Women Bloggers: not weaker, just different...

Jonathan from Liberal England is worried that women’s blogging awards will just serve to position women as the weaker sex. But, is offering a platform for an underrepresented group to get increased profile really such a minefield? Are women Lib Dem bloggers (and beyond) really so in danger of being patronised and undermined? Surely, the good female bloggers such as Alix or Charlotte, to name just a couple, don’t need a special award…surely they can compete in the full blown Booker of Lib Dem Blog awards?

I think Jonathan is worrying unnecessarily; I think it’s a great idea and I don’t feel in the slightest bit patronised or undermined. The Lib Dem blogosphere, at least, is very male in terms of gender and in terms of sex. It can be a pretty macho, testosterone fuelled place in terms of those writing. It’s hard to know what the readership is in terms of sex but I would guess that it mirrors the proportions of those who write.

This means, inevitably, even with the best will in the world, the subjects that get written about most are the priorities of those men writing from a male perspective. This is not to say that many, many of the things that are written about don’t interest women readers, they do. However, some subjects are not written about as much or prioritised as much.

It’s one of the reasons that I started writing my own blog; there were things that were interesting to me that rarely got mentioned on Lib Dem blogs and still not get the attention I would like them to have. Now some of that may be down to the quality or frequency of my writing but I think some of it is definitely that often I will choose ‘feminist’ topics to blog on.

What I do notice, from Lib Dem Voice’s weekly round up of blogs is that the posts that get the highest number of hits are usually focussing either on Westminster gossip or internal party politics.

Jennie , is quite right when she points out that the blogosphere is full of women bloggers and that their blogs tend not to be so overtly or acutely political. And I would say that was a fair reflection of many women’s approach to life…politics is part of it but not everything. Jonathan also references the excellent Philobiblon who not only hosts the Brit Blog Round Up but is also the founder of Carnival of Feminists which is proscribed reading for me, even if I don’t agree with every contributor!

However, it seems to me that there is a space for political female bloggers in the Lib Dem Blogosphere but it’s not currently very big. If we need these awards to elbow our way into higher profile, particularly with women who perhaps don’t read any of our blogs at the moment then I think they are a good thing!

Right, I’m off to Selfridges for the last time before Christmas…I wouldn’t be blogging now but for the fact that I broke my computer a week ago and a suddenly opportunity came by to access my blog and post something, rather than just read and comment on others! Who knows when I will be back; no doubt when my Sony comes back from laptop hospital after Christmas but maybe, hopefully before!

What's all this cultural relativism about then?

Gillian Gibbons is freed and the Sudanese Government hasn’t made any contribution to the idea that Islam is a peaceful religion and that followers of Islam are not all fanatics ready to take umbrage at the slightest slur to their religion.

In the UK, it has been pleasing to see that the majority of people commenting, irrespective of their religion or lack thereof have been appalled by the actions of the Sudanese government; at all points there were choices both around the interpretation of the offence and the law and at every point the Sudanese establishment chose the most extreme action.

There has been though, throughout this, whether on BBC comments, Blogs or Any Answers a significant minority of people who have suggested that Gillian Gibbons only had herself to blame, as she should have known the law. She was in fact naive.

I think there is an enormous difference between causing offence and invoking the displeasure or irritation of whoever has been offending (and therefore being marked out as someone you wouldn’t want to spend time with) and being put in prison or lashed for it. The naming of a teddy bear does no physical harm to anybody.

I’m pretty much an atheist and don’t have much time for religion, but I’ve no real interest in going around deliberately causing offence to other people for the sake of it; I think that’s a waste of time, energy and just not very nice. But I believe passionately in free speech and therefore in my right to cause offence without being punished by a state for it.

