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Tuesday, 21 November 2017

What won't happen next in Zimbabwe

Emmerson Mnangagwa and Robert Mugabe
(Photo: Zambian Observer)
Let me be perfectly clear from the outset: the events of the last seven says are truly extraordinary. They represent a significant opportunity for Zimbabweans, and also a pivotal moment in African politics more generally: 2017 has now seen the fall of both Robert Mugabe and the Gambia's Yahya Jammeh - both who seemed utterly unassailable. The real question, however, is what happens next.

It's clear this is the end of the road for Mugabe, who overreached himself when he ousted vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa - apparently in order to pave the way for his wife to succeed to the presidency. It does seem absurd that someone with Mugabe's terrifying human rights record, who has also decimated the economy and destroyed the national currency, should be brought down by petty political manoeuvrings of this kind. Zimbabwe's military did not react when unspeakable violence was meted out to MDC supporters, when 20,000 were killed in Matabeleland or when illegal land invasions were carried out - but when a tyrant wants to promote his better half...well, that's just not cricket.

It is often the relatively trivial matters that topple dictators. One of the canniest of Africa's political leaders, Mugabe was a master in the dark art of survival. That it all unravelled due to hubristic miscalculation is as fitting as it is surprising. The only person who now believes that Mugabe can continue in office is Mugabe himself. He is finished, and the nature of his removal from power will assure his dreadful political and economic legacy is recognised, rather than represented by Zanu-PF as the triumph of nationalistic Socialism as it surely would have been if he had died in office.

I shed no tears for Mugabe. I have been privileged in recent years to know a number of Zimbabweans who are now living in the UK. Only one of them had anything kind to say about the President, and even that essentially amounted to a comment that Western media don't understand African political realities or the motives of those in power. The accounts that I have personally heard confirm Mugabe to be everything we imagine him to be - and arguably worse. Listening to the experiences of Zimbabweans, it was clear to me that Mugabe would never abandon power and that Zanu-PF would in turn not abandon him so long as their survival depended on him. The relationship between Mugabe and his party was one not of respect, but of co-dependency. The sacking of Mnangagwa changed everything.

Inevitably, the media has become rather excited at the prospects for overdue political change in Zimbabwe. This is understandable, and I agree that Zimbabwe now stands at a crossroads. There are huge opportunities if those in key positions have either the courage to take them, or the understanding to grasp them. Where I differ from many commenters is in regards their optimism - I remain to be convinced that opportunities will be taken, that there is a political will to deal with the legacy of the last 37 years or that any meaningful political reform will be forthcoming.

Firstly, this was not a popular uprising against a discredited government - it was a military coup against the president himself. Only once Mugabe was safely under house arrest were there any protests - and they were calling for Mugabe to go rather than for Zanu-PF to be ejected from office. It's quite clear who holds power in Zimbabwe - and it isn't "the people". Popular protests in Harare responded to events rather than created them, and are simply being used as a tool by Mugabe's opponents to apply pressure. Ordinary Zimbabweans are unlikely to be given any real opportunity to shape their nation's future.

Secondly, neither the ruling party nor the opposition have so far expressed any workable programme for serious and lasting reform. Zanu-PF will understandably want to avoid any serious scrutiny of their own performance and will focus on personality rather than detail. Morgan Tsvangirai is calling for new elections - but would Zanu-PF's turkeys actually vote for Christmas, especially while running the risk of creating further political turmoil? That prospect seems somewhat remote. A national unity government is more possible but I would image Zanu-PF would prefer the option of ruling alone, reinventing themselves to some degree unfettered by the MDC. Aside from the appeal for elections, Tsvangirai is speaking in general terms about his aspiration to "build a different Zimbabwe" but appears to have no real plan to capitalise on Mugabe's sudden fall from grace. This is telling.

Thirdly, we are already seeing how Zanu-PF parliamentarians are turning on the man they backed with such unquestionable loyalty until only a week ago. This is nothing other than a power struggle - a political game that Mugabe has lost. Just as Nicolae Ceausescu's one-time allies in the Romanian Communist Party quickly conspired against him in a hypocritical act of self-preservation when it was apparent the game was up, so too Zanu-PF's leading voices now are focused on personal survival.

Consequently, rather than address the toxic legacy that belongs to Zanu-PF, the outgoing president will be made a scapegoat for the crimes of his party. While Mugabe will have been personally responsible for many of the abuses carried out, it was Zanu-PF that supported the policy of land redistribution; it was Zanu-PF that committed - and benefitted from - electoral fraud; it was Zanu-PF that failed to deal with the 2008 cholera epidemic. Surely Zanu-PF also have questions to answer in relation to the intimidation, physical abuse and murder of MDC supporters. However, the party is likely to choose selective amnesia over honesty.

So, what will happen next? The Zimbabweans I know, some of whom are MDC supporters and activists (I should actually say were, as Zimbabwe is not a safe place for them to return to), were of the belief that for change to happen Mugabe must die. This wasn't simply because the aging president was unlikely to last much longer; neither was it because Mugabe was perceived as unassailable and therefore only his passing could bring the change Zimbabwe deserved. No - instead, they understood the nature of the ongoing power struggle taking place within Zanu-PF and believed that the best chance for authentic political and social reform was the near-inevitable meltdown the party would experience following Mugabe's death. Many senior Zanu-PF figures were eager to be reinventing themselves in the lead-up to the president's anticipated death - they're now having to do it all rather quickly. The hope was Mugabe's death would lead to internecine strife, allowing opposition parties the opportunity to pick up the pieces.

