The worst thing you have ever done

Think of the worst thing you have ever done.

It’s not a nice thought, is it?

Well, don’t worry, you are more than that. Like everybody, you have made mistakes, but you have also done amazing things. As Sr. Helen Prejean says, “people are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives”. I do not believe anyone should be judged solely on their darkest moments, on their worst failings, but on the sum of their life.

So when I saw this image doing the rounds among Labour voting friends on Facebook the other day, I felt deeply uncomfortable.

We know, with hindsight, that the Iraq War was misinformed and unjustified. We know that Tony Blair ‘sexed up’ evidence in order to convince the country to back a war which turned Iraq into a failed state. Even at the time, many people were not persuaded by the case for war.

It is right that Tony Blair be held accountable for his part in the whole sorry affair. I do not doubt he holds himself responsible for what has followed. It is right that we learn lessons from Iraq (though I would argue we have now turned to far the other way, heeding only the lessons from Iraq, and ignoring lessons from Bosnia, from Sierra Leone, from Rwanda).

But it is not right that the good which Tony Blair’s government achieved be soured by this failing. From the Northern Ireland peace process, through to the national minimum wage, the Labour Government which closed the 20th century achieved a great deal which was positive.

What’s more, the legacy of Iraq should not mean that everything Mr Blair and his senior team say should be decried as falsehood and self-interest. If people have experience and knowledge, they are worth listening to, at least so you can work out why they are wrong.

So please, stop with the vilification. It simply serves to sour public debate further. Everybody deserves a chance at atonement.

People are more than the worst thing they have ever done.


It’s not the scandal…

It’s not the scandal…

As some of you will know, for a couple of years after leaving university, I was a volunteer at an Oxfam Bookshop. Oxfam has the scale and capacity to provide the kind of aid which has one, fundamental aim – to save lives in the most desperate situations – making it, in my view, one of the most important charities operating today. For similar reasons, I have helped with collections run by Christian Aid, I have volunteered in Ghana, and I have written about the importance of overseas aid here before.

I know where I stand – my position is clear.

So I have been saddened to learn that staff working for some of our most important charities have been accused of taking advantage of their positions, and of the vulnerable people they should be working to help.

But I will be much more saddened should this scandal be used to attack the principle of international aid.

While I know nothing of the particular accusations, I was not shocked by the revelation. Recent years have seen similar accusations levelled against individuals in almost every institution, from churches and the BBC, for schools, to Parliament. And every institution has failed to properly respond. But that doesn’t mean we have cut funding for the BBC, or education. We still have a government, and people still believe in God.

Some people are deeply flawed, and choose to do appalling things. It is, therefore, not hard to believe that such individuals, when put in chaotic situations with little oversight (the sorts of situations where most aid work takes place), and given charge over vulnerable people, would abuse that power.

Nor, perhaps, should we be surprised that organisations which rely in large part on public generosity and good-will in order to carry out their work, attempt to avoid scandals. Bad press is one of the most significant risks facing charities, and will undermine their capacity to help other people.

Of course, we rightly expect charities to set and meet exhaustive standards. We know that aid organisations are working with people who are already vulnerable, and should do everything possible to ensure those people are not taken abused, but are supported. That is their fundamental mission. Again, to justify their privileged position, aid organisations funded by public generosity must be open and transparent.

It appears that charities have not met these high standards, either in terms of ensuring that every vulnerable person in their care is protected, and in acting quickly and openly when failings are discovered.

It is this second failing which may have the greater impact on international development work; “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up”. We have already seen significant negative backlash from across a media landscape which is broadly opposed to the UK’s foreign aid spending. The International Development Secretary, Penny Mourdant, has stated that “any organisation that does not live up to [DFID’s] high standards on safeguarding and protection” will lose funding.

Cutting funding to major charities will not stop people abusing positions of power across society – they will simply move elsewhere. Instead, the ultimate victims of such actions would be the vulnerable people in need of help.

These charities have the infrastructure and experience to make a real difference in some of the worst situations imaginable. Smaller charities might have higher safeguarding policies, but they will lack the capacity to respond to the next natural disaster or refugee crisis. The best way for charities to make amends for their failings will be for them to keep doing what they do to ever higher standards.

Worse still in scale would be if these revelations are weaponised by those who oppose the UK’s commitment to overseas aid. Even if you believe that specific charities ought to be punished for their failings, that does not undermine principle that we should help those most in need, wherever they happen to live. The UK’s commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP reaps huge benefits, helping to bring stability around the world, enhance the global economy and boost UK soft power.

