Friday, 28 December 2012

In memory of the New Delhi gang rape victim

The 23 year old woman who was gang raped on a bus on the way home from a cinema in New Delhi on December 16 has just died in hospital from her injuries.

Here's the article. You should read it.

As a result of a metal rod used in the rape (how exactly it was used is not specified and I don't want to begin to imagine it) the woman had to have all her intestines removed in hospital.

I'm writing this because I actually felt physically sick when I read about her death - and I'm still feeling sick now.

This rape took place because, in India, sexual violence against women is an every day part of life. Gangs of men regularly chase women and grope them or rape them - it's called "eveteasing" and is so routine that the police don't bother to even investigate it.

And today in Punjab an 18 year old girl committed suicide after being kidnapped, drugged and repeatedly raped. But she committed suicide not because of the rape, but because the police forced her to recount the rape in humiliating detail and, despite multiple visits to the police station where she and her mother were forced to wait for hours upon end, the police did not register the crime until two weeks later - because they were too busy talking to local elders and the rapists to try to come to a "settlement". Typically these settlements result in the rape victim being forced to marry their rapist and no charges being brought. In this case no settlement was reached and the rapists harassed the girl and her family with impunity, threatening to kill them unless they withdrew their complaint to the police.

But this just isn't an Indian problem. In the UK, this year we had an MP describe having sex with a woman while she was unconscious as being nothing more than "bad sexual etiquette". We had a judge tell off a rape victim in court for "letting herself down" because she had been drinking before she had been raped. And we had thousands of people bully, attack and disclose the personal details on twitter of a woman raped by a footballer - while one of the teammates publicly called her a money grabbing slut. And this despite the fact that the footballer in question had held her down while she struggled to escape and then invited in a friend who did the same.

I will also point out here, that the bast majority of rapes are not by men grabbing women in dark alleys but by men who are friends, relatives or otherwise known to their victims.

And, on the internet, and in culture, we see a disgusting attitude towards rape victims. Women, for the victims are usually women, are regularly blamed or questioned in a way that no victim of any other crime would be for what has happened to them. This year a premiere comedy festival headlined comedians who made dozens of jokes about rape. This year the most read online student publication in the UK, with tens of thousands of readers, wrote "85% of rapes go unreported - those sound like pretty good odds". And a famous DJ being investigated for sexual assault, described as nothing other than harmless touching what he had done to women. Despite the fact that I personally know one woman who he came up to and whose breasts she groped while on a cigarette break and who was then told to just "laugh it off" when she complained to the producer.

And I'm not even going to begin to mention the cowardly lowlifes online who routinely question and abuse and insult any woman who speaks out against sexism or sexual assault.

The thing is, this is endemic. This culture and attitude is all around us. And, without even realising it, it affects our views and subconscious prejudices - which is why any woman who appears in court as a victim of rape is likely to face the defence doing everything possible to blacken her character and to pass her off as some kind of slut. Which they do because juries believe it and acquit rapists because of it.

And, in our modern society where violent porn is incredibly widely viewed and influential, especially amongst young people, it is incredibly easy for people to fall into the trap of forgetting about consent and seeing women as sex toys rather than real people. The vast majority of us are perfectly decent people and would never abuse others but the potential for people to fall into that way of thinking is something which now incredibly easy if people don't stand up to speak for consent and for ending the treatment of women as objects rather than people.

Furthermore, rapists and predators are often "good" people. They can be that friend of yours, or that nice, respectable pillar of the community, or the charming young professional. Good guys, nice guys, can be rapists and it's society's unwillingness to accept this which is why so often victims of abuse are met with scepticism and hostility just for talking about what has happened to them. Why every single discussion about this throws up dozens of people arguing furiously about the problem of false accusations out of all proportion to the fact that it is much, much rarer than instances of abuse.

And it's this attitude, this approach to women in general and victims of rape and assault in particular, which is why rape takes place. Why rapists get away with it and rape again and again. And, ultimately, it is why people like the woman in New Delhi end up dying in hospital - all because of a culture, around the world, that remains far too wilfully blind to its own tolerance of rape and abuse.

So this is me, speaking up about it. Because I'm too sickened to stay silent any longer.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Blackholes are like custard

Custard is an interesting substance. It's normally thought of as a liquid but it actually behaves like both a liquid and a solid at the same time. That is to say, under normal circumstances it acts like a liquid but as soon as you place any pressure on it it becomes solid. A great example of this property is this video where a man is able to walk on custard thanks to this property:

Now, recent theoretical models of blackholes in six dimensions have found that they form something called branes, which, interestingly enough, behave like both a fluid and a solid at the same time. And the really interesting thing is that, while the models are theoretical, they've been found to accurately predict the behaviour of something else called quark-gluon plasma (and I will pretend I know what that is).

So, to recap, custard behaves like a fluid and a solid and so do blackholes. Therefore blackholes are like custard. That's the only conclusion to be drawn from this fascinating new piece of research

DISCLAIMER: Conclusions drawn solely by George Potter. Conclusions may not be based on actual scientific knowledge, common sense or sanity.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Some Christmas facts

Merry Christmas to everyone. However, on this day of celebration, I think it's worth remembering some facts about the nation and the society we live in so that, perhaps, in 2013 some more people might try and make things better.

In modern day Great Britain:
  • 4 million live in food poverty
  • 1 in 4 children live in poverty
  • The gap between average male and average female pay is £5,600
  • Black people are 28 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police
  • The unemployment rate for white women is 6.8%
  • The unemployment rate for Pakistani and Bangladeshi women is 20.%
  • Disability hate crime has risen 75% in the past two years

Saturday, 22 December 2012

An email to Lynne Featherstone

Merry Christmas everyone and sorry for my lack of blogging lately. It seems to be that as soon as I get other aspects of my life running okay another aspect goes to pieces - in this case the aspect going to pieces seems to be my blogging. But here's an open email I've just sent to Lynne Featherstone MP about her decision, when she was still Equality Minister, to sign off on changes which will effectively gut the Equality and Human Right's Commission's obligation to work to end prejudice and discrimination and to create an equal society.

Dear Ms Featherstone,

As per your tweet, I'm emailing you to request an explanation as why you signed off on the "Reform of the Equality and Human Rights Commission" which will see the repeal of the EHRC's general duty section 3.


As a member of the Lib Dem Disability Association, as an equal rights campaigner and as a feminist I am absolutely astounded at this decision and at a loss to how, given the principles I've heard you espouse publicly, you could ever justify this.

The obligations being repealed are the obligation for the EHCR to act ‘with a view to encouraging and supporting the development of a society in which’:
  • people's ability to achieve their potential is not limited by prejudice or discrimination,
  • there is respect for and protection of each individual's human rights,
  • there is respect for the dignity and worth of each individual,
  • each individual has an equal opportunity to participate in society, and
  • there is mutual respect between groups based on understanding and valuing of diversity and on shared respect for equality and human rights.
Additionally, the repeal will also remove the duty for the EHCR to work towards the elimination of hostility and discrimination towards discrimination against specified groups and enabling them to have equal participation in society. The specified groups include disabled people - a group in which an overwhelming majority of people report having experienced outright verbal and physical abuse just for being out in public. This at a time when disabled people are disproportionately being effected by welfare cuts and when my fellow disability activists have been told there isn't even the money to fund an anti disability hate crime public awareness campaign.

And that is without mentioning the repeal of the EHCR's duty to monitor crime rates against specified groups and to share recommendations on how to reduce them.

With the changes you have signed off on, disabled people and other discriminated against groups in society, including ethnic minorities and women will find themselves without any official organisation dedicated to standing up to and working to end discrimination against them.

The obligations of the EHCR were defined in 2006 after extensively being discussed with NGOs, business and others and being agreed by all parties. I can understand the argument, made in the GEO Impact Assessment you signed off on, that the EHCR obligations weren't as necessarily clear and specific as to its duties as they could have been. However, that is an argument for replacing them with new obligations after proper consultation with stakeholder groups - not for gutting them completely.