That hope is now all but lost. Mugabe's ousting from power has meant that the struggle that has waged within Zanu-PF for some time and threatened to destabilise the party - with the principal protagonists being Joice Mujuru (who was ousted as vice-president three years ago), Emmerson Mnangagwa (and his faction Team Lacoste), and Grace Mugabe (with her faction, G40) - is coming to its conclusion more decisively and imminently than expected. Mugabe's decision to sack Mnangagwa has not only hastened his own demise but, ironically, ensured Zanu-PF avoids the otherwise inevitable fall-out that would have aided its political opponents. There will no longer be a need for introspection and reflection, but instead simply a change of personnel. The likely internal civil war has been averted. The main beneficiary of Mugabe's departure will not be Zimbabwe or its people, or even the opposition parties, but Zanu-PF.

What is almost certain not to happen is a transition to democracy and greater accountability. Life for most Zimbabweans is unlikely to change very little. Mugabe's 37-year hold on power has come to an end, but Zanu-PF's hasn't. The most probable outcome of this will be business as usual: more stagnation, only with Mnangagwa in charge. One brutal oppressor will have been replaced by another - Mnangagwa, nicknamed "The Crocodile" and an architect of the Matalebeland genocide, should not be expected to deliver democratic reforms and will surely be as determined as his predecessor to reinforce Zanu-PF's iron grip on power. Mugabe's ousting could well have robbed Zimbabweans of the opportunity for meaningful change for at least a generation. If that is indeed what transpires, then this coup will indeed be a people's tragedy and will represent the cruellest trick the military leaders could have played on their fellow citizens.



Note: In the last few minutes Mugabe has resigned as President, as widely expected. It has also been announced that Emmerson Mnangagwa is expected to be confirmed as Mugabe's successor within 48 hours. He surely will be, unless the military has other ideas. AP, 21.11.17, 16:10


Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Carl Sargeant dies

As a minister, Carl Sargeant had been a
vocal advocate for women's rights
(Photo: Inside Housing)
In the last few minutes it has been reported that Carl Sargeant, the Welsh Assembly Member, has died at the age of 49.

While this alone is sad news, what is both shocking and disturbing is that it has been widely reported that Sargeant has taken his own life.

Sargeant was, until last Friday, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and children in the Welsh government. He was also the Labour AM for Alyn and Deeside.

Sargeant has in recent years been a strong advocate for women's rights and has campaigned against violence towards women - he even considered himself a feminist. He stepped down from his ministerial role after he was made aware that complaints had been made about his "personal conduct" by a number of women. The complaints had been made to First Minister Carwyn Jones, who informed Sargeant of the nature of the allegations but not (it would appear) about the detail. Sargeant issued a statement shortly afterwards in which he claimed "the details of the allegations have yet to be disclosed to me".

Whatever those allegations may have been, four days later a man has taken his own life. In the last few minutes many people have expressed their own views on social media, some more thoughtful than others. My own immediate feelings were along the lines of: "How has this happened?" I also reflected on how decades of political service would be forgotten about so easily - as if the apparent sexual nature of the allegations means his wider contribution to society must be overlooked.

I have no intention of discussing the allegations and asking whether Sargeant was guilty. No doubt much will be known in due course and I don't think speculation is particularly useful. However, this tragedy is clearly taking place against the backdrop of revelations of sexual harassment and wider concerns about the culture of UK politics. It is very likely that Sargeant's death occurred because of the allegations, or the way in which people responded to them - it seems improbable that there is no connection.

I have, for some time, been more than aware of the problem of sexual harassment within parliamentary circles. It is not new, and is in fact just one element within a toxic culture in which harassment, bullying and other abuses of power have historically been considered acceptable. I gave evidence to the Morrissey Inquiry in 2014, which made recommendations in respect to how the Liberal Democrats should deal with claims of sexual harassment and assault following the allegations made against Lord Rennard. Morrissey's report, while only applying to the internal procedures of my own party, now takes on wider significance: the problem is not confined to one party and neither should the solutions be.

Does anyone think it is acceptable that, in the absence of any formal process for making complaints of this nature, that complainants are forced to approach the Office of the First Minister? How appropriate is the First Minister as an arbiter in any case - can he be expected to be impartial? How also is it acceptable for the detail of the alleged offences to be withheld from those who are accused? How is it acceptable that, in the absence of a confidential internal cross-party system that treats both complainants and those accused with respect and dignity, we instead depend on party leaders having the intelligence and sensitivity to do the right thing under the "scrutiny" of a popular media already sensationalising the nature of the alleged offences (and sometimes demanding sacrifices)?

In spite of the specific detail of the complaints against Sargeant not being made public, a quick Google search will confirm what headlines have screamed from the pages of the UK's most popular newspapers. The Daily Mail referred to "shocking sex allegations"; others have banded about terms such as "shamed" and "sacked" - completely improperly in the circumstances.  Guilt should never be assumed, and processes must support all involved.

In the interests of everyone, there needs to be a more transparent system at the heart of UK politics for reporting abuses of all kinds. It is no longer acceptable for complaints to be dealt with in this unaccountable and antiquated fashion, if ever it genuinely was. This issue is bigger than any one party, and is clearly not reserved to Westminster. I hope that collaborative working between parties will lead to the establishment of a Compliance Officer role (similar to that of the Pastoral Care Officer recommended by Helena Morrissey), who would have responsibility for investigating complaints, recommending actions and, where necessary, referring matters to higher authorities. The Compliance Officer would also work with key personnel from across the political spectrum to improve standards and awareness, prevent bullying and harassment from occurring in the first instance and ensure greater accountability. They would also be a source of independent support in addition to having investigative and educational responsibilities.