I can but hope that we do not throw the baby out with the bath-water.


I Am Not Throwing Away My Shot/Bartlet for America

I Am Not Throwing Away My Shot/Bartlet for America

Yesterday, I was embedded in two of the greatest works of culture to come out of the USA in modern times. Both set a high bar, for quality, emotional clout, and contemporary significance. And both remind me that, if I want to make a difference, I have to be in the room.

*************************HERE BE SPOILERS************************

In the morning, I found myself watching Two Cathedrals, probably the greatest episode of the greatest ensemble TV shows every produced – the show that set the bar – The West Wing.

In Two Cathedrals, President Bartlet struggles with the decision as to whether or not he will run for a second term in office. He is riven by insecurity, distraught at the loss of one of his oldest friends, uncertain about his own future, and trying to deal with an international crisis.

As the episode reaches its climax, against the strains of The Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, President Bartlet reaches his decision. But to get there, he takes himself through the numbers: children have a one in five chance of being born into poverty, 44 million Americans don’t have health insurance, homicide is the leading cause of death for black men under 35, 3 million Americans behind bars, 5 million American Drug Addicts. He knows exactly what is at stake, or rather who – because he is dealing with people’s lives – and he knows that he can do something about it.

In the evening, I moved forward 20 years in production, and back two centuries in subject, to the founding of the USA, and the incomparable musical Hamilton, undoubtedly the best musical I have ever seen. (Buy the Cast Recording, buy the Mixtape, see the show in New York or London if you can, I cannot emphasise this enough.)

If you don’t know about Hamilton, I can only assume you have been living under a log. But to summarise, it follows the life and fortunes of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton, the orphaned son of a mixed-race relationship, who was born in the Caribbean and emigrated to what would become the USA, and rose to become the fledgling nation’s first treasury secretary and a key figure among the American found fathers. His rise was truly meteoric, and owed a great deal both to his towering intellect (shared with The West Wing’s President Bartlet), and his remarkable ambition.

Hamilton also, like President Bartlet, recognises that decisions are made by those who show up, and takes the decision to prioritise serving the nation, even when it comes at a cost to his relationships. He pushes through a plan for a new central bank, though it means abandoning his family. He longs to fight in the American War of Independence, despite the wishes of his wife. He endorses his enemy, over an old friend who he believes lacks the principles needed to lead the country.

There is a great deal I could go in to about either of these shows, yet watching them in the same day, the key thing which hit me (apart from how utterly fantastic they both are), is this one similarity. Both take the decision to do all they can to better shape their nation; to be in the room where it happens. Hamilton will not throw away his shot. Bartlet for America.

Of course, both have platforms – Bartlet is President, Hamilton, is George Washington’s right-hand man, yet both get there through hard work. The world has changed, even since the early 2000’s. Where once getting the platform was the challenge, now anyone can have a platform. Information is democratised. The challenge, now, is to say something interesting. To make your voice heard. And that is something I haven’t nailed yet.

Budget 2017: An Unsustainable Future

Budget 2017: An Unsustainable Future

Yesterday, the Chancellor delivered his latest Budget. It was gloomy reading, with dreadful OBR productivity growth forecasts meaning that households face continued wage squeezes and that the austerity will continue to haunt politics.

Many announcements in the budget seem aimed at addressing this low productivity over the longer term; expanding the National Productivity Investment Fund, further investment in T-Levels (not due to exist as a qualification until the end of this decade) and a funding boost for schools teaching A-Level maths. Any one of these could be argued as a plank in creating a high-tech, high skilled and high wage economy in the future (though taken together, it is hard to argue that they go far enough).

What strikes me most about this budget, however, it that it does not seem to consider the importance of a sustainable future. High tech jobs might be a good thing, but on a planet with finite resources, it is increasingly clear that the economy of the future must be low impact. This budget has done almost nothing to encourage sustainable growth, or to address environmental challenges.

Instead, we have a politics of appeasement. For example, fuel duty remains frozen at 2010 levels, while taxes on economy flights and new diesel HGVs are also frozen. Policies like this are popular with the electorate, particularly those who are less well off, and can be presented as the Government supporting ‘hard working families’. Yet they feed into damaging patterns of behaviour, which are not sustainable. If there is a to be a focus on transport investment, to ‘get Britain moving’, it should surely be on mass public transport – busses and rail infrastructure, which is far less harmful to the environment. The Government prioritises driverless cars, when it should be looking at a carless future.