What you have signed off on, without any apparent regard for the impact on discriminated against groups, the views of party organisations such as the LDDA, the views of NGOs and charities or, for that matter, our party's constitutional commitment to a fair and equal society, is to set back the cause of equality by about ten years. Because once and if this is passed by parliament there will be no prospect of changing it during this parliament. And it is unlikely to be a priority for the next government regardless of the outcome of the next election.

I could understand a Conservative signing off on these changes, given how little they seem to care about the well-being of those groups in society who face routine discrimination, prejudice and hostility. What I cannot understand is how you, a member of a party which entered government to make it fairer and to protect the vulnerable, and a self-described feminist committed to equality for everyone, could sign off on it.

Please could you explain why you decided to do this. As it is I, and no doubt many others within the party, are at a total loss as to why you signed off on this and are supporting it.

Yours sincerely and merry Christmas,

George Potter

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

I'm one of those the Daily Mail warned you about

So lots of people (especially the Daily Mail and miscellaneous xenophobes) are panicking about the census showing that the number of people living in Britain born abroad has reached 7.5 million people.

Well, before everyone starts panicking, it's time for me to make a confession.

You see, I'm one of those 7.5 million people born abroad. And so is my brother. Yup, we're the ones the Daily Mail is warning you about.

Except that I was born to British parents who just so happened to be working abroad in Belgium when I was born, and that I've been a British citizen all my life, went to an English speaking school abroad and then moved back here when I was five. And except that my father was English, his father was English, his father was English and his father was English, etc. making me just about as English as the most racist xenophobe could possibly ask for. (For the record, my mother was English, her mother was English and her mother was half-Welsh - so I do let the pure-blooded Englishman nonsense down somewhat on that account).

So really, where someone was born really doesn't mean a damn thing. Particularly given that, with the economic crisis, we've seen a lot of British expatriates coming back to Britain - often with children who were born overseas.

And what I'm trying to say, I guess, is that the headline figure isn't an accurate figure of the number of immigrants in the UK (as the pearl-clutching Daily Mail likes to pretend it is). So you know, maybe take the figures with a pinch of salt than as gospel.

Besides, the number of foreign born people in the UK is nothing at all compared to the utter disaster of the 50% drop in the number of Jedi in the UK.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Sexist M&S - #everydaysexism

An email of complaint I just sent to Marks & Spencer Customer Service:
When shopping today in your Guildford store I was very disturbed to see that in your Christmas Gifts section next to the food court that you had a 'For Her' section of gifts which were almost entirely cooking and baking utensils. Quite apart from the ridiculous level of sexist gender stereotyping that indicated, I also imagine that if I were to give a baking tray to any female acquaintance of mine as a present then they would be likely to brain me with it. 
I find it completely unacceptable that in the 21st century that a chain of your prominence still apparently holds the view at a management level that a woman's primary role is in the kitchen and that the best presents for a woman are cooking utensils. 
As a result I will no longer be making any purchases at any of your stores while you continue to present such a stereotyping of women and I will also be advising all my acquaintances of my reasons for doing so and recommend that they do the same. 
Yours sincerely,
George Potter

Friday, 30 November 2012

Potter Blogger Friday Roundup

So this is a new feature I'm trying out - a Friday roundup of things which have crossed my mind this week.

EU-Japan free trade negotiations

Yesterday the EU opened negotiations with Japan on the prospect of a free trade agreement after efforts in the European Parliament led by Liberal MEPs. Given that Japanese companies employ 100,000 people in the UK and that we export chemicals, pharmaceuticals, cars, machinery and scientific instruments to Japan, this is a bit of quite good economic news. And, given that it's predicted to produce £35 billion of European exports to Japan, these negotiations are also a good example of why it's useful to be inside of, rather than outside, the EU and the world's largest economy and able to benefit from these kind of deals which individual nations find it much harder to negotiate.

Liberal Youth Conference

Last weekend I was in rainy Manchester for Liberal Youth conference. As always it was great fun but unfortunately my motion to get Liberal Youth to campaign for the minimum wage to be raised to match the living wage was gutted by a wrecking amendment which turned it into a motion endorsing the status quo. Thankfully we were able to get the motion returned to the policy committee for redrafting so hopefully the motion can be resurrected in a less radical form in time for next conference.

On a brighter note, there was an excellent speech by Lib Dem Lord Rennard (who became involved with the Liberals by becoming a local party treasurer at age 13) and I was able to get an emergency motion passed on the recent fighting in Gaza which called for an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza, condemned violence by both sides, called for all violence against civilians to end and for the UK and the EU to push for an end to the supply of arms to both Palestine and Israel as well as to push both sides to come to a lasting peace settlement.

And, speaking of Palestine...

Palestine admitted to the UN as an observer nation

Congratulations to Palestine on formally being accepted into the UN as an observer nation rather than an entity. Given Palestine has diplomatic recognition from almost every country apart from the US and it's allies, this doesn't really change anything with regards to the issue of whether Palestine is a state or not but it does make it easier for them to join organisations like the International Criminal Court. And, given that war crimes have undoubtedly been committed by both sides in Israel and Palestine, the possibility of the ICC being able to extend its jurisdiction and bring people to justice can only be a good thing. Above all the Palestinian people have the right to self-determination and sovereignty (as does Israel) and it's good to see that internationally recognised. It's just a shame that we in the UK were too afraid of the US to take a principled stand and vote in favour of the Palestinians rather than abstaining.

Leveson recommendations published

Well the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry have been published and everyone political or involved with the media is very excited about it while everyone else can't really see what all the fuss is about. But basically all it is is a recommendation for a new independent regulatory body for the press which will have powers backed by law, so that newspapers can't choose not to be members or ignore it's rulings, as well as an independent arbitration process.

Given that at the moment there is absolutely nothing to stop newspapers printing lies like the Daily Star headline of "MUSLIM-ONLY PUBLIC LOOS - Council wastes YOUR money on hole-in-ground toilets" (literally nothing was true about this headline - the toilets weren't Muslim only and they weren't paid for by the council), I can't really see what's so contentious about the proposals to actually enforce the same code of conduct that newspapers already profess they believe in - especially when most UK papers are members of a similar regulatory system in Ireland without any complaints about it. And it's nice to see Nick Clegg publicly disagreeing with Cameron on this and standing up for what's right as well.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

On Sir Cyril Smith

So the Crown Prosecution Service have said that a dead, former Lib Dem MP, Sir Cyril Smith OBE, should have been charged with abusing children while he was still alive. The reason he wasn't charged, apparently, was because police at the time effectively assumed that an MP couldn't possibly have done anything wrong
and that the alleged victims making the allegations were liars.

And of course this has kicked up a big mess for Liberal Democrats (and the police and the CPS) given that, if the alleged victims are telling the truth, this was a prominent MP who was allowed to get away with horrific crimes which obviously and deservedly reflects terribly on everyone involved.

It's not really revealing much to say that there are plenty of Lib Dems wondering how all of this is going to play out and all the rest of it. So here's my take on it:

At the end of the day everyone is innocent until proven guilty and in this case it will never be possible to prove if Sir Cyril Smith was guilty. On the other hand, there are apparently plenty of witnesses whose evidence would nowadays be considered sufficient for prosecution which means it's at least somewhat likely that Cyril Smith was in fact a paedophile who abused children.

So all we (we being Lib Dems) can do is keep an open mind, extend our sympathy to both Smith's family and his alleged victims while trying not to condemn Smith when he's unable to defend himself and trying not to handwave away what might have happened to his alleged victims just because he was once of our MPs.

But above all it should all act as a good reminder to everyone that paedophiles and rapist don't have to be creepy looking weirdoes - they can be, apparently, good people whom we know and respect. You can't spot one by the way they look or by any other stereotypes.

And if everyone could remember that particular lesson about the fact that just because someone appears respectable and good doesn't mean they can't have committed evil crimes then the state of justice in this country would probably be greatly improved and we wouldn't have anywhere near the amount of victim blaming that we so often see in rape and paedophilia cases.

Friday, 23 November 2012

How to save £5 billion a year from welfare

Apparently George Osborne and the tories want to freeze unemployment and other benefits in the spring, which, after inflation, is effectively a cut. Their argument for this is that welfare is a huge part of government expenditure and needs cutting in order to close the deficit.

