Tuesday, 24 October 2017

On O'Mara, Social Media, and being invited on to Newsnight.

So, following the Guido* revelations earlier about Jared O'Mara's online comments concerning Michelle McManus winning Pop Idol in which he called her "fat" before launching into a rant about "fatties", I wrote a Twitter thread, that spawned this post, and also prompted an invite (unfilled) to go on Newsnight. No really.

Now, before we go any further, let me be unequivocal: the remarks were lamentable and are to be condemned. In addition, they seem to fit into a pattern of misogynistic and homophobic comments that give a great deal of cause for concern despite the time lapse. Given the quantity and nature of these, I think it is right for him to have resigned from the Women and Equalities committee today. He now has a job of work to do to convince people he no longer holds the views reported. That being said, though, I think there is an issue to explore here with regard to the use of social media, the permanent record it generates, and what should count as "fair game" for attacking those who become public figures.

This blog is an attempt to unpack some of my views expressed on Twitter earlier, and to address the responses to them. You can see these on this storify.

My first point was that the McManus remarks were 14 years ago, when O'Mara was a 22 year old. At that point he may not even have envisaged a career in politics, and his views may well have matured and developed since then**. He wasn't an MP or any other type of public figure at the time. So is it fair to trawl someone's social media history for past indiscretions, or for inflammatory or controversial comments? And how far back do we go?

In my Twitter thread it was at this point that I moved from considering O'Mara to an hypothetical MP, mainly on account of already being aware of questionable views disseminated by the member for Sheffield Hallam even before all of today's revelations. But there are other real life cases we could look at. Take Mhairi Black, for example, elected at the age of 20 in 2015, she had several years of tweeting behind her, and on record. This included several featuring "parliamentary language" and a number which were subsequently deleted.

Hers, though, weren't on issues of substance - although maths teachers and Celtic fans might disagree - so should we treat the youthful indiscretions of a teenager differently than opinions of someone in their early twenties?

Some of my Twitter respondents suggested that 18 should be considered a cut off point - and pointed out that "I was younger then" isn't a good excuse. Personally, I'd take a more nuanced point of view - I've met teenagers more mature than folks in their mid twenties, and people whose views (particularly on issues of equality) have changed and developed well into adulthood. That's not to say that I don't think age should be a factor when making a judgement on whether something is in the public interest, in addition to being in the public realm, but I do think that someone's more recently expressed views should be given greater weight. I also think remarks made by those once they are seeking public office deserve a more intensive examination that those from before that point.

But my main concern in all of this is that such intensive media scrutiny could further damage diversity in parliament and amongst those seeking election. We already, rightly, lament the rise of identikit politicians moving from PPE degree to Special Adviser to Safe Seat***. If we declare open season on everyone's Social Media, then we'll discourage those who haven't spent their formative years being conscious that anything they type could come back to haunt them. (Or, alternatively, have spent all their time being so on message it hurts.)

Like so many issues, this partly comes down to education. O'Mara's generation embraced the internet and Social Media with little acknowledgement of its permanent nature. The current and future generations need to be taught that online security extends to being aware that once something is online, its online for good. Don't go posting something you couldn't comfortably say to someone's face might be a sensible rule of thumb to start with.


So... that's the extended version of the Twitter thread... but between conceiving this post, and actually writing it, I got an email:







Unfortunately, I sat on it for 40 minutes before replying, which is clearly too long in telly terms... What would I have said? Probably along the lines of the above! And now it's online, its here for all to see.


* Note to self: you maybe should stop responding to Guido articles.
** Like I say, this remains to be evicenced
*** Apologies if this describes you - I don't want to suggest that you have nothing to offer, but if this becomes an even more well tread path to parliament, we will lose out on talent from other walks of life.

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Thursday, 12 October 2017

For Your Consideration.

Picture the scene:

It’s 2020 and Oscar season is upon us. Film studios, directors and producers are busy touting their wares to the members of the Academy, offering up their prize films to the electorate and soliciting interest – and votes – with adverts, direct mail and parties.