Will this happen? I don't know, although I'd guess that finding scapegoats and shaming individuals is always easier than addressing significant cultural and institutional attitudes. I am not overly optimistic, but at least the Prime Minister's language so far has suggested cross-party solutions and that much is welcome.

The Labour Party has a duty of care towards both Mr Sargeant and those making complaints against him. It would appear that in at least one respect it has failed in this duty. Labour is not alone, however - other parties have been failing for years. This simply cannot be allowed to continue.

Whatever the truth about the allegations made against Carl Sargeant, no-one should feel unsupported and abandoned. I hope that, for the sake not of UK politics but of justice, senior politicians finally realise that the lack of any proper system for dealing with reports of abuse can no longer continue. No-one should be taking their own lives against the backdrop of sensational but speculative headlines. No-one should feel they're not being taken seriously. No-one should be ignored because it is politically expedient to do so. And no-one should be deterred from complaining because there is no established process.

Carl Sargeant's death is a tragedy. What is doubly tragic is that it might have been avoided if there had been a system in place to support him during what would inevitably be a trying time - the kind of system common to countless workplaces across the UK. The question isn't whether our politics can afford to modernise, but whether it can really afford not to when the human cost is so obvious.


Thursday, 2 November 2017

Why we must talk about sexual harassment

Image result for michael fallon
Sir Michael Fallon: apologised for behaviour
not befitting of a representative of the Armed Forces
Over the last few days, alleged sexual misdemeanours at Westminster have - not for the first time - become headline news.

Firstly, Mark Garnier - a junior minister at the Department of Trade - admitted asking his secretary to buy sex toys and referring to her as "sugar t*ts" - a remark he claims was a joke referencing Gavin & Stacey. Next, the pro-family former minister, Stephen Crabb, admitted (and apologised for) sexting a young woman he had interviewed for a job. Crabb has some form on this, having resigned as work and pensions secretary last year when a similar behaviour came to light. Thirdly, but surely not finally, defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon has resigned following revelations that fifteen years ago he touched Julia Hartley-Brewer's knee during a radio interview.

This, and the response to it so far, is concerning for many reasons. It underlines the fact that there is a culture at Westminster that needs to be challenged - a culture of accepting sexual harassment not only as inevitable but defensible. It highlights the difficulties victims of harassment and abuse have in coming forward, and being taken seriously if they do. It demonstrates that actions being taken by political parties to combat this kind of thing are, at least in some key respects, falling short. But perhaps most tellingly, the media reaction speaks loudest: its simplistic narrative makes for juicy headlines but does little to foster a mature conversation on tackling the underlying problem.

There is nothing surprising in anything that has come to light. The allegations made about Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard in 2013 led to the party instigating the Morrissey Inquiry, which made several recommendations in relation to preventing bullying and harassment and in respect of addressing complaints.  It was obvious then, and it remains obvious now, that what has become public knowledge is simply the tip of the iceberg.

And that is the reason why neither the Liberal Democrats, Labour or the SNP can afford to take the moral high ground on this one. Parliament is an enormous glass house and, with nobody quite sure who will be next, no-one's keen to be throwing any stones.  We cannot afford to gloat at the Conservatives' misfortunes, because the toxic culture transcends party politics.  Indeed, the recent Weinsten revelations suggest that this isn't an issue confined to politics, but one of powerful individuals abusing their positions.

What is needed is real and lasting change, which will come from challenging the status quo in much the way that the Morrissey Report attempted. I actually gave evidence to that report - in fact, I was the only non-female to do so (what does that say?). I gave evidence of one incident when I was interviewing a peer; that peer touched me in ways that were unwelcome and propositioned me. I also described another situation I witnessed in which a male was sexually harassed in the Lords by a researcher. I know from other people that these experiences are far from isolated. When I reported them (first to the relevant party, then to Helena Morrissey) it was from a motivation of wanting to end this unacceptable reality. No-one should go to a place of work and be subjected to this kind of thing, but if they do then their complaints should be taken seriously and appropriately responded to.

Yes, it's a huge problem. Those bleating about "political correctness gone mad" are missing the point, or failing to understand it. We need to talk about it, to have a sensible discussion on the issue of consent, that much is obvious...but what we shouldn't do is what the media have done in the last few days. What we have seen is not the beginning of an informed and responsible conversation, but needlessly demonising individuals in such a way that political parties are likely to retreat into defensive mode rather than engage constructively.

Let's consider Michael Fallon. Aside from revealing who he finds attractive, what does this incident tell us? It's difficult to accept the notion that he's resigned purely on the basis of having touched someone's knee in 2002. As Hartley-Brewer herself comments, "If this is over 'kneegate' - him touching my knee 15 years ago and me not having any issue with it today - this is the most insane, absurd and ridiculous resignation of a Cabinet minister ever. However, I don't think that is the reason." And neither do I. But to read the tabloid press that's exactly what you would think. And so sections of the media make complainants look ridiculous, diminish the seriousness of the problem and suggest that Westminster culture is no controlled so much by the politically-correct "liberal elite" that powerful ministers must quit over the slightest hint of sexual impropriety. The narrative is not only unhelpful; it is destructive and merely reinforces exiting misconceptions.

Fallon's own apology was also revealing. He admitted in a letter to the Prime Minister that he had "in the past...fallen below the high standards that we require of the Armed Forces that I have the honour to represent." That is a hugely significant statement. In Fallon's mind, his actions were not befitting of someone representing the Armed Services, but presumably would be perfectly acceptable for any other minister. He made no mention of such actions falling below parliamentary standards - something that again underlines the challenge faced by those who want to see real change in Westminster and hints at his actions being acceptable for an MP. So far, he hasn't actually apologised either - make what you will of that.