I’ll give you an example from my own experience where, as an acutely left handed person, I am in danger of causing offence every time I go to the Middle East and without realising it pick up my bread to scoop up some food with my left hand. This is really, really bad table manners; I mean I might as well start picking my nose at the table (in fact, it’s much, much worse than that…but I don’t want to put you off your dinner). Should I be lashed or sent to prison because I have, with no malicious intention broken, in Meral Ece’s words, ‘a few of the cultural 'rules' we learn to live with’,? Sure, don’t invite me to dinner again, suggest I use a knife and fork rather than my hand (as people have) or just tell me plainly not to use my left hand (as an ex-fiancé’s brother once decreed), explain to me the error of my ways, but please don’t send me to prison for it!

Another analogy: this time looking the young woman the other week in Saudi Arabia who was sentenced to 200 lashes for being in the company of a man she wasn’t related to ahead of being gang raped. Now, she is a Saudi, not just a visiting teacher, she surely knew the law? Do we all then sit back, fold our hands on our laps and say: ‘Well, she knew what the law was…how naïve of her!’. No, we don’t, because we know that her punishment under that law is an infringement of human rights, just as the response to Gillian Gibbons was by no means reasonable or just a harmless cultural difference. I make this point not out of a lack of respect for the rule of law in a given country but out of my greater respect for human rights.

Perhaps if Gillian Gibbons had got the lashings she was at risk of, instead of a very short prison sentence and pardon, then not as many people would have found it so easy to slip back into an ‘oh, well, it’s different there’ mentality; but remember it’s not just western primary school teachers that have no freedom of speech or apostasy in Sudan, is it?

Lots of people, from all religions or none know and understand this, I am sure, but lets not forget that human rights are for everybody, absolute and not subject to cultural relativism.

What should MPs look like?

Is it really just this?

There has been a flurry of interesting posts on Lib Dem Blogs gender equality in blogging, in the Lib Dems and in general over the past few days; it feels like it has been a bit of a breakthrough for women bloggers, there’s been a definite surge of confidence.

‘Wimmins’ stuff isn’t massively popular on Lib Dem Blogs and so it was nice to see Alix’s posting on Positive Discrimination getting nigh on 40 comments and opening a lot of discussion. I found it really heartening to hear a wide variety of opinions and some of them even chiming superbly with my own. I was especially struck by Linda Jack’s question on who defines the ‘best’ when it comes to candidates’ she says:

“Democracy has its downsides - if a man gets a job for which a woman is better qualified she has redress in law, if, because of the subconscious prejudices of an electorate that sees an MP as a white middle class well educated man, as better than a more qualified woman, she has no redress. This is the difficulty of using the word best.”
I would argue that the problem is less with the electorate, who actually come out and vote more if there is a woman candidate but the ‘selectorate’…the people choosing the candidate in the first place. I don’t think they realise what an electoral asset women are and are unnecessarily small ‘c’ conservative on behalf of the voters in short I think they read voters wrong.

I also think that all the political parties are conservative, when they’ve finally plucked up the courage to select a woman in a winnable seat around how she should look.

When going to Fawcett Society ‘Do’s’, I find myself more often or not talking to women from the Labour Party, as Lib Dem and Tory female activists are pretty thin on the ground at such events. It is fascinating to hear about a completely different cultural approach to gender and I’m not just talking all women shortlists. However, one thing that doesn’t seem to be different is the requirement for female candidates to look a certain way. In the Labour party they all get sent to Barbara Follett for a makeover…it’s known as ‘folletting’.

And so you end up with something akin to this…better…but still not really representative, is it?

The other week I met Johanna Sumuvuori MP, whom I found completely inspiring and engaging and who had definitely never, ever been folletted!! Obviously, she had a super name; in fact, reading her CV was a bit of a masterclass in visualisation – ‘Johanna sits on this committee in parliament, Johanna is the chair of that committee’; I’ve saved it to waft in front of myself in moments of weakness, in the manner of smelling salts.

But more importantly as I looked at her and listened to her speak I couldn’t help but think how much I identified with her. I find it difficult to explain completely but I looked at her and thought to myself that nobody had ever taken it upon them selves to tell that if she wanted to succeed she would need to dress differently, iron out any individuality and for goodness sake don’t do anything to bring attention to the fact you are a woman!!

Somewhere along the lines to Finnish parties have worked out that you can be representative, you can scrutinise, you can sit on and chair committee whilst looking like a young woman in your thirties; any young woman.

