Monday, 28 October 2013

Sexism in the Lib Dems

Something which is really pissing me off at the moment is the way that overt sexism can continue to get a free pass in the Liberal Democrats.

I mean, the vast majority of liberals would say they're against sexism and would claim that they wouldn't tolerate it but actions speak louder than words. And when it comes to actions, things are pretty disappointing. Of course, this isn't unique to the Lib Dems as sexist double standards and hypocrisy are par for the course in every political party and across society as a whole but it still sticks in the craw when the Lib Dems are a party meant to be founded on the principle of the fundamental equality of every human being.

What's triggered this rant is a report in the Independent that Nick Clegg is considering supporting introducing All Women Shortlists (AWS) if the proportion of female Lib Dem MPs (currently 7 out of 57) doesn't improve significantly in 2015.

(As a quick explanation, an all women shortlist is where only women are allowed to be considered as candidates for a particular seats in order to guarantee that a woman is selected).

Now, whether or not people support AWS is one thing. Personally I tend to support the introduction of them (or preferably, all diversity shortlists). But what is clear to everyone is that the party has a big problem with gender balance at a parliamentary level - and also in fact at every other level apart from a European one where positive action was taken in the first election in order to obtain a gender balance which has maintained itself ever since.

So that's why comments like this underneath the Lib Dem Voice article on the story are so frustrating:
I would suggest that most women are far too sensible and considerate to their families to put themselves and their loved ones through the terrible strains required by the prolonged self-exploitation required to be a Lib Dem candidate in anything other than a ‘safe’ held succession seat. This doesn’t leave many seats for them to ‘go for’. Not all men are basically more selfish and inconsiderate but more than enough are.
Now what this is is a spectacular example of "benevolent", paternalistic, patronising sexism. It's basically saying that women are much "nicer" and more "gentle" (subtext: weaker) than men and that's why not so many women don't stand as candidates. Or, basically, it's saying that women are too weak compared to rough and tough men to get involved in politics and this is the source of the problem rather than sexism within the party which prevents and discourages women from standing to be elected.

Yes, sure, benevolent sexism like this can sound friendly, and even complimentary - after all, this guy is just saying that women aren't selfish and inconsiderate, what's wrong with that?

Except this is the exact problem with benevolent sexism. It sounds friendly so it tends to get less scrutiny and yet the underlying assumptions of it, that women are all have families and are focused mainly on them, that women are weaker and less interested in involvement in "tough" subjects like politics, are just as awful and harmful as run-of-the-mill sexism.

And the guy who said this is a Lib Dem councillor in Southport. His name is Tony Dawson.

Cllr Tony Dawson
So here we have someone in a position of authority in local government, who is an elected office holder representing the Lib Dems and who, by virtue of being a councillor, will have significant authority in his local party compared to an ordinary member.

Yet this kind of comment by him gets a free pass. I'm the only person who bothered to challenge him in the thread on his sexism. And when I did I got this comment from another person who rushed into defend Tony Dawson:
George, 
You can put silly words into Tony’s mouth if you want to, but when you have been around as long has he has, and have seen what it involves, you will realise he is telling the truth. You may not like it, but there it is. 
P.S. You can call us ageist if you wish, but the one place you get experience from is having seen your own and others’ youthful naivety fail before. You may not like that either …
Yup, you heard it here first ladies and gents. Saying that women are "far too sensible" and "considerate to their families" to get involved in politics is just a statement of fact about reality. And only naive, silly young people would think otherwise.

Well bollocks to that kind of sexism and bollocks to that kind of ageism. I've been an active party member for four years, I sit on a regional executive, I'm policy officer for the Lib Dem Disability Association, I've stood twice as a council candidate, I'm secretary of my local party and I'm a member of my local party's campaign committee as well as chairing our membership development and events committee.

And in all of those four years I've had first Sue Doughty and then Kelly-Marie Blundell as my local Lib Dem parliamentary candidate. Both of them women. Both of them fantastic, amazing candidates. Both of them considerate and sensible people who care about their families. And both of whom have been fantastic standard bearers for the Lib Dems and as good as any a candidate a local party could ever ask for.

So, I'm sorry to the benevolent sexists and ageists out there but women are just as good as men, just as capable as men and the fact that we have so few women MPs is a problem with sexism in the party - not with women being innately too shy and passive to stand for election in the same numbers as men.

