Thursday, 29 March 2012

Lisa Harding's response

Lisa Harding has replied to my blogpost "Lisa Harding AKA Spiderplant Land is a coward".

Because I don't believe in running away from a debate, I'm going to crosspost her reply here and add a few very brief comments of my own just to put it in context. Other than that I really don't want to waste any more time on this.
Over the last 4 days I have been subjected to some vitriolic and nasty comments regarding my post I’m just a Christian. 
I defend the right to free speech but I also defend my own right to block people from commenting on this forum who’s views I find offensive to me. I do the same on Twitter and my blog is no different. An entire blog post has been written about my be one such person who decided that I had blocked him because I had lost the argument. That is not the case. I blocked him for a number of comments that I found to be offensive. Whether anyone else finds them offensive or not is for them to decide. The fact is, I found them offensive to me and my faith and I decide who’s views are published on this site. 
Comments from that individual regarding my faith such as:
Everything that has been tested and found to work is what we like to call “medicine”. Everything which doesn’t work is called “bullshit”. 
and
I’m just belittling the small group of illiterates who think they should be exempt from the rules that apply to everyone else simply because their particular sacred text tells them that they should. 
and this
That’s the argument you’re making. It’s the argument of the level that a child would make 
and
Most Christians, however, don’t think they should receive special treatment. And it is people like you who tarnish their name by association. 
I find these comments toward me and my faith offensive so I chose to block the author from this blog. Then there were the tweets. 

and

Now, if you believe in something and your life is governed by it, you too would find comments like these offensive. 
Having blocked these people with no drama and no argument, I now find that I am being accused of any many of things including being a coward (for which there is an entire blog post) and a parody account has been set up in my name with the sole intention of harassing me and causing me harm and embarassment. 
 
The sad thing in ALL of this is that those who have been the most offensive have ALL been liberal democrats. Yes members of my own party. If i say something here I am damned for brining the party into disrepute, if I say nothing they are allowed to run rampant and besmirch my name and character unchecked. 
What kind of utter hypocrisy is that when all I have done is defend my faith in a polite and reasonable manner and yet chosen not to publish views I find offensive to me and my faith. If you can answer that you are a better person than I because right now, I am very upset and disappointed in all that has happened over the last 4 days.
Just to try and briefly cover the points Lisa has made:

1) Lisa's perfectly correct in that she has the right to block people whom she finds offensive. And that's not in any way incompatible with defending freedom of speech. However, when you block people like Nicola Prigg, simply because you asked them for proof that prayer doesn't heal people and they link you to a study proving it doesn't, and then insist that they can't come up with any proof, and yet style yourself a defender of free speech then you are nothing more than a hypocrite.

2) Those comments of mine she's quoted (the ones which aren't screenshots) are taken out of context and, because Lisa's deleted all the comments from the blogpost that started all this (including those by people who never said anything offensive at all) I can't provide the context. However, if you read the quotes you'll note that at no point did I attack Christianity. I criticised Lisa not her faith. I have no objection to her because she's a Christian - my objection to her comes from the fact that she's a coward who runs away from debates, constantly moves the goalposts, is scientifically illiterate and is a class A hypocrite. Not that I said that anywhere near as impolitely on her actual blog.

3) If she wants to deem those specific comments offensive then fine. That's her prerogative. But she moderates all comments on her blog and didn't block any of those comments which, I'll admit, were less polite than my usual ones (though they were not abusive). Instead she chose to block the specific comment which I've reproduced in full here. By any stretch of the imagination, that was not an abusive comment. It was a polite, well reasoned reply to one of her comments and yet that is the one that she blocked while leaving my earlier comments where they were. Not to mention her blocking on twitter of Nicola Prigg who did nothing more than link to a scientific study.

4) That tweet of mine she quotes actually wasn't referring to her at all. It was referring to a bunch of other people I'd been debating with on twitter.

5) Somebody parodying her is beyond the pale - and I tweeted that to the parody account.

6) No one is accusing her of bringing the party into disrepute. She has, however, accused me of bringing the party into disrepute by publicly disagreeing with her on my own blog - and has filed a complaint with the party to that effect. Well I'm afraid that she and I are very small fish in a very large pond and no one outside our little corner of the blogosphere could care less about our disagreements.

7) Has Lisa asked herself why so many Lib Dems have disagreed with her and criticised her? Because there are lots of people who've been on the same side of the argument as she is. People like Stephen Tall, for example. Now he's written two posts about this - one on Lib Dem Voice and one on his own blog. And what you will notice if you read those posts is that, despite him coming from the same position as Lisa, the comments underneath are a polite, civil debate in which people disagree with each other but without any drama. I myself disagree with Stephen quite strongly, and have expressed this disagreement, but it has all been completely civil and I continue to respect Stephen, despite our difference of opinion.

So the question is, why have quite a few, usually perfectly polite, reasonable and civil Lib Dems become critical of and frustrated with Lisa Harding  specifically? I'd suggest it's because of the hypocrisy of claiming freedom of speech while silencing the arguments of people of nothing wrong. I'd suggest it's because she constantly moves the goalposts - asking for evidence and then claiming, when evidence is presented to her, that no evidence could ever be sufficient. I'd suggest it's because of her shrill language and the arrogance of her claims of persecution of Christianity as a whole when people disagree with her personally. I'd suggest it's because of the insulting way she labels people illiberal and bigots and abusive simply for having different opinions.

I'd also suggest it's because Liberal Democrats tend to dislike it when one select group of people demand special treatment and exemption from the laws that apply to everyone else.

A minor piece of wisdom is that, if perfectly normal, reasonable people seem to be disagreeing with you and getting irritated with you en masse, then it might just be the case that it is you who is at fault.

8) Lisa has not defended her faith in a polite and reasonable manner. This is a) because her faith was never under attack - merely the suggestion that one group should demand exemption from the same rules that apply to everyone else - and b) because there is nothing reasonable about yelling "abuse!" at anyone and everyone who disagrees with you, or making complaints to the party because they disagree with you, or blocking people like Nicola Prigg who, by any stretch of the imagination, never did anything to her.

9) I've already mentioned the point about how ludicrous it is to claim to be protecting freedom of speech while deleting comments by people (I'm excluding myself here) who committed the "crime" of disagreeing with you. So all I'm going to say that, when it comes to Lisa calling people hypocrites, it is at best a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Lisa Harding AKA Spiderplant Land is a coward

Well, that was a surprise.

Just before going to bed last night I checked Lisa Harding's blogpost, I'm just a Christian, to see if she had allowed my latest comment through moderation.

Instead of getting to her blog, however, I was greeted with this:

"This blog bans users who have posted offensive content."

A quick bit of experimentation allowed me to work out that my IP adress had been banned from viewing her blog. But the system her blog uses wasn't very sophisticated so I found away round it and confirmed that her blog was still up and it was definitely just me banned from viewing it. Or, to be more accurate, everyone using Hutchinson 3G Mobile Broadband as we all use the same IP address.

Viewing her blog by this alternative means also let me see that, while my comment hadn't been allowed through moderation, another comment after mine had been. And, since my earlier comments were still up on her blog, clearly none of them were the "offensive" one which had been deemed severe enough not to allow through moderation and severe enough to warrant my banning to boot.

So, for the sake of posterity, I thought I'd record both my comment, and the comment which I was replying to, here. And you can judge for yourselves if what I said was "offensive content".

Here is Lisa's comment:
I’ll keep telling you this until you get it into your head. I appreciate that you might not have the capacity to abosrd such information but I will try for the sake of fairness. 
1. I am not in the minority.
2. I am neither ridiculous or extreme.
3. Prayer is a fundamental part of Christianity and all christians believe in its power.
4. Advertising regulations do not apply to matters of faith (in this case particularly as no ‘medical’ service is being offerred. I remind you again, no one was offerring a medical service. It is a prayer offering and therefore the claim by you and others that the ASA is right is factually incorrect before you even start. Faith and prayer are not governed by the same rules as medical practitioners. To do so is the sanctioning of religious freedoms and illiberal.
5. Christians don’t want special treatment. We do however want to be able to practice and spread the message of our faith freely without censorship
6. God has the power to heal and save all people.
7. No one ever claimed that Muamba was directly saved by the power of prayer and its disingenuous of you to suggest they did.
8. Have you ever considered that those diseases you mention are here for a purpose. Perhaps our challenge is to use the intelligence that God gave us to find a cure. Perhaps that is His plan for us instead of saving everyone single handedly. God gives us the tools for the job, we dont expect him to do all the work for us you know!
9. I’m not stealing any liberal language but your agressive tone and stance has been clear from the start. I however, remain calm and strong in my faith. Who is angry here me or you? I know it is not me despite what impression you may have formed of me from others on the LD grapevine.
10. I am happy and confident that my faith will see me through in living my life in a good and honest way. I have the tools I need to do this from my faith. Attacking me and branding me a lunatic will do nothing to change that and only furthers my resolve that I am right and strong in my faith. I am sorry for you that you feel that you need to attack the faith in this way.

