...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Day 2451: It’s about Freedom; It’s about Fairness


Daddy Alex managed to squeeze some time into his hectic schedule today to try to speak in the poverty debate this afternoon. Unfortunately he got bounced in favour of some LESS FAMOUS people like Mr Charles!

EVEN SO, this was a terrific debate, and made us all very pleased to be a part of the one true Liberal Party. Addressing the way that poverty wrecks freedom is an important part of our Liberal tradition, ever since Mr Squiffy and Mr Lloyd George brought in their People’s Budget at the start of the last Century.

The BIG debate was whether the minimum wage ought to apply the same to all people or whether there should be a lower rate to apply to young people.

Daddy had wanted to make an intervention as an OLD FOGEY: “kids today, eh?” he wanted to say. Other people my daddy’s age make EXCUSES for being UNFAIR like: they’ll only spend it on drugs or pints of binge or whatever it is that iPods are! But it is STILL being unfair. That is why daddy wanted to speak against this.

Well, in his absence, we had to make do with some terrific speeches from Ms Jo Swinson (MP and former McDrone) and a lady who fell into the “young people” category (at eighteen, she gained a pay rise for nothing, but still not as well paid as the person two years older who had just started). I must admit that they were VERY VERY good, but there were still, ONE OR TWO (LITERALLY, it was about two!) people who voted for option “A”; if only Daddy had been able to speak, I am sure he would have convinced them too!

The speech from Mr Charles was a highlight of the conference – not least because this year he was constrained to just four minutes so conference did not have time to get bored. Thus it was a powerhouse rallying cry, not just to accept our new policies – this morning’s tax and this afternoon’s on poverty – but to take them and take the fight TO the Conservatories and the Labour. WE are the party offering hope and opportunity to millions of people; they are the old fashioned stick-in-the-muds obsessing about bankrupt tax credits or twenty-pound marital aids. (What? WHAT? Mr David “I am the” Laws says they will cost four billion pounds and most people who get them won’t need them, don’t have children and have already split up anyway!) We need to tell people that WE are leading the charge; we need to go out and “be Liberal Democrats about it”.

Between them, Ms Lovely Burt and Ms Susan Kramer-vs-Kramer made the case for one amendment: to give ALL workers the right to ask for flexible working. Ms Susan, I think, made the key points – first it is only the right to ASK: if things are tight the business can say “sorry, no”; second, this right already exists for people with new babies and some people who have to care for relatives – this leads to a SUBTLE discrimination as businesses are just less likely to hire people in these categories because they have a right that might be a burden while other potential employees don’t. Making the right universal would eliminate that discrimination. These arguments clinched it and the amendment was accepted.

At the end of the debate, the conference was unanimous in voting for the new policy.

Later we got to see Mr Nick Clogg take charge… of a round table debate about Citizenship and Identity. (What did you THINK I was going to say?!)

It was an interesting event, probably worthy of a whole day in itself, with Mr Clogg’s round table just opening the day to get our brains moving. Each of his guests had six minutes of chat, with bonus minutes awarded for praising the new Immigration policy and for being controversial! For example, Liberal Democrat MEP Saj Karim talked about how he grew up with lots of different layers to his identity – British, Lancastrian, Asian, Liberal, Muslim – but now he felt like he was being SQUEEZED into one one-size-fits-all label “British Muslim”, and that this was sad, not just for him but for the next generation who won’t find it as easy to experience the diversity of identities that HE was able to discover.

Ms Rachel Briggs from the Demos group talked interestingly about her time researching among young Muslim women. She had been fearful of treading on cultural toes to begin with, but had been surprised to discover a group of strong-minded women who chose to wear the veil because they COULD choose to. Their aim of getting on to their mosque committee and bringing evolutionary change to their own community was one they recognised could only be achieved by knowing their own faith BETTER than their parents.

Mr Andrew Stunner, who is Shadow Secretary for Communities and That Sort of Thing, made four points: solutions need to be local (just because something works in Tower Hamlets does not mean that the government should roll it out to Stockport, Glasgow, Berkshire, and so on); some immigrants are “more British than we are” (in the way that they think of Britishness as meaning fair play, tolerance and opportunity; home-grown people, if they HAVE an opinion, tend to WAFFLE about Fish & Chips or Churchill); sometimes it is OKAY to live “parallel lives” (no one worries about Jehovah’s Witnesses not taking part in civic life); and some concern about “immigration” is no more than a front for old fashioned RACISM.

This got a big round of applause – and was immediately condemned as COMPLACENT, WOOLLY LIBERAL THINKING by Newsnight Review regular Mr Sarfraz Manzoor (you can see him again this Friday!) Mr Sarfraz had already spoken about how he’d gone back to his old Infant School intending to make a speech about “you can be anything you want to be” and had found himself looking out at six-hundred faces, all of them brown. His fear was that people are not so much leading “parallel lives” as “entirely separate ones”. How can we learn to have shared values if we never meet each other?

This tied in strongly with my own thoughts about FAITH SCHOOLS, and that they might be used by communities to close in on themselves. One of the panellists talked about meeting with religious community and hearing them suggesting that “twinning” schools of one faith with another might help since, dogma aside, they have SO MUCH in common. Well, pardon me for not being COMPLETELY enamoured of that idea – ooh, the priests and the vicars and the imams can work out together how to make sure no one is allowed to harbour doubts about the “existence” of the “g” person. I think we could do with a SLIGHTLY broader exchange of ideas than that.

Mr Sarfraz’s point was that most people form their ideas about “multiculturalism” or other cultural identities from generalities unless they actually have one-to-one experience of people FROM that culture. And it’s hard to break those fixed impressions in any way other than having people meet people.

He also said that his elderly mother’s one regret was that she had not been pushed harder to learn English. Her late husband had pooh-poohed the idea and so she had never done so, and now felt she had missed out on much that Britain could have offered her. Although we are wary of the word “compulsion” and of the justification “it’s for your own good”, it might have helped to overcome her husband’s reservations to have been a little tougher in pushing language lessons.

At the moment, of course, the government is actually making it HARDER to learn English by cutting funding for lessons, just at the time when they are expecting more from people moving here.

It was an INTERESTING discussion, well worth doing, even though it barely scraped the surface of a difficult subject. I suspect that Mr Sarfraz was a bit DISAPPOINTED with us, what with most of us being WOOLLY and LIBERAL, though maybe not SO complacent after this gave us some more things to think about.

One last thought: according to Mr Stunner, if we DID insist on everyone “going home”, the four million immigrants to Britain who we foolishly ejected would be replaced by the five-and-a-half million Britons who currently live abroad. And then the catering industry would collapse because it had no workers and the pension system would collapse because it couldn’t afford all those extra retired people back from Spain.

Later still, my daddies went out for Blogger Drinks – Mr Duncan expresses concern that I am “home alone”.

One thing Mr Duncan gets wrong, though, is to say I am only THREE in Human years. How RUDE! Elephants are quite grown up by the age of FOURTEEN, so seven years old [R: six] is actually at least EIGHT [R: nearly SEVEN] in human terms.

Anyway, it was okay, Mr Duncan, I had Lego Obi Wan and Lego Qui Gon as babysitters!

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