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Monday, 15 January 2018

RIP Cyrille Regis - a legend, a trailblazer and pioneer.

It was a real privilege to play with Cyrille.
He was then, as always, a class act.
I was shocked and deeply saddened to discover that Cyrille Regis, the former West Bromich Albion, Coventry City and England striker, has died at the age of 59.

As a child, Regis was a hero to me. I was not a West Brom supporter - but you didn't need to be to admire his flair, his athleticism and his creativity. At a time when black footballers were few in number and regularly subjected to racist abuse, Cyrille and his team-mates Laurie Cunningham and Brendan Batson (known as the "Three Degrees") not only produced some of the most attractive attacking football ever seen at the Hawthorns, but were to prove transformative in other ways too.

It may be difficult for many now to fully appreciate how hostile an environment Regis and other black players were entering every time they took to the field at that time. While they would inspire many, they would also become targets for the worst kinds of abuse. As Batson recounted: "We would get off coaches at away matches and the National Front would be there. In those days we didn't have security. We'd get to the players entrance and there would be spit on my jacket or Cyrille's shirt. We coped. It wasn't a new phenomenon." Playing at some league grounds was notoriously tough for black players, with ferocious crowds booing every touch of the ball and shouting racist slogans. The trio also received death threats.

But, whether consciously or otherwise, Regis and his friends resisted. And the more they did, the more they inspired more black people to participate in sport. Attitudes didn't change immediately, and one of the short-term effects of the Three Degrees was that they become the focus for a particularly vitriolic form of racism. But they endured, and in doing so helped create a culture in which such racism would no longer be tolerated. Whenever I see "Kick racism out of football" adverts, I can't help but think of Cyrille.

As I mentioned, Cyrille was a hero to me as a child. This was, inevitably, party connected with the great entertainer he was on the football pitch. There can be no doubt about the fact he was one of the greatest players ever to grace The Hawthorns or Highfield Road. He was undoubtedly a football genius, but he was so much more than that. Even as someone aged about 7 or 8, I subconsciously recognised that to be accepted as a black player back in the early 80s you had to be exceptionally gifted, and I had some idea of the unfair treatment people like him had to experience. It's hard not to admire someone you know is standing up to injustice, but in such a way as to let his sporting ability to all the talking.

I played with Cyrille in a charity/legends match in 2007. It's not everyone who gets the opportunity to spend 90 minutes on a football pitch with a childhood idol, of course - but what says more about the man is what happened afterwards. After a conversation about our various charitable efforts, he agreed to help support one of my causes through his association with Christians in Sport. We also discussed how we could work together to use football to provide opportunities to underprivileged young people. Challenging racism also, somewhat inevitably, came into the conversations - and I went away feeling that Cyrille was the kind of person who would just want to help in any way he could. That was his nature.

He also did a lot of work for Water Aid and similar charities, and if it is possible to sum the man up in a sentence it would be this: "a humanitarian who changed the way we look at the world". There can be no greater tribute. That he happened to be an immensely gifted footballer allowed him to have the huge impact on challenging the shameful prejudice and abuse that the likes of the FA and the BBC preferred to overlook (the latter famously claimed it was impossible to make out what was being shouted from the terraces). He was a real pioneer - both on the pitch and off it, and committed his life to improving opportunities for others.

I can't count Cyrille among my friends and it would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise, but I am very proud to have had the opportunity to play with him and to have been involved in some projects that made a positive contribution to empowering others. What I know is that, at a time when racism again is rearing its head and needing people to directly challenge it, we need to remember Cyrille's example. The world is a poorer place for his passing.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Farron might regret saying gay sex is not a sin. I never will.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
Tim Farron is making headlines again.

And what would the reason be? Yes, he just can't leave this issue alone.

Much as I try not to identify Tim with any kind of sex (he is a political colleague after all), the inescapable reality is that he has become firmly associated in the public mind with same-sex relations. And sinful ones at that. When you're a former party leader with some forthright views on such things as Brexit, tackling poverty and cancer care at his local hospital, it might be a good idea to make sure the positive messages aren't overshadowed by controversial and rather unnecessary interventions on religion.

The Liberal Democrats' 2017 General Election campaign was hardly a work of genius and it would be wrong to blame one individual for a failure to make significant gains - but there can be no denying that Tim's refusal to answer the "is gay sex a sin?" question damaged our chances. After evading the question on multiple occasions Tim eventually responded to a question from Nigel Evans MP in the Commons, who asked whether Tim believed being gay was sinful. Tim replied: "I do not".