A former Liberal Democrat activist, Kavya Kaushik, yesterday took to twitter to remind us not only of how she was touched up by a Lib Dem peer but also what the response was.  This did not happen fifteen years ago but much more recently. Her description of the culture of acceptance and cover-up is one that some of us recognise - and it's that we must focus on, rather than calling for a few ministerial casualties. It's not about Fallon, or Crabb, or Garnier - as Kavya Kaushik herself says, it's a question "of politics and power".

The media's reaction to these recent admissions has been to gleefully speculate about what other skeletons may be in closets, and already we are hearing talk of whips keeping books with details of individuals' misdemeanours, lists of who is having an affair with whom, and so on. Of course, the media loves gossip, but this is not how we should respond to accusations and admissions of sexual harassment. Precisely what is not required is something similar to the early 1990s when the tabloid press could be guaranteed to be on hand to expose the personal lives of MPs, kink-shaming, revealing affairs and the like. That is not in the public interest. People have affairs and relationships with work colleagues; what consenting adults do is their business and it is diminishing the problems of sexual assault, harassment and bullying when the connection with consenting arrangements is made.

Neither is what we saw on Newsnight last night. Under the headline "the problem with men", the BBC news programme responded to female concerns about unwanted attention by asking men how they felt about it all. The responses were as one might expect. A debate about oppression was reduced to an exercise in gender stereotyping and giving middle-aged men a platform on which to discuss women. How does this actually help move us forward? This is precisely how not to talk about sexual harassment and only shows what institutional barriers remain.

In purely political environments, almost all sexual harassment I have witnessed or been informed about has been committed by men. Not all victims, however, have been women - and not all of this takes place in the corridors of power. Local parties and council chambers have also provided environments in which harassment has been allowed to happen and, at times, be covered up. So while not denying the sexualised culture so many who work in Parliament are more than familiar with - one which gives a sense of entitlement to what still remains largely an old boys' network - we also have to realise the problem is much further-reaching than the Westminster bubble and that harassment happens to people of all genders, by people of all genders. The Morrissey Report confirmed this, although many of the sounds recommendations it made are yet to become widely known within the party, let alone wider society - a particular challenge to my own party.

And this is ultimately where the conversation has gone wrong. It needs to take in account the wider picture. This is not simply a political scandal. This is not about three senior Tories who have been caught out. This is not just about Westminster. And it's not about a few nasty men. Harassment is society's problem and it's society that must take responsibility for challenging it, rather than simply pointing fingers at a few MPs.

Of course, the media is not interested in the wider picture. But if we are to have the mature, purposeful and responsible conversation the situation demands then that is where we must start from. It will mean challenging sexual harassment wherever we see it - whether that is in Westminster, in local politics or in the workplace. What Ruth Davidson describes as "locker room culture" isn't an exclusively Westminster phenomenon. So much more sexual assault and harassment occurs in everyday situations and while the tabloids might not be interested in a senior nurse being suggestive with a student, or a worker sexually touching a colleague, society should be. In the workplace, power relationships may be very different in nature to those in Westminster and while harassment will inevitably be far more common in male-dominated environments my experience of the working in the NHS proved that women too can be guilty of sexual harassment. If we are permissive or dismissive about such things, then we are hypocritical to call out Fallon, Crabb or Garnier. We are also potentially indirectly responsible for reinforcing abuses of power, or for worsening the mental health problems many victims struggle with as a result.

We have to talk about this, and do it properly - because the well-being of society depends on it. The human costs of not doing so are also becoming increasingly obvious. What kind of society do we want to live in? If it's a tolerant, open, inclusive society in which every individual is valued for who they are, empowered to be themselves and have control over their lives and their bodies...then doing nothing is not an option.

Theresa May's call for an all-party inquiry is welcome, as is Caroline Lucas's urging that all MPs should be given mandatory training. Political parties must respond to this, and will hopefully do so through open engagement rather than top-down diktats. The political dialogue must be open to all members, thoroughly democratic and motivated by a desire to ensure all people associated with the party have power over their own lives. But we must go further. Society too needs to have the same discussion.


Friday, 14 July 2017

Farron decided to quit before election

Tim Farron has revealed that he decided to resign as leader "about two weeks into the election campaign".

In an interview with Radio 5live, the outgoing party leader said he "put the issue to bed" early on. In relation to the conflict he felt between his religious faith and his secular position as leader of a liberal party, he said: "I thought there isn't a way forward out of this without me either compromising or just causing damage to the party in the long run."

This naturally raises questions and criticisms, but not necessarily those focused on whether he had deceived voters. After all, many party leaders in the past have decided to step down after elections in advance of polling day but wisely avoided making their intentions public. The Liberal Democrats, rightly or wrongly, adopted a campaign strategy of aspiring to become the new opposition to the Tories rather than focus on Tim's personal leadership qualities. It's also now become routine for leaders to step down after General Elections, so I see nothing here that Tim should apologise for.

If Tim had decided he couldn't continue in the job but was going to do everything he could to maximise Liberal Democrat successes in the election, that's fine with me.

However, there are a few things that I am uncomfortable about.

Firstly, if you've made up your mind several weeks in advance that you're going to step down, someone with Tim's gift for oratory could surely have prepared something better than the self-justifying, defensive, angry and clearly hastily arranged resignation speech. He managed to appear critical of the party ("I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society" sounded very much like an aside at particular, unnamed, persons) while also offending LGBT Christians and other progressive religious people with the claim that personal faith and political leadership are irreconcilable.

