Thursday, 31 January 2019

We need to talk about David Ward (again)

David Ward (Photo: The Independent)
It's been a while since I've felt the need to talk about David Ward, the former MP for Bradford East.

For those unfamiliar with Mr Ward, his membership of the party was suspended pending investigation into alleged anti-Semitic comments shortly before the General Election of 2017. Ward then stood as an independent candidate, finishing third. he was then, I believe, expelled from the party for standing against the official Lib Dem candidate.

Ward has been a controversial figure for some time, not least because of statements he has made on Israel, the Holocaust and the Board of Deputies. I'm afraid I've usually found myself unable to defend him.

Unfortunately, a newspaper local to Bradford - the Telegraph & Argus - reported that "David Ward is back in the Lib Dems".  It stated categorically that "a former Bradford MP has been reinstated as a member of the Liberal Democrats - almost two years after he was kicked out of the party."

This was news to me - and rather disturbing news.

Naturally I looked to find some confirmation of this. I couldn't. The only other news outlet reporting on this was the Bradford Telegraph, owned by the T& A, whose headline was the more cautious "David Ward says return to Lib Dems 'a formality'". That's not quite the same thing. But the situation begs some serious questions: why was David Ward briefing the local media that he had been re-admitted?  Why would he be publicly pre-empt the outcome of his application to re-join? More importantly, why - when various angered Jewish (and other) groups were berating the party on social media for the apparent decision - was Lib Dem HQ not quick off the mark to issue a formal statement denying it?

The Jewish Chronicle was on hand later to quote a party spokesperson as saying "David Ward is not a member of the Liberal Democrats and was previously expelled from the party for bringing it into disrepute." I'm not sure he was, but I won't split hairs. However, by this time the "news" had travelled some distance and was widely believed. It's difficult to put the genie back into the bottle - even more so when it takes several hours to make the most simple of denials.

But more importantly still is what discussions on social media revealed about the relationship between Mr Ward and his local Liberal Democrats.

Firstly there is this, posted on twitter only yesterday:

And then there is this, on the council website:

So, not only are Bradford Liberal Democrats working closely with Mr Ward in defiance of the federal party, they have essentially adopted him onto the council's Lib Dem group as the deputy leader. Ward himself admitted to the Jewish Chronicle today that he is not a Lib Dem member, however much he believes his reinstatement is a "formality" - so why on earth has someone elected to the council as an independent risen to become the deputy leader of a group he is not a member of? How has this escaped the radar of Lib Dem HQ at Great George Street?

It would also seem that the tweets from Bradford Lib Dems were intended as part of a concerted effort to raise the profile of Mr Ward in advance of what they believed would be his readmission to the party. The Bradford Telegraph reported that "both the Bradford and Yorkshire parties said that he should re-apply for membership" and that a decision on his membership would be made at regional level.

However, in pre-empting the outcome of that process the local party has not only miscalculated but has also arguably brought the federal party into disrepute. How long has this relationship been going on for? Just how long has Mr Ward been sitting as "deputy leader" of our party grouping? (I'm led to believe he has been sitting with the Lib Dem group for nine months, giving the appearance of having been brought back into the fold. This, if true, is simply unacceptable).

Whatever our views on David Ward and his controversial opinions, this is not a professional way to behave. We now have some serious questions to answer - about Mr Ward himself, about internal procedure, about how we deal with local parties acting in opposition to centrally-imposed suspensions, about our own communications and, perhaps most significantly, about how we deal with anti-Semitism and other expressions of discrimination.

I suspect the local parties have miscalculated here. But, more than that, in pre-determining the outcome of Mr Ward's membership application, and in developing a worryingly close relationship with an expelled former member, they have to my mind managed to bring the federal party into disrepute.

Update (31.1.19): I've since gathered there was an arrangement and that the "Lib Dem group" may actually be "Lib Dems and others". All the same, it's not acceptable that someone debarred from membership was the deputy leader of that group, or that any member of the public viewing the council's website would reasonably believe he had been readmitted

Certainly the images posted of him on social media by Bradford Lib Dems endorsing their candidates were, to be polite, inappropriate.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Cheers and Jeers #5

Here's my latest news roundup, in which I cheer or jeer the week's events.

Cheers to Angola, on becoming the latest country to decriminalise homosexuality. The Angolan parliament voted by 155 to 1 in support of the measure, which also prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Cheers to Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, who has indicated he would like to carry out further rescue missions after helping two stranded boys out of Syria.

Cheers for Fiona Channon who made history this week for being the first woman in history to carry the ceremonial mace into the House of Lords.