Finland use a list system and PR allows one to focus less on the individual and more on the party; no doubt if it were a first past the post system there would be more pressure on individual candidates to conform to a stereotype that is acceptable to the media and party system.

And obviously, I’m not suggesting that the 9 (is it really only 9?) women Liberal Democrat MPs are lacking in individuality or criticising their personal style or anything like that; they dress like business women, like I do. Our female MPs, PPCs and business women like myself do this because not to would undermine our credibility. In fact, even when I’m working at a client’s who have a dress down policy, I go in wearing a suit, just to make sure. But, I admit I was intrigued by Johanna, her style (which would be much like mine, if I was left to my own devices) and her ability to be all this and still have power! Frankly I was pretty envious and briefly wished my mother had had the foresight to school me in Finnish.

I thought to myself how wonderful it would be to be able to just look myself when campaigning to be selected instead of having to dress in a particular way to try and prove that I have the ability to be a good candidate or MP.

But, I also thought what a fantastic role model Johanna is to young women in Finland, who must surely recognize themselves in her and feel far more confident about their ability and right to go forward and represent their party and fellow citizens without losing part of their own individuality in the process. And of course, vote for her…..because I am quite sure that she is an electoral asset.

Cosmo 'Man of the Year': one for the boys.....

On Tuesday night I went to another WAFE (Women Against Fundamentalism and for Equality) seminar at the House of Lords. As always these events are thoroughly engaging but always leave me in the confusing state of feeling both uplifted and despairing at the same time.

There were as ever many very interesting women speakers about whom I will blog later (especially the Finnish MP Johanna Sumuvuori; and no, not just because we share a name!).

We also had Chris Green, the Executive Director of the White Ribbon Campaign (UK) come to speak, who has in the last few weeks been named as Cosmo Man of the Year, no less!! Who is this man, I hear you gasp, and what has he done to deserve such an accolade? Surely some sort of sex god? Well, no perhaps not quite, but he’s something much more compelling and a man that I am very grateful is around campaigning today.

The White Ribbon Campaign is a global campaign to ensure that men take more responsibility for reducing the level of violence against women. It is not a campaign about bashing men but instead asks those men who know that it is wrong to hit women, pledge never to commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women. The stats on male violence against women in the UK are truly shocking.

I find it an attractive campaign on two counts: firstly, it is about creating a norm in society that makes it quite clear that this type of behaviour is unacceptable and that to ignore it is almost as bad condoning it. Secondly it places emphasis for action onto men, as something men can resolve, as men listen to other men; especially young men. It does not leave it to women to solve and resolve the problem over in the ‘women’s issues’ corner.

And as the blogosphere is so overwhelmingly male I have the perfect audience to highlight this campaign!! Sunday 25th is the UN’s International Day to End Violence Against Women, worth taking note of because, even in the UK, 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime.

This means that you will almost certainly know a woman who has experienced domestic violence, even if you’re not aware of it; it’s not the sort of thing a woman sings from the rooftops or you can tell from just looking at her. This then also means, the chances are, you may know a man who has either been violent towards a woman or thinks it’s OK to be so.

Personally, that’s a thought that sends shivers of fear down my spine; but when I heard about the work of Chris Green and the White Ribbon Campaign (all volunteers) I felt utterly inspired by the humanity of the campaign and the men who sign up to it.

Is mysogyny on the rise across the world? And how would we tell if it was?

Chris K , Rob Knight on Liberal Review and Jonathan Calder have all blogged on the horrific news that a gang rape victim had her punishment, yes, her punishment of 90 lashes increased to 200 for having the cheek to appeal her sentence.

And last week, we heard reports from the Chief of Police in Basra that 42 women in the city had been murdered between July and September for not covering up; which makes me wonder how many women had been beaten or assaulted for the same ‘crimes’? This is not just happening to Muslim women but Christian women as well.

And there! We can see the game is given away; because this sort of behaviour towards women is not as a result of religion as often assumed, but, as a result of militant misogyny.