He also announced it on the day of the Grenfell disaster. Why? If this was a decision taken so far in advance without internal pressures, why then and not the day after the election - or even a few days later when he could have said a few carefully chosen words about how challenging the election had been for him on a personal level? Why, on the same day as a humanitarian tragedy? Why, when only hours beforehand he'd sent a positive e-mail to party members and had scheduled a live facebook chat?

There are four possible answers here. Either:
a) Tim is so emotionally unintelligent that he didn't see the insensitivity and inappropriateness of making that statement in the immediate aftermath of Grenfell,
b) he saw the media focus on Grenfell as providing an opportunity for burying what might have been a more damaging story if had been announced on a "slow news day",
c) he and his team are simply incompetent, or
d) he had no intention of stepping down immediately.
(these are listen in ascending order of probability - I very much doubt the first two scenarios. Tim is better than that.)

The admission that the decision was made weeks before the election simply doesn't tally with the content of the actual resignation speech, or the fact that news agencies were only informed minutes before the announcement was made. It wasn't a prepared speech but an angry and defiant assault on those perceived to have undermined his authority. Of course, it could well be the case that Tim had decided his long-term future and was simply bounced into making an announcement sooner that he'd planned. There is no reason why Brian Paddick and others would have known of his decision. What does seem strange is that someone already intent on stepping down would issue a statement suggesting they were being pushed.

Actually, the new revelation asks more questions that it answers. Far from proving the absence of a "conspiracy", it actually makes it more likely. Leaders who have already decided they will go do not make impromptu angry speeches at inappropriate moments. They either announce their resignation immediately with a few reflections on their achievements or they wait until the dust has settled.

The second issue is about the matter of faith. Why did Tim have to make it about faith at all if he is so concerned about "causing damage to the party"? The 5live interview, while stripped of the defiance and veiled attacks evident in the resignation speech, had Tim explaining: "I thought there isn't a way forward out of this without me either compromising or just causing damage to the party in the long run."

Now, why should that be? I don't accept that Tim believes personal faith is incompatible with political leadership because until now his life and political career tell a different story. He's never made a secret of his religious belief, yet that didn't stop him serving as party president for four years and then running for the leadership. He knew Charles Kennedy, another Christian, had no such struggle. So, if there is an authentic feeling on Tim's part that "to be a political leader - especially of a progressive, liberal party - and to live as a committed Christian [is] impossible" then it's a relatively new discovery for him. For someone who prides themselves (if a little disingenuously) on not making theological pronouncements, why does he continue to make this all about his faith and insist on the reality of a premise that is not only denied by many liberals and Christians but which he also would have fiercely objected to until recently? Personally I suspect what was said in the resignation speech was a reaction to events rather than a deeply held philosophical belief, and it does damage to the many people of faith involved in politics when this argument is perpetuated.

If Tim is made his decision weeks ago, why did he feel the need to make this kind of justification? There were much easier ways of communicating the decision that would have been honest without being controversial. The whole saga has been deeply damaging and the latest contribution does nothing to reassure progressive Christians like myself that he understands where we are coming from.

The final question is what impact this decision may have had on the election itself. It would seem that Tim's decision was a personal one, but did it have some bearing on the rather lacklustre campaign? Did anyone else know about this decision and, if so, what effect did it have on strategy and messaging?

Whether Tim decided to resign in advance is, in once sense, largely irrelevant. The fact that he'd made a private, personal decision and perhaps shared it with a few key people would not in itself have prevented certain people from seeking to oust him. We still don't know what happened on 14th June, what words were said, what pressures were applied (and by whom) and why Tim felt the need to surrender so quickly and completely.


Friday, 23 June 2017

Gisela Stuart is right - this is not "good democracy"

It is Parliament that is responsible for the democratic mess
Gisela Stuart decries.
It's a rare occasion when I find myself agreeing with Gisela Stuart.

I left the Labour Party in 2009, but remained an associate member of the Fabian Society until last year - I decided enough was enough when it allowed Ms Stuart to use their once intellectually stimulating Fabian Review to communicate what can only be described as a UKIP-lite message. To say she isn't my favourite former Labour MP is not to do justice to the rather low regard in which I hold her.

However, I read in today's Independent that she has described the EU referendum as "an abuse of democratic process", criticised David Cameron for calling it, expressed discomfort at the "vacuous choice" expressed in the binary question that was asked, and complained that the campaigns were unaccountable. All this seems reasonable enough.

Aside from the fact that Ms Stuart voted for a referendum to be held on the UK's membership of the EU on three separate occasions - she also once described the referendum as "defending democracy" - it is interesting that she has chosen to make this statement now, on the anniversary of the vote. Coming from Labour's most vocal cheerleader for Leave this is quite an admission. While it does nothing to change my view on Ms Stuart's hypocrisy (especially in relation to the rights of EU citizens residing in the UK), what she has done is identify some significant issues not only with the EU referendum itself but the UK constitution and the way our political system works.

She is of course right - this is not "good democracy". Mature democracies do not hold referenda that are merely advisory in nature. Many states do not hold referenda on constitutional questions without requiring either a special majority or something like the "40% rule" used in the Scottish devolution referendum of 1979*. Australia uses the "double lock" system, requiring both a majority of voters and a majority of states - imagine the implications if such a requirement applied in the UK, given the Scottish and Northern Irish Remain majorities. Similarly, strong democracies that make regular use of referenda not only have a clearly defined way of running them but also ensure that clear plans are in place to implement specified actions in the event of a particular outcome. None of this happened in the case of last year's EU referendum - a Prime Minister called a referendum he believed he wouldn't lose, "throwing his vacuous question in the air" to quote Ms Stuart, without considering either the economic, social or constitutional consequences.

