Thursday, 30 October 2014

5 Reasons to vote for Daisy Cooper

So, folks - it's that time again, Liberal Democrat internal elections! Not only is this an opportunity to run an election the way it should be run (this is a brief happy interlude in FPTP life for those interested in electoral reform), it's also a one-member-one-vote chance to elect the people that effectively steer our party. You'll be able to cast votes for various party committees and you'll also be able to vote for our next Party President.

I need to let you into a secret - I've been supporting Daisy Cooper for some months now. When I resigned my Council seat due to various issues including homophobic bullying, Daisy picked up the phone and listened to me. She wanted to know what the party had done to support me, and she wanted to know if there was anything the party could do in the future to make my situation less likely to occur. Do you know what was great? She GOT IT. She got that the Party hadn't been perfect in it's support, she got that it was about more than homophobia and her focus was protecting others from having to deal with the same issues. That's somebody I can get behind, but that was only the first reason. Here I'm going to list the others and ask you to consider giving her your first preference when ballot papers arrive this week.

1. Daisy knows what it's like to be on the ground right now. 

She isn't in the House of Lords, she hasn't been elected to all kinds of lofty positions within the Party. What Daisy has done is grafted. As the Parliamentary candidate for Suffolk Coastal in 2010, she added nearly 8% to our vote, but the important bit is what she's done since. Daisy is a campaigner through and through. She hasn't spent her campaign courting the media or rocking up wherever she thinks most members will be - she's been campaigning. Whether Chippenham or Clacton, Daisy has built her campaign by knocking on doors with our campaigners. Why? Because it's incredibly important that our Party President realises the challenges we're facing. I know a lot of LibDem members who are really angry, because they don't believe that HQ realises that the shit has hit the fan - Daisy does know, because she's been there, not as a candidate, but as a foot soldier. That experience counts for a lot.

2. She understands that our Party needs root and branch reform.

At a hustings at Conference, the other candidates seemed to be debating how soon it was right to enforce the findings of the Morrissey report. Daisy was clear -Morrissey didn't go far enough. In the face of allegations of abuse or inappropriate behaviour, Daisy gets that our Party was caught out. Her focus hasn't been on the particular characters at play in the current problems, it's been on what we can do to make sure it can't happen again.

Her idea is a great one. That each elected official or member of staff has a responsibility to report any form of inappropriate behaviour. It's brilliant, because it takes the pressure off the victim of the behaviour and means that a proper file of evidence can be put together before disciplinary procedures start. Daisy's approach would cut out the implicit victim-blaming that our current system is dogged by.

3. Daisy doesn't need schooling on LGBT+ issues.

There's a thing that happens when I mention that I'm a member of the LGBT+ community - people start talking about gay men. 'Oh yes! I've just been to a gay wedding!', 'I used to live in Brighton, it was great!'...

*tumbleweed* 

There's nothing that pisses me off more than people who assume that LGBT+ issues are gay issues. Here's the thing, the spousal veto isn't an issue that will affect my marriage, but it's something that will affect the lives of people that I care about. I'm not bisexual, but I care massively that bisexual friends of mine are almost excluded from the debate. I have pansexual loved ones, and it bothers me when people ask them constantly what the deal is. I want a President who doesn't need this kind of stuff explaining. 

When asked to submit statements to LGBT+ LibDems all three candidates responded. Sal Brinton made a very good point about the spousal veto but Liz Lynne started talking about 'Lesbian and Gay' people. Well, Liz, I'm sorry, but this isn't 1995 and we don't need that kind of accidental exclusion. 

Daisy has extensive experience of fighting for my community. When Commonwealth leaders discussed decriminalising homosexuality, it was because in part Daisy had been putting pressure on them to do it. As Director of the Commonwealth Think Tank she was part of forcing the arms of those who would rather ignore the fact that LGBT+ people exist. In her new job with Hacked Off, she works closely with Trans Media Watch to highlight the fact that beyond phone-hacking, our media is still completely skewed on these issues. 

