Thought the Lib Dems were finished? As if!

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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?

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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

Loose talk on leaving the EU could cost jobs

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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.

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?

Elections are sometimes lost but good ideas can shape the future – some thoughts on political leadership

I’ve been interested in the subject of effective political leadership for a while. We don’t have nearly enough of it, in my view.

Effective political leadership is different from other types of leadership and despite being around for centuries it seems to me it is still not very well-understood or particularly valued.

Although it often features as part of the curriculum of academic politics courses, students  are rarely taught how to be political leaders, and our politics are poorer as a result. I often reflect on the fact that my politics degree did not equip me very well for a career in politics! 

I have since learned that the principles of political leadership although not for everyone can in fact be taught and I’ve become all the more convinced that it should be. Or, we should expect the quality of political decision-making to continue to be poor, which benefits no-one.

I was lucky enough to be taught about  political leadership by Cllr Richard Kemp and other senior leaders in local government when I was a young councillor via the Next Generation Programme run by the Leadership Centre (part of the Local Government Association).

Richard is one of the closest things we have to a guru in the Lib Dems – a community campaigner to his core.  Not convinced? you might have heard of Tim Farron – one of his other former students. Richard and Tim both believe strongly that as an elected person you should never forget who put you there in the first place, and I agree.

They also believe you should spend more time in your community representing your constituents than in the council chamber/parliament – something I remember telling a journalist within hours of my election. ‘Daisy set to skip committee meetings to talk to residents’ was how that was eventually written up!

I introduced Richard to some of our new members I hung out with at our Federal Conference last week and reading this post  which he wrote afterwards I was delighted to see the experience had a positive impact on him as it did on them.

Cllr Richard Kemp with new Lib Dem member Emily Barrass

Cllr Richard Kemp with new Lib Dem member Emily Barrass

Very often, when you’re active in a political party and lucky enough to be elected you learn how to campaign and win elections. On the NGP we were lectured not about how you win  but crucially how to exercise power and keep it.  The course was all about exercising influence – council officers effectively run councils but elected councillors must lead them.

In my experience, effective political leaders have more in common with each other than individual politicians have with individual political parties.

This is something I learned as a local councillor after observing who was running councils and who managed to stay running councils. In general I found it wasn’t actually about party, it was all about personality.


For me, it wasn’t enough just hearing from people who had exercised real power it was important to see a Lib Dem-run administration in action too.

I remember organising a council group visit to Eastleigh Borough Council in 2009 when I was still an opposition councillor and listening to Lib Dem council leader Keith House saying ‘if you want to do things you have to be in power’. It may sound obvious but it had a big impact on me and other colleagues at the time as members of a group who had only ever known opposition and opposing things.

With Cllr Keith House and members of the Lib Dem Group on Reading Borough Council

With Cllr Keith House and Cllr Louise Bloom and members of the Lib Dem Group on Reading Borough Council

Listening to Keith  and other senior councillors such as Louise Bloom taught me the importance of  goals in politics, and having something to aim for. 

For me that visit showed up the difference between campaigning for better recycling collections (as we were doing in Reading at that time) and being a genuinely green council influencing the climate change agenda as Eastleigh BC was  (and still is).

Again, devolving decision-making to ward level via area committees had only happened because Lib Dems were running the council, not just because they talked about it in their leaflets or in a couple of council meetings.

It’s not enough to campaign against things to win elections,  you also need to know what you would do in power if you had it. This is one of the reasons I found coalition a relatively easy concept to get my head around, unlike a few other people!

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In 2011 in my role as Lead Member for Housing with Andrew Stunell, then Lib Dem Housing Minister. On the site of the first new council houses built in Reading for over 20 years.

A couple of years after graduating from the Next Generation Programme and visiting Eastleigh I found myself in a cabinet running my local council with lead responsibility for  housing, social care and health and managing a multi-million pound budget.