Campaigning is in full swing, and you’re flattered to be invited to an exclusive screening of the highly rated “The Hat”, hosted by the studio chief and followed by a private party with some of Hollywood’s finest actors and directors.

As costume designer, your part in the making of “The Hat” was small, but crucial. As a member of the Academy, though, your vote is worth as much as Spielberg’s or Streeps’. Naturally, you were going to vote for the film in all of the relevant categories – but the invitation was still flattering, and you’re going to make the most of it.

As you get ready, you reflect on how much you had enjoyed working on the film, and what a contrast you feel in your career now to when you were starting out. Having climbed the ladder as far as you have has given you a unique viewpoint as you observe the industry, and your place in it. You shudder at the memory of some of the people you have encountered along the way – the power-games and manipulation you had to deal with, not to mention the “favours” expected and unwanted advances rebuffed.

The evening progresses and, after seeing the film, you move on to the function. And then it happens. As you enter the gilded function room you see him: Harvey Weinstein. He’s schmoozing academy members, working on behalf of the studio chief, the director, you(?), to get votes for the film. You can’t believe it; after everything that emerged in 2017, it beggars belief that he should be here, pressing the flesh, and continuing to wield influence.

Sound unlikely? I hope so. But it wouldn’t be without precedent, or application as an analogy.

Earlier today, Guido Fawkes published a story about a certain peer of this parish attending an event in Brussels with our Acting Chief Executive, various of our MPs, our MEP and others. Like all good Lib Dem photos, all the women were at the front, promoting diversity and an (almost) gender balanced group – and at the back was Lord Rennard. A further photo showed him campaigning for Vince in Twickenham in June.

Laying aside Guido’s agenda, the inference is clear: Rennard wishes to exert any and all the influence he can. Vince should resist any moves in this direction, and seek to suppress the Baron’s ambition. As I noted when our Lords elected him as their representative on the Federal Executive: “It's time Lord Rennard … realised that if - and for as long as - he is seen to hold influence, he holds back the ambitions of the party.”

Just as Harvey Weinstein’s continued presence as a manipulator of Oscar voters seems unconscionable, so should the reinstatement of Lord Rennard to any positions of influence and power within the party.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

On Labour, their conference, and #Brexit

It's not often that I would share Labour Party graphics, but bear with me on this one...
Tonight, via the machinations of the Labour Party byzantine internal processes*, delegates to their conference opted NOT to discuss the party's #Brexit policy**.
So on the single biggest issue of our time, Labour's much vaunted internal "democracy" has ensured that it won't be discussed. Of course, this will suit the leadership in its continuing quest to face both ways on the issue: supporting Brexit whilst doing just enough to keep pro-Europe supporters on board. In this regard talking about "Austerity", the NHS, Schools and Inequality is the right approach for Corbyn.
And they are all important issues - and should be talked about: but it's hard to see how Labour's approach to Brexit will not have an adverse impact on all these areas. Corbyn's long term Euro-scepticism, and antagonism to pluralist politics, put paid to any prospect of Labour leading a coalition to mitigate the impact of Brexit and push for, say, the Norway solution.
But what of the picture? Well, surviving pro-Europeans such as Mike Gapes MP and Richard Corbett MEP are circulating it as proof of what Labour's policy is, decided at their last conference. Of itself, the wording of the policy may give heart to those who see Labour's approach as playing a long-game - but their actions since the referendum have not suggested that they have such a long term strategy.
Indeed, the policy itself was "clarified" just hours after to state a referendum didn't form part of their approach, and since then Article 50 was invoked with Labour support and a general election. In that time, Labour have disabused those of us who hoped they might argue for the Single Market and Customs Union. At best they have remained agnostic on these, at worst they have abandoned them altogether (other than in a transitional period.) This lack of clarity was enough to see them gain left-of-centre votes in a two-party contest. What remains to be seen is how long this anti-Tory support will weather a pro-Brexit policy.

**in contrast to the Lib Dem conference where hundreds of delegates turned out first thing on Saturday morning to force a suspension of standing orders and a debate on a motion, rather than just a consultative session.