And here is my response (the one that she refused to allow through moderation and which got me banned from her blog):
1. Out of the population of the country as a whole you are probably in a minority on this particular issue of the letter and the ASA ruling. 
2. Insisting that, for example, the power of prayer to heal blindness, cannot be scientifically proven *is* a pretty ridiculous and extreme stance. 
3. Yes, prayer is a fundamental part of Christianity. And my faith as well for that matter. But belief in the power of prayer has nothing to do with the case in hand. 
4. Advertising regulations apply to adverts. The case in hand was an advert. The advert said, and I quote, "Need Healing? God can heal today! Do you suffer from Back Pain, Arthritis, MS, Addiction ... Ulcers, Depression, Allergies, Fibromyalgia, Asthma, Paralysis, Crippling Disease, Phobias, Sleeping disorders or any other sickness? We'd love to pray for your healing right now!" They are clearly offering a treatment for illnesses. The treatment, in this case, happens to be prayer. And, because claiming that X can heal Y (which is what this advert does) is a medical claim then it clearly falls under the ASA. Medical claims in adverts are all governed by the same rules no matter who makes the claims. 
This is a case of truth in advertising being regulated, not the faith and prayer themselves. The group in Bath are still able to have faith in prayer healing and carry out attempts to heal through prayer - no one is trying to stop them. 
5. No one is trying to stop Christians practising their faith or spreading it - that's why every Christmas you see adverts on the telly by Christian organisations. But those adverts don't contain medical claims and asking to be exempt from the advertising regulations covering medical claims is most definitely asking for special treatment. 
Now, I can hardly claim to be an expert but I'm pretty sure that there's a little bit more to Christ's message than offering medical services to people (and, before you start, offering to heal people is a medical service - no matter what method you use to heal them). 
6. If you choose to believe that then fine. But unless you can prove, specifically, that God and prayer perform better than the placebo affect, then you should not be allowed to make that specific medical claim in an advert. You can make it anywhere else, you can tell it to anyone you like, but not through an advert. Because medical claims in adverts are regulated for a reason - to protect people from phony claims. And that means there has to be a basic standard of proof that something works. Claims that God and prayer can heal have yet to meet that standard - but all power to your elbow if you can. 
7. The letter specifically said "It is interesting to note that since the traumatic collapse of the footballer Fabrice Muamba the whole nation appears to be praying for a physical healing for him. I enclose some media extracts. Are they wrong also and will you seek to intervene?" I'm not saying that that's an outright claim that God healed Muamba - all I did was give a hypothetical example and ask why someone like Muamba would be healed while other people wouldn't. 
8. If all these illnesses are a challenge then it raises two questions. The first is why, if this is a test, you should seek a shortcut around them through prayer? Doesn't that defeat the whole object of the test? The second question is what kind of being would inflict suffering upon billions of innocent people throughout human history? If God feels that it is only right and proper to "test" us by inflicting us with situations like a starving two year old girl, screaming in agony as eggs a wasp laid inside her eye eat their way out, then is he really deserving of worship? 
9. Claiming that it is illiberal or persecution or denying the right to freedom of speech for medical claims to be subject to the same regulations, no matter who makes the claims, is definitely stealing liberal language. You are also mistaking as anger my frustration at people who constantly move the goalposts and miss the point (as you did, when you asked for proof that prayer can't heal people and then, upon receiving it, declared that it didn't count before eventually admitting that there's no proof that you would ever accept). 
10. Great! Good for you! I mean that sincerely. If your faith makes you happy and gives you confidence then that's an example of one of the best aspects of Christianity. 
But I am not attacking you, I am trying to reason with you (at least I am in most of what I've said - I can't claim to be perfect after all). And what you seem to have missed is that your faith is not under attack here - what is being criticised is people who demand special treatment for no good reason. 
Could I finish by asking you a few questions please. 
a) Do you accept that the specific claim (which I've quoted above) made in the specific advert ruled upon by the ASA was a medical claim? If you don't, then how would you define a medical claim? 
b) Regardless of your answer to a), do you agree that allowing unproven medical claims to be advertised could cause harm to people? And do you think that it is right for the onus to be on the person, or group, making the claim to prove it, rather than on the ASA to disprove it? 
c) Putting aside your opinions of the specific case, if something *were* a medical claim, would you define it as "asking for specific treatment" if a particular group wanted exemption from the rules for a particular claim?
Now, I think that that's actually quite a polite response. I'll freely admit that some of my earlier comments weren't quite so polite but - given that she let them through, she can't have deemed them abusive or offensive.

 Which leads me to only one conclusion. My comment wasn't blocked because it was offensive - I was blocked because Lisa disagreed with my arguments but preferred to simply delete my comment rather than engage with them.

And I'm pretty certain that the reason she deleted my comment was that she couldn't think of a response to my argument. And, because she couldn't win the debate, she simply erased my comment. I'd like to point out the irony of that coming from someone who was using, throughout the debate, the argument about "freedom of speech" and the evils of censorship.

Now look, it's her blog. She can do what she likes with it. But to block someone from your blog simply because they posted difficult arguments is nothing less than petty and cowardly.

If you've lost the argument, or simply can't be bothered with it anymore, there are three ways of dealing with it.

1. Simply say nothing and let the entire comment thread die down.
2. Simply say "I can't be bothered to argue with you any more - you're obviously determined to miss the point". Or words to that effect.
3. Delete the comment and leave a comment of your own acknowledging that you've done so and your reasons for doing so.

To follow the approach Lisa has is really quite laughably childish.

In many ways, it reminds of a similar incident that happened a while back on Ancient Briton's blog. He's another extreme Christian who seems to spend an inordinate amount of time ranting about women priests and women bishops. On one occasion we had a brief, polite debate in the comments on his blog where I raised the point that surely Jesus wouldn't care who was delivering his message as long as it was being delivered. At this point Ancient Briton simply deleted the entire comment thread.

As a comic poster once said: If at first you don't succeed, destroy all evidence you failed.

And that'd the tactic that Lisa's chosen to adopt.

So I'm afraid I am now left without any respect for Lisa Harding. I've agreed with her in the past, felt sympathy for her at other times, even expressed said sympathy in comments on her blog but that is now a thing of the past.

There are lots of people who I fundamentally disagree with, people who I actively dislike - but I at least respect them for having the courage to stick to their guns and make the case for their point of view. I show a certain degree of respect to them because, though we disagree, we can disagree openly and freely and without one side running away or sticking their fingers in their ears.

Lisa, I'm afraid, will get no such deference. In my opinion she has revealed herself to be childish and a coward.

I'm not going to do anything to her or harass her online or anything like that. All I'm doing is writing this blogpost and letting those reading it make their own judgements. That and thanking her for showing by her actions that she's lost the argument.

(Normal, non inter-blogger spats, blogging will now resume)

UPDATE: Lisa Harding has informed me on twitter that she has made an official party complaint about this blogpost. How what two ordinary citizens think or say of each other is aything to do with the party is beyond me but, just to reiterate, my opinions on here are my own and do not represent the Liberal Democrats and the logo for my blog is one inspired by the Lib Dem logo rather than being the Lib Dem logo itself.

UPDATE 2: Lisa now appears to have blocked her blog to everyone completely. Which is something of a shame as she occasionally made some good points. Not that I'll lose any sleep over it I'm afraid. And now it's unblocked again but all the comments on her blogpost have been deleted. Including those by people agreeing with her.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Christians demanding special treatment again

I've spent the past 24 hours in a rather irritated state of mind.