The UN undertakes country comparisons related to Gender as part of their reports on Human Development. There is the Gender-related Development Index (GDI) and also the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM). The GDI measures all the same things as the Human Development Index but just splits them by gender, male and female. The second, GEM, looks at the proportion of women that work as political representatives, or are managers, senior officials or work in professional or technical positions. Now, it very easy to pick many, many holes in these two measures and some of the assumptions around what is deemed as being ‘developed’; but they’re there and they’re better than nothing.

But they miss out the day to day impact, which the two examples of rampant misogyny above, have on normal women’s lives. ‘Cos, you see, wonderful though it is that 33% of Iraq’s MPs are women (just under twice as many as in the UK), that doesn’t seem to be helping the women of Basra right now. There will be no direct reduction in the GEM of Iraq as a result of these killings even though, I would suggest that women are seriously less empowered now than they were 4 years ago, as a result.

And of course, Saudi Arabia doesn’t allow women to be empowered at all, but there is a different between a woman getting gang raped and given 90 lashes and one being given 200 lashes. Again, I can’t see where this sort of degradation in women’s rights and quality of life are being measured – although, if anyone does, then do let me know!

I think its time we have a different sort of measure of women’s freedom and rights; one that measures the qualitative impact of misogyny on women’s lives. So one might be able to see that in recent years, Afghanistan’s has gone up as women are at least now allowed out of the house but Iraq’s has gone down because of the type of thing that is happening in Basra. I am not suggesting that this would be easy to do, but we need more than a clutch of newspaper reports to measure these things.

And in the UK, well how does the fact that so few reported rapes actually end in any sort of conviction (5.3% this year, when it used to be 33% in the 70’s) figure in any UN measure of women’s empowerment? Or the fact that so many people think that a women who goes out late at night holds some sort of responsibility for her rape, if she is raped.

Next Saturday, 24th November will be the ‘Reclaim the Night” march in London at 6pm; last time over 1200 women marched in support of women’s right to go out onto the street free from fear of violence or rape.

Our misogyny may not be hard coded into our penal system as in Saudi and thankfully the women of London are not subject to militia’s going around killing us for being ‘inappropriately dressed’ as in Basra but there’s still plenty of misogyny here, if 1 in 8 men think it’s Ok to hit a woman if she’s been nagging or if a third of us, both men and women, think a women is partly responsible for her own rape if she flirts, has been drinking or is dressing sexily.

Sometimes, it feels to me that as Liberal Democrats see feminism as surplus to requirements, because as liberals we would not discriminate against anybody of whatever sex; but on days like today I know that if we are going to achieve better lives for women all over the world we have to be clear and say that feminism has a vital role to play and has a long way to go before misogyny is overcome; we need to be proud to be feminsts!! Laws (of the legal rather than the David kind) help but they are not enough.

Reclaim the Night

In a couple of weeks there will be the 2007 ‘Reclaim the Night’ March from Euston to Soho. It’s a girl’s only gig, followed by a mixed rally at the University of London Union.

The march will highlight the fact that women have the right to be able use public space without fear. These are our civil liberties at risk; it is not good enough for society’s response to rape to be to tell women they can’t go out!

My Mum’s coming down to visit that weekend, and she doesn’t know it yet, but, she’s about to embark on her first political protest. Still, it's not as if it's in the middle of the night..it starts at 6pm and there'll be plenty of time to go and have dinner afterwards!

What Blair is also responsible for in the Met Police.....

Will Sir Ian Blair, survive the week?

I think not, I think that once the IPPC report comes out, unless something truly remarkable happens, then Sir Ian Blair will probably have to resign. If it wasn’t for that then I’d think he’d probably survive. But then it really rather suits the Government, the MPS and the MPA for Blair to hold on and take chop for both convictions/results – rather in the manner of a burglar asking for several other offences to be taken into account at the same time.

And, I do accept the arguments that such was the catastrophic nature of the mistakes made on July 22nd that it is already outrageous that nobody is putting up their hand to be accountable for it. I do not accept the argument that anything that happened on the 22nd was somehow understandable because of the extraordinary position that the Met found themselves in that morning. It is absolutely how people or organisations behave when the pressure is on that tells us if they are working.