Which seemed pretty unequivocal.

However, today Tim has given an interview to Premier Christian Radio in which he expressed "regret" that he had "bowed to pressure" to say that gay sex was not sinful. He said: "the bottom line is, of course, I did [feel pressured] and there are things - including that - that I said that I regret."

Having listened to the interview, it would appear that Tim privately believes same-sex relationships to be sinful but, as a Liberal, be can hold that view while simultaneously defending individuals' rights to make their own choices. I might - indeed, I do - disagree with that, but his personal views are not what concern me.

What is more worrying is that he is now expressing "regret" about statements he made on the floor of the House of Commons. Taking back an expressed opinion (and blaming others for it!) naturally raises questions of integrity and honesty, and also re-opens the issue, which is only likely to cause the party further embarrassment.

I don't know what his motivations for speaking to Premier Christian Radio are, but while I'd defend his right to do it I have to question the wisdom of his decision. Tim seems determined to project himself as a Christian martyr, unfairly hounded out of the leadership by intolerant pseudo-liberals - but what statements like this actually do is suggest that he is hypocritical and untrustworthy. What sort of leader admits to buckling under pressure - especially when such pressure is a fairly innocuous line of questioning that a more proficient individual would have dealt with far more convincingly?

This is the same Tim Farron who, when pressed on the gay sex question, often responded with the "I don't pontificate on religious matters" line. It now seems all Tim wants to do in pontificate on religious matters, which would be fine if he was the independent MP for his local Evangelical Church. As it is, his continued - and continuing - interventions on religion (almost exclusively about same-sex relationships or Christian persecution) only serve to damage his own reputation and standing and the cause of the party he clearly loves.

During the Premier interview Tim promised that, on the specific issue of Biblical teaching on same-sex relationships, he "will write a little bit about this in the coming weeks". Do us a favour, Tim. Don't. Really, just don't. No good will come of it, and the rest of us will almost certainly regret it. Use your time to talk about something else instead - women's rights, the EU, electoral reform, international relations, the NHS, public transport...even Blackburn Rovers!

Vince Cable also now has to decide whether any discipline is appropriate given Tim appears to be admitting to lying in Parliament, and misleading the Commons (even if he does blame others for "pressuring" him into it). His position on the Lib Dems' front bench team is becoming increasingly untenable.

I have no reason to doubt that Tim genuinely feels regret, just as I also have no reason for doubting that he always believed relations between same-sex couples to be sinful. However, as ever with Tim's public statements on faith, I wonder why he had to say this when he must have realised the damage that will arise from it. I defend his right to believe what he likes, even to say what he likes. But I will always ask why he seems so determined to pursue a course of action that brings the party into disrepute, makes himself appear untrustworthy, leads to people becoming even less open to listening to him and undermining his positive messages on more pertinent political issues.

Tim talked about regret in his interview. He also said this, not referring exclusively to the media: "the idea that the people asking these questions were interested in theology is naïve in the extreme." Well, as someone who has been asking these questions of Tim for almost 13 years (I first asked him the gay sex question in March 2005 and he was no more convincing then) that dismissal actually hurts a little. Some of us are not only interested in theology, we are studying it. Tim should know that many of those who take a completely different view to his are Christians, and for him to deny this is unacceptable. I do not deny his existence or his faith; he should not deny mine or that of other progressive Christians.

I am sorry that Tim regrets saying that gay sex is not a sin. Speaking of regrets, as a proudly liberal Christian I have a few confessions to make too - especially as tonight, as a result of Tim's interview, a fellow Christian asked me if I ever had regrets over my position on same-sex relationships.

No, I do not regret having stated on countless occasions that same-sex relationships are not sinful. I do not regret my own relationships. I do not regret who I am. I do not regret having campaigned for LGBT+ rights for the best part of two decades. I do not regret working within the church to create faith communities that are inclusive and open to LGBT+ people. I do not regret championing LGBT+ inclusion - and same-sex marriage - at political hustings way before it was ever fashionable. I do not regret being part of a church that affirms the lives of same-sex couples and marries them. I regret not a single public statement I have ever made that has challenged the notion that there is something inherently sinful in homosexuality or bisexuality. I do not regret having used this blog to question the wisdom of Tim Farron's many statements on religion or his connections with CARE.

