Saturday, 24 May 2014

How to solve a problem like inertia

For a party that prides itself for being level headed in nature with a predilection for calm and open discourse, we Lib Dems aren't doing very well at the moment. It can't have been easy for all those candidates and Cllrs that lost on Thursday. It was difficult enough watching the vitriolic glee on Twitter throughout the past few days. Our response thus far seems to be to grab the nearest knife and reach for the net.

At this point you'll be assuming I'm about to launch into a lengthy diatribe on the fate of Nick Clegg, but frankly I don't care that much either way at the moment. We have a far bigger problem to deal with. The party has always had its various wings. Being a party that believes in liberalism will do that to you. It's a difficult concept to pin down to a single definition or outcome. But at the moment we have two wings that seem determined to tear us asunder, and I think most of us are stuck in the middle.

On one side we have the idealists. "We should never have entered the Coalition. Clegg and the Orange Bookers are dragging us inexorably to electoral suicide. UKIP are stealing our votes because of tuition fees. We need a new leader now, or better yet yesterday. Stop blaming us."

On the other side we have the pragmatists. "The Coalition was a marriage of necessity. We need to be grown up about this. Parties in Government lose Cllrs. Accept it. Only we can change it by working harder. Put your knives away and fire up your Risos. Stop blaming everyone else."

Both arguments have some merit. HQ does seem to have lost the ear of a lot of activists, not least because it is kind of obvious that being grown up works for the larger parties because they can better afford to take the electoral hits. The coalition may well have been the only way to get as much done as we have, it isn't that difficult to see there have been some real successes if you're looking. There's plenty more they're both right on. Ultimately though, the two sides of the argument appear so extreme at the moment that they risk tearing the party asunder and creating chaos among those caught in the middle.

I'm not entirely sure where I stand personally. Looking on social media, I can tell I'm not alone in this. Some of the discussion feels pretty personal though, a fact that worries me. Whether the ultimate outcome of the next few weeks is more of the same, or a new leader, the most important thing is that we mend fences with ourselves, or better yet we don't break them in the first place.

Being discontent with HQ or the leader isn't a sign of laziness or childishness, and supporting them isn't a sign of being delusional or a closet Tory. Ultimately it's really very difficult to know what to do for the best at the moment. Many activists are resilient enough to be able to carry on regardless, but many more are feeling completely demotivated and without hope. Instead of attacking each other for being in either camp, we need to be looking for the happy medium. That is after all what we're allegedly good at.

So I would encourage everyone to give the net and the knives a rest for a few days and spend some time doing something other than internal party politics. The problems will still be there when we get back, but maybe the perspective will be too. It isn't as if this hasn't been bubbling below the surface since 2010, so a few days away from it probably won't hurt. There may or may not be a solution to our current electoral nose dive, but we won't have a chance to find it if we tear ourselves asunder.


Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Eurovision, Conchita, and What if...

Firstly, I find Eurovision to be a boring waste of time. I signal this by not watching it. Lot's of people watch it and do enjoy it, which is in no way surprising (or offensive) to me. It's one of the many signs that we're not all one homogeneous mass of consumers. Apparently though it became more interesting this year because the winner prefers to be referred to as a woman. 

Strangely this particular event didn't really grab my attention at first. It isn't the first time that somebody who has crossed the gender divide has won, and I have no idea if the tune that won it was any good (which is what matters). In fact the whole thing would probably have passed me by were it not for a tweet I saw this morning and the link that I followed as a result.

The link lead me to an Australian man seemingly venting about the horror of being asked to refer to someone who has a penis and a beard as a woman. His diatribe about objective reality, and the heinousness of pandering to the individual as he saw it, was probably more a reflection upon him than anything else, but it did make me think. In fact it made me wonder "what if...".

When I look at another human being my brain assigns them to a multitude of categories. Most of those categories relate to what evolutionary scientists call phenotype, namely the observable outcomes of our unique genetic structures. These include things like, hair colour, eye colour, skin colour, and possession of specific genitalia (I wasn't staring, honest).

The article I read this morning was making an interesting argument therefore, though not perhaps the one the writer intended to make. His analogy about "feeling black" was perhaps the most pertinent to this argument. The argument he inadvertently advanced for me is that it is time for us to completely disconnect our many identities from our phenotype.

The article in question, which can be found here, is actually worth a read if you approach it with the mindset above. It manages to completely conflate the possession of male genitalia with being a man, or not being a woman for that matter. It shows some understanding of the social construction of gender, but then manages to completely fail to understand its extent.

Back to the "what if...". In a world where we completely separate identity from phenotype some interesting things could occur. There might be a lot more black people, for example (I'm stereotyping). Assuming that the shared identity of black people is that of the fight to overcome enforced servitude to rich Caucasians, most of the population of the world is black.

In terms of gender, we could go down a variety of routes. The language helps here through a triumvirate of terms. Being a female might denote the phenotype of possessing a vagina and breasts, being a lady might denote a preference for dresses, the colour pink and specific mannerisms, and being a woman might denote being part of the struggle to overcome patriarchy.

I think it's probably patently obvious that my definitions are incredibly imprecise, perhaps to the point of being insulting, but I hope the underlying point is clear. The point being that in a world where we break the link between phenotype and identities, we can also break the link between phenotype and circumstances, in the form of life chances and our treatment by others.