In that role I precided over the first council-house building programme in over twenty years just a few years after tabling questions about over-crowding in my ward. It was a dream come true.The year after that I became leader of my political group on my council, a post I held for two years.

Being a member of the Programme also resulted in my nomination to become a member of an international leadership network, the British-American Project where I continue to learn from recognised leaders in their fields, many of them outside politics

Seeing the things that Nick Clegg has been saying and doing since he left office got me thinking about this subject and specifically the exercise of political leadership beyond political parties and offices of state.

In my view, once a political leader, always a political leader. The vehicle and platform may change but the impetus behind it – to change things – does not. Perhaps thought leadership is a better name for it.

Nick has broken his silence a few times since the election to talk about things other than what I would describe as Westminster water cooler stuff i.e his time in office and the election – to advocate and promote his ideas.

He fired a shot across the bows of  the probable future Tory leader George Osborne with an article in the Evening Standard where he sought to wrestle work from the Tories and reclaim it as a liberal value:

Work is not just an economic necessity. It brings identity and self-reliance. It is a spur to ingenuity and a catalyst for growth. Work demands the learning of new skills. It sustains communities and nourishes families. Without work, society crumbles.

So I take an old-fashioned liberal view that supporting work — rewarding and fairly-rewarded work — should be one of the first duties of government.’

I happen to agree with Nick on this point and I was pleased to see his passion on issues of fairness and social justice has clearly not wavered since he stepped down as leader of the Lib Dems.

Nick also attacked Tory cuts to tax credits ‘these changes remove the work incentives for precisely those low- income families who should be supported to work more.’

Fastforward 3 weeks and we find the points that Nick put forward in his article gaining traction in the mass media:

A cynic may say that Nick cares only for protecting his own political legacy. That may be partly true but misses the wider point:  these are ideas worth fighting for in this parliament  and Nick is right to fight on for them.

Elections are lost but ideas, if they are good, can survive. We cannot  let the Tories march their tanks on to the centre-ground of British politics or ‘the common ground’ as David Cameron may prefer to call it (as he did on Andrew Marr today) without pointing out at regular intervals the ways in which Tory policies in government are a long way from being socially just.

This week Nick went beyond than simply offering a stinging critique of this Conservative government by attacking in the strongest terms the collective failure of governments across the world to tackle the scourge of drugs and is leading a new campaign for worldwide drugs reform.

I would describe this intervention as exercising global leadership on Nick’s part. People like him who are prepared to use their influence, to stick their necks out and find solutions to complex problems in this way should be lauded and encouraged, not least because they are so few in number.

When I tweeted a link to Nick’s Indy article it was retweeted 25 times and liked 36 times in the Lib Dem Newbies UK Facebook Group I help to curate. Small numbers, yes, but an indicator I think that there is still a big market for Nick’s ideas and for Liberal Democrat ideas and policies in general.


It wasn’t surprising to me at all that Nick’s recent campaigns have been well-received particularly by our new members, after the way Nick conducted himself in government and the policies he espoused was the reason many of them joined.

I went on the hunt for a political quote that sums up influence and leadership and the best I could find was this by Martin Luther King:

“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”

Politicians should not cease to lead debates and shape our society when they stop being party leaders, and Nick is no different.

Political leadership is not confined, however, to leaders of political parties. I have been impressed by the work that Jo Swinson, Paul Burstow, Vince Cable, David Laws, Martin Horwood and Steve Webb among others have been leading to actively promote ideas and proposals they championed in government.  Between them, our former MPs and (councillors) have the experience and the insight to be really credible on this stuff and to push our thinking further forward.

I was taught long ago by Cllr Richard Kemp that it’s not the job title in politics that matters it’s what you do it that counts. On that basis why should our ex MPs and ministers’ political influence end just because they are out of power?


As I wrote in The Independent a few weeks ago, no-one is going to sell our story if we don’t but it won’t be enough to harp on about what we did in government or even what we stopped the Tories from doing. 

