Thursday, 22 September 2016

Open. Tolerant. United: Tim Farron's speech to #ldconf

I know that my blogging here has become quite infrequent - but I do still intend to make the occasional post. Like this one. As is my wont, I live-tweeted from the leader's speech at Lib Dem Conference, and have collected these tweets in a Storify for your enjoyment.

For those who want more, and more regularly, you can find additional writings on my public Facebook page, including my "quick takes" following the speech.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Why I voted to remain in the EU and other stories...

This was to have been a Facebook post until the length of it mitigated against that.

With only a week to go until polling, I've finally got round to outlining some of the reasons that I've voted to REMAIN in the EU - and why I hope you, and the country, will too.

Before I do, though, I'm going to share a few words on the campaign itself and my feelings as the ballot - and the result - approaches. (Note, this turns out to be more than a few words - so please feel free to jump to the second section below.)

Neither side has covered themselves in glory. It strikes me that there has been a great deal of negative campaigning on both sides - although sadly, such tactics have been proven to be successful in the past.

I had hoped that lessons would be learnt from the Scottish Referendum - and in particular the way the "Yes" camp energised and enthused large swathes of the electorate there, particularly the young.

Sadly, that was not to be.

Instead, this has, in some respects, been a retread of the AV debate - with the Leave side repeating some of the anti-AV arguments ("we could spend this money on the NHS") and the Remain side being poorly organised and co-ordinated with Labour not pulling their weight.

Of course, for the AV referendum they had some excuses: that was on the same day as local elections (which isn't a recipe for cross-party working) and they weren't inclined to give succour to Lib Dems in coalition with the Tories despite AV having been in their own 2010 manifesto.

This time a heavyweight blue on blue battle has meant the media has had an irresistable narrative, which coupled with a Labour leader whose support can charitably be described as half-hearted and who won't share a platform with the Tories has created a perfect storm. (I also fear that too many sat back and enjoyed the Tory fight with scant attention to the impact on traditional Labour voters, the body politic or, indeed, the prospects for the government after the poll, whatever way it goes.)

Not only has a Labour narrative been missing, but the Remain campaign - at the political level at least - has lacked real authoritative voices. This is, I fear, a sad reflection on the current state of the Labour party - and, indeed, the dire straits of my own party.

Sadly, the Lib Dems are considered an irrelevance as far as the media is concerned. Our 8 MPs could strip naked and run across Westminster Bridge and it would merit barely a mention in the news. Our apparent (though not actual) silence is ironic, given that we united on our EU membership in a way that the big two parties aren't and that we have one of the biggest beasts in the debate: Paddy Ashdown.

I've seen Paddy on the stump a couple of times in this campaign. He is head and shoulders above most people in modern politics. I can think of no-one else who brings his wealth of experience - military, political and diplomatic - to the table. In different times, he would be reaching millions on the telly, rather than dozens and hundreds at rallies across the country.

Whilst on the subject of heavyweights, I must make mention of Charles Kennedy who is still hugely missed - and whose contribution would have been invaluable to the debate. Here's a flavour of what he may have said.

Which, tenuously, brings us back to Scotland... rather than learning the lessons of the Yes campaign, Stronger IN seems destined to ape Better Together: right down to similar arguments re pensions and prices, and late contributions from Gordon Brown (whose political capital is worth less in Bank of England notes than those of the Scottish banks).

In the weeks leading up to the Scottish vote, people remarked on how keyed-up I was. I simultaneously felt helpless, wishing I was part of the campaign, and thankful I wasn't involved in the whole sorry mess. In the latter weeks, I was genuinely worried: I want a Federal UK - and, to my mind, independence isn't a route to that.

This time, I have been involved. Not, granted, as much as I would like. Whilst the timing is better than with the AV referendum, I and many others were engaged in election campaigns - and the natural inclination after the 5th of May was to, well, relax and attempt and get their lives back (or to adapt to their new roles, for those who were successful).

The bulk of the work, in those places which had May elections, was picked up by non party political people, which is great. Despite popular perceptions about "political elites", in my experience political people genuinely welcome the involvement of others; many hands make lighter work and/or get more done. What this has meant, however, is that the integration of activists into the campaign has been difficult and the co-ordination and co-operation hasn't quite been as slick as it could have been.

Am I as worried as I was in 2014? I'm not sure, although the chances of a remain vote look more doubtful now than they have done at any point in the campaign. I fear I am resigned to an outcome that means that, whatever happens, Britain is in for a long period of political uncertainty: to the detriment of us all.

So, why have I voted for Remain? After all, that's what this piece is supposed to be about.

Mainly, it's because I'm an internationalist. I believe that, as human beings, we can achieve more together than apart. Quite aside from the benefits to trade of being part of a single market, the economies of scale achieved when competing on the world stage and the greater bargaining power when negotiating treaties with other countries and blocs, there are a number of challenges and issues we face that transcend borders and are better tackled together.