Cheers to Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev, the Prime Ministers of Greece and the FYR of Macedonia respectively, who this week succeeded in agreeing a name change to the latter country that put an end to nearly three decades of dispute and suspicion.

Jeers to the people who made comments on social media belittling rape victims in the aftermath of Alex Salmond’s arrest. I refer to generalised unpleasant comments on women and rape, which have the effect of diminishing the seriousness of the alleged offences.  Jeers also to those pre-judging the case and using the allegations as a means of taking cynical asides at the independence movement. Serious claims about potential abuse of women should not be used as the basis of conspiracy theories or constitutional debate, or to speculate as to the relationship between the current first minister and her predecessor.

Jeers to the “far-right activists” planning “action” at a public meeting in Fleetwood on Brexit, which was due to be hosted by local MP Cat Smith. Consequently, the event has been cancelled.  

Saturday, 19 January 2019

Cheers and Jeers #4

Here's my latest news roundup, in which I cheer or jeer the week's events. 

Cheers to Zoe Ball on becoming the first female weekday Breakfast host on BBC 2. That’s one more unenviable record now consigned to history.

Cheers to the 432 MPs who voted against Theresa May’s proposed Brexit deal. Of course there were various reasons MPs of all colours decided to reject it, but it was absolutely vital to defeat the government on this.

Cheers to everyone involved in putting right the injustice of Glasgow City Council’s unequal pay – thousands of women will now be correctly remunerated.

Cheers for Jasmin Parris, a Midlothian nursing mother who completed the 268-mile Montane Spine Race in an astonishing 83 hours 12 minutes and 23 seconds.

Cheers to the BBC’s subtitling for giving us this moment of comedy during Michael Gove’s nauseating speech on Wednesday.

Cheers for Tessa Ganserer, the German Green Party MP who this week became the first transgender politician to sit in either a regional or national parliament in Germany.

Jeers to the ridiculous and anachronistic system of parliamentary voting, which meant that Labour MP Tulip Siddiq decided to postpone her Caesarian (against medical advice) in order to vote on the Brexit deal. Surely in this era we can “do” parliamentary democracy better?

Jeers to Richard Burgon, who decided to use a Channel 4 interview alongside Jo Swinson as an opportunity to show the public how petty, tribal and belligerent he could be. At a time when Labour should be looking to reach out to as many people as possible, it was a remarkable show of arrogance.

Jeers for Jeremy Corbyn, who has made all kinds of grandstanding noises insisting Theresa May “takes no deal off the table”, while knowing full well this cannot happen without either extending or revoking Article 50. Talk about missing an open tessa ganserer,  goal.

Remind me, Jeremy, who was so keen for the PM to invoke A50 at the earliest opportunity? You voted for it - even demanded it.

Jeers to all those speculating about Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s sexual orientation. And we wonder why there aren’t any “out” footballers? Cheers to Ruben for the classy way he dealt with it, though.

Tears for Paweł Adamowicz, the Mayor of Gdansk and an outspoken campaigner for equality and social justice, who was fatally stabbed at acharity event on Sunday evening.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Why I have no sympathy for Theresa May

I have a six year old daughter, Xanthe, who is developing something of an interest in politics.

She likes to see women in politics, which is both understandable and positive. In fact, I'd go so far as to say she admires many women she sees working in the political arena - irrespective of which party they belong to. There is one thing we disagree on, however: she has remarkable sympathy for the Prime Minister.

Her logic is that Mrs May works hard, has a cabinet of out-of-control self-serving idiots, has inherited an unenviable situation and feels bound to honour the pledge of the former Prime Minister in "respecting" the result of the referendum. Xanthe told me she felt "very sorry" for the Prime Minister last night. I told her that I'm sure Mrs May does indeed work very hard, but that she's working hard doing all the wrong things.

Last night's vote was historic for several reasons, not least the unprecedented scale of the defeat. It was nothing if not spectacular and exceeded the most pessimistic of predictions. In a little over 18 months the Prime Minister's supreme confidence in her "strong and stable" leadership (confidence so great she called a General Election believing the likely result would be a 100+ Conservative majority) has been replaced by the humiliation of suffering the worst Commons defeat by any Prime Minister in history. To unite the Commons against her so completely is quite an achievement - something even Margaret Thatcher failed to manage.

And the scale of defeat is fully merited.

It is true that in the early days of her "leadership" I did feel some sympathy for someone who looked out of their depth trying to manage a situation of others' making. But that rapidly evaporated, and I have no sympathy for her now. She has reaped what she has sown.

