  would rather contemplate their shoelaces than engage me in conversation about their views on the European Union.

Whilst I spoke to a good number of people who were keen to express their support for our campaign and there was the expected “We’re an island” from a few vocal outers they were all outnumbered by the disinterested, the unaware and the apathetic.

If the media continue with framing the debate as old school chums having a disagreement in the tuck shop then it’s hardly surprising we’re seeing the current levels of apathy,

Apart from a few notable exceptions,  the debate about whether we leave or remain in the European Union has  been dominated by old men which makes research by the LSE that Women are almost twice as likely to answer ‘Don’t Know’ in most EU referendum polls. self-fulfilling.

Hardly a day has gone by without another sexagenarian breaking his temporary silence to lecture younger generations that they know best.

Just picking a choice few from both sides of the media coverage, we have been treated to Nigel Lawson, David Steele, Michael Howard, Alan Johnson and Peter Mandelson giving us the benefit of their wisdom. That’s five men with a combined age of 361 given air time whilst at the same time millions of 16 and 17 year olds who will be affected most by the result are denied a vote in this referendum. The Nigel Lawson’s of this world can rest easy that they won’t be around to face the consequences of their misrepresentation.

With the media having a chance to finally present the British public with properly presented debate, if the last week is anything to go by they’ve blown it.

BBC Question Time is probably no longer a good benchmark for sensible debate as the producers seem more intent on developing conflict rather than reasoned argument 

‘I’m so glad we’re having a proper debate!’ Giles Fraser on Question Time on Thursday without spotting the obvious irony that there was no proper debate being presented.

He was joined by Julian Fellowes the creator of Downtown Abbey, himself an unelected member of the House of Lords and a man who makes a living selling shows about an England that hasn’t existed for over a hundred years, chimed in urging the audience to leave the EU over rules “we’ve never voted for”.

We have a long way to go in this debate. 116 more days to be precise.
Adam Boulton wrote in his Sunday Times column

‘The entire UK is being plunged into a referendum it never really an attempt to sort out a local difficulty among Conservatives.

 Judging by this week’s media coverage it will be up to those of us who are actively engaged in our communities to inject some reality  into this debate and to work to ensure that the voices of those currently excluded are heard and everyone exercises their right to vote in this referendum.

Nick was right this debate is about the future of our country and not the future of the Conservative party.

For the sake of the millions of ordinary people who will have to live with the outcome it’s up for us to effectively make the case for staying in the EU, online and offline, because the right-wing media definitely won’t.  

Desperately Seeking Bradley


Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ (2012)


‘If the motion is defeated, the headlines will be awful. If the motion is passed, it will get little or no coverage.’

This was the gist of my conversation with Mark Pack yesterday evening on the Lib Dem hot topic of the moment aka the motion on electing diverse MPs being debated at the Liberal Democrat Spring conference next month.

Ladies and Gentleman, I give you Liberal Democrat reality, February 2016.

Gone are the days when a key conference vote was likely to generate news headlines or more likely, leadership speculation!

Success currently means avoiding a roasting by Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News, getting a Lib Dem member to ask a question on Question Time and if we’re really really lucky Tim Farron getting a seat on Andrew Marr’s sofa to foot tap along to the end of programme band.

That’s politics.

Reality Check time: The Liberal Democrats have 8 MPs.

The last opinion poll I saw had us on 6%.

I say this as one of the most optimistic, enthusiastic Lib Dem activists around. There is no sign, as yet, that #LibDemFightback is going to sweep us back to power any time soon. The electorate doesn’t owe us anything. We have to earn voters trust respect back if we want them to vote for us at national level again.

It is true that we are clawing back council seats and chalking up some impressive swings. We’ve scored a few hits on The Welfare Bill, tax credits and the refugee crisis but we need to win a big political argument to start making real headway on the long march back to reclaiming the seats and ground we lost.

As things stand, we are a party currently locked in a battle, not for power, but for relevance.
Without a single female or ethnic minority MP to our name we are hardly in a strong position to argue that we’ve done enough on diversity.