(This post first made on my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/WhatAndrewThinks )

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Saturday, 29 July 2017

Book Review: The Handmaid's Tale

According to Goodreads, 5 stars mean I found this book "Amazing"... in reality my feelings are much more mixed.

I've been a fan of Atwood for years, but have somehow only read a handful of her works and I was prompted into reading The Handmaid's Tale ahead of watching the TV series which I've been recording.

It *is* in so many regards an amazing book - but it is, in many many places, a deeply uncomfortable read. Some of that is in the power of what is unwritten - the brutality of the salvagings is hinted at, but these showcase executions are conducted in a surprisingly civilised fashion, right up until the moment of "particicution".

Atwood's vision of a dystopian near-future, is fascinating in its attention to detail: not just in the construction of the alternate society, but in how such a society could come about, and how quickly it could be adopted as the "norm". In this respect, this is a book about human nature: what drives individuals to dominate, and others to submit. Do you resist the imposition of a different- and brutal - set of rules? And, if so, how?

Despite the presentation of Gilead as a fiction, it is not unlike other societies that the world has known - with elements reminiscent of medieval times, as well as totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Indeed, in the "historical notes" which conclude the book, looking back on the events described by Offred in her narrative from the the safe distance of 2195, reference is made to a study entitled "Iran and Gilead: Two Late-Twentieth-Century Monotheocracies as Seen Through Diaries."

The Handmaid's Tale is often held up as a "feminist" novel and a statement on the treatment of women in society and, in part, it is. But the presence of the "Aunts" and they way they, too, partake in the brutality of Gilead suggest this is about more than the male/female power dynamic.

For me, the power of the book is not how alien the environment it presents is, but how familiar. What we take for granted as "civilisation" is shown to be fragile - something to be worked at and built on, or else human nature will out - and who can tell if you will be a Commander, a Wife, or a Handmaid, or worse?

P.S. The latest edition of the book, released to tie in with the TV show, has a new preface by Atwood herself. If your copy doesn't have this, it is worth looking up - it can be found on Google Books.

P.P.S. This is a copy of my review from Goodreads, which you can find here.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Some words on #IndyRef2

From over on my Facebook Page.

On the morning of the 24th June last year, as I lay in my tent at Glastonbury in shock at the referendum result, I thought to myself: "there goes the union".
No, not the EU - it will survive in some form without us - but the UK.
Today we could have seen what could prove to be another significant step on the road to the break-up of this sceptred isle (or these sceptred isles, to include Northern Ireland in the equation).
Back then, in the midst of my despair, I said I would prefer a Scotland in the EU but out of the UK, than a UK out of the EU. Over time, my thoughts mellowed, although I still (largely) hold by that opinion. However, I fear that the result of Scotland leaving the Union, would be a Scotland out of both Unions; and that would be in the interests of no-one.
So today's news has depressed me deeply. As far as I can tell, the SNP now intend to spend another two years campaigning for independence, and using Brexit to hammer a wedge between Scots and the rest of the UK.
And this is where I have a problem. Self determination is a right and proper principle, and there is no doubt that Brexit is not popular in Scotland. However, most recent polls have indicated that Scots still back the union, or at least don't back independence. Are we to have yet more time spent on an independence campaign when there are more pressing issues at hand?
If Brexit is so bad (which it is) and the Scots so opposed (as 62% were) then won't they come round to this viewpoint anyway - without the need for the SNP to campaign when they could be dealing with Schools, or the Scottish Health Service?
Of course, these questions are moot: the SNP have never stopped campaigning for independence: this day has been inevitable since 19th September 2014.
(And on this, I have to confess I've had cause to reflect since the Brexit vote, given my own view of that, and my urge to continue campaigning. In that case, though, I'm seeking to respond to a live political issue, rather than make live an issue that people had thought was put to bed.)
In the last campaign, Salmond spent two years seeking to take advantage of the unpopularity of the coalition government. This time, May's pursuit of Hard Brexit gives Sturgeon bumper ammunition. Her gamble is that May will help her succeed where Cameron and co failed.
For her part, May says she wants the country to unite - and she could probably have achieved an approximation of this if she had opted for a soft Brexit. But her reckless policy has exasperated divisions, and made the SNP's task easier.
Labour's position on Brexit has also made this all the more easy for the SNP. They could have laid down some red lines, and led a campaign for soft Brexit. They could have worked to get the remaining Europhile Tory MPs onside in an effort to soften Government policy. It may not have been successful, but it would have given an alternative vision of a post-EU future. Instead, they have opted to chase a collapsing UKIP vote - the one form of nationalism that hasn't gained traction in Scotland.
Having utterly capitulated to the "will of the people", Corbyn made the lives of his Scottish colleagues even tougher. When asked about another independence referendum, he may as well as shrugged and said "Whatever".
And the Lib Dems? Well, I find myself in disagreement with Willie Rennie and the Scottish Party leadership on this. Whilst I think he is right to oppose this at Holyrood; I don't think our Westminster MPs should then vote against, if Holyrood has voted in favour. The technical power to call such a vote may reside in London, the moral right surely lies in Edinburgh.
So that's it. Brexit. Trump. Scotland. 2017 continues where 2016 left off. No matter how the SNP dress it up, their brand of "civic" nationalism is, ultimately, just as divisive as those that preceded it. Sadly, this time, I fear it may win - but not before tearing Scotland, and the UK apart.
P.S. I would also make an appeal to English friends who feel the Scottish party is somehow illiberal in its support of the Union. Self-determination cuts both ways: the people of Scotland should be entitled to determine whether to be part of the Union or not, and the Scottish party, within the federal structure, should be entitled to its own view on the matter too.