She has a record on this, and it makes me so, so happy. 

4. She isn't on the Leader's team.  

Now, my friend Mathew often calls me a 'loyalist' because I don't tend to slag Nick Clegg off too much in public. But, I think there's an important role to be played by the President in being firm with the Leadership and properly representing the views of members. I personally won't vote for candidates for whom I think this position would end up being a conflict. I believe that Daisy is actually uniquely placed to make this work. 

She's sat on FE and so knows the inner workings of the Party, but it means she also knows the proper ways of challenging the direction in which the Party moves. I'm confident that as President she wouldn't cause distractions by publicly attacking Nick, but she would allow members voices to be heard around the negotiating table - that's important. 

5. We need to be the party of progress again.  

In 2010, the LibDems benefited from the fact that people saw that Nick Clegg understood their lives and their problems. Now, that's gone south a bit, but I don't believe that it's impossible for us to regain that position. 

It would say something really important about our Party if we elected a woman in her thirties who isn't an MP or peer to the position of Party President. Daisy doesn't have friends in high places. She doesn't have enough money being piled into her campaign to buy ads on LibDem Voice the week that ballots go out (really subtle that one...) - what she does have are ideas about how to really change our Party and take it forward. 

So, those are my five big reasons. Those are the things that will be in my mind when I cast my vote. I want to make it clear that I don't have anything against either Sal or Liz. Sal was incredibly supportive when I resigned and is a great candidate. Liz is a strong candidate too, I'm just concerned about whether she has enough aspiration for our Party, and I'm concerned that she hasn't properly answered questions raised recently about her past as MP for Rochdale.

I won't be crestfallen if any of the three candidates win - but if we're talking about properly moving our party into the future, about building the kind of Party that could get enough women elected to have a balanced cabinet and about building a Party that doesn't have 'black holes', Daisy has to get my vote. 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Lynda Bellingham : Dignity in Death

On a particularly busy day at this year's LibDem Conference, I asked questions to Danny Alexander, Tim Farron and our leader Nick Clegg. It's the question to Nick that means most to me, however. In his Q&A I asked him if he would fight to ensure that parliamentary time would be put aside to debate assisted dying. He, to his credit told me that he would, but that he wasn't yet convinced of the arguments in favour of the issue - that's a kind of honesty that I like.

I care about assisted dying for a number of reasons. The main one is that my Mum has worked in caring roles with the elderly for most of my life. Growing up, it was quite normal for me to visit my Mum's place of work and play piano for her residents, or to speak to them about their lives - it's something that can really help those in the early stages of Alzheimer's. What that also meant was that I became quite used to the fact that every now and again my Mum would come home and tell me that a lady who I'd often spoken with had died. And here's the thing, I've also been fully aware that death isn't very often like falling asleep. Sometimes it is, but just as often somebody who dies has been manhandled awfully because paramedics tried of resuscitate, or they died in a way that will have removed almost all sense of dignity.

Almost worse than the dying, is the people that have to live with no sense of dignity. I've met enough people in my life whose existences became almost intolerable, all because we have a narrow health system and narrow attitude that would rather leave people to suffer than to give them help and support.

In this sense, the way that Lynda Bellingham dealt with the final stages of her life are a breath of fresh air. Her final interview, broadcast on Loose Women today was actually almost joyful to watch. Yes, it was sad, because she made it very clear that she intended to live until Christmas and spend time with her family, but it was also joyous because she was still absolutely herself. She was still the glamourous actress who talked on a daily basis about 'Mr Spain', she looked fantastic and she clearly was happy to spend such a touching time with women that she cared so much about.

She was also open about the fact that she'd been given a 'way out' - the option of taking pain-relieving medication that would probably end her life. She had taken ownership of that decision.

I'd like to see more movement on the issue of Assisted Dying, because I think whilst Lynda will have been able to help herself, many people aren't in that position. I understand the arguments and the need for safeguards, but I also understand the massive suffering that people go through because the law won't afford them another way. I'm glad that Nick agrees with me that it should be debated.

