Saturday, 31 March 2018

Don't you just hate it when journalists explain to us what gender is?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

It's Trans Day of Visibility.

So I'd like to say to all my trans friends (and I have a few) that it's great you're visible - this day and every day. You're fantastic people and I'm privileged to know you and, in some cases, having been able to share in your journey.

It's such a shame then that The Guardian, of all newspapers, chooses to use Trans Visibility Day to come up with something like this: Don't you just love it when a man explains to you what it means to be a woman? Not only does it fail to understand gender - it's far more than "a feeling" - it perpetuates all the lazy assertions and stereotypes, as if somehow Mumsnet contributors have some kind of supreme expertise on issues of gender and sex. Moreover, publishing this on today of all days is as responsible as running an article by David Irving on Holocaust Memorial Day.

There is inevitably some truth in Hadley Freeman's observation that "I surely speak for all of us ladies when I say I love nothing more than when a man explains to me, at some length, what a woman now is." Perhaps that might give her some insight into how trans and non-binary people feel when either men or women tell them what gender is, often going so far as effectively denying their existence. Just as she will argue that her gender identity isn't up for discussion, neither should that of either myself (as someone who identifies as non-binary) or transgender people (isn't it curious that Freeman's objections don't extend to trans men, who have been all but erased in this "debate"?).  Some of us, who much prefer scientifically-led expertise on gender over the feelings and opinions of journalists, don't care to be lectured to by ill-informed and defensive people - whatever their sex or gender.

Two decades ago we were challenging popular misconceptions of homosexuality - the toxic Section 28 "debate", naturally characterised by the "understandable fears" of the 1999 equivalent of Mumsnet. The safety line was wheeled out then as an excuse to preserve the status quo, just as it is now. Then, as now, such "safety concerns" had little or no basis in evidential fact. Then, as now, they were used as a smokescreen for intolerance. In 20 years a great deal has changed, and while homophobia remains a very real presence there can be little denying social attitudes have shifted considerably. The next challenge is that of gender.

It's great to see transgender people being far more visible - but with that comes the inevitable reaction from those who fear what they do not understand. As something actually worth reading in yesterday's Guardian made clear: "Trans visibility is greater than ever - but that's a double-edged sword." To say I admire the courage it takes for my trans friends simply to be who they are against this backdrop is an understatement. On this day - and all days - they deserve better than this kind of dismissal from a supposedly liberal and inclusive media outlet.

So, to my trans friends - keep on keeping on! Stay visible. Stay vocal. Be yourselves! You're fabulous!

And to everyone else - if you want to be informed about what changes to the Gender Recognition Act actually mean, I'd recommend reading this excellent twitter thread from LGBT+ Lib Dems. On Trans Visibility Day, it's infinitely more helpful addition to the discussion than Hadley Freeman's Guardian contribution.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

So, did Vote Leave cheat?

The Liberal Democrats have sent an e-mail to members today, and asked for us to share it. Unusually, I'm doing as I'm told.

Here it is - I suspect further explanation or analysis is unnecessary.

Andrew, last night, Channel 4 and the Guardian made explosive claims about the Leave campaign’s conduct during the EU referendum.

Here’s what a whistleblower claims about the official Leave campaign:

  • They broke spending limits
  • They lied to voters
  • Then they tried to cover it up

Then, after the whistleblower made these claims, one of Theresa May’s top aides, was accused of outing him as gay.

These are allegations that go to the heart of Theresa May’s Government. It’s clear the narrow referendum win for Leave is tainted.

Brexiteers and their allies in the right-wing media will do everything they can to play this story down. We cannot let them get away with it.

Please help us get the facts out there by:

1. Sharing this quick video from Channel 4 with your friends and family

2. Sharing this Guardian article on social media

3. Adding your name to our campaign for an Exit from Brexit

The case for giving the people the final say on Brexit has never been stronger - and with your support, we can win this:

The Lib Dems in Parliament will be doing everything we can to get answers. The same rules must apply to everyone and the people must not be cheated.

Please help us do this by sharing the news today.



Tom Brake
Liberal Democrat Brexit Spokesperson

PS: Please do forward this email to your friends.

On Lib Dem Voice, Tom Brake appears in a video asking whether Leave cheated, insisting "British people are entitled to the truth". Lib Dem Voice itself concludes that "the legitimacy of the referendum result must surely now be in question."

I won't disagree with that, and these are indeed serious allegations that must be investigated properly and thoroughly.

However, I think it would be wrong to focus solely on the "legitimacy of the result". As debates in Parliament prior to the referendum confirmed, the result itself had no legal status (whatever David Cameron personally promised). The government is not obliged to implement anything, simply to be advised by the vote.

I would suggest contesting the validity of the vote is perfectly reasonable, but more significantly the actions of the government in response to the "advice" the referendum gave should also be firmly questioned.

