Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Empty seats on train become huge political story...

Jeremy Corbyn on a train (Photo: The Independent)
Amazingly, the big political story today is that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's recent stint on the floor of a train was something of a stunt.

Well, there's a surprise! A politician with camera crew, out to document how crowded trains are, exaggerates for effect. That's never been done before...

And yet everyone's jumping about as if this proves how hypocritical Corbyn is. Even Lib Dem Voice is asking whether "train-gate could derail his re-election campaign?"

All this reaction has come about because Virgin Trains issued a statement, in which it refuted Mr Corbyn's version of events.

In fairness, I've been on trains before which look empty but has every empty seat reserved. It's actually interesting what the Virgin statement says (and doesn't). Mr Corbyn eventually found a seat, after filming, "with the help of the onboard crew". What does that mean???

Virgin didn't deny the train was pretty full, or that it was impossible to get an unreserved seat in any carriage but Coach H. Which kind of supports (broadly) what he's saying.

It's bad planning by Jeremy really. I mean, you're pretty much guaranteed crowded trains on certain routes at key times, but London to Newcastle in the late morning isn't really one of them. If I had been Jeremy's advisor, I'd actually have suggested doing different trains on different days (after researching which are the most crowded) and had him talking to commuters and passengers about their frustrations. That might have helped his image and avoided it all becoming about him. After all, it's more easy to believe someone's a "man of the people" if they...erm, actually talk to people rather than if they choose to sit on the floor for 45 minutes.

Oh, and who doesn't think about CCTV in trains? This just underlines how amateurish and ill-thought out the whole thing was.

While inevitably people will find this amusing, it shouldn't detract from the serious points being made about public transport. I hope that doesn't get obscured by all this silliness. On the real issue he's more right than wrong, but unfortunately I expect instead of focusing on the important issues we'll instead have plenty of political pointscoring and personality destruction. It's quite sad that this is what politics has become. We do need to have a sensible discussion on the future of public transport.

Perhaps the real story is how disorganised Labour have made themselves look. As Virgin said (with obvious smugness!): "We'd encourage Jeremy to book ahead next time he travels with us, both to reserve a seat and to ensure he gets our lowest fares, and we look forward to welcoming him onboard again." Ouch! The naivety of the leader and his advisors in believing this would never come out really is (for me) the most surprising thing about the whole saga and raises more questions (to my mind) about fitness for leadership than making a few exaggerations about how "packed" a train is.

There are problems with public transport, though, and they need to be addressed. It's just unfortunate that he's chosen to do it in this way and that he's given others the opportunity to ridicule him rather than focus on the substantive issues.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

A few thoughts on what the EU referendum told us

It's about 5am and I'm genuinely gutted about what appears to be the result of the EU referendum.

Like most liberals, I'm an internationalist. Without saying a great deal about my personal feelings, let me just make it clear that this hurts. It really hurts.

This isn't some kind of political game, as some political commentators are suggesting. This is a huge decision with real human, social, economic and political consequences - not only for the UK but also for Europe.

I don't plan to write a lengthy essay analysing what went wrong, but here are a few of my own observations on the referendum, the campaign, the result and what it all means.

Cameron made a serious mistake in calling the referendum. I recall Cameron making the announcement that he would hold an in-out referendum if he won the election. I was at Bob Maclennan's house at the time, and he asked "Does Cameron know what he's doing?" The dangers were obvious to both of us. Cameron's hubris and belief that he could outmanoeuvre UKIP while simultaneously reuniting his party proved a disastrous calculation. He overreached himself in his misguided attempt to neutralise the threat of UKIP with what was essentially an otherwise unnecessary referendum.

Putting party interests before the country was a huge error of judgment. There will, of course be consequences - for the Prime Minister and his chancellor, for the Conservative Party and also for the UK.

The vote was as much a vote on immigration as it was the EU. The Leave side was successful in convincing the public that leaving the EU would equate to a vote to reduce immigration. The claim was that "taking back control" would result in a tougher immigration policy, in spite of the UK's inability to reduce non-EU immigration via the current points-based system or the arrangements currently in place for Norway and Switzerland.

The vote was, to some degree, a proxy vote against "the establishment". Yes, I know that Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Michael Gove are hardly the anti-establishment figures they promote themselves as. But here was an opportunity to express dissatisfaction with many things - immigration, austerity, politics in general - and was effectively a by-election on the establishment. That establishment includes not only politicians (although there was a distinctly anti-politics element to Leave's campaigning) but also bankers, economists, journalists etc. and voters' willingness to kick elites - both real and imagined - should have been foreseen.

There is a lot of anger and frustration being expressed in this result. Unfortunately, while much of this is entirely justified, this is transferred onto the EU rather than those who are actually responsible for creating isolation, refusing to respond to societal concerns and disenfranchising people. One of the most disturbing comments in a campaign full of disturbing comments was Michael Gove's comparison of experts to Nazis, but his simple claim that "the British people are sick of experts" was proved right. It is galling to see such a blatantly anti-intellectual agenda succeed, especially as those behind it will inevitably be running the government, but there is no doubt playing the "anti-establishment" card (however disingenuously) was frighteningly effective.