We must now look to the future and go on to say in more detail  what we would do if we were in government, promoting our ideas outside parliament as well as inside it.

As Richard Kemp would say, with just 8 MPs in Parliament we will have to become a ‘guerilla group’ picking on issues where we can make an impact – the days of shadowing every department are effectively over and the days of having no Lib Dem on Question Time are back.  Our Peers must do their bit too.

As part of #LibDemFightBack w must use all the resources we can muster outside the party to support our parliamentarians- including our former leaders – to get our liberal message across in this Parliament.

Anyway, here’s something I’ve been listening to this weekend:

My article for #IndyVoices

I sent this to Indy Voices before Labour’s best qualified candidate for London Mayor (Tessa Jowell who just happens to be a woman) was passed over yesterday.

Andy Burnham’s comment on Radio Five Live about having a woman leader of the Labour party “when the time is right” perhaps gave away more than he intended. The lack of a career path and successful role models are perhaps the two biggest hindrances to ensuring that talented women wish to enter politics. It is a time-consuming and expensive business and it is no surprise a lot of women find that they have better things to do.

When only 1% of the total electorate is an active member of a political party – down from a high water mark of 3.8% in 1983, it is fair to say that party politics is still officially a minority interest sport and with the preferred career path being straight from university to special advisor or via patronage is it no wonder that women are finding it difficult to get the all-important political experience to work at the top level?

If we want to increase the number of female representatives in Parliament we need to look at the ground floor – local councils, where many women, like me, cut their political teeth. Yet at last count, just 30% of all councillors were women and most of them are over fifty.

I was first elected in my twenties as a councillor I had a 9 to 5 job and a 3 hour daily commute. I was in most ways typical of many of my constituents and especially of young working women. Yet I was made to feel uncomfortable for asking council officers to hold policy briefings after work.

I was attacked in the local press by Labour councillors, ironically many of them trade union officials, and retired Tory councillors for being a part-timer when they could offer ‘full-time’ representation. If there was any way of ensuring it continued to be “jobs for the boys”, that was it.

Even a rare evening off from a council meeting to go to a Radiohead concert made the local press. It’s almost as though they didn’t want real people on the council and especially not young women.

There are still very few role-models for women in British politics. Nicola Sturgeon, speaking to Vogue magazine, had to look abroad to Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel for hers. In my party I have looked to Lynne Featherstone and Jo Swinson as mine, yet in the last Parliament, neither was promoted to Cabinet level despite being as good or better than some of their male counterparts; and I know from speaking to other activists in my party how demoralising that message was for women at all levels.

One female Prime Minister does not mean we have equality, in the same way that having a black President hasn’t rolled back years of racial inequality in the United States.

We need all types of women to get involved in politics to open up politics to all women.

It looks like Labour, the main opposition party will not elect a woman on Saturday, despite the advent of all-women shortlists.

By standing for leadership positions in their party Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Stella Creasy have helped raised the expectations of young women across the political spectrum, but with the usual sexism about children or lack of, at times it seems, sadly, the debate has not moved on from Andy Burnham’s put down. As one Labour supporting political commentator said, if you want a woman leader, you have to vote for one.

Laura Bates author of‘Everyday Sexism’ last year talked about going into schools and asking kids to draw pictures of MPs – they all drew pictures of men. When my nieces are old enough to vote I want them to see politics as women’s business.

I sat through a debate last year where frustrated women complained that no-one listened to them and a few days later the Women’s Equality Party was formed. Women should not have to set up their own party to be represented. If we want women to succeed in politics we need to promote them, vote for them and elect them as our leaders in our parties too.

Labour may not be ready for Liz yet, but women in politics are a step closer to real power

My interest in the Labour leadership contest has ebbed and flowed.

From my perspective, the most interesting candidates for both leader and deputy leader roles have been the women. Yeah, I’m biased.