However, if Sir Ian Blair goes then it will not be without concerns for other parts Met Police activity that he has had a considerable positive effect on. The Stockwell Shooting may have been the most catastrophic mistake but there were other pretty high profile ones and other gaffes that when taken together could have felled another police commissioner. But they didn’t; and this has to be because Sir Ian’s batting average must have been high enough for the Government to want to keep him on.

A couple of weeks ago we held the latest meeting of the Crystal Palace Safer Neighbourhood Residents Panel, where I have been the Chairperson for the last 2½
years. I love this meeting and it is always a joy as well as a welcome challenge to chair it. It is here that we get to set the priorities of our Safer Neighbourhoods Team (SNT) and woe betide them if they do not report back and take action on these priorities. I may look all nice and smiley but I can get quite scary and as for Linda, from the St Hughes Residents Association…..!!

The change I have seen in our area and the cultural change I have seen the Police and the SNTs has been amazing. And as someone who has spent their professional life attempting to plan and implement transformational change in all sorts of organisations, both large and small, private and public, I am simply amazed by what he has managed to achieve. I believe in terms of community policing, particularly in urban areas, the Met Police is the envy of many other forces.

The other week we had finally moved on from prioritising graffiti & fly tipping and there was no persistent antisocial behaviour on the St Hughes Estate; even the residents of Anerley Vale believed that things were now ‘manageable’. There are still problems, compared with the rest of Bromley Borough we are a crime hotspot, and one particularly opportunist burglar had managed to make our burglary rates peak for the year in just one morning. We have to focus on tackling drugs in the ward. But Haysleigh Gardens Neighbourhood Watch for the first time in its 8 years of existence had no crime to report at their last meeting and that is an event worth celebrating.

These are not headline grabbing achievements, they are small but important steps and I am not sure that we have had time to prove the case for community policing once and for all. How a police force reacts at times of terror is very, very important and I am not overlooking it or seeking to downplay the death of Jean Charles de Menezes. However, most of the policing that takes place in London is of a different type and on that, in my experience, Sir Ian Blair acquitted himself well. He is a talented leader of transformational change and crime in London has gone down.

Of course, the test of change is that it outlasts its instigator and we need every layer of the Met Police and the Home Office to buy into the idea that the police are there primarily to serve and protect the community and not drive around in fast cars with a blue flashing light on. What I want to be sure of is that the funding and focus that the SNTs require remain in place beyond Sir Ian’s departure. I am nervous, that if he goes, those who don’t have the patience to wait for community policing to pay its dividends, will scrap it. If they do that, then my and my fellow residents’ quality of life will be diminished.

What's our Story?

One of the things that I'm enjoying most about this leadership content is the discussion, on blogs and elsewhere, about creating a Liberal Democrat vision for Britain and how important it is for our new leader to be able to do that.

Every now and then there's a spurt of discussion on the blogosphere about what a narrative is; have we got one? If not, why not? Do we want one anyway? And, what's wrong with freedom, fairness and green..or whatever it is?

As I mentioned on Charlotte Gore's blog the other day, I'm at the point of 'concious incompetence' when it comes to understanding what a narrative is: I can recognise when something is not a narrative and in fact just a list of policies or a slogan but find it hard to define what one is.

So, when I came to trying to work out what subject to discuss at the Crystal Palace Pizza & Politics that I'm hosting in December it seemed a good idea to have a debate about what our vision might be.

In other words I want to get a whole load of people round to my house, feed them with wine and pizza and get them to provide me and my fellow activists with a pithy, vision type, answer that we can all agree on, to that doorstep question: 'Why should I vote for the Liberal Democrats?'

Neil Stockley (from the FPC and Greenwich, but we're not holding that against him, it's still south London, after all) has very kindly agreed to come and sketch out what a narrative is, what it isn't and why we might want one. And then the debate about what that narrative is can begin!