Bookies are about as reliable as pollsters. Every bookmaker had Remain down as a dead cert until that Sunderland declaration. Opinion polls pointed to a narrow but decisive Remain win. How could they be so wrong?

Appeals to emotion work. Politicos imagine that the public like facts. They might, but ultimately what wins votes are emotional arguments. So, when the Leave campaign are able to use the David versus Goliath narrative so convincingly, siding with the "haves" against the "have nots", countering this by pointing out Leave's lies on Turkey and the cost of EU membership was never likely to be effective. The referendum was won on many things, but perception was more important a determining factor than facts.

Economic arguments don't work. The public aren't persuaded or inspired by economics. Yes, such arguments are serious and ultimately have huge impacts on people's lives, but crude financial statistics and predictions (some of them rather bizarre) simply don't excite emotions. Focusing on the economy was hardly the wisest thing for Stronger In to make.

Both campaigns were dismal. The Leave side was particularly nasty at times - or, at least, some elements within it were - encouraging xenophobia, making threats about the risk of british women being raped, apparently inciting "violence on the streets" and publishing posters reminscent of Nazi proaganda...all while (withiut irony) brandishing their opponents "Project Fear". They provided very little clarity while suggesting that the EU would be the solution to a range of difficulties. The Remain campaign was utterly dismal and uninspiring - in a word, insipid. It failed to use its best assets (such as Caroline Lucas, Nicola Sturgeon, Tim Farron) instead allowing David Cameron to become its figurehead. It failed to communicate a clear message, instead constantly reacting to what the Leave camp was doing, surrendering the initiative in the process.

Cameron was too visible. I mean, seriously...which advisors thought this was a good idea?  He should have followed Harold Wilson's example from 1975. As an unpopular Prime Minister, his involvement allowed him to be a focus of voters' anger and frustrations. The risk of allowing the Prime Minister to front the campaign should have been obvious to anyone.

Stronger In was like Better Together - only worse.  Why, oh why, did the In campaign not take lessons from Scotland, where BT won the referendum but lost many of the arguments? Why the relentless negativity? Why the focus on personalities? Where was the optimism, the humour, the emotion, the humanity? The Remain campaign simply didn't give people sufficient reason to vote.

Labour is in a real mess. It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to say this. The referendum provided Labour with a valuable opportunity to demonstrate its relevance and reconnect with both its core voters and one-time supporters who have deserted the party. Corbyn had a chance to portray himself as a real people's champion, standing up for the workers' rights that would be eroded by leaving the EU. He would have had far more authenticity on this point than, for example, George Osborne. But he preferred to play petty politics, refusing to share a platform with the Prime Minister and allowing Nigel Farage to speak for his core base - fatally, in Labour strongholds in the North East and Wales.

Labour has now lost Scotland, is clearly losing support in Wales and the North of England and seems to lack any clear purpose. I hoped Jeremy Corbyn would be able to provide principled and strong opposition to the Conservatives, but on the evidence of this referendum there's more chance of 76 million Turks landing in Dover.

Nigel Farage was not the asset many imagined he would be, but remains a major force. Gove was quick to distance himself from the infamous "Breaking Point" poster, and the official Leave campaign clearly has reservations. His "unconceding moment", followed swiftly by a suggestion that the decision had been swayed by extending voter registration, prompted Douglas Carswell to quip that "angry nationalism doesn't win elections or come to peaceful conclusions". Still, he's the man of the moment and, whatever we think about him and whatever his obvious weaknesses, he must now be considered one of the most effective politicians of our generation. Think about that for a moment.

This was largely an English debate. It was no surprise that Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. The political conversations here were very different in nature. Issues of identity were frequently identified as being significant, and these were generally questions of English identity. Essentially, voting Leave was perceived by many a proxy for English nationalism. Not altogether surprising, but underlining the failure of the main political parties to recognise and adjust to it.

The narrative was framed largely by the media. I won't labour the point, but few people were better informed as a result.

We live in a divided society. Yes, the referendum and the campaigning certainly served to divide the country - the very nature of the debate was divisive. But many of those divisions were pre-existing, the referendum result has simply clarified them - especially along generational, class, political and regional lines.

There is a need to bring our divided society together. The result was close, very close.  If there are winners, there must also be losers, who make up almost half of the electorate. Just as in the case of the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, there is a need to allow for healing, to reach out and build bridges.

The early signs, however, are not good. Nigel Farage, in understandably celebratory mood, seemed to suggest Remain voters were not "ordinary, decent people." The tone of the conversation during the "debate", inevitably descending to the politics of "us and them", also doesn't give much cause for encouragement. But if we are to be a "United Kingdom" then it must be resognised that we must move forward together. As Chuka Umunna said, we should all respect the result, but also recognise that it is a divided result.