I hope that Lynda becomes a role model of how to deal with death. Rather than taking to her bed, or writing a 'bucket list', Lynda wrote letters to her children, she wrote a will and she made plans for the near future that seemed attainable. Those are pragmatic and dignified things to do - small measures that can be taken that say quite openly, death might be on it's way, but it'll be on my terms.

Lynda Bellingham was a wonderful woman. She became a household name through her acting roles - Oxo Mum or anything else - and she became a friend to people up and down the country who welcomed her into their homes every lunchtime. But to me, her real legacy could be a change in attitude toward death that allows us to talk about it all, and discuss things properly. In that case, Lynda's life will have been effervescent, but her passing will have made a lasting and meaningful mark too.

I don't know Lynda Bellingham's views on actual assisted dying, and wouldn't profess to, but you can get more information from Dignity in Dying by clicking here.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Better Together : Strength in our Union

I've resisted from getting involved in the Independence Debate for a very clear reason - tomorrow's vote is for the people of Scotland and not for me. Scots will decide based on a whole load of issues that just don't affect me. If Scottish Independence is successful at the vote, it isn't me who'll have to contend with questions of currency, or national security - in one sense I'm grateful for that fact. It's the same reason that I haven't phonebanked anybody in Scotland to try and pull them round to my way of thinking - when it comes down to the brass tacks of the issues, people will do what the Queen said and think carefully before making a decision.

What I'd like to speak for, however, is the ideology of the United Kingdom. It's funny, because over the past few years there seems to have been a rise in the ideas of the individual nations. I don't really consider myself English, because to me, England is the past, and the past is another country. The things that make me proud of where I come from have all happened since the Union was formed, and in that sense, I consider myself to be from the UK - I always have done.

It wasn't England or Scotland or Wales that brought the National Health Service into being - it was the United Kingdom - it was our collective achievement. I'm one of these slightly annoying people who will very rarely hear a bad word said about the NHS, because to my family, it's been nothing but brilliant - never glamorous or incredibly impressive, but it does it's job, quietly and without complaint.

Similarly, something like the BBC makes me proud. It makes me proud that we still all fund a national broadcaster that has become a world leader in exporting TV from the United Kingdom around the world. The BBC is almost an anachronism in our world of contracting and squeezing margins - but it's an anachronism I'm so proud of.

It's also the UK - not any one of it's nation states - whose MPs voted to ensure that going forward, we give 0.7% of our GDP to aid abroad. That makes me proud, because it is so British. It is British to look at what we have, accept that *relatively* we're doing well and see what we can do to help elsewhere. It makes me proud to see on the news, boxes marked 'British Aid' being unpacked from shipping containers in the world's poorest and most extreme locations. That wasn't Scotland's achievement, or England's achievement, it was our achievement.

When the Better Together campaign has spoken about how the Union makes us strong, they've too often gotten the wrong end of the stick. Too often, when talking about strength, they've started talking about the threat from terrorists, or how an independent Scotland would fund it's Armed Services - to me, that isn't what strength is about. Strength is about how we look after those who can't look after themselves. Things like the 0.7% aid bill, and like the changes made by the LibDems and Labour to the Bedroom Tax* when we stand together as a United Kingdom, we can do untold good in the world.

So that's what I hope people spare a thought for when they go to vote tomorrow. Not being scared or concerned about the dangers, but having their eyes wide open about the possibilities that Independence promises and the proven record that the Union has to do good. More than that, I hope that the vote and the aftermath go ahead without too much upset between neighbours. Over the past weeks I've seen for myself the parting of friends over this issue, and nothing is as big as that. I hope that whatever happens, the union between friends and between neighbours remains intact and whilst I hope that the United Kingdom I care about isn't divided, I also hope that proud Scotland isn't divided either.

*Stop trying to make 'spare room subsidy' happen, guys - it's not going to and it's getting embarrassing

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Pride - A few Footnotes in History.