As we attempt to rebuild our party and its electoral base now seems to me a sensible time to do an internal MOT and check everything is functioning as it should.
More to the point, now is the time to check we are living our values as Liberal Democrats, something I called for last year.

But I must admit reading some of the online debate on the subject I’ve been wary of sticking my head above the parapet and arguing the case for positive discrimination.

It’s against my principles! It’s just not liberal! Goes the standard Facebook rant.

This is the despite the fact I’ve written extensively on the subject both here on my blog and in national newspapers.

Last year I reluctantly appeared on a panel at the South Bank to talk about women in politics representing the Lib Dems. Bit of a sticky wicket!

As a woman who’s been active in politics for just over a decade of all the battles I’ve fought over the this is the one I’ve had the least stomach for.
I won my first election in 2006 but I only started speaking out about the lack of women in politics after I ‘retired’ from the Council and had the time to reflect on things. It wasn’t an issue during that time when our council group had a high number of women councillors and an LGBT representation that would embarrass most London councils.

Yet it seems, for some in the party, speaking out on the subject now that I have looked at the party in the way that others see us could have a detrimental impact on my political career. Oh the irony!

But then I reminded myself why I got into politics: to use my voice to make change.

If we are going to achieve full equality men not just women will have to fight for it and vote for it.

Emma Watson was right when she said ‘Men, gender equality is your issue too.’

So while I was pleased to see Party President Sal Brinton and presidential runner-up Daisy Cooper making the running online in forums and such like I’d like more evidence that Tim Farron has done his homework in identifying heavyweight backing from men in the party for his ideas.


This is what happened when Emma Watson spoke out in 2014. After that, it snowballed.
A year later Jennifer Lawrence called out the shocking pay gap in Hollywood after a leaked email from Sony revealed she had been paid less than her co-stars on films like American Hustle . “I’m over trying to find the ‘adorable’ way to state my opinion and still be likable”

Then Bradley Cooper added his voice calling ‘it really horrible…embarrassing actually’ that his co-star was regularly paid less:

‘From now on, Cooper says he is teaming up with his female co-stars by sharing salary information with them before any future films go into production. That way, they will be able to negotiate for a fair amount, knowing what their male co-star will be making. “I don’t know where it’s changing otherwise,” he told Reuters of the Hollywood gender pay gap, “But that’s something that I could do.”

Bradley made Jennifer’s problem,  his problem as well.

Where are the Lib Dems’ Bradley Coopers?

Mark Pack has been helping to get the ball rolling in cyberspace.

Activists like Rhys Taylor have eloquently put the case for change.

We need more of that. Not just online, but on the Conference floor too.

It should not be down to the marginalised to ‘sing for their own supper’ and fight for their own equality.

It is not enough for liberals to recognise a problem and wring their hands. They have an obligation to do their part to correct it.

As someone who has the scars from council debates can tell you, putting forward motions means nothing unless you are prepared to do what it takes to win them. Unless, of course, the aim of putting forward the motion is merely virtue-signalling.

I don’t believe that that is the case here with the motion’s movers, but Some members don’t even believe that there is a problem to be solved let alone that they should be personally responsible in attaining one.

Liberal Democrats have the opportunity to put themselves the right side of history with this motion, to demonstrate they are prepared to modernise their processes and structures to help deliver a more representative Parliament and a less exclusive politics in the future.

These changes alone won’t deliver a more diverse polity overnight. We have huge cultural issues to overcome.

However, one thing is for sure, doing nothing will absolutely result in zero change.

The evidence shows that the Liberal Democrats have so far been unsuccessful electing women. It is a source of embarrassment that the Conservatives have more women and ethnically diverse representation.

Members, newly able to exercise one member one vote on policy motions have the opportunity at our Spring Conference to start fixing this.
I really hope we don’t flunk it.

Loose talk on leaving the EU could cost jobs

EU debate 04.02 16

The debate took place on a chilly February afternoon in Westminster. 

