...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, July 25, 2008

Day 2759: Liberal Youths: Millennium Elephant (8*) talks to Ali Wood (15) and George Duffett (12). And of course Ms Jo Swinson (28)


First: Big thank yous to Ms Helen Duffet for organising this Interview.

You see, you don't need to be an Elephant of INTERNATIONAL REPUTATION to organise one; any ordinary MULTI-TALENTED SUPERSTAR of the Liberal Democrat firmament can do it!

Ms Helen and I were joined by Mr Alasdair, Ms Linda, Mr George, a large box of doughnuts and my Daddy Richard to interview the Liberal Democrats' (and indeed the House of Commons'!) youngest MP, Ms Jo Winsome. Ms Jo represents Dunbartonshire East and is Shadow Minister for Abroad. She is also a key figure in the gender balance taskforce.

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Mr George seemed to be trying to attract my attention by shaking his head and pointing at Alasdair, so I asked him to go first.

Does age matter?

It does and it doesn't. The way it was used to treat Sir Mr the Merciless and indeed the way it is sometimes used against Senator Oven-Chip is WRONG.

And Ms Jo has been on the receiving end of remarks in the House of Commons that people would not get away with if they had been about her race or gender. Well, maybe her gender…

"Surely you don't remember the poll tax," one Conservatory Heckler had called out when she had referred to debate. HE got taken to task by fellow members. And besides, she may only have been ten but it was a big thing and had a big impact on all the people she knew so yes actually she DID remember the poll tax.

Similarly, when making a speech she talked about the fifty THOUSAND young people in Scotland who get a lower minimum wage just because of their age, a Scottish Office Minister (a MINISTER!) interjected with: "Are you one of them?"

On the other fluffy foot, diversity is a GOOD thing, and it is RIGHT that the House of Commons should reflect the opinions of people of all ages: young people like Ms Jo, still facing repayments of their student loans (she's JUST paid hers off, with great relief!); people starting families trying to get on the housing ladder; people with children in schools; people whose children are going to university; people approaching retirement.

(So basically, from MODERN Liberal Democrats to PALAEOLITHIC Conservatories to Labour DINOSAURS.)

It gives a range of perspectives, fresh and traditional, and allows people who are concerned by an issue and for those who are dispassionate to have a say in the debate.

Mr Alasdair's question then followed on the same theme: how do we engage young people in politics, particularly people aged fifteen to eighteen who, unlike older younger-people, don't have student organisations.

Ms Jo thought that there were two questions involved here: getting young people more involved in politics GENERALLY and then getting them into the Liberal Democrats.

On the general engagement front, Ms Jo acknowledged that the CITIZENSHIP classes introduced by the Labour would be a good place to start, though she also thought that they could be a lot BETTER.

She also wanted to see the Party's elected officials – from councillors to MPs, MSPs and MEPs too – spending more time getting into schools to address young people and answer their questions, not necessarily from a partisan point of view, but just to encourage them to ask questions and to know that their voices and opinions ARE being listened to.

Young people have CONCERNS – will the buses run on time… or at all… what will I get paid for my weekend job… will I EVER see my SATS results – and yet they often don't realise that this IS politics and they can do something about it.

In the Liberal Democrats, Ms Jo agreed that most local Liberal parties might not have enough young people to be viable just for them. But she wanted to emphasise that there ARE roles for people of any age – Lord Rennard, apparently, was treasurer of his local party aged 14… but then he IS a genius! And just because you cannot stand for election until you are eighteen, that does not mean that you cannot get APPROVED as a candidate. People who are sixteen or seventeen NOW will certainly be eligible to stand when Mr Frown has to call an election in two years time.

Moving round the table, Ms Linda then asked about DIVERSITY representation, and how we seem to be a bit rubbish at it. The Conservatories, she was upset to recall, have even been pretty BLATANT about how they are CYNICALLY recruiting just enough Lady Conservatories and Black or Brown Conservatories to meet their targets and then they don't need to allow in any more. We've just GOT to be better than that!

Ms Jo admitted that we have not done very well in providing the same encouragement and practical support to minority ethnic candidates that we have put in place for gender balance.

We ARE managing to get more ladies placed, and in fact we are doing BETTER in target seats: overall, about 29% of Lib Dem candidates chosen so far are ladies; but that rises to 40% in more winnable targets. And remembering that the "good" seats tend to pick earlier, that should remain a good sign.