Theresa May's problem is that while the Brexit decision was not hers, the red lines were. There was no need to categorically rule out ongoing membership of the customs union and the single market. There was no requirement for her to invoke Article 50 so immediately, or to set an arbitrary date for leaving. Such red lines have made her "deal" much harder to sell to both Parliament and the British public.

But it's not just those decisions that have damaged her project - her attitude throughout has been contemptible. In sneering at pro-Remain activists, dismissing them as an out-of-touch "metropolitan liberal elite" and labelling them as "citizens of nowhere", Mrs May showed herself to have little interest in forging consensus. She had no desire to reach out to the 48%. Wrapping herself in the union flag and resorting to the simplistic nationalist rhetoric of the Little Englanders was designed to speak to a particular section of society. As Neil Warnock might have said, "to hell with the rest of the world". Any goodwill the Prime Minister may have had from the international community or moderate Remainers rapidly disappeared.

Mrs May at no point has sought to work with others to achieve her objectives. Had she proposed a softer Brexit, and worked across party lines to sell a deal that might reasonably be expected to satisfy (in not please) most, we would be in a very different position not.  But it was always "my way or the highway", to the point of calling a General Election in a vain attempt to give her such a thumping majority that no need for collaboration would be necessary. Suggesting the EU was the enemy, and insisting repeatedly that "no deal is better than a bad deal", further alienated those who could have reasonably supported a moderate Brexit deal. The hostility towards EU leaders was as baffling as it was irresponsible.

And then there were the bizarre appointments of the most incompetent parliamentarians to the cabinet, including the great offices of state. At the time, some within the media praised the Prime Minister's decision to give positions of responsibility to arch-Brexiteers  Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Davis and Liam Fox - ensuring that these people would have to deliver on their promises rather than take pot-shots at the government from outside. Such logic assumed that the Prime Minister would be able to control Mr Johnson and his allies. It also assumed that they would be at least sufficiently competent to carry out their remits.

Appointing people ill-suited to the task in order to maintain Remain-Leave balance in cabinet not only demonstrated the new divide in British politics, but proved manifestly disastrous. Johnson's behaviour often undermined the government - even more so when it became evident that the Prime Minister was so paralyzed with fear at the consequences of dismissing him he became, in effect, unsackable.

And there was also the problem that from the outset the government's negotiating position was not only led by incompetents who had imposed unnecessary and damaging red lines, but was also based on poor planning. The thinking behind the plan (and I use the word "plan" in its loosest sense) was based on denying the economic reality of Britain's place in the world - both geographically and politically. It was a plan that failed to look facts in the face. It was a plan that put romanticised and jingoistic notions of British identity first, and practical considerations second. It was a plan that grossly overestimated the UK's leverage in negotiations. And it was a plan that gave little consideration to the complex situation of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic - something that had never loomed particularly large in Leavers' thinking.

The Chequers Agreement at least went some way to reversing these mistakes, but it was too little too late and was - predictably - handled in such a cack-handed way that served only to alienate more people while failing to convince those Mrs May had previously estranged.

But critically, the Prime Minister has talked about "delivering the will of the people" without ever seriously engaging with "the people". It was as if the binary referendum question settled the matter for all time and that she alone knew exactly which deal would conform this expressed "will". So confident was she in her belief that she represented "the people" and that her aims matched theirs that she naively believed she would cruise to victory in the 2017 General Election she didn't need to call. In her defence, the opinion polls suggested as much. But she failed to learn from that experience, and she has never had any real rapport with the British public in the way that some previous Prime Ministers had.

Finally, there are her double-dealing tactics, keeping ministers in the dark, playing for time, cancelling votes - none of which would ever win her the support of the very people she needed to make her deal a reality.

So no, I have no sympathy for the Prime Minister. It is true to say that she inherited an unenviable situation, but she has handled that situation badly and fully merits last night's crushing defeat. The failure to deliver the deal is her failure, and it is a failure of diplomacy, statesmanship and leadership. The outcome of last night's vote was not an inevitability, but the product of catastrophic ineptitude.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Prime Minister heavily defeated...but what does it mean?

The Prime Minister's proposed Brexit deal suffered a
bruising defeat this evening. (Photo: BBC)
Well, that wasn't remotely close.

Before Christmas I actually thought the Prime Minister might actually get her deal through Parliament. And while in recent days it was obvious Theresa May would fail, I didn't see such a crushing defeat on the horizon.

The result: Ayes 202, Noes 432. 

That is massive. Absolutely stunning - the worst defeat for sitting UK Prime Minister. And the scale of this defeat will inevitably lead to questions being asked about both the Prime Minister and the substantive issue in question - Britain's exiting the European Union.