From combating organised crime (including terrorist activity), to managing migrations from war-zones and other troubled areas around the world, to tackling climate change: coordination across borders is required, and better achieved within the existing structure we have - as a bloc - than in more discrete units.

Is the EU perfect at dealing with these issues? Of course not. In particular, its management of the current Syrian refugee crisis is failing - and potentially storing up greater problems for the future. But the current administration in Britain hasn't covered itself in glory on that issue either - and you know what they say about glass houses and stones...

Does the EU involve compromise? Yes, of course. The c-word is verboten in politics, although its about the only walk of life in which it is. In our personal and working lives, the ability to compromise is a positive, not a negative. Negotiating solutions to problems so as to achieve outcomes acceptable to all parties involved is part and parcel of our everyday lives. Heaven forfend, though, that anyone should seek to apply this in the absolutest world of politics.

(As a Lib Dem, it is impossible to write the above paragraph without alluding to our experience in coalition. Not only did we face constant criticism from many on the "progressive" left who nominally belief in pluralist politics, as believers in PR must, but we got crucified at the polls by our coalition "allies" with whom we had made many compromises. Such, of course, is politics.

It's all too obvious now, though, as the Tories roll back on Lib Dem achievements and roll out the things we blocked (such as the Snoopers' Charter, aided and abetted by Labour) that we did make a difference in the last Government. It begs the question: what lies in store if Leave prevails and Boris, Gove and Grayling ascend to the great offices of state?)

The standard argument against this concept of a club of nations co-operating is that it involves giving up sovereignty. But that is the case with all relationships. When someone sets up home with someone, they give up some personal autonomy. Why? Because they get benefits from doing so.

When we co-operate with our allies in Europe, we get benefits too. We gain from investment in our poorest regions not just here, but abroad. We gain from security that is greater as a result of the easier sharing of information - not weaker as a result of free movement. We gain from the elimination of tariffs within the single market. We gain from the peace that the EU has cemented in the north and west of the continent, and nurtured in the south east. And we've gained from the fostering of democracies in the south, and more recently in the east.

Viewers of Dragons Den will be familiar with the part of the negotiations between the eponymous dragons (most of whom, incidentally, back staying in the EU) seek to maximise their equity share of a potential investment. They drive a hard bargain, as well they might, and you will often hear one of them say something like "Would you rather have 60% of £1m or 80% of nothing?"

So it is with sovereignty. By surrendering some of our sovereignty we make an investment in the creation of a better world for ourselves. In times past, we invested this sovereignty by seeking to dominate the world. The sun never set on our empire and you could traverse Africa from north to south without leaving British soil.

Leaving aside the lasting implications of the colonial approach - which we live with to this day - this view that being sovereign means being a behemoth straddling the world stage is outmoded. In the modern world sovereignty is best exercised not by imposition of will but by judicial use of influence.

There are those who would argue that this isn't true of all countries. And it's not - but the only countries with the scale that gives them the ability to over-ride this principle are China, Russia and America.

Has Britain maximised what it can get out of the EU? Have we driven a bargain as hard as Deborah Meaden or Theo Paphetus might have? Are we making the best use of the influence we could exert? No. Is that an argument for withdrawing - or is it an argument for getting stuck and making things work better for us - and for people throughout the continent? In my book it's the latter.

There are, of course, lots of other reasons: the EU has daily impacts on our lives, has established common standards for goods, services and employment conditions. It has sought to end restrictive and anti-competitive practices. It has brought us an influx of new Britons to fill jobs in our service industries and enrich the cultural mix of our country.

When I first envisaged this piece, I suppose I imagined I would write a list - probably including some of the points in that last paragraph. It took a different tack but it sums up the key reasons why I'm a believer in the EU as an institution, warts and all.

I'll leave the other arguments in favour for others to make - as well as those counter-arguments to those made by the Leave campaign. Instead, I'll finish this piece with a couple of extracts from the Preamble to the Constitution of the Liberal Democrats. As always, it reaffirms that I am in the right party, fighting for what I believe - whatever the ups and downs, and whatever transpires next:
"Recognising that the quest for freedom and justice can never end, we promote human rights and open government, a sustainable economy which serves genuine need, public services of the highest quality, international action based on a recognition of the interdependence of all the world’s peoples and responsible stewardship of the earth and its resources.
"Our responsibility for justice and liberty cannot be confined by national boundaries; we are committed to fight poverty, oppression, hunger, ignorance, disease and aggression wherever they occur and to promote the free movement of ideas, people, goods and services. Setting aside national sovereignty when necessary, we will work with other countries towards an equitable and peaceful international order and a durable system of common security. Within the European Community we affirm the values of federalism and integration and work for unity based on these principles."

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Orlando: The Rush to Blame

This is another of my "from Facebook" posts... a brief response to the horrific events in Orlando.
This is horrendous, and as always on such occasions I struggle with how best to react.

I'm sure I'm not alone: many people say their "thoughts and prayers" are with the victims and their families: and I'm sure they genuinely are. Others that they're "sending their love".