No-one seems to know what will happen next. There are things we can be reasonably certain of - market volatility, political turmoil and serious questions being asked about the future of the Union - but on the substantive issues, the only thing that is certain is uncertainty.

In all likelihood, whatever happens during the next two years of negotiations, it's going to be impossible to deliver everything that many Leave voters believed they were voting for. What happens then - when they believe they have been betrayed by the negotiators and "sold out" by the establishment?

Another Scottish independence referendum now seems a near certainty. As many of us predicted during the last few months (even years) only to be told we were "scaremongering". Nicola Sturgeon is to make a fuller statement later today, but BBC News reports that she has said that "the people of Scotland see their future as part of the EU". Her intentions seems relatively clear and I for one wouldn't argue with her case for a further referendum, even if I would have preferred not to have this conversation against the backdrop of the UK leaving the EU.

Will the vote to leave the EU see the break up of the UK? I won't make a prediction, but the smart money must be on Scotland gaining independence.

The referendum campaign has been many things, but it hasn't been enjoyable. For people like me, political campaigns can be fun. But the political conversation has been utterly toxic. At least in the Scottish independence referendum people were inspired to become involved positively in politics and younger people felt actively included.

In Scotland, it's clear there is a broad pro-EU, progressive political consensus. In England, with the Labour Party in turmoil and the Liberal Democrats described by former leader Paddy Ashdown as "roadkill", where do those of us who favour building a tolerant society with an internationalist outlook go?

Monday, 20 June 2016

If you value your country, it's time to reclaim it

We've heard a lot in the last few weeks about "taking our country back".

It's not the kind of thing that would generally resonate with me. After all, I care far more for people than I do lines on maps. Patriotism doesn't really shape my politics, or my personal identity.

But what I do have in common with most people is an identification with my community and the society in which I live. As a liberal, and a Liberal Democrat, I naturally want that society to be open, tolerant and inclusive.

All this talk about "taking our country back" has got me thinking. Firstly, about where such people intend to take it (apparently, a romanticised view of the 1950s that only exists in selective memories). And, perhaps more importantly, what to they want to "take it back" from?

You only have to read the comments pages of the Daily Mail to see how hateful and intolerant some people have become. It's also impossible to escape the effect that the kind of inflammatory language used by some on the Leave campaign is having on social cohesion and community relations. Others have covered this is some detail following the tragic and utterly senseless political assassination of Jo Cox last week, and there is some merit to what they say. You cannot simply stoke up intolerance with inflammatory language and then absolve yourself of responsibility - at least for the wider problem of increasing racist and xenophobic feeling.

When people express the desire to "take their country back", they generally mean from those who have a liberal and internationalist worldview, who promote tolerance and acceptance and who favour collaboration over isolation. They may wrap this up "pro-democracy" language (ironically overlooking the undeniable reality that the EU is far more democratic than the UK) but their purpose is pretty clear. More often that not, such expressions of a need to "take back" the country involves assumptions about the erosion of undefined and non-specific "British values", and inevitably focus on fears that immigration is out of control and destroying our way of life (again, something that's generally undefined).

They may not all see immigration as being at "breaking point"; they may not all condemn those who think differently as "scaremongers" while simultaneously threatening that foreigners will rape British women unless we withdraw from the EU; they may not all identify Islam with ISIS. But the sentiment informed by misconception is undeniably real and, if allowed to flourish, represents a very real danger to our communities.

Those of us who belong to the LGBT+ community will need no reminding of the rights we've had to win in the last two decades - and the role the EU has played in facilitating better rights for LGBT+ people across the continent. We also recognise that while laws often change quickly, social attitudes take somewhat longer to follow. Can we trust a UK government, led perhaps by Boris Johnson or Michael Gove to build on what's been achieved? More seriously, should we be concerned when anti-human rights rhetoric is on the rise, promoted by a man whose party has a history of saying (to put it mildly) rather silly things about LGBT+ people?

And, even more importantly, what about the kind of work Jo Cox was so keen to champion - with refugees and asylum seekers? Last Thursday morning, I was speaking with a Salvation Army officer about the kind of xenophobic language I'd heard from intelligent people, and asked where it all would lead. Inevitably the conversation led to the Salvation Army's own work with immigrant families and refugees and she was as concerned as I was about the growing intolerance and the "inexplicable" rise of a thinly-veiled racism. She experiences it every day, especially from older people. "But how do you change people's minds?" Ah...

In spite of what they claim, people wanting "their country back" generally are uncomfortable with British values as they have evolved. They see little value in remaining part of European community that has overseen the longest period of sustained peace in European History (you see, Jacob Rees-Mogg, nothing like the Holy Roman Empire). They want it "back" from progressives who do not fear multiculturalism, or do not find simplistic solutions in scapegoating minorities.

