Daily Archives: 8 March 2009

In defence of the Aberdeenshire Four… three… two

There has been a lot of murmuring at this Lib Dem conference over the debacle which has been raging in the Aberdeenshire Lib Dem Council Group over the past sixteen months as a result of Donald Trump. Bernard Salmon provides the background and I endorse what Neil Fawcett and Stephen Glenn have to say.

The one thing I would add is that the party is generally terrible at conflict resolution and generally running its own affairs with by the standard it would judge other organisations to abide by. The Scottish Lib Dems have past form of course – I may disagree strongly with a lot of what Neil Craig has to say but I haven’t yet seen anything on his blog to indicate his unsuitability to be a member of the Lib Dems. But you can’t single out the Scots. Last year there was that mess over Gavin Webb. My first article on Lib Dem Voice was over the poor handling of a complaint I submitted to the Federal Appeals Panel. Going back to my days in LDYS, I can recount two incidents: one where I was the subject of a complaint as a staff member which took the best part of a year to be investigated (I was eventually exonerated but had to have it hanging over my head while I was looking for a new job – a fact which almost certainly lead to me lowering my standards); and one in which I was the complainant which simply fizzled out into nothing. I could cite other examples, but I fear I would end up straying into the dark and murky world of defamation.

We have got to get a grip on all this. The party likes to wrap itself up in its image of being nice, and thus tends to kid itself that such structures are not necessary. As a result, the system is often use to trample on people in a quite appalling way, while letting others get away with the most appalling behaviour. If the FE is looking for something to do, then establishing a joint states commission to thoroughly review all aspects of how complaints and conflicts are resolved within the party and establish clear best practice protocols would be both timely and crucial.

In the meantime, I really hope people kick up a major fuss at the Scottish Lib Dem conference next weekend.

Why do faith school supporters want them to be so awful?

I have to admit to coming out of the Lib Dem debate on 5-19 education feeling somewhat perplexed. After a complicated series of four amendments wrangling over the same bunch of lines, what the party has come up with seemed to be little more than a state commissioned figleaf scheme. Let me explain.

The motion as originally worded (negotiated on the Federal Policy Committee by, among others, Evan Harris MP) allowed faith schools but banned selection on the basis of faith. The amendment which was passed replaced this with the following commitment:

Requiring all existing state-funded faith schools to come forward within five years with plans to demonstrate the inclusiveness of their intakes, with local authorities empowered to oversee and approve the delivery of these plans, and to withdraw state-funded status where inclusiveness cannot be demonstrated.

As I snarked on the way out of the auditorium, what this amounts to is faith schools being free to discriminate, but will have their funding withdrawn if they discriminate.

In fact, however, it’s actually worse. Never mind the abstract debate, for me the acid test is the couple I know whose humanist wedding I attended who currently attend their local church every Sunday (along with their Orthodox Jewish neighbours) in order to ensure that their children are let into the local primary school. What would this motion, as amended, do about this closely observed hypocrisy? Absolutely nothing. My friends could stop going to church, not be able to send their children to the local school, be able to demonstrate the school is non-inclusive and have the school’s funding scrapped (in so doing, harming the education of lots of other children). Or they can keep quiet, go to church and act as a figleaf for the school’s “inclusive” policy when the inspection comes. Stick your head above the parapet, and you might be able to claim revenge eventually. But it is in your child’s interest to keep your head down and be a part of the lie.

What is most crazy about all this is that many of the best faith schools out there don’t have exclusive selection policies; ending discrimination on the basis of faith only affects a hardcore. Yet speaker after speaker in the debate claimed that the motion unamended was an attempt to scrap faith schools by the backdoor. It was a grotesque libel perpetuated by, among others, Vince Cable and Tim Farron. What did they hope to achieve by making such ridiculous claims?

I strongly agree that schools need an ethos, and a religious one is better than none at all. A total ban on faith schools while broadening the range of organisations which can help run schools would mean that the National Secular Society and even Microsoft could sponsor a school while the Quakers could not. There are much worse organisations than religions that could end up running English schools under this policy.

But here’s the thing: I’m constantly hearing religious people out there banging on about the Golden Rule these days, that “heart” common to all religions which we are to believe makes them vital and moral things. Yet when you go along with all that, and merely ask for the ethic of reciprocity to extend to, well, everyone, all that nice, woolly tolerance suddenly vanishes. Suddenly asking them to not discriminate is an unacceptable position. Suddenly, far from the Golden Rule, the core of religion they want to preserve is the right to shut people out. And they dress this neat little package of discrimination up in talk about the need for “inclusiveness.”