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Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Cross post from Lib Dem Voice: How the West can be Won

This post, like it seems all of them these days, was first published on Lib Dem Voice, here.

In May, eight “Metro Mayors” will be elected across England. Whilst the precise details vary between authority areas, each mayor will inherit a city deal providing them with money and powers over infrastructure development in an area covering multiple local authorities.
Given the generally urban nature of most of the areas it is anticipated that Labour will win many of these. (Although given recent results in Sunderland and Rotherham such old certainties no longer feel quite so axiomatic.) In the “West of England” area, though, we anticipate the fight will be between us and the Tories.
The area covered by the new mayor will be Bristol, South Gloucestershire and Bath and North East Somerset. The latter two authorities have a mixture of urban and rural areas, contrasting with the sprawling metropolis* that is Bristol. As things stand, the Tories control South Glos and BaNES whilst Labour is in power in Bristol. In parliamentary terms, the Tories hold six seats to Labour’s three in the region.
As we’ve seen with results in Witney, Richmond Park and Sleaford, though, the results in 2015 are looking increasingly anomalous, particularly against the backdrop of Brexit (and Labour’s response to it.) Looking further back then and the picture was different: in 2010, Labour held two seats at Westminster, whilst we held three and the Tories held four. At council level, the Lib Dems were the administration in Bristol in 2010, and have historically been strong in both South Glos and Bath, where we took control in 2011.
The Supplemental Vote system means that there are two key tasks: first, ensure people know that the contest is between us and Tories. For those in Bristol, it may be strange thinking in these terms, where the battle lines have historically been drawn differently. Second, gain sufficient second preference votes to overhaul the Conservative candidate.
There is, of course, no magic bullet in doing this but we have three key weapons: our candidate, our members, and our renewed energy.
Our candidate is Stephen Williams, whose credentials for the position are vastly superior to any of the other candidates. He is a former Councillor, Lib Dem group leader, MP and coalition Minister. He knows the city of Bristol inside out, as well as much of the rest of the area, and his experience of both local government and the workings of Whitehall will be invaluable.
Over the past two years, our membership in Bristol has more than doubled, just as it’s increased across the country. With these new members come fresh ideas, and a rejuvenating enthusiasm. The result of the General Election, Brexit and Trump have motivated new members to take action, and this has helped energise those of us who are longer in the tooth.
Online and offline, there is a real enthusiasm for action within the party. This is one of the main drivers for our success in council by election after council by election all across the country. Week after week, we demonstrate that we can take seats from all comers. The West of England Metro Mayor presents a high profile opportunity to underline that point.
We can give the Tories a bloody nose, challenge May’s pursuit of a hard and harmful Brexit, and remind them that despite the result in 2015 they cannot take the West Country for granted. We are up for the fight, and up for delivering a famous victory.
You can follow and support Stephen’s campaign via his Facebook page and you can follow him on Twitter. Members and supporters can also join an online virtual HQ. Finally, you can donate here.
*some poetic licence may have been employed here.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Cross post from Lib Dem Voice: Brexit means... Keeping Mum