I was gutted there were no women to vote for in the Lib Dem leadership contest.I’m not expecting any of Labour’s female leadership or deputy candidates to win necessarily but by standing for these offices they have helped further the cause of women in politics not just in Labour, but beyond.

They have shown in their different campaigns, policies and leadership styles that there is more than one type of female politician, women are capable of leading a major political party and being ambitious to win elections is a strength and not a weakness.

This might seem obvious but looking around across the political spectrum there are still too few prominent female politicians. We are nowhere near 50% representation in Parliament.

Despite the higher profile of women in politics it is still no walk in the park succeeding as a woman Helen Lewis pointed out in her excellent expositon of the countless structural barriers women face a few weeks ago.

Turning to the Labour leadership contest, the lack of receptivity, actually, downright hostility towards having women in positions of power that still exists in large parts of the Labour party has been revealing to say the least.

So here are my thoughts on the contest.

Although Liz Kendall could not perhaps match the initial excitement of the early days of her campaign, she would still be my first choice.

7-Liz-Kendall-Get

In terms of her personal style, I loved Liz’s -bloody-mindedness. I love the fact that she announced her candidacy within days of Labour’s defeat and did not wait to be asked. In doing so she made  her male rivals look positively dozy.

When voices (and mainly male) within her own party was calling on Liz to pull out she didn’t. ‘I’m in the race to win!’ was a her response, which admittedly sounded more forlorn as the contest wore on, and she was left trailing further and further behind.

I meet a lot of people through my involvement with politics and too often I find they lose sight of the need to actually win elections in order to implement policy.

This realism is one of Tim Farron’s strongest suits and something he emphasised when he was elected a few weeks ago.

Liz has been attacked for being unprincipled but as Isabel Hardman has pointed out this is nonsense:

The fact that Liz’s focus on the need to beat the Tories in 2020 ended up with her being labelled a Tory by some Labour ‘supporters’ is pretty ironic

In terms of policies, the one Liz put forward which appealed to me the most was her focus on early years education.  Hardly surprising – it’s Lib Dem policy! In fact, most of Liz’s strongest and most attractive-sounding policies are already Lib Dem policy:

Three months ago, a few days after the general election I bumped into Nick Clegg at a #LibDemPint meetup organised by new Lib Dem members in London. ‘Liz Kendall is a Lib Dem!’ were his exact words at the time.

Other things I liked  about Liz was her willingness to speak up about sexism in politics in places like Grazia Magazine and online.

As someone who has experienced ageism when I was a councillor it is incredibly inspiring to see a young woman putting herself forward for a senior role in politics. Liz is part of a new confident generation of women in politics – unafraid of talking about her love of hip hop alongside her interest in policy. She is breaking down barriers for the rest of us to be ourselves.

This leads me on to my other fantasy selection in the leadership contest – Stella Creasy.
Creasy

I met Stella last year at the Women of the World Festival (below). Although I found the event as a whole itself quite frustrating (I blogged about it here) I found Stella inspiring and interest to listen to.

With Stella Creasy and Margot James at the WOW Festival in London, 2014.

With Stella Creasy and Margot James at the WOW Festival in London, 2014.

Stella approaches the issue of women in politics differently than I do but I think we’re on essentially the same mission. She spoke powerfully about being selected as an MP in an all-woman shortlist – she said all of  the women on the list could be described as the brightest and best. She blew a hole in the idea that AWSs means tokenism and not giving members the chance to picking the best candidates.

Well before she put herself forward to be deputy leader I’ve admired Stella from a distance. I have experienced her primarily through her tweets. It’s true, we like a lot of the same music but that’s not the only reason.

I like the way Stella, like Liz, doesn’t try to conform to lazy stereotypes about what politicians should be like or how women in public life should behave.

