Theresa May trying hard not to define extremism but insist that it was right that peoples’ human rights should be restricted was not a good start to the morning. Reading David Cameron’s quote – “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens ‘as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone’” – was the final straw.
I’ve flirted with joining the Liberal Democrats for many years now – each time finding a good reason not to do it. I guess, I’ve been scarred by my experience in evangelical Christianity, and don’t want to be seen as implicitly supporting policies and statements that I do not. The idea of being forced to defend the indefensible was the barrier.
As part of their election campaign a couple of weeks ago, the Conservative Party tried to claim first that my company supported them in their ridiculous 5,000 business leaders letter, then insisted my sales director had signed and they had proof (which seemed to consist entirely of his name being on their database, but absolutely no proof that he’d entered or clicked on anything at all – substantiated by a journalist discovering that his details were embedded into the link that he clicked on to find out more), then called me a liar to various journalists. No apology; no acceptance that any verification processes they claimed to have were fundamentally flawed; no acknowledgement that, if they wanted to claim my business’s support, maybe they should have talked to me and my wife (as the 85% owners of the business between us) first. I was livid.
I knew before the election how much the Liberal Democrats had stayed the hand of the Conservatives in the last government. Earlier this year I had a half hour meeting with Matthew Hanney (Nick Clegg’s policy advisor) where, amongst other things, he admitted the struggles the party was having in the heart of government. I knew how certain Lib Dem MPs had fought hard for the corner of the particular human rights angles I’m known for, and also how they expected to suffer electorally for being in coalition.
My primary beef with them this time round was that no positive reason to vote for them was articulated. Like Labour, they just weren’t going to be as bad as the other lot(s). That isn’t what I’d seen previously with the Liberal Democrats.
Also I felt that they had entered coalition in the wrong way. They had no real choice but to do so with the Conservatives – no other combination of 2010 parliamentary mathematics would have worked – but they seemed to parcel up areas of policy. So while Lib Dem policies were slightly pursued in, say, energy, Conservative policies seemed unrestrained in, say, work and pensions. I had expected that coalition would mean that all policies would be subject to what both parties could agree to, not that Lib Dems would nod through fiercely illiberal policies because, y’know, collective cabinet responsibility. That, allied with the complete destruction of trust around the tuition fees pledge, was disastrous.
I was deeply saddened to see allies such as Julian Huppert and Lynne Featherstone (amongst many others) lose their seats in the early hours of Friday morning. But I don’t believe the Lib Dems are dead. Seriously wounded, yes, but mortally wounded, no.
When that final straw snapped this morning, I said to my wife that I thought I needed to join up, something we’d discussed since the weekend. “I’m halfway through filling in their form” came the reply – and she was. So we did.
I’m wanting to make a difference, to stand up for the things I believe in.
I’ve been an election geek since I first discovered general elections at the age of 10. All those maps, all that history, all those numbers. When I was at university in the early 80s I discovered that there were other ways of electing representatives, and one in particular made a lot of sense. Single Transferable Vote maintained a link between an MP and an area, but allowed voters to rank candidates in orders meaning that parties were not necessarily dominant. It was the system Britain imposed on the new Republic of Ireland in 1922, and also on Northern Ireland for Stormont (and European) elections, and then it was chosen for Scottish local government elections recently.
Changing the electoral system is absolutely imperative. Large parts of the country are effectively single party states, whether it’s Conservative in the English shires, or Labour in the northern cities, or (now) the SNP across Scotland – both for MPs and for local government. STV forces representatives to actually be accountable (because people are able to vote for other candidates from the same party), whilst ensuring that the result roughly reflects the opinions expressed in that area. Personally I think we should start with local government – I don’t (sadly) think that the electorate has much appetite for changing the national system yet, although I would be extremely pleased if that can be accomplished.
Our environment is absolutely core – we live in it, and if we pollute it too much, we won’t be able to. We have become rampant consumers and abusers of this planet’s limited resources. While it’s true that, for most of the last century, there have always been around 30 years of oil left – now it’s becoming harder and harder, and therefore more costly, to extract it. We need to urgently move to renewable energy sources, not only to protect what’s left but also for purposes of energy security. I don’t think it’s a good idea to be dependent upon other states like Russia for crucial energy supplies. I don’t know why we don’t encourage solar panels to be placed on all that dead industrial roofspace.
Linked to that is transport. Occasionally I have to catch a commuter train back home from London – if I have to catch one in as well, I find that absolutely hellish. Forcing people to stand for half an hour in cramped circumstances is simply not good enough. But it’s got to be more than my local convenience. Increasing congestion and lack of infrastructure means that we desperately need to look at investing properly in public transport, and also encouraging employers to move away from traditional 9 to 5 jobs and creating the rush hour in the first place.
Education is also core to our society’s future. I was initially trained as a teacher, and have been a secondary school governor for 6 years. In my first IT job I saw (and reported) first hand on the bias that targets have on outputs, as those being targeted drop other priorities in order to meet the currently highlighted targets. I have deep problems with the way this is being applied in schools, and the biases I see creeping in. I also have issues with the lack of value that vocational education continues to have. Not everyone is capable of being academic. Education should be about creativity and inspiration – I’m very much in the Sir Ken Robinson school here. Instead, under the guise of “competitiveness” and “what business needs” – a perennial debate since state education was established in the 1860s – it’s become increasingly driven by exams and measured attainment, and the fear of Ofsted.
Despite what the Conservatives seem to think, business is not the sole arbiter of what’s good for society. In fact I think it’s a very bad arbiter. Instead, we should look again at valuing compassion and happiness. I’ve seen how global businesses remove themselves from any investment in our society while reaping the benefits from it. I’ve seen how the drive for more money inflates (and deflates) markets, all in the name of making a short-term win. I’ve seen how timescales for return on investment has reduced from years to months (at best). I’ve seen at first-hand how incredibly difficult it is for small companies to even gain a foothold in the market – made even more difficult by the unregulated vagaries of internet filtering.
Gone are the days of buying a house to make it your home. Instead, in the last few days, I’ve been advised that what I should have done over the last 25 years is move up the housing ladder every three or four years, so that by now I could have a large house which could be downsized to augment my pension. Ignore the fact that from 2004 until 2009 there was no way I could have increased my mortgage if I tried (due to employment circumstances) – but what a horrible way to live.
For those who find themselves in rented accommodation, it must be demoralising to find themselves also at the behest of unscrupulous landlords who think nothing of raising rents by extraordinary amounts. Given that large numbers of those who rent privately are also on benefits, this effectively siphons off billions of pounds of tax revenue into the pockets of a small number of private individuals. Similarly those employers who refuse to pay an appropriate living wage force those employees onto benefits to supplement their salaries. The state effectively subsidises those employers to make profits – which is even more outrageous when those business are globalised and avoid paying tax in the UK. It is beyond me why we allow core industries, such as energy or transport, to be run in such a way to move profits from their UK operations out of these shores.
It’s easy to be against things – and that’s a common complaint I’ve heard levelled at the local Lib Dems. It’s not quite so easy to promote a positive vision. I don’t have all the answers, but I want to play a part in finding them. But the reason I joined the Liberal Democrats today was to promote a positive vision of how things might be – not simply to oppose what currently is. And that starts with standing up for peoples’ rights – even those you disagree with.