If you would like to contribute to the debate whilst being bribed with food and wine in the glorious corner of south London that is Crystal Palace (we have our very own Eiffel Tower), then please do come along.

Strangely, I wont be posting my address up on the internet but you can find out details on the Flock Together website...it's on the 15th December, the day the leadership polls close and is filed under Pizza & Politics (Crystal Palace). The details and entry fee are all there.

No Pay Day

Today is what the Fawcett Society is terming Women's No Pay Day. The pay gap between women and men working full-time is equivalent to men getting paid all year but women working for nothing from October 30th to year end.

And this is despite the fact that women do better at school than men!

And this is not a fringe issue, either. 71% of women think the government should do something about it (that's a lot of voters), over 50% of people would be more likely to vote for a politician who believed in equal pay.

What always depresses me about this debate is the fact the the first response of so many people is to try and undermine the statistic...so, you get from the BBC's have your say comment box today (I really must stop going there) arguments along the lines of:
  • Women work fewer hours (no, the stats are per hour)
  • Women choose to go off and have children and so it's fine
  • Women don't do as hard a jobs..women are secretaries, men are managers...etc, etc, etc
  • Women are better at looking after children, it's biology so deal with it!!
It seems impossible for the pay gap to be accepted as a fact. It seems we are still having to argue the case that there is an issue and always dealing with its denial rather than being able to debate and understand why it is so and what can be done.

To those who think that the pay gap is just a manipulation of statistics I ask: what is it do you think the campaign is about? I mean, do you think the Fawcett Society, and all of us who recognise a pay gap, are trying to do is trick our employers into actually paying us more than men for less work? Do you really think that government ministers and opposition front benchers would be going on Woman's Hour to talk about it if it was just a silly misreading of the numbers? After all, it's not as if we haven't got all sorts of other discrimination to go off and campaign about!!

I say government ministers and opposition front benchers but I am not referring, of course, to Liberal Democrats; our website and press releases have been silent about it all day. I don't know why; I think we find it a difficult topic to address as a party.

But still, there's a lot of voters out there interested in this....and what are we doing? Having a good old debate about Trident!!

The reasons behind the pay gap are many and complex and they are economic, social and political. I would like to get beyond the statistic and start looking into why we have this gap. Why if girls do so well in school as they paid, in London in particular, nearly 3/4 of that of their male counterparts? Why are traditionally feminine roles, that when assessed are equal in terms of skills, experience and responsibility to many traditionally masculine jobs, often low paid? For example, you are paid more to look after cars than to look after children!! Why are women who haven't taken time off to have children still paid less than their male equivilants?

The discrimination taking place here isn't the easy to identify and I'm not sure that legislation is the answer; it is a lot more subtle, a lot harder to pin down, easy to dismiss and more difficult to resolve. The answers are as much about what goes on in the home as it is about what goes on in the work place.

But then perhaps this is all part of my cunning plan to actually earn more than my male equivalents in the work place and I'm making a lot of fuss about nothing?

Let's not indulge ourselves...please!!!

I don't want to get into an argument here about Trident and our current policy. Nope, I really don't....becasue that's one thing that's sure to send voters off to read about something more interesting.

If we make this leadership contest into a policy debate, about one particular policy, which although dealing with £15bn of Government expenditure, does not interest the electorate at large then we really are just a debating society and clearly not interested in power.

However important we think it is, however much we wish that voters would vote on the basis of our policy on a nuclear deterrent, we're wrong if we think it's going to get us closer to power. As Charlotte Gore asks 'Are we here to win or here to be a more effective multi-issue protest group?'

And for me, Chris Huhne’s attempt to create some clear blue water between him and Nick by attempting to reignite policy discussion of Trident completely misses the point of what is required of us by the voters.

Activists may lap it up but it will turn the voters off completey.

And whilst activists are the noisiest, in my experience the majority of members (of the armchair variety) behave more like the general public. In the last 2 or 3 years, as part of various selection contests I have knocked on the door or phoned up every single member of about 6 parliamentary constituencies. I frequently rather wish I'd spent my time doing more productive things, but one thing I noticed is that many often refer to the party as 'you' not 'we'; as in 'you Liberal Democrats, you have to do this, that or the other...'; they are far closer to the space occupied by voters than those of us who blog or are heavily active in the party in other ways.

