Friday, 22 February 2013

Revealed: the Lib Dem Whistleblower Procedure

Today I received information on what the Lib Dem whistleblower procedure is - including, crucially, who the official whistleblower is.

The reason this is important is because the party has apparently had an official whistleblower for years who staff and members should theoretically contact if they have been, for example, victims of the kind of harassment as is alleged to have happened in the Chris Rennard case. Unfortunately, however, it seems like almost no party members knew about this procedure - and a thorough search of the party website and other readily available sources does not reveal who the whistleblower is or how to contact them about any issues.

However, I can now reveal that the Federal Party Whistleblower is Kate Parminter, a Lib Dem peer. What's more, she is still acting as a point of contact for anyone who wishes to contact her and any names of those contacting her will be kept confidential unless express permission is given for them to be passed on.

There are no specific contact details for Kate Parminter that I am aware of other than her standard parliamentary ones - however I expect that she is likely to be monitoring all her email accounts regularly given the internal investigation that is currently going on. So if there's anyone reading this who has been a victim or who wants to speak to the whistleblower in confidence then you now know who to contact.

Alternative points of contact are, apparently, the party president, Tim Farron MP, and the Chief Executive, Tim Gordon - both of whom are also meant to be following the same confidentiality as the whistleblower is meant to.

That this information is not readily available reflects very poorly on our party which is why I am publishing it. I see no harm in publishing it and I hope that it being public will be of help to anyone needing to talk to the whistleblower or to contribute information to the investigation.

Because the sharing of this information, in my opinion, can only be for the good and cannot conceivably pose any harm to the party, I have no qualms in publishing it and will also not reveal the sources from whence I got this information just in case some people in the party object to the publishing of this. So if I am asked to take this down or to reveal where I got the information from I will have to decline to do so.

That being said, I highly doubt that that will happen. From the information I have seen, people at the top of the party are all very determined to investigate this properly and to make it possible for any potential victims of harassment or other inappropriate behaviour to come forward so I'm sure they will be publishing this information themselves soon anyway. Nevertheless, I think it's best to make it available as soon as possible.

UPDATE:

The party has announced an update of the whistleblowing procedure. An independent whistle-blowing authority, Public Concern at Work, have taken over the role of whistleblower and all existing cases from Kate Parminster and can be contacted as follows:

Ring: 020 7404 6609
Email: whistleblower@libdems.org.uk

A university locking a Muslim prayer room is discrimination

Amongst other things, the news today includes the story that City University London has begun locking the Muslim prayer room on Fridays.

The reason for this is that the students using it have refused to submit copies of the sermons to the university beforehand so that the "appropriateness" of them can be checked.

The Muslim students claim that they are being unjustly targeted while the university claims that it's necessary given the history on the university.

The history being that three years ago it was revealed that extremist sermons were being given on campus and it was claimed that hardline views were being encouraged.

So, even though there's no evidence that this is happening now, I can understand why the university is concerned.

But the fact is that the students are also completely justified in their complaints - they say the services are open and anyone can come along and listen to the sermons. So, in my opinion, they have every right to object to having their sermons checked by the university authorities beforehand.

Personally, I can see the argument that monitoring of the sermons is needed - but if that's the case then it should be extended to all religious denominations on campus rather than just used to single out one particular religion.

The issue here isn't, or shouldn't be, that sermons are required to be checked beforehand (even though I think that sending someone along to listen to the sermons is a much better approach) - the issue is that just one religious group is being subjected to the regime.

If this kind of monitoring is really necessary then the liberal thing, the right thing, the decent thing, to do is to enforce the monitoring without discrimination. But, sadly, this is something which appears to have escaped the authorities at City University.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Chris Rennard - holy [expletive]

Channel 4 News has just broken the story that the Liberal Democrats are urgently reviewing their internal procedures following publication of serious allegations of sexual harassment against Lib Dem peer and former chief executive officer Chris Rennard.

Now, obviously innocent until proven guilty applies here but when you read the accounts by the alleged victims they sound pretty damn plausible and are being made by people with no reason to make them up - not to mention that some of my friends within the party have mentioned that they'd heard rumours about Rennard before. Which makes it extremely worrying to think about how many people might have been victimised and molested due to the failure of people within the party to do anything.