A handful of MPs gathered in a two-thirds empty chamber on Thursday to debate not a minor hobby horse of an obscure backbench MP but something of genuine national import: the upcoming European Referendum, an issue that has divided the Conservative Party for over a century.

I studied the history of The Corn Laws at A Level, I know how this story ends.

The title of the debate: ‘Backbench Business: Parliamentary sovereignty and EU renegotiations’ sounded reasonable enough but at the list of people who spoke revealed merely the usual suspects: John Baron MP (Basildon and Billericay, Conservative), Sir William Cash (Stone, Conservative), Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot, Conservative), Kate Hoey (Vauxhall, Labour), David Nuttall (Bury North, Conservative)

With the exception of handful of Eurosceptic Labour MPs, it was another instance of the Tory party talking to the Tory party in a navel-gazing contest.

If these MPs were aiming to be heard by the country at large then they were mistaken. The country was at work, or doing something else more constructive.

The referendum on British membership of the European Union may have started life as an  obsessional Conservative disorder but the net result of that referendum will have a profound impact on people living in the UK, whether or not they are interested in that debate.

David Cameron, aware that the impression that his party gives too often that this is some kind of political parlour game in a private members club urged his own MPs to set aside the views of their local constituency associations to make their decision based on ‘what is in their heart’

His plea was met with howls of outrage this weekend from 41 Conservative associations accusing him of dismissing ‘the very people who secured his victory’ and urging him and his MPs to ‘listen to the views of the grassroots.’

Civil war in the Conservative party, on ice for a few years now beckons as their ‘grassroots’ deploy the same grasp of political reality for which they have been openly mocking Labour members who elected Jeremy Corbyn.

A party that looks inwards, listening to its own self-reinforcing echo chamber rarely speaks for the electorate.

For politicos and those of us still licking our wounds after dire General Election results last year the current Tory malaise might be amusing but for the country at large the results of this political shambles could be both economically and socially disastrous.

It may be timely to remind ourselves of some arithmetic:

  • the Conservative party has roughly 149,000 members
  • The UK population is roughly 61 million.
  • The CBI estimates 3 million jobs are dependent on our trade with the EU.

Once upon a time, the Conservative proclaimed itself the party of business.

More recently it has attempted to rebrand itself as the workers’ party pinching Liberal Democrat and Labour policies on raising the income tax threshold and  introducing the Living Wage. and presenting them as their own.

However, if its MPs are foolhardy enough to align themselves with the Leave EU campaign, they will be allying themselves with a plan that directly jeopardises British jobs and British workers.

MPs representing seats known for the high number of jobs linked to international trade such as Finmeccanica-Helicopters (formerly Agusta Westland) in Yeovil, where I am now living, should be especially careful about what they say.

When asked if he was concerned about the potential detrimental impact on employment within his constituency, the local Conservative MP said he was ‘personally, not too worried’ yet bizarrely in the same breath argued that current EU regulation should be preserved to preserve trade with the EU!

Alternative science and technology funding would also need to be found, he declared refusing to reveal how exactly this might be achieved outside the auspices of the EU.

When people elect members of Parliament they expect them to take decisions based on what is in the best interests of their constituents and the country.

We are being encouraged by Leave campaigners to think that EU withdrawal is as easy as pulling the plug with no consequences. But there will be consequences.

Leavers can dispute hypothetical future outcomes until the cows come home but the facts speak for themselves: as things stand billions of pounds are invested by the EU in technology projects like Horizon 2020 that directly benefit the UK economy and its workforce.

What is in it for companies like Finmeccanica to continue investing in their British subsidiaries if they are no longer part of the EU?

A clear case where loose talk by Conservative MPs on leaving the EU could cost real jobs here in the UK.

A difficult decision on Syria, but Tim Farron got it right

I should preface this post with the following preamble:

I was elected for eight years (as a local councillor) and I was lead member for social care, housing and health between 2010 and 2011.

I have had to review evidence presented on difficult and unavoidable decisions several times in my career in politics.  

