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.  


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.

In politics, it’s not what you say, it’s what you do that really matters

What do the choices Tories, Labour and Lib Dems made this week on cuts to tax credits say about them?

Days after the election Nick Clegg gatecrashed an informal meeting of new Lib Dem members and others in a cellar bar in Westminster.

Nick Clegg speaking to new members after 'gatecrashing' the event.

Nick Clegg speaking to new members days after the General Election on May 7 2015.

“Never ever let anyone questions the motives of the Liberal Democrats… we did the right things in government.” It was an important message because power without an underlying motivation is not worth anything.

Things we achieved: the pupil premium; Raising the tax threshold’ Shared parental leave – all things “liberal” Tories are now desperately
trying to claim credit for.

Things we were stopped from doing: changing our broken voting system and reforming the House of Lords – wrecked by Labour purely to create embarrassment for Lib Dems rather than for reasons of principle.

Before the general election Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander were ridiculed by the Tory Press Office for warning that their £8bn worth of cuts to welfare would hit the working poor’s tax credits, yet despite their public denials, that’s exactly what they were planning. What we have seen laid bare is political cowardice and chicanery of the worst kind.

As objections to tax credits from well-respected think tanks such as the Resolution Foundation mounted, self-styled compassionate Tories felt compelled to speak out, almost as though they too were hoodwinked by their own manifesto.

This left opposition parties with a choice – deliver a fatal blow to tax credits by whatever means possible or simply delay the decision to harm children and families.

Even in coalition Lib Dems held a consistent position, savings were necessary to mend the broken economy but measures which pushed to poorest into poverty had to be resisted by all means possible.

Yet, when Jeremy Corbyn’s new way faced its first serious political test, Labour sat on the fence on tax credits and its behaviour was indistinguishable from the abstentions on the welfare bill his supporters viewed as the work of discredited red Tories.

Tim Farron has shown astute judgement in his choices as Lib Dem leader (on the welfare bill and the refugee crisis to name two) but unlike Labour’s position on voting and Lords reform in the last Parliament it is not based on opportunism. They are positions Lib Dems have held consistently when in government and opposition.

Quite simply, Labour are not behaving like a serious opposition party. They have swallowed Tory threats about constitutional conventions and crisis. Even their own leader in the Lords called this ‘parliamentary bullying’.

If Labour can’t stand up to the Tories in Parliament how can they claim to stand up for British people in the country at large? That is not an opposition

Sadly tribal politics prevents Labour from doing the right thing; for too many Labour members tribalism trumps fairness.

As Baroness Northover tweeted at the time:

With Corbyn’s opposition by crowdsourcing replacing opposition by principle, Labour cannot decide what they are for let alone what they are against because it depends each week on his email inbox. They can no longer be trusted to hit the Tories where it hurts – in the division lobbies.

In an uncertain world, people look for leaders and political parties that show consistency and coherence in their positions.

I campaigned for the Lib Dems in the general election. It was clear that on the doorstep in Lib Dem/Tory marginals that voters were satisfied with what the Coalition government was doing.

They were conditioned into thinking voting Tory meant getting fiscal competence, protection of the vulnerable and all the other nice liberal things. It’s not surprising therefore that many of these voters, like the woman on Question Time a few weeks ago, now feel betrayed.

In politics, as in life, integrity shows through in individual actions – it is what you do, not only what you say.

When people ask us on the issue of tax credits, what did your party do – we Lib Dems can be confident our party did the right thing.

Here’s one of my favourite bands Chvrches covering ‘What Do You Mean?’ by Justin Bieber – as a good an instructional on Labour in opposition as I’ve seen: “you wanna go to the left but then you turn right?”