Non, je ne regrette rien.

What I do regret is having a loose cannon of a former leader in the parliamentary party who doesn't seem to understand that it isn't the wisest thing to unburden oneself to the listeners of Premier Christian Radio. Sometimes, Tim, nothing is a very sensible thing to say.


Tuesday, 9 January 2018

An inept reshuffle that underlines Prime Ministerial weakness


Justine Greening (Photo: Standard)
In advance of the Prime Minister’s cabinet reshuffle, I thought that the events of yesterday would tell us a great deal about the Prime Minister, her direction, how well she is able to reinvent and rebrand her party and how effectively she can revitalise her cabinet.

My expectations were not particularly high, but even I was surprised by the ineptitude of the attempted reshuffle. It did indeed tell us a great deal about the Prime Minister and her government, some of it quite surprising.

From the official party’s twitter account wrongly congratulating Chris Grayling on becoming Tory Party chair to Theresa May’s refusal to move any of the key personnel, this attempt at a reshuffle was an exercise in ineptitude.  What was supposed to be a show of strength and an opportunity to refresh the cabinet has instead starkly underlined the Prime Minister’s many weaknesses.

Twitter accidents happen, of course, but the Grayling non-appointment won’t have helped convince anyone that the Conservative Party is an efficient communications outfit.  With the outside world – well, the British media at least – watching developments eagerly and expecting some kind of radical shake-up, what actually happened was a series of unambitious reappointments of less than inspiring ministers. As a reshuffle this was not only disappointing, but fundamentally futile: what is the point of a reshuffle when the key protagonists all stay in place, especially when they include David Davis, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt?

This was not a reshuffle worthy of the name. Even the oft quoted “deckchairs, Titanic” metaphor fails here, as the proverbial captain actually moved the chairs around a bit. A generous commentator might see that as a sign of confidence in the team, but it is more likely that May has played safe so avoid political fall-out. Unfortunately, this has served to further undermine her leadership. It has now become painfully transparent – if ever it was really in doubt – that those who hold power in the Conservative Party (and cabinet) are leading Brexiteers that May feels powerless to take on.

If a powerless Prime Minister isn’t worrying enough, the appointment of Esther Mcvey as Work and Pensions secretary should chill us all. This is someone who, as Employment minister, suggested benefit sanctions “teach”JSA claimants to take job seeking seriously  and as late as February 2015 defended such sanctions as “effective” in spite of growing evidence to the contrary.   There are surely more suitable people in the ranks of Conservative parliamentarians for the DWP portfolio, but clearly McVey has friends in high places.

Equally concerning is the fact that not only is Jeremy Hunt continuing at Health, but his brief has been expanded to include Health and Social Care. I have for some time championed greater integration of health and social care, but a merged department is not the way to approach this, and Hunt is certainly not the ideal person to be overseeing it. Anyone who, during the recent pressures within the NHS widely claimed to represent a “crisis” refuses to take any responsibility whatsoever, is hardly the kind of person who should be rewarded in this way. What has he done to merit this?

May’s ultra-cautious approach and reluctance to move people makes her removal of Justine Greening from Education all the more inexplicable.  I can’t comment on how effective a minister she was, but the statements from the teaching unions in the last few hours must count for something. Greening was certainly competent and understood her brief; in trying circumstances, she was seeking to positively engage with teachers and, admirably, kept her focus on young people. As Stephen Bush writes in the New Statesman, May’s ideal Education Secretary would be someone who could “drive through big reforms...during the first real-terms decrease in school spending in the modern era, while not becoming a hate figure with parents, teachers, academics or teaching unions...it’s hard to see how Theresa May will find someone better than Justine Greening.”

I quipped in my New Year predictions that Philip Hammond may well be sacked for being too competent. I was half right – I focused on the wrong person. Competence is clearly not an attribute that matters when it comes to cabinet appointments. Inept and disloyal people continue, while a strong performer like Greening is sidelined. The message is clear: ministers who endanger British citizens abroad or mislead select committees are safe because it would be political suicide to sack such “personalities”, however deficient. The likes of Johnson, Fox, Davis and, to a point Hunt, have become untouchable in the post-referendum political climate. The only person to be effectively sacked was a woman who was arguably one of the better performers in cabinet.