This is because of a letter signed by Christian MPs, including Lib Dem party president, Tim Farron, to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

The letter is about an advert made by a group of Christians in Bath. The advert said (my emphasis in bold):
"Need Healing? God can heal today! Do you suffer from Back Pain, Arthritis, MS, Addiction ... Ulcers, Depression, Allergies, Fibromyalgia, Asthma, Paralysis, Crippling Disease, Phobias, Sleeping disorders or any other sickness? 
"We'd love to pray for your healing right now! 
"We're Christian from churches in Bath and we pray in the name of Jesus. We believe that God loves you and can heal you from any sickness."
The ASA banned the advert because it breached the advertising regulations that the ASA are legally required to enforce. These regulations basically say that you cannot make any medical claim in an advert unless you can prove it.

Now let me point out right here that saying that prayer can heal is making a medical claim. Saying that "X treatment (prayer, drugs, exercise, snake oil, whatever) can heal Y illness" is a medical claim. Full stop.

But these MPs refuse to accept that. In their letter they say that they are very concerned about the decision and demand that the ASA prove that prayer can't heal (because the MPs give anecdotal evidence that it can) and that if the ASA doesn't then they will raise the issue in parliament.

My reaction to the letter itself (and Tim Farron signing it) is best summed up by Jennie's and Caron's blogposts about it.

But my reaction to the letter is not why I'm writing this post.

The reason I'm writing this post is out of frustration with the attitudes the letter has revealed in some people I know. Some of them are Lib Dems. Some are people whom I used to hold in fairly high regard. People, in short, who ought to know better.


Basically, my position is this. The baseline for medical claims to be allowed in adverts is that the medical product or treatment has to significantly outperform placebo in scientific, peer reviewed, randomised trials. Prayers fail to do this so they can't be advertised as healing people.

But a lot of people have crawled out of the woodwork to claim that this is unfair. That this is illiberal. That this is discrimination. That this is unfair. That this is denying Christians their freedom of speech. That this is a war on religion by "aggressive secularists".

What they are basically saying is that Christians should be allowed to make adverts claiming that prayer heals - despite them being unable to provide adequate proof that prayer can heal. In short, they want a double standard.

Well I have news for them. Not being able to get special treatment is NOT the same thing as being persecuted. There is no war on Christianity (if there was then why would the Pope's visit have been given massive amounts of media coverage? Why would we have Bishops in the House of Lords making laws that govern the entire country? Why would the media avidly report the views of people like the Archbishop of Canterbury whenever they make a pronouncement on anything other than religious matters? Why would we have a programme on the tv every Sunday entitled "Songs of Praise" and set in churches?). And it is not illiberal to deny a small group of Christians the right to advertise medical claims which they can't prove.


But some people obviously disagree with me. And I am of the opinion that they are talking complete and utter nonsense. And the arguments they make tend to prove this.

A good example of these arguments, purely the sake of convenience, is Spiderplantland's blogpost about the letter and the comments beneath the post.

I'm going to quote a lot of what was said in that post and in that comment thread, not out of any particular beef with Spidey, but because the arguments made there are typical of those made elsewhere.

One of the things that's really irritated me is the utter irrationality and blinkeredness that people like Spidey have shown. For example, Spidey said:
“Give me one piece of proof that says prayer cannot heal and I will take your point.” 
So I linked to this meta-study - looking at ten years worth of studies on prayer healing and whether it heals or not. Many of those individual studies were sponsored by religious groups who obviously weren't out to disprove the very thing that they believed in. On top of that, all the research is readily viewable so that anyone can look at it to check for any bias or flaws in the methodology. And what was the conclusion of that meta-study?

It was that prayer performed no better (and sometimes worse) than placebo. So there is no proof that prayer heals people. End of. And that means that the medical claim that prayer can heal people does not meet the standard of proof required by the ASA for medical claims. End of.

That doesn't mean that people can't claim that it does - it just means that they can't claim that it does in adverts.

So what was Spidey's response to this study? It was exactly the same as the response made by lots of other people, on other blogs, on twitter, on facebook, and god knows where else, when presented with proof that prayer does not heal people.

"It still not proof. Its also worth pointing out that the very study you quote is by the medical profession so again i point you to the vested interest point."
She then went on to make the following arguments. All of them being made by plenty of other people (including the MPs in their letter).
"Science can not disprove specific claims especially with regards to prayer. Faith is not quantifiable by science as by its very nature it is outside of the scope of investigation."
Fair enough. I myself believe in God (though not the Christian deity). And my belief is a matter of faith. No one can prove or disprove the existence of god.

But what can be proved or disproved are specific medical claims. And there is no proof that prayer can heal people.

That doesn't matter though, because Spidey went on to say:
"The power of prayer is incredibly strong for many people and has also been proven to have positive mental effects"
E.g. anecdotes and the placebo effect.

Now the problem with this is that it's moving the goalpost. And the simple fact that people move the goalpost to exclude any evidence by scientists or doctors means that they’ve excluded any independent third party from being able attempt to prove or disprove the claim that prayer heals.

Which means that the only way you can prove or disprove that prayer heals is by anecdote – and anecdotes are worthless in terms of proof as they can easily be falsified. For example, people claim that they have seen lizard men masquerading as police officers. People claim that the sugar pills they sell have cured cancer. People claim that vibrating crystals will have cured rheumatism.

But you can’t prove any of those statements based on anecdotes – because, and this is the shocking bit, people LIE, or MAKE THINGS UP, or MISINTERPRET WHAT HAS HAPPENED.

Mind you, none of this matters to people like Spidey. Because, even after all that:
"Let people claim they can cure people all they want. There is no harm in it. People will still go to hospital if they are feeling ill and in need of treatment. Suggesting that one poster for heeling ‘could’ prevent someone seeking treatment is knee jerking in the extreme. I refuse to believe that people are simply that blind. The majority are not."
Now that is complete nonsense. More than that, the assertion that there is "no harm in it" is a lie. And a dangerous lie.

Very few Christians would be irresponsible enough to go around actively telling people that they should stop taking medicine and rely entirely on prayer. But it's being disingenuous or naive in the extreme if you think that even claims that "prayer can heal" can't cause harm - because when people see a medical claim they usually take it at face value. And it's then very easy for some people to then think that, because X tells them that prayer heals, they no longer need to bother with actual medicine. And this, time and time again, produces fatal results.

"Thou shalt not kill" should not just be taken to mean that you shouldn't merely avoid killing anyone or avoid telling anyone directly to do something (like ignoring medical advice) that could kill them - it also means, or should be interpreted anyway, as meaning that you shouldn't do irresponsible things which could lead to other people making the leap to something that will kill themselves.

If you tell someone who is scared about immigration that, in ten years, the native inhabitants of a country will be outnumbered 2 to 1 by immigrants, and you also tell them that, in the long run, the only way to prevent this happening will be violent conflict, and they then go out and shoot some immigrants then you share responsibility in the deaths. You might not have started the fire but you gave them the matches.

So basically, the entire argument being made by the MPs, and people like Spidey, boils down to this:

“I believe that prayer heals. Some people claim it doesn’t and claim to have proved it doesn’t but those people are wrong and can’t be trusted. The reason they are wrong and can’t be trusted is because I say so. So since I believe this to be true, I should be allowed to make adverts saying it is true. Some people say that only medical claims that can be proved should be allowed to be made in adverts but these people ignore the fact that I am certain that prayer heals and have a story from a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend that proves it. If you disagree with me and say that that isn’t enough proof for me to be allowed to make an advert then you are illiberal and discriminating against me.”

That’s the argument they’re making. It’s the argument of the level that a child would make.

On the basis of that argument I could make adverts saying that drinking my urine heals people. Scientists and doctors might say I’m wrong but they’re just biased against what I know to be true.

And, even if my claim isn’t true, it doesn’t matter because drinking urine doesn’t hurt people (it’s a sterile liquid) - which actually makes it better than the claim that prayer heals because the claim that prayer heals has led to numerous deaths.

What this whole situation basically is is a minority of Christians who have a victim complex insisting, yet again, that anything that presents them from shoving their beliefs down the throats of others, regardless of the harm it might cause, is persecution.

Well I'm sorry but it's not. Being crucified is persecution. Being fed to the lions is persecution. Being tortured in attempts to make you renounce your faith is persecution. Being held to the same standards as everyone else in the country is not.

And that's what pisses me off so much about this that it's motivated me to write this ginormous rant. Not what some Christians might believe, but their bollocks claims about persecution and their thick-headed, wilful stupidity in the face of any and all attempts to have a reasoned debate. So don't blame me for the length of this blogpost - blame the Christians.