There are some who say we cannot know with certainty what the result of a Leave vote will be. But, on the basis of probability, we can point to likely outcomes. Scotland will almost certainly stage a second referendum on independence, with the smart money being on Scotland going its own way within two years. Ireland is more complicated, but an increase in tensions caused by border controls and other political questions is hardly going to improve matters.  Surrendering our influence in Europe at a crucial time, when Putin's Russia is steadily increasing its threat to global security, would be unwise - and for what? Abandoning others hardly seems in the "British" way of doing things.

And what will the next two years hold? We don't know, but I'll guarantee one thing: whatever the government negotiators manage to obtain from their discussions with the EU and others, UKIP and other right-wing Brexiters will be condemning the deal and accusing the government of selling the country out and betraying the British people. It's all very predictable, as what most Brexiters appear to want isn't something that's actually possible to deliver. The political climate in what remains of the UK in two years' time is likely to be even more toxic than at present. And in the meantime the economy will inevitably unwind.

We have to ask ourselves this: what kind of UK do we want to see after Thursday's vote? Economics aside (and I'm genuinely concerned about our economic future), do we want to live in a country divided against itself, in which the politics of hate find increasing expression? This vote has very real human consequences that must be properly considered.

Let's make no mistake about it. The Scottish Independence referendum saw a fair amount of fear and intolerance being peddled. But, on the whole, people felt engaged and empowered by the campaigning. Most positively, it saw hundreds of thousands of people meaningfully becoming involved in politics for the first time. And while the conversation on Scottish independence did, at times, become quite aggressive and adversarial at least it wasn't characterised by the same toxic hate that is so obvious a feature of some of the campaigning from Leavers.

Neither Vote Leave not Remain have covered themselves in glory. But the description of Remain as "Project Fear" is more than a bit disingenuous coming from the likes of Nigel Farage. Sure, the predictions of economic Armageddon from the likes of Osborne and Cameron are embarrassing. But they are nothing compared to the barefaced lies (£350million, Turkey, bananas) and the inherent nastiness of the "enough is enough" rhetoric.

Yes, I want my country back. I want to take it back from those who are responsible for creating a toxic political dialogue on immigration. I want to take it back from those who deliberately play the racist card for political gain and take us back to the 1960s in the process ("The Turks are coming! They're evil, I tell you. And they'll be living next door to you if you vote Remain!" is no more responsible a slogan than was "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour"). I want to take my country back by those who either incite violence, or suggest it as a solution (A party leader saying "if people feel voting doesn't change anything then violence is the next step" is, again, little more responsible than a former government minister predicting "the River Tiber flowing with much blood"). As you may have gathered, I want to take my country back from those who seem determined to relive the political discourses of the 1960s.   I want to take my country back from those who believe British values are exclusive and narrow-minded. I want to take my country back from the inverted snobs who are utterly intolerant of expertise and learning.  And I want to take my country back for those who exchange the politics of openness for the politics of hate.

Because that is what it is. As Dan Hodges wrote in the Daily Mail (yes, the Mail!) Brexit has opened Pandora's box. He said: "The time has come to talk about Project Hate. Three weeks ago we all woke to the following quote from a pro-Brexit MP: 'I don't want to stab the Prime Minister in the back – I want to stab him in the front so I can see the expression on his face.' One week later Nigel Farage said that British women risked being raped if we didn't vote for Brexit. At the same time posters began to circulate from the Vote Leave campaign – replete with shadowy footsteps – warning of 55 million migrants entering the UK from Turkey.

"This followed a warning from Gove that if Turkey were granted access, 'extremists everywhere will believe that the West is opening its borders to appease an Islamist government'. They know what they are doing. Farage. Gove. Johnson. They have always known. That they were opening a Pandora's Box. But it glistened before them so brightly. Project Hate has brought us to the brink. Britain – the country we live – stands on the edge. This time next week it could all be gone. Our economic security. Our national security. Our international security. Imagine if it works. The overt racism. The overt demonisation of refugees. The graphic threats to stab the Prime Minister in the chest. Imagine if that is what constitutes a successful British political campaign in 2016...

"The voices of moderation have fallen silent. Actually, it's worse than that. They have not fallen silent, but actively joined the chorus of anger and hate."

What Hodges doesn't mention within his referencing of Pandora's Box is the one thing to remain in the box after all the evils were unleashed: hope. There will be hope so long as those voices of moderation, of reason, of tolerance, are brave enough to speak out. The toxic political discourse that has framed the EU debate does not have to be permanent. We have an opportunity on Thursday to stand up to the hate that has so driven much of what passes for political conversation in recent months.

Enough is enough! It's time to reclaim our country.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Je suis LGBT?



We are all no doubt absolutely horrified by recent events in Orlando.

Terrorist attacks of any kind are always sickening. It was terrifying to watch the 9/11 disaster unfolding on our TV screens, just as it was heartbreaking to hear of the shocking events in Paris bombings last November. At times like this, we generally come together in support of the victims, to stand in solidarity for peace and humanity over intolerance and hatred.

And the targeted killing of 50 people in an LGBT-friendly nightclub should be no different. At first glance, it isn't...but dig a little beneath the surface and not everything is what it seems.