In a world where the identity that is womanhood is entirely separated from having a vagina, for example, it is that much easier to break the link between desiring intercourse (including dominance fantasies) involving a vagina and seeing a woman as an object of purely sexual means. It's a damn sight harder to see all women as sex objects if a percentage of women have penises.

In a world where being "camp" or being a "lady" become defined as similar identities, it's completely nonsensical to conflate these with the sexual drive for a male to have sex with another male. It also makes no sense to conflate our sexual drives with our relationship desires, but that's probably something that is obvious when we deconstruct gender and sexual organs anyway.

I think, for me, this is the crux of where we should be going. I think it offers us a more sophisticated understanding of inequality, as well as forcing us to move beyond easy and simplistic judgements that often cause a great deal of pain. Having said that though, my offensively imprecise definitions show that it is something we must put a lot of real thought into.  

Monday, 12 May 2014

Punishment for the right reasons

Labour are spending a great deal of time and effort reminding us all about the "broken promises" of the ineffectual Lib Dems at the moment. Gleefully pointing out that our faeces stinks just like everyone else's, aside from being deeply cynical, is setting up yet another generation of voters for complete disillusionment with politics. And that's ignoring the fact that it's a little bit contradictory.  

Voters have every right to punish the Lib Dems in Westminster for the evils of the Coalition. The fact that we've failed to deliver on tuition fees, that we've allowed the Tories to deliver things like the Bedroom Tax (even if us private renters already suffered a version of it) and Workfare (which I personally believe is tantamount to slavery), and that our MPs have appeared so unrepentant in doing so is certainly deeply shaming.

One problem I have though is that the Lib Dems are being lambasted for being a minor party in a coalition that failed to deliver on a percentage of manifesto pledges and (spectacularly) failed to deliver on a separate pledge signed by a lot of its candidates (without a wider party vote on it I believe). It's as if we've somehow been afforded the power and responsibility of a ruling party, without any of the actual clout.

I do appreciate that it was both naive to sign the pledge and then deeply cynical of some of our MPs to choose to to break that pledge, but for me this isn't functionally much different from failing to deliver on any of the Party's manifesto pledges. And for me this is the crux of the issue I have with Labour's smug love in with students and the wider electorate, and the hypocrisy it represents, not least because they originally introduced fees.

Ultimately, whatever happens in 2015, the Lib Dems won't be punished for being the nasty party, or for breaking a pledge and delivering only part of our manifesto, we'll be punished for being just the same as everyone else. The Party will be punished for the fact that a bunch of career politicians, well versed in semantics and honesty averse, are standing for parliament and will probably bin much of the manifesto on their first day in office.

The Party and its MPs shouldn't really (though we will) be blamed for this. We're simply replicating a culture that has seen successive Tory and Labour Governments fail miserably to pay even lip service to delivering on their supposed core beliefs and manifesto pledges once the Westminster machine has its greasy mitts on them. They say children will be children, unfortunately Governments will be Governments too, a fact that UKIP is playing on magnificently at the moment.

There are of course notable exceptions amongst MPs, always good for a sound bite when the chips are down, but ultimately the culture at Westminster says it is better to play semantic tennis with questions than to admit you're wrong, or God forbid that you disagree with the Government line (especially if you're in on the cabinet meetings). It's no coincidence that dissent, descent and decent sound very much the same where Westminster is concerned.

It would be naive to think that we haven't brought this upon ourselves to a degree mind you. Being the conscientious objectors in Parliament is one thing, but we as a Party are perhaps guilty of implying that we are somehow a cut above the rest, which our time in Government has patently shown to be false. Being a party of compromise isn't a bad thing mind you, but reveling in it when it results in people suffering doesn't win you any friends.

People don't like the fact that our MPs are agreeing to the enacting of Tory policies in Government, but they really hate the fact that they're seeking to justify many of those policies and almost completely failing to voice their intense dislike for the policies they don't agree with. I suspect people would be a lot more inclined to accept that ours is a marriage of convenience if the Party spent more time saying what we find to be inconvenient.

But what has this to do with new voters you ask? Unfortunately, a generation of new voters is potentially going to throw their lot in with Labour in 2015. They won't be fooled by Farage's every man road show, but they may be fooled by Labour's holier than thou cost of living crusade. A crusade that will ultimately I believe prove to be a great sound bite, but nothing more than that as soon as Miliband gets into Number 10.

Ultimately 2015 isn't going to be about policy for me, it is going to be about who gets judged and to what moral standard. I'm hopeful that people will see through Farage, who in reality represents the working poor about as much as I represent the pinnacle of evolution, but I'm disturbed that the Lib Dems could be destroyed for not living up to a set of ideals that Labour and the Tories have never bothered to pay more than lip service to.

I'm also concerned that a generation of young people will offer their support to a Labour party that will ultimately show itself to be nothing more than New Labour lite, which in turn was nothing more than Thatcherism with a Blairite grin and a woeful attitude to civil liberties. As a result I fear that yet again young people will be betrayed by politicians, but that their only option will now be complete disengagement or, even worse, Farage.