Dr Phillip Lee

We’ve always been a broad church. 

One of the hallmarks of liberal politics is that if offers space for disagreement, without letting that disagreement define us. Liberal Democrats not only tolerate but champion the rights of people who hold different views to our own. And that’s no bad thing.

But there has to be some solid foundation to that tolerance. There must be some meta-politics that the party can coalesce around. I joined the Lib Dems because I believe it stands for a fundamental truth; that everyone has the right to “freedom, dignity and wellbeing”. I mean, that is what our constitution says. 

Yet our newest MP has, in the past, acted in ways which appear contrary that most core belief. As a Conservative MP, Dr Philip Lee sought to legislate to prevent immigration by people with HIV or Hepatitis*; hardly a figurehead for the liberal society we all want to build.

So the decision to admit Dr Lee to the party is deeply concerning. It suggests that a single issue (Brexit) is more important that our fundamental values; that a single news cycle, and an extra member of the parliamentary group (who may only sit with the Lib Dems for a month or so), is worth more than the commitment of the many activists dismayed by this new Liberal Democrat MP’s historic positions. 

Despite all that, I remain a Lib Dem. Because our party is not defined by one MP, but by the thousands of activists and members who call themselves Lib Dems. It is defined by the activists who travelled across the country to ensure the election of our other new MP, Jane Dodds. It is defined by colleagues in local parties across the country speaking up for their communities. It is defined by those liberals who no longer feel they can remain in this party, but who have devoted immeasurable time and energy to making our country and our world a more liberal place. 

I’ve always believed that everyone should have the chance for redemption, and that nobody should be defined by their worst failures. I hope that Dr Lee will be able to serve as a truly liberal MP. I hope that the Liberal Democrats can continue to build a world where everyone can enjoy freedom, dignity and wellbeing. And I hope that those former members who have left us today, feel able to return some time soon. You are welcome in our party. But I can’t begrudge your decision to leave. After all, I’m a liberal.

*Dr Lee argues that the aim of the amendment was to identify carriers, so that risk and demand for care could be managed, however the text of the amendment would have had the effect of blocking immigration altoegther.

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#LibDemLeadership

#LibDemLeadership

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I will vote in the present Lib Dem Leadership contest between Ed Davey and Jo Swinson. This is an attempt to systematise my thoughts. I’d be keen to know how it fits with the other peoples’.

First of  all, we are lucky to have two strong candidates, who would, I believe, both be capable, passionate and engaging party leaders. It may be that the current moment we are in – with the party polling at 20% nationally – is only a phase, and that the new leader, whoever they may be, is unable to capitalise on this. So far I haven’t heard either leader explain how they will respond if this is just a passing phase, but I do not believe that one leader or the other is necessarily going to waste this opportunity.

On the other hand, while both candidates are capable, inevitably each will have strengths and weaknesses, so the question is, who is more skilled in which areas, and which areas are most important?

My impression so far is that Jo Swinson is a better communicator and campaigner, while Ed appears to be better at the policy detail.

Jo ‘comes across well’. She appears media friendly and would be well placed to attract more people to the Lib Dems. In contrast, Ed’s policy platform appears more well-developed, and he is effective in particular at making the case for the specific radical changes we need to address climate change.

So what do we need more? A policy person or a campainger?

My instinct is that the latter will be more valuable, for a few reasons. Firstly, party policy is of course set by members, not by the leadership (and, if we were to enter government, there would be civil servants to handle the detail). That means that, while being across policy detail is important, the leader doesn’t need to be the person with all the best ideas. In contrast, as the third party, we have to fight for every news story and every minute of media. We need someone who will be able to keep the party in the spotlight, so that we can make the most of these opportunities, and, to be frank, attract more members and donors. After all, we lack the high net worth donors of the Conservatives, or the Union support of Labour.

For those reasons, (and because I think it’s about time we had a female leader) I am leaning towards Jo.

All that said, I will not be disappointed if Ed wins, and my views are not yet set firm. So I’ll be watching the debates with interest.

 

On finishing The West Wing

On finishing The West Wing

I just finished my second (and a half) watch through of The West Wing (TWW), probably the greatest, and most optimistic, political drama ever made.