More widely, this also shows just one of the consequences of organisations not properly dealing with sexual harassment - victims end up leaving the organisations and disengaging because they no longer feel safe. Quite apart from how horrible this must have been for the alleged victims it's scary when you think just how many promising activists and potential politicians might have been turned off of politics because of this kind of behaviour going unpunished.

And the thing is, I've met Chris Rennard - well, that is to say, he came and talked to us at a Liberal Youth conference (I should point out here that Liberal Youth is brilliant at providing safe spaces so even if the allegations are true Rennard shouldn't have had the opportunity to harass anyone at Liberal Youth events) - and I was both impressed by him and found that he seemed fairly likeable, not to mention that he is famous within the party for being a brilliant campaigner. And that's why this is so important.

You see, assuming what Channel 4 and the alleged victims are saying is true, this was something that was known about by several senior people in the party - including Jo Swinson MP and former party president Baroness Ros Scott. Even more worryingly, one of the alleged victims describes being told that nothing could be done about it because no one was willing to make a formal complaint despite her insistence that she would be happy to make a formal complaint.

And the reason that this happened - that victims were ignored and let down by the party - if it happened, is that too many people would have thought "Chris is a nice bloke and he's great at what it does - he couldn't possible really be like that. He might push the boundaries a bit at times but it can't be too bad and it's certainly not anything worth rocking the boat over."

I know this because that's what often happens when it comes to those who commit rape, sexual assault or sexual harassment - the people responsible are quite often people who seem perfectly decent and, for want of a better term, good men (for it is usually, but not always, men) so people refuse to believe that they could be capable of something like that. But the problem is that's the very reason that we live in a culture which allows the vast majority of sexual predators to get away with it.

Time and time again victims are told not to rock the boat. And people who should act on it justify their inaction by telling themselves that there's no point in rocking the boat. But, as is pointed out absolutely brilliantly in the parable of the rats on the boat, that's completely the wrong thing to do:
The people who are doing everything in their power to DEAL WITH THE RAT INFESTATION say “but for fuck’s sake there’s a rat GNAWING AT YOUR ANKLE LET ME JUST THROW HIM OVERBOARD COME ON” and then other people say “oh look he’s only a rat he probably doesn’t MEAN to gnaw at my ankle; that’s just what rats DO” and then the people-trying-to-deal-with-the-rats say “but people keep jumping overboard because they CAN’T BEAR THE FUCKING RATS ANY MORE” and the other people say “oh come on you’re leaping to conclusions we don’t actually KNOW why people leap off the boat, shouting ‘the rats the rats THERE ARE SO MANY RATS ON THIS BOAT’. Why are you going around causing trouble?”. Then the people trying to deal with the rat infestation say “I have had it with these motherfucking rats on this motherfucking boat!” and leap overboard themselves, and the people left shrug and go “Crazy, huh? I wonder why people keep leaping off the boat? It’s probably their time of the month or something. Bitches, man.” and eventually THE RATS TAKE OVER.
This, sadly, is what too much of our society is like at the moment - particularly the hyper-macho culture of politics. People keep asking "why are there so few women in politics" and this is definitely one of the reasons.

If these allegations are true then I am very, very disappointed in the leadership of the party for not properly doing anything about this at the time. And I sincerely hope that having the spotlight of publicity shone on this squalid affair will force the adoption of procedures which means there is no potential for this to ever happen again so that our party can become the safe space for everyone that it damn well should be.

ADDENDUM:

Upon reflection, I think it's also worth bearing in mind that Chris Rennard also grew up in what can mildly be described as "challenging" circumstances and pretty much spent all of his life from his early teens in a political culture that was, at the time, incredibly male-dominated and sexist (it's improved significantly by now but not by enough) which might go some way to understanding why, if the allegations are true, he didn't see any problem with his behaviour.

It doesn't for a minute excuse him of responsibility for what he might have done but I think it's also worth mentioning as a reminder that sexual assault and harassment isn't just a case of some people being inherently inclined to do it - culture and society creates sexual assault and the only thing that can properly end it is a change in that culture and society.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

UKIP voters aren't extremists

Well I'm finally back from two days in Eastleigh where I had a great time in the by-election campaign - such a great time that I shudder to think of the state of my inbox now that I'm back. So, before I start on it, I'm going to procrastinate by airing some thoughts about the UKIP supporters I met on the doorstep in Eastleigh.