Tonight I went to see Pride at Komedia in Bath. I'd seen it advertised, and just knew that I'd have to go and see it. It covers the work of LGSM - Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners, a group formed during the height of the 1984 Miners' Strike. It follows the story of how a group of LGBT people ran street collections, jumble sales and benefit gigs to raise money for struggling mining communities in South Wales as the strike wore on and grew more and more bitter.

The film was cast incredibly well, the plot dipped and peaked beautifully (having me in tears more than once, unsurprisingly) and the soundtrack was just incredible. Not only was there a real A to Z of popular gay music from the 80s, there was also a really beautiful blending of typical orchestral soundtrack with the sounds of brass mining bands.

For anybody with any interest in the struggle for LGBT rights, this film is a must see. Mainly because it focuses not on the wider battle, but on something that many won't know about and something that could have ended up being a footnote in the history books.

The film also reminded me of a group that I used to be a part of. I found the Queer Youth Network - an online and 'real life' community of young LGBT+ people - that I found when I was about fourteen. I remember being amazed that there were so many people out there who were like me, and I remember feeling absolutely free to talk openly about my own experiences. The forums there contained things from 'How do I meet nice men?' to debating 'Jackboot Jacqui's' time as Home Secretary. What's more, I loved QYN for how political it was.

QYN were absolutely instrumental in overturning the last vestages of the homophobic Section 28, it held Pride events to account, marching under 'Pride not Profit' banners and it demonstrated at the Stonewall Awards when (the horribly transphobic) writer Julie Bindel was given an award. In short, QYN stood for something that's very important in politics - never resting on your laurels and always fighting to move further and faster.

It was also full of some people who were just the most inspirational. Jack Holroyde, who lobbied Jacqui Smith to ban the homophobic Westboro Baptist Church when they planned to picket in the UK, stood for election as a Liberal Democrat in May this year. David Henry ensured that QYN remained radical, but importantly, remained a caring and nurturing place for young LGBT people. He actually stood against Hazel Blears in 2010 for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition - importantly, he spoke real truth about Blears' record of over-claiming expenses. I guess what I'm saying, is that while I loved Pride, the best thing about it was the fact that it reminded me of the amazing people I know, who to this day still fight battles big and small for our LGBT+ community, and our communities more generally.

Pride might be seen as a film about gay rights, or about the plight of Miners in Thatcher's Britain, but more than anything, it's about British communities, whether geographical or cultural. It's about how we pull together, and show support. For me, QYN was about all of those things. It's a little footnote in history that I only played a really small part in, but it's a period that I remember with great fondness. People in all walks of political life can learn something from QYN and something from this film - that we should never be complacent - that we can always do more and go further in the struggle for fairness.

* With some irony, in researching this article and going back through QYN stuff, I see that they've also picketed a lot of LibDem stuff since 2010. I'm not quite sure how I feel about it, though what I will say is that I love how diverse a range of 'afterlives' we've all gone on to. From socialists to conservatives - being staunch in your beliefs is never a bad thing.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Joan Rivers - comic, actress & hateful bitch.

I just learnt of the death of Joan Rivers, and I'm writing this whilst feeling really quite upset. Upset that the world has lost an original comedy legend, and upset because I have a feeling her death will be characterised in certain ways by certain people.

Joan Rivers was a comedian (I don't use the word 'comedienne' because having a vagina makes very little difference to anything) who made people laugh for decades. She knew that her job was to entertain people and she did absolutely anything to make sure people got what they paid for. She's become notorious for tearing people to shreds on shows like 'Fashion Police' and 'Joan and Melissa' and it's something that she does with incredible skill. It's odd really, because the impression could be given that the hateful words she said often equated to hateful deeds, that she was a bad person, and this is the distinction I think it's important to make.

For example, Joan makes a joke in the clip below about how her perfect child would be Helen Keller. It's a pretty extreme joke, and in the clip she's heckled by a man whose son was deaf, she then tears him down pretty quickly and rescues her show with the deftness of a real pro. What the clip doesn't show, however, was that after the show, she spent over an hour scouring the venue looking for the heckler to explain what her comedy was and make it clear to him that she was upset that she'd been so heavy handed with him. It's an example of somebody who will let nothing get in the way of the momentum of her show, but who also has absolute empathy with the people who find her shows too close to the bone.