There is no doubt the Prime Minister, her government and the Brexit strategy are all seriously damaged. Eventually Mrs May's approach of playing for time would come unstuck, and now it seems she has nowhere else to turn. From what we've seen tonight she appears resolved to continue regardless, refusing to look facts in the face. That is a huge mistake, but in her mind it was always "my deal or no deal". Parliament has now rejected them both.

Theresa May does have one advantage, however. And that is that the opposition is led by Jeremy Corbyn. He has, over the last two years, consistently failed to take key opportunities. There are reasons why Labour, even now, trails the Tories in opinion polls. And while the government has presented labour and its leader with a historical, glorious, and unprecedented opportunity it remains to be seen whether Jeremy Corbyn understands how to seize that opportunity.

So far he's played the predictable game in calling a vote of no confidence in the government. But it's a vote he's very unlikely to win. What happens if/when he loses? What is Labour's Plan B?  

Labour sees a General Election as the way out of the constitutional mess. That might make some sense if it was clear that Labour would win that election, or if it had a distinctly different view on Brexit. As it stands, polling suggests we might be looking at yet another hung parliament, with Labour improving their parliamentary numbers but still having fewer seats than the Tories. Electoral Calculus's recent poll has the Conservatives on 291 seats and Labour on 280. Crucially, the SNP would hold the balance of power. 

Just think about that situation for a moment. How would such a General Election result resolve the Brexit impasse? It may actually worsen the situation, and we would have a full scale constitutional crisis to deal with.

Jeremy Corbyn has stated tonight that "the result is the greatest defeat for the government since the 1920s....The House has delivered its verdict and that verdict is absolutely decisive..."no deal" must be taken off the table, a permanent customs union must be secured and people's rights and protections must be guaranteed."  And I can't argue with that, other than to point out tonight's defeat was worse than those he refers to in the 1920s. The problem is that he only sees one way out - and that is bringing down a government and forcing a General Election. On Brexit he proposes nothing more than a slightly improved version of Theresa May's deal - he doesn't say how he will address the complex and controversial issues such as the Northern Ireland "backstop". Neither does he explain why he believes the EU would be open to renegotiation, or why Parliament would necessarily vote through a deal not so dissimilar to that it has rejected this evening..

Compare this with what First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said tonight: "The SNP supports the tabled vote of no confidence in the Government – but regardless of who leads the government, the reality is that a second EU referendum, with the option of remain on the ballot paper, is now the only credible option to avoid untold damage to the economy and the prospects of future generations. It is also the only option, within the UK, that would allow Scotland's democratic wish to remain within the EU to be respected." Just think of the possibilities if Jeremy Corbyn could bring himself to say something similar - something that actually offers a realistic way out. If only he had the courage to support the only realistic means of resolving the central issue once and for all. As things stand, Ms Sturgeon is right as far as Brexit is concerned: it matters little whether the party of UK government is red or blue. I have confidence in neither.

I am not a huge fan of referenda, and I am a reluctant convert to the People's Vote idea. What is now apparent is that, as the First Minister and others (such as Vince Cable and Caroline Lucas) have pointed out, with Parliament unable to move forward the British public should have a say on the final outcome. They can tell us if this deal was what they voted for in 2016. Theresa May says we should listen to the British people, "who want this issue settled". For once I agree: how exactly do you intend to settle this, Prime Minister? With only ten weeks to go, it's far from obvious that there is any single way forward that Parliament can support. 

The detail of how a People's Vote would work is for another discussion. Right now, the question is what this defeat means for the government. While the defeat was both crushing and humiliating, a decisive blow has not (yet) been struck. The Prime Minister may be wounded, but she's struggling on. Some grandstanding from the Labour leader won't worry her unduly. There is no easy way out of this constitutional mess and a General Election is definitely not the answer.

If tomorrow's vote fails as expected, the Prime Minister may well revert to her usual strategy of playing for time and running down the clock in the hope that the risk of leaving without a deal on 29th March frightens the rebels into line. With so many rebels, however, that's a very dangerous approach to take.

It's not clear whether either Mrs May or Mr Corbyn have a Plan B. Given that this saga has rumbled on for the best part of 30 months, that defies belief. Rather than provide certainty, tonight's drama has raised more questions than answers. Indeed, it's very difficult to know exactly what the longer term meaning of the "meaningful" vote might be.

This isn't over yet. Not by a long distance.

I'll leave the final word to James O'Brien. I think he captures perfectly the reality of the situation: 

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Cheers and Jeers #3

Cheers to David Lammy MP for that speech: “Brexit is a con. A trick. A swindle. A fraud. A deception that will hurt most those people it promised to help. A dangerous fantasy which will make every problem it claims to solve worse.”