But the problem with this is that even if you froze every working age benefit, including ones like disability benefits, which Osborne apparently doesn't want to freeze, you would only save at most £2 billion a year - and probably a lot less than that due to the impact of the cuts increasing the demand on, and the cost of, other government services.

And, since this would only save a fraction of the £20 billion we apparently need to save, and cause hardship for people who are already struggling to get by, I've got a better plan.

In fact, I know away to save £5 billion from welfare without hurting anybody.

Let me explain.

First of all, let's quickly look at the one area of welfare the tories consider a sacred cow and refuse to touch: pensioner benefits.

At the moment pensioners, regardless of whether they're living in poverty or whether they're a multi-millionaire, receives the winter fuel allowance (£100 to £300 a year each), free bus travel, free TV licenses if they're over 75 and quite a few other perks.

Now, I've got nothing against pensioners receiving a but of extra help from the government. I know that for plenty of people, including some of my relatives, things like the winter fuel allowance make a big difference to being able to afford to heat their homes or not.

But why on earth should these benefits be given to all pensioners regardless of whether they need them? If you've got £10 million in the bank why should the taxes of someone on the minimum wage go to giving you a free TV license? Why should they have to help pay for you to receive a winter fuel allowance which you don't actually need?

The reason, as usual, is political cowardice. You see, the over fifties are the only demographic that overwhelmingly votes for the tories. And because of that, the tories have refused to cut even one penny from pensioners benefits - despite the fact that they make up a huge chunk of our overall welfare bill.

So here's how we could save money - if all of these pensioner benefits were restricted to only those who need them then we could save about £1 to £1.5 billion a year.

Then, on top of that, we could save at least another £4 billion by implementing into law the concept of a living wage and raising the minimum wage to match it.

In brief, the living wage is an hourly rate, calculated independently, that is high enough to allow people to live off of. It is significantly higher than the minimum wage - for example in London, where living costs are very high, the living wage is £8.55 while the minimum wage is just £6.19.

And, in addition to the fact that the living wage (which has received at least lip service support from every major party) would take hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty if implemented, recent research has also shown that paying the living wage to all low paid workers in London would save the government almost a billion a year through increasing the number of taxpayers and, most importantly, reducing the number of people who are paid so little that they are forced to depend on state benefits in order to survive.

Extrapolating this saving across the country based proportionally on London's population then you're looking at the government saving £6.1 billion a year if everyone was paid the living wage.

Now, obviously that's an overestimate because the gap between living costs and the minimum wage isn't quite so large outside of London and so the savings would be smaller.

But even so, at the very least paying the living wage everywhere would save between £4 and £5 billion a year. And, in addition to that saving, and the people taken out of poverty, paying the living wage would also increase worker productivity and reduce absenteeism, benefiting employers as well. And, most significantly to me, it would also end the decades old disgrace of the welfare system subsidising the profits of employers by allowing them to page wages too low for people to live off of.

Now, there would be problems with paying a living wage, obviously. The increase in wages would be difficult for some companies, particularly the smaller ones, to absorb. So it might well lead to a small increase in unemployment.

But, given the scale of the savings we're talking about, and that the dire predictions of millions being made unemployed which were used as arguments against introducing the minimum wage utterly failed to come true, the scale of the increase in unemployment would be extremely likely to be manageable and would be offset many times over by the savings to the government and the benefits to workers up and down the country. It would be a lie to say it would be painless but at least those made unemployed would still be supported by the benefits system and, overall, workers, the government and the country would see a net benefit from the change.

So, to recap, here is how we could save £5 billion from welfare:

  • Ending perks for wealthy pensioners: would save £1 to £1.5 billion a year
  • Implementing the Living Wage on a national basis: would save £4 to £5 billion a year
Which, being extremely conservative, and allowing for unpredicted costs, means that, as a bare minimum, the government would still end up saving at least £5 billion a year from the welfare bill - and all without having to freeze benefits for the unemployed and the low paid.

Now if only someone had the political courage to implement it.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

What the hell is Nick Clegg playing at?

The other day the Independent reported that our dear leader is discussing a trade-off for the next budget where unemployment benefit and income support for poor people would be frozen (a real terms cut) in exchange for slightly higher taxes on wealth. This is new flexibility from Nick Clegg which is, apparently in order to "ensure the pain of the cuts is shared fairly."

This makes my blood boil. What on Earth is fair about extra wealth taxes if the money raised does absolutely nothing to protect the poorest?

Could someone please explain the logic of this to me? The government has X amount it needs to save. The Tories, being Tories, want to save this amount by slashing benefits and support for poor people (but not for pensioners as they're the group most likely to vote Conservative). We, on the other hand, being Liberal Democrats, would much rather get X by raising taxes on unearned wealth for those with the broadest shoulders.

So how, for Pete's sake, do you get from that to deciding that a "fair" solution is to hit the poor and fail to protect them, but try and tell them not to worry about being in poverty because some rich people are going to have to pay a little more tax as well?

Time and time again Nick Clegg has reassured us by saying that we are not in government just to reduce the deficit but also to make Britain fairer in the process. That the deficit cannot be balanced on the backs of the poor

But Nick seems to be consistently failing to actually understand what this means on a pretty darn fundamental level: Fairness is about protecting the poor, it is about protecting the vulnerable. It is not hitting the poor to placate the prejudice of Tories while salving your conscience by raising stamp duty slightly.

And it most definitely is not making token objections to Tory policies for "differentiation" purposes while presiding over a Britain where poverty and inequality are rising and thousands more families are becoming dependent on food banks.

And that's not even mentioning the way in which our MPs and peers, in spite of an overwhelming defeat of the leadership at conference on this issue, are rapidly riding roughshod over the fundamental principles of members to commit themselves to supporting the authoritarian wet dream of secret courts which put the state above the law - a scheme denounced as illiberal and dangerous by organisations like Liberty and, more importantly, opposed by Liberal Democrat members themselves.

Or without mentioning, for that matter, the "shares in exchange for giving up employment rights" scheme currently being implemented by Vince Cable and opposed by 92% of Lib Dem members.

This behaviour by our leadership, and by Nick Clegg in particular, is really only deserving of one label and that is spineless.

That and complete, arrogant disregard for the will of party members who have made clear, time and time again, that, while they are mature enough to compromise, they also have red lines which must not be crossed. Not that that or internal party democracy mean a thing while Nick Clegg seems determined to cross every single red line the party membership has.

So, I have to ask, what the hell is Nick Clegg playing at?

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The world is safe for another four years...

Well, the American elections are over and Obama has clearly won. Even better, the Republican senatorial "rape candidates" (e.g. the ones who had revealed their horrifying views of rape and their contempt for women) during the election campaign have all lost - including Mr Richard "if a woman gets pregnant from rape then it's a gift from god" Mourdock of Indiana, which, as he was standing in a state where I have a close friend living, was personally cheering as well.

Additionally, several states in referenda have legalised marijuana and/or equal marriage rights for LGBT people.

So, all in all, it looks like, for another four years at least, we have a sane and competent person in charge of the most powerful nation and largest economy on Earth. And, given that the alternative was a man whose idea of economics was to increase the deficit even further through tax cuts for multi-millionaires, whose investment company picked more duds than winners and whose idea of diplomacy was to promise, on day one if he was elected president, to pick a fight with China.

Nevertheless, that this was such a tightly fought election, does remind us non-Americans of the way in which American voters regularly struggle to decide how to choose between an average candidate and an incompetent cretin. So no doubt in four year's time I'll be agonising again from afar as the US ponders long and hard of whether to give the key to the White House to a candidate so inept that they'd struggle to amount to anything more than a laughing stock in most other western countries.

Still, it's their country and who they decide to run it is up to them. I just wish that we didn't live in an era when US election results can affect those of us who don't get any say in them.

So, in summary: four more years without a nuclear holocaust - hurray!