I made those decisions on behalf of thousands of people (not all of whom voted for me but who I was charged with representing) based on my values and the evidence in front of me.

The decisions I took then were not about going to war but they impacted real people and their families and I was petitioned and questioned in public on those decisions many times: before, during and afterwards.

I don’t mind admitting I found these experiences very difficult.I took those decisions in good faith and with the best intentions. They were the right decisions I believd.  However, taking them left their mark on me.

‘I did not go into politics to do this’ I found myself saying to Council officers. Who does?

Sadly, the number of people willing to take difficult decisions themselves is very small – particularly when you remember that only 1% of of the UK population is even member of a political party.

For this reason I have utmost respect for elected politicians from all parties and often find myself defending politicians to friends and family.

Standing for election risks being elected and implementing policy.

The flip side is having to make decisions on other people’s policies and not being in total control of that process.

There is in my experience a huge gulf between electors and elected which is one of the reasons I embraced social media as I found it impossible to explain to people (most of whom don’t watch Newsnight or go to Council meetings) what was going on half the time.

I found being a member of a small party does not insulate you from having to make hard choices between less than perfect options – it actually leaves you more exposed to criticism.

Which brings me to this week’s events in Westminster.

I didn’t vote for Tim Farron to be Lib Dem leader but I agreed with the stance he took in Parliament this week on Syrian airstrikes.

His position might have surprised a few people but it’s absolutely consistent with our previous positions on military intervention from Bosnia to Iraq.

Under Charles Kennedy and a year before I joined the party the Lib Dems voted against going to war in Iraq – the only major party to do so.

It was not a popular position with many at the time, but there is general agreement now that it was the right thing to do.

However, the Lib Dems were not then and never have been, pacifists.

When the Lib Dems were led by Paddy Ashdown they supported military intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo on humanitarian grounds in response to genocide.

Asked if the Lib Dems would support airstrikes in Syria on Have I Got News for You last week, Tim Farron replied: ‘if it’s legal and if it’s effective’.

Those two tests have been the basis of all Liberal Democrat positions thus far and intervention in Iraq in 2003 failed both of them.

Tim Farron said he could not support military action in Syria against Assad in 2013 because he was ‘not convinced it would be effective..nor would it prevent more suffering than it caused.’

It’s clear that he felt differently this time. ‘When the facts change, I change my mind’ said Keynes.

A key tenet of liberalism is making decisions on the basis of evidence, not received opinion or prejudice.

I trust Lib Dem MPs who voted with the government this week to have carefully reviewed the evidence including security briefings that those of us outside Parliament are not privy to and base their opinion on that.

But I also bear no ill will towards MPs who reviewed that same evidence on all sides (including my own) and voted against air strikes.

It was very clear from activity on social media leading up to and during the debate that the position that would attract the least ire from armchair commentators was to oppose air strikes.

Tim Farron would have known the opprobrium that would have been heaped on him and other Lib Dem MPs not least by many of his own supporters but he stuck to his guns because he believed it was the right thing to do.

For me, that’s what separates his leadership from pedestrian to front rank in this Parliament.

I listened to the debate and watched the Liberal Democrat leader intervene in previous ones to know he is the only party leader, indeed only MP to use his voice to consistently speak up for the most vulnerable of all – the voice that is too often lost – that of unaccompanied child refugees.

I am proud of him for doing this and there are signs that David Cameron is finally starting to listen.

There are no easy answers on foreign policy questions and no straightforward, painless routes back to power for us Liberal Democrats.

However, in these uncertain times what is needed is effective opposition of the Executive by our Parliamentarians to make sure no decisions go unchecked, unscrutinised.

The Lib Dems in Parliament are playing this vital role and in so doing reminding people why a liberal voice in British politics must and will continue to exist.

The morale imperative

In terms of member morale and our reputation the news Lib Dem Peers in the House of Lords had voted for Chris Rennard to the Liberal Democrat’s Federal Executive caused the single most damaging day for the Lib Dems since the General Election.