However, it is not only Mr Cameron who is to blame. Of course, it was his hubris and misguided belief that he could use a referendum to finally unite his party and neutralise UKIP's threat that caused it to take place at all. But it was MPs of all parties other than the SNP (including the Liberal Democrats) who voted in support of holding a referendum. It was the European Union Referendum Act 2015, which made no provision for the result to be either binding or to lead to specified outcomes, that allowed for this outrageous travesty of democracy to take place. Where were the appeals to use thresholds, something that was advocated by some - including Jacob Rees-Mogg and Kate Hoey - for the 2011 AV referendum? Where were the calls to identify and firmly establish what should happen in either eventuality? Where was the insistence on accountability, the absence of which led to a toxic and dishonest campaign? Why was a binary question allowed to go forward, when MPs of all parties would surely be aware that, whatever the outcome, the verdict of the electorate on the more complex issues of what either leaving or remaining would look like could not be discerned?

And what about the Electoral Commission, whose oversight of the process amounted to merely phrasing the question and announcing the result? The EC has been rendered relatively ineffective in recent years in any case, as underlined by the Tories' maximum fine of £70,000 for multiple breaches of electoral rules, but why was it not strengthened to ensure greater transparency and accountablility? How is it acceptable that even the barely adequate rules relating to UK elections did not apply to something constutitional, especially as serious as our future in the EU? How was it permissible that, the day after the referendum, the campaign groups were allowed simply to cease to exist? As Gisela Stuart explained today: "You had no bodies accountable for an outcome …This notion that you can create these campaigning groups that aren’t established political parties. Immediately after the referendum with Vote Leave, we resigned as directors and the whole thing was shut down. And that’s not good democracy." Quite.

This was no way to do democracy. I agree with Ms Stuart. What I will not do, however, is blame the then Prime Minister exclusively for the democratic mess that followed. Parliament could, and should, have been making these noises at the time. It should have ensured the outcome would be legally binding, and committed the government to specific actions in the event of both potential results. It is Parliament that should have required greater accountability on the part of the campaigns, and Parliament that should have at the very least discussed whether to apply thresholds. It is also Parliament that is to blame for the binary nature of the question, and for the inevitable ambiguity this created. Talk about a potential further referendum on the outcome of negotiations should have taken place in Parliament when the Bill was being formulated. It was Parliament that was negligent in allowing a poorly conceived bill to pass, undermining our democracy in the process. We are all the poorer for it, irrespective of how we voted on 23rd June last year.

The Liberal Democrats have, I believe, suffered electorally for advocating a referendum on the final outcome of negotations. That's not because it's an illogical or even a poor stance to take, but because of the way in which this shambolic referendum was treated as what it was not - as both politically binding and the ultimate, sovereign expression of the collective will of the British people. We were seen to be challenging the democratic verdict, rather than seeking to clarify it once some unknowns are determined. All this could have been avoided if Parliament had acted to ensure the inadequate, "vacuous", binary question was replaced with something that better reflected the complexity of the situation and provided some clarity.

Ms Stuart has correctly diagnosed the problem. She has, however, neither put forward solutions nor correctly apportioned responsibility. The failures she decries are the failures of Parliament.

If we want to be a mature democracy, perhaps it's time to follow Ireland's example and adopt a written constitution in which clear processes are outlined for the holding of referenda on constitutional issues? The alternative is not to learn from the mistakes that even Ms Stuart admits have been damaging.




* The outcome of this referendum was a 52-48% decision in favour of devolution but, as less than 40% of the total electorate had not supported the change, no further action was taken by the government of the day.

Friday, 16 June 2017

So there's a job vacancy - who will apply?

We want someone like Hugh Grant's character in
Love Actually. Only female.
Following Tim Farron's bizarre and poorly timed resignation speech on Wednesday evening, there is now a vacancy at the top of the federal party.

For the fourth time in eleven years, the Liberal Democrats are looking for a new leader. But what exactly are we looking for? And where might we find it?

We're a rather diverse party - a broad church if you allow for religious terminology (oh, you don't? Apologies) - and it's always going to be difficult to please everyone. But there are indications out there, among all the speculating tweets and facebook conversations, of the qualities the membership would like in whoever replaces Mr Farron. Let's take a look at what people are saying...

Obviously we don't want anyone religious. Oh no. But isn't that a bit, you know, illiberal? Hmm...on second thoughts maybe that's OK so long as they, you know, don't go on about it...like what Alistair Campbell used to say, we don't do God. Not anymore. What's that? Alistair Carmichael is an elder in the Church of Scotland? That rules him out surely.

And they've got to be pro-LGBT. That's a definite. Fortunately there are no worries there.

We also don't want someone old. You know, we learned with Ming. So we definitely don't want to go with Vince Cable. And Jamie Stone is over 60? Oh, he won't do either.

We want a "people's leader". What does that mean? Well, you know, Corbyn's doing all right all of a sudden, so we need someone a bit like that who gets on with people and relates to them, without looking like a geography teacher. Someone who isn't too...posh! None of these flash business types. What about that nice Stephen Lloyd? Oh, he was a commodities broker and a business development consultant? Oh no, not remotely "peopley" enough...