Yes, we've had statement upon statement condemning the brutal attacks. Yes, we're all shocked and saddened. Yes, we're horrified at the mindlessness of it all. And our hearts go out to the victim's families at this sad time. 

But one thing is missing from many of these generally sensible statements - and that's an acknowledgement of who the victims are. Make no mistake - and no doubt we'll find out more about the killer's motivations in due course - those who died were deliberately targeted because of who they are. It matters that they were LGBT+ people, precisely because they were killed for being LGBT+ people.

I was at a church service last night at which this was openly acknlowledged. Candles were lit and prayers said, making explicit that this was a crime against a particular community. But, in general terms, this has been lacking in the tributes, condemnations and assorted other statements - not to mention the way the media has been framing its reporting. I don't always agree with Owen Jones, but he was absolutely right to walk off screen given the inability of Sky News to "get" this simple fact. 

It's not simply the media, however. People who should know better refuse to acknowledge that this was an assault on the LGBT+ community. Take for example this statement from Rt Rev Dr Russell Barr, Moderator of the Church of Scotland, which was forwarded to me as a reporter for Scottish LGBT+ website, KaleidoScot:

“The news of the shooting at the Pulse night club in Orlando, the number of people killed and injured, is shocking in the extreme. My heart goes out to the families of everyone involved and also to the emergency services having to deal with such an appalling event. On behalf of the Church of Scotland let me offer my condolences to those left bereaved and assure our American sisters and brothers of our thoughts and prayers at this dreadful time.” 

That may seem reasonable but it points towards the Church's difficulty in accepting LGBT+ people.  What would be the messages LGBT people would take from a statement that entirely overlooks the fact that their community had been targeted? Where is the solidarity with us? 

I responded to the Church's statement, because I believe it needs to become better at standing against injustice. A few words expressing "shock" are not enough from the kind of people who should be standing on the frontline, side by side with the oppressed, calling out for social justice and standing against hatred and intolerance. My response is here, which I trust speaks for itself:

"Thank you for this statement, part of which we have used. 

"What is disappointing, however, is the glaring admission – there is no mention whatsoever that it was LGBT+ people who were attacked and killed, and that this was obviously an assault on the community as a whole. 

"It does matter who the victims are, especially when those victims have been intentionally targeted

"It is easy to focus on the crime rather than its target. But we cannot afford to overlook the fact that it was the LGBT+ community that was the focus of this brutal attack. The attack hurts the LGBT+ community because our brothers and sisters have been targeted precisely because of who they are. There can be no escaping the reality that it was a defined attack on a particular group, irrespective of what we may find out about his terrorist connections. 

"I write for an LGBT+ news website. The statement, sensible as it is, cannot be used in full because of how it may inevitably be interpreted by our community. We don’t simply need sensible words. We don’t just need “thoughts and prayers”. We need to feel accepted. We need to feel that the church is there to stand up against discrimination and intolerance. We need more than an expression of shock at all appalling event – we need to know that the church understands this is a hate crime and stands by the victims, rather than appearing conflicted in affirming our humanity. 

"At best your statement represents a missed opportunity...but for many in out community it would seem like a deliberate whitewash. Either way, for those of us in the LGBT+ community,  the omission reveals a failure to grasp the reaility that this was a homophobic hate crime of the worst kind. A statement in which emergency services are referred to but the targetted community is overlooked does llittle to provide reassurances to LGBT people, against whom we have witnessed a rise in reported hate crime even in Scotland. I hope in future that such statements will be able to stand in solidarity with clearly identifiable groups when they are so obviously being attacked for who they are." 

The Queen and David Cameron made similar short statements - again, utterly sensible but devoid of any reference to LGBT people. George Osborne did the same, although he did use the #Lovewins hashtag on his tweet. Fortunately, the Scottish government has allowed actions to speak louder than words in flying the rainbow flag from government buildings.

Following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, many of us declared "Je suis Charlie". Of course, we weren't, but we found it easy, even helpful, to identify ourselves directly with the group of people who had so clearly been targetted. How then, little more than a year later, is it possible not to identify ourselves so openly with the innocent victims of the Orlando tragedy, whose only crime was to be LGBT? Why are we not declaring "Je suis LGBT"?

Respecting those who died means accepting why they died. No doubt the perpetrator of this horrendous crime against humanity may justify his intolerance with religous or political beliefs, but the bottom line is that is was a hate crime against LGBT+ people. Ignoring this basic fact is not only to deny reality, but to insult the community being victimised.

By all means condemn violence, attend vigils, call for peace and express shock. These are all normal reactions. But please also remember what this is about. Just as the Charlie Hebdo attacks were a deliberate and calculated assault on a specific group of people, so too was Orlando. Why then are so many keen to either deny or ignore this uncomfortable truth?