Cyanide and Happiness, a daily webcomic
A fairly accurate summary of US elections from the perspective of an outsider
On a more serious note, let's not also forget that President Obama has also killed up to 3,191 innocent civilians as "collateral damage" of drone strikes. So for me I can only ever view this election result as the lesser of two evils.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Thoughts on feminism from Labourites

So, following the decision of Labour MP Austin Mitchell to tweet Louise Mensch the message that "a good wife doesn't disagree with her master in public", something of a row has erupted. And my personal view is that anyone who says something like that, even if they later claim it was an "ironic joke" (adding an inability to understand the meaning of irony to Mitchell's list of flaws), is being disgustingly misogynist and has no place in parliament let alone in a Labour party which claims to be committed to equality.

Anyway, this prompted the usual groundswell of party tribalists rushing in to excuse what Mitchell said or handwave it away as not being a big deal because he was on there team rather than on the tory team. I vocally disagreed with hypocrisy of some of these people whom I happened to be following on twitter and an interesting conversation ensued.

Here are a few highlights from that conversation whichh I found particularly noteworthy from this charming gentleman who blogs under the name Denis Donovan:

He began with handwaving...
Then quickly moved on to this:
(Because obviously men can't believe in feminism for any reason other than as a ploy to slake their uncontrollable lust)

And continued in that vein...

Before moving on to a bit of ageism...

And then finishing off with:
It was only when I pointed out that my mother died of cancer when I was seven that this charming individual decided to finally move on from sexist remarks and insults:

And, while it's nice he decided to offer sympathy for that, it's a shame that a Member of Parliament telling a woman that her husband is her master and she must obey him apparently isn't something he objects to.

Now, aside from him, there was also another Labourite, who I'd actually followed on twitter for quite a long time, who seemed to get very confused about the concept that I could be both a man and a feminist:
Given that we'd spoken on several occasions before and that my twitter name is quite clearly George Potter, I suspected that this was an attempt to belittle me by calling me by a woman's name - a fairly common example of sexism itself. He however denied this:

I was unimpressed...

But this chap just kept on missing the point:

Before again, finishing up with some ageism. Yay!

So, to summarise: according to these two, being a feminist means that I must either a) using the label to try and trick women into having sex with me or b) actually be a woman.

And both of these two men are so-called progressive sorts who, in name at least, are in favour of equality.

To which all I can say is: #facepalm

Oh, and just to finish up, I'd just like to present an example from people's experiences on the Everyday Sexism project as a reminder of why I'm a feminist in the first place:
Katie 2012-10-28 21:04 
Year 7 French homeowork about my family. 
I write "mon pere cuisine le diner" (my father cooks dinner). French teacher corrects it to "ma mere" and tells me off for getting such a basic thing wrong. When I tell her that my Dad does the cooking at home she initially thought I was lying to hide my mistake, then eventually decided my dad must be some poor suppressed husband married to some sort of tyrant. 
All this at an all girls grammar school that prided itself in turning out strong independent women.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Proof that the DWP work programme has failed

So, here's an interesting fact:

The DWP paid the private company A4Ee a total of £41 million between June 2011 and June 2012. This money was for the DWP's work programme where various organisations are paid to find jobs for unemployed people.

But, as reported by Channel 4 FactCheck, out of the 93,000 people A4e was paid to find work for, only 3,400 of them actually found sustained work. That means the taxpayer is paying out something to the tune of £12,000 for every unemployed person got into work.

Now, I'm pretty sure that that is most definitely not what would be considered value for money. And the really shocking thing is that, to comply with the DWP contract, A4e would only need to have found jobs for 5,115 of the 93,000 on its books. So, to put it another way, the DWP is quite happy to pay a private company £8,000 per person to get them into work through the work programme.

Well, here's an idea, how about we spend that money on more staff at job centres and better training for them so they actually have the time and skills to help people find work. Or how about we pay a tiny fraction of that money to unemployed people in the form of vouchers to help them train and get qualifications which would make them more employable?

But we're not, of course, because, while the tories running the DWP love the idea of stripping benefits from those who can't find jobs in a time when there are more unemployed people than jobs available in order to save money, they clearly don't see anything wrong with paying exorbitant sums of money to the private sector to do fuck all to get unemployed people jobs.

Seriously, did no one in the DWP at any point sit down and do the maths on the contracts? Is no one there bothered by the manifest failure of the work programme to achieve anything worthwhile?

The mind just boggles at this kind of waste of taxpayer money.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Why are tory ministers so incompetent?

Here's something that's puzzling me. The Tories have 304 MPs in parliament. The Liberal Democrats have 57. Therefore the Tories have a much larger pool of talent to call upon than the Lib Dems.

The Cabinet has 22 members of whom 5 are Liberal Democrats - so therefore roughly 9% of Lib Dem MPs are Cabinet members. On the other hand, the 18 Tory Cabinet members represent just under 6% of Tory MPs.

So why is it then, with this larger pool of talent and proportionally less Cabinet members, that of the 34 policy u-turns the government has made so far, only one of them has been a u-turn by Lib Dem ministers and, given that the u-turn in question was Lords reform being blocked by tory backbenchers, it doesn't really count.

The remaining u-turns - all thirty three of them - have been by Tory ministers on Tory policy initiatives. And invariably, such as with the pasty tax or selling off the nation's forests, these have been u-turns made due to a lack of someone with the competence to sit down and notice the blindingly obvious political pitfalls of the latest wheeze.

Which, as Mark Thompson points out, begs the question: Why is it that the tory party, with a much larger pool of talent than the Lib Dems, has managed to make a pretty much unprecedented number of u-turns and mistakes while Lib Dem ministers haven't made any?

Now, obviously I'm discounting the coalition negotiations where the Lib Dems, as we all know, gave up on several of their policies. What I'm focusing on here is people being actually capable of competently enacting policies in government. I might not agree with Margaret Thatcher on selling off council houses but you can't deny that the policy itself was capably implemented with very few problems, for example.

But the modern day tory party it seems, is incapable of going more than a couple of weeks without making some sort of a cock-up or other. And I'd dearly love to know the reason why. Personally my prejudices tell me it's because the kind of people who succeed in the tory party are usually exactly the same kind of arrogant, ignorant and incompetent berks that we have passing for tory ministers at the moment but perhaps there's another reason.

Either way, the tory incompetence in government, not to mention the recent suggestions that Theresa May, a woman who's stupid and incompetent enough to let thousands of people travel through immigration without recording or checking them, who's credulous enough to believe a totally mythical story about a cat preventing an asylum seeker from being deported, is now being suggested by some tory MPs as a possible future Prime Minister, does rather tend to suggest that the tory party is facing a truly dire lack of talent.

So, despite all the oft-repeated refrain in the 2010 general election campaign that the Lib Dems were utterly inexperienced and unprepared for the challenges of governing competently, it does rather seem that, if anything, Lib Dem MPs tend to be fairly capable people while the tories, the self-imagined "natural party of government" couldn't even manage to organise a piss-up in a brewery.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Osborne and the "culture of entitlement"

So, in case you missed it, George Osborne, our beloved Chancellor of the Exchequer, was caught in first class on a train with a standard class ticket and refusing to move to standard class because, as his aide put it, Osborne 'couldn't possibly sit in standard class'.

But the ticket collector wouldn't budge and, depending on which newspaper you read, Osborne either ended up moving to standard class or stumping up the £160 extra for a first class ticket.

Now apparently the excuse being put round the Westminster village by George Osborne now is that it's his aide's fault for not having the Crown Pass with them.

For those who don't know, the Crown Pass (otherwise known as the silver badge) is a special badge which all important members of the government carry. It's basically their passport to get round roadblocks, and various other traffic obstacles which might impede ministers from getting somewhere they need to be on government business. Which is fair enough as, if you've got a checkpoint searching for a suspect, said suspect isn't likely to be found by searching a minister's car.

But a silver badge is not meant for allowing arrogant prats with a superiority complex to avoid paying £160 for a first class train ticket. So this being Osborne's excuse is even more disgusting than his insistence on sitting in first class without a ticket in the first place.

And the thing is, it's not that long ago that David Cameron was talking about a "culture of entitlement" amongst welfare recipients. How there are these evil, wicked parasites who think they are entitled to a life of ease while everyone else has to work hard to get by and pay their way.