Greening was offered the opportunity to move to the DWP, and refused. The Prime Minister was resolved not to back down and the stand-off ended with Greening’s resignation. Hunt, on the other hand, was offered the role of Business Secretary and similarly refused, but was able to convince the Prime Minister to not only keep him at Health but effectively promote him with additional responsibilities. What does that say about cabinet dynamics? What does Hunt have that Greening doesn’t? Why was the Prime Minister unable to impose her will on an under-fire minister like Hunt, capitulating entirely to his demands, while standing firm against Greening?

As an aside, how can we possible trust the Prime Minister to successfully negotiate with the EU to get the deal she wants when she allows herself to be bullied out of a pre-determined course of action by Jeremy Hunt?

Ultimately, Theresa May can’t even manage to carry out a reshuffle properly. It is clear she is not in charge and, in spite of talk to the contrary, the cabinet is far from refreshed. It remains stale; worse, it is full of inept but untouchable ministers who owe their position at the cabinet table to their Brexit stance. In another era, Johnson would have been sacked and Davis would have resigned months ago.


Tim Farron got it absolutely right when he tweeted: "That wasn't a reshuffle, it was a half-hearted stir, with all the useless lump bits unmoved in the middle." That's as apt a description as offered by anyone.

What does this mean for May? I think she has made a huge mistake in her appointments and has undermined her own fading authority. If I can draw a parallel to a previous Prime Minister who demoted a competent colleague in a reshuffle back in 1989, Greening now has the potential to be as difficult for May as Geoffrey Howe was to Thatcher. Neither Howe nor Greening were ever likely rebels but May has now created a potential troublemaker, with many influential allies and a strongly pro-remain constituency, and allowed her onto the backbenches.  Greening has the potential to be equally as dangerous as Johnson or Davis, perhaps more so.

All that bold talk of "strong and stable leadership" last year has now been shown up for the vacuous nonsense it was. The Prime Minister is far from strong; indeed, she appears to be even weaker than most commentators imagined. 

The reshuffle has failed in its key objectives: to detoxify the party in the public mind, to provide a freshness at the cabinet table and to demonstrate the Prime Minister’s authority. As reshuffles go, it was undeniably amateurish – but the real question is whether May’s treatment of Justine Greening will come back to haunt her.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

My predictions for 2018


Philip Hammond: could he be sacked for being too competent?
(Photo: The Independent)
Every year I make some predictions - inevitably some are more accurate than others. There is no real reason for doing this other than for a bit of end-of-year fun, but it's become something of a tradition and I will stick with it!

How did I do last year? Why don't you take a look for yourselves? Clearly I didn't get everything right, especially on the political front, but it's becoming near-impossible to make accurate political predictions at a time when the once-unthinkable daily becomes terrifying reality.

So I've decided to consult my crystal ball once again, and have looked into 2018 to let you know what we can expect in the coming twelve months. 


POLITICS

The Liberal Democrats

* This will not be a terrific year for the Liberal Democrats. The focus on Brexit means messages on other issues are inevitably drowned out, and this has an effect on public perception. The party will remain at 7-10% in opinion polls, but will continue to make steady gains in local elections. 

* Tim Farron will continue to make statements on religious issues – always, of course, from the evangelical Christian perspective. Later in the year he will retire from politics to take up full-time employment with a Christian organisation. 
* Willie Rennie will continue to make clear his opposition to Scottish independence and any further referenda on the issue. What will be less clear is what the long-held aspiration of federalism means in practice. 

The Conservative Party

* The Brexit negotiations will go from bad to worse. It will become increasingly apparent that the government has no real strategy, and that it has seriously underestimated the complexity of leaving. This will lead to significant delays, potentially jeopardising May’s arbitrary leaving date, and leading to a series of government defeats on EU-related legislation.
* Confidence in the Prime Minister – especially among the fanatical Brexiteers – will suffer.  However, there will be no election and May will survive largely because no-one wants to openly challenge her and most Tory MPs appreciate there is no alternative who can actually hold the party together (I would say unite, but this is the Conservative Party we’re talking about).

* While May will survive, several of her cabinet will not. Boris Johnson will finally be removed as Foreign Secretary after he is recorded making derogatory and sexist comments about fellow cabinet members in what he believed to be a private conversation with a Daily Mail journalist. Andrea Leadsom will also experience a fully-merited demotion when she is replaced by someone with a modicum of understanding of the energy and climate change brief.