It is no wonder that the supporters of the second amendment, which called for all faith schools to be phased out, are not prepared to take them at their word. The movers of this amendment repeatedly raised the issue of homophobia in schools and how difficult it is to grow up as a homosexual in a faith school, yet this issue wasn’t addressed. Rather than deal with this fearsomely important point, in an act of supreme irony the movers of the amendment were branded extemists.

As I’ve said before, I would rather ally with a liberal person of faith than an illiberal atheist. But liberals don’t condone intolerance. The message I got from the supporters of faith schools on Saturday was that intolerance is an integral part of religion without which faith schools would not be worthy of the name. Keep saying nutty things like that and I’ll join the barricades alongside Laurence Boyce.

Girlguides fail their policymaking badge

I hope Jane Merrick doesn’t feel that by quoting two of her articles in half an hour I am actually stalking her. But the Independent reports a new paper published by Girlguiding UK, the Fawcett Society and the BYC today about how our political system is failing young women:

More than a quarter of girls are put off by a lack of information about how they should take part, while 17 per cent believe it cannot make a difference.

Nearly half of young women say they would like to be more involved in volunteering, but when this comes to local or national politics, the figure drops to 28 per cent. Domestic violence, gangs and knife crime, bullying and equality at work emerged as the most important issues for young women.

The report calls for a new Youth Green Paper, including a demand for one person under 25 to be on every parliamentary shortlist, and the ability to vote by text message or through social networking sites such as Facebook.

I hope the Guides won’t be sewing their policymaking badges on their sleeves just yet (incredibly, the badge shown above is the real deal, and the global umbrella for guides is called the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts or WAGGGS). Are they really serious about youth quotas for candidate selections? Is this based on any experience of candidate selection processes whatsoever?

Gender quotas for candidate selections have done little to increase women candidates, as I believe the Fawcett Society themselves argue from time to time. Imposing a quota does not magically increase either the quantity or quality of the women wanting to stand as parliamentary candidates; all it tends to do is eat up time and energy spent on bureaucracy.

What we need is not a quota, but supply. Again, since the Lib Dems recognised that in the case of gender we have started making (slow, due to the fact that the relevant schemes remain under-funded) progress. If you want to increase the supply of young people in political parties, you will have to focus on developing their youth wings – all of which are various degrees of basketcase at the moment. The Guides could help actually, for example by working with the youth wings in a cross party way to promote active citizenship and encourage young women to explore their political interests. But that would mean not treating the youth wings of political parties as the pariahs of youth politics, as they currently are. A bold move; do the Guides have the guts to support it?

As for voting by text message or Facebook; words fail. This might make good faddy copy, but the implications for stolen elections are unbelievable, as even a cursory glance of the relevant literature shows. Elections held online are essentially unauditable and open to being hacked. Once again, if they are going to make bold pronouncements about how elections should be run, why didn’t they seek a partnership with a relevant youth organisation with an interest in such things, such as X-Change? If they had, they might actually have raised a far more important policy issue: that under our current electoral system all these gimmicks will fail to achieve much while it is clear that the system is rigged from the start.

Today at the Lib Dem Conference, Howard Dean made a startling claim: more under 35s voted in the US elections last November than over 65s. In fact it sounds so startling that I want to go away and factcheck it, but either way the level of youth participation has shot up in the US and it has been achieved not by having token youth candidates or letting them vote by mobile phone, but by offering them real politics and a chance to make a difference. The Girlguides should be paying more attention to that than trotting out the same old tired tropes.

Liberal Democrats: Winslet (not) here!

According to the Independent:

The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, faced embarrassment yesterday after it emerged that his party used a photo of the Oscar-winning actress for an advert in its conference brochure – without obtaining her permission.

A picture of her on the red carpet at the 2007 Golden Globes was doctored to make it look as though she was at the Lib Dem Council Awards at the party’s conference in Harrogate on Friday evening.

The picture left the impression that Ms Winslet, who has never revealed her political affiliations, was a Lib Dem supporter.

There’s a lot more nonsense but I won’t quote it extensively. A few facts before the Independent gets too excited:
1. The advert is for the Lib Dem LGA Group, not the Lib Dems.
2. The advert is on an internal party document – it isn’t aimed at the public.
3. Who was left under the impression that Winslet was a Lib Dem supporter? The article doesn’t say. It was just a stupid joke, softly taking the piss out of Winslet for her emotional award acceptance speeches. That was the impression I got from it. Is there any evidence at all that a reasonable person (as opposed to a hack trying to make a story out of nothing) would draw any other conclusion?
4. The picture was indeed doctored – in a really obvious way that makes it obvious it is meant as a joke. Again, what kind of a moron would draw any other conclusion?

Clearly the Independent assumes its readers are morons. That may not be an entirely unreasonable assumption actually, given how poor the newspaper has become in recent years. Why else do they stick with it?