Monday, 20 May 2013

Equal Marriage - when is a Lib Dem not a Lib Dem?

I'm quite sure that in twenty years time, we'll look back on this as a really fractious period. Being in Government isn't easy, and being in a coalition is worse. Good, solid, LibDem members are faced on an almost weekly basis with things that question our morals and what it means to be a member of our party. 

For the most part, what happens is that people mull things over, agree, yet again, that we have to compromise and move on, and we continue to deliver leaflets, or phone supporters, or organise suppers to get our MP's and Councillors elected again next time. Those are things which I will continue to do for my MP, David Heath, who whilst making difficult decisions has come down on the right side of a lot of key issues for me. Do I adore the badger cull? No, of course not. Do I accept David's view on it? Yes, I do. Has David supported lifting the tax threshold? Yes. Has he continued to fight the side of my town despite being a Minister in Government? Yes he has. Similarly, when it comes to the question of whether I should be allowed to marry the person I love, David Heath has fought my corner and I will repay him with my hard work. 

That isn't the same for eleven Liberal Democrat MPs. 

Eleven people who are members of the same party as me, who carry the same card, who backed the same manifesto, voted against my interests. Now, it's too early to see what individual reasons are. I'm absolutely sure that some will have made political decisions to back the amendment on Registrars because they knew it would be defeated and the Equal Marriage Bill would still move forward. I don't support that stance, but I can at least comprehend why they might do it. What I can't comprehend is those MP's of ours who have taken a moral stance, in what Tim Farron has tonight called 'equal and tolerant'. 

Tolerance is a funny thing. 

I tolerate the fact that the Government has silenced religious leaders in the Church of England who would actively like to marry same sex couples. I don't like it, but I tolerate it. I tolerate the fact, that there are MP's who don't believe certain people should be married in Churches. I vehemently disagree, but I tolerate it. 

What I don't tolerate, is the idea that people paid to perform marriages by the public purse should be able to pick and choose who they want to marry. This amendment was put forward, not because any great number of registrars actually had an issue, but because it was a way for the right wing to argue against Equal Marriage without being called up on their homophobia. What I don't tolerate, is our Party President's view that gay people shouldn't be allowed to have the audacity to demand that a public servant do the job they're paid to do. 

The passage of the Equal Marriage Bill will amount to little more than a change of terms for registrars up and down the country. Just as contracts are changed when a Sainsbury's employee moves from stacking shelves to working a checkout, registrars will have more people to marry. That's it. They didn't become registrars to marry people that meet a certain moral code, because those people are called Vicars. In that same sense, they will, I don't doubt, continue to provide a happy and efficient public service even after the Bill has passed and the brimstone has stopped falling from the sky. 

The sad fact is that I can't and won't support Liberal Democrat MP's who don't believe that public services should be open to all - no ifs, not buts. I won't work or support any MP who believes that a public servant should be able to 'opt out' of doing their duty to me as a member of the public. 

I have every faith that this Bill will pass, and that we'll move forward. My concern is that those who fought against progress will be remembered as being on the wrong side of history, and those Liberal Democrat MPs who think that 'separate but equal' still stands, will remain for some time a stain on our proud party. 

For many Lib Dems, who believe in the ideals that our party stands for, this will be a kick in the teeth. But, for gay people, for their friends and their families - their supporters - this is a betrayal. 

Walking home in Frome the other evening, somebody around the same age as me rode past me on a BMX. He said to his friend 'That's that fucking faggot from school, I used to beat him up.' For me, this is a personal betrayal, because I don't know how we can purport to be the party that will help stop that kind of thing happening when some of our own MP's support one rule for one person, and something separate for the 'normal' people. 

Thursday, 16 May 2013

In response to Jonathan Calder : Eurovision Myths busted!

Now, I'm not a mud-slinging blogger. I'm not one to start fights about silly things. But Eurovision, my friend, is a very serious matter indeed. 

In the post on Liberal England a few days ago, Jonathan put forward a few ideas, which I thought it would be fun to try and debunk. So, along with a couple of others, here's a Eurovision 101 in time for Saturday night!

1. Appearing in semi-finals means it's more likely you'll do well. FALSE
This is an interesting one, and an idea that came from a study by an academic from Sheffield Hallam Uni. The point put forward is that since 2008, only one country from the 'Big 5' has won - Germany in 2010. The point that I'd make first is that the Big 5 were actually the Big 4 until a couple of years ago when Italy came back to the contest after a long hiatus. And, in terms of basic mathematics, if all countries bar 6 (the Big 5 + last year's winner) have to go through the semi-finals then it's more likely that one of the semi qualifiers will win. Not so much because they've performed twice, but because, due to the sheer numbers, it's more statistically possible. 

