Tag Archives: women

Blog Awards – I am the law!

Judge Graham badgeI enjoyed being a judge so much for the ERS blog awards earlier this year I decided I might try my hand again.

This time I’m to be the token male for the inaugural Campaign for Gender Balance Blog Awards.

I’m not going to express my own views about who I think should be nominated here as it obviously would be appallingly inappropriate. What I can do however is start a meme, in time honoured blog tradition.

This meme is very simple and largely based on the nominations process. Tagged bloggers are asked to do the following:

  1. Provide a link to the Gender Balance website (http://genderbalance.org.uk/pages/awards.html) and encourage as many people as possible to submit their nominations that way.
  2. Suggest THREE Blogs that should be nominated for in the Best Blog by a Woman Lib Dem category, and state why.
  3. Suggest THREE blog posts that should be nominated for the Best Blog Post By a Woman Lib Dem category, and state why.
  4. Suggest THREE Blogs that should be nominated for in the Best Blog by a Woman Non-Lib Dem category, and state why.
  5. Name THREE living women you would like to see blog, and state why. These can be women from any walk of life, not just Lib Dems (although that doesn’t mean they can’t be).
  6. Tag five other bloggers you would like to do the meme.

I can do the last bit at least, and nominate:

Tag! Of course, anyone else reading this is more than welcome – in fact encouraged – to do the meme themselves.

John Harris: physician, heal thyself

(argh! this post was meant to go out yesterday! why does Ming have to bloody resign during a heavy work week?)

Question: if you write an article about the Lib Dem leadership contest specifically on the issue of diversity and the fact that Huhne and Clegg are both white, middle-class males, should you a) talk to the various groupings within the party concerned with diversity such as the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats, the Woman Liberal Democrats, the Campaign for Gender Balance and possibly even the party’s “diversity Tsar”? Or b) a couple of white, middle-class guys?

If your answer is (b), I suggest you’re doing something wrong. Okay, both Ben Ramm (yes, that Ben Ramm) and Lembit Opik have non-visible minority ethnicities, but then so does Clegg (and Huhne as well for that matter IIRC). What does it say about a journalist that he professes that such issues are important but can’t be bothered to reflect them in any meaningful way in his own article?

It’s not as if I disagree with his fundamental point, after all it is the subject of one of my standard-issue rants. But the ill-informed mudslinging of as partisan a journalist as John Harris won’t actually change anything, which is possibly his intention.

Bottom line, the reason there doesn’t seem to be any choice other than Huhne or Clegg is that both are bloody strong candidates. Last time around, until Huhne threw his hat in the ring I was in despair. I was torn between voting for Campbell as the anyone-but-Hughes candidate or Campbell as the anyone-but-Oaten candidate. A lot of other people agreed with me. While I have no doubt this campaign will become more bad tempered as time goes on, neither of the candidates, as far as I know, evoke that visceral sense that if he wins the party will go straight down the toilet in anyone. It’s just possible that we had a poor choice paradoxically because we have such a good choice.

And we don’t actually do too badly when it comes to not being lead by toffs. Neither Campbell or Kennedy came from arisocratic or even upper-middle-class backgrounds. The last Etonian to stand for party leader was David Rendel (a man, I hasten to add, I have a lot of time for) in 1999. He came fifth out of five.

Harris also presses another of my buttons, which I’ve only just blogged about, by referring to ‘meritocracy’ as an idea. Parliament is a meritocracy – that’s the problem. It is batshit crazy talk, the sort of batshit crazy talk that I thought Harris hated about people like Tony Blair, to suggest that you need a meritocracy to achieve equality of outcome. So why is he now stealing their rhetorical clothes?

If you want to write a serious article about the Lib Dems’ failure to internalise diversity and equality issues, John, you’re going to need to dig a lot deeper than simply having a quick chat with a celebrity boyfriend and the editor of a literary magazine.

The demographics of Um?