Josh and I went to see Joan when she performed in Brighton a couple of years ago, and I have to say that whilst most of the show had me in fits, there were parts of it that were just that touch too far for me. But that's comedy. That's how comedy works. I don't like Frankie Boyle because too often he goes too far, but I think the skill Joan showed so often was taking people just far enough over that line to make things tingle.

What I'm not going to do, is even start to defend every joke or comment Joan Rivers ever made. She made some comments recently about the Israel Palestinian Conflict that were really abhorrent, and even I watched the clips not knowing quite what to make of it. But here's the thing about that distinction - there's a massive difference between hateful words and hateful deeds. Yes, Joan Rivers made incredibly challenging comments about Gaza, yes she made jokes about absolutely anything (she was in New York on September 11th 2001 and refused to cancel her show) but she was also a woman who delivered meals to the sick and disabled at Thanksgiving. She sent the children of all of her staff to private schools. Whilst the headlines of the jokes might give you one view of Joan Rivers, there was also a very different, very private side that supported and cared for people and chose to do good. I'll say this now - I would rather that half the world spoke absolute trash but did the right thing, it would make a nice change from the current status quo where many people will do nothing to offend anybody, but where they'll also do nothing to make the world a better place.

I'm incredibly sad, because Joan's passing marks the end of an incredibly complex life and a glittering career. It marks the end of a life that was committed to making people laugh, and committed to blazing a trail for other female comics. And it also marks the end of somebody's life who often made so many people feel free, in a world that is perpetually offended. In Joan's performance in Brighton she made a joke about how the audience should hope that she dropped down dead on stage, because it would mean we'd get invites to dinner parties for the rest of our lives. I'm glad that Joan had more privacy, and I hope that what will be an incredibly difficult time for Melissa and Cooper doesn't become tainted by the inevitable tussle over Joan's legacy. I for one am incredibly grateful that my sister bought us tickets and that I had the chance to see Joan live - it was an experience I'll never forget.

So, there it is. See you later, Joan, you wonderful, hateful bitch.


Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Slimming World Sadness

I just wanted to write something quick this evening, because today's been a bit of an ordeal, but I wanted to mark it in some way.

On a Wednesday evening, I attend a Slimming World group in Frome. I first attended this time last year, and tonight I lost 2lbs and achieved my 2stone award. It's all a bit incredible for me, because whilst the weight loss is clearly important, over the little while, the weight loss has also become one of the least important things about attending my group.

For me, the incredible thing has been that when I started attending this group, as I'd walked over, I'd thought to myself 'they're all going to know I'm nuts, and they're all going to think I'm fat'. That's because I was in a much different position than I am now. When I first went to Helen's group, my Wednesday evening appointment was the only time I really left the house other than to see my therapist. It was, for a time, the one thing that I looked forward to, because just for an hour or so, I could sit there and worry about other people's problems rather than the problems inside my own head. Oddly, I loved that I could worry about how many Syns were in Snackajacks and whether I could use Ryvita Crackers as a Healthy Extra, rather than whether I was getting better or whether I'd be depressed forever.

Bit by bit, over the weeks, Slimming World for me has been a process of putting myself back together and, happily, realising that there was a bit less of me to put back together each week. That's why this week was really hard, because it was the last session taken by my consultant Helen. Helen is fantastic. She's run three groups a week for five years, and I'm absolutely never worried about attending meetings because I know that whatever happens, she'll have my back. I've had gains and I've had losses but I've always known that Helen will be happy to see me whatever happens. At times, that's been crucial. Why? Because beneath all of the Syns and Superfree Foods, we all have worries and troubles and we all need escape. I think for so many people, Slimming Clubs provide that opportunity to just sit and chat. At group, I'm not a recently-resigned politician. I don't have Cllr before my name. I'm just 'Our Sam' and I can't tell you how much that means to me.