Bizarrely, targeted investment to address congestion and a focus on support for electric cars, both of which feature in the budget, demonstrate that the Government knows cars are a problem. Air pollution, particularly in big cities, is now a common complaint, with London implementing the T Charge, and Oxford taking steps to ban cars from the city centre. Yet the Government is wedded to the idea that everyone should drive as an ideal, they should just drive less damaging cars on better roads.

Faced with such criticism, the Government might point to the introduction of the new 26-30 railcard as evidence of a commitment to public transport. Yet here again the policy does not go far enough, because the railcard (once it has been negotiated with the rail companies), will only apply to off-peak travel, thus making it next to useless for commuters. Further (much like current housing policy), the focus is on the demand side, rather than the supply. To make rail travel a more appealing option, substantial investment in the network and stock is needed. More, and more pleasant services will in turn encourage increased demand, which should (in a healthy market place) push down prices for travellers.

Beyond transport, Government also seems unwilling to use the levers at its disposal to build a sustainable future. The introduction of a five pence charge for single-use carrier bags in England (following an example set in the other home nations), led to an 85% reduction in the use of such bags in the first six months of the charge. Alongside this positive change in consumer behaviour, and has raised significant sums for charities and community groups. Yet despite this positive evidence, there was no commitment to take similar steps to alter behaviour, for example by charging for disposable hot drinks cups, or introducing a deposit scheme for plastic drinks bottles – only a promise to consult on options.

One final point of condemnation for this budget remains. We cannot ignore the elephant of Brexit, which will damage our ability to cooperate to address global climate change, not to mention mean the duplication of services and the creation of unnecessary infrastructure. This is a budget which meets the political needs of the Conservative Party above all else. The environmental needs of the country and the world can, in the words of the Foreign Secretary, ‘go whistle”.

Why we (try to) write

Why we (try to) write

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything of substance here. There are good reasons for that – I got a new job in January, which takes a fair part of my brain space, I have two London choirs taking up weekday evenings, there was an election, and I’m now chairing a small housing policy working group. But the biggest change happened in August, when I moved in with my partner. The move itself was time consuming, but more significantly, where once I shared a house with people, I now share a way of living. There is far less scope to simply sit with my own thoughts. And that’s no bad thing.

Nonetheless, I continue to believe that writing here is worthwhile. Because there is much which warrants writing.

I look around me, and see a country, a world in crisis. Half the population is having to face the reality of how it has systematically oppressed the other half. The UK is failing to deal with the largest non-military state action since de-colonisation, while ignoring domestic policy challenges which worsen by the day. Europe is beset by rising nationalism and xenophobia. In the Middle East and Far East, nuclear tensions grow, and the plight of insecure democracies in the global south continues to be ignored. All the while, the planet warms by year on year, threatening our very existence. No shortage of topics then.

And yet, I don’t for a second believe that what I write here will change anything. I don’t believe Theresa May will read my blog, and, as though struck by a bolt from the blue, abandon her disastrous pursuit of Brexit. I don’t believe that, sitting in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-Il will read this, and recognise that his attempts to secure nuclear ICBMs are undermining global stability, or that Donald Trump, won over by my flowing prose, will recommit to massive reductions in carbon emissions.

No, I do not write because I believe it will change the world. I am neither that egotistical nor that foolish. I write, because in doing so, I learn how to articulate my thoughts; indeed, I learn what my thoughts are. I learn to comprehend the world, and to shape my view. I write because writing changes me.

And if you want to change the world, there are worse places to start.

It’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird

It’s a  sin to kill a Mockingbird

This post explores my reaction to reading Go Set A Watchman – here be spoilers for Watchman and for To Kill a Mockingbird (if you can really call comments on a novel released over 50 years ago ‘spoilers’).

I recently finished reading Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee. Never have I been so conflicted about a book.

Let me explain.

I have loved To Kill a Mockingbird since the first time I read it in my teens. It certainly ranks in my top five favourite books, and might just nudge it’s way to the top of the list. Mockingbird is, for me, one of the best explorations of justice and equality ever written, and I have long thought that if I can grow up to be half the man Atticus Finch is, I will be justifiably proud.