The main difference, Ms Jo thought, was that the Party has appointed a gender balance OFFICER, who is responsible for going out there, being PRO-ACTIVE and pretty much getting things done. Rather than appointing a BME officer, the Party chose to employ a BME ADVISOR – Ms Jo emphasised that the advisor is very GOOD at advising, but it is a different role.

As a result, although we have the "Diversity Fund" money available, that depends on ALREADY BEING SELECTED and so, so far, only one person has qualified.

What we need is more assistance for good candidates to GET to the selection stage through training and support.

It was also raised that the Party's existing membership profile tends to mean that there are certain attitudes that prevail, for good or bad. Though EVERYONE was shocked to hear from Linda that one of her friends at a meeting supposedly to encourage minority candidates was told that he "had a chip on his shoulder". Ms Jo recommended that anyone saying such a thing was in need of a swift "quiet word", and that an apology to Linda's friend wouldn't go amiss either!

Ms Helen's question was linked to this, as she asked what were the BARRIERS to getting elected.

The main ones, thought Ms Jo, are CARING RESPONSIBILITIES – whether for elderly parents or for young children – which still, these days, tend to fall more on women than on men.

It is probably NOT a coincidence, she thought, that of the Liberal Democrats' elected women MPs, five have children who are over sixteen and the other four have no children at all.

(Though she pointed out candidates Ms Sarah Carr and Ms Sarah Kelsey who show that it doesn't HAVE to be a RULE.)

The wage gap also has its effect, and there are other costs, like clothes for example where a lady candidate cannot get away with just two suits.

There are times when NOT looking like a stereotypical MP is a positive advantage. Though Ms Jo did admit that when going up for selection she would adopt "the uniform" of suit and limited jewellery. It is about meeting people's expectations, and having the right image, looking the part, so that they are comfortable with you representing them. Mind you, she also mentioned how Mr Jeremy Browne has said that he had the REVERSE problem: he has no problem looking like he fits in in the House of Commons, it was looking like he was part of the community he wanted to represent that taxed him.

And of course, running for Parliament is expensive and time-consuming for either gender. In a development seat you can manage to put in the work around your commitments to having a job, but in seats where you might actually win, most candidates have to at least go part-time and many take a sabbatical or give up work altogether.

There USED to be support from the Nancy Seear Fund… but sadly that has FOLDED because it was better at giving out money than at raising it.

And childcare is difficult to address unless you have really rather a LOT of money to throw at the problem.

The REAL thing that the Party can provide is CONFIDENCE. That is something that we can do something about. It's about getting over the CULTURAL barrier.

Ms Jo remarked on one of the questions on one of the candidates' questionnaires: do you feel confident addressing large groups of people.

It doesn't MATTER whether you FEEL confident – you just have to DO IT.

There IS some sexism… but it seems to work BOTH WAYS: while there are some people reluctant to support a lady candidate, there are equally those who would prefer a lady regardless.

In fact, being YOUNG is more of a barrier.

Ms Jo remembers being challenged on the grounds of "what if you want to start a family, then". Of course, they wouldn't get away with that at hustings, but in the privacy of their own homes… and you can't protect people from EVERY question that might get thrown at them. They will certainly encounter them in the real campaign too. What we can do is give candidates advice and confidence to DEAL with difficult questions and bias.

And things got EASIER after the Brent East by-election, where lovely Sarah Teather showed everyone that being young and female was no barrier to winning.

Then it was MY turn. I decided to ask for a Scottish perspective on the Scottish by-election this week. I suggested that in spite of Mr Frown, the Labour would probably still manage to win.

Ms Jo obviously didn't want to get too ahead of herself, but thought that that was the most likely outcome (subject to being proved wrong by the time my diary is published), but the Labour's majority would be much reduced and that the Scottish Nasty Party would claim a moral victory anyway. She's been out there campaigning and been followed about by the SNP poster van, which is equipped with loudspeakers that blare continuous panpipe music. People will be DELIGHTED when it's all over just to SHUT THEM UP!

But she didn't want us to get too excited about the positive responses she'd been getting, because we have mostly been targeting the areas that strongly support the Liberal Democrats anyway. The main aim for us (and the Conservatories) is not to get squeezed too much.

Turnout, though, only 40% at the General Election, will probably be even lower because it is the Glasgow Fair and everyone is away on holiday. And that could make things completely unpredictable.

Nevertheless, Ms Jo thought that the Labour's Ms Margaret Curran was a good candidate and in many ways – in spite of the Labour having to try four times to arrive at the answer – the OBVIOUS candidate because her constituency is being abolished.

