Tag Archives: conference

#LDConf: Defective Nuance

After years of being ignored and disparaged, the Liberal Democrats are suddenly the place to be. As well as a successful by-election, over the past few months a total of 6 MPs have joined the party, 3 ex-Labour and 3 ex-Conservative (the careful balancing suggests that there is a certain amount of stage management going on, and that there may yet be more to come), swelling the parliamentary party from 11 to 18.

This has caused a degree of consternation among the party faithful, not to mention some high profile resignations. It’s certainly given me pause for thought, especially with regard to the Conservative defections.

Now, to a large extent, I’m willing to give these people the benefit of the doubt. Philip Lee has apparently stated that his proposals to ban HIV+ asylum seekers was motivated purely out of health concerns and the desire to give asylum seekers the proper treatment; okay (that isn’t what his amendment actually says though). He claims that his abstention on same sex marriage was because he is in favour of all marriages being treated as civil unions and that the state shouldn’t be involved in marriages at all; that isn’t a million miles from my own position (not believing in letting the perfect be the enemy of the good however, I still would have voted in favour of the 2013 Act in his position). Sam Gyimah’s filibustering of the legislation pardoning Alan Turing and other people convicted of scrapped anti-homosexuality laws was a party political bid to ensure that the government’s own (lesser) version of the legislation could be passed instead; that is parliamentary party politics.

I can go further, and say that people must be allowed to change their minds. People grow, especially when placed in different environments. Party politics is a shocking place for tribalism and blinkered attitudes. Defecting to another party is a brave step which inevitably leads to people’s voting records and statements being trawled over with a fine tooth comb; you have to make some allowances for people to not be perfect. What’s more, there is the good of the country to think about. With Labour as weak and divided as it is right now, looking very much like a spent force, high profile defections aimed at boosting the Liberal Democrat’s profile and widening its appeal is a potential way out of this mess.

So I don’t want to rush to judgement on the voting records of individual ex-MPs, can see why there are a lot of positives about these defections, and why the senior party is so keen to encourage them.

But I still hate it. Really hate it.

I hate it so much that, at the height of the party being at it’s most self-congratulatory on Saturday night, as Sam Gyimah was revealed on stage during the conference rally, I had to go on a Twitter break as it was upsetting me too much (I might give it another go after conference is safely over). I had another sleepless night. And hey, it’s 2am now so I guess I’d better make that 2 sleepless nights.

Whatever good reasons there are to promote these defections, the fact is that it has caused massive ructions within the LGBT+ Lib Dems, resulting in its Chair Jennie Rigg, Vice Chair Zoe O’Connell and exec member Sarah Brown to all quit the party, along with several others.

These aren’t people known for their disloyalty to the party. Many of the people most angry about this round of defections actively supported the party during the darkest days of the coalition, when people like me had long abandoned it. The fact that previous regimes had managed to keep them on board, only for it to fall apart now, suggests a very significant failure in both communication and empathy from the current senior Lib Dem team.

A lot of, to use the modern garbage phrase, “the optics” have not been great. Philip Lee’s first response in an interview on BBC News was not to be conciliatory but to imply legal action, stating that “they’re defaming my character and they should be careful about what they say”. A later statement put out by Baroness Liz Barker and Helen Belcher, while making some fair points, frames the controversy as emanating from “a small number of activists” who, as well as accusing Lee of homophobia and xenophobia, felt that “they should have been consulted” – no mention is made of the fact that these activists included the chair of the party’s officially recognised Associate Organisation representing LGBT+ members, let alone any regret that they felt the need to resign.

I feel that too much of this controversy has focused on individuals and not looked at broader trends. We’re still reeling from a party leader who not only declared that homosexuality is a sin (a point that a number of his fellow Christians would take issue with), but that his failure to reconcile that with his leadership of a political party espousing liberal values was liberalism’s failure, not his.

But Tim Farron is ancient history now, even if he remains on the party front bench and will presumably continue to abstain or obstruct any future legislation for gay rights (we’ll have that fight if and when it happens). The swathe of rightwing populism that has resulted in Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK, has also resulted in a nationwide campaign against the rights of transgender people, leading to a massive spike in hate crime. It has lead to an ongoing campaign in Birmingham to ban the teaching of acceptance of LGBT+ people in schools, a campaign actively supported by at least one Labour MP, who remains under the party’s whip (a fact which automatically denies any Labour supporter from taking the moral high ground over the Lib Dems’ own current situation).

Let’s be clear here: we’re seeing a concerted effort to see, in effect, a return of Section 28 – the homophobic legislation banning local authorities from providing any material designed to “promote” homosexuality. And at the same time, we have a national government shutting down parliament and openly attacking the very concept of rule of law.