* Philip Hammond will be removed for being far too competent for the job, much to the delight of the Daily Mail. 
* Liam Fox and David Davis will announce fantastic potential new trade deals with Zimbabwe, the DR Congo, Mauritania and the Republic of Nauru. This will prompt an angry response from the Nauruan government, which will state that a polite response to a tweet from Bill Cash doesn’t represent official interest in such a deal.
* There will be no General Election. Yes, I know I said that last year.  But the Prime Minister will not wish to risk another election given the outcome last time and with Labour beginning to pull ahead in the polls. 

* Ruth Davidson will struggle to keep the Scottish Tories in order - and will then surprise everyone when she successfully applies to be the Conservative candidate for an English by-election in a historically safe Tory seat. She wins the by-election by the narrowest of margins following a campaign in which she criticises the direction of the UK government on key issues. Her victory will leave the Scottish party in turmoil and will create fresh concerns for an increasingly nervous Theresa May.

The Labour Party

* 2018 will be Corbyn’s year - largely by fortunate accident rather than because of any real effort on his part. Only a year after ridiculing him as being unelectable, the Tories will be genuinely fearful of him. The policy adopted by both May and Corbyn towards the Brexit question – i.e. that of broadly constructive ambiguity to keep their respective parties united – will prove impossible to maintain as details become clearer and difficulties arise. As May becomes embroiled in difficulties of others’ making, especially in relation to Brexit promises, Corbyn will be able to poised to benefit. His new strategy of opposing the Tories at every turn will be opportunistic but effective.
* There will not be a Scottish Labour leadership election.  Richard Leonard will bring renewed energy to Scottish Labour and will appeal to many former supporters through his emphasis on socialism; however, he will face the same struggles as his predecessors in challenging the SNP and will be no more successful than they were. 

* Labour will not develop a distinctive stance on Brexit, but this won't actually matter. Ironically, Corbyn will seek to place himself as a "moderating" influence between the Tory "hard Brexit" and the Lib Dem/Green/SNP "anti-democratic" pro-EU positions.

The Scottish National Party

* Not a great deal will change for the SNP. The question over whether and when to call Indyref 2 will loom over the party and the First Minister. Eventually, the SNP will decide to play it safe – focusing on challenging the Tories for the time being and building for an SNP majority in the next parliament. 
* The SNP will have a pretty good year, with the Scottish Tories in retreat and Scottish Labour making only a moderate recovery. The First Minister will continue to command high approval ratings, but faces growing criticism on key elements of domestic policy.


UKIP

*
Labour will not be the only party to benefit from the Tories’ Brexit farce. UKIP will also see a resurgence, with Nigel Farage resuming the leadership he claims he doesn’t want after being heavily involved with undermining Henry Bolton and effectively forcing his resignation. In spite of all the internal backstabbing, UKIP will overtake the Lib Dems in the opinion polls and will do reasonably well in by-elections without winning a seat. 


International

*
Not much will really change in Zimbabwe. President Mnangagwa, who replaced Robert Mugabe a few weeks ago, will be determined to prove himself on the economic front but will inevitably struggle to make the kind of early impact he hopes. He will, however, be very careful in his cabinet selections and will prove adept at creating problems for his opposition, who struggle to unite around a single candidate in the general elections. Zanu-PF, which will use the election to emphasise that this particular leopard has no intention of changing its spots, will take advantage of this disunity to emerge victorious with 112% of the vote. 

* Vladimir Putin’s re-election in Russia is even more of a formality than Zanu-PF’s win in Zimbabwe.  The consequences, of course, will be more widely felt.

* Tensions will increase between the USA and North Korea, as Donald Trump appears ever more determined to undermine peace via his twitter account. Fortunately, the US President’s attentions are diverted elsewhere after the Democrats make gains in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

* The supposed political crisis in Germany will prove to be nothing of the sort. Angela Merkel's CDU will find new coalition partners and put together a workable government. 

* The depth of Russian intervention in the EU referendum and the US presidential election will become clearer. This has serious consequences for Donald Trump - and for social media companies. Nigel Farage will claim it is all a BBC-created conspiracy.

* The Cuban elections will produce a Communist majority. No surprises there. Meanwhile the UK media will continue to ignore Hungary, where Viktor Orban will use his huge majority to undermine democracy (and the EU). 


