Wednesday, 3 June 2015

On endings

A good friend of mine messaged me yesterday. He was writing something about what Charles Kennedy's death meant to him. He hadn't met Charles, and joined after Charles' time as our leader had finished, but the point he made was incredible. It was Charles Kennedy's leadership and principles when opposing Labour's position on civil liberties that had made my friend a liberal. The other incredible thing, was that in checking through what he'd written, he had actually addressed part of the piece to a wider audience and accidentally addressed part of it to Charles himself. It is striking that this kind of thing so often happens. In discussing the death of somebody that we were touched by or care so much about, we very often veer away from the task and end up having that last (or first) conversation we'd always hoped to have but which sadly now won't be possible.

Like my friend, I never met Charles Kennedy. It's one of the reasons that I didn't say anything about any of it until yesterday evening. Whilst we live in a world that has grown used to the comforting hum of social media in the background, I didn't think it was my place to say anything at that point. My colleagues who worked with and cared for Charles on a personal level deserved that space to react, respond and most importantly, to remember their friend.

My first memory of Charles Kennedy is in fact my first memory of David Heath. I remember in the dim and distant past seeing a newspaper with the two men front page - not a national newspaper, just the Somerset Standard. Charles had come to visit Frome and I knew even at that age that it was a big deal. A couple of years later, many people in my town took to the streets to protest Tony Blair's plans to invade Iraq - they joined people around the country doing the same thing. They joined the hundreds of thousands who did the same in London - a march that Charles so famously addressed. Very rarely does it happen that we feel that wherever we might be in the country, we're joining with people right across our islands in standing up for something that matters. I'm just glad that we had somebody so passionate and so eloquent putting forward a liberal argument.

We all know what happened in Iraq. A very wise person on Twitter yesterday pointed out how different our world might be had Charles Kennedy's argument been taken on board. Instead, we await the report of the Iraq Enquiry - one that has been used as a political football for long enough.

The other ending that I want to reflect upon is the result that we saw this time last month. Charles Kennedy, like so many Liberal Democrat colleagues, lost his seat in Parliament. Results aside, the most difficult thing for me to come to terms with is the impact that those losses will have on the lives of people up and down the country. The Liberal Democrats, under Charles Kennedy, before that and since that, have always gone to bat for the people who find themselves without a voice. I've made the point before, and I'll make it again. The reason that I joined this party is because on the council estate where I grew up, no politicians knocked on our door. Hit hardest by successive Conservative Governments that ignored and vilified single parent families, we were left behind.

It's those people that Charles Kennedy fought for. People like my Mum, and like my family. It's people like those that need us now more than ever. So many seats across this country fell to parties who don't work for local communities, but who have enough money to pay the postman to deliver their leaflets. I'm proud to be a member of a party that doesn't just pay the postman to push glossy leaflets through doors. I'm proud that in the Liberal Democrats we knock on those doors, we build lasting relationships and we work to make a difference.

Shortly after he lost his seat, Charles said something that he knew to be true - that our party would rebuild, regroup and return as a strong and battle-ready force for good in British politics. It's a point that is a real testament to his own humility - that even in defeat, he could see the wider picture and look forward. If there's one thing I know to be true, it's that if we go out there and do that work, if we go out and meet people and learn what matters to them, what worries them, we will come back stronger and fitter - ready to make a real difference to peoples lives.

I never met Charles Kennedy. I don't have any funny anecdotes. But one thing I know, is that far from the House where such moving words were said today, people up and down the country are missing him. People he never met and never had contact with, but people who knew that Charles was on their side. Let's reach out to those people and consider the future we want to build together. Our country needs more Charles Kennedy, not less - so let's work in tribute to a fine man, a passionate leader and a friend to so many.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Goodbye to all that

In May of 2011, I was elected to Mendip District Council and became the youngest person ever to be elected to the authority. I could barely think as they were counting the votes, and by the time the result was announced, I could do nothing but cry. Cry with relief, exhaustion and confusion at everything that had happened. Election campaigns, as many of you will know are (as a good friend once said) the best of times and the worst of times. They're incredible. There's no feeling like being involved in something that you're so passionate about, side by side with others who are equally committed. That accepted, they're so draining. I love knocking on doors and chatting with people, but doing it for hours on end is incredibly tiring - you can't help but start to be dead behind the eyes by the time you've finished.