And of course, people thinking they are "entitled" to things is an old tory complaint. Why, the year before I was born Margaret Thatcher said that there were young people in the nation's schools who thought that they were entitled to an inalienable right to be gay.

Well, I hate to break it to the tories but gay people have a right to be gay. And people who've lost their job and can't find another one because there aren't enough jobs to go around do have a right not to be left to go cold or hungry and be abandoned by society and the state.

On the other hand, George Osborne is not entitled to demand freebies and special treatment just because he thinks he is. Does he need special treatment on occasion for the purposes of his job? Yes. Does he need or deserve to be able to use his job to try to avoid paying the £160 that you and I would have to pay for a first class ticket? No.

But in many ways, David Cameron is right. There are people in our society who think they are entitled to a free ride, who belong to a "culture of entitlement". But those people are his own colleagues and best friends in the tory party. And when those people go around demanding to be treated as above and better than everyone else then they are being part of that culture of entitlement.

And when they criticise families working every hour that they can get just to hold their heads above water for thinking themselves "entitled" then that just makes them disgusting hypocrites of the worst kind as well.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

The fundamental unfairness in our society

So, here's the thing. I'm a student at a good university. I'm studying Electronics with Satellite Engineering and have every chance of graduating with a 2:1 or better MEng. I'm able to do this because, well, I'm fairly smart and well educated.

But the thing is, I know that my raw ability isn't that good compared to others. At best I can only claim to be average or slightly better than average. There are people far, far more talented than I am. And there are lots of people who work harder at their studies than I do.

But, because I went to good schools, had good teachers, had parents who encouraged me to do well, because I had a fairly stable home life, and because I generally grew up in an environment where it was easy to learn, I was able to do well in my GCSEs, do well in my A Levels and do well at university because of the education and support I received. My own ability helped but most of what I'm able to do comes not from my own ability but from being taught well.

As an example, maths is something I've never been naturally talented at. But I've had teachers who explained things well and who put the effort in to make sure that everyone in their classes understood the material. And, because there were small class sizes, they had the time to help out everyone who was struggling.

And that's the problem.

I've got a promising future ahead of me and I have every chance of having a successful career when I graduate. And, while that's partly down to my own work, it's mostly down to being born into a family and background where I was able to get a good education and support to help me learn and educate myself.

But the thing is, demographics tell me that there are plenty of people the same age as me who have far more raw talent than I do. Some of them are geniuses. But, because they weren't born into a moderately well-off background, because they were born into poverty, by the time I entered primary school I was already pretty much guaranteed to come out the education system somewhere in the top and they were guaranteed to come out somewhere in the bottom.

That's because the fundamental thing in our society which determines how well you do in school is not your natural ability but how rich or poor you are. If, like many people the same age as me, I'd gone to a deprived state school with crumbling facilities, out of date equipment, overworked teachers and massive class sizes I can guarantee that I'd have been lucky to have scraped a pass in five GCSES - let alone get the 9 A grades I got in real life. And, if the people who went to those schools had gone to my schools, had access to top class facilities and resources, been in small classes, and generally had a much better educational advantage, then they probably would have done much better than I did.

But, because our society is so unequal, because how well you do is determined by the lottery of birth, I, despite being less talented, have access to top quality education and opportunities and brilliant life chances while honest-to-god geniuses, Einsteins and Newtons, have come out of the education system with little to no qualifications and the best they can ever hope for is a life of minimum-wage jobs scraping by just on the poverty line.

And yet the people who end up with that kind of future include people who, if they had been born into a wealthier background, could have been visionaries, pioneers and intellectual revolutionaries. We have a truly massive pool of talent being wasted because, primarily as a result of inequality and deprivation, not even half the children in this country manage to meet the minimum standard of five pass grades at GCSE level.

How can we compete in the modern world when half the population have their life chances written off due to circumstance at birth? How can we progress and prosper as a country when we let so much talent and ability go squandered and unnurtured?

The answer is we can't.

I was born into relative privilege and as a result I have thrived. Meanwhile people far better and more talented than I were born into poverty and will remain trapped in poverty for the rest of their lives.

And because of this monumental waste of talent, because of the way our society is riven with unequal opportunity at birth, this country will never punch it's full weight. We will never be able to compete with more educated countries. Yet if every child had access to the opportunities and education I had then we'd have a 100% literacy rate and a workforce educated and equipped to be the most efficient and productive in the entire world and we'd be much wealthier, more crime free and happier as a society as a result.

It's the failure to tackle at inequality, the fail to give every child a fair chance, that is dooming this country to mediocrity, that is the cause of so many of our social problems, and we'll never progress properly until we do tackle it.

This government won't do it and neither has any government before it. Yet education is the silver bullet that could tackle most of our problems all in one go. We need to, no, we must, grasp that lesson. I don't want my children to grow up in a world as unequal and unfair as the world I've grown up in. But so far we're not doing anything to change that. And, until we do, our society will remain fundamentally rotten and tainted by injustice at it's very core.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Great Britain's future must lie within a federal Europe

On Monday night I went to the LSE to attend an absolutely fascinating event. It was the launch of a new book (in every major European language) entitled FOR EUROPE: A Manifesto for a Post-National and Federal Europe.

The authors and speakers at the event were Daniel Cohn-Bendit MEP, Co-Chair of the Greens/European Free Alliance in the European Parliament and a former Parisian student leader, and Guy Verhofstadt MEP, a Thatcherite and former Prime Minister of Belgium.

It'd be impossible for me to recount the full detail of what they said but I will say that, coming as they did from two very different political perspectives, they ended up utterly convincing me of the need for European federalism.

And here's why. There were two key arguments that were made which spoke to me.

The political and financial crises facing Europe

The first was that it's the only solution to the political and financial crisis facing Europe. Guy Verhofstadt pointed out that when the United States first came into being the national government had no financial powers at all and that this then gradually moved to federal government gaining the power to issue treasury certificates, then the establishment of the Federal Treasury in 1790 (seven years after the end of the American War of Independence), with a national currency not being introduced until 1792.

He then compared this to the way in which the Euro was brought in without the existence of any kind of treasury or central taxation or other essential financial instruments to back it up and explained that this was the origin of the eurozone crisis - monetary integration without economic or financial integration. And, what's more, he pointed out that the USA has a national debt of 102% of GDP and has to pay interest rates of 2% on that debt and that Japan has a national debt of 226% of GDP but pays just 1% while the eurozone has an average debt of 88% but has to pay average interest rates of 5% and that this is the consequence of a currency without any reliable financial instruments to back it up.

To put it another way, the American dollar is backed by a federal government with a budget of 24% of GDP. The EU has a budget of 1%.

And this lack of financial substance, and the eurozone crisis it has produced is compounded, both Verhofstadt and Cohn-Bendit said by a political failure of European leaders to tackle the problem and the way in which they always delay decisions for too long and only ever adopt half measures at the last possible moment leading to a lack of confidence which is the real cause of the eurozone crisis. And the cause of this political crisis was that the EU operates on a principle of unanimity - where every country has to agree to a solution before it can be adopted, leaving the entire stability of the EU dependent on what they termed as the "tyranny of the one".

The argument they made, quite convincingly, that the only solution to this could be through federalism to provide a democratic European government, with two chambers, the mutualisation of Europe's debt, a European treasury and a single European currency. Verhofstadt described the only options for the future are either forwards to a United States of Europe or backwards to the divided nations of Europe.

But there are plenty of people who would be perfectly happy to return to the different nations of Europe, to see the eurozone breakup and to see the EU return to it's earlier form of nothing more than an economic trading agreement between the countries of Europe. And, given that that could feasibly happen as well, then obviously this means that federalism is not the only solution to the financial and political crisis within the EU.

We need a federal Europe to survive the new age of empires

But this is where I found their second argument much more important and convincing.

Put simply, in thirty years not a single European country will be a member of the G8 anymore. They will be overtaken by Brazil, India, China and the rest of the industrialising world and it will be these nations, along with the United States that decide the future of the world and disunited European nations will lose the influence they currently have.

So the simple question facing everyone in Europe is whether we want to make the decisions ourselves or whether we want these other nations to decide for us.