I was, therefore, apprehensive when I heard about Watchman. I was aware that it was an early exploration of the world and characters which eventually formed Mockingbird, and that its release was far from uncontroversial. I had heard, too, that Watchman presented those characters in a very different light to Mockingbird. Together, these led me to fear that reading Watchman would, to a degree, destroy the relationship I had with the Finches et al. In the end, I was so uncertain that I didn’t buy or borrow Watchman. It was not until I was given a copy at Christmas that I decided to read it.

Well, here I am, having finished Watchman, and I cannot deny that, as I expected, my relationship with the world which Harper Lee created has changed. But I remain uncertain as to whether or not this is a ‘good thing’.

Watchman is set some 15-20 years after Mockingbird. In it, Scout Finch returns to the small Town setting of Mockingbird, to find that the civil rights movement has strained previously functional relationships between black and white communities and people (one of the most painful sections of the narrative involves Scout visiting Calpurnia, who had been her housekeeper and surrogate mother, and finding a cool reception). Over the course of the novel, Scout comes to realise that the people she had held up as paragons, in particular her father Atticus, are not as perfect as they appear.

Both novels explore Scout’s relationship with Atticus extensively, and it is here that we see the greatest shift. In Mockingbird, Atticus is presented as the town’s moral compass, willing to stare down a lynch mob unarmed, to defend an innocent black man. We readers assume this is because Atticus cannot abide discrimination and injustice – a view supported by his positive attitude to Boo Radley, a young man with severe learning disabilities.

Watchman alters our perception of Atticus. Whilst I do not believe the book presents him as actually racist (as some people might argue), it does show a man with painfully distorted priorities – a man willing to tolerate racism, in order to attempt to maintain the social structures of Alabama (structures built around social discrimination and segregation), and because his preeminent concern for the law means that he cannot condone the Supreme Court’s intervention and infringement on States’ rights (through rulings such as Brown vs. Board of Education).

Scout cannot dismiss this new experience of what her father is like. I cannot dismiss Watchman as an ‘early draft’ of the novel which became Mockingbird because (except for a small number of allusions and flashbacks), it covers new territory. It has a significant new character (Hank), while two other main characters from Mockingbird (Dill and Jem) are absent. I am therefore forced to integrate the novel into my understanding of Harper Lee’s Maycombe County.

This is a painful experience for Scout, and similarly for me. We both held up Atticus as an ideal man and father. Watchman forces us both to face the reality that everyone is flawed. In some ways, this enriches the reality of the novels. They are more true in that they present a world in which there are no paragons. Scout discovers this new reality some time after the events of the novel, paralleling the experience of readers who first saw Atticus as a hero through her eyes, and are now forced to accept the imperfection of reality. This is especially interesting for people like me – people who first read Mockingbird as children or teenagers, and have grown up in between the two novels. Our experience of the world matches the unique publication order of the novels.

So, the shift is painful but true to life, (and pertinent when we consider that to this day the USA has failed to address its legacy of race division). Nonetheless, I feel I have lost something which cannot now be regained. The novel treats Scout’s experience as one in which she ceases to see Atticus as a God – a source of absolute moral authority – and sees him instead for nothing more or less than the man he is. Atticus is now forever tarnished for me, as he is for Scout. I can still praise his virtue, but it is now tinged with disappointment. I cannot help but feel it might have been better not to see that side of Harper Lee’s world. I know all our parents disappoint us sooner or later, but I wonder if, for that very reason, there is a value in having paragons?

We all need ideals to give us something to strive for. There is surely a place for fiction in providing this? Yet, I cannot now go back. And I’m honestly not sure if I would choose to do so if I could.

Election Reflections 2017-06-09

Another year, another unexpected election outcome to dissect. Here goes.

The national picture – Labour Up, Tories Down

The big story of the night is of course the decline of the Conservatives to the benefit of Labour.

I will admit from the outset I got this very wrong. I accepted the media view that a party led by Jeremy Corbyn would not be seen as plausible. This was clearly mistaken. It is evident that there *is* support for a more left-wing politics, and that Jeremy Corbyn has benefited from not being a typical career politician. He has definitely come across well throughout the campaign, and deserves credit for this. It may be that he can build a more left-wing labour party, but combine that with the professionalism of New Labour.

Having said that, I do believe that Labour benefitted hugely from a dreadful Conservative campaign. Going in to this election, the general public didn’t realise just how dreadful Mrs May is. Pre-election, there was a lot of discussion among politicos as to whether she was good or just lucky. It is clear now that pre-election she was just lucky. The Tory campaign was truly abysmal, and their policy platform was far to the right of the acceptable one-nation Conservatism of Cameron. Clearly, this position has been soundly rejected, along with their brutal Brexit.