The best way to honour those who tragically lost their lives is to recognise the hate crime for what it was. The victims were not random, as they were in 9/11 or in the Paris bombings - they were deliberately selected because they were deemed to be "different"; because they refused to conform to the heteronormative stereotypes demanded by many within our society. "Fighting back" against this futile act of violence doesn't need to involve lengthy discussions about combating terrorism or discussion gun control (however significant they are as peripheral issues), but rather it requires a celebration of diversity, accepting those who are different and - as my Liberal Democrat membership card reads - "build[ing] a fair, free and open society in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity."

Mois, je suis LGBT. Et toi?

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Take pride in Bi Visibility Day

Today is Bi Visibility Day – which, since 1999, has been a day to celebrate and recognise bisexuality (and pansexuality), the bisexual community and bisexual history.

Initially set up by three activists in the USA – Wendy Curry, Michael Page and Gigi Raven Wilbur – to challenge what they considered to be “bi invisibility”, Bi Visibility Day is now celebrated internationally and helps to raise awareness of the issues bi people face.

Bi Visibility Day is more than a celebration – it’s a powerful statement. And it’s one that’s as relevant today as it was 16 years ago. It’s about proudly highlighting the B in LGBTI. It’s about putting a face on our bisexual communities. And it’s about challenging the many myths associated with bisexuality – as well as the biphobia such misconceptions inevitably create, both inside and outside the LGBTI community.

I’m bi. I also assume I’m visible, given most people have no difficulty in seeing me. But so often it’s very frustrating when I am perceived as either straight (I’m currently in an opposite-sex, bisexual relationship) or as gay – as any of us who are less than 100 percent bisexual are inevitably labelled.

Bisexuality is often seen as something of a curiosity, an obscure and perhaps confused identity associated with those who can’t make their minds up. There are those who believe bisexuality is mythical or impermanent, who fail to appreciate that sexuality is fluid and that sexual orientation doesn’t always come packaged in tidy boxes. What Bi Visibility Day does is to embrace bisexuality as a real sexual orientation, educate society and erase some of the false stereotypes.

Biphobia is also a very real, and very serious, issue. What Bi Visibility Day has done is to encourage society to become more bi-inclusive – and this is true even within LGBTI organisations, many of which have taken up the challenge to actively reach out to bi people and highlight uniquely bi issues.

For too long it’s been easier to identify as straight or gay – mainly because of societal biphobia. And yet, interestingly, a recent YouGov survey found that half of the UK’s young people do not identify as fully heterosexual – while hardly a measure of active bisexuality, it does point to the reality that many clearly feel uncomfortable with binary notions of gender and orientation. However, the same survey also found that a fifth of young people believed everyone was either straight or gay.

This survey shows the challenges for Bi Visibility Day. There clearly remain myths, misconceptions, prejudices and stigma associated with bisexuality – while the increasing number of people who find themselves somewhere between heterosexuality and homosexuality need to be empowered to proudly embrace their identity.

Improving bi visibility is vital to making life easier for those of us who are attracted to more than one gender, and Bi Visibility Day makes a huge difference in changing attitudes. Unfortunately, many more pro-equality organisations need to proactively embrace it: the shocking lack of any publicised Bi Visibility Day events in Scotland (aside from some Edinburgh-based events hosted by the Centre for LGBT Health and Wellbeing) suggests we need to be taking the issue more seriously that we do.

That said, it’s great to see #bisexuality and #BiVisibilityDay trending on twitter – so at least we’re visible online.

Whatever you’re doing for Bi Visibility Day, be proud and be visible!

Monday, 14 September 2015

Overdue honesty from Willie Rennie - but when will we admit our mistakes?

Willie Rennie: Better Together was "dark" and "secretive"
It's been a while since I've blogged.

It's been so long in fact that people are asking me what's happened.

Well, there was the issue of a lengthy hospital admission shortly before the General Election, a more recent rather nasty road traffic accident that left me unable to get around, the birth of a new baby (Heidi, who is now 11 weeks old), and the challenge of balancing my work and responsibilities with KaleidoScot with political activity.

It should also be said that I've become increasingly frustrated with life as a Liberal Democrat and, while I remain a convinced liberal and a card-carrying member, my motivation for activism has been somewhat drained of late. In short, I often have other things to do. There's nothing like a bit of honesty, saying it as you see it.

Which brings me to Willie Rennie.

I like Willie. I really do. Readers of this blog might not always have realised it, but we agree with each other 95% of the time - and when we don't I understand his good intentions.

Interestingly, during the weekend Willie decided to offload his frustrations about the Better Together campaign to a Herald journalist. It made for fascinating reading and suggested that - after all the talk - there's even more that we agree on than I'd ever have imagined.

During the independence referendum campaign I frequently complained about the tactics, strategy and negativity of the Better Together campaign. I blogged about Better Together's "disappointing negativity.  I questioned Better Together's commitment to Free Speech. I asked how "liberal" Better together was, suggested their tactics were counter-productive, and insisted that even if Better Together's strategy won the battle it would ultimately lose them the war.