During my time campaigning for public office, and whilst a Councillor, I've done some things that will never fail to make me grin from ear to ear. What's more, I've worked with some people who have become my best friends and who inspire me. Before I was elected, Helen Sprawson-White and I joined a campaign to protect Frome Library from funding cuts coming down the line from County Hall Conservatives. That campaign was successful, and I'm proud of it. When the Conservatives tried cutting funding for Young Carers, I campaigned against it and they backed down. I'm proud of that, and I'm proud that at last year's Autumn Conference the LibDems committed to rolling out Pupil Premium to Young Carers to ensure they're given better support in school. When Council Tax Benefit was cut, I worked with my colleague Claire Hudson to make sure that the Council removed discounts for empty and second homes rather than cutting support for the most vulnerable. My colleague Adam Boyden has to be one of the best people I've worked with - he's reached across party boundaries to tackle fly-tipping and he's helped with my own casework when I wasn't well enough to do it myself. It's to these people and others that I owe a great debt of gratitude.

As a County Councillor, I worked with local people and politicians from other parties to have the 267 Bus reinstated to Rode and it still makes me smile to take the bus through that village today. As a County Councillor, I was able to put questions to our Police and Crime Commissioner, asking her what she would do to tackle FGM - not just in Bristol - but in rural areas where such issues are too often ignored or assumed not to exist.

I'm proud of many of the things I've done and I've enjoyed my time as a Councillor, but I can't pretend that public office isn't taxing. I can't pretend that I've found every minute easy or simple - it hasn't been.

That's why I've decided not to stand for Council again in May. I've done my four years, and I've enjoyed them. To be chosen by the people you grew up with to represent them is one of the greatest privileges a person can ever have, it's one I'm thankful for. I'll be working in Somerton and Frome to make sure that we bolster our position in Local Government as well as electing David Rendel our next MP. David isn't flashy, he doesn't pull gimmicks - but he cares very passionately about local people. He's a good man and I hope that local people send him to Parliament on our behalf.

I don't honestly know what my next step is. As I'm finishing my degree, I'm entering a period where I have to consider my future career and all of the options open to me. Whilst I have an inkling I might end up running for office again at some point in the future, I'm so happy that I can move forward in the knowledge that at least in some small way, I was able to stand up and make something of a difference. I think that's probably all we can ever hope for in life, so thank you for allowing me that.

I'll still be blogging (for blogging read ranting) here, so watch this space.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Why are Good Energy penalising their most efficient customers?

A year or so ago, we decided to switch energy supplier away from British Gas. We weren't alone in doing it, at the same time many people got fed up with the offers from big energy suppliers and switched to smaller outfits to get better deals. At this time we decided to switch to Good Energy, partly because of their links with the National Trust (never a bad thing) and partly because I reasoned that with Good Energy we could play our part in investing in renewables, and partly because over the long haul I tend to think that renewables will end up being comparably cheaper than fossil fuels. The switch from one to another was seamless, and we've been happy enough with their service.

Yesterday we received a letter from them telling us that they were cutting their unit Electricity price by 2.1% - 'Huzzah!' I thought - look who was right all along, yeah? No. So it turns out that whilst cutting their Electricity and Gas prices, they're increasing their daily Standing Charge from 18.86p per day, to 23.47p. Now, for most people, bills will go down regardless. The cut in the other two prices will mean that they easily save more than they get charged in the change in Standing Charge.

What this means though, is that people in our position are actually penalised. As the letter says, 'The result is that we are lowering our unit electricity prices by 2.1%. However, as you are a low user of electricity, and because our standing charges need to go up, you will see from the enclosed Price Change Notification, that as a result, your overall bill will rise.'

If I'm honest, I'm a bit baffled. We're a low use of electricity for exactly the same reason that we decided to go with Good Energy. We're careful with our electricity usage. We wash clothes later in the evening, we switch lights off, we use timers. It isn't by accident that we're a low user of electricity - in a world with very finite resources, I don't think we can afford not to be low users of electricity.

The change in payments isn't really what I'm moaning about here. We're in a lucky enough position that we can meet our bill payments, and more than this, because Good Energy didn't ask for a meter reading last year, we're currently in credit on our account. The people I feel for are those who are low users of electricity for other reasons. Logically, those who will use less energy are those living in smaller homes or living alone - many of these people will be elderly. I don't see why those people should be penalised.

Good Energy, according to their website, are committed to building a green energy future. To me, a key part of that green energy future has to be convincing people to live efficiently and leave as little a mark on the planet as possible. Quite why, in a year when they're cutting unit prices, Good Energy believes they should penalise exactly those customers who are making that effort is beyond me.

As I said, it isn't about me. It's an issue of principles. We'll only tackle the coming energy crisis if we're all a part of the solution. It seems that perhaps inadvertently, Good Energy are moving in the opposite direction.