I meant to blog about the Centre for Um discussion paper on demographic change by Alasdair Murray a couple of months ago, but I ended up getting distracted. As part of my general post-holiday catch-up, I thought I’d get my comments off my chest now, but as it was a while since I read the paper, I’m a little rusty.

On specifics, I don’t quibble with a lot of what the paper is saying. It is surely correct to point out the problems of simplistically emphasising how the aging population will lead to more elderly dependents on the economy without looking at how other dependents (the young, the economically inactive) effect the economy at the same time. I don’t think any liberals question the need to scrap the fixed retirement age of 65 (socialists are another matter – I seem to recall Labour activists queuing up to denounce this at their last autumn conference). I agree also with the need to bring more young people into the labour market – a stark contrast with Labour’s obsession with giving 50% of the population a (potentially worthless) university degree and raising the school leaving age to 18. There certainly should be an emphasis on skilling young people, but that should be done in the workplace, not in pseudo-universities (on which point, can I recommend Geoffrey Wheatcroft‘s article on the subject last week: “Those who insist that expanding higher education is virtuous in itself never stop to say why this should be so. And they never explain why it should be better to be a third-rate media studies graduate than a first-rate carpenter.”).

It is the wider arguments of the paper that trouble me. First of all, the bland claim that “pessimistic predictions about Europe’s demographic future overstate the problem in most countries and ignore the potential to adapt.” That is half true, but how are we to adapt if we ignore the pessimistic predictions? Alasdair Murray points out that a number of countries have already dealt with the “pensions time bomb” in their policies, but this has to be at least partially because of the scare reports that have been dribbling out over the past 20 years and more. This doesn’t prove them wrong: it proves their worth.

More irritatingly, I can’t go along with his bald assertion that inter-generational conflict isn’t worth bothering with. He bases this on two lines of argument: that there is little evidence of an emerging conflict, and that young people are better educated, richer and have higher rates of employment than their parents.

The first argument is just plain daft; it’s the Nelson defence (“I see no ships”). To start with, it depends where you look and what you’re looking at. What’s more, the fact that there is little tension now is not to say that there won’t be tension in the future.

The second argument misses the point that it isn’t incomes that we are quibbling about, but assets. Those subsidised right-to-buy homes people bought in the 80s simply do not exist. Greater earning potential is one thing, but if the economy drives people into habitual debt – thousands just to get “credit rating”, tens of thousands on graduation, hundreds of thousands of mortgage debt – that leaves very little at the end to build a nest egg. I’ll come onto the underlying assumption in the paper that population growth is an unalloyed good in a moment, but assuming that is the case for a moment, it is surprising that he appears to have missed the growing evidence that one of the main reasons that people are starting families later in life now is because they struggle to afford the housing; indeed housing is barely mentioned either in the paper as a whole, or in the section on inter-generational conflict.

Worst of all, he parrots that old canard about wealth cascading down the generations. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said this: that’s the problem. Because people don’t, as a general rule, spread their wealth evenly to the younger generation: unsurprisingly they favour their children. This entrenches privilege, deepens the divide between rich and poor and, by putting wealth in the hands of ever fewer families and individuals, is a potentially catastrophic cause of social immobility. No-one is questioning that the millionaire couple who profited from the buy-to-let boom will eventually hand their assets over to their children; what we’re questioning is whether they should be the beneficiaries and what economic impact it will have further down the line.

The biggest single omission however is that this paper does not mention the environment, climate change and the management of natural resources. At all. I’m amazed that you can even write a paper on demographics without mentioning these things. A dry debate about immigration is one thing, but what do we do if Bangladesh goes underwater and Africa becomes an arid dustbowl? Where do the people go? What if they decide to come here? Cheery forecasts about pensions is one thing, but what about peak oil? Europe’s stagnating population is one thing, but global population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 (it seems like only yesterday when we reached the 6 bn mark – now we’re at 6.6 bn).

You may argue that all these big questions go beyond a simple paper on the economics of European demographics; I accept that they would have lead to a substantially different paper. What I do seriously question however is how the paper can assume that population growth is a good thing that policy makers should aim for. The paper does not oppose pro-natal policies, just the practicalities of the more crude of these (such as Germany’s tax system). Instead, it recommends policies that “best create the conditions where fertility rates might rise by removing structural obstacles to female labour market participation”.