I even argued that the Liberal Democrats should have withdrawn from Better Together entirely. Basically, I failed to see any political or electoral advantage from association with a campaign that was ineptly led, characterised by negativity and ill-informed asides at the SNP, resorted to peddling patronising semi-truths (at best) and which inevitably allied us to what was a Labour-dominated tribe in which our voice was completely sidelined.

I recall very clearly the party's response to my criticisms. Senior Lib Dems were always on hand to trot out the tired "it's not negative to ask hard questions of the SNP" line. Others stated that data sharing would help us fight the General Election more effectively (remind me how that went). Yes, they might concede that Better Together had made mistakes, but the Yes side weren't perfect either. There seemed a complete lack of willingness to accept that the Liberal Democrats were getting very little from being identified with a terrifyingly incompetent and at times rather nasty campaign.

It seems, however, that Willie Rennie agrees with me - and others who made similar observations.  Behind the mask of acquiescence, privately Willie and other senior Lib Dems had serious concerns about Better Together on virtually every level. They certainly appear not to have bought into the "positive case for the union" lie that many of our own members, doubling up as Better Together activists, were trying to sell on doorsteps across Scotland.

Willie told The Herald that Better Together was “shambolic in its development”, its output “dark”, its operations “secretive”, and that - while it won the referendum did so in a way which "didn’t make us feel very good about it”. That all sounds very familiar.

He even targeted David Cameron as the man who "did more damage to the Union than the SNP had done for years.” Well said Willie.

He didn't stop there. He criticised the internal dynamics of Better Together, in which the distinct parties had little in common other than shared opposition to independence. “It was a clash of three different political parties. We all had very different visions for the union, so inevitably the common element was what we were against, which was independence.

“So to get a consensus, you were focusing on the negative. You couldn’t do a positive vision.”

Turning on the divisive influence that was Scottish Labour, Willie added: "Labour had a dark campaigning style. It was very secretive. Everything would be last minute. You would never be told much about what was going on until it happened. We all suffered. The Tories and ourselves suffered more, but some in Labour were out of the loop as well."

He describes a situation in which a closed clique was all-powerful. "It was Blair [McDougall] and Rob [Shorthouse]. People like that were making decisions and had this addiction to secrecy. It was quite shambolic in its development. Internal communications were poor. You just weren’t told about plans. Things were kept back." He also expressed frustration at the baffling decision to use some of Better Together's least attractive supporters to defend the union: "You want to give people confidence in the UK, not mavericks [like George Galloway].”

According to Willie, Better Together was top-down, negative, inept, unable to grasp opportunities and with a tendency for self-destructive actions. He's not wrong - but I could have told him this a couple of years ago. In fact, I did.

Willie added a final, rather interesting observation. He claimed that Better Together failed to make a strong "emotional" case, and admitted that yes Scotland managed to be "more open, more trusting, more positive about the country, and present a bright vision for where we want to be. That’s what the SNP managed to sell quite effectively. It was all hogwash. But they sold it quite well, and that’s to their credit. I just wish we could do a bit of that ourselves.”

This is a very welcome admission form our Scottish leader. On a personal level, I find it quite affirming - especially given the opposition (and at times abuse) I received from fellow members for saying precisely the same thing. It's vital that - given the potential for another independence referendum in the not too distant future - the Liberal Democrats learn the necessary lessons. Never again can we be allowed to find ourselves mumbling impotently on the sidelines, our positive ideas being reduced to academic footnotes in a poisonous and tribal narrative.

However, while I am happy to praise Willie for his (overdue) honesty, I still have some questions. Why did these experiences not demand a change in his own strategy and choices? Why did the Scottish Liberal Democrats remain (publicly at least) so assenting towards Better Together? Why did we allow ourselves to be effectively sidelined, thus depriving ourselves of the opportunity to sell our genuinely distinctive policies on Home Rule and federalism? Does the party now accept that association with Batter Together had destructive consequences? Does Willie rue not making a case for the second question on the ballot form?

Most importantly, have the Scottish Liberal Democrats moved on from the binary thinking that frame the independence debate? Certainly, the counter-productive General Election strategy of appealing to "No" voters in the Labour and Conservative parties suggests we have some way to go on that front.

While Willie Rennie's remarkable honesty in the Herald interview is very welcome, there appeared no willingness to admit to mistakes or provide any explanation for the way in which decisions made during the referendum campaign have contributed to our current predicament. His criticisms of other parties and the organisation are justified and accurate, but I'd be reassured to know Willie understands the degree to which some of the choices made in recent years have ill-served the party.

I'd be even more reassured if he could confirm that he understands that rebuilding the party requires reaching out to SNP-sympathetic voters and selling a distinctly progressive - and Scottish - vision, rather than concentrating his efforts on convincing unionists to begrudgingly lend us votes. Whether we, like it or not, the new political realities require new thinking - and an insight into the reasons behind our increasing irrelevance.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Some reflections on Charles Kennedy's life

Charles Kennedy speaking in Glasgow, 2013

Like many of us, I was shocked and saddened in equal measure to learn of Charles Kennedy's passing.