Norwegian winner Alexander Rybak in 2009
Interestingly, however, this analysis also works on the lines of traditional Eurovision. By this, I mean that most people won't have heard any of the songs until they're performed on the show. Over the past four or five years it's been interesting to see the sheer level of footwork put in by contestants long before the show, to raise a profile and get the song heard. Alexander Rybak is a very good example. He was in European charts for around a month before the contest, and strangely, when people heard a song that they kind of recognised, they voted for it and it won. Tactically, it's a good idea to select your song early, so that it can perform on as many other Eurovision selection shows as possible. The last time we did this was with Jade Ewen's 'My Time' in 2009. Weeks before the contest, Jade performed the song in the Netherlands, Poland, Ukraine, Malta, Bosnia, Herzegovina and a load of others. We finished 5th. 

2. Political voting plays a large part in the final outcome. FALSE
I'm really not sold on this one. There was a big old thing in 2003 because we came last and it was about two months after we'd gone to war in Iraq. The accepted wisdom was either, 1. Europe is unhappy about the war in Iraq, and so they've punished us or 2. We're the UK and everybody hates us and they always have.

Miss Jemini looks like she can hear herself...
On point one, my verdict is a maybe. The Iraq war may have negatively impacted our performance at Eurovision in 2003. However, I'd say that what impacted more on our performance was that our act were called Jemini, they couldn't sing and their song 'Cry Baby' was pitiful. Their general lack of talent was made worse by supposed 'technical difficulties', though I'd hazard a guess at the real technical difficulty being their inability to sing. So, to accept the political argument in 2003, you have to also accept that it had nothing to do with our terrible entry and more to do with a completely unrelated war which, lets remember, was also supported by other Eurovision countries with good songs who weren't adversely affected. 

3. Everybody votes for their neighbour. FALSE

Terry Wogan, Mr Marmite to Eurovision fans.
Not endlessly true. This is an idea that was made popular by Terry Wogan, and one which is pretty out of date. It all comes down to which countries are more predisposed to vote for one another - and it isn't really about proximity. Whilst there are famous examples (Greece and Cyprus, Scandinavian bloc voting, UK & Ireland) neighbourly voting doesn't happen a lot, it's better seen on cultural lines. For instance, the UK and Malta very regularly exchange points, in fact in 2007 they gave us 12 points for Scooch. It's my theory that people vote for a complex mix of reasons, mainly songs, but also countries they might know about. Hense, we tend to give shedloads of points to Greece (almost regardless of their song) whilst we don't very often give points to Estonia or Montenegro. Because their songs are always terrible? No. Probably because in a strange way we like to know where our vote is going. 

4. Eastern Europe dominates the contest. FALSE?
There's a question mark on this one, because there is some truth. Because of the influx of Eastern European countries over the past decade, there is indeed some water in the theory that they dominate, but it's less suspicious than you might think. 

Turkey's Hadise with 'Dum Tek Tek'
Whilst there are more eastern Europeans taking part, they actually don't win any more often than you'd expect. In fact, since 2000, obviously eastern countries have only won a handful of times - Serbia, Russia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine. Latvia and Estonia won once each, and we've had three winners from Scandinavia. But, we've also had victories from Denmark, Greece and Germany - hardly eastern strongholds. 

The eastern dominance can be seen however if you look at the makeup of the top twenty, which will tend to favour the east, leaving central European countries like San Marino, Monaco, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands languishing. But, once again, we need to look at it sensibly. Like the 2003 argument, it could be because the east gangs up on everybody else or it could be because they spend a long time and lots of money putting their entries together because they know that a win at Eurovision could be the making of their country. Simples. 

5. The UK will never win Eurovision again. 

Absolute tosh. A lot of people use a lot of lazy logic when it comes to our performance at Eurovision, when actually it just needs some common sense. 
The bonny Bonnie Tyler

The BBC currently selects the British act internally. By internal selection, what they actually mean is that they find an artist about to release an album and see if they'll represent the UK with a track from said album. Strangely, Bonnie Tyler's promotion for her UK entry at Eurovision has coincided with her promotion for her new album. 