The following was first published on Lib Dem Voice, here.




Brexit means Brexit… The oft repeated mantra has become as synonymous with Theresa May as Major’s “Back to Basics”, Blair’s “Education, Education, Education” and Cameron’s “Compassionate Conservatism”. Like those, the phrase has become something of a joke – not helped by the assonance of the words “Brexit” and “Breakfast”, and the trap this has provided to ministers and commentators alike. So far, so funny, so harmless. Well, not harmless, but there is a world of difference between soundbites and actual policy. Originally “Brexit means Brexit” seemed designed to simultaneously pander to those who want a hard Brexit, whilst leaving the government leeway to work out what to do.
Of course, the official explanation of a lack of policy is that we cannot “reveal our hand” in advance of negotiations. There can be no escaping the whiff of sophistry about this answer – particularly when you consider the conflicting signals from the various departments charged with coming up with some form of coherent plan for those negotiations, preferably before Article 50 itself is triggered. It is patently obvious that no such plan yet exists, and all the while the clock is ticking towards the government’s self-imposed deadline.
If taken at face value, then May’s approach shows a shocking disregard for parliament, and the people. Her original desire to exercise Royal Prerogative to trigger Article 50 was but a symptom of a wish to retain control over every aspect of Brexit. I doubt those who voted to “Take Back Control” meant “take back control and hand it to the whoever is selected to lead the Tory party to do with as they wish”. Nonetheless in a few short months we have gone from having a government elected on a manifesto in which they said “yes to the Single Market” to a situation where the new Prime Minister will not now categorically repeat that affirmation.
This desire for control was evident in the advent of “Red, White and Blue” Brexit. Back me, or be unpatriotic was the message. Brexit is British: if you don’t get behind it, then your loyalty and even national identity is suspect. Get with the programme or get out… I exaggerate, but there is a serious point here: Brexit has given licence to those whose idea of Britishness is ethnic rather than civic to voice their opinions in ever louder and more aggressive ways. The tone from May, and from elements of the press, add fuel to the fire. It’s all very well to call for unity, but you need to act like you want it.
It is impossible to shake the suspicion is that the government, or parts of it, is intent on withdrawing from the single market whatever their public pronouncements, or lack of them, say. Certainly, having already gained the upper hand once, Tory eurosceptics will now press for “Maximum Brexit”. In building their coalition of support the Leave campaigns deliberately obfuscated on whether we would (or could) remain a member after a Leave vote. Now most of the leading campaigners tell us that Brexit means complete extraction not just from the EU but from all its institutions.
So, we have three possible, and overlapping, reasons for the government’s silence on their vision for the future: 1) a lack of a plan for the negotiations, 2) a certain control freakery, driven by May and 3) an unwillingness to admit that leaving the single market is an aim of at least some of our leaders, if not the settled goal of the government as a whole.
But is there a fourth reason?
Traditionally uncertainty has been the enemy of the markets – and this was evident as the currency markets tumbled following May’s refusal to admit that her aspirations to control migrant numbers would inevitably mean a hard Brexit settlement. But it was more than this, it was a window on what will happen if, or when, it becomes clear that we are leaving the single market. May can ill afford a further sustained devaluation of the currency, the attendant monetary and fiscal measures that would accompany this, or the potential backlash that the resultant cost of living might bring against her and the road she has embarked on.
Perhaps uncertainty is better than certainty, if the latter is suitably grave. Perhaps that’s why, for now, mum’s the word when it comes to Brexit plans.