Helen's going to be moving on to incredibly exciting things, and I know that if she puts even a fraction of the heart into her future ventures as she has my group, then she'll be a roaring success. We'll have a new consultant next week and I'm sure that she'll be fantastic, but I can't pretend that I'm not sad that it won't be Helen welcoming me on Wednesday. In fact, earlier on I blubbed quite unashamedly in front of our group, because it is sad, and because we will all miss her, and because we are all so grateful for her help.

So to anybody who's ever smirked at the idea of Syns and B Options, or Points Values, you're missing the point entirely. For me, Slimming World has helped me find who I am again, and Helen's been a massive part of that, but more than anything it's about friendship. Helen's a friend of mine, as are so many people in my group, and for that, I'm more grateful than words can express.

Monday, 25 August 2014

The Ice Bucket Challenge - why I'd rather not.

I'd like to talk about one thing that I like, and one thing that I don't like so much, and what any of this has to do with the latest social media charity wildfire - the Ice Bucket Challenge.

I love the fact that over the past year or so charities really seem to have caught on to how to use Social Media. They seem to - at last - be abandoning the expensive and probably not super effective targeted social media ad buys. Less and less I'm seeing harrowing images of orphans in my sidebar, and I can't say that I'm sorry to see the back of them. That isn't to say that I don't think awareness needs to be raised, and it's not to say that I turn a blind eye, but I question how effective it is for charities to almost spook people streaming through FaceBook with images designed to shock or upset. Charities and NGOs seem to have realised that actually, whilst it's a bit less direct, sparking a movement like the 'No Make-up Selfie' or Ice Bucket Challenge is going to reap far better reward. In reality, it's an old trick. In all of these trends, the secret is making people believe that they've had the idea themselves and that it's somehow original or organic. That's actually really important, because I think it leads to charitable giving that is more home-grown and probably more heartfelt.

David Beckham taking the challenge. I won't apologise for including this gem, so don't ask me.

The thing that I dislike, is that it all really revolves on social pressure, and that's something that isn't so helpful. I haven't yet been nominated to dump a bucket of ice water over myself (I'm thankful for that, as should you be - it's an image that you really don't need burnt on your retinas) but I'd have to turn the offer down and that would then be on social media, and the whole thing would be horribly awkward. Some people don't want to take part in these things, and whilst I don't want to sound like one of these people who displays a 'no trick or treat' poster, that needs to be respected.

Another aspect of it, is something that I feel quite keenly. I don't tend to give to charities in the street and I very rarely give one-off donations. That's not because I'm miserly, but because every New Year, my partner and I sit down and decide upon five charities that we're going to donate to every month for a year. Currently those are Refuge, the National AIDS trust, Shelter, Save the Children and Bath Cats and Dogs Home - some of them have been on there for years, others are newer additions. What that means is that we can research them properly (some people I know, for instance, won't donate to charities who use animal research - this approach means you can be aware of those things) and it means we can donate slightly more and over a longer period of time. The charities that we choose are close to our hearts and mean something to us, and we feel much more comfortable that way. I don't enjoy being given the third degree by every 'chugger' I meet, but there it is.

The final thing, is that these same trends are often started by small charities and are then jumped on by larger ones. Often a trend will be launched by a reasonably niche medical charity in desperate need of funding, and it'll then become bandwagon fodder for far larger, far better funded organisations. In this sense, there's almost an internal politics that those nominating and donating on FaceBook might not be aware of, and something that I'd rather not play a part in.

So, I'm not being joyless. I have a great deal of time for all of those people on my feed who are freezing themselves half to death on their patios in the name of good causes. But I won't be doing it, and I'd ask that you consider signing up for a longer term donation to a charity that you've considered and researched. Charities rely on these long term donors to back up their integral running costs, as well as needing them to match-fund finance from other streams. It's also great, because our charities and NGOs do amazing things and by sticking with them for the journey, you can make a great deal of difference to people's lives.