These accusations also open up other questions about the role and fitness for purpose of the Electoral Commission. I've written previously on this, in which I expressed the view that the EC is outdated and ill-equipped for the challenges it is currently facing. So while the investigation will naturally focus on Vote Leave, I hope we also don't lose sight of where the EC fits into this - and hopefully instigate a conversation about how it can either be strengthened or replaced in light of these allegations.

Yes, we need answers from Vote Leave. We need to know what happened and who was responsible. But I would argue that if Vote Leave  has knowingly broken rules, it will have done so by exploiting the weaknesses of the Electoral Commission.  We also need to take a look at how our democracy works, and whether those currently overseeing the processes are the right people to safeguard the standards in public accountability we have been led to expect.

So, did Vote Leave cheat? No doubt we'll soon find out. Perhaps the more important questions however, are these: "Did Vote Leave cheat? If so, so what? What does that mean for our democracy? How was it allowed to happen, and how will it affect who we 'do' democracy in the future? What does this say about those charged with upholding the highest standards in the public interest?"

If it is demonstrated that Vote Leave have, indeed, cheated then I would also argue that, by implication, the systems in place to supposedly prevent this from happening have failed - as too has the organisation responsible for oversight. 

Friday, 23 March 2018

What was our press team thinking?

Vince Cable met with ALDE leaders yesterday
Yesterday afternoon the Lib Dem press team put out a statement making quite a claim.

The media release stated that "Liberal Prime Ministers from eight EU countries have publicly backed the Liberal Democrats' call for the British public to have a vote on the final Brexit deal."  

The statement the Prime Ministers supposedly signed reads: "We regret Brexit, but acknowledge the choice made by British voters for the UK Government to negotiate withdrawal. We further acknowledge and support the Liberal Democrats’ call for the British people to have the final say on the Brexit deal. All parties need to seek a broad deal accommodating both the position of the UK government and the principles on which the European Union is built.”

As you can imagine, the mainstream media picked up on this, because it was quite a statement on so many levels. Not only was it timed to coincide with the Prime Minister's meeting with EU leaders, it would have represented a historic departure from the usual practice of the leaders of sovereign nations not interfering in another state's constitutional or electoral affairs.

I read the statement with some surprise. Surely no Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) leader, let alone a Prime Minister, could sign up to such a statement - whatever they thought privately? To make the observation that Brexit is far from a done deal would be reasonable enough, but to go as far as offer explicit support for the policy of the Liberal Democrats (which is only one member of the wider Liberal ALDE family) would be a potentially very dangerous, not to mention unprecedented, step to take. 

I would have thought that anyone with any understanding of European politics would realise that the statement, as written, would prove impossible for any ALDE leader to sign. I was suspicious of the claim that any Prime Minister could have signed this, never mind eight of them. So what actually happened?

Vince Cable did meet with fellow ALDE leaders in Brussels, including the eight PMs, for a working lunch. It seems that conversations were had about Brexit, and that there was some broad agreement on various issues, as one might well expect from a gathering of Europe's Liberal leaders. While this was taking place, the party issued the media release making the extravagant claim.

Immediately following the meeting, the news media naturally wanted to know the detail of what had been agreed. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was happy to put on record his view that, if Britain changed its position on leaving the EU, it would be highly welcomed by “almost everyone in the European Union. Of course, whether that happens is up to the UK itself and UK politicians, but I am very happy my friend Vince Cable and his party are very much pleading for a discussion with the UK to make that happen.” A supportive statement indeed, but a more cautious and measured approach that the one our party press team claimed had been agreed.

It got worse. Very soon it became apparent that, while productive conversations were had, nothing formal had been agreed. The ALDE group couldn't have been more frank: "No statement has been agreed upon or released". Ouch!

The end result is that several newspapers today are running headlines that, from a Liberal Democrat point of view, are quite damaging. The Guardian runs with "Lib Dems embarrassed as EU leaders deny Brexit statement", the Daily Mail has "Lib Dem leader Vince Cable humiliated over botched Brexit PR stunt", while the Scotsman takes the view "Vince Cable humiliated as EU leaders disown call for new Brexit vote". 

It's difficult to disagree with either of these headlines, but especially the Mail's. Someone clearly thought this stunt - which is what it was - would be a good idea. That person, or people, should have understood that Prime Ministers of fellow EU states were not remotely likely to make public statements amounting to interference in another country's constitutional affairs. To imagine any ALDE leader would do something so illiberal defies belief. As far as stunts go, this has to be one of the most amateurish and self-defeating I've seen for some time.

I do not know who was responsible for devising this bizarre stunt, but it seems hard to believe it would be someone actively involved in politics. Anyone with a modicum of understanding would appreciate that the pre-written statement could not be publicly agreed by ALDE leaders, whatever their private sympathies. They would also know what the inevitable media reaction would be.