I’m not in favour of radical anti-natal policies such as China’s one child policy, let alone anything more draconian. Nor do I believe in putting obstacles in the way of “female labour market participation” with a view to reducing fertility rates. I do however feel that population growth and environmental sustainability are heading for a full on collision, that one will have to give way to the other and that if the species is to survive in the long term, it had better be the latter. How do we develop genuinely liberal anti-natal policies? And if those policies are successful, won’t they exacerbate the problems associated with an aging population (if fertility rates dropped significantly, the average age would increase quite rapidly)?

In short, while he has some good points, Alasdair Murray’s pamphlet is exactly the wrong paper at the wrong time. It sets out to deal with a problem which, from the outset, it asserts has already been solved, and fails to answer the important questions relating to demographics that we need to be answering in the 21st century.

48 hours, £2,000? No sweat!

Supporting Gender BalanceAt midnight this Thursday, the deadline by which the various Campaign for Gender Balance pledges have to have reached their targets expires. Thus far, we’ve reached 60% of our target and more than £3,000, but need 19 more people to sign up in order to hit our target. Will you be one of them?

The Campaign for Gender Balance, formerly known as the Gender Balance Task Force, has made a tremendous impact over the last 5 years not just in terms of nudging us forward in terms of the number of women candidates in winnable seats, but in terms of their quality. It’s been good at cultivating a “can do” attitude amongst female candidates at a time when, frankly, a lot of people who claim to be interested in seeing more women in Parliament tend to carp by the sidelines and promote a defeatist attitude. The principle behind it is simple: overall, while no-one questions there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of sexism amongst local parties, the fundamental problem the party has in terms of gender balance is that we don’t have enough women prepared to put their names forward. It is a supply-side problem. CGB helps this by going out and encouraging women to put their names forward and provide them with training, mentoring and support.

Could it do more? Yes, lots. It has, however, always been hampered by a lack of funds. Indeed this year, despite the party getting a £200,000 donation for a diversity fund, it has had its funding cut in favour of an alternative approach of encouraging more female and BME candidates by offering seats greater resources if they select one. The jury is out on whether this approach will work (I personally have major qualms with it, both in principle and in practice), but either way there remains a place for CGB.

So, rather than moan about grant cuts, it was decided to go out and do something positive and develop a support fund that is independent of the party and thus less subject to the vagaries of party committees. This is where you come in. While not everyone can afford a fiver a month, most of us can. So how about it?

For me, this is a test, and not just a personal one (as trying to raise 5 grand in this way was my idea in the first place – and yes, I am putting my money where my mouth is). There are lots of projects out there that the party needs to do, but which consistently fail to get funding from the party centrally. While I have been known to occasionally whinge about this fact, and I really do think that overall the party’s priorities are skewed too much towards the target seat campaign (a debate for another time), the bottom line is there are only so many ways you can cut the cake. Projects like this really do need to be self-financing to as great an extent as possible. But is there enough residual goodwill out there to make this possible? We don’t have the same sort of giving culture that is taken for granted to the US, but if UK politics is to survive, we need to cultivate one.

Bending the truth like Beckham in Islington

The Islington Tribune haven’t yet blamed the Liberal Democrat council for the weather, but I’m sure it’s only a matter on time.

This week, the paper is laying into them because they have ‘snubbed‘ Arsenal’s women’s football team after winning an historic quadruple of the FA cup, the UEFA cup, League title and league cup. Guardianista Michelle Hanson has laid into them, as has the Labour Opposition leader Catherine West.

Except that, as usual, it is total bollocks.