The fact that this was a self-inflicted wound and one that was entirely avoidable made it even harder to stomach.

The attempts to shrug this decision off by party establishment figures as an internal matter shows they’ve learned nothing from Helena Morrissey’s report. You may think I’m overstating things, but:

Yesterday another one of my friends and longstanding activists Katherine Bavage resigned live on Channel Four News.

This morning I received a text from a longstanding member out of the blue:

‘I have just sent  a protest re: the ridiculous appointment of Chris Rennard…via the Freepost donation envelope that landed on my mat the same day as the news broke. NOT impressed.’

My friend, a former parliamentary candidate and member of Federal Executive, Kav Kaushik put together an online questionnaire that has attracted over 200 responses in less than 24 hours.

A petition organised by other members to call a Special Conference to change the party’s rules has already met the threshold needed to happen.

And a large number of new members in our Newbies Facebook Group, some of the most enthusiastic people in our party, expressed concerns.

A Twitter Poll I ran asking people if they thought Tim Farron should speak out against the appointment came out 84% in favour.

These reactions are just the tip of an iceberg and reflect a widely held opinion within the party. It looks even worse for women outside our party, looking in.

That peers would think there would be no external scrutiny of their action in electing Rennard to the Federal Executive beggars belief.

It’s probably the case that Tim Farron can’t change their decision but he can speak out strongly against it and lay down the direction he wants to lead the party in. It was good to see Sal Brinton respond and express disappointment but for many of us this was far too late to frame the developing media agenda.

A senior campaigner commented on my Facebook posts yesterday that Chris Rennard was the party’s most successful campaigner, almost as though that excuses everything.

Ignoring that there is precious little evidence to show his methods have adapted to the new methods of campaigning, I’m sorry one man, however successful, is not worth the resignations and the rapid demoralisation of hundreds more women and men in our party.

Without them, their energy, their commitment #Libdemfightback cannot happen.

They joined a party they thought would be liberal and democratic.

Transforming the Lib Dems, making us a female-friendly party is about more, much more, than our leader appointing women in reasonable numbers to his shadow team.

It means all of us, from the most senior to the newest member (particularly those Lib Dems that seek to represent others) living by the values we espouse.

Days ago I addressed an audience full of politically active women, many of whom voted Lib Dem at least once and have now joined the Greens, Labour and the Women’s Equality Party.

If you don’t think the Rennard affair affected their perception of our party? Maybe try to talking to one of them. Attempts to squash this debate internally are futile, if we allow those outside the party to draw their own conclusions that in the Lib Dems certain men are more equal than others.

When I woke up this morning I wondered if I could be bothered to go to Oldham on a Saturday in November to spend  7 hours on a train and £65 on the ticket, and then I thought no actually why should we punish the only woman on the ballot paper – our candidate – and all those other volunteers.

If we are going to change the culture in this party we are going to have to stick around and show that we are not going to take no for an answer but that doesn’t mean that we have to be silenced.
I am working hard to get elected as an MP in 2020, to kick the door down and keep it open for others to follow. My priority 2020-2030 will be to get more women elected at all levels and to ensure our next leadership election has women in it.

Effective opposition means disowning bad Bills

In politics, timing and getting your message right are both important.

In opposition, even more so.

When the draft investigatory powers bill was published by Theresa May last week it was clear that this was something that Lib Dems should instinctively oppose.

It is not our job to defend what is contained in Conservative Bills.

What was published may have be an a considerable improvement than what was originally proposed in the ‘Snoopers Charter’ thanks to Lib Dem ministers in coalition – but that was then and this is now.

After all, we have liberal in our name and are naturally suspicious of any legislation which seeks to tip the scales further towards the state and away from the individual citizen.

People expect us to stand up for civil liberties because as on so many issues, if we don’t who will?

Like most people who are not Westminster insiders I rely on Twitter and other channels for my news.

On the day of the publication of the Bill I searched online to find out our line.Hours passed and still the Lib Dems had no official position.

Speech – Where next for women in politics?