And, while I'm at it, any twazzock who thinks that just because I'm under the age of 25 my opinions can't be valid can go fornicate themselves given that the likes of them seem perfectly happy to exploit young people as leaflet deliverers and general campaigning canon fodder whenever they need us but can't stand the idea of us having opinions of our own and being entitled to the same respect for them that anyone over the age of 25 is entitled to.

Friday, 13 September 2013

The horror of the marked register

One particularly gruelling part of my summer holiday was spending several hours (spread out over a month because I really, really didn't want to do it) was copying data by hand from the Guildford borough marked register to the Lib Dem election software database.

But since explaining what the marked register is will take a while, here's a brief summary of the rest of this post:

1. Everyone registered to vote is listed on the 'electoral register'
2. The electoral register is available to political parties and candidates
3. Parties and candidates use it to work out who the voters are for campaigning purposes
4. When people vote, staff at polling stations cross their name off on a copy of the electoral register
5. This is called the 'marked register' and records who has voted - but not how they've voted
6. Parties and candidates use it to find out who has voted so they know who to target their campaigning at next time (e.g. not at people who never, ever vote)
7. The copy of the marked register my local party got was a paper version
8. This meant I spent far too long entering information about 80,000+ individually into excel
9. This is known by me as 'the horror of the marked register'

Now to continue with the full explanation:

Every area in the country has an electoral office whose main job is to look after their part of the national electoral register. This is basically a massive great list of the names and addresses of everyone in the country who is registered to vote.

In practice, there are several different sub sets of the register though. For example, there's the postal voter electoral register which only contains people who are registered to vote by post and different ones for different elections containing only the people eligible to vote in them.

Now anyone can walk into any electoral office in the country and ask to see the electoral register. You can also buy a copy of it if you like - which a lot of commercial organisations, particularly marketing and credit reference agencies, do.

But since the register has people's names, addresses (and quite often dates of birth and phone numbers) on it, everyone has the option to opt out of being listed on the publicly and commercially available version of the register - and if you want to do this you can do it whenever you fill in your details to register to vote.

However, political parties and candidates have the right to get a copy of the full electoral register so that they can find out who the voters are.

We do lots of things with the list of voters, often quite sophisticated things nowadays with our fancy new election software (such as remembering who's interested in education policy and who cares more about bin collections) but at the heart of it is using it to ask voters to vote for us, making notes of who's said they're going to vote for us and then trying to find out if they've actually voted for us.

And that brings me back to the marked register.

When someone goes to vote, the people working in the polling station will cross their name off of a copy of the electoral register. This copy is known as the marked register because it's been marked to show who's voted - not how they've voted but just whether they've voted.

Political parties and candidates are also entitled to get a copy of the marked register - which we duly did in Guildford following the local elections in May. We use this to work out how likely people are to vote and this in turn makes our life easier because it lets us target our campaigning activities next time to people whose likelihood to vote makes it worthwhile in terms of the effort it takes.

But, since Guildford borough only gives out its marked register in a paper format, rather than digitally, I got to experience the mind-numbing tedium of entering data about 80,000 or so voters into excel. And this tedium, which must be repeated after every single election, is the horror of the marked register.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

New Purpose

As is pretty obvious, I haven’t been blogging a lot lately (no updates for over a month - woo!). This is mainly because I’ve found myself both busy with other things and tending to vent about topical issues elsewhere rather than having the time to sit down and blog about them.

I don’t want to give up on this blog though so I’ve decided to adopt a new approach to it. While I’m not going to rule out writing posts about current events, I’m going to try to focus much more on posts actually explaining the process of politics itself and the background of current political stories.

My reasoning behind this is that people like me who are actively involved in politics aren’t normal. We’re actually very, very weird. Most of the people I know in politics know about and could name at least a dozen people on average from each major political party. Polls show that the average person, on the other hand, mainly just knows the name of the Prime Minister, the name of the leader of the opposition and possibly the name of the Chancellor.

This really reinforces the idea of the ‘Westminster bubble’ - a little world of its own where politicians, journalists, commentators and other members of the media reside and are hyper aware of what’s going on while outside of the bubble the vast majority of the country has only the vaguest of inklings about things which people in the bubble assume to be common knowledge.