You see, what we really want is someone a bit like the PM in Love Actually, played by Hugh Grant. But not male. Obviously. A shame, otherwise Tom Brake would have been perfect. But we really need a woman this time around. No doubt about it. We'll be so much more credible with a female leader.

We don't want anyone tainted by coalition either. Yes, we did well in coalition and did many things we should be proud of. And we were a moderating force on the Tories. It was the right thing to do...but we don't want any of those coalition ministers responsible taking our party forward. No way! Sorry, Mr Davey and Mr Lamb.

And the leader has to be unimpeachable this time round. We don't want any more drinkers (poor Charles Kennedy). And I remember something about Jo Swinson and some issue with her expenses. Didn't she claim for some cosmetics or something? Oh, I don't remember...but you know, mud sticks!

Our new leader can't have any connection with the nasty Tories. What's that? Wera Hobhouse used to be a member of the Conservative Party? Eurrrggghh!

We need someone who gets on well with Paddy Ashdown and the Lords. Hmm, might be a bit difficult. Wasn't Christine Jardine an advisor to Nick Clegg? Doesn't bode well for her, does it?

The leader needs to hate the SNP as well. Someone who can stand up to Nicola Sturgeon. What do you mean, stand up to her on what? Everything!

Oh yes, and we need someone with a comfortable majority to defend. And not really someone new to parliament. Yes, you're telling me that it wasn't a problem for Ruth Davidson, but I'm telling you we can't take a risk on Layla Moran!

And, finally, we want a leader who can lead a famously anarchic and unleadable party, with a penchant for stabbing its leaders in the back. Who's left? Any takers? Anybody? Anyone at all?

Perhaps the real question isn't what the membership want, but which of our MPs would be either brave or foolish enough to put themselves forward.


Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Tim Farron resigns as party leader

In the last hour, Tim Farron has resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

In a statement made to staff, and also issued on the party's website, Mr Farron said: "This last two years have seen the Liberal Democrats recover since the devastation of the 2015 election. That recovery was never inevitable but we have seen the doubling of our party membership, growth in council elections, our first parliamentary by-election win for more than a decade, and most recently our growth at the 2017 general election...Against all the odds, the Liberal Democrats matter again.

"We can be proud of the progress we have made together, although there is much more we need to do. From the very first day of my leadership, I have faced questions about my Christian faith. I've tried to answer with grace and patience. Sometimes my answers could have been wiser.

At the start of this election, I found myself under scrutiny again - asked about matters to do with my faith. I felt guilty that this focus was distracting attention from our campaign, obscuring our message. Journalists have every right to ask what they see fit. The consequences of the focus on my faith is that I have found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader. A better, wiser person than me may have been able to deal with this more successfully, to have remained faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment.

"To be a political leader - especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 - and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible's teaching, has felt impossible for me. I'm a liberal to my finger tips, and that liberalism means that I am passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me.

"There are Christians in politics who take the view that they should impose the tenets of faith on society, but I have not taken that approach because I disagree with it - it's not liberal and it is counterproductive when it comes to advancing the gospel.

"Even so, I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society. That's why I have chosen to step down as leader of the Liberal Democrats."

The first thing to say is to thank Tim for his efforts as leader during a particularly difficult time in our history. No Liberal leader has inherited a party in the immediate aftermath of such a devastating defeat, and Tim deserves credit for the way in which he rose to this challenge - helping to increase the party membership, being unafraid to formulate a strongly positive approach towards the EU and standing up for strong, liberal values. Much has been said about Tim, and some criticisms are deserved, but underpinning everything he says is a genuine humanity. He didn't raise the issue of Syrian refugees because it was a vote winner, but because he knows it to be right. The same was true when he hit out at the Chechen concentration camps for gay people. For Tim, much comes down to Liberal instinct and values.

He's sought to stand up for decency, tolerance and openness and in his own way he's led by example on that front. There are times when I've questioned some decisions, or when I've disagreed with one position or another, but I cannot fault Tim for the way in which he's committed himself to the cause and to communicating it positively. Perhaps most importantly, Tim's energy and irrepressible enthusiasm made us feel good about ourselves again. So, if you're reading this, thank you Tim.

But...and there is a but...those efforts didn't achieve what I know Tim hoped they would. Last Thursday's General Election will have been a disappointment to him. Yes, it wasn't a disaster. Yes, we increased our parliamentary representation (although from a low base, the lowest since 1970). Yes, we did slightly better than many polls were suggesting we should. Yes, we were squeezed by the binary narrative that focused on the two largest parties. But the "Lib Dem fightback" turned out to be not quite what a lot of us imagined it would be in the aftermath of Richmond Park victory - or even when the General Election was called a couple of months ago.

While excuses can be made, ultimately questions have to be asked of the campaign - particularly in relation to our targeting and messaging. None of this required the leader's resignation, just a review of our election strategy. But Tim will know that, in an election in which media opportunities were rare, one particular issue just wouldn't go away. I am sure that it will have cost us votes - even if it persuaded a few hundred voters in constituencies such as St Ives, Richmond Park, North East Fife and Ceredigion to vote against the Liberal Democrats then it cost us four seats. Unfortunately the question of what Tim did and did not think was sinful came to define him, and undermined public trust in his leadership and the party. I suspect it was not so much the issue itself, but his apparent evasiveness in dealing with it - he never looked convincing. But it was undeniably damaging.