Football

* Manchester City will be champions this year (yes, I'm sure there won't be too many suggesting otherwise). Manchester United will part company with Mourinho after a poor run in the second half of the season sees the team miss out on European football. The relegated teams will be Bournemouth, Huddersfield Town and Newcastle United. Macclesfield Town and Wrexham will return to the football league - with Forest Green Rovers and Barnet going in the other direction.

* Celtic will win the Scottish Premiership (again, I'm sure you knew that). Dundee and Ross County will be relegated, being replaced by St Mirren and Greenock Morton, the latter beating Dundee United in the play-off final. 

* England will not win the World Cup. No surprises there. Neither will Russia, who will go into the tournament believing they can be the first host nation to win the cup since France in 1998. As for who will win – that’s more difficult, but I’ll go so far as to say it will be a Europe v South America final. 


Elsewhere

* In regards the Church of England and same-sex relationships...no, I can't possibly publicly predict what will happen there. I can only hope it isn't what I fully expect.

* The future of the Northern Ireland assembly will remain unresolved. Against the backdrop of Brexit and the border questions it raises, there will simply be no way for politics at Stormont to resume as normal. 


Personal


* Myself and my friends Mathew and Michael will raise a significant amount of money for the Campaign Against Living Miserably. We will also help raise awareness of the high suicide rate among young males in the UK.

* My folk band will become world famous after a random and unexpected TV appearance. 


In lighter vein...


The month of May will be dominated by talk of a particular wedding (I would say coverage, but we’re talking about way more than reporting of the actual event).  Fortunately the Scottish Cup final being played in the afternoon will mean that at least one other channel will have something else to focus on. 

* Bitcoin's value will soar to around £50,000 before crashing spectacularly. No-one will really have much idea about what happened, or why. 

* There will be plenty of talk about creating a new "centre party", with most of it being generated by that most centrist of former politicians, George Osborne. "Centre" is finally launched in July, led by one of Osborne's former interns. No-one takes any of this seriously, apart from Paddy Ashdown who - without speaking with any of the leaders of other parties - immediately proposes a new "progressive alliance" in which the new party would help to finally "break the mould" of British politics. 

* The Commonwealth Games will be a surprising success in every respect. However the real talking point is Boris Johnson's speech closing the games, when the event is formally handed over to Birmingham. Johnson manages to insult legendary Australian swimmers, invokes colonialism with an ill-judged joke about aborigines, makes sexually inappropriate comments about beach volleyball and finally falls off the platform while attempting to demonstrate the British origins of water polo. 

* Piers Morgan will make a visit to Liverpool, during which he is stunned by the lack of welcome. He will attribute this to there being "too many liberals, women, transgender and non-binary people" who just don't understand how much he does for the world. In the summer, he will leave Good Morning Britain for an "exciting new venture" - which turns out to be a new show on Russia Today.

* The EU will order that all its member states change their passport colour to blue, just to anger the UK.

* Resigned to the inevitability of Scottish independence and following Donald Trump's example, Theresa May will decide pre-emptive action and will opt to build a 20 foot high wall to separate England from Scotland.  The Polish builders responsible for construction do the job in lightning quick time...between Chester and Hull. 

* There will be heavy snow in parts of the UK during February. This will allow the Daily Mail and Daily Express a break from demonising immigrants, high court judges, "Remoaners" and transgender people as they instead speculate about how many might be killed by freezing temperatures in Boscombe. 

* Nigel Farage will finally get his much desired knighthood...for services to television. 


Thursday, 23 November 2017

So, Kezia's going on a TV show. Why all the fuss?

A popular symbol of contentment...and Kezia Dugdale
(Photo: Sky)
The former leader of Scottish Labour, Kezia Dugdale, will be going into "the Jungle" today.

Yes, for some reason Kezia wants to go to Australia to appear in the utterly dreadful "reality" TV show known as I'm a Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here! (which should, frankly, be renamed I used to be a Celebrity - Get me back on TV!). I don't really understand her reasons either, but that doesn't matter. I honestly couldn't care less about Celebrity! and genuinely don't understand how this excuse for entertainment is now in its seventeenth - yes, seventeenth! - series. I don't watch it, I don't care who wins and I'm not interested in who is participating. If she wants to do embarrassing things on national TV, that's her decision.