Well, maybe this is to blame as well.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

I'm in the "Awkward Squad"

The other day the wonderful Jennie Rigg left a comment welcoming me to the Lib Dem "Awkward Squad". I found myself saying this in a Lib Dem facebook group, in response to a response to my response (confused yet?) to someone who was saying that we had nothing to apologise for over breaking our tuition fees promise, and thought I'd post is as proof of my membership of the awkward squad ;)

Forgive me for being principled and believing in integrity. And forgive me for believing the dozens of people, from the top of the party to the bottom, who told me and the country that we were a party of principle. A party that, to quote Clegg's words from just the other week "does what is right rather than what is easy".

People in this country have a very low opinion of politicians and that is poison to our civic democracy. If we care about our country and actually believe what we claim to believe in then we have a duty to try and convince people that democracy can work and that they have a say in how we are governed.

So, to be quite frank, when it comes to people who seem to think that being politically successful means giving up on integrity and wriggling out of promises and denying any responsibility for their actions then I see the exact same people who are undermining democracy in this country - and doing a great deal of damage to our party at the same time.

And I really don't give a shit if they think that me saying so is "overstepping the mark".

I believe that politics is about compromising on policy but never on principle. And I believe that if you can't show integrity or be honest with people then you simply shouldn't be in politics.

At the end of the day it's about whether you're prepared to have faith in people and believe that being straight with people is not only the right thing to do, but the effective thing to do.

I know that I'm a flawed person, and I don't expect anyone else to be any better. But forgive me if I don't see why I should tolerate and excuse those who betray their principles at the drop of a hat when I don't.

An interview with Tim Farron

I sent this off to Liberal Youth a while ago so that it could be posted on the LY Libertine blog. Given that it still hasn't gone up, however, I've decided to post it here anyway. That said, please go and check out the Libertine because it really is very good.

When I was at Lib Dem spring conference in Gateshead the other weekend I was fortunate enough to be able to interview the Liberal Democrat party president, Tim Farron MP, as part of a session organised by Liberal Youth.

Liberal Youth bloggers with Tim Farron - I’m the third from the right .
Tim was due to propose his motion making amendments to the party’s constitution very shortly after the interview session so unfortunately we only had a very short period of time in which to interview him and so we had to take it in turns to ask questions.

The other interviews should be appearing on the LY Libertine blog over the next few days.

I recorded the answers Tim gave to my questions but unfortunately I found our my dictaphone had run out of power just as I went to use it and so I had to use my phone instead. There was a lot of background noise on the recording and, because Tim isn’t a very loud speaker, I’m afraid there are few sections of the interview where I can’t decipher what was said. All of them are fairly brief though so hopefully the following transcript will give you a good idea of what was said:

George: How low do you think it’s going to be possible to squeeze the Labour vote in your constituency so far?

Tim: Laughs. Um, take no vote for granted. Um we got, the Labour vote in Westmorland and Lonsdale at the last election was, I think I’m right in saying, it was nearly two per cent, I think it’s the lowest percentage share of the vote that Labour’s got in a general election in any seat since universal suffrage. So, you know… to an aide You can be super nerdy and find out that I’m wrong

Aide: It is two per cent.

Tim: Ah, so it was two per cent.

Another aide: Nearly two point two per cent.

Tim: They had a very good candidate by the way.

Inaudible comment by someone else.

Tim: That’s right. And I think we had er, Dan Rogerson got very close as well – the other one.
You take nothing for granted, um, I think the, we had a by-election in Windemere just four or five weeks ago where, I think where they got 10% previously, and we halved that to 5. And again we had a very good candidate. Came in a ward with his former inaudible

Um the point is not to see people as Labour voters, or as anything else, but as human beings, and as people who have a vote to cast. And you’ve just got to be on people’s side really. You won’t always agree with them and they won’t always agree with you, but if you are - you love them to death, basically – um, then you will normally get rewarded for it but just don’t ever take it for granted. I never assume, I don’t put, I mean, Labour got twenty one - nineteen per cent - in er ’97, the big Blair uplift, thankfully, we didn’t fight that campaign inaudible

But we know that there are one in five people in Westmorland who would consider voting Labour, um it would be stupid to ignore it.

Moves onto other questions.

George: Um, if I could ask an awkward question

Tim: Please do

George: Do you think it was moral or liberal, er for our MPs, yourself included, to vote to time limit to contributory ESA to one year when government figures show that 94% of people in receipt of it won’t have found work within that time?

Tim: Yeah, um tough one. Um the simple fact is that, um, we couldn’t afford a two year limit. And, in the end, that was what the pragmatic decision was.  I thought… I should be careful saying since this is being recorded… but shall I say that I considered my position very carefully

George: Yeah.

Tim: And when you know, that as a Member of Parliament, it comes to going through the lobby, that you are actually not going to change the outcome of the result, even if you wanted to, then you’ve got to think what are your motives for doing that.

I’d, I’d have been able to appeal to the wider membership, and perhaps some of my constituents, and I wouldn’t have achieved anything, and it would, there were a lot of wins we had inaudible

The fact that the changes are going to be reviewed as they’re implemented, and the fact that there’s an awful lot of discretionary measures available, these were all wins we got because the Lords were, er, not accidentally, difficult. You know inaudible and we’ve got to think, okay we’ve achieved this, um it’s not brilliant and er I, you asked me earlier about Labour voters, and I, I get much less troubled by Labour voters in my constituency than I do by my conscience.

Erm, and sometimes there are things I’ll do, I’ll think, I don’t like this, and I’ll think, we’re in coalition, none of us are happy with the situation, but I’ve got to balance that, and Nick [Clegg] and Steve [Webb] have done a lot. And I thought I owe it to them to be loyal and not to be a pain - given that I wasn’t going to change the result anyway.

Moves onto other questions.

As Tim is about to leave.

George: Very quickly, in a single sentence, what’s your favourite coalition policy?

Tim: I, personally, I guess it’s probably, erm the er the decision not to renew Trident.

George: Thank you.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

I wish the government would "granny tax" me

You'll all have probably heard about the furore over the government's so-called "granny tax".

What this basically is is a decision to freeze the tax allowance for pensioners (which is about £10,500) until the tax allowance for everyone else has caught up. And you know what, I don't really have a problem with that. I can't really see why the retired should get a bigger tax allowance than everyone else - particularly when you consider that the change will only cost them, on average, £85 a year.

Mind you, with high fuel and utility bills and the increase in VAT a lot of elderly people are feeling the pinch so asking them to pay extra isn't exactly helpful. But, then again, lots of other people who aren't retired and who don't get the higher tax allowance are also hit by higher utility bills and living costs as well.

Fortunately though, the government isn't taking £85 away from pensioners. In fact, pensioners are going to be wealthier because of the budget.

That's because the Lib Dems have implemented our policy to restore the link between inflation and pensions. Because of our triple lock, pensions are now guaranteed to rise by inflation or the average increase in wages or 3% each year - whichever is the higher of the three.

As a result, pensions are actually going to rise by £5.31 a week this year - which works out at about £276 for the whole year.

So if we take away the £85 pensioners are going to lose, but add the £276 they're going to gain then they actually work out £191 better off.

Now, if that's a "granny tax" (which Labour and the tabloids are presenting as the end of the world) then all I can say is that I wish the government would apply the granny tax to me!

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Another reason to be angry about the #WRB

WARNING: This post contains swearing.

Hey, remember how Lib Dem MPs and peers voted to cut benefits for those sick and disabled that the DWP deemend to be potentially capable of work at some point in the future? Well (hat tip to Tia Junior) here's a nice illustration of how the system that decides capability for work actually works itself:

"When assessing mobility within a WCA, Atos interviewers are allowed to recommend the use of a wheelchair to improve mobility (if they think it will do this) for someone who does not normally use one. They can do this without any specific discussion with the claimant or their GP. They are not however allowed to recommend treatment – make sense of this if you can, but as unbelievable as it is, it is true. Decision Makers are allowed to do the same thing, without specifically declaring it to claimants – all the claimant is told is that for mobility, they have score (say) zero points."

And this is after this section of the WCA (Work Capability Assessment) has been reviewed and supposedly "fixed". And from the start of next month sick and disabled people will start having their benefits cut off on the basis of how capable to work this assessment deems them to be.

I am really fucking pissed off right now. Let's have a great big round of applause for Lib Dem MPs for making such a courageous decision to support this despite the WRB being such an obviously massive crock of shit.