This leads me to ask questions of our press team. Why did no-one, at any point, realise this was a foolish idea that would only leave us looking silly and dishonest? Why did no-one look at the statement and think, "they're never going to sign this"? Why would a media release of this kind be circulated without knowing whether a statement had actually been signed?

It is deeply illiberal to interfere in another state's constitutional and electoral matters and I would have expected the Liberal Democrats to appreciate this. I would also have expected a competent press team to have realised what the inevitable outcome would be, and warn against it. The headlines are as predictable as they were avoidable.

For many people, this simply confirms their view of our party as being dishonest. For me, it confirms my view that our communications unit is amateurish and incompetent. 

If anyone needed evidence of quite how incompetent it is, take a look at the party's website. In spite of ALDE's confirmation that nothing was agreed - and the embarrassing headlines in the national press - the dreadful media release is still there, as the main "news" story...

Sunday, 4 March 2018

About this Thatcher statue...

Parliament Square: The statues of Churchill and Lloyd George (left)
will not be being joined by that of Margaret Thatcher
People talk about all kinds of things. Most lately it's been snow. Go onto facebook or twitter and all you'll see are pictures of people finding imaginative ways to enjoy being outside in the cold. Either that or people complaining that Britain can't cope with a bit of a cold snap.

You'll be pleased to know I haven't posted hundreds of pictures on facebook this week telling all my friends there's snow outside. I am sure they can see it for themselves. But today I have got into a few discussions on social media - about a statue.

Yes, a statue. It's really got a lot of people engaged, and not necessarily in a positive way...and that's because we're talking about a statue of Margaret Thatcher.

For those of you who don't know, Jo Swinson (MP for East Dunbartonshire and deputy leader of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party) wrote an article for the Mail on Sunday arguing that Westminster Council should have given permission for a statue of the former Prime Minister to have been erected on Parliament Square. "Whatever one thinks of Margaret Thatcher's policies, there can be no dispute about her significance", Jo explains. "If we want gender equality, we have to fight for space for women we vigorously disagree with, as well as those we support".

The headline, for which Jo was of course not responsible, screams rather sensationally: "We MUST have a monument to Maggie".

Now, before we talk about the statue it's fair to point out there's a lot in Jo's article that makes perfect sense and I'd recommend reading it before commenting. Jo talks about feminism, equalities, and history. She challenges institutional misogyny. She makes it clear she loathes Thatcher's political legacy - and she goes so far as to suggest if Thatcher should have a statue erected in her honour then so should Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

There is merit in Jo's argument. Certainly, her observations in regards gender equality are perfectly valid. That we should honour people where appropriate irrespective of whether we like them also seems quite fair-minded.

But it's understandably left a lot of people quite angry. This from Owen Jones neatly encapsulates the prevailing mood on twitter: 

I had a chat with Jo on twitter about her article. I understood her points completely, while disagreeing on the main issue for reasons I'll go into in a minute. What I don't understand is why we continue this ridiculous Victorian obsession with putting up statues everywhere to celebrate the lives of the great and the good.

There are quite a lot of statues of women around. Apparently, having done some digging, it turns out that there is a female statue for every 2.5 male statues. So this isn't quite the scale of female invisibility you might imagine. However, take the 78 statues of Queen Victoria out of the equation in addition to the various other Royal statues and depictions of classical or mythological figures, and the picture isn't so good. When we consider solely the statues dedicated to historical people, we're looking at less that 3% of the total being women. 

While accepting the historical injustice, I asked Jo whether there are better ways to remember and reflect than erecting statues. Given the controversy both erecting and potentially removing memorials is creating at home and abroad, surely there are more intellectually honest and imaginative ways of recognising and celebrating human achievement? Putting up more and more statues of women seems an odd way to right this historic wrong, and would only re-open debates about who is/is not deserving - and which historic statues should/should not be removed.

The statues littered around our towns and countryside are memorial stones to a different era. They tell us more about the people who erected them than they do the people in whose likeness they were created - as Jo admits in her own article, she has no idea who Viscount Falkland was. We accept history for what it is, however uncomfortable it might make us feel now. Of course, previous generations esteemed wealthy people, usually men, who were involved in such morally questionable pastimes as slavery or found fame through their "exploits" in fields of mass slaughter; today, our values are somewhat different. But how will future generations judge our "heroes"? Couldn't we leave them something better than a stone likeness that even those who walk past it every day will have no idea who it represents? 

Shouldn't we do more to acknowledge and recognise so many people in other ways, rather than maintaining this (to my mind ridiculously dated) obsession with statues? Do we really have to do the same tired thing in a more gender-balanced way?