With the globalisation of the economy, markets have grown bigger and more powerful than the nation state, eroding national sovereignty. And, just as with climate change, these kind of problems require global solutions and global regulations to tackle them and it simply will not be possible for individual nations to achieve this.

The nation states of Europe emerged out of the need for the political power to regulate and control the emergence of national economies and the same is needed now to give us the power to regulate and control the new global and regional markets. And so a reformed European Union is the only way for us to safeguard ourselves against the power of the global markets.

We're entering a new age of empires. Not the old kind of empire but a new kind. Empires not of countries but of entire civilisations. China and India aren't just countries, they're also entire civilisations - each containing many ethnicities, languages and religion but all united by a shared culture and civilisation. The same applies to America - the original melting pot and a country where different ethnicities and religions and languages have always been melded together to form an overarching American identity. And the world of the future will be dominated by these new empires.

So the only way that the people of the nations of Europe can avoid being powerless bystanders in a world shaped by other cultures and other civilisations is to put a measure of our national sovereignty together to defend our civilisation and to defend our culture.

After all, despite our differences, the nations of Europe have much more in common with each other than they do with the rest of the world. A commitment to human rights and liberty and tolerance unseen in China or India. A commitment to social protection for the vulnerable of a kind lacking in America. A culture of political pluralism and compromise very different to the partisan feuding of America. And our culture and civilisation is every bit as worthy of promoting and defending as the cultures of China and India and America.

An example of how sharing sovereignty makes us stronger is defence. Between them the nations of Europe have 1.5 million soldiers - a military larger than that of the USA. But Europe's soldiers, as a whole, operate with less than 10% of the efficiency of that of the USA. During the Libyan intervention, after two days France and Great Britain ran out of ammunition and had to buy more from the Americans. So, despite Europe having a military larger than that of the most powerful nation on Earth, it is many, many times weaker due to each nation having it's own army, duplicating the work of every other nation rather than pooling resources together to provide economies of scale and to provide much better security at a much lower cost. A federal Europe could well have a military with a fraction of the numbers Europe has at the moment at a lower cost but one which actually provided much more security than the individual armies of Europe have at the moment. After all, Britain and France currently both struggle to fund even one aircraft carrier each when a pooling of European resources could afford more aircraft carriers at a lower cost to the taxpayers of each individual nation.

And, looking at things another way, why do we need 27 European embassies in Kuala Lumpur? We could have one single European embassy with a lobby for each European nation at a fraction of the cost.

Ultimately, working together with other people makes us stronger than working alone. And that's the key element of a federal Europe that I myself can believe in. In the 21st century the 19th and 20th century notion of the nation state simply cannot defend us nationally, culturally or financially. It will take a new model of a federation of the nations of Europe to do that in our modern world.

How it could happen

Cohn-Bendit  and Verhofstadt weren't just there with a vision of what could happen though, they were also there with a blueprint of how we could move to a federal Europe. They also pointed out that for it to work it will take politicians to stand up and lay out the new vision of Europe and to convince people of it - instead of following the method of the French revolutionary who said "I must find out where my people are going so that I may lead them!".

The first step they suggested would be the 2014 European elections. Ideally it should be a break from the previous squabbles on national issues between national parties in each country and instead a switch to a proper debate on the future of Europe between transnational European parties. But, since that is unlikely, a very minor change to the EU's electoral law could allow a candidacy for the existing European presidency to stand in every single country. However, the ideal solution should be the introduction of two ballot papers for voters - one to elect MEPs and one to elect the President of the European Commission.

And if the President of the Commission were directly elected, instead of being rotated between different nations as it is at the moment, then the president would have the legitimacy to challenge the nations on an equal footing and to move away from the current system of horse trading by national governments behind closed doors without any democratic input.

The next step would be to call a constitutional convention on the European level which should produce a constitution, no more than 20 pages long, laying out the raison d'etre of Europe, establishing how it would work, making the Euro the currency of Europe, establishing a self-financing federal government and including fundamental human rights.

This should then be put to the people of Europe in a referendum because it is the people who have the right and the responsibility to decide the shape of their future.

And, if the majority of people and the majority of states say yes to the constitution then it should be implemented. Those countries which reject the constitution would have to choose between staying in the EU and accepting the democratic will of the majority or leaving the EU completely. A Europe fragmented on different lines on every policy area (currency, trade, agriculture, etc) with some nations in and some nations out simply won't work.

So, for example, us in Great Britain would have to decide whether we want to be part of the new EU or whether we wanted to become the 51st state of the USA. What can't continue is people like David Cameron saying to the rest of Europe that he'll veto the European budget necessary to tackle the financial crisis because it will cost the UK money but that he also wants all the benefits of EU membership. Each country should have to decide whether we want to be in or out.

Both Cohn-Bendit and Verhofstadt both freely admitted that there would be many difficulties in putting together the different political and governmental cultures of Europe which is why they advocated a policy of convergence: a federal Europe shouldn't take over from national governments and say pensions have to be this much, taxes have to be that much, welfare has to be this other amount because it simply won't work with all the national variations throughout Europe.

Instead, the federal government should specify minimum and maximum boundaries for each policy area - for example a minimum standard of social provision - as well as promoting best practice across Europe. And, where states can't match those minimum standards (such as Greece at the moment) the rest of Europe should show solidarity with them and the federal government should step in to provide that minimum standard while helping the nation get to the state where it was capable of providing that minimum standard itself once more.

This, I think, is the crucial thing about a federal Europe. It should not be about a massive, undemocratic, unaccountable superstate trying to force uniformity on everybody. Because, in many ways, that's the problem we have with the partial democracy of the EU at the moment. Instead it should be about making the EU properly democratic and accountable and controlled by the people of Europe through proper democratic systems and through sharing sovereignty where, and only where, doing so makes us stronger.

As Cohn-Bendit and Verhofstadt said:

"To us a federal Europe is democratic and accountable. It does not mean the nation state disappears but it does mean you have a new balance of serenity."

And that is a vision which speaks to me. And it's one I am convinced of and which I will support from now on. The time has come for a new Britain and a new Europe and I'm going to go out and fight for it.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

George Potter for the FCC

I'm going to be standing for the Lib Dem Federal Conference Committee in the upcoming internal elections. This is manifesto I'm standing on:

Who I Am 
I'm George Potter, member of Liberal Youth, member of the Social Liberal Forum and member of the Lib Dem Disability Association. I'm also a student of engineering at the University of Surrey and a disability rights campaigner.

What I Stand For
There are various issues which have motivated me to stand for the FCC but my main motive is that I feel that conference is good but could be much better. And my aim in standing is to try to tackle issues which I feel have not been adequately addressed so far. In particular, I'm concerned with two key issues:

Stopping Accreditation - It is utterly illiberal that all our members are required to have their privacy invaded by the police if they want to attend conference - especially as there has not been one shred of evidence provided to suggest it would make anyone safer. With some members not coming to conference because of accreditation we need to find a way to stop it.

Unfortunately, I do not think the current FCC has done enough to find a way to avoid accreditation and, if elected, I will push strongly to try and stop it. And, crucially, I will be open about the process so that everyone can know what solutions have been attempted and what options the FCC has looked at.

Widening Access to Conference - In Brighton, 350 voting reps made policy decisions for a party of 45,000 people. We might be a democratic party but a situation like this cannot be right when we all know that many local parties are unable to send their full quota of reps to conference.

One of the major reasons for this is the cost of attending conference and the lack of suitable accommodation and facilities at conference locations also excludes many disabled people. In a party like ours that should not be acceptable.

Therefore, if elected, I will look hard at finding solutions to allow more people to take part in conference even if they’re unable to physically attend. One option might be allowing voting reps to watch the conference debates and vote online if they’re unable to attend in person, for example.

Conference shouldn’t be for the few - it should be for the many. Accreditation and lack of accessibility prevent that which is why I pledge to work to resolve both those issues if I am elected.

Any questions? Please feel free to contact me in the comments below if you have any.

Friday, 28 September 2012

The best and the worst bits of conference

So, Lib Dem autumn conference is now over. As normal it was great fun though expensive (especially if, like me, you're on a student budget) and a fantastic opportunity to bump into friends and acquaintances old and new.