None of these fights are lost, but I know I’m not the only queer person who can feel the walls closing in on them right now, and is deeply concerned about where all this leads. Having visited Berlin over the summer, I was reminded how the rich, diverse and progressive Weimar-era Berlin culture was snuffed out within a few years. The ease with which the progress we’ve made over LGBT+ rights over the past couple of decades could go into reverse feels very real to me.

More mundanely, there’s the Lib Dems’ own ambivalent experience of defections from the Conservatives in recent years. With the exception of Bill Newton-Dunn, I can’t think of any prominent former Conservative who has managed to make a happy home within the party, and a lot of who have shat the bed while they were in the party. I joined the Lib Dems in 1995, shortly before Emma Nicholson defected to the party; she now sits as a Conservative in the House of Lords. We had the whole debacle of the Pro-Euro Conservative Party joining the party en masse in 2001 after their failure to win any seats in the previous European Election. Among them was future IEA director and prominent, um, Brexiteer Mark Littlewood. This brief excitement about the thought of masses of Tory defections lead to the creation of the Peel Group, but no more prominent actual defectors. You can draw a direct link between this network and the Orange Book, and of course between the Orange Book and many of the most damaging decisions the Lib Dems made while in coalition between 2010 and 2015.

For me, that’s the background: the prospect of the party re-examining its identity once again at a time when the basic rights of LGBT+ people are more open to question than they have been for years. Yet despite all that, I can see the potential wins and I can see the bigger picture. All I’d really like to see is reassurances rather than the contemptuous dismissal we saw in the Barker-Belcher statement, or waffle about Lee having “a very nuanced position”.

Fundamentally, if the Lib Dems are to take a moral stand against supporting Labour over its failure to tackle antisemitism, we can’t then start telling our own LGBT+ members that when it comes to discrimination against them, it’s all a question of nuance and pragmatism. I’m sure a lot of this debacle has been provoked by egos rubbing up against each other, but ultimately I don’t give a fig about that. The party needs to sort this out, and fast.

Conference and canards

God know’s why I’m still up at 3am. Still a bit wired after conference I guess. I’m not staying up much longer but I wanted to write that I thought it was an excellent weekend both for the party generally, the Social Liberal Forum in particular and me personally. A few random thoughts:

1. I was pleased by the answer Danny Alexander gave me regarding the FPC playing a more pro-active role in formulating a response to government legislation in light of the Digital Economy Bill debacle. I have a few thoughts on this but will write about them later.

2. I was less pleased by Nick Clegg’s non-commital answer to my “friendly” question about if he rules out further tax rises, as he appeared to do in the Spectator this week. He neither confirmed nor denied the position he took. SLF Chair David Hall-Matthews also pressed him on this during the economy debate. The rumour going round was that he privately acknowledges “misspeaking” but it is concerning nonetheless.

3. Despite my constant grumblings, I really do think that Nick Clegg nailed it in his conference speech. “Change that works for you. Building a fairer Britain” is a lousy slogan but then, aren’t they all? As spelt out during the speech however, at its core is a brilliant narrative which encapsulates what distinguishes the Lib Dems from the other parties. The fact that we even have a narrative (or rather, a narrative of our choosing rather than one imposed on us) is a bit of an innovation for the Lib Dems going into an election. The four themes work well and, crucially, join together. The bad old days of the 2005 policy pledges seem long ago.

4. Standing room only at both SLF fringes, including the one about passing a constitution. FTW!

Finally, over on the SLF website, I’ve written a response to the Left Foot Forward/Fabian “research” which purports to prove that the Lib Dem tax policy is regressive – by its own admission it only applies if you cherry pick the tax cut while ignoring the tax rises being introduced to pay for it. Spectacularly bad.

UPDATE: What the Liberal Democrat position on homeopathy IS

Since I previously wrote about what it was, and then wasn’t, I feel it is encumbant on me to include here what the official line on homeopathy now is:

A recent report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee examined the provision of homeopathy through the NHS and called for funding by the NHS to be stopped. The Committee did recognise that many users derive benefit from its use and did not argue that such treatments should be banned.

The Liberal Democrats believe that, as a basic principle, individuals should have maximum freedom about how they choose to get treated, so long as the therapy is safe. When it comes to NHS provision, we support a review by NICE into the cost effectiveness of Complementary and Alternative (CAMs) therapies, including homeopathy; as well as expanding the work of NICE to look at the cost-effectiveness of existing conventional treatments.

We know that many complementary therapies are popular with the public. The NHS budget is limited and we want to make sure that NHS funding is focused on treatments which are efficacious and cost-effective. NICE reviews of all existing treatments would give us the best possible basis for future decisions over funding.