P.S. Here's the source behind what I'm saying.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

A belated conference update

This is nearly a week late but I'm afraid I haven't had a chance to write about conference until now.

I arrived in Newcastle on the Sunday and I have to say it's a very pretty city - surprisingly so in fact. Then again, that could be my inate home counties bias and negative stereotypes of the north.

Anyway, here are a few key moments of conference for me:

The first was on the Friday night when a friend and I attended a fringe on the UK's space industry - a sector which has been growing at 10% a year for well over a decade. Given that I'm studying space technology related engineering at uni it's really not surprising that this is something I'm interested in. The panel was composed of the CEO of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, or SSTL, (a company specialising in building cheap, small satellites and which was founded by students at my university back in the 80s), a guy from EADS Astrium (the biggest space technology company in Europe) and Vince Cable.

It was absolutely fascinating and Vince made some very interesting comments about his strategy for helping to rebalance our economy - with an emphasis on high tech, niche manufacturing of the type that the UK space industry illustrates. As part of this the government is creating thousands of new apprenticeships and has set up "centres of excellence" located in areas where there are existing concentrations of British scientific and technical enterprise. All in all it was very encouraging to hear and certainly Vince seems to have the right idea of how to boost our economy - creating the correct regulatory framework and providing small, targetted amounts of assistance to manufacturing in order to create the right situation for growth. One example of this was SSTL building a constellation of disaster monitoring satellites which were funded by a consortium of several countries - but the non-UK countries only put in the funding once the UK had guaranteed it's participation, giving the other countries confidence that this was a safe investment.

So, as I said, very encouraging.

I also interviewed Tim Farron - the party president - as part of a group of young bloggers in a session organised by Liberal Youth. I should have my interview up on the LY Libertine early this coming week and I'll cross post it here. Suffice to say I got some interesting answers to the three questions I was able to ask (sadly there wasn't time for any more than those).

But the two big features of conference were my attempt to kick the leadership in the unmentionables (figuratively speaking) over the Welfare Reform Bill and the commotions over the NHS bill.

Sadly I failed to achieve much over the WRB. The best we could manage was to move that the report by Lib Dem MPs to the party was rejected on the grounds of failing to justify their voting record on the WRB and the NHS reforms. We were only able to do this because of a very good, very awesome friend of mine called Natasha Chapman. Only a voting rep is able to request that a report is rejected and, as I'm not a voting rep myself, she was brave enough to volunteer to do it - what's even more impressive is that she stood up and publicly called for the report to be rejected despite having never spoken at conference before. She told me that she was so nervous that her hands were shaking but she certainly didn't come across as nervous when she spoke.

She doesn't normally read this blog which means she won't be able to contradict me when I tell you she is a much, much better human being than I am and far more principled.

Sadly, we lost the vote on rejecting the report - partly because we didn't have the connections to mobilise people for the vote and partly because the party's whip, Alistair Carmichael MP, is a very charming and very humorous speaker (which he used to his advantage when making the case for the report being accepted), but mainly because he was able to claim that the vote on the WRB took place after the deadline for the submission of the report and that's why it was left out. Given that Jenny Willott MP was the party's disability spokesman and had been heavily involved with the WRB, and that it was obvious that our MPs were going to be voting on the Lords amendments to the WRB before conference, this argument doesn't really convince me but it was good enough to get the benefit of the doubt of conference at 9am on a Sunday morning when most people were still hungover from Glee Club the night before.

The only victory I can see from this is that a) we disrupted Alistair Carmichael's morning, and possibly gave him a very nasty shock for a moment, and b) Natasha got a very large round of applause from conference after requesting the report be rejected - my guess is that we had a lot more sympathy than those who voted for the report to be rejected. And, of course, Carmichael's argument about the deadline certainly won't apply when we come to autumn conference so I very much look forwards to having another go then. Not to mention proposing various constitutional amendments (which you will hear more about when I have finished my plotting).

Immediately after our failed gambit came the big showdown over the NHS reforms. Here's basically what happened:

There's a slot on the last day of conference for one emergency motion to be debated. This conference there were four contenders for the slot. One was on Syria, one was on the justice system and two were about the NHS reforms. One of them was the one by the Social Liberal Forum (SLF), backed by Dr Evan Harris (a very great man in my humble opinion), to kill the NHS reforms, and the other was by the leadership and was called "Defending the NHS: the Shirley Williams motion".

There was a ballot to decide which motion to debate. Lib Dems use a preferential voting system for these matters and the SLF motion got most of the first preference votes. However, once the Syria and justice motions were eliminated and the votes transferred, the leadership's motion won the ballot - my guess is that people who didn't know much about it saw Shirley William's name attached to it and thought that if Shirley was backing it then it must be good. It's important to emphasise here that, until last week at least, Shirley was a Lib Dem divinity. Much loved, much admired and much cherished she was and is credited with immense wisdom and led the charge against the NHS reforms at the Sheffield spring conference last year.

But now she's switched sides.

On the Sunday, conference debated the leadership's motion which basically said that our parliamentarians had done a brilliant job getting amendments made and would have made it party policy to support the NHS reforms. Thankfully, conference wasn't having that. Members of the SLF moved for certain lines of the motion to be deleted - specifically the lines calling for the party to support the reforms.

The debate was relatively short but highly charged and fascinating. The Federal Conference Committee had been deluged with speakers cards by people wanting to speak against the motion (a card by yours truly amongst them) and, following procedure, called speakers in proportion to the number of cards for and against the motion. This meant that there were far, far more speakers against the NHS reforms than in favour of them and some very, very good points were made - particularly that the government had welched on its promises to implement the amendments demanded by Lib Dems last year.

At the end of the debate Shirley Williams went up to make the final argument in favour of the motion - apparently she only saw the speech she was to make a few minutes before making it. She said her piece and duly received a muted round of applause for it but that was it. Personally I didn't think she'd made any new arguments or had made any convincing arguments in favour of the NHS reforms. She certainly lost a hell of a lot of credit when she made that speech.

Then we had the vote. Let me tell you, the conference hall was absolutely packed. There wasn't a single seat empty. There were more people attending the vote than attended Clegg's speech later on that day. I actually gave up my seat to a voting rep as the rules say that only those seated can vote. Unfortunately, said voting rep then voted with the leadership - making it all rather counter-productive from my point. Still, I suppose that morally I did the right thing as it wouldn't be right to have blocked his right to vote simply because I disagreed with him and was too lazy to give up my seat.

Anyway, long story short, conference voted to delete the lines supporting the NHS reforms and then passed the motion. So essentially conference said well done to our parliamentarians for the work they've done so far and then kicked the ball back to their court.

I'll tell you this though, the leadership definitely lost face.

They were symbolically defeated by conference and only managed to avoid complete humiliation through using Shirley Williams as a human shield. The excellent Caron Lindsay has some interesting points about that on her blog. Her view of Nick Clegg and the reforms is different to mine but I think she shares my dislike for the way the leadership handled this and the arguments they made. She was also a great source of moral support in opposing the Welfare Reform Bill so she gets major kudos for that.

And that pretty much concludes my account of conference. I met some old friends again and met a lot of interesting new people (such as Political Parry - a social liberal, a feminist and a brilliant blogger). I had great fun at Glee Club, went drinking with Liberal Youth and got to have a first hand look at one of the jewels of the north. And, on top of that, I saw the membership give the leadership a bloody nose. They might still ignore us over the NHS reforms but, if they do, they will not be acting in our name.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Leaving the Lib Dems

James Graham
Daniel Furr
Chris Ward
James Hargrave

These are some of the people I know about who have left the Lib Dems in the past few weeks. In the case of Chris Ward, he only left today. And I only know these people because I'm friends with them or follow their blogs. I can't help but wonder how many people I don't know about are leaving. Not to mention those who have left who I know about personally but don't have convenient links for.

All of these people are sensible Lib Dems. These aren't people who left simply because they prefer being perpetually in opposition. And many of them are politically to the right of me, some of them I've often disagreed with. So this isn't simply a case of these being disenchanted lefties. Chris Ward, for example, is one of those who actually voted to approve the coalition agreement and who has always been a supporter of the coalition (he's also the one who signed me up to the party, was my local councillor for two years and is a good friend). And they're not defecting to other parties either - they're simply dropping out of party politics, the only political home they ever had no longer somewhere where they feel happy.