What all of this means is that the song performed on Saturday night wasn't written with Eurovision in mind, in fact, it was written as filler for an ageing star's new album. That's fine - but when you're pitching it against countries like Sweden, it's never going to work. Sweden's pre-selection - Melodifestivalen - is one of the most watched shows in the Swedish TV calendar and sees hundreds of specially penned entries whittled down to a six-week X Factor style series. I might be wrong, but I think they might be better placed to pick a winner. 

This isn't to say that it can't be turned around. Germany is a good example. Between 2005 and 2010, they didn't get above 14th place. In 2011, they won and this year they'll probably come top five again. They're a big 5 country, and they're a central European one. They won't do well because their neighbours support them or everybody loves their politics, but because they have a good song, they've worked hard, and they've shown everybody else that they're taking it seriously. 

In this sense, I'm absolutely sure that if we changed approach, we could win within three or four years. It won't happen this year, partly because coming from basically last to winning in a year is a big ask. People have to consider you a contender country for a year or two. 

We can win, but it won't happen on Saturday night. 

Update - 19/5/13
Ha! It turns out I shouldn't be trusted when it comes to giving betting advice! Germany came 21st, even behind the UK. It's odd really, I did expect her to do better. 
Whilst Claire, a friend of mine has disputed this post on her most recent blog post - I still hold to a lot of it. People aren't voting because a country is next door, they're voting for it because they know things about it, they share values and cultures. I really think it has very little to do with distance. What I would point out is that the top three - Denmark, Azerbaijan and Ukraine gathered votes from right across the board. The simple fact is that whilst there are voting irregularities which we've all come to expect, you can't gerrymander the contest. 

The wonderful 'Only Teardrops' won for Denmark because it got points from the vast majority of participants - not because they have the most neighbours, or they're the most popular. 

Here's to Copenhagen 2014!

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Children need heroes, stupid.

What do you remember most about your childhood?

Often, the answer is being stuck in classrooms, being taught things that wouldn't come in helpful - being bored. I suppose in some senses I'm lucky, because my memories of my early childhood and my education weren't like that. I was always inspired in some way or another - and I think that's what makes the difference. I'm a great believer in the idea that good, solid inspiration always trumps adversity. It's that belief which leads me to be slightly concerned right now, and I'll explain why.

For thousands of people who were just the right age in July 1969, Neil Armstrong's death last year made an incredible impact. For those people, perhaps ten years old at the time, Armstrong changed the world. His actions meant that a twelve year old in a mining town in Wales, or a nine year old (more later) raised on a corn farm in Ontario, Canada could be the next generation in space flight. Now of course, most of those people who saw the pictures in the newspapers, or saw the event on television didn't become astronauts. This isn't the Jetsons. But what did happen, is that those people saw what was happening in the world around them, and for even the shortest moment believed that anything was possible.

For me, the same thing happened a few times while I was at school - not in the same way of course. When I was twelve, I read a book about the life of Rosa Parks. Ms Parks has become famous for playing an instrumental role in the struggle for Civil Rights in the 1960's. To me, she's probably even more of an inspiration because for a great deal of her life she shunned the media spotlight completely, preferring to live in some kind of privacy. Not that she shunned the interest in her life, just that she was a quiet and gentle woman who didn't want to be a celebrity. For me, Ms Parks was an incredible mix of great strength and great humility. Two things that anybody would be right to try and emulate.

A second thing that shaped my formative years, was a talk at my College given by Caroline McGann, a woman who made Music Videos for endless numbers of incredibly cool people. Caroline actually lives near my home town, and is somebody that I had the great pleasure of interviewing for local radio some time later. Caroline has led a varied and interesting career, from the very inception of modern music videos (things like Video Killed the Radio Star) right up until she decided to step back from the music industry. Now, clearly, I haven't become a producer of music videos, but I do remember being absolutely fascinated by her talk and going home that very evening and wanting to write her a letter - to find out more.

That's the key - it's a spark. It's the split second that makes a child think, 'this is something that interests me, this is something that I can do'. I've never had a problem being inspired by things personally, if anything I'm too easily inspired by things. The other day I caught myself wondering whether I should sign up to study the art of Bonsai and try and become an expert or start writing a novel that I've been planning for a long time. Inspiration isn't the problem for me. But, for thousands of young people right across the world, igniting that spark - like Neil Armstrong did for the boy in Ontario - is half the battle.