And I thought I'd just write this post to highlight my personal best and worst bits of conference.

The Best

As always, my favourite bit of conference was Glee club on the last night - a proud, decades old, tradition where we all get together, get drunk, and sing Lib Dem versions of many popular songs until 2am. My favourite songs this year were Lib-Lab Lie (to the tune of American Pie) and Policing The Land - a brutal pillorying of the conference accreditation system.

Another highlight was my good friend Natasha Chapman making her first speech at conference. Despite being rather nervous she did absolutely brilliantly and I foresee brilliant things in her future - if only she'll give up on her ambition to be a scientist and let me bully her into becoming Prime Minister instead ;)

And then there was the Equal Citizenship motion passing overwhelmingly and the incredibly heartfelt speeches made during the debate by sick and disabled people - if I ever needed reminding of why it's worth doing this their stories were all that anyone would ever need to realise why this injustice needs fighting.

Finally, there was conference overwhelmingly defeating the leadership in a vote on secret courts - more on this later.

The Worst

The worst and most depressing and simultaneously infuriating moment of conference was a rigged debate over economic strategy. Basically, Danny Alexander had a motion endorsing the government's economic strategy and calling for a few good, liberal, additions to it. Some people objected to the notion of officially endorsing George Osborne's economic strategy as party policy and so two amendments to the motion were put forwards.

As the Guardian accurately reports:
One amendment tabled by Linda Jack, the leader of Liberal Left, a smallish pressure group that has opposed the coalition from the outset, called for the fiscal mandate to be scrapped. Another amendment tabled by Prateek Buch, from the more centre-left Social Liberal Forum (SLF) opposed "yet more public spending cuts, which will be counterproductive, particularly if capital investment and welfare spending are targeted again". 
It also called on the coalition to "prioritise measures to boost demand through public and private investment, using all tools available to government including the flexibility in its fiscal mandate, over further spending cuts beyond those already in place that would suppress confidence and demand yet further". 
The first amendment from Jack had the support of only 13 signatories while the other, more subtle but still pointed, motion from SLF had 29 supporters.
And, with these two amendments put forward, the Federal Conference Committee decided to select the motion with fewer backers, and a fairly extreme anti-coalition motive, and completely ignore the more moderate one and block it from debate.

As a result, conference was presented with a choice between reluctantly endorsing the current deficit reduction strategy or completely rejecting the government's entire economic strategy. In short, it was no choice at all with the result that most voting representatives decided to back the motion and reject the amendment as most of them, myself included, felt that the amendment was too extreme and damaging to the coalition which, like it or not, most of us are still reluctantly signed up to.

We were helped to this view by a rigged debate in which the chair called hardly any ordinary party members to speak, instead calling MP after MP, one after another, to support the motion and to denounce the amendment. There was precisely one speaker called to support the amendment in the debate - something which I am sure was far from reflective of the balance of opinion in the speakers cards submitted to the chair of the debate.

The obvious effect was that you had party authority figure after party authority all saying the same thing, distorting the debate so that advocates of the amendment couldn't get a word in edgeways. Couple this with a whipping operation which saw MPs, peers and their staff flood into the hall just in time to cast their vote, and what we ended up with was a disgustingly partial and rigged debate which forced conference into voting for an endorsement of Osborne's economic strategy due to the lack of any real alternative. It was undemocratic and the chair of that debate (who I won't name) should be utterly ashamed of himself for so obviously distorting the party's democratic process.

Something similar also happened with a debate about the government's proposals for secret courts. Basically, the government wants to allow secret courts in cases where there is top secret evidence which can't be disclosed where the intelligence services deem it to be a threat to national security. Instead, the government's lawyers would have a cosy tete-a-tete with the judge and a government appointed "advocate" for the other side's defence team where they could all discuss the evidence in secret without the other sides lawyers even being able to communicate with their so-called advocate.

The party leadership wanted the party to back wording which would allow this to happen and, despite a similar whipping operation where popular MPs and peers were wheeled out to sacrifice their credibility to defend the leadership's position, the response from conference was a resounding "fuck no" with members actually cheering as they overwhelmingly voted for the secret court proposals to be scrapped. So, while the two attempts to rig conference were utterly disgusting, at least I can be proud of my fellow party members for not standing for it.

An Announcement

And all of the above brings me to an announcement I'd like to make. Given the failure of the FCC to protect debates from being rigged, and because of various other issues, I'd like to announce that I am standing for the Federal Conference Committee in the internal elections later this autumn. I'll have a more detailed manifesto up shortly.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Equal Citizenship motion passes!

I'm in a great mood at the moment. Yesterday afternoon my Equal Citizenship motion was passed by Lib Dem conference (and overwhelmingly passed I might add - only one person voted against it), along with an amendment effectively blocking tory plans for an extra £10 billion of cuts to the welfare budget.

As a result, the motion is now party policy and I'm now determined to do some proper lobbying, along with the brilliant and amazing Kelly-Marie Blundell, to make sure that, unlike last time, our MPs and peers actually act on the motion.

The full text of the unamended motion can be found here and here are the key points which the amended policy motion demands:

  • An independent review of the impact of the government’s welfare reforms 
  • Action to make all ESA assessment centres accessible
  • Changes to assessment for disability benefits (primarily ESA and PIPs) to make them fairer and less intimidating to applicants 
  • More funding to advice services like the CAB during the transitional period for any further changes to the welfare system
  • A national public awareness campaign to tackle disability hate crime
  • More funding for schemes like the Access to Work Fund to help sick and disabled people seeking work
  • A review of means testing for income related disability benefits to look at changing the ridiculously low cut-off thresholds used at the moment
  • A block on Conservative calls for a further £10 billion of cuts to welfare and pension spending

I'm not naive enough to think that all of these will actually be done this parliament but I certainly think that there's no reason why some of them, such as making assessment centres accessible and tackling disability hate crime, can't be done immediately. And today I met with Scope and various Lib Dems in government so that Kelly-Marie and I could start to get the ball rolling on lobbying parliamentarians to deliver on the will of Lib Dem conference.

Also, one other thing from the debate on the policy itself, is that I reminded conference that we need to apologise, as a party, for the welfare reforms and for our failure not to do more than we did. Because, while things like preserving the mobility component for DLA for people in care homes, blocking a 10% cut in housing benefit for people on Job Seeker's Allowance and maintaining the Harrington Reports are all good things, they simply aren't enough to absolve us of responsibility for the suffering being faced by sick and disabled people right now.

I just hope that passing the motion can act as a starting point for finally making good the damage caused and for finally starting to make sick and disabled people equal, rather than second class, citizens.

And last, but definitely not least, a massive, massive thank you to everyone who supported the motion, helped write it and who helped get it to autumn conference. You're all heroes :)

Sunday, 23 September 2012

About to give a speech

I'm typing this quickly because I'm about to go to a question and answer session with Nick Clegg at Lib Dem autumn conference where I intend to ask an awkward question if I get called to speak.

So, just as a brief update, at 15.05 I go to the question and answer session with Nick Clegg, where I have submitted this question:
What is fair or liberal about us cutting Disability Living Allowance by 20% and taking Employment Support Allowance away from vulnerable sick and disabled people?
After which, it's my Equal Citizenship motion, which is backed by party members including the cabinet minister Jeremy Browne, former leader Sir Menzies Campbell, and party president Tim Farron.

I'm summating the motion and Kelly-Marie Blundell is proposing it.

If you haven't got time to read the full thing, basically it's about getting a full, independent review of the cuts to disability benefits in the Welfare Reform Act with the goal of reversing them and about proper action to tackle disability hate crime. Additionally, an amendment has been proposed to the motion which would block any further cuts to welfare this parliament. And, if the motion is passed by conference, it becomes official party policy.

That said, the Deputy Prime Minister's office (though not Nick Clegg himself) has given us the message that even if the motion is passed they'll ignore it. Given that this is grossly unconstitutional, I look forward to seeing how conference react to this when I mention it in my speech.

So, that's the update. And I'll do an update either later today or tomorrow about whether it was passed or not.