If, unlike most people, you can be arsed to read the second page, you will find a number of inconvenient truths to undermine Labour’s crusade:

  • Arsenal themselves aren’t interested in letting the women have their celebration. They don’t even let the team use the Emirates stadium.
  • The ladies’ team manager himself states “I don’t think it would (attract) enough people to attend it.”
  • Rhona Cameron who, as an amateur footballer herself is possibly the only woman in this whole article who knows what she’s talking about*, says “I think it is expecting a bit too much to expect street parades and mass jubilation.”
  • And finally, the coup de grace. It turns out that the council has actually contacted the club for advice on how to celebrate.

Talking of manufactured outrage, the other thing the council are being pillioried for this week is the fact that charities who have been renting property from the council at subsidised rents are outraged that they are now being forced to pay market rates as part of the mass council property sell off. For once, Cllr West has opted to remain silent; fortunate since she was in the paper a fortnight ago claiming that the council should be forcing rents up even more. Some of us might want to know why charities, which already receive subsidies from the taxpayer, should expect to be further subsidised by the local authority as of right, but clearly this is not a view shared by the Green Party.

What I most like about this article is the transparent grasping attitude of the charities and the Greens:

“We’re a charity and obviously couldn’t afford to pay a market rent.”

Well, obviously.

“We are often a thorn in the side of the council and if they wanted to get rid of us this [rent increase] would be the way.”

It’s all a sinister conspiracy, see. Green PPC Emma Dixon goes on to explain in the letters page:

…even the council realises voluntary groups will not be able to afford market rents, so it proposes to give grants to some lucky groups on the basis of stringent criteria.
These include whether the council thinks the group makes an “appropriate contribution” to Islington; whether the group has a “business plan” to reduce “dependency” on the council (a dependency only created by the rent rises); and whether the group is located (in the council’s view) in “the most suitable property for their needs”. If not, they may be asked to move out into a “managed office” hub – or, presumably, fail to qualify for a grant for their rent.

Er, where do I start? How is a charity which needs rent subsidies not dependent on the council? What is wrong with encouraging them to become more independent? What is wrong with a council examining how best to spend taxpayer’s money instead of just doling it out willy-nilly to whichever organisation is lucky enough to already be a council tenant? This woman is apparently a barrister. I hope she’s never mine.

The real problem here is not anything the council have done but the over-heated nature of the London property market. Subsidising rents here, there and everywhere doesn’t just cost us more council tax, but ensures the market remains over-heated and makes it harder for people like you and I to get onto the housing ladder. When politicians and the press over-indulge such misguided nonsense they do us all a great disservice.

* Before the hate mail starts to pour in, I’m not saying women don’t know anything about football. I AM saying that women (and men for that matter) who up until last week were probably unaware that Arsenal even had women’s football team and have decided to jump on a political bandwagon, don’t know what they’re talking about.

The limits of collective bargaining

No-one can deny that collective bargaining has brought ordinary people very real rights that they could never have acquired through other means. Every employee in the country has a lot to be grateful to the Labour Movement.

But there comes a point where the disadvantages of the hive mind approach starts to outweigh the advantages. Arguably, that point was reached in the 1970s when the Unions began to behave as if they could order governments around, whether Labour or Conservative, which inevitably resulted in a backlash and thus their nemesis, the very much undead alive Mrs T.

I would argue that another example of its limitations is going on right now. For the last ten years, local authorities have been obliged to pay female workers on the same rates as male workers. Yet, fearful of job cuts, trade unions have been negotiating pay deals which undermine affected women workers, to the point that they have been frequently shown to be illegal.

In this case, collective bargaining has meant that unions have compromised womens’ rights, many of whom were never even consulted. Now, you might argue that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but the law’s the law, and the union-brokered deals have relied on these women, some of the most vulnerable in society, being ignorant of their rights.

Women have had no recourse but to get solicitors to fight their corner, and there are plenty of solicitors willing to take these cases on on a no-win no-fee basis (not least of all because they have pretty cast iron cases).

This is, in fact, a classic example of capitalism working to empower and protect people’s rights. A cause for celebration? Well, according to trade unionists, the lawyers who are helping these women are, to quote Chris Mullin, “parasites”. This view was echoed by Phil Woolas on the Today programme on Tuesday. That vanguard of socialism Nick Cohen says much the same thing.