One of my concerns right now, is that we don't seem to have nearly enough heroes for the number of children being born. In the UK at least, the very foundations of what we believe to be right and true are being shaken again and again. Whether it's a shamed children's TV presenter, that generations looked up to or the fact that people can't even trust what meat they're eating, a lot of accepted truths and norms are being challenged right now. It concerns me, because if I, as a twenty-one year old find myself at a loss for what to believe in, what do people younger than myself think? What do they believe in? It was frustrating yesterday to watch Louis Smith, the Olympic gymnast on Saturday Kitchen. This is a person who young people are engaged with and look up to, and what was he doing? Going on TV, to try and plug a new yoghurt he's contracted to promote. Is that inspiration?

I don't mean to do Louis down - we all have to plough our own furrow - but he's been given a real opportunity, and if he deals with it correctly he'll do far more than sell yoghurt.

The nine year old boy from Sarnia, Ontario turned out to be Col Chris Hadfield. After watching the Apollo missions on TV from his home in Canada, Chris was inspired to follow in the footsteps of Neil Armstrong and is just about to leave the International Space Station to touch back down on Earth. What Col Hadfield has done whilst orbiting the Earth is to engage with as many people as possible through social media - to touch as many lives as possible. He has around 245,000 people following his journey on FaceBook and 773,000 through Twitter. There will be a generation of young people (myself included) inspired by Chris' commitment, by his intelligence and by his humanity. What's more, on May 8th, he sang his song 'Is Somebody Singing?' with school children right across the globe. In that moment, young people were a part of something that they won't forget. Everything was possible.

That's what I care about. Of course, it's important and right to ensure that all young people are provided for properly and taken care of. Of course, it's right that teachers should be helped to be all that they can be. But what shouldn't be forgotten is the fact that ultimately, children need heroes. Children need people who will make them believe that whatever is happening, however tricky, or boring, or painful, is only temporary. Children need to know that they are important and valued and that anything they want to do is possible. Children need and deserve people like Col. Chris Hadfield.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Two things about UKIP

A lot has been said over the last little while about UKIP, and whether or not they've rebalanced the British political establishment, or whether they're just having their five minutes in the sun. So, is this a new dawn, or Faragemania?

I don't know, but there are two things I am confident of.

1. UKIP succeed in a vacuum. 
One of the things that has been most readily apparent to me, is that, putting social demographics to one side, we do less well against UKIP when we're complacent. In our area, we have a pretty big group of people that we consider to be LibDems in one sense or another, and for the past decade or so, they've been a reliable base. That equation doesn't work any more. Those people were a reliable base for us when the big three parties were the only real options. Rightly or wrongly, UKIP are now seen as a viable choice at the ballot box and so we can't expect historic LibDems to stump for us if they aren't given a convincing reason.

In my County division, the UKIP showing was pretty small (the same with my partner's...), in other areas considered 'safe', UKIP polled higher. A part of me thinks that it's because people have been taken for granted in one way or another.

2. Don't forget the fruitcake narrative. 
David Cameron has been left red-faced, having to back-track after calling UKIP candidates 'fruitcakes' recently. Now, clearly, it was a pretty silly thing to do in the first place, but the nub of the point is still valid. Due to their massive increase in activity and membership (and due in no small part to this phenomenon happening at the same time as the implosion of the BNP...) UKIP have not properly vetted a lot of their candidates, and therefore, their councillors. For me, a key point is that in some cases, UKIP councillors probably aren't fit people for the position, and that in some cases, they'll be ex-BNP supporters. No, it's not right to call them fruitcakes, but it is right to sound them out with vigour. People voted for UKIP without giving much thought to who their candidates were and what they stood for - I'm a great believer in the British public having good morals and good common sense, and so where UKIP are hiding secrets, they need to be outed.

Anyway, those are just my thoughts. Here's a gratuitous picture of everybody's favourite right-winger. In this picture he looks like a cross between Toad of Toad Hall and a Dickens character called something like 'Mister Herbert Grince'.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Bittersweet Somerset

During the 2010 General Election, my friend Beth made a very salient point, which has stayed with me ever since. Election campaigns are the best of times and the worst of times. They have a tendency to bring people together, and unite them for a perfect moment in a common purpose, but they also bring about that stomach churning feeling - that things are changing beyond your control. As a County Council candidate on Thursday, I've felt all of those things.

I was selected late last year to be the Liberal Democrats candidate in Frome North - a seat which we've held various parts of at one time or another, but which is currently represented at District level by three Conservatives and one Liberal Democrat (the fantastic Adam Boyden For me, my selection was a really personal thing. The LibDems lost Frome North in 2009, on a county-wide swing against us, and whilst the new Frome North consisted of a large rural area between Frome and Bath, I was optimistic of our chances. It's my view that we shouldn't have lost the old Frome North and that winning the new one was especially important as it comprised a large part of David Heath's old County Council patch. 