However, I am interested in the reactions to the announcement that Kezia was to take part this year. And there have been quite a few - many of them negative. Some in Scottish Labour have criticised the timing, although if the party schedules its leadership elections to coincide with the start of this show then I'm not really sure we can hold Kezia responsible. There are others who feel a politician's place must be at Holyrood/Westminster - clearly they're the only places where political engagement can take place. And there are those who - I suspect with more honesty - are simply offended because they don't like Kezia.

Duncan Hothersall, a Labour activist with a reputation (not entirely deserved) for being unreasonably tribalistic, has written a fair-minded article for the New Statesman. It's well worth reading, and highlights, whether intentionally or otherwise, the personal nature of the "criticism" directed at the former leader. I quote: "Her Lothians MSP colleague and long-time foe, Neil Findlay, lost no time in denouncing the decision as 'ludicrous' and said Dugdale had 'demeaned politics'. For the Daily Mail, columnist Graham Grant summoned up previously unseen levels of chutzpah to channel Keir Hardie in his condemnation. And in the Mail on Sunday former Labour spin doctor Paul Sinclair concocted one of the most bile-filled personal attacks I've ever read, from which I won't even stoop to quote." Hothersall doesn't refer to it directly, but in all of these pieces there's more than a little misogyny lurking in the background.

Is Kezia demeaning politics? Famously, George Galloway featured on Big Brother and Nadine Dorries appeared on Celebrity!  - although admittedly they're hardly the best examples given their near-unparalleled abilities to undermine politics. Michael Fabricant appeared on First Dates recently; Penny Mordaunt appeared in Splash! Vince Cable has appeared in a Christmas edition of Strictly Come Dancing, while Scottish Conservatives' leader Ruth Davidson has been confirmed as a contestant in a celebrity version of the Great British Bake Off. There are other examples of retired politicians taking part in such shows - such as Ed Balls, Ann Widdecombe, and Lembit Opik. Has UK politics actually been demeaned by any of this? Not at all. There are those who have demeaned both Scottish and UK politics in recent years, but they haven't been doing it from the Australian Jungle or the Big Brother house.

Let's not forget this kind of criticism was also levelled at Charles Kennedy for appearances on Have I Got News For You?, Celebrity Countdown, Celebrity Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and MasterChef.  His opponents labelled him "Inaction Man", criticising what was (wrongly) perceived as laziness and a taste for self-promotion. Yes, he was openly accused of cheapening politics. But he successfully rose above such negativity, and used his TV appearances to raise the profile not only of himself but the Liberal Democrats. He came across as authentic and generous. There are not many who would claim today that he demeaned politics.

Duncan Hothersall admits that he is "highly sceptical of just how much political engagement [Kezia] will be able to shoehorn into a programme which is edited for entertainment and confected outrage. It'll be a tough challenge to be heard as a genuine voice amid the froth." It's hard to disagree. But positive engagement doesn't have to be overtly political, as we learned from Charles Kennedy. Here is a rare opportunity for a well-known face of Scottish Labour to come across as warm, personable, interesting and and deeply human. It's not how I would do it. But Kezia isn't me.

The concern about whether a serving politician should be involved in reality shows is another issue altogether, and less easy to answer. Celebrity! lasts for three weeks, and should Kezia win (I couldn't possibly comment on her chances) then she will be away from Holyrood for that time. If Harold Wilson is right when he said a week in politics is a long time, then three is an eternity. There can be no denying that flying off to Australia for three weeks means abandoning, albeit on a temporary basis, political responsibilities for which one has been elected to carry out.

And there is a difference here between something like Celebrity! and Have I Got News For You? - purely in regards the time commitment. That's hugely problematic. So I understand when people will argue "I'm one of her constituents - I didn't elect her to jet over to Oz for some TV show." However, let's take a look at the bigger picture.

Firstly, Kezia is a regional MSP and therefore shares her "constituency" with six others - including another Labour MSP. I'm being careful not to suggest regional MSPs are more entitled to do this kind of thing than constituency MSPs, but it is fair to note that a three-week absence is not necessarily disastrous for constituents. If she's away for the full three weeks then she will miss nine days of parliamentary business, but she will be aware of this and will know precisely what is being missed. It's unlikely she would have made the same decision if there were crunch votes on Scotland's future scheduled in the coming days. A quick look at her website confirms their were no constituents' surgeries scheduled during this time.

Secondly, MSPs and MPs employ staff who are more than capable of engaging with constituents for a short period of absence. I think the public often underappreciate the work these people do - they're perfectly able to deal with most of the day-to-day business and constituent engagement.