Some of us happen to think that rights are indivisible; if there is a genuine tension as in this case, then local authorities should consult with the whole workforce, not leave it to their buddies in the unions to stitch it up for them. If Labour truly believe that women’s rights can be negotiated away by (predominently male) trade unionists, they should simply put their money where their mouths are and scrap the Equal Opportunities Act. After all, we know they only consider their much vaunted all women shortlists a priority if one of Gordon Brown’s pals doesn’t want the seat.

The most grimly ironic thing about all this though is that it was Labour who introduced pro bono in the UK as a first step to their dismantlement of legal aid. Overall, I’m sure they will be comforted in the knowledge that where trade union incompetence hasn’t left them so open to legal action, vulnerable people will have much less recourse now.

Getting to the root causes of gender imbalance

The debate over how to make our Parliamentary Parties more reflective of wider society is riven with entrenched assertions, with very little actual data to help inform the debate, so the Campaign for Gender Balance are to be congratulated for doing this little piece of research.

They have found that in the 63 constituencies where the Lib Dems have an MP, there are just 29 approved women candidates. In 44 of these constituencies, not a single woman is on the approved list.

Is it any wonder therefore that we have such a blind spot when it comes to getting female candidates to replace retiring male MPs?

This is even worse when you consider that around a third of the Lib Dems’ total membership is locked up in these seats. In total, the party has around 200 approve female candidates, so you would therefore expect the held seats to have 60-odd approved women candidates.

If every held constituency were to set itself the target of getting just one woman through the approval process we would, at a stroke, massively improve the gender imbalance of our candidates. The experience of the CGB over the past few years has been that just getting a few extra women improved can have a dramatic effect. So how about it guys?

Meanwhile, the Campaign for Gender Balance are trying to raise funds via Pledgebank, Jo Swinson MP, Baroness Walmsley and PPC Sarah Di Caprio have set up pledges to donate £20, £10 and £5 a month respectively with a view to raising an additional £5,000 annual income. Contrary to popular belief, the Campaign for Gender Balance hasn’t received any financial support via the party’s new Diversity Fund; in fact, this year it has had its grant cut slightly. Personally I believe it is one of the most effective, positive and liberal measures any party has yet come up to improve its diversity and deserves your support. Sign up!

Is the A-list really not working?

Some Lib Dem bloggers have been very keen to crow about the reported ‘failure’ of the Tory A-list at attracting ethnic minority candidates. Personally, I’m not so sure we should be quite so triumphalist.

According to the statistics published in the Telegraph today, of the winnable Tory seats that have selected thus far, 5% of candidates have been BME and 39% have been women. This compares to an 8% UK BME population and 51% women. Clearly it isn’t parity, but it is undoubtably progress. And as these are candidates in a party that is resurgent, as opposed to Labour women and BME candidates, they have a real chance of becoming MPs. By contrast, Labour’s all women shortlist policy is liable to barely scratch the surface at the next election as they lose seats regardless of the ethnicity or gender of their candidates.

What the Tory experience has shown is something that some of us in the Lib Dems have known for a long time. For all the anecdotal horror stories about candidates being discriminated against, the real problem is a lack of candidates. Just like white men, some women and BME PPCs are excellent and some are awful. The Lib Dem experience is that, broadly speaking, they get selected in proportion to the total number of approved candidates we have at the time. The problem – which the upper echelons in the Lib Dems are completely disinterested in – is finding and getting more candidates from diverse backgrounds approved. The A-list has done a very good job at artificially narrowing the field simply by knocking 70% of while male candidates off the top list. This approach isn’t ideal as far as I’m concerned, but at least it is tackling the problem at source, unlike most other forms of positive discrimination.

So the fact that Ali Miraj feels discriminated against matters far less to me than the number of BME Tory candidates who eventually get elected. The jury is still out, but the numbers of candidates selected do suggest that progress is being made. Lib Dems should hold their tongues until we have something more tangible to shout about ourselves.