If I were to talk about RISOs, Focus leaflets, knocking up, GOTV, Connect and PPCs most of my fellow Liberal Democrats would instantly know what I was talking about. Almost everyone else would be completely baffled.

And since most people don’t have the time or inclination to spend the equivalent of a part time jobs worth of effort to be involved in politics to the extent that people inside the Westminster bubble are, I’ve decided it would be helpful if there was someone out there actually breaking political stories and processes down into something which you don’t need to be a complete politics geek to understand.

Given that my doing this would actually give this blog a purpose, and give people more of a reason to read it, I consider that changing the point of this blog to that is something of a win-win.


So look forward to seeing, in the near future, an explanation of the esoteric and occult world of marked and unmarked electoral registers - what they are, why they matter and what politicians do with your information that’s recorded on them.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Dear Daily Mail: fuck you

The excellent Mark Pack has written a post reminding us that the Daily Mail considers everyone born overseas and everyone with parents born overseas to be a foreigner.

Now, firstly, there's nothing wrong with being a foreigner and only xenophobic bigots think otherwise.

But, secondly, I'm one of those people the Daily Mail would consider a foreigner.

My parents were both born in Britain and were British citizens but I happened to be born abroad, in Belgium. I was registered as a British citizen from birth, we visited England regularly while we lived in Belgium and I myself have lived in England ever since I was five years old.

But the Daily Mail considers me to be a foreigner. And by including the likes of me as a foreigner they get to make up big scary statistics about so many millions of people being foreigners taking this country away from decent British folk.

Well I'm British and I'm English. I was born an Englishman and a British citizen and I will die an Englishman and a British citizen.

And if the Daily Mail choose to insist otherwise then they can go fuck themselves for all I care.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Time to redistribute wealth: Ethiopia is more equal than the UK

Most of us know Ethiopia only as that place from the telly where there always seems to be a massive famine and from the charity adverts asking us to donate £2 a month to help save a child's life.

But, despite that, Ethiopia is actually better off than the UK in one aspect at least according to a new UN report.

You see, Ethiopia has a smaller gap between rich and poor than us.

I'll repeat that for emphasis: the poor in the UK have a lower share of the nation's wealth than Jamaica, Ghana or the Ivory Coast. The gap between rich and poor in the UK is twice as large as that in Ethiopia or Sri Lanka. We have the largest gap of any western nation.

You know the US? That place where until very recently the poorest had no medical care, where people are forced to survive on foodstamps which won't pay for a balanced diet? Well they're still more equal than we are.

Here are the figures: the poorest 40% of the country share 14.6% of the wealth between them - a lower share than any other industrial country apart from Russia.

Now, obviously a poor person in the UK is still better off in cash terms than a poor person in Ethiopia. We can't forget that. But when the poor in this country are forced to share a smaller slice of the pie than in full blown economic basket cases and countries recovering from civil war and ethnic cleansing then something is clearly bloody wrong with this country.

The support for the unemployed in the UK is less as a proportion of the average wage than in any other country. Disabled people in the UK have suffered an unprecedented erosion of rights in recent years compared to any other developed country. Black, Asian and other non-white ethnic groups continue to suffer higher unemployment rates than white people. Women in particular have a much higher unemployment rate and continue to suffer being paid less, on average, than an equally qualified man doing the exact same job.

This country is seriously unequal and seriously unfair, and something needs to be done about it.

So I'm going to say it. This isn't good enough. We need the active redistribution of wealth from those with plenty of it to those with barely any.

There are lots of ways it could be done and it doesn't really matter that much how it is done as long as it is done. We can't carry on like this. And it should no longer be considered heresy in mainstream politics to say so.

Also, while we're at it, it would be nice if the majority of the media and politicians decided to stop vilifying the very poorest in our society and blaming them for all the country's ills.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Parking on double yellow lines

In the news this week is the story that the Conservatives want to allow parking, for up to fifteen minutes, on double yellow lines and, to do this, they want to order councils not to enforce parking fines for people parking on yellow lines for fifteen minutes or less. The idea being that this will help local shops by letting people stop easily to quickly nip in and out.

Now the Liberal Democrats aren't so keen on this idea while most Conservatives seem to be. I imagine part of this is that Liberal Democrats don't like central government dictating to local government how to run their own affairs.

But more importantly, and something that I very much agree with, is that double yellow lines exist for a reason. Specifically, they exist to stop people parking in places where it is dangerous to do so.