I like the way she calls out sexism wherever she finds it. This gives other women, including me confidence. Stella wrote a fantastic article in Grazia about women in politics:

‘My mother taught me to put my money where my mouth is and not to expect to do it alone. So, I’m standing for a leadership role myself, not because we need just one more woman, but many. It is not my ambition to speak for them, but to find new ways to get more women from a wider range of backgrounds into public life because we will all benefit from the contribution they will make. To do that, politics has to stop being about a machine that turns up at election time, and become a movement where everyone feels welcome and able to participate. That especially means those currently locked out. It’s time we stopped asking nicely for change, and refused to accept the status quo. If you feel the same, get in touch – because however we cut our hair, we are mad as hell about inequality and not going to take it any more.’

I get a lot of young women approaching me online for advice about getting into politics. Without wishing to sound arrogant they look up to me. It gives them confidence to know that I got elected and that I rose to be a senior councillor. I’ve mentored a number of people and persuaded other women to become councillors and run for Parliment. If we are going to elect more women we need to have plenty of female role models – of all ages and from all backgrounds.

With Rebecca Rye on her election to Reading Borough Council in 2010.

With Rebecca Rye on her election to Reading Borough Council in 2010.

For me it’s the same looking at Liz and Stella. We need more female role models in politics. Throughout my career Lynne Featherstone has been a huge inspiration to me – seeing her out there doing politics at the highest level, following through her  own ideas has been really important for me.

Campaigning with Lynne Featherstone in Reading in 2007.

Campaigning with Lynne Featherstone in Reading in 2007.

Throughout this contest Stella and Liz have been attacked for being inexperienced. Women get this in politics all the time while men don’t to anything like the same extent. William Pitt The Younger was 24 when he became Prime Minister ffs!

It’s looking highly unlikely that either Liz or Stella will get elected but they have broken the mould and helped pave the way for other young women to get ahead in politics – thank you to them.

Finally, a word on Yvette Cooper.

Yvette Cooper

Instinctively, I am not a fan of Yvette. This stems primarily from the authoritarian, tabloid-friendly policies she was responsible for when she was Home Secretary. She never struck me as particularly likeable either but I’m starting to think that is more as a result of over-caution on her part. She got elected before the age of social media and has kept her personality largely under wraps.

However, have always admired Yvette for all she has achieved in her career. Reading this Guardian profile in July  you couldn’t fail to be impressed (again) by her CV:

‘Hers is a life and political career punctuated by firsts – a first in PPE at Oxford, the first female minister to take maternity leave, the first female treasury chief secretary, and now the ambition is to be the first female Labour leader and first Labour female prime minister.’

On paper, Yvette is the best qualified candidate by a mile. However, as Jenni Russell pointed out on Murnaghan on Sky News today she has spent so long trying not to say the wrong thing her campaign never caught fire and she came over as lacking ideas and passion.

I’m sure that Yvette is right about the deep sexism in the Labour party. I’ve seen it at local level. But unfortunately the way she tried to throw Andy Burnham under the bus just came over as a Brownite tatic not principle.

Over the past week Yvette has finally found her voice –  on the refugee crisis:

But it feels like this has been too little too late to stop Jeremy Corbyn. As others have observed Yvette needed to find this passion much earlier but it seems it was just too deeply buried all these years.

How ironic, that for ‘Blair’s Babe’s to be successful they had to stay silent.

This week marks Harriet Harman’s last week as acting Labour leader:

Let’s hope it’s not too many years before a women takes a helm of that party, if it survives this weekend’s results.

I’m not a Labour supporter, clearly. Whoever wins the Labour leadership and deputy leadership elections I’d like to see as many Labour members and MPs as possible leave their party and join the Lib Dems.

However, as young woman in politics who sees a future for herself in Parliament some day I’m grateful to Liz, Stella, Yvette and Caroline for standing in the Labour leadership elections and in doing so moving women collectively one step closer to equality.

I don’t see any of these women going quietly or fading into the background.

No matter what our politics, it’s up to us all to talk up women in politics and get more women into positions of power and influence within in political parties.