Thirdly, instead of instinctive outrage perhaps we should take a more honest look at what our elected parliamentarians actually do - and what our expectations of them are. Do we really believe they spend every minute of the working week in the debating chamber? Do we honestly expect them to be at the end of the phone when we call their constituency offices, or do we recognise that most of our enquiries will be dealt with entirely by employees?  Do we believe the only way of advancing their messages is through "conventional" means? And what about those who have secondary jobs, quite legitimately - who as a result may spend cumulatively far more than three weeks away from parliamentary responsibilities over a year?

Take the example of Douglas Ross - the Conservative MP for Moray who also happens to be a FIFA referee. He's clearly a very capable football official. His attendance at the recent Barcelona v Olympiakos match in the Champions League proved controversial, as his running the line at the Nou Camp clashed with a debate on Universal Credit. Theresa May quickly jumped to his defence - as did many who are criticising Kezia Dugdale now.

In the case of Mr Ross, his extra-parliamentary ongoing work schedule required him to travel across Europe to officiate in midweek matches. Being a highly rated official he was even listed as a potential for the 2018 World Cup, before he opted (or was pressured) to reduce his officiating to times when parliament was in recess. That was probably the right decision, but he was unlucky in that his high profile second job made it difficult to avoid scrutiny and questions over divided loyalties. He's far from the only one - prior to the 2015 elections, 180 MPs confirmed second jobs in the register of interests, working a variety of additional hours. It is unlikely much has changed in the previous two years. While MPs are now expected to step away from work in conflict with their responsibilities to constituents, how can that realistically be policed and how can "conflict" be realistically assessed?  Rather than the righteous indignation usually expressed at the mere mention of "second jobs", perhaps a more reasonable approach is to recognise that parliamentarians have a right to do such work on the condition it does not undermine their political commitments - and to recognise that some of these "second jobs" have the potential to improve the profile of both the individual and the party. In any case, if we are going to insist that some action is necessary on this front, shouldn't every case be judged on its own merits?

In Kezia's case, her TV appearance - which must be considered outside work - is potentially for a three-week block. However, I see no reason why this should be condemned when other elected representatives will spend far less time over the year on their parliamentary work than Kezia has done. If we want to discuss the pros and cons of secondary employment then let's do it in a constructive fashion, avoiding both judgements and simplistic solutions such as blanket bans  - and without singling out those who take part in reality TV shows as some kind of special case.

What is quite breathtaking about all the criticism directed at Kezia Dugdale is the rank hypocrisy of it. Many targeting Kezia now made no such complaint about Douglas Ross or Ruth Davidson. What much of the reaction has shown is the tribalistic nature of contemporary Scottish politics, and the reality of Labour's ongoing civil war.

Returning to Hothersall's New Statesman article, he demolishes some of the supposedly "reasonable" objections to Kezia's participation (from within Labour ranks) as being ill-informed. He doesn't state it specifically, but it is clear that the controversy is not really about the reality TV show and instead has everything to do with Labour's internal conflict. Neil Findlay's objections have nothing to do with a potential three weeks of increased casework. The further insults from some Labour "colleagues" are consistent with the way Kezia has been treated by them in the few months.

Kezia herself has said she is going into the jungle in memory of her friend Gordon Aikman, who died of motor-neurone disease earlier this year. She believes he would have wanted her to make the most of this opportunity, after she initially turned it down, to enjoy herself and raise some money for an MND charity. She clearly wants to do this. Some people would take time away from work to deal with grief, and it's not unusual for former leaders to visibly take a back seat after stepping down. I don't see how three weeks (and it may well be less) away from parliament is something to get worked up about.

Is it a good idea? I'm not sure, and the likes of George Galloway didn't emerge from the Big Brother house with much credibility intact. Does it make for good TV? I'm not really convinced that eating insects and kangaroo genitalia in a show notorious for animal cruelty makes for gripping entertainment, and I doubt Kezia's inclusion will change that. Should Kezia have done it? Ultimately it's a personal decision, and all I can hope is that she achieves what she wants to. While I loathe the show I simply don't think the issue is as black-and-white as some believe.

It's perfectly reasonable to have a discussion about the rights and wrongs of elected representatives appearing in reality TV shows. The vile abuse directed at Kezia in recent days is not how to do it.


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.