To her credit, Jo engaged with my questioning and responded with this: "[But] the visual wallpaper stays mainly male. Even if historic, this has an impact today." As for my suggestion that statue mania should be consigned to history and historical memorials judged in their appropriate contexts, she said: "I am more sceptical about the possibility of eroding visual impact by rational thought. My work on body image shows it's not that easy to disassociate."

Which is all perfectly reasonable. We can agree to disagree - the reality is the visual history of previous eras was male-dominated and there is no real escaping that, but I won't diminish the point she makes about impact.

The question, however, is whether erecting a statue in honour of Margaret Thatcher would help achieve any of these utterly reasonable objectives. We live in an age when we are all familiar with who Mrs Thatcher was, and most of us have some view on her political legacy. It's also an age in which, whether we like it or not, the presence of statues (even historical ones) suggests validation and approval. The nature of public sculpture is changing: we tend not to put up statues of divisive figures, but of sports stars and generally popular local personalities (think Ken Dodd in Liverpool). Today's society doesn't value what previous generations did. Arguments in the US about potentially removing statues of not only Confederate figures but also Christopher Columbus underline the degree to which modern society is increasingly questioning the ways in which we remember history and how - to use Jo's term - the "visual wallpaper" affirms the lives and actions of people many of us find unsavoury.

We cannot simply dismiss the implications for apparently validating Thatcher's politics on the basis that she was the first female Prime Minister. I admire John Major for being the first PM to have grown up on a council estate, but I'm not advocating erecting a statue to his honour outside a high-rise block in Brixton. In recognising the milestone we can ill afford to overlook the inevitable consequences of affirming destructive actions.

Statues would also serve as a focal point for protest and vandalism. I can only imagine the security costs Westminster Council saved themselves by refusing the planning application. Would this really be a good idea? I'm not really sure it's appropriate for a Scottish MP to be publicly questioning the decision of a London council either, but that's a separate issue.

The substance of Jo's argument is not without value - far from it. I appreciate where she's coming from and what her intentions are. It's not those I have a problem with. She's not an apologist for Thatcher.

However, Jo is not a political novice - she is the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, a party still struggling from close association with the Conservatives. She will have known exactly how this would be spun and headlined - and what the likely reception would be. She's managed to upset a lot of Lib Dems and earn the derision of many others who find Thatcher's legacy too toxic.  The headline has certainly been an absolute treat to opponents such as John Nicolson (who WILL use this to great effect in East Dunbartonshire, I'm sure).

He won't be alone. Across the UK, in areas where Thatcher's destructive policies are still felt (and despised), expect Labour, the SNP and Plaid Cymru to have this headline prominently on all their election literature. And why shouldn't they? After all, the Liberal Democrats were quick to seize upon Gordon Brown's meeting with Mrs Thatcher in 2007 to appeal to Labour voters - with some success.

It's not so much what Jo thinks that concerns me. We can agree to disagree on the relative non-issue of public sculpture, and agree on the general issues relating to gender and inclusion. I really couldn't care less about statues of repulsive people - there are already a lot of them around. What's more worrying is Jo's judgement in deciding to unburden herself of those thoughts to the Mail on Sunday. Sometimes nothing is a very sensible thing to say - and when it comes to discussing Margaret Thatcher, it usually is.

As a party we have to find ways of rebuilding trust. I have no simple answers as to how we do that, but it's quite obvious giving our opponents gifts like this won't make the task easier. 

UPDATE: I think it's important to add some context to the discussion. As Jo herself points out, this was a decision taken by Westminster Council. She says: "it was disappointing to see Westminster Council last month turn down an application for a statue of Margaret Thatcher in Parliament Square...Apparently one of the reasons given for refusal was the state robes Thatcher would have been wearing. Even in death, it seems there are no limits to how society judges women by how they look and what they wear."

Having looked a bit deeper, I think this is in fact incorrect. Jo makes a judgement about the motivation behind the ruling and the societal values that judge people according to clothing.  However, it appears it was neither the council nor "society" but Thatcher's daughter Carol who objected to the statue. She didn't want to see her mother in state robes, but more informally dressed and with her trademark handbag. That's quite understandable - if my mother was going to be immortalised in a statue I'd want her to look as I remembered her. That's not being judgemental; it's wanting to capture someone's humanity.

This undermines Jo's argument - at least in relation to the council's reasoning for refusing planning permission for the statue itself; the wider points remain as valid as ever.(

Given that, I fail to see what is so unreasonable about the council's decision. Surely, if Mrs T's own family aren't happy with the statue, who are we to argue with them? Who are we to express "disappointment" with their wishes? For me that settles the question on the monument, although clearly Jo is right that much more needs to be done on the gender issues she raises.

I do note that the council has no objection in principle and that it was the design of the statue that proved problematic with the perhaps in a few months we'll have to go through all this again! AP, 5.3.18