That sounds much more sensible and measured. On top of that, I am now getting (unconfirmed) reports that the Scinos will not be at Lib Dem conference after all. Looks like the party may have had an outbreak of common sense.

Or maybe not.

Another slap in the gob: Scientologists to proselityse at Lib Dem Conference

Flicking through my Lib Dem Spring Conference agenda and directory, I was dismayed to spot the following exhibitor:

Stand B9
Citizens’ Commission on Human Rights
CCHR: international watchdog in the mental health field since it was co-founded in 1969 by the Church of Scientology and Professor of Psychiatry Dr Thomas Szasz to investigate and expose psychiatric violations of human rights.

CCHR is one of a family of “independent” organisations that can be found hovering around the Scientology hub, which includes Applied Scholastics and the comically named Criminon and Narconon. If the Applied Scholastics stand at Conservative conference a couple of years ago is anything to go by, literature from all these organisations will be included, as will plenty of copies of the L. Ron Hubbard-penned The Way to Happiness.

Of course, most Lib Dem conference attendees will treat this stall in the way they treat most commercial exhibitors: with polite contempt. But I am profoundly uncomfortable about the way these organisations tend to present themselves as secular and independent when they are anything but. It is a trap for the unwary – note the misleading “Tax Payers’ Alliance” type name for instance.

Ultimately what I’m saying here is: be aware of who they are. And if you do happen to have a V for Vendetta mask…

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?

The week Labour finally abandoned liberalism?

Last week I attended Labour’s autumn conference as an exhibitor. These are my thoughts on how it went.

By Labour’s own standards, they have had a good conference – but it is a sign of how far they have fallen that those standards were so low.

Simply put: the widely predicted civil war didn’t happen, or at least fizzled out as soon as they had to look each other in the eye last Saturday. That the coup attempt failed quite so spectacularly suggests they didn’t really know what they were doing in the first place, which in turn poses serious questions about the competence of Miliband et al.

The people who unquestioningly had a good conference were the left and more specifically Compass. Speaking to some Compassites immediately after Brown’s speech resembled a game of Compass bingo, with them ticking off the stock phrases and themes that he had pinched (freely given, to be sure) from what they had been arguing for eighteen months ago.

Now, I disagree with a lot of what Compass say – in particular their proposals for a windfall tax which violates a pretty important principle of good public policy for me, namely that there has to be a much stronger justification behind it than petty avarice and base popularity. Indeed, while Compass have published the occasional discussion paper which suggests they may have something more intellectually robust to say about tax, broadly speaking it doesn’t get more sophisticated than “squeeze them ’til the pips squeak.” But they have played a canny game within the party itself and now find themselves in the rather odd position of being the party loyallists at a time when the Blairites and Brownites are fighting like rats in a sack.

I don’t think Compass are the answer to making Labour electable again (although they do) but they are what Labour needs to weather the storm in opposition. They provide the party faithful with a comfort blanket. By contrast, the right of the party offers nothing apart from a few ten-year-old platitudes, fear of the Tories and a lot of bitterness. There are no new ideas coming out of “new” Labour. It is no wonder Compass seem so appealing.

The general mood of conference delegates that I detected this week was stoicism. They weren’t in denial and they weren’t panicking, they were simply preparing themselves for the oncoming storm. That is more or less where I felt Gordon Brown pitched his speech as well. If he can keep it up, I think he’ll close the gap – not completely, but by enough to prevent the opinion polls from looking like a complete Labour rout. He might even be able to deny Cameron a majority. But that in part depends on whether the right resume hostilities again.

On the last day of conference, a woman working on one of the other exhibition stands pointed out to me that not only was attendence down this year (which it surely was) but that there were so few black faces. She had a good point – in terms of ethnicity the Labour conference was down to almost Lib Dem levels of hideous whiteness. Partly this could be explained by the relative lack of BME-related exhibitors. The stall for the National Assembly Against Racism – one of Lee Jasper’s fronts which badly needs friends at the moment – was largely abandoned. But I don’t think that entirely accounts for it.

I can’t help but wonder if this has something to do with the other detectable trend within Labour this year – the authoritarians have won. For all Compass’s warm words about civil liberties, when it came down to it in the counter-terrorism bill, both Cruddas and Tricket voted for extending pre-charge detention without trial. They both then symbolically resigned their places in Compass but it is clear from their website this is nowhere near a priority for the organisation. At the Observer fringe, a big majority of attendees revealed they supported ID cards. The only people arguing for liberalism within the Labour Party are in the Blairite wing, and they are now hopelessly compromised.