I also know others who are seriously considering leaving. One of them is Andrew Emmerson - a man who I heard someone at conference describe as the most right wing person in the Lib Dems. (UPDATE: Just to clarify, Andrew is considering leaving because he doubts whether the membership are capable of setting themselves in the right direction rather than over doubts about the leadership) And even people who I know are definitely staying, who are stalwart defenders of what we've achieved in government, have been expressing serious worries.

And that's not even mentioning the likes of Jennie Rigg, or myself for that matter, who are remaining members of the Lib Dems but who are very upset about several key issues.

These people aren't fools. They're not swing voters who constantly shift position and who are a dime a dozen. These are activists. These are candidates. These are men and women who are liberals to the core. And yet they're leaving or considering leaving or are thinking about leaving.

And why?

Because they see things like the Health & Social Care Bill, the Welfare Reform Bill, tuition fees, cuts to legal aid, that weren't in the coalition agreement, that will devastate lives and which they know will damage and taint the party. And, for all people, there comes a time when you have to ask what the point is in sticking with a party that seems not to bear any resemblance to the one you joined. A party where you see good friends leaving, and where you see people who share your views becoming increasingly marginalised, will eventually become one you no longer feel at home in.

And it doesn't help when the leadership keeps on walking into elephant traps and policy disasters which members have tried desperately to warn them about (see: fees, the NHS, etc.). It certainly doesn't help when the leadership say that members who disagree with them are backing Andy Burnham and generally happily and barefacedly ignore the result of any conference vote they don't like. Or when other party members dismiss those who are leaving as "disillusioned perpetual party of opposition" voters.

Now, we might be getting some new members as a result of being in coalition. But these are a) fresh, brand new members without experience of activism for the party and b) noticeably more right wing than our existing membership - so this means that, not only are we losing many of the dedicated, veteran activists that we desperately need, we are also drifting rightwards. And, quite frankly, there's only room for one right wing party in the UK and that's the Conservatives. If we drift too ideologically close then we'll disintegrate.

So where do I stand?

I used to tell myself that I didn't mind being in coalition because the coalition agreement seemed sensible enough. But then I saw the leadership allow through major tory policies, that weren't in the coalition agreement, time and time again while only achieving "administrative wins" to make up for it.

So then I told myself that we were a democratic party, that members could still change party policy and influence the coalition government. But then I tried that, I went to conference, got the support of Liberal Youth and got a motion passed about the Welfare Reform Bill. And then, for my pains, the motion got completely ignored and our MPs and peers meekly backed the Bill without showing a twinge of conscience.

So then I got angry and told myself that I could go to conference and kick up a fuss about it. But then I got to conference last week and the best I could manage to achieve was a symbolic protest which was completely ignored by the media. And I saw conference vote against the leadership on the NHS only for Nick Clegg to ignore the issue completely in speech, and the leadership to announce its intention to ignore the vote, just hours later.

So, one by one, all the political reasons I've had for staying in the party have gone.

Now, I don't mind it when I'm in a minority opinion within the party and when the leadership are prepared to make the intellectual argument for their course of action and win - but I find it impossible to stomach them just ignoring completely the will and opinions of the majority of the membership. And not just ignoring but treating us with contempt - not even having the decency to pretend to be listening.

I've been forced to realise that all the justifications I gave to the party have been proved to be false.

So where does that leave me?

It leaves me determined to remain a member of the party, that's what.

This is partly because I still support people in my local party - I know they are good people who would be brilliant champions of their communities and it would be utterly selfish of me to stop campaigning for them just because I'm angry with the leadership

But the main reason I'm going to stay is sheer bloody mindedness. I refuse to be forced out of my own party. I am, and always will be, a liberal and I will fight for liberalism come hell or high water - and if that means that I have to fight and oppose my own party's leadership then so be it. They're not getting rid of me that easy.

EDIT: By the way, if you're about to leave a comment complaining about the imminent dismantling of the NHS then please don't. I despise the NHS reforms for being shoddy, ill-thought through and pointless, but they won't privatise the NHS. Just thought I'd make that clear as someone invariably mentions the NHS in these situations.

UPDATE: I've just found the link for Liz William's resignation - hat-tip to Alex Marsh.

Friday, 9 March 2012

On my way to #ldconf

I am currently sat on a train merrily rattling it's way through Kent on the way to Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in Newcastle Gateshead.

For me, conferences are the highlights of the year - I get to geek-out on politics, meet lots of old friends and make new ones, go to lots of interesting fringe events, and, of course, drink copious amounts of alcohol and indulge in raucous singing at the Glee Club (nothing to do with the TV show).

In many ways the party is like a second family. And there's definitely something uplifting about being in a place where you know that pretty much everyone you see is all dedicated to the same cause that you are.

Unfortunately there is a rather nasty stain on the whole thing which is the complicity of Lib Dem parliamentarians in the passing of the Welfare Reform Bill which will devastate the lives of thousands of vulnerable sick and disabled people.

I'm hoping to do something about this - mainly by giving a bloody nose and a PR disaster to the leadership by trying to get the reports to conference of the parliamentary party rejected by the membership. Touch wood, I think I've found some voting reps who will be willing to help me with this - so hopefully we'll be in with a fighting chance.

And, no doubt because of my relatively young age, I imagine I might well have a repeat of last conference where journalists pounced on anyone they saw in search of a story about Lib Dem "splits". Last conference I was fairly upbeat and positive (as was everyone else) so I saw a lot of dejected journalists moping about the place.

This time, however, I think I might just have a few choice words to say to them about a) the trainwreck that is the government's cuts to disability benefits and b) the failure of people like them to report properly on something that will devastate the lives of disabled people (despite being quite happy to report again and again and again made up "scrounger" stories pushed by tory politicians for their own political advantage).

Overall, with a bit of luck, I'm hoping that I'll be able to have an enjoyable conference, rounded off by metaphorically kicking the leadership in the unmentionables for being utter dicks over the Welfare Reform Bill.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Please could you help?

This blogpost is me asking for help.

The reason I'm asking for help is because I've failed. I've been unable to gather enough support to get an emergency motion on the Welfare Reform Bill (WRB) submitted to conference. This is entirely my fault - I should have started gathering support for the motion well before the crucial vote in the Commons on the Lords' amendments to the bill. But instead I was too optimistic and failed to start trying to gather support until all hope of parliament stopping it was gone. And that meant that there simply wasn't enough time to gather the required number of signatures from voting representatives - certainly not for someone with my limited connections. And this is my failure and I am deeply sorry for it.

So now I need to ask other people for help and I hope that everyone reading this will forward it on to everyone they know who might be able to help.

I am desperately looking for a Lib Dem voting rep who is going to be at Lib Dem spring conference this weekend who objects to the WRB and who's willing to do something about it.

Basically, I think that the WRB is such a mammoth issue that, at the very least, conference should have the opportunity to show how it feels on the issue. The best opportunity for this is for the report by the parliamentary to be subjected to a vote on whether to accept it or not and the mini-debate that goes with it. This requires a voting rep to request, by 5pm on saturday, that the PLDP report be rejected. I'd do it myself but I'm not a voting rep and, because the deadline for emergency substitutions is the 31st of Jan (before the crucial commons vote on the WRB) there's no way I'll be able to do it.

So what I'm asking is for a voting rep to request the rejection of the section of the PLDP report dealing with the WRB and to read out a pre-written statement setting forth the arguments why it should be rejected - this would also require being in the conference hall by 9am on Sunday.

Please, is there anyone willing to do this? In all probability the vote will be lost anyway but I just can't think it right that a bill with such a large impact should be passed into law without even a token vote for conference to show what it thinks. If you have any doubt about the importance of this then I suggest that all you need to do is to read this moving account of the impact it will have to appreciate the devastation that this bill will inflict on thousands of vulnerable people.

So please, if you're a voting rep who'd be willing to do this then please send me a facebook message. My facebook profile can be found here.Thank you.

EDIT: To clarify, there are two PLDP reports, one from the Commons, one from the Lords. What I'm hoping to get rejected are one section of the Lords report and the entirety of the Commons. This is because the Lords give a dedicated section to the WRB while the Commons report doesn't even mention it at all.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Lib Dem computer virus

I need a (brief) break from blogging about the misery of the Welfare Reform Bill all the time. So I am proud to present the Lib Dem Computer Virus (patent pending). If you click on that link you'll be able to download it. If you double click it, and ignore the security warning, you'll be able to see exactly what it does - but don't worry, it won't damage your computer and you can close it by clicking the exit button in the top right hand corner box that pops up (this "virus" only works on Windows computers by the way).

