From a liberal point of view – June 2017

The tragedy of Grenfell House is unbearable. I don’t propose to write about the event itself, because there’s nothing I can add to the testimony of those who were there, and those who survived.

However, there is an angle to the disaster that I have not heard mentioned, and it holds some pointers towards minimising the risk of similar events.

The Civil Contingencies Act (2004) places a duty on all Local Authorities to develop and implement a Local Emergency Plan.

That is to say, every Local Authority must carry out a comprehensive risk assessment of possible events that could lead to loss of life or serious civil disruption, and put plans in place to mitigate those risks. They must do this in partnership with other Category 1 responders, who include the Police, the Fire and Rescue Service, the Ambulance Service, and the Environment Agency.

Planning to mitigate the risks involves training and exercises designed to identify weaknesses in emergency response.

During my time working for the Environment Agency, I took part in training sessions and exercises in emergency response. Feedback from participants after the exercises showed how effective they had been at identifying problems. These problems were then resolved.

Now, I was just about to type “It’s obvious that a good risk assessment leading to an emergency plan that you practise must lead to a better result when a disaster happens.” But then I thought “No, it clearly isn’t obvious, or all Local Authorities would be doing it diligently”

So let me give you a (fictional) example to consider.

A tanker driver is suffering from Type 2 diabetes. He doesn’t realise it, and during his journey he feels progressively more unwell. He drives onto the industrial site which is his destination, and blacks out at the wheel. The tanker ploughs through the concrete wall around a tank containing a highly toxic chemical, and splits the tank. The tanker itself starts to smoulder, as diesel and oil from the damaged engine contact the exhaust.

You have a man slumped over the tanker’s steering wheel, a tanker which could go up in flames any moment and a tank slowly leaking a highly toxic chemical. What do you do first?

It doesn’t take Einstein to realise that if you’ve planned for an event like this, you’re more likely to respond correctly than if you just wing it.

So it’s extremely important that every Local Authority takes their duty under the Civil Contingencies Act very seriously, and does a proper risk assessment, and ensures that all responders have trained together.

I hope that post-Grenfell, every Local Authority in the country revisits its risk assessment and its emergency plan, and renews and intensifies its training and exercises to ensure that the plan will be effective.

From a liberal point of view – General Election June 2017

I stayed up late last night. The election was fascinating. When I finally gave up and went to bed I was feeling quite cheerful. The revival of the Labour vote seemed encouraging. Today, having thought more about the implications of the result, I am less sanguine. So, here’s a cheerful picture of flowers – or you can click on the link and read about the hung Parliament.

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From a liberal point of view – Election June 2017

With almost all the results in, we know that the Conservatives are the largest single party but without an overall majority. At the time of writing, Theresa May is sitting tight. For the short term, it looks as though she will cobble together an agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party to enable her to govern. Heaven help us.

It will, perhaps, be less easy for the Conservatives to impose further austerity, but not impossible.

I give one cheer for that. Whether it deserves one cheer depends upon whether the Conservatives make the necessary investment in our public services. We can always hope, but I doubt it. They may even pursue privatisation with greater vigour.

This election was supposed to be about Brexit. Despite this, both main parties were careful to avoid any meaningful debate about Europe, but the issue hasn’t gone away. How will the election result affect the way Theresa May negotiates?

It clearly weakens her position in Brussels. She will, I suspect, consult as little as possible with Parliament over the negotiations. Indeed, her record suggests that she won’t even consult her own party. A tight little cabal of her most loyal colleagues will be her only advisors. Will Brussels offer her a deal that she will be able to sell to her party, Parliament, and the voting public? It doesn’t seem likely to me; what do you think?

She has constantly reiterated that “No deal is better than a bad deal”. If she can’t strike a deal, she will walk away, leaving debts and ill-feeling behind. Economically, we are told that this will be the worst of all results.

So, this election result has almost certainly increased rather than decreased the probability of a hard Brexit. No cheers for that.

Finally, what does our Parliamentary democracy now look like? Well, in most places the minor parties were squeezed. The SNP lost seats, UKIP’s vote share was slashed, the Libdem vote share was reduced nationally (although there were a few swings against the trend enabling them to increase their number of MPs), and the Green Party, despite a strong campaign and brilliant leadership from Caroline Lucas, lost vote share just about everywhere.

Two party politics is back. And, as a liberal who values diversity, I give no cheers at all for that.



From a liberal point of view – Turkeys WILL vote for Christmas

I’d be grateful if you would give a few minutes quiet reflection to the question below, and possibly even write down your answer. It’s quite important.

Why are you going to vote in the onrushing General Election? Not how. Why?

Have you considered it carefully? Are you ready?

Self portrait 150705

I believe that most of you will have answered with something that depends on emotion or personal value judgements, because, ultimately, how we vote comes down to how we see ourselves and the society we live in.