*Every sigh*


Friday, 13 February 2015

Homophobia is alive and well - I know first hand.

A little known thing about me, is that before politics and before the Council and way back in the annals of time (see 2008) I was involved in a Channel 4 education TV show. The show followed the lives on 15 young people across a year where we each had really clear goals. One member of the team was a Labour PPC, one was starting what has become a fantastic poetry collective in Nottingham called Mouthy Poets. My 'big dream' was to submit a song to the Eurovision Song Contest, and it's an aim that I achieved, in a round about way. I ended up submitting a song to Ireland, it got turned down and so I spent the last few months of my big year recording and releasing an EP. Thus is life.

The TV show involved me basically being followed around by a camera crew on occasion, especially when something big was happening. One of the final sessions they recorded was when I was launching my EP at an event at a local theatre. What we found, on the day was that a number of the posters I'd put up advertising the event had been either torn down or had homophobic statements written on them. I refused to be recorded talking about it, because I didn't want a positive event being defined by something so grim. I think in a sense I was also embarrassed, because I was trying to project something positive, and it was being undermined. Another time during filming we had to briefly stop as passers by shouted 'gay boy' at me.

But that was 2008, we've moved on right? Well, yes and no.

Yesterday as I got the bus to Frome (a retained service that remains my proudest achievement from my time as a County Councillor) and as I hopped off the chap waiting to get on with his wife or girlfriend said 'gay boy' again, as I walked past.

It was really, really strange. He was a grown man, I'm a grown man, yet he was using playground abuse against me as I walked past him. This verbal attack was really no different to other playground attacks - in terms of intelligence it's about as complex as 'fatso'. Yet, it was motivated by my sexuality and so could be reported as a hate crime.

The thing is, I like tricking myself into thinking that homophobia doesn't really exist any more, and I think we all do. What happens generally, is that you leave school and go to University - it's a self-selecting group that very often will limit the ability for homophobia to grow. Or, you turn to the gay scene, or community groups where there isn't an issue. My point is, we surround ourselves with our own tribes, and because we don't get attacked any more, we think that it's all petered out.

But it isn't true. I believe that in certain parts of our society, homophobia is just as rife now as it ever was. While government remains timid about sex and relationship education, I believe young people are still having to bare the brunt of this scourge. I wasn't upset as such, yesterday, I was more surprised. But, what I am upset about is the fact that for every regressive twenty-something who thinks that that kind of thing is okay, there will be plenty more young people using these kinds of slurs every day. What's more, there will be LGBT+ people having to deal with various prejudices every single day. People who just want to be left alone and built their own lives with some semblance of dignity.

If we think that this is just a contained event, we're deluding ourselves. A survey last year pointed out that 52% of LGBT+ people surveyed had considered or attempted self harm recently or in the past. 44% of these people had considered suicide. These figures tell us something about what's happening outside of our own cosy little microcosms. It's high time that Government stepped in and provided proper education and support for young people - if we're in Government again after 2015 it's something I'll campaign for. Because, simply, there are a whole load of people out there, they're hurting, and they're relying on us to do something about this. Same-sex Marriage was a big win for us, but we should never flinch in the face of this fight, until we know that all young people can go to school and live their lives safely, happily and without fear of homophobic, biphobic or transphobic attack.    

If we can't do something about it, I question why we're here.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

My visit to Auschwitz

Josh and I visited Auschwitz last year as part of a visit to Krakow. We'd considered before, whether we wanted to go, and I didn't endlessly want to, but we decided in the end that it would be a good idea to visit while we were there.

My apprehension at going can be summed up quite simply - I'm not somebody for whom seeing things necessarily makes them more real. Seeing the wreck of the Titanic scattered across the ocean floor doesn't help me understand the horror, or the loss of life. Similarly, visiting Auschwitz didn't help me to understand atrocity.

In that sense though, I don't think we visit places like Auschwitz to understand. How can you understand? Standing at the gates, under the sign, didn't help me understand the warped parade of men, women and children who marched in and out of Auschwitz 1 camp on a daily basis, accompanied by the cheery music of the camp orchestra. What I did notice was how strange it was, to stand beneath a sign so infamous, and notice with some discomfort how well engineered it was. To notice the 'Halt' barrier, tilted at an angle, now, like something from a lego kit.