We should refuse to accept the status quo with women largely playing second fiddle to men in mainstream English political parties.

In the future, at least by the time my nieces are old enough to vote we should expect all party leadership contests to involve more women and for women party leaders to be the norm.

This won’t happen unless we who are active in party politics make it happen.

Female Labour leadership hopefuls, this one’s for you:-

David Cameron – Britain’s first Slacktivist Prime Minister?

Today, after weeks of vacillation and inaction, our Prime Minister David Cameron announced Britain would accept ‘thousands of Syrian refugees’

In doing so he lagged  behind Angela Merkelthe bold’  (The Economist) and Tim Farron who have both spoken up clearly, passionately and with conviction for concerted action to support Syrian refugees fleeing for their lives.

They have demonstrated genuine leadership on this issue. In doing so they have shown that they are activist politicians.

On hearing the news it occurred to me that Cameron is showing all the behavioural characteristics we might associate with slactivists.

f you’re a regular person sitting at home wanting to ‘do something’ perhaps after seeing a disturbing photo online or watching a distressing news broadcast this is acceptable behaviour.

Not, I’m afraid if you’re our national leader.

I signed this petition myself yesterday because as Tim Farron pointed out it was swiftest way to get our elected government to take action on the refugee crisis.

But I’m not elected. I am not the Prime Minister. If anyone can ‘do something’, David Cameron can.

And this not just about him exercising the influence he has over what happens in the UK.

He is also a global leader of a major nation in one of the most influential countries in Europe and the world. He has a duty to exercise global leadership on this issue.

Cameron’s comments today were redolent of the yawning gap in his leadership where moral courage should be.

To misquote Macbeth his speech was all sound and fury and ultimately it signified nothing.

Vague pledges were made to help thousands but if you read his speech no firm commitments were made so as not to frighten off would be voters at next year’s referendum.

Slacktivism is defined by Wikipedia as:

‘a pejorative term that describes “feel-good” measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little physical or practical effect, other than to make the person doing it feel satisfied that they have contributed. Slacktivism can be defined as the act of showing support for a cause but only truly being beneficial to the egos of people participating in this so-called activism. The acts tend to require minimal personal effort from the slacktivist. The underlying assumption being promoted by the term is that these low-cost efforts substitute for more substantive actions rather than supplementing them, although this assumption has not been borne out by research….

The Joint United Nation as  describes the term “slacktivist”, saying it “posits that people who support a cause by performing simple measures are not truly engaged or devoted to making a change.

Sadly, this is starting to look a lot like an accurate description of the behaviour of our Prime Minister.

Of course, he cannot solve this European-wide crisis, but he can use his influence and the resources of his office, his government to help a great many people.

Merkel gets this. She described leadership like this in 2013:

[My task is “to advance and solve problems. Even if it is only a few centimetres.”

Barack Obama also gets this.

The very phrase ‘yes we can!’ is about recognising the role leaders themselves can and should play in inspiring hope and belief in people that  seemingly insurmountable problems can be solved.

Unlike Cameron, Obama has shown in his actions recently that he is a leader not a follower when it comes to taking a stand on tricky issues – particularly those that cut acoss international boundaries.

This week in Alaska on the issue of climate change he said:

“This is within our power. This is a solvable problem – if we start now.

“We are starting to see that enough consensus is being built internationally and within each of our own body politics that we may have the political will to get moving.”

Yesterday I contrasted Cameron’s weak leadership with that demonstrated by Tim Farron and Nick Clegg before him on the issue of accepting Syrian refugees.

Today Cameron invoked the language of Nick Clegg :

But his recent lack of action on this issue speaks louder than these words casually tweeted.

Cameron lacks Nick’s moral courage and Tim’s conviction on the issue of Syrian refugees.

He lacks Merkel’s bold leadership.

He is a slactivist.

Desperate refugees, and we citizens, deserve better.