Cheers to the four single mums who won a High Court challenge on Universal Credit. While the decision is an important one in many respects, not least in underlining the reality that Universal Credit isn’t fir-for-purpose, the four women concerned deserve applause for standing against the unfairness inherent within the system.

Jeers for Andrew Bridgen MP - not only for his shameful remark made during Layla Moran’s tribute to Paddy Ashdown but also for the pitiful apology that followed it.

Jeers to former footballer and Talksport radio host Alan Brazil, who criticised Andy Murray’s retirement announcement for being too tearful. He should “move on, roll [his] sleeves up and stop bubbling” said the former Scotland striker. Cheers to co-presenter Ally McCoist and various others who called out this antiquated attitude and demonstrated the need to strip away stigma.

Jeers to Chris Grayling and Stephen Barclay, who both suggested that the best way to deal with the far right is to give them what they want. When government ministers argue against democratic votes on the basis that it might upset some racist protesters, how strong is that democracy?

Tears for Steffan Lewis, the Plaid Cymru AM for South Wales East, who has died of bowel cancer at the age of only 34. Welsh Lib Dem leader, Kirsty Williams, said of him: "When he addressed the chamber you listened, because you knew he always had something thoughtful to say." So sad to lose such a talented man so young.

Tears for Andy Murray, who has announced he will be retiring from tennis this year due to a hip injury. Let’s hope he gets the chance to say goodbye properly - at Wimbledon.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Cheers and Jeers #2

Here are my cheers and jeers for this week:

this week for the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), which has argued that large-scale testing is detrimental to pupils' wellbeing.   The wisdom of starting testing at the age of 5 has, rightly, been contentious. While much of the debate around National Standardised Assessments has often been political, the EIS’s intervention shows the need for not simply a “review” but a new evidence-based approach to primary education.

Cheers to Billy Connelly, who talked openly about life at the age of 75 and his refusal to fear death. His explanation of “slipping away” as being an “adventure” and another aspect of a life fully lived was not just poignant – it’s a challenge to an ageist society.

Cheers for Kyrsten Sinema who, on being sworn in as the first bisexual member of the Senate (and Arizona’s first female senator), refused to use a Bible to make the oath. “I imagine Vice President Mike Pence, who administered the oath, died a little on the inside” suggested author and activist Hemant Mehta.

Cheers to Mathew Hulbert (@HulbertMathew) for agreeing to make the occasional contribution to this blog. I look forward to what he has to say. Of course, other liberal voices are also welcome...

Cheers for the Bishop of Chester, who this week had a letter published in Church Times in which he criticised the over-the-top reactions to the Church of England’s guidance on transgender people. Asserting that “being transgendered should not in principle be an impediment to being considered for ordination”, he went on to say that “the principle of the welcome to transgendered people in the life of the Church was settled some time ago”. Indeed.

Cheers to Austria, where same-sex couples can now be married. The irony that ministers from the People's Party and Freedom Party, both bitterly opposed to LGBTQ equality, were forced to respect the decision of the Constitutional Court was in itself quite delightful.  Cheers also to the Austrian Green Party (Die Grünen) for their perseverance and commitment to making this a reality.

Cheers to Greggs for introducing a vegan “sausage roll”.  Not only is this a much needed extension of the Gregg’s menu, it’s a welcome gesture towards vegans as well as sound business sense. Thanks!

Jeers to the many, many people who took to social media to express their outrage at Greggs’ action. Who dare anyone want a diverse menu that caters for a growing section of the population? Some of these reactions are beyond parody, believing a business responding to customer demand represents some kind of PC conspiracy - and many were highly vitriolic. For the life of me I can’t understand what there is to get so worked up about, but it does highlight the way vegans are often viewed and underlines the degree to which the outrage machine resists any progressive change, however small.  

Jeers to Savid Javid for his “Dad’s Army” handling of the supposed migrants crisis and his cynical questioning of whether  asylum seekers were “genuine”. He seems ignorant of the fact that the Dublin Convention directs EU member states rather than refugees themselves...

Jeers to the BBC News, which reported on the sad death of transgender activist Julia Grant by deadnaming her and referring to transitioning as “having sex changes”. The article was edited later following complaints, but it really is time they learned the basics. 

Jeers also to Toby Young, who dismissed concerns raised by University vice-chancellors on the effect of a no-deal Brexit as "the usual ultra-Remainer hysteria". Jeers too to the BBC for giving credibility to the reactions of a man widely deemed to be unfit to help manage universities. That’s not “balance”...