Seeing the mountains of shoes didn't help me understand what had led to this, but it did make me fear history. As you walk into another room, and realise that one wall is made of glass, you recognise the fear of looking any further. In that split second, you realise that the space holds something that will hit you like a train, even before you see what it is. That's the fear of knowing that you're a human being - not a Jew, a Gypsy or a gay, as such - but that you're a human being, and it was your people that did this, it's the fear of looking your own history in the face. Then you do, and it's suitcases. A small suitcase that used to be red, and used to belong to a little girl who didn't see as much life as you've spent asleep. It does hit you like a train, and so it should.

Auschwitz Birkenau, again, is uncanny. When you've seen something in pictures, or in documentaries, so often, it's strange to realise that this place exists. People say that birds never sing at Auschwitz Birkenau, and it's rubbish. Birds very rarely sing in places that don't have trees, and this place doesn't have many. Rather than realising that, people buy into this helpful thought, as if nature is judging what has happened there, as if God knows. I don't know about God, but to me, it's a way of moving our gaze. If we're trotting around thinking about the supernatural power of birds to recognise atrocity, we're distracting ourselves just slightly from the horror of it all. The forest near Birkenau is one of the richest in the area for mushrooms, but nobody eats them, because the soil is fertile with the ash dumped there seventy years ago. Accept the grim reality of that, and then give me hokey talk about birdsong.  

The news has made a great deal of the fact that the number of survivors returning to Oswiecim this year is dwindling. Around 300 people will visit the site today, to remember what happened there and act as a warning to another generation. In another five years, or another ten, they'll be gone, and we'll have the camps themselves, and the recorded testimony to remind us - the sum total of six million lives.

Visiting Auschwitz didn't help me understand what happened there, because, simply, nothing can. Most human beings can't clearly imagine twenty people standing in a row, so it's probably a bit much to expect to be able to quantify death and degradation on such a horrific scale. But what it did do is help me understand my link to it. I'm not German, I'm not authoritarian, I don't hate people, but I am human and I am capable. It's very easy for us, with seventy years of blue water, to pretend that the whole thing is too distant and too brutal. It isn't - it's all very normal. I have sat on a bus and heard people mocking somebody else for the way they're dressed, and I sat in silence and watched, because I didn't want to get involved. There is literally nothing between me, and somebody who noticed Jewish people steadily disappearing from their neighbourhood, but who didn't want to get involved.

That's why I visited Auschwitz. To bare witness to the capability of us - all of us. Nobody can stand up and say, with a clear conscience, that this should never happen again, without an awareness that on various scales it's happening all around us. Whether on killing fields, or in Russian prisons, or in the areas controlled by Islamic State Militants, human beings are being divorced of their humanity, and often butchered on a horrible scale. We stand solemnly at the gates of Auschwitz, yet blindeye Boko Haram. We all know of the horrors of Nazi Germany, yet lower our flags to remember a Saudi King whose regime sentenced people to paralysis - not death, paralysis.

I'm not suggesting that we can tackle all of the world's horrors. We can't. We don't live in a black and white world, we live in shades of grey. Auschwitz isn't an answer to any question. It didn't help my understanding, it doesn't offer a solution. But if Auschwitz and the holocaust can teach us anything, I hope it's that we're all human beings - it was 'our people' that did this. We're all capable, and we're all involved, and perhaps the best we can hope for is that, bit by bit, we get better.

Please visit Auschwitz, but not because it's about Jews or Nazis. Visit Auschwitz and become aware. It's about all of us.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Renters : Screwed over twice in one week

Well, well, well - the Autumn Statement was quite a bonanza wasn't it? Well, no, actually. Or at least, not if you're one of the 9 million people currently renting property in England - if you're one of those people, you've just been screwed over royally, all in the space of one week. 

Tessa - fast becoming one of our best MPs on this issue.
First, we had the second reading of the Bill on Revenge Evictions last Friday. This is something that has made Tessa Munt one of my favourite MPs, because she's campaigned on the issue for a really long time. It's currently completely legal for a landlord to evict you from their property because you speak out about bad conditions, or because you ask them why they're not completing the repairs they said they would. This is something quite close to my heart - not only have I lived in rental accomodation since I left home, but since I've been a Councillor I've lost track of the number of times that I've been contacted by people whose homes are damp or in states of awful repair. One of these people was eventually moved, because their flat was so damp that their child had a perpetual chest infection for a number of years. My experience has shown me that we desperately need to strengthen the position of renters, because currently, it's up to them to go hand to hand with landlords in the fear that they might be evicted. What happened last Friday was an utter disgrace. With many Liberal Democrats turning up to back Tessa's effort, the debate was talked out by Christopher Chope and Philip Davies - unsurprisingly, two Tory MPs who make not insubstantial sums from the rental market. Tessa's work would have meant that tenants would have been protected from rogue landlords who evict tenants on spurious grounds, but the efforts of Christopher Chope and Philip Davies mean that yet again, no action will be taken. Of course, it's unlikely that either of these MPs will lose their seats next time, because that's the sad world we live in, but I hope that voters in Christchurch and in Shipley briefly consider the actions of these shameful men before casting their votes. 