More generally, we have seen a shift back towards a more bi-polar electoral map. The presidential feel of the campaign clearly helped Labour against the Tories, but it has also resulted in a shift back to extreme divisions between left and right, where people are more likely to vote to keep out the opposition they really dislike. Certainly Labour energised voters (it seems they even got the sought-after boost in young voters), but at least some of that vote will also have resulted from the desire to keep out the Tories, which is clearly more pronounced now that two years ago.

The Lib Dem Picture – we can build on this

As a proud Liberal Democrat, this election cycle has been one of huge personal swings, from massive optimism through to outright terror. At 8pm yesterday, I was pretty sure we would be down to about five seats and facing a Tory majority. On balance, I am not unhappy about moving from nine to twelve seats (an increase of 1/3). This is a small, but significant step to rebuilding the party. It is great to have Vince Cable and Ed Davy back in parliament, to have regained Bath and Eastbourne, to have taken Oxford West, and to have the beginnings of a restoration in Scotland.

There are, of course, great frustrations. Foremost amongst those was Fife North East (a seat once held by the late, great Sir Menzies Campbell), where just 2 votes stood between us and victory! Likewise, the loss of Richmond Park to Zac Goldsmith by 45 votes is a blow. However, small margins will, one hopes, spur the local parties to work even harder next time around – these seats are clearly winnable. Sarah Olney had been given little time to build a local presence, and of course this time round Zac Goldsmith had the full weight of the Tory party behind him (despite the party committing to Heathrow expansion in their manifesto, the policy which first led him to resign the whip).

Other seats we lost were greater blows – to have no MPs in Wales is a setback, as are the losses of Greg Mulholland and of course Nick Clegg, who, above all others, was a media-friendly face for the party (though his departure from the party’s front line may, with time, help us recover support among those who have still not forgiven us for the coalition era).

In terms of wider trends, we have suffered from the presidential, two-party style of this election, with a drop in vote share of 0.5%. The pattern of Labour up and Tories down has hit us too – our losses (with the exception of Richmond Park, and Southport, where we had lost our incumbency bonus with the retirement of John Pugh) were primarily to Labour. This trend also explains the failure of target seats such as Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes’ patch), and Cambridge (Julian Huppert), to turn orange (in the latter of those seats, I fear we are still haunted by tuition fees).

In contrast, our gains have been entirely from Tories and the SNP (who have been thoroughly bloodied). Opposition to the Tories explains successes in Bath and Oxford, in Eastbourne, Twickenham and Kingston & Surbiton. Some failed targets, such as Cheltenham, also saw positive swings to us.

So what can we learn from this. Our results prove yet again how deeply unfair our voting system is: 7.4% of the vote could, in a more representative system, give us some 48 seats (by the same token, the SNP’s 3% of the vote should have given them 19 seats, rather than 35). Sadly this is not about to change. Labour and the Tories both benefit from the status quo – this campaign proves that. With that in mind, it is a relief that our results show improved targeting. We must continue to build on this, with an ever more ruthless approach to local campaigns (as well as a realistic core vote strategy).

The results also give us a clear sense of our more obvious targets – socially liberal voters who would have considered Cameron, and Blair before him. Places like Richmond Park and Cheltenham are prime examples of where we need to look next, Bath and Oxford West of what we can achieve. These seats also, to some extent, vindicate our position on Brexit. No, we didn’t get 48% of the vote, but we did win remain voting seats from the Tories, and are seen as plausible in Scotland (which might not have been the case were we less ardently pro-remain)… It is arguable that we were seen as too much of a one issue party this time round (at a point when, as it turned out, this wasn’t the issue most on people’s minds). Nonetheless, our position on Brexit is a good indicator of our values (outward-looking, internationalist), and can, alongside policies such as 1p on income tax to fund the NHS, help highlight the distinctive voice of the Liberal Democrats in our politics,

All told, it may not be as good as we hoped, but these are results we can build on.

What now?

In the short term, we have a hung parliament. A Tory minority with support from the DUP looks like the most obvious outcome. Predictions for the date of the next election on a postcard please.

The big unknown in all this is of course Brexit. Mrs May went into this election seeking to strengthen her negotiating position – she has done exactly the opposite. If we are lucky, the EU will take pity on us, but time will tell. One thing is certain. The nation has voted for chaos.

Ohh, and UKIP need a new leader (again). Ant takers?!