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.

Friday, 28 November 2014

We need to talk about willies.

This is a post that I've been meaning to write for quite a while, but was reminded when Caron Lindsay posted a link to this piece on Facebook. In it, we hear that Deputy Leader of the Conservatives in Scotland referred to our Leader as 'little Willie Rennie'. GEDDIT?! It's a dick joke! I always think; no better way to serve your constituents and the party you're proud of than standing up on a national platform and making penis jokes, right?

Right.

Well, it's not the first time this kind of thing has happened, and it's not the first time that I've been annoyed about something like this happening. In fact, it seems to be just the latest in a string of these kinds of jokes and references.

For example, late last year Ed Balls joked about David Cameron getting changed on a beach, under a 'surprisingly small towel'. See what he did there? It's a joke about David Cameron having very little to hide when getting changed on a beach? Get it? Gales of laughter are ensuing, I can tell.

Not to be outdone, In January of this year, we have George Osborne telling a joke about how Ed Balls needed 'new crystal balls', as he'd been proven wrong on the economy. Let me tell you, these lads are not simply restricted to penis jokes, they can tell HILARIOUS jokes about testicles too.

*excuse the interlude, I'm trying to compose myself again - bare with me while I try to stop hyperventilating*

The top joker, for me, however, is everyone's favourite irascible uncle - David Davis! He apparently parroted a line about the Tories and Lib Dems being in a 'Brokeback Coalition'. First of all, I'll defend both the short story and film of Brokeback Mountain until my last breath.Annie Proulx is a genius, and I won't laugh at a story about love in a time where it was outlawed, and I won't laugh about a love that ultimately sees people murdered on a near-daily basis. More than that though, the joke here isn't about Brokeback Mountain, it's about the suggestion that David Cameron and Nick Clegg might be gay together. You may be able to sense that at this juncture, my sense of humour is starting to fail me. I don't think that laughing about the suggestion of a gay relationship is a very nice or clever thing to do. I also don't think that suggesting some kind of 'backward' sexuality in an official Government Coalition Agreement is a very classy thing to do.

Quite frankly, I'm a voter. You can probably guess who I vote for, but I'm a voter nonetheless and I think our politics is tarnished by this kind of school-boy 'lad' humour. They should be utterly ashamed that while our creaking benefits system was accidentally cutting off payments to vulnerable people, they were standing up in the Commons making cock jokes. Similarly, all of the people involved will happily extol the need for more women in politics, yet I'd guess that this kind of atmosphere is only going to put women off - not because they're delicate and worried about such jokes, but because most people want to work in an intelligent and professional environment - not the political gutter.

I really hate the fact that it seems okay today to make penis jokes as part of a national political discourse. I don't like the idea that joking about somebody's balls is considered funny or correct. Even more, I have absolute disdain for the creeping, homophobic insinuation of the 'Brokeback Coalition' comment. If we're supposed to believe that politics in this country is any more than a petty old boys club - where people make up for the fact that they were socially awkward teenagers by making jokes about manhood - some of our politicians are going the wrong way about showing it.

But that's fine. I'm a liberal. It's not my place to stop anybody saying anything. Carry on making penis jokes as long as you like, but you're only making dicks of yourselves.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

That's it! Voting for Lib Dem President is CLOSED!

Well, what a busy little while that was, eh? What with the Committee Elections and the election for the next Party President, it's been a busy and engaging time to be a Lib Dem.

That said, there have been a few lessons to take forward, and I just thought I'd lay them out here.

- The voting processes in these elections needs looking at.
It turns out that the process here might not be quite as watertight as we'd like. Online voting emails were sent to all voting reps the Party had email addresses for - clearly, not all of those emails ended up arriving, and a lot of members have reported difficulty in getting access to ballot papers. Clearly, online voting only works if the Party has recent and continued contact with members online - I'm not entirely comfortable that this has been the case. My feeling is that the difficulties aren't widespread enough to cause any kind of challenge to result, but it's something for FE to consider.

- Candidates for Committees need more information.
If I'm honest, I have considered running for Party Committees in the past, but what's stopped me is that I haven't been able to get information on what each committee actually does. It turns out that candidates for these positions didn't even get this information, which seems like a pretty poor state of affairs. Putting together a pack with all the relevant details really wouldn't take that long, so I hope that's something that gets looked at.

- Members need to be informed more about the role of President.
Obviously, I've publicly endorsed Daisy Cooper in the Presidential race, and am confident that she'll be able to undertake all tasks thrown at her. But there seems to be some confusion about what the President does, and what her responsibility is. Some clarification on this would be brilliant, because if this election has proven anything, it's that candidates stand on pretty wide and often reformative platforms, and I'd hate for them to be elected with a mandate that the position doesn't really allow.

- Presidential Candidates need more info too!
The second email sent out by Tim Gordon with snippets of messages from the Presidential Candidates highlighted a real issue. I'm told that none of the candidates realised that they'd have their statements cut into pieces and subject to a click through - clearly messages would have been different had they known. The whole thing just suggests that things weren't made very clear, and that's a shame. I've been involved in a few different selections, and the key thing has to be clarity for all candidates at all stages - so, more of this please!

So, voting closed for President at lunchtime today, and the result is expected in the early afternoon on Saturday. I'm going to say now, that I couldn't be more proud of Daisy Cooper and the work that she's done throughout her campaign. I hope more than anything that she's elected on Saturday, but if she isn't, her campaign has reminded so many people of why they're LibDems, and energised so many people that it'll have had an incredibly positive impact. I'm sorry if you were asked one too many times by James Moore to sign nominations at Autumn Conference and I'm sorry if you follow me on Twitter and have been subject to my constant retweets about Daisy, but this is all really important to all of us. I'm proud to have been part of a campaign that counts our only MEP, some of our best MPs and many of our fantastic Councillors as supporters. But, more important than that, I'm proud that Daisy's campaign has truly spoken to members who aren't on 'the inside', who might live in an area with no LibDem representation, who desperately want to know how our Party is going to succeed right across the United Kingdom - not just in our battlegrounds. Whether Daisy wins or not, a clear message will have been sent that many people in our Party are demanding change. Not a change of Leader, but a far more important change - in aspiration for the Liberal Democrats.