Needless to say I have All The Feels.

But a few things struck me in particular this time.

I was struck by an echo of the fear I felt in late 2007 and early 2008, that then President-elect Barack Obama would not live to be inaugurated as President, and the relief that I was wrong.

I was struck by the same passion to shape a better world which TWW so often inspires in me. And by the feeling that, right now, there are times when I am absolutely nowhere (to paraphrase Sam Seaborn). The bar is set so high, and I can barely stand up, let alone reach it.

I was struck by how much I love these characters, and how much I miss them when they aren’t a regular part of my life.

I was struck by how much we need optimism right now, in our politics and in our culture.

And perhaps most of all, I was struck by the realisation that I get the same sense of hope and passion from listening to Pod Save America and Pod Save the World, the work of former Obama Staffers, as I get from watching TWW. I get an eye into the world of those hosts. I feel like they are my friends, like I know them personally, just as I feel I know Josh and CJ and Toby and Donna.

But, unlike TWW, their run hasn’t finished. And for that, I am immensely grateful.

Far from breaking our politics, Brexit has given it a new lease of life

Far from breaking our politics, Brexit has given it a new lease of life

It is easy to look in despair at the UK’s attempt to negotiate an exit from the EU. The government’s negotiating position is built on a series of red lines which appear mutually exclusive. Deadlines swoosh past, yet parliament seems paralysed, unable to find an acceptable way forward.

Our incompetence is now writ large on the international stage. Yet outside Westminster, things look very different.

Yesterday, as many as one million people joined a peaceful march through central London, calling for a public vote on whether to accept the Brexit outcome negotiated by the UK. That makes this one of the largest, perhaps the single largest public protest in British political history.

At the same time, an online petition calling for the revocation of Article 50 (which would effectively cancel the UK’s exit from the EU), has been signed over five million times.

These are not normal numbers. To give a little context, the 2015 general election saw a turnout of just over 30 million. Even the Poll Tax, which remains one of the most infamous public policy failures of the last century, only led to a protest of 200,000 people.

Nor are these numbers isolated. Other recent anti-Brexit related protests have seen hundreds of thousands of people marching. At the other end of the spectrum, it’s hard to argue that the 200 people walking from Sunderland to London are not atypically committed to their cause. The 2017 general election saw the highest turnout in 20 years.

Politics has gone from being something that a few geeks cared about, to something which animates the nation.

Yes, the nation contradicts itself. Of course, it does. It contains multitudes. But this is not a sign of failure. People will always disagree about things that matter. Such disagreement is healthy. Indeed, as a Liberal, I believe we have a duty to uphold the rights of everyone to disagree about such issues.

The only failure here is rooted in Westminster. In the decision to place party management about the national interest. In boiling down a remarkably complex decision into a binary choice between the status quo and change. And in failing to agree what the change proposition was.

One day, Brexit will be in the past. But there will be millions of people who have learnt how to protest. How to make their voices heard.

A generation will have learnt that politics is not something which happens once every 4 years. They will have learnt that politics is about the choices we all make, each and every day.

Minutes to Midnight

Minutes to Midnight

There is no serious debate about the reality of man-made climate change. For four decades, we have known that increased CO2 emissions would have significant global effects.

Yet for four decades, we have made astonishingly little progress. Annual global carbon dioxide emissions are now 50% higher they were in 1980. The Kyoto Protocol, only met its meagre target thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union. While the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit warming to “well below” 2°C represents a significant step forward, current contributions will not come near to meeting this ambition.

This dereliction of duty is mirrored by at the national level. In 2016, the UK government scrapped the Department for Energy and Climate Change, and with it, took climate change off the Cabinet’s agenda. The fringe passion project of pursuing Brexit was apparently more important.

Of course, many people have done what they can to live up to the scale of the challenge we face in spite of the government. For my part, I walk, cycle or take public transport, get my energy from a renewable supplier, buy second-hand clothes, reduce, reuse and recycle. I’m aiming for a sustainable diet in line with the findings of the EAT-Lancet report Food in the Anthropocene.