The second thing, happened yesterday in the Autumn Statement - or, more importantly, it didn't happen. The headline from George Osborne's speech to Parliament was his reform of Stamp Duty, paid by people who sell property. Once again, this is policy that completely ignores those who don't own property and who aren't in shouting distance of doing so. It's a handout to those who are relatively lucky already, and one which will make no positive impact to those stuck on the rental ladder, being moved on every six months by Landlords looking to make quick money. I'd also be interested to see what impact this change has on the rental market - with landlords buying and selling property ever more frequently, what we could see is an even quicker churn in landlords offloading property. What does that mean? An even worse deal for tenants who already get moved on time and time again. 

More important still, the reform to Stamp Duty won't massively benefit those who own one home and move every ten years or so, it'll benefit those who own whole portfolios of housing who buy and sell to monetise their stock - it'll put more money back into the pockets of Landlords. 

Please forgive me if I seem a bit rabid about this, but my view is simple - that the Government that we're a part of has been pretty horrific for those renting property. We passed the National Planning Policy Framework - a piece of planning policy that might as well have been called the Linden Charter. Those of us elected to Planning Authorities will know that in effect, the NPPF has opened the doors to big developers as long as they can put forward some loose argument suggesting that it's 'sustainable' development. In my area alone, this has meant developments with no social housing, no affordable housing, and no local link. 

Quite frankly, the Government's approach to renters has been piss poor, and we've let them down. I'm glad that finally we're talking about the Government actually starting housing schemes rather than leaving it to the likes of Linden and Barrett, but it does feel like too little, too late. 

In the past week, people who can't afford to buy their own homes and who have very little security in rented accomodation have been let down. My question really is, if we Liberal Democrats don't go into the next election with solid promises to support renters - then who will stand between them and the Landlords who see a price on their head? Fantastic work from Tessa Munt, but we must do more. 

Please join me in donating to Shelter - they're doing fantastic work, and they're sometimes the only people fighting the side of renters up and down the country. 

Monday, 1 December 2014

My Question for Sal Brinton

So - there we have it! Baroness Sal Brinton will be the next President of the Liberal Democrats, and a fantastic job she'll do. The one thing I love about LibDem internal elections is that generally whoever wins, we all win. Sal has massive experience in the Party, she's a proven campaigner, she's a skilled Parliamentarian, and the important thing for me - her record on LGBT+ issues is incredible. Whilst I supported Daisy, I know that Sal will do a fine job in leading our Party through the General Election and making sure our systems are fit for the 21st Century.

I won't pretend that I wasn't sad on Saturday. I think Daisy ran a great campaign, and importantly for me, she inspired me. That doesn't happen so often in politics, for me and so I'll always be grateful for it. One thing I'm left feeling is that whatever she chooses to do next, Daisy's service to the Party is something that we'll all benefit from.

In looking toward her time as President, there's just one thing that I hope Sal will consider. She's been very heavily involved in the Leadership Programme, and we're still yet to see whether that will make an impact, but I hope Sal picks up Daisy's plan to diversify the Party's grassroots. I'm incredibly glad that the Leadership Programme targets support at underrepresented groups within the Party, but I also recognise that we'll never be able to truly represent the Country and appeal to all people unless our membership is representative too. The thing that I loved about Daisy's pitch was that she planned to start an outreach programme, one that targeted media outlets used by varying communities to recruit and train new members. Daisy's plan would see us advertising in newspapers and broadcasting on radio stations that don't have a predominantly white, straight market. Daisy's plan would then provide information and training to people who responded, and if they joined, would support those people into positions in the Party - whether that's becoming a candidate for election or a Local Party Chair.

I know that with her record on equalities, Sal understands that our Party must do more to become more representative - she's shown that time and time again in word and deed. So, if there's one thing that we take forward, please let it be the plan for the grassroots. It doesn't need to be expensive, and it doesn't need to be on the same scale as the leadership scheme, but it's something that we can do to start to build the Party we want to see in the future. Whilst I'd hate to put words in Daisy's mouth, I'm sure she'd be happy to spearhead such an endeavour, and I'd be very happy to work with her.

But finally, massive congratulations to Sal, she'll be a President we can all unite behind and be proud of.