As an atheist my prayers are obviously with no-one, and although my thoughts are with those bereaved, this seems as futile as "sending love", whatever that means.

The next step for many is to try and work out "why?" and this is where we should exercise caution especially when you transition from what is known to what is pure speculation.

First, whatever else this is, it's a crime against humanity. As John Donne said: "Any man's death diminishes me"

Next: it does seem to have been a hate crime against LGBT folk and is a sharp reminder that the battle for equality has some way to go.

This seems to be all that is known for sure.

The perpetrator is said to potentially have had IS sympathies but from what I've read that is by no means certain.

There is often a rush in these scenarios to blame something "other": if there's a "them" to blame, then "we" can feel better. And we can justify any actions against "them" that "we" may see fit.

But the truth is hate can grow and fester amongst "us". With the current wave of support for Trump, and rise of nationalism and patriotism on the right, then this type of action could just as likely have been carried out by someone believing they were doing the Christian God's will as Allah's, or targeted at migrant communities, say.

And "them-and-us-ism" isn't the sole preserve of the right: the political left engages in it too, with corporates, bankers and fat-cats the target, although this less often leads to violence.

I suppose my appeal here has two contradictory sentiments.

One: not to rush headlong into speculation.

Two: when speculating (as is human nature even without 24/7 news channels to fill) to consider all the ways in which society can give rise to this sort of scenario: and resolve to work against such factors, whatever they be.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Quality Local Journalism

This is a rant from my Facebook page, but I feel like sharing it further. It all started when I saw this story being shared by the local rag, along with the caption: "There are more users in Bristol than Paris, Berlin and Barcelona. Worrying..."

Have a gander at the story and then read on...

I'm not sure where to start.

How about the lack of actual links to the actual report in the article?

How about qualifying claims that "Bristol is now Ecstasy capital of UK"?

How about not contradicting the headline in the article which says that "according to the findings of the report Bristol comes sixth in a table of the highest use of MDMA [that's your actual proper name for ecstasy] in Europe and second in the UK just behind London."?

How about not reporting that the scientists were determining levels of drug abuse, as opposed to levels of drug use? Indeed, the survey methodolgy precludes any judgement on whether the usage is abusive or otherwise.

How about reporting that the cities ranked total just 44 across Europe, and just 2 (!) in the UK?

I'm sure I could go on, but, I'll just direct you to the reports in question instead.

Nonsense like this just holds up progress towards a more sensible approach to drugs.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

The (Coffee) Chain Gang

"Please show your support for a decent independent going head to head with the chain that is coffee#1"

The above is a quote from a post on a local Facebook page. The poster is setting up a coffee shop in North Street, Bedminster, having failed to get premises on the Wells Road in Knowle, where he would have done well. He will probably still do well in Bedmo, but will be up against stiffer competition (and not just from 'the chain that is coffee#1').

Now, I've never had a coffee in a branch of coffee#1, so I'm unable to comment on their wares but this comment piqued a certain interest in me. Namely: the tendency of thought that says: small business good, big business bad.

Here's the thing: From my viewpoint, the world is not that simple.

Sharp practice, tax evasion/avoidance and poor treatment of staff can all be found amongst small, local, independent businesses as well as large.

On the flipside, some of the largest businesses in the country/world have exemplary approaches to corporate social responsibility and employee relations.

Reducing things to simple binaries is foolish. We all benefit from a mixed economy with different types and sizes of shops/chains, and a mix of differing ownership models. Do I think there is room for change? Hell yes. But do I think large companies have no good points at all? No.

The post above also reminded me of something that has long puzzled me: at what point does a company go from being 'good' (local, independent) to 'bad' (large, corporate, spawn of the devil)?

Whilst many people set up businesses in order to achieve/sustain a certain lifestyle, many more dream of making it big: opening a second outlet, expanding their offering, maybe taking their services to a neighbouring city. Some dream of going national, or international.

Good for them, it's a natural inclination. Sometimes this will be achieved through organic growth, sometimes they will have to seek additional funding: a bank loan, another investor or (cue pantomime boos) private equity investment.

At what point does their bright, shining example of local success become soiled. When do they cease to be a local business with multiple outlets, say, and become a chain?

When they have more than certain number? When they have spread to multiple towns and cities? When they accept funding from unrelated investors?

Here are a few local(ish) examples - where do you think the line to being a big-bad-chain is crossed:

Cafe Grounded - 7 outlets
Caffe Gusto - 8 outlets (including a concession for staff/visitors to The Engine Shed)
Pieminister - 11 outlets (2 'coming soon') plus wholesale distribution to pubs/cafes and supermarket retail.
Boston Tea Party - 17 outlets (2 'coming soon')
Coffee #1 (started in Cardiff, I believe) - 58 outlets
Loungers - 65 outlets, 3 'coming soon', and 13 Cosy Clubs

(For comparison, Starbucks has c. 800 stores, Costa c. 1,800)

P.S. This was going to be a Facebook status update but rapidly grew too large... obviously not good...

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