Most people reading this post will have a liberal outlook. We love our values of tolerance, diversity, rationality, and I’m as passionate about them as anybody. But they are personal value judgements, not absolutes. It’s perfectly possible to have a functioning society with autocratic rule and persecution of minorities. You and I wouldn’t like this, but it would work. North Korea is a case in point.

When people vote Conservative on June 8th it will be because they want to.

This is a paradox, because most people are not likely to benefit from a Conservative victory.

Now, it may be that they simply don’t realise the damage that is being done to the NHS and to schools by Conservative policies. It certainly won’t hurt to remind them of this, preferably with local examples. But what are the positive reasons for them to put a cross in the box for a Conservative candidate?

In short, why are turkeys going to vote for Christmas?

The answer, I think, lies in a sense of belonging, of group identity.

Time after time, on the television news, we have heard ordinary people – voters – say (about Brexit), “We’re going to take back control of Britain”. This sense of group national identity is being fostered assiduously by the Conservative Party and the right wing press. They will control migration “to protect British jobs”. They will restrict asylum to a handful of children “to protect the British public against terrorism”. The subliminal message throughout is “You’re in my gang. I’ll take care of you.”

We need an equally compelling emotional narrative if we are to convince these voters. I confess I do not have one. Our vision of a just and caring society needs to be set down persuasively so that people don’t feel threatened or bullied by it, but rather feel cherished and valued.

That is for the future. For this election we can only concentrate on turning out the liberal vote, and building electoral alliances where we can.

Good luck, friends!

From a liberal point of view – December 2016

Health warning

This is my personal view, as a liberal with a small “l”, of one aspect of our current political situation.

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The resurgence of populism

2016 has been an annus horribilis for us liberals. We have been stunned, first by the Brexit referendum, and then by President-elect Trump’s victory in the USA. When we look at Europe, we see a surge in support for populist far-right parties. Why? And what can we do about it?

Let’s start by thinking about the differences between progressive economic policies, and progressive social policies.

When I say progressive economic policies I mean policies that tend to reduce inequality in wealth and/or income; traditionally called left-wing policies.

When I say progressive cultural policies I mean policies that tend to make society more tolerant of difference (for example, by being in favour of immigration, by championing women’s rights, gay rights, BAME rights etc).

You might imagine that people who advocate progressive economic policies would also support progressive cultural policies, but sociologists have found that this is not, actually, the case. Some do, and some don’t. There is no correlation between the two at all.

This is important.

Think of people suffering poverty as a result of the way business and government interact. People on zero hours contracts, for example, or people on the minimum wage in London.

Now, suppose nothing is done to reduce their poverty, but progressive cultural policies are implemented.

In the first place, because nothing has been done to help them economically, they will all be unhappy, and many will be angry.

For some of them, perhaps about half, socially progressive legislation will be welcome but far from sufficient (remember the maxim “It’s the economy, stupid”). The remainder, who oppose socially progressive legislation, will feel that it adds insult to injury. The harsh fact that they are still in poverty will exacerbate the feeling that the progressive legislation is “Political correctness gone mad”. This means that policies that deliver progressive social results but don’t deliver progressive economic results will not satisfy those who are experiencing economic hardship, and will outrage some.

This unhappiness and outrage will be fruitful ground for unscrupulous politicians to exploit by blaming the economic hardship on the minority groups. “You’re poor, because immigrants are stealing your jobs,” for example.

“Political correctness gone mad”.

Are we liberals guilty of that?

One supporter of Brexit to whom I have spoken made the point that until they won the Brexit referendum, people like her couldn’t speak out and argue their case. They were vilified as ‘racist’ and ‘xenophobic’. After the referendum she felt that she could argue for tight controls on immigration because she knew that many people felt as she did.

She has a point. It is democratically legitimate to argue the case for tight controls on immigration. There are all sorts of arguments that can be made, from the strain on infrastructure such as houses, schools and healthcare provision, to the change in our national culture and identity that high immigration levels bring. Not everyone who makes such arguments is a racist or xenophobe. How dare we, the very people who should champion tolerance, instead use ridicule and insult to silence people who want to make these arguments? No wonder they’re angry. No wonder they’re hostile.

And, while we’re at it, let’s think about those who genuinely are racist and xenophobic. Internet memes often refer to such people as assholes. But, guess what? All they’re doing is what humans have evolved to do; be wary of the stranger. For nearly all the history of the human race this has been a survival trait. Of course, it’s no longer helpful and could be disastrous given modern weapons technology, but it’s human and natural. The only way the attitude will change is by education, not by hostility and ridicule.

So, how do we move forward?

Firstly, the issue of massive – and growing – inequality of wealth must be tackled. There really is no way round this.

Secondly, while continuing to make the case for socially liberal policies, we must remember that our opponents’ views are democratically legitimate. We must be respectful, and we must be open. Almost certainly some of their arguments could contribute to policies that will lead to a happier, more stable and harmonious society.

Thirdly, while racism and xenophobia are anathema and have to be opposed, the only way to eliminate them is by education.

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