For a party that likes to claim that fairness is in its DNA these days, it is clear that they are all too comfortable with the idea of arbitrary authoritarian state control. That battle has now been decisively won within Labour. It isn’t surprising that black people are more alienated from them than ever, as they will inevitably be on the sharp end of this brave new world.

Where’s Lemby? Day Twelve

Reports of Lembit’s demise have been greatly exaggerated!

Quaequam Blog! has had reports that Lembit arrived at the Bournemouth International Conference Centre resplendent on his Segway. And QQB! has personally been asked to sign Lembit’s nomination papers.

Team Lembit, it has to be said, look at bit less impressive than Team Ros, with their ‘Ipik Opik’ address labels on their lapels. But at least they’re now doing something. With any luck, we might even see a campaign website soon.

Text your Lembit sightings to 07966 237550 or Twitter @jamesgraham.

Three Cheers for Tim Leunig!

Tim Leunig has written an excellent, one page article in the Green Lib Dems‘ Challenge magazine about why Lib Dem support for road user charging is thoroughly wrong headed. Sadly, you can’t read the article online as it is GLD policy not to do so in order to encourage you to join the organisation (for the record, I disagree with that policy, but it is what it is). But it comes recommended.

Let battle commence next Tuesday!

Bournemouth Conference – final amendments deadline looming (9 September)

Just been skimming through the Bournemouth Conference agenda. A few thoughts:

a) I’m thinking of writing an amendment for the Europe policy paper, but I’ll blog about that seperately.

b) No-one has requested a seperate vote on Road User Charging in the transport debate. Not being a conference rep, I don’t have that option. Anyone?

c) Regarding membership fees: the Bones Commission recommends making the “recommended” rate the “minimum” membership fee (but keeping the concessionary rate). I agree. Would anyone support an amendment to this effect? Or, if you think that is too big a step in one go, upping the minimum rate to, say, £20?

UPDATE: I’ve left it a bit late to be organising any amendments. Soz. None of them were crucial.

The Conservatives and Scientology

One of the things about working at the party conferences is that you often find yourself too busy to actually do the conference itself. So it was that I didn’t get a chance to visit the Conservative Party exhibition until Tuesday afternoon.

I was therefore very surprised to find, almost as soon as I walked into the hall, a stand for Narconon, L. Ron Hubbard’s programme for drug rehabilitation. The stand also included programmes promoting Applied Scholastics, Hubbard’s education programme, Hubbard’s The Way to Happiness Foundation International and Criminon, Hubbard’s criminal rehabilitation programme.

What was missing from this stand? Any mention whatsoever of Scientology. Indeed, the Way to Happiness booklet that I picked up states that:

“This may be the first nonreligious moral code based wholly on common saense. It was written by L. Ron Hubbard as an individual work and is not part of any religious doctrine. Any reprinting or individual distribution of it does not infer connection with or sponsorship of any religious organisation. It is therefore admissible for government departments and employees to distribute it as a nonreligious activity.”

Inside, it does indeed appear to be based on common sense; indeed the blindingly obvious springs to mind. The first ten tenets for example are “take care of yourself”, “be temperate”, “don’t be promiscuous”, “love and help children”, “honor and help your parents”, “set a good example”, “seek to live with the truth”, “do not murder”, “don’t do anything illegal” and “support a government designed and run for all the people”. Scratch beneath the surface however, and it begins to take on certain religious characteristics. For example, we are encouraged to “respect the religious belief of others” regardless of how reprehensible their beliefs are, while it blandly dismisses “men without faith” as a “pretty sorry lot”. It also exhorts us not to “harm a person of good will” – the clear implication being that people deemed to be of “bad will” are fair game.

The latter is familiar territory for both religions and quasi-scientific self-improvement programmes such as Dianetics. Also rather dianetic-like is the tendency to list definitions of words throughout the pamphlet. Dianetics and Scientology are inseperable, and the quasi-religious tendency of the booklets outlining each programme to include a full page sepia-toned picture of the Great Man, also indicates this is more dogma than scientific research (then again, the Tory conference booklet has a quasi-religious full page picture of Cameron; make of that what you will).

The existance of this stand at a party conference (and apparently they’ve exhibited before at both Tory and Labour conferences), is a bit of a moral quandary for me. On the one hand, no-one is suggesting that the Tories are any more influenced by this stand than, say, the British Humanist Association or the National Union of Teachers. And yet, it is strangely sinister to see them claming to be research and treatment programmes when the links to Scientology are undeniable. It is unclear what they are doing going to party conferences: trying to get councils to invest in such programmes, or evangelising under a veil of respectability? A stand that made its links to Scientology explicit would at least be more honest, but paradoxically would be more controversial. Is calling themselves Narconon designed to spare the Church’s blushes, or the Conservative Party’s?