Because the thing is that I did a lot of knocking on doors and speaking to people in a particular type of area - tightly packed, somewhat run down, former council estates where most of the people were working class.

A lot of them were down on our records as being weak Lib Dems or red Lib Dems or soft Labour - all of which basically meant people who had voted for, or who would consider voting for, Labour but who could also be, or had been persuaded previously, to vote Lib Dem.

Now, given that in 2010 we ended up in coalition with the Conservatives it's hardly surprising that a large chunk of them had switched to being solidly Labour voters - they might have considered voting for us after 13 years of a disappointing Labour government but now they were firmly back in the fold. So far, so expected.

And then there were those who had become firmly disillusioned with politics and didn't intend to vote, weren't interested or were outright hostile to anything to do with politics. Again, this was something to be expected in areas where people have largely been passed by by the economic bubble of the New Labour years and haven't seen anything really improve for them or any politicians care about them for years and are now facing a squeeze on their living standards due to circumstances entirely beyond their control.

But, most striking of all, were the former Labour supporters who had switched straight over to UKIP. And these are the people who I want to talk about. Quite a few of them mentioned UKIP's policies on immigration as their reasons for voting. The fact that UKIP positions itself as a "common sense" alternative to politics as usual no doubt helps them pick up those who want to cast an anti-politics vote but these were far from the majority of UKIP's new found support.

So why do so many people vote for a party based on its opposition to immigration (polls show it's the number one priority for UKIP supporters)? Are they all bigots or extremists who hate foreigners?

Well no, they're not. Some of them are, certainly - after all, this is the party which claims to be libertarian while wanting to ban Muslims from being able to have places of worship or where head-scarves if they want to. But really, I think opposition to immigration is just a symptom of their real concerns.

Because these are people who often live in areas which are massively white British. They don't have any direct experience with large scale immigration where they live. And when you speak to them actually they don't hate all immigrants or actually want to stop all of them coming into the country - they're happy for people to come in if they contribute but what they're really worried about is lots of people coming in and taking houses and jobs.

This is actually what they're really concerned about - the dire lack of housing and jobs for ordinary people, especially working class people. They're the ones who are finding it hardest to find jobs, who have to put up with extortionately priced housing which is often in poor condition. They're the ones who face rents which they can barely afford, even with housing benefit, and they're the ones who have to wait for years to even have a chance of getting a council house.

Unfortunately, what a lot of people do is blame this on immigration. If only we didn't have so many people coming into this country then there'd be enough jobs and houses to go round, their thinking goes. And that's not surprising because this is what the media - especially the tabloids - constantly tells us: immigrants are flooding this country and taking houses and jobs and benefits away from hard-working, honest British people.

But immigrants are just a scapegoat. Because even if we had no immigration into this country then there still simply wouldn't be enough houses or jobs to go round. This is the great failure and betrayal of this country by decades of a neo-liberal economic model slavishly followed by Thatcher, Major and New Labour which focussed on a property and banking bubble based on cheap and easy credit which provided the illusion of economic growth while jobs, good wages and housing for normal people became harder and harder to find.

And now that economic model has come crumbling down and normal people - who had no share in the illusory growth of the "boom" years are now suffering in the bust. And throughout this time, as politicians have ignored criticisms of their blind faith in the bubble and ignored the steadily worsening, or at best stagnating, living conditions of the working class.

If any of these people complained to politicians about immigration, believing it to be the cause of their problems, politicians would either call them extremists and bigots or, even worse, pander to anti-immigration sentiments with empty promises - simultaneously legitimising concerns about immigration while doing sod all to address the real problems causing it.

And this is where the anti-immigration, anti-"political correctness" sentiment has come from. Many people see the lack of jobs and housing and blame immigration - but they're afraid that if they say that then they'll be called racists by mainstream politicians.

Then along comes parties like UKIP which say, no you're not racists, it's just political correctness gone mad by the political class - here, vote for us and our promises to stop all immigration and end multiculturalism which is behind all the problems you're facing. And people believe them and give them their votes. It's not surprising. But it doesn't make them bigots.

The tragic truth is that the root causes of concern about immigration are perfectly legitimate - lack of housing and jobs is a real issue. If these issues were tackled then it would only be the genuine bigots, xenophobes and racists who cared about immigration. But they're not being tackled so people vote UKIP - and then mainstream politicians write these people off as bigots and dismiss their concerns. And so the cycle of disillusionment and support for parties like UKIP continues - despite the fact that UKIP's actual policies would do nothing to resolve housing or unemployment issues and would actually plunge the UK into an economic collapse which would hurt the working class worst of all.