She also said that she had been strong-armed into was very much looking forward to joining the commentators for the all-night by-election coverage on the telly. We wished her GREAT JOY of that!

For our second turn round the table, we turned to FOREIGN AFFAIRS. Mr George passed, so we moved on to Mr Alasdair again, whose question was about the Government's attitude towards the United States: should they not have acted sooner to condemn Guantánamo Bay and the practice of TORTURE?

Ms Jo's answers was OF COURSE! Of course they should have acted sooner; it took them an AGE even to acknowledge that Guantánamo should be closed and they couldn't even say that it was WRONG – some kind of "aberration" was Lord Blairimort's weasel-worded way round it.

For the Liberal Democrats it's been a policy going back certainly as far as Mr Charles that we in Great Britain should be a CANDID FRIEND to Americaland. If we are to have a SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP then we should be able to make USE of that to tell them when we think they are going wrong.

Torture is so obviously wrong, and not just because it is clearly morally wrong, but also for the entirely practical reason that it is totally counter-productive. People will and do say ANYTHING just to make it stop. So the information you get might well be FICTION rather than useful intelligence.

(I shall resist pointing out that that "being fiction" didn't stop Lord Blarimort's use of "intelligence".)

Nor should we allow the Government to get away with "outsourcing" torture to less fastidious regimes through the contemptible practice of "rendition".

The Liberal Democrats were pooh-poohed as a nuisance when Sir Mr the Merciless raised the question of whether the Labour Government was permitting this ILLEGAL ACTIVITY to pass through British airspace on the SLY.

And what happened? The Foreign Office had to issue an APOLOGY for misleading everyone when it turned out that allowing the Americans to "render" people though our airspace was exactly what they had been doing! The European Union report on the practice was VERY CRITICAL!

Possibly prompted by this mention of the Union, Ms Linda asked: what should be our message on Europe?

Ms Jo's answer was interesting and I think wise. While restating that we should be loudly Pro-European, she said that she thought it was time that the Union stopped TINKERING with the details of how many seats at the Brussels drinks cabinet each country gets and starts addressing some REAL issues.

There comes a time when you just have to learn to live with what you've got and make the situation you are in work. All the talk about qualified majority voting or numbers of commissioners or changing how decisions should be agreed does nothing but turn everyone off.

We need to point out the real and urgent things that Europe should be addressing:

  • Energy security, particularly with regards to importing fuels from Russia
  • Diplomacy with Iran, where Europe is leading the way to reaching a compromise over their atomic ambitions
  • The fight against international terrorism, and how to improve security WITHOUT compromising civil liberties
  • And above all climate change, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels that cause CO2 emissions.
On our own, we don't have the voice to address these issues, but together in Europe we do and that is what we need to be telling people.

Jumping ahead a bit, Iran was the subject of Mr Alasdair's next (and last) question. With Israel not far away, and with Israel having a policy of pre-emptively bombing and invading their neighbours and with Israel allegedly have "the BOMB"… could we understand the Iranians' defensive perspective.

Ms Jo pondered aloud about a policy of "we can have it and you can't" – clearly some hypocrisy there, she thought.

The Iranians, she told us, want to go nuclear as a matter of national pride; they see themselves as a nation of "authority" and that they deserve the recognition – and weaponry – that goes with their status.

But that doesn't mean that letting them have one would be A GOOD IDEA.

This is where that European Diplomacy comes in and may in fact WORK. Because the Iranians want a relationship with the West, with America in particular in fact – ironically unbelievable as it may sound – a relationship that they haven't HAD for decades, ever since the hostage crisis of 1979.

And let's face it, the alternatives – an American Invasion? an implicit American backing of an Israeli attack, with much the same consequences? – these are just UNTHINKABLE.

So diplomacy has GOT to work.

And there are alternatives to letting them have the atomic technology they desire. One possibility would be allowing them to develop the peaceful exploitation of atomic energy, but having the uranium enrichment done somewhere else. Another might be the German "nuclear option" option, where they have the KNOWLEDGE but decide that they have no need to make use of it.

It's worth remembering that although outspoken President Armageddonjab is always making threatening speeches and swearing fiery oaths, he's not the ULTIMATE authority in Iran. That position goes to the supreme leader and there are several other authorities in the country who have very different and less populist (i.e. rabble-rousing) agendas.