And, to be honest, technically it's not a virus at all. Let me explain.

I'm studying (what is essentially) electronic engineering at university. This involves learning programming. I'm currently on a placement year working in industry as part of my degree and my job also involves quite a bit of programming.

And it was at work that I learn about something called "scripts". Basically, back in the old days, computers were a lot more basic - there wasn't Windows or Mac OS or anything like that. Instead people had to tell computers what to do by directly typing commands into it - nowadays we just click on buttons. That legacy of typing in commands directly still exists in modern computers in the form of something called the Command Prompt. This is a little screen you can open up to type in commands directly, just as people used to do in the old days.

A script is a type of file which sends what's written in it directly to the Command Prompt. So this way you can write a whole sequence of commands in a script and then double click on the file to run them all at once.

Scripts were used to write the very first major computer virus - it was a script which looked like a text file entitled "LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU.txt" sent to people in emails. When people opened it then emailed itself to random email contacts of the people who opened it. Of course, other script based viruses can be a lot more sophisticated - for example, they can tell your computer to delete all the files you've got saved on it.

Fortunately nowadays computer security is much better and email companies block script files and computers warn people about what they are before running them. Unfortunately, the people who write viruses have also become a lot more sophisticated in their techniques. In fact, the kind of people who use scripts in computer hacking nowadays are rather looked down upon within the hacking community and referred to as "script kiddies" - which is a derogatory term. They're looked down upon because they use scripts and other fairly simple to use hacking tools which have been put together by other people. In short, they're looked down upon because they don't have any particular skill of their own and also because they usually haven't got a clue about what they're doing or how what they're doing works - they just do it for the thrill of vandalism and the reputation it gives them among their peers.

That's the stereotype of course. Hackers, incidentally, are a lot different from the standard media stereotype - most people think of criminal hackers as the kind of people who break into things and steal money or destroy things via computers. But a lot of hackers are the kind of people normally viewed as the "good guys" - such as  computer security experts. And there are also the hackers who simply hack computer systems for the challenge of pitting themselves against the systems - of getting behind the simple interface that most people see and into the bare bones of the computers behind them. And a lot of the people who were non-malicious, non-law breaking hackers are the same people who laid the foundation of modern computer technology - Bill Gates is one such example.

Then there are the people who hack hardware or software, such as their own computers, to push them to the limit - to go beyond the built in restrictions and see exactly how far the hardware or software can be pushed before it breaks and gives up. For example, there are some people who've managed to turn a standard computer mouse into a barcode scanner - and the only reason they did it was for the fun of it. It's a subculture basically and hopefully I've given you a bit of an insight into it.

But back to the Lib Dem computer virus. What it is is one of the scripts I talked about. When you run it it should pop up a window and spout Lib Dem propaganda at you and ask you to press any key to continue. After you've done that twice then it loops back to the beginning. It's fairly basic and fairly simple and really isn't a virus at all as it depends on you choosing to run it. I do think it's pretty cool though - which gives you an idea as to how much of a nerd I am.

Pictured: Unashamed nerdery

If I wanted to I could also alter it to do more irritating things - such as asking you if you're a Lib Dem and shutting down your computer if you say no. And there are also things that can be done to prevent you from closing the script and hiding it so that you've got no idea that it's there. I've got no interest in finding out how to do that though - my only interest in scripts is to use them as an occasional cludge or temporary fix in programming.

And, as thanks for making it this far, here's another script I've written that you can download - this is an equally harmless script but hopefully it might make you smile a little :)

Also, I'll thank you not to ask just how geeky I have to be to a) be interested in writing scripts and b) decide to give those scripts a political theme.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Meeting with Jenny Willot: Communication

This is the fourth and final update on my meeting with Jenny Willott MP. In this last post I want to focus on the communication (or lack of it) with the public and party members over the Welfare Reform Bill.

To be fair, I think disability campaigners and myself may have misjudged Lib Dem MPs at times.

For example, one thing that really annoyed me was that Jenny Willott has said publicly, on multiple occasions, that the choice facing Lib Dem MPS was a choice between two arbitrary time limits. I and other campaigners have said that this was a completely false claim as MPs were voting to choose between the government’s one year time limit and the Lords’ amendment to raise it to “no less than 720 days”. I thought that meant that 720 days would be the minimum that the time limit would be.

But, according to Jenny, the original wording of the bill was “no less than 365 days”. I haven’t had a chance to check whether that’s correct but, assuming that Jenny was telling the truth (and I have no reason to believe otherwise), then it does sound like it really was a choice between two arbitrary limits where one was an arbitrary limit of one year and the other was an arbitrary limit of two years.

Of course, the thing is that even a time limit of two years is a bit better than the government’s original proposal – especially when the fact is that most of those affected by the one year time limit will take over a year to be able to return to work. So a time limit of two years would at least have made sure that slightly less people were caught out by this.

I also feel somewhat concerned that a lot of Lib Dem MPs seem to have spent so long working with the tories that they’ve forgotten what they’re really like. I mean, Jenny told me that Chris Grayling and Lord Freud and IDS are much nicer in private than they appear publicly and that they’re actually genuinely concerned about making the disability benefits system fairer and that they’ve even been asked by Lib Dems, and have agreed, to stop using “scrounger” rhetoric and misleading press releases (I’ll believe that one when I see it) - NOTE: since I wrote this, but before posting it, there's been a lovely article by Chris Grayling in the Sun which proves that any agreement or assurance the tories gave was absolutely worthless.

But what they seem to have forgotten is that tories are always perfectly nice people in private – they’re friendly and sociable and often quite charming. But when it comes to their political objectives they are utterly ruthless and without hesitation in doing whatever it takes to achieve them. Any Lib Dem council group in an area where the tories are active can tell you that. Tories are invariably pleasant people outside of political matters and are the kind of people who are happy to go to the pub with political opponents. But while they might be perfectly friendly in those kind of social settings they’ll stab you in the back and fight the dirtiest, nastier campaigns imaginable, without compunction, as soon as election season comes back round again. We’ve seen that first hand in this parliament with the AV campaign.

So I’m afraid that I can’t help that worry that our MPs have spent so long seeing the tories as work colleagues that they’ve forgotten that – though we might be forced to work together for the national interest – they are still, fundamentally, the enemy and are utterly opposed to everything we stand for.

I also think that this whole sorry saga over the Welfare Reform Bill illustrates perfectly how dire our party is at communication. Because there are things Lib Dems have achieved behind the scenes on this. I’m convinced that Jenny and co have actually won significant concessions on lots of disability benefit issues even if the headline, and awful, time limit is still going ahead. And I’m convinced that, reading between the lines, that they’d have done a lot, lot more if the tories hadn’t blocked them from doing so.

But party members and the public hear none of that. Over this entire saga the only communication we’ve received are three articles on LibDemVoice by Jenny Willott – an excellent website but one which has a relatively small and niche audience. Meanwhile, members have been left with no explanation for the way in which our MPs and peers were voting until well after the final and most significant vote in the Commons had taken place. That silence, that lack of engagement by the leadership is the reason that so many of us have felt let down and betrayed – especially when we went to the trouble of getting a motion passed at conference on the issue without anyone in the leadership apparently paying a blind bit of notice to it.

But we’re just the membership – we’re used to getting ignored and kept out of the loop over vitally important issues. Tuition fees, for example.

The public, on the other hand, are far more important. They’re not paid up members, they aren’t loyal party supporters who read every blog and website to find the justifications of what we’re doing. And what they’ve seen, especially the disabled community, is the Lib Dems -who many disabled people thought were the only party on their side – apparently unflinchingly backing to the hilt brutal and terrifying tory cuts to disability benefits. The fear that these changes have caused and the stress that they have inflicted on vulnerable people is immense. And at least part of that fear and stress might have been mitigated if Lib Dem parliamentarians had bothered to talk to people about this – to communicate properly, in a two-way fashion, with the public and with party members.

As it is, we will be absolutely hammered about this at the next election. Labour will be able to whitewash their own despicable past over welfare and be able to claim to be the great defender of the sick and disabled – even though most of their leadership have made it clear that they couldn’t care less. And we will lose votes. And we will be seen as no different from the tories on a fundamental issue of fairness which should have been one of our strongest areas. And every single tragic case caused by these cuts to disability benefits will be laid squarely at our door without our activists having a single argument at their disposal to say that our MPs do care and that they did try to make things better.