If Daisy's taught me one thing, it's that we should never be content until all areas of our country have the option of good, strong, Liberal Democrat representation. That we shouldn't rest until we're a party of Government once again, this time, without either Labour or the Conservatives. That's an aim that Daisy and I agree on, and, win or lose, it's an aim that I will always work with her to achieve.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

In defence of Myleene Klass

Here's a thing. I didn't see The Agenda last night. Why? Because, if Question Time makes me angry, I'm only going to be angrier with the version that is terribly chaired, never really politically balanced and that looks like it's filmed in a nightclub that closed down in 2002. There, I said it.

Similarly, other than a brief bit of reading this morning, I'm not going to even start questioning Myleene Klass's treatment of Ed Miliband over the Mansion Tax. What I am going to talk about is the online reaction to Myleene's appearance, because something interesting is happening.

Many people aren't really talking about the Mansion Tax, they're talking about Myleene Klass being stupid. Let me lay this out.

The point of this one, surprisingly, has nothing to do with Mansion Tax. It focuses on belittling Myleene Klass and calling her stupid. Later, from the same account, we have -


LOL. We're big men who can make a joke about a woman being stupid without even indirectly referencing what she was talking about. *slow clap*

Then we have this delightful addition to the debate from @WellMax81 ...



A whole award ceremony? You really shouldn't have, Anthony. Once again, somebody talking about what a 'stupid bitch' Myleene apparently is, rather than accepting that you disagree and taking apart her argument on the Mansion Tax. 

Then we have this from 'Dom Hancock'...


More offensive still. Again, not a mention of the Mansion Tax, but a big mention of Klass being 'talentless'. Now, sorry, Dom, babes. Have you ever seen Myleene Klass playing the piano? She's incredible. That's talent. 


Malcolm Carter - such an asset for UKIP that I've never heard of him. Here we have the insidious suggestion that Ed Miliband would make a terrible PM because he 'couldn't even' hold his own against Myleene. Ed Miliband would make a terrible PM for a number of reasons, but the suggestion that Myleene should have been some kind of easy fight is really offensive. Is it because she's a woman, or because she's a TV personality? Either way, this is idiotic. 

Then, things move on and we get nastier. Again, people calling Myleene stupid rather than responding to her comments, but this time, getting more offensive. 


So, we have 'stupid greedy tory woman' and 'stupid fuckin (sic) bitch'. Nice. It gets better, right? 

Nope.


So, to add to the list we have 'tory, nasty cow' and 'big, stupid cunt'. Oddly again, that from such erudite Twitterers we have barely a fleeting mention of the Mansion Tax. Oddly again, lots of suggestion that Myleene is stupid and lots of baseless insults. 

Then this... 


Sorry to list things. I realise that for right thinking people it's horribly depressing, but it's important. Isn't it interesting, that when a reasonably intelligent, articulate and successful woman voices an opinion she's not challenged on the opinion, she's challenged for being a stupid Tory bitch. I don't agree with Myleene on the Mansion Tax, I don't really follow her career but it makes me incredibly angry that while men are challenged on our views, someone like Myleene is belittled and denigrated because she had an opinion.

Next time somebody tells me that they don't understand what's meant by male privilege - they can bugger off.







Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Does anyone remember the Chilcot Inquiry?

I'm going to tell you something about me. I'm not really somebody open to conspiracy theories. I tend to give most people the benefit of the doubt. For instance, I don't tend to think that all politicians are out for themselves, I think that all politicians are human and thus, sadly fallible. In my mind, before buying into odd theories, I tend to weigh up what would be simplest and easiest, because more often than not, that'll be the answer. So, is the world being run by the secretive Illuminati who pull strings and arrange things to speed up the New World Order? Or is it more likely that it's run by a group of men (probably with castration complexes) who hoard power and influence? I know which one I'm going with.

That's why, when the Chilcot Inquiry was launched, I didn't just assume that we'd be sold a pack of lies. I assumed that it might be fallible, and there would probably be more redactions than immediately comfortable, but that we would get the answers we needed. We'd get answers about the conversations between Bush and Blair before we invaded Iraq. We'd get answers about the dossier that readied Parliament and the British people for War. We'd finally get some conclusive answers on whether or not we'd been lied to, and whether or not the lives of British men and women were lost in vain.

That report was due in 2011. It's a report that, three years later, we're still waiting on.

At this point, I don't want to see it because it might bring shame on Labour or vindicate the position taken by the Liberal Democrats. This is bigger than that kind of politics. To me, the British people who funded that war, and the British men and women whose lives were put on the line deserve to know what they were fighting for and how it came about. As I said, I'm not somebody who assumes wrongdoing, but when a controversial report is delayed again, and again, and again, I start to wonder what's being hidden from us.

For me it's clear. I couldn't care less who this report embarrasses. I couldn't care less who it implicates. I'm not worried if it damages the tawdry mess that we call a 'special relationship'. What I do care about is that this Government thinks enough of the people that elected it to tell them the truth.

So, the clock's still ticking. As I click 'publish' on this post, we've had a wait of three years, nine months and three days. It's high time that the Chilcot Report was published and we were told the truth.

And let me say this - if we are willing to accept being treated this way and we continue to say nothing, then we'll get exactly what we deserve.