So if anyone says that UKIP's voters are extremists then you should ignore them. Some of UKIP's support definitely is from extremists but most of it comes from people with genuine concerns - the target of this concern is incorrect but the root causes of their concern are perfectly legitimate and need tackling.

Because until we do tackle issues with housing and jobs then parties like UKIP, which have always existed with their lies and scapegoating and empty promises, will continue to draw support and feed disillusionment with our democracy. And that can only be bad for everyone.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

On the way to Eastleigh

So I'm currently heading south on my way to take part in the Liberal Democrat efforts in the Eastleigh by-election. Well actually, I'm currently on a replacement bus service across to Basingstoke because, as it turns out South East Trains are utterly crap when it comes to putting accurate information about engineering works  on their website and so I thought I'd just be able to catch a train this morning. But never mind. Come the revolution they will all be nationalised and deported to Antarctica anyway (or so a man can dream).

Now I haven't blogged in far too long - life's been keeping me busy and draining my creative juices but that's not really an excuse for neglecting the one platform that gives me a chance to rant freely at an imaginary audience.

So, Eastleigh. A town formed by the merger of two villages around a new railway station and the home of former Lib Dem MP Chris Huhne who, as it turns out, sped several years ago, got caught, and then transferred the points on his license to his wife, committing the much worse crime of perverting the curse of justice and then betraying the trust of everyone in the party and everyone who'd voted for him by continuing to lie about it until the beginning of this month. And, in the process, he also managed to ruin the lives of both himself and his family. All in all, a very stupid man.

And now Eastleigh is home to the exciting by-election where incumbent Lib Dems face off the Tories - our coalition partners - in a brutal, no-holds-barred electoral fight to the death.

What makes it particularly interesting is that since the Lib Dems hold all the council seats in the constituency, if we lose then the question everyone will ask is if we can't win in Eastleigh where can we win? And in those circumstances you can expect renewed unrest amongst the membership, fresh questions about Nick Clegg's leadership, etc, etc.

On the other hand, if the Tories lose then a lot of them will immediately point to the number of votes UKIP got and cry that if only they didn't have a weak lefty like Cameron in charge (yes, lots of Tories genuinely believe Cameron is left wing - if you can credit it) and instead tacked far to the right on Europe, equal marriage, crime, immigration, etc. then they could have got all of UKIP's votes and beaten the Lib Dems. What's more, if the Tories can't win in Eastleigh then people will have to ask whether they can win the next general election given that at least half of the seats they are targeting are Lib Dem ones.

So basically, whoever wins, the other party loses badly. Either the Lib Dems will be thrown into doom and gloom and Clegg will face fresh prospect of a coup de grace, or the Conservatives will be thrown into civil war over David Cameron's leadership and a fight between their nutty Tea Party faction and their centrist faction.

For Labour of course it's mostly win-win - provided that is that the Lib Dems don't manage to squeeze their support leading to UKIP pushing them into fourth place. Because if they end up fourth in a seat in the south east when a Labour general election victory will depend on being able to win seats in the south east again, then Ed Miliband might well face some awkward questions of his own.

But we'll find out who are the winners and who are the losers on the 28th of February. In the meantime I'm heading down because this is the first major by-election which we could win since I joined the Lib Dems in 2009 - we did have a Lib Dem/Labour context in Oldham and East Saddleworth in 2011 but it became unwinnable as soon as we went into coalition with the Conservatives and it took place in the middle of winter at the same time as the tuition fees fiasco so it really didn't have the proper by-election feel to it.

Eastleigh, on the other hand, is a chance for us to kick the tories in the nadgers and that's something that most of us in the south east have been longing to do for a while. In fact, over 300 people turned up to campaign for us in Eastleigh yesterday which is why I'm taking a break from the county campaign in Guildford and heading down for two days - I really don't want to miss out on the chance to take the fight to the Tories in a big way, or to miss out on what I hear is a brilliant by-election atmosphere.

So, best of luck to our candidate, Mike Thornton, and fingers crossed that the anti-abortion, swivel-eyed Tory candidate doesn't get in. Toodle pip.