Yet our MPs really did do this but they did it in ridiculous secrecy and without giving any public sign of it. And, because they never gave any evidence of their achievements and mitigations publicly, no one will believe it when we tell them about it.

This was a glorious chance for the “differentiation” beloved by our leadership and yet it was completely wasted. If half the things Jenny told me in the meeting about what had been done, and how she would do things differently if the tories weren’t refusing to budge on certain issues, had been said in public or to party members then I’d have spent much of the past six months without being quite so uncertain or ashamed about our MPs. We could have done another NHS reforms on this and won a lot of credit for doing our best to mitigate proposals that the tories were determined to force through – even if we were unable to block them completely.

In fairness, when I told Jenny some of this she did agree that communication was poor and could have been handled a lot better. And it does sound like our MPs are getting better at this and will be doing things very differently following the budget when the policy programme for the rest of the parliament is up for negotiation – then we might actually get proper consultation and involvement of the grassroots of the party. But this should have been happening months ago.

We might be short on money and short on communication staff but that’s no excuse. Within the membership we have a vast pool of experienced, skilled and resourceful people – many of whom would have been happy to volunteer. Many of whom have, in fact, tried to volunteer but whose emailed offers of help have gone completely unanswered.

I really hope that our MPs get a lot of bad publicity over the Welfare Reform Bill and a rough conference over it as well – because it seems like it might be the only thing that will finally get through to them the vital urgency of getting communication right. Because, to put it bluntly, if things don’t improve drastically and quickly, then we might as well return to our constituencies and prepare for oblivion in every local election from here to 2015.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Meeting with Jenny Willott: the political dimension

This is the third update on how my meeting with Jenny Willott went and, given that the meeting took place over a week ago, I’m sorry for the delay in getting this up. This was meant to be the last update but it’s grown so long that I’m going to have to do a fourth update covering what I see as the failure by Lib Dem MPs to communicate properly with the public and with members over the Welfare Reform Bill.

But in this post I just want to focus on the political dimension of what’s happening and my impression of it which I took away from the meeting.

The fundamental thing I took away from the meeting is that parliamentarians live in a completely different reality.

Now, something that I can’t emphasise enough is that the meeting did convince me that Jenny, and her researcher Giles, and the other Lib Dem MPs are still decent people at heart – they’re not supporting the welfare reform bill out of spite or callousness or disregard for the impact it’ll have. They’re trying their hardest to ameliorate the effects of the bill wherever possible but are trapped by the fact that it’s simply not possible to do that much to change the welfare reform bill.

When Jenny and Giles told me that they simply couldn’t get any more money out of the treasury to protect disability benefits – that it’s not possible to make any radical changes without fatally destabilising the coalition and doing more harm than good –they weren’t lying. They genuinely believe that and have tried their hardest but haven’t been able to get anywhere. Jenny and Giles certainly seems to have spent months looking at ways to find the money from elsewhere in the DWP but haven’t been able to and have thus come to the conclusion that it’s better to take support from those disabled people with an alternative household income than it would be to top-slice Job Seekers Allowance, for example.

But.

But the thing to remember is that they say that because they genuinely live in a different reality to the one I live in. For them the political realities are rock solid – the Treasury refuses to give up any more money, and there’s no force on earth that can persuade the Treasury to do otherwise, and it’s simply not possible to take money from other departments – and even if it was it would only mean sacrificing money from other important projects and would also hit vulnerable people – and so the best that Lib Dems can do is to make the saving of money within each department as fair as possible while taking the opportunity to make things actively better in the areas that the coalition agreement allows us to do so in. And, in fairness, if you are forced to take money either from a severely disabled, completely crippled person, and one who is very poorly but who is possibly going to be able to re-enter work in the future and who has a partner earning at least a little money, then taking it from the latter is the least worst option – which is the position Jenny seems to find herself in.

But I don’t really believe the reality is actually like that. I mean, okay, when Jenny said that it’s not possible to find the £1.6 billion to prevent time limiting from anywhere else in the government’s budget - because it would mean tearing up the comprehensive spending review, and making the tories dig their heels in - then she’s probably right. Even if that does beg the question of why such large cuts were allowed to be made to the DWP budget in the first place. And yes, the Lib Dems are the party with less MPs and therefore will be forced, at times, to tolerate the tories being their despicable selves in some areas because the only alternative is to bring down the coalition, causing economic instability and even more misery than will be caused by the bad things the Lib Dems are forced to let through.

But that doesn’t explain why our MPs couldn’t have tried – for example, to put forwards a compromise on the time limit. To have found perhaps some of the money needed from the other departments where there are Lib Dem ministers, taking it from projects and policies which, while important, aren’t as vital as protecting the disabled and where some money can be taken without causing too much money in the long term.

I pointed out that Nick Clegg has publicly called for the abolition of higher rate tax relief for wealthy pensioners in order to pay for tax cuts for the poorest and I asked why we couldn’t have been calling for this saving to be made months ago in order to pay for preventing the time limit instead. Jenny’s response was that this wasn’t possible because pensions and tax were all within the Treasury department rather than the DWP and it wasn’t possible to take money out of one department to pay for another when the budgets for all the departments were agreed in the comprehensive spending review. But why not?

Just because that’s the convention doesn’t mean that we should abide by it. Our MPs or leadership could at least have publicly asked for it to be considered – even if the tories refused to countenance it then at least we could have held our heads up high and said we’d tried.

And if £1.6 billion is too huge a sum for that to be worth contemplating then how about something smaller? For the sake of saving the insignificant (in overall budgetary terms) sum of £11 million a year, this government is going to stop treating severely disabled children whose conditions will prevent them from ever working as having made NI contributions – a practice which originated in order to allow them to receive contributory ESA which they otherwise wouldn’t be eligible for.

Jenny said this would cause an unfair situation where disabled children could receive the higher rate from the age of 18 and would therefore receive it longer than those who became unable to work later on in life, and she apparently didn’t see anything wrong with making them rely on income-related ESA - despite the fact that this has a cut off threshold as low as a partner earning £7,500 a year and that this will financially penalise those few who are lucky enough to find a partner instead of being dependent on their parents all their lives.

But I’m afraid that I can’t see her arguments as a sufficient justification when Jenny had been saying that if they’d had the money to avoid the time limit then they would have. The fact is that stopping treating severely disabled children as having made NI contributions is just as much about saving money as the time limit is. And, while I can reluctantly accept that £1.6 billion might be impossible for the Lib Dems to find, £11 million a year over five years isn’t.

If Eric Pickles can find £250 million in his department to bring back weekly bin collections then there’s no reason that a Lib Dem minister – or Lib Dem ministers working together – couldn’t have found £55 million from their own departments in order to pay for this over the next five years until the government finances have improved. Both Jenny and Giles told me separately (Giles when he was helping me find my way to the exit after the meeting and I asked him about it again) that this simply wasn’t possible.

And that’s why I’m convinced that Jenny and other Lib Dem MPs aren’t living in the same reality as the rest of us. Because the fact is that a sum as small as £55 million could be found if the political will was there to do it. Which means that they are choosing not to put the political effort in. But these aren’t cruel or callous people, they’re MPs who entered politics to make the world a better place, who see the impact of disability and illness in their own constituencies, who might well have relatives affected by this. So they’re doing this because they genuinely believe they have no other choice.

I, and quite a few people like me, disagree. We think that it is possible to do something to at least make things a little bit better even if it might not be possible to make things completely better. That Lib Dem MPs don’t think that indicates that both us and them are living in different worlds. It might be because they live in the Westminster Bubble, with an entire culture and fundamental belief all around them that certain things can’t be done – in turn convincing people like our MPs that it’s impossible to even try. Or it could be that they’re the ones living in the real world and people like me are just naïve dreamers who keep on asking for the impossible out of a misguided belief in what the world should be like rather than what it is like. Or it could be a combination of the two.

So that’s why I’ve come to the conclusion that, though I’m sure our MPs are genuinely doing the best they can, and that they’re fundamentally decent people, I’m going to do all I can to fight them on the cuts to disability benefits.

Because, fundamentally, what is happening is just plain wrong. It is not justifiable, it is not excusable, it is not absolutely necessary, and it is not what we entered government to do.