But the EAT-Lancet Commission does not place all the burden on individuals to change their behaviour. It is focussed on the entire food system, from production right through to consumption. It recognises the need for systemic changes to tackle climate change.

Such systemic change requires high-level support from policy makers, to tackle major sources of emissions, from the food and transport sectors, to housing and electricity generation.

What’s more, high-level action is needed so that people understand the gravity of the situation. Inertia is a powerful force; it is unrealistic to expect most people to make major behavioural changes when the government seems unconcerned. In all likelihood, people will need to be nudged into action by policy changes.

I don’t know what the solutions to Climate Change look like (although I have ideas). But it should not be down to people like me to work this out. The greatest minds in government and public policy should be focussed unswervingly on saving our planet from humanity. Instead, time, energy and attention is wasted on the scream into the void that is Brexit (a project which will weaken the very international institutions we need to tackle climate change).

Last week, the House of Commons held is first debate on climate change for over two years. There is a particular commentary which slams  the debate for poor attendance. Yet this is missing the bigger point. The chamber was far from full, it is true, yet almost 40 members spoke over two and a half hours of debate.

Poor attendance was a symptom of the problem, rather than the problem itself. The debate was led, not by the government, nor even by the official opposition. It was a back-bench debate, led by members of two minority parties (the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party). The debate itself was detailed, despite being scheduled for a Thursday afternoon; the tag end of the parliamentary week, when many MPs where headed back to their constituencies.

The problem is not with attendance or engagement. The problem is that this debate would not lead to legislation or policy change. Although the minister for Climate Change and her opposite number in the shadow cabinet were both present, there is little sign of any real appetite to face this challenge head on. Until that changes, such debates will be little more than a talking shop.

And we need more than that.

We’re almost out of time.

We need to act.

Now.

AOC is right, we need unprecedented action to prevent climate catastrophe

AOC is right, we need unprecedented action to prevent climate catastrophe

This blog was originally written for and published by Liberal Democrat Voicethe most-read independent website by and for Lib Dems .


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been US Representative for New York’s 14th District for less than two months, but she has already made waves in US politics so large that they have spread across the pond.

Earlier in February, Ocasio-Cortez (or AOC, as she is popularly known) tabled House Resolution 109. The “Green New Deal” it outlines would transition the US to a carbon neutral economy and 100% renewable energy generation within ten years. These changes would be accompanied by massive investment in infrastructure, from improving the energy efficiency of buildings, to developing new transport links to reduce domestic air travel.

AOC is a self-described democratic socialist, so it is no surprise that this change is underpinned by economic policies some in our party would baulk at, notably a government jobs guarantee. The “Green New Deal” effectively posits the complete restructuring of the US economy. To call it radical would be an understatement. Yet on the issue which will define the next half century, she is bang on the money.

Because radical is what we need right now.

Last year’s publication of the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5˚C was simply the most high profile of numerous reports highlighting the sheer magnitude of the climate crisis we now face.

Between 1850 and 2011, the USA was responsible for 27% of all greenhouse emission – more than the whole of the EU combined – and it remains the second largest emitter today. It is welcome, then, that some in the US political elite are finally grasping the need to lead change on a massive scale.

Of course, we cannot rely on the US alone. The entire basis of the global economy needs to shift radically. Yet here in the UK all our political energy is being wasted on a vanity project of the far right. We are modern-day Neros, fiddling while Rome burns.

Commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement will not get us close to the necessary reduction. The UK’s Carbon Budget only requires a 57% reduction in emissions by 2030. In contrast, AOC has put forward a vision of change on the scale we need.

The “Green New Deal” may not be the preferred policy of the average Lib Dem, but it is an appropriate response to challenge we now face, and its success, even in part, would be a huge step forward. Like AOC, we should make the long-term survival of our planet a foundation for all policy we develop, from funding social care and investing in our infrastructure, to local devolution and housing. Anything else is futile.

Just over a week ago, young people across the world staged a school strike for climate, following the action of Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. They, like AOC, have grasped the severity of the moment we face. As Thunberg put it; “I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”