Shops could definitely be helped by less parking restrictions but I can't help but think it might be a better idea to help them by scrapping double yellow lines where they're no longer needed, or introducing short term parking bays, rather than making all double yellow lines useless everywhere.

Friday, 26 July 2013

David Cameron and porn

Our glorious Prime Minister has been thinking about porn
So this past week David Cameron has announced plans to do two things. The first of these is to completely block ‘rape porn’ on the internet by getting search engines to show no results for certain search terms. The second of these is to introduce a nationwide porn filter which will be switched on for everyone by default and which adults will have to actively opt out of if they don’t want the filter on.

That said, the porn filter will apparently have several exemptions. For example, online Page 3 pictures from the Sun will be fine according to Cameron - begging the question of how exactly they’re going to be able to define exactly how much nudity turns a picture from “family friendly newspaper material” to “sick, deviant, hardcore porn”. Of course, I’m sure the Page 3 exemption has nothing at all to do with the fact that the paper is a favourite of many Tory MPs.

Now, the background to all of this is that David Cameron has been under lots of pressure and lobbying by “family” groups to do something to tackle porn and by women’s groups to close a loophole where it’s illegal to possess paper pornography of realistic depictions of rape but not illegal to possess the same material digitally. But I imagine an unspoken aspect of it is that he’s just royally pissed off homophobic  Conservatives by legalising same-sex marriage and this attack on pornography is a way to get them to settle down a bit.

Now closing the loophole on rape porn is something I agree with in principle. I certainly think that genuine depictions of rape, or things deliberately designed to seem like rape, should be illegal. Rape is illegal so having rape porn should be illegal - just like having sex with animals is illegal and having porn of sex with animals is illegal.

The only problem with this though, is that some people, particularly people in the BDSM (Bondage, Domination and Sado-Masochism - think Fifty Shades of Grey) community, happen to enjoy consensual sexual roleplay of rape and so, depending on the details of the proposal, this could criminalise BDSM porn and, by extension, a bunch of people who are doing nothing worse than playing some kinky sex games in the privacy of their own bedrooms.

So for me, the ban on rape porn is something I’d very much rather wait to see the details on before I come to judgement on it.

The actual porn filter, however, is something I very much oppose - and which most Lib Dem rank and file members are likely to oppose as well on principle.

The principle which makes us object is basically that freedom (such as the freedom to search the internet without it being filtered) is something that you should have by default and if you lose that freedom it should only be because you’ve either actively decided to give it up or because you’re doing something that harms other people. So the fact that the porn filter is an opt out system rather than an opt in system contravenes that principle.

But personally I also have several practical objections to the filter in addition to principled ones. And, for the sake of being brief, I’ll just quickly list them (a better, fuller article on the practical problems, written by a friend of mine, can be found here):
  1. These kind of filters block things they shouldn’t - for example, they often block LGBT+ information resources, including, in some cases, suicide prevention websites, as being “adult material” despite the fact that a lot of young people struggling with their sexuality might need to read them
  2. They give parents a false sense of security - all it takes to bypass a filter like this is a simple web proxy which kids are bound to end up using to access porn while their parents think that everything’s fine and dandy
  3. They distract from better solutions - the best ways to keep kids from accessing porn is for parents to switch on child safety features on computers, monitor and restrict their kids’ internet usage and to keep the computer in a public space in the house; the danger of a porn filter is that it might discourage parents from bothering to use these other techniques
  4. They place a huge amount of power in unaccountable hands - the proposal at present is for Chinese company Huawei to run the web filter and it will be they who decide exactly what gets banned or not which means that if your website is incorrectly blacklisted then there’s nothing you can do about it.
All of these together are why I think this porn filter is a very bad, very impractical and very illiberal idea. If parents are that bothered about porn they should take it upon themselves to safeguard their children - they shouldn’t be able to force their views on everyone else.

One person described this as being like having a person who’s scared of the dark and, instead of buying a nightlight, campaigning for the entire country to have their lights left on by default in order to stop this person being scared by the dark. And this is a sentiment I can definitely agree with.

Of course, given that both Labour and the Conservatives are very much in favour of this kind of state interference and meddling in people’s private lives I wouldn’t be surprised if the proposals all go ahead - the Lib Dems might intervene to water down certain elements of them but I doubt it's something Lib Dem MPs are willing to start a big battle over.