This naturally brings me to Tim's resignation statement itself. The first thing to say is that it is an incredibly interesting statement - not resorting to the usual platitudes and admissions, but being surprisingly direct in its reasoning. Earlier this afternoon, Brian Paddick resigned as shadow Home Secretary over "the leader's views on various issues" - he didn't elaborate on what these issues were but the implication was obvious. The Liberal Democrats' most senior openly gay figure was effectively saying Tim's opinions made him unfit for leadership. Within hours Tim had gone.

In the past, I have been critical of the way in which Tim has expressed his faith at certain times. However, I don't believe there is any "impossibility" in holding religious views while simultaneously having a political career: it is simply a question of being able to separate one's faith from one's secular position. I am pleasantly surprised to see Tim accept that "sometimes [his] answers could have been wiser", and I think he genuinely has become better at expressing what he believes.

But the way Tim has focused on his faith in his resignation speech raises some questions. Firstly, if he has been pressured to stand aside by Paddick and others opposed to his supposed beliefs (I don't actually know what Tim believes and have no idea if anyone else does either, but that's another issue) then it's appalling timing at best - and at worst a shameful, opportunistic and unnecessary manoeuvre to oust a leader who's just achieved some moderate electoral success. What was needed was some time for sober reflection - not recriminations and internal battles.

Secondly, Tim's statement sounds as if he feels himself to be the victim of an illiberal, anti-Christian conspiracy. When Tim says "I have faced questions about my Christian faith...at the start of this election, I found myself under scrutiny again - asked about matters to do with my faith. I felt guilty that this focus was distracting attention from our campaign, obscuring our message" I can understand how this must have impacted him. While his own answers to those questions didn't help it's hard not to feel some sympathy for someone being asked relentlessly the same, tired question on sin when you actually want to talk about the EU, or mental health, or the environment, or a host of other issues.

However, Tim didn't stop there. He added: "I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society." This is more disturbing. It's also patently untrue - there are plenty of other Christians in politics who "believe and who have faith in" the same God Tim Farron worships, including Brian Paddick. Tim clearly feels personally singled out, but is the attack on society as a whole merited? I must admit to feeling uncomfortable with the sense of victimhood; of the narrative of being hounded out for his Christian beliefs. He wasn't - while the questioning was inappropriate, Theresa May and Sadiq Khan were asked the same, and if he'd answered it more convincingly in the first instance the question would never have returned. He was not targeted for his religious faith, but for his perceived weakness on the question - it's what journalists do. Surely he understands this?

Thirdly, and I am speaking directly about Tim's faith here, Tim says that "liberalism means that I am passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me. There are Christians in politics who take the view that they should impose the tenets of faith on society, but I have not taken that approach because I disagree with it - it's not liberal and it is counterproductive when it comes to advancing the gospel...To be a political leader - especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 - and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible's teaching, has felt impossible for me."

As a fellow person of faith, albeit a progressive Christian, I feel it is a shame that anyone in public life feels that they are unable to live in accordance with their faith. After all, we need people of all faiths and none in Parliament - it enriches our democracy. As Tim has occasionally made theological statements in the past I wonder about the degree to which he has made his own life more difficult than it needed to be - however, I can imagine how lonely and hurtful an experience he must have had in recent weeks. Personal intrusion is always difficult, especially when you have a relatively young family. That level of scrutiny under pressure is not something you'd wish on anyone, and must be unbearable when it's personally focused.

All this said, Tim's suggestion that Christianity isn't compatible with liberal perspectives towards same-sex relationships is plainly wrong. I appreciate that for some, especially evangelical, interpretations of Christianity it is a struggle to reconcile the two. But many of us are from different Christian traditions: if I had been asked the infamous "sin" question my answer would have been an unequivocal "no". It is a shame Tim's statement doesn't seem to recognise the reality that there is more than one way to be a Christian. Let's be realistic - it basically reads as if he's saying "my Christianity is better than theirs..."

Ultimately, I have always agreed with Tim's assertion that liberalism requires standing up for the freedoms of those who see things differently. Tim's Christianity in itself has never been an issue for me - I only wish he'd been wiser in some of his statements. In terms of his principles, I have no doubt whatsoever that Tim has always been committed to standing up for everyone's freedom to live their lives as they wish. His generally positive voting record speaks for itself, if only people researched it rather than believing facebook memes.

Finally, I have to wonder why Tim felt the need to use his resignation speech to make these points. It seems too self-pitying to be effective. I won't speculate and indulge in armchair psychology, but it does appear strange that he didn't use the disappointing election result or the need for a new direction as a justification for his departure. While I don't want to put words into Tim's mouth, I suspect he's speaking into situations behind closed doors. The sense of victimhood and persecution expressed within the speech, so untypical of Tim, would appear to suggest this. It seems to be more than a rant at the media - unless of course he doesn't understand why that question wouldn't disappear and genuinely believes he's being religiously persecuted.

Certainly, the assertion that "to be a political leader - especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 - and to live as a committed Christian, has felt impossible for me" appears to point towards attitudes or individuals within the party forcing him out. I suspect there is more to this than is immediately obvious and that, to quote the Gospel of Luke,  "nothing is hidden that will not become evident, nor anything secret that will not be known and come to light." (Luke 8:17) I suspect when the facts are known we will see that religious beliefs are not the only, or even the principal, factor behind Tim's resignation.

I am saddened tonight - saddened by the way this appears to have been orchestrated, saddened by the fiercely defensive tone of Tim's statement with its sense of persecution, and saddened that the leadership of such a talented man has come to such an abrupt end. It's a tragedy that perhaps our party's most gifted communicator has found himself forced to resign because he's struggled to get his messages across and answer questions. I am sure that he will have a significant role to play in the revival of our party and wish him well in his future endeavours.