Iran can and should play a part in the region and the world and it's important that we continue to make the effort to rebuild that relationship.

I asked what if anything we could do about Mr Mugabe and – particularly with Mr Frown's habit of breaking everything he touches – whether we (meaning Great Britain) shouldn't just shut up about Zimbabwe.

Ms Jo admitted that there was a case for waiting to see what happens (and indeed within minutes we had received news by text from Daddy Alex of the historic handshake between Mr Mugabe and Mr Tsvangirai).

But the Liberal Democrats can do BETTER than that, and Ms Jo told us that she and Mr Ed were to meet with representatives of the Movement for Democratic Change on Tuesday this week and one of their key questions would be what is it that we can say and do that will be helpful.

But also, Ms Jo felt that we DO have a moral obligation to speak up, especially if the African states remain silent. (To be fair, she added, nations like Botswana and Tanzania DID speak out too, but we needed the South Africans to do their part if it were to make a difference. That may change after the South African elections when it looks like Mr Zuma will replace Mr Mbeki as President.)

There IS a chink of light at the end of this tunnel, Ms Jo assured us, difficult though it is to see at the moment. In the elections, the MDC won the largest number of seats and – even though many of those MPs have now fled in fear for their lives – that is still a basis for finding a way to cooperate. Given that Ms Mugabe ISN'T going to surrender his hold on power, finding a way to work together is the least worst solution.

And even if they do, the country is sadly still in a terrible mess.

I've skipped over a question from Ms Helen, but the last question asked was from Ms Linda about Palestine. With Mr Frown out in the Middle East saying his thing, has there been any movement on the motion at the last Autumn Conference?

On the specifics of that motion, Jo said, no there hasn't. But on the Israel/Palestine issue, Ms Jo has had meetings with both the Council for Arab-British Understanding and the Israeli Ambassador. Mr Ed is hoping to visit and lovely Sarah has been there already, speaking of the terrifying levels of poverty.

It isn't possible to separate the POLITICAL disputes from that issue of POVERTY. And although it wouldn't SOLVE the other disagreements, lifting the Palestinian people out of poverty would certainly take out some of the STING. And if people lives are WORTH living, then it makes it less likely that they will turn to violence as a solution.

There may be some cause for optimism from the negotiations between Mr Omelette (for all that he is mired in SLEAZE allegations) and Mr Abbas.

Obviously, Jerusalem is the most difficult sticking point… so don't start from there!

It's possible that there may be some positive developments about the Gaza blockade following recent events that have seen the exchange of prisoners for the return of soldiers' remains.

Finally I need to mention that question from Ms Helen: are we going to Make It Happen?

Ms Jo's answer: Yes!

Okay, there was a BIT more to it than that – she told us how she liked the LANGUAGE, that it was readable and, if you didn't want to read all of it, there were handy pull-out quotes; how it was NON-CONFRONTATIONAL, and certainly not as daunting as one of our policy papers.

Inflation and taxation: how the everyday costs of getting along are going up, and how the government's spending can make it just a bit harder for everyone – these are the key issues that people are talking and worrying about now that they are feeling the pinch.

And "Make It Happen" goes straight to the heart of these issues, and talks about them in language that people can understand. We know that times are tight and so the Government ought to be tightening ITS belt too; and if we can make things a little easier for those who are worst off, the lowest paid, then that should STRENGTHEN the economy in the downturn, and maybe avoid the WORSE costs of unemployment, repossessions and homelessness.

Mr Alasdair remarked that HE was impressed by Mr Clogg's idea that while the Conservatories still cling to the failed notion of tax cuts for the superrich helping the country by a process of "trickle-down", a Liberal tax policy should be based on trickle UP.

After all that I have to confess that I was quite exhausted! Ms Jo definitely wins the prize for giving us the FASTEST answers of any of our MPs to date! Writing it all down as we went, my flappy feet could barely keep up. So I helped myself to an EXTRA doughnut!

Once again, very many thanks to Ms Helen for doing the organising. Daddy Richard is TRYING to pin Mr Clogg down to a date in Sheffield, but it's trickier than you would think – for some reason he thinks he deserves a HOLIDAY! I shall let you know when there is news.

[*R: of course, he's actually 7]


Steph Ashley said...

Reading this post was nearly the nicest thing about today, and would have been if it hadn't also been my smallperson's birthday. I love you and I love Ms Jo and this has just been a treat to read *beams*

Alasdair W said...

My hair looks terrible in that picture. Actually I look terrible in that picture!