Thursday, 20 September 2012


Last weekend it was my 22nd birthday. The week immediately prior was my last week of work. The weekend before that was a holiday to visit my ancestral homeland of Yorkshire with my grandparents (yes, it turns out that I'm part Northern - I'm still coming to terms with the revelation).

And all this together, and the the general busy nature of things, has meant that I haven't blogged anything since last Monday and have spent most of my waking hours just generally taking a break from everything and, to be completely honest, spending a wee bit too much time playing video games. As a result I've missed Michael Gove's cackhanded and idiotic attempts to take our education system back to the 1950s (something which, according to the email he sent to Lib Dem members, David Laws thinks is absolutely wonderful) and Clegg's apparently heartfelt and honest but long overdue apology for breaking his word on tuition fees. Kudos to Clegg though for being the first politician in my lifetime to actually stand up and say sorry for doing something wrong - Mr Blair and Mr Brown, perhaps you'd like to do the same now?

And, to be perfectly honest, I quite liked having a brief break from politics and the world in general. Escapism is so much more fun than looking around you and realising what an utter shithole the world can be and is.

But today I read something powerfully written which touched me. I don't agree with all of it but James Graham's blogpost on the Cleggpology, former party strategist Richard Reeves, the coalition and the future of the Liberal Democrats is erudite, well informed and very insightful and it reminded me just how bad the state of politics in this country is.

And it also reminded me of the fact that there's no such thing as the big win in politics, of one woman or one man or a small group of people who can sweep to power and set everything to rights. It just doesn't happen. Instead it takes years, decades, of constant, relentless struggle by hundreds of people to make real and lasting change happen. And that's disheartening because, like most young people in politics, I like to think of myself as the dashing future saviour of the nation - and having to face up to reality that the absolute best I can ever hope to achieve is to make a few minor changes here and there is a bit of a let down compared to the dream.

But I suppose that dreams are necessary because it's only the vision of a radically better world that keeps us going.

So, putting melodrama aside, I've been reminded of why I do what I do and of why I think it's important not to abdicate responsibility for trying to make a better world and why I have no right to be selfish and ignore the injustice all around me in favour of escapism. Not to mention the fact that there are so many people fucking things up at the moment that I couldn't possibly do a worse job by trying.

I think I've now come to intellectually accept that I'm not going to change the world. Thankfully though, I don't think I've believed it yet. And who knows? If I keep on dreaming about changing things then there's a small chance that maybe, just maybe, I might actually be able to make a difference.

Anyway. That's enough self-indulgent introspection. Normal service of angry rants will resume shortly.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Lib Dem MPs back Equal Citizenship motion

Well, I've got some good news for a change - several Liberal Democrat MPs, including the party president, Tim Farron, and former leader Sir Menzies Campbell are backing the Equal Citizenship policy motion, due to be debated and voted on at Lib Dem conference later this month, which calls for an independent review of the impact of the Welfare Reform Act, for proper reform of assessment mechanism of disability benefits, changes to means testing thresholds for disability benefits and action, including a public awareness campaign to tackle disability hate crime, in order start empowering and enabling sick and disabled people to be able to be full equal citizens in our society rather than marginalised.

This is the list of MPs who've backed the motion:

Sir Malcolm Bruce MP
Sir Menzies Campbell, former Leader of the Liberal Democrats
Tim Farron MP, Party President of the Liberal Democrats
Stephen Gilbert MP
Stephen Lloyd MP
Adrian Sanders MP

With these MPs supporting the motion hopefully this time, if the motion does get passed, it won't be promptly ignored by the leadership.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Welfare dependency versus benefit fraud

There's something that's been bothering me when it comes to discussions about welfare reform. Time and time again people talk about (mythical) massive welfare dependency and benefit fraud and use this to argue that we must be ruthless in targeting fraudsters as if that's the same thing as welfare dependency and as if benefit fraud (which already has several benefit fraud task forces and a hotline to report incidences of it) wasn't costing us ten times less than tax evasion.

And I think a major issue here is the way that people conflate people being trapped on benefits, or forced to depend on them due to lack of alternatives, with benefit fraud.

To people doing this I say:

Look, if you want to tackle benefits dependency then what you need is education, careers advice, and all sorts of other support provided for people right from an early age. You might also want to look at ending the situation where the minimum age isn't enough to live on and forces a significant chunk of the population to be in the situation of being in work and also having to claim stuff like housing benefit and working tax credit.

However, this is COMPLETELY different from the issue of actual fraud which is incredibly low at 0.7% (based on very accurate statistical studies conducted periodically by the DWP). You're always going to have some fraud in any system and we have to put up with that.

But fixating on welfare fraud, which is a relatively minor problem, is just a massive distraction from much bigger wastes of money and much bigger costs to the taxpayer elsewhere (such as tax evasion). Additionally, all too often, this fixation focuses mainly on perpetrating myths and promotes a heartless cruelty (as well as a twisted sort of envy) directed at some of the poorest people in society. And the result of it inevitably is that, instead of actually weeding out a vanishingly small number of cheats, you just end up kicking some more vulnerable people out into the cold and patting yourself on the back for a job well done.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Who are the new DWP ministers?

So, in the current government reshuffle, two notable changes are the departure from the DWP of Chris Grayling and Maria Miller.

Instead they have been replaced with two people who most members of the public will never have heard of. They are Esther McVey (former parliamentary private secretary to Chris Grayling) and Mark Hoban (the former Treasury Minister), with both of them being Conservatives. That these are the new job holders is probably certain given that the official Number 10 twitter account has tweeted the appointments.

Mark Hoban is taking over from Chris Grayling as Minister of State for Work and Pensions.

Esther McVey is taking over from Maria Miller as Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Work and Pensions (though it's not known if she'll also be Minister for the Disabled).

Now, as McVey has been working in the DWP as Chris Grayling's chief assistant since 2010 she obviously has experience of working in the DWP while Hoban has none with his previous parliamentary experience being in science and technology, education and the treasury. However, with both of them, their personal opinions and approaches to the DWP's work are pretty much unknown.

That being said, it's obvious that neither of them are being in to rock the boat. Both of their job moves are promotions so my guess would be that Number 10 just wants them to pretty much keep things going the way they are under the auspices of their immediate boss Iain Duncan-Smith (who's presence will mean that the welfare reforms will keep going but who also is disliked by the treasury for fighting ferociously to protect his department from cuts).

So, to give us a better idea who these two new ministers are, I'm going to start with brief biopics of each of them.

Mark Hoban

Economist and former financial analyst. Married with no children. MP for Fareham in Hampshire, a Conservative safe seat, and member of the Conservative front bench since 2003 - primarily in finance related roles - and is viewed as a 'hard-nosed' safe pair of hands.

However, based on an interview on the Today programme and looking at the analysis of the interview by Touchstone, where he defended the housing benefit cuts and changes to DLA, while refuting analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies' analysis of the changes (based on the DWP's figures) as being likely to significantly increase poverty. From this he's either good at spouting the government line or a fool who actually believes it. Personally I think it's more likely to be the latter.

However, given that he's got no previous experience in this area and doesn't appear to have ever shown an interest, it's pretty impossible to tell what kind of job he'll do in his new role.

Esther McVey

Former TV presenter and businesswoman. Single. MP for Wirral West in Merseyside, a marginal seat which she won from Labour in 2010 after losing in 2005. She's also a supporter of Conservative Way Forward, a neo-Thatcherite group within the tories (albeit one which also supported David Cameron's modernising agenda). While this and the fact that she (unsurprisingly) supported her boss's welfare reforms in public, is rather unpromising, what her personal opinions are is anyone's guess and she is patron of a disabled children charity called 'Full Of Life'.

The best thing about her I've been able to turn up so far is that she doesn't appear to have copied her boss's habit of describing disabled people as workshy and scroungers - it's early days yet though. Additionally, she did manage to get Grant Shapps to visit families living in partially demolished streets in her constituency when he was Housing Minister with the result that he made an extra £75 million available to help families trapped in  those and similar situations - so not without some sense of decency then.

Can be found on twitter as @EstherMcVeyMP.