Josh and Gloria in Nunney
My partner Josh Burr was also selected for a target division, the much altered Mendip Central & East area, part of which was represented fantastically well for nearly thirty years by Cllr Gloria Cawood and part of which was held by Conservatives. Both Josh and I were positive about our chances and - following our attendance at ALDC's Kickstart event last year - embarked on a pretty hefty campaign. I'll admit that there were times, when Josh was writing individual letters to hundreds of survey responses or when we were running yet another Connect list at two o'clock in the morning - that it all seemed like too tall an order. Being a County Council candidate yourself can put a strain on a relationship, but both running is nothing short of hell, if it's not organised properly. 

Josh's campaign in Mendip Central & East will remain for some time, one of the best council campaigns I've ever seen. Whether canvassing for the Police Commissioner during a blizzard in Coleford, or delivering a leaflet whilst we should have been enjoying the downtime between Christmas and New Year - Josh showed a commitment and meticulous attention to detail that I only aspire to. Some of Gloria's ever so slightly frantic sense of purpose clearly rubbed off on Josh, and so it wasn't long before we were pulling up on verges to angrily interrogate some new fly-tipping or going to see a deliverer just to say thank you. Josh ran a campaign based on positive hard work and it's my belief that people will think of him all the more fondly because of it.

My campaign was rattled slightly, by the calling of a District Council by-election at the beginning of April. The sitting Conservative District Councillor in Rode & Norton St Philip had decided to resign, and so we now had two elections in the area on May 2nd. My good friend Alex Brown (@LiberalBrown), a resident of Rode and all round good egg was selected and worked incredibly hard to speak to his neighbours about his plans for the area. Alex is one of the kindest and most thoughtful candidates I've ever worked with, and I hope that when he comes to stand again none of that will be lost. He reacted with great dignity when the Conservatives delivered leaflets completely distorting the truth, and is a credit to our party. Whilst we shaved one hundred votes from their majority, we didn't manage it this time, and I hope Alex will stand when the seat is contested again in 2015.

Come Thursday evening, our committee room was at a complete loss as to what was happening. Our brilliant friend Claire Hudson, who helped us such a huge deal, called us in to say that she couldn't tell from the data what was happening. Votes were splitting all over the place, Labour were gaining, Blue Lib Dems were staying at home and what was happening to Weak Lib Dems was anybody's business. 

In the end, the ballots were counted, mine were recounted, and the results announced. Despite running the most caring, well thought out campaign, Josh had been outdone by around two hundred votes. He came from being a virtual unknown, to equalling a sitting Councillor in his own village and beating him in the most unlikely areas - yet, still, it wasn't quite enough. Still, it doesn't feel like justice was quite done. 

After my count was completed, I was ahead of the Conservatives by forty-one, and after a recount, I'd gained four more. On Thursday evening, at around 3am, I was elected County Councillor for the Frome North division of Somerset County Council - becoming the youngest Councillor by quite a margin and unseating the sitting Conservative.

I will never cease to be proud and humbled by my election, by the people that I know and live next to, and care about. But, I'm not jumping for joy. I'm not elated. I don't think I ever fully understood what my friend Beth had said, until now. 

I will remember this campaign for a very long time, because it was the best of times. We were supported by the wonderful Nick Coombes and his friends from Bath. We had the strangest day exposing Tim Gordon to the wilds of the Somerset countryside, trying to find yet another Hillside House. We were bowled over by the kindness of our friends Claire Hudson and Damon Hooton, who went to the ends of the earth to help us.

I'll also remember it as the worst of times. Josh and I delivered Coleford repeatedly, often on our own, often in the driving rain. Gloria once again came to physical harm whilst delivering leaflets to areas so remote that it could be considered a public health risk. Josh and I were driven not-so-quietly mad by the pace of the campaign - something I only realised when Josh shouted 'for goodness sake, if you don't stop singing like Heather Small and let me listen to BBC Somerset, I'm stopping the car and you can get out'. Josh did absolutely everything he could to offer the people of his area a strong and valid alternative, and we now have to face the sad truth that this time it wasn't enough. That's hard, but I know we'll be fine. 

This campaign was exactly what Beth was talking about, but it also reminded me why I'm a Liberal Democrat. Because it's full of people that have become my family and because it's my home. 

From left to right - Nick Coombes, myself, Alex Brown and Josh Burr  delivering our last leaflet in Rode.
(the wonderful Jack was behind the camera!)