I didn't know Charles particularly well, although I would have liked to. He was someone I admired and, whenever I met him, I found him amusing, sharp-minded, warm and unusually interested in others. I last saw him at Conference in 2013, when he joined Bob Maclennan and myself outside for a chat about Europe...and the inevitable cigarette - but what stays with me was his genuine interest in my own life and various projects I was working on.

I was not a member of the Liberal Democrats when Charles served as leader, but he was someone it was easy to respect. His leadership coincided, not accidentally, with improved General Election performances and with a renewed emphasis on social justice and equality. On the key issues he has been proved right time after time - on Europe, on human rights, on the Iraq invasion and on Scotland. He understood Scotland. Unlike myself, Charles was a committed believer in the United Kingdom, but he recognised that the constitutional status quo was unsustainable and undesirable. He was a federalist who had no truck with much of the unionist scaremongering of Better Together, which he labelled "stupid".

Whatever can be said of Charles, there can be no escaping his political courage. Earlier today, I wrote for KaleidoScot, outlining the consistent and principled stance he made on LGBT equality - at a time when there was no electoral advantage to doing so. Furthermore, lest we forget, when the Liberal Democrats took a position of opposing the Iraq invasion public opinion supported the war. That we were later proved correct, with the public mood shifting dramatically, obscures the riskiness of the decision. It was a difficult one to take. But Charles, after some persuasion I believe, had the courage to take up a potentially unpopular position for no other reason than it was the right thing to do. For me, this typified his approach to politics: if something is right, then it is worth doing.

It was also true of his approach towards the European Union. He was far more overtly pro-Europe than any leader before or since. His last conference speech, in 2013, saw him articulately extol the values and benefits of the EU. It was compelling viewing - an example of the great orator at his irresistible best. I remember another of his conference speeches - his leader's speech in 2001 - when he turned on Euroskeptics: "well I say to those people - you are wrong, you are wrong." He did not, however, explain why they were wrong. I considered this odd at the time, but it became clear to me that he felt the case was so obvious and so sensible that no argument was needed. It was, as always, a simple matter of making the right choice.
Two former SDP MPs, two former leaders:
Charles Kennedy and Bob Maclennan in 2013

I have been somewhat dismayed today to see so much focus on Charles's "demons". That is not because I believe these diminish Charles - in fact, as someone who has his own "demons", I feel it actually adds to his humanity and demonstrates his deep courage in facing them. Indeed, the decision to effectively oust him in 2006 is, even now, something I consider a deep stain on the party. But, in considering his life, these difficulties should not be defining, and they should not be perceived as character flaws. Flaws are not unique to politicians, or even those with alcohol difficulties and mental health problems. Charles suffered - and he did suffer - not from some flaw of personality but from a tragic illness that took its toll on him, his relationships and his political potential. 

Charles's battles, often very public, show his determination to overcome and succeed. At a time when the party needs - more than ever - people of those qualities, losing him now is particularly cruel. Probably (on his day) the finest orator our party has produced in decades, and unquestionably the most personable leader in living memory, Charles was able to command respect as a serious politician while also presenting himself as affable, amiable and "in touch". His ability to project both a statesmanlike understanding of government with a gift for being able to easily relate to "real" people can be seen in his performances on Question Time and Have I Got News For You. He was himself real, authentic, decent, principled - and yet was able to be those things while wearing his politics lightly. He hated formality and stage-managed situations, thriving on spontaneity and the freedom to be himself.

Of course, some would argue that "being himself" ultimately became the problem. They may be right. However, Charles's image as an honest, principled, people-person outlived his leadership - something admitted by even political opponents. 

We owe more to Charles than simply the successes of his leadership period. An SDP MP since 1983, it was Kennedy who - with Bob Maclennan - made the merger of the two Alliance parties a reality five years later. What would have become of the Alliance, and third party politics more generally, without his characteristically bold and unpopular decision to support merger in a meeting of the 5 SDP MPs is open to question, but my personal belief was that merger was necessary with Kennedy playing a significant (and often underrated) role in bringing it to fruition.

Charles Kennedy was, electorally speaking, our most successful leader since Lloyd George. He did more to facilitate equality than any modern Liberal leader, and brought a credibility to the party that no other leader was able to. In creating a Lib Dem shadow cabinet, he also professionalised the parliamentary party and, more than any other, sought to prepare it for government. Perhaps more significantly, he was an effective constituency MP who never lost sight of what was truly important: empowering people. 

Charles spent more than half of his life in politics, but politics did not define him. He was always his own man, bringing his own humanity and innate decency into his political activity. He preferred collaboration over conflict, but was unafraid of combating prejudice and injustice when he encountered it. He could be cautious, but ultimately willing to take risks if he felt it was right. In the modern era, in which politics has become a media circus, he rejected the carefully orchestrated and stage managed politics typified by New Labour - opting instead for a more relaxed authenticity.

I loved him for it. I still do.