I was invited to be part of a panel debating solutions to the absence of women in Parliament in the UK at the Southbank Sex and Power: Where next for women in politics as part of the WOW festival.

Here is the speech I wrote for that event:

Life as a female activist in the Liberal Democrats is very frustrating as I find myself in a party where our female representation has declined since I first got involved in 2005.

This situation has clearly not been helped in recent years by claims of harassment and the failure to promote women to Cabinet positions.

As a result I know many excellent women members who have given up and I don’t blame them. So why not me?

It’s because I believe strongly my party should change, not the women in it. I spent pretty much the entire election period campaigning for our brilliant female candidates and yet not a single one won.

Whilst this can in part be put down to the national picture, it is a worrying trend that for a party that holds so much store in its support for equality that our female representation in the House of Commons has actually been in decline for the last 10 years to the point that it is now non-existent.

Ambitious women should not feel they have to leave the party to be elected and, let’s face it, no-one joins the Liberal Democrats for the easy way to power. But, there are still plenty of reasons women might want to join us:

We are the party that delivered shared parental leave, progress on women on boards, more transparency on the gender pay gap and fairer pensions.
These changes were all led, when they were given the chance, by women in government. Jo Swinson, Jenny Willott and Lynne Featherstone showed that women were just as capable and perhaps, given their lack of status, more than capable of leading the national policy agenda.

It doesn’t seem that it’s a lack of ability that’s the problem, it’s the lack of opportunity.

So how can we change this? For a start the talent pool needs expansion beyond the normal political types.

When I first became active in politics I had very little experience or no encouragement to stand, yet:

  • I stood for council in an unwinnable ward – and won!
  • I worked my way up from ward councillor, chaired scrutiny and then became a cabinet member and group leader.
  • I stood as a parliamentary candidate in 2010 and increased our vote share by 9%.

For someone starting out this can be daunting. I was able to do all this because I could call on more experienced politicians for mentoring.

The effect of this help should not be underestimated, especially when you have senior opposition members, mostly men, attempting to belittle your achievements and work.

As a result I tried to use my experiences to influence other women to get more involved.

  • I approached women who had never thought of politics, let alone being active, to stand as councillors.
  • I headhunted women to put themselves forward as parliamentary candidates.

This approach resulted in the election of several excellent councillors, women who would never have thought about putting themselves forward without positive encouragement.

It shouldn’t be down to individual women to do the heavy lifting. Politics is a team game and it is down to everyone to make a change rather than hope that thinking the right thoughts is enough.

In my party this took the form of congratulating ourselves with the fact that a number of women were selected in seats previously held by men but the support they were given was too little to make a difference.

We got better at selecting women but not electing them.

Our problems as a party go beyond the selection process:-

We have reached a tipping point where many members and not just women want to see direct action. I can see things changing.

  • Tim Farron has started strongly selecting a shadow cabinet with 12 women to ten men.
  • We have selected a female candidate Jane Brophy, in the first by-election this Parliament in Oldham West & Royton – the only major party to do so.

However, there is much more we need to do if we are going to elect women MPs in 2020 and myself and others will keep the pressure up for more action.

  • We need positive action, not discrimination, to select women in our target seats in 2020

I’ve spoken to Tim Farron about this and he has talked about ‘muscular intervention’ which compares with what one former MP called Nick Clegg’s failing strategy of ‘voluntary euthanasia’.

  • Local parties should be required to talent spot and put women forward to a national training programme to be councillors, council leaders and MPs
  • Mentoring from senior members should be offered to all women whether they are starting out or hoping to make that next step up.
  • There should be access to public funding for women wanting to run for office. Failing a political consensus, parties should take their own remedial action.

Politics shouldn’t be the province of men who have exploited the gender pay gap to get a leg up in financing their campaigns.

It is not enough for members to say that they believe in equality.

At all levels in the party from the newest member to the most senior, if they really believe in gender equality they must be able to say what personal action they have taken to encourage it.

If there’s a women you know who would make a great MP or a fantastic party leader isn’t it time you asked her?