So, by indulging the activists in such a way, he is not only is putting us in danger of losing voters he’s also in danger of losing his own votes in his own leadership election.

How proud am I of Vince Cable today?

Oh, very! I am grinning with pride and have been since I heard that Vince was going to be boycotting the Saudi Dictator’s visit to the UK!

I remember years and years ago, sitting in an 'International Relations Theory' lecture and learning for the first time about the two different paradigms of nation state behaviour in an international setting. It is soo good to be part of a party that actually puts their commitment to internationalism into practice!!

There were basically two ways to behave in international relations: you could be a ’realist’ or an ‘idealist’. No prizes for guessing which point of view chose the terms!!

‘Realism’ refers to a belief in the primacy of the nation state, acting in its own self interest and pragmatically interacting with other states on the basis of how much can be gained for and lost for itself from the interaction. Idealism on the other hand, is more internationalist in nature believing in co-operation between states, that nation states should be subject to international law and through this global stability can be achieved. Think Machiavelli for the first and United Nations for the second…..

I knew immediately which one I believed in. I also remember sitting in the lecture theatre half way up Penglais Hill, bristling with indignation (some things never change) that the so called realists had won the spin war decades before by referring to ‘idealism’ in such pejorative terms….and it does still seem that to call somebody an idealist is to call them naïve, immature and foolish.

You see, with Saudi Arabia, there is no question that it is a vicious dictatorship, which spreads its corruption throughout the world, which effectively enslaves the female half of its population by treating them as the property of men and that exports such an extreme and illiberal ideology as wahabism throughout the world including the UK, under the guise of community investment. Nobody is actually arguing that that is an incorrect analysis of how Saudi Arabia conducts itself in its own country and in the world; what they are arguing that despite all of that it doesn’t matter because the pragmatic approach, the approach that is in the best interests of the UK is to ignore all that, invite them to dinner and let them ride around in a big golden coach.

And this is what we need to deal with, the idea that the pragmatic ‘realist’ way is best and there is no alternative. We need to point out that it is harmful to the UK if we allow companies such as BAe Aerospace to be corrupt, that we undermine free trade in such a way to undermine the competitiveness of our own defence suppliers. We need to point out that a ‘pragmatic’ approach is generally the short term, tactical approach and therefore rarely best in the long run. We need to point out that the Sadu family is basically blackmailing us into accepting them by refusing to cooperate with gathering intelligence on terrorism. For sure, global warming is not the only reason why we should be looking to find alternatives to oil; money used to bribe the Saudi Royal family might be more productively spent, in the interests of the UK, in investing in alternatives to oil. But we need to challenge the idea that, given our current dependence on oil, that the only option left open to Britain is to pay backhanders to the dictator and invite him to tea.

And you know what, even if it does just come down to principle, then what can we really thinking about people who curry favour with a man who rules a country so that torture is carried out in the way described by Sandy Mitchell, in Johann Hari’s once again, excellent column in the Independent today? I do hope Messrs Brown and Cameron think of the years of dried blood on the walls of the office where … …. was tortured as they shake King Abdullah’s hand over the next couple of days. I know that the country never expected integrity of David Cameron but surely this must put an end to any rumours of Gordon Brown being a man of principle and integrity.

I know, I know…politics is a dirty business and we may expect too much of our leaders to keep themselves above the fray. But I say, you get the government that you deserve and if we don’t make a stand, as Vince Cable is, then we should not be surprised if our political class lacks integrity and principle not just in its dealings with other countries but in its dealings with us.

Why do people always think they are the exception?

Ok, Mr McClintock, which bit of the word legislation do you not understand? It is the law that you are not allowed to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexuality. A law that every one of us is subject to whilst we are in the United Kingdom.

What a person chooses to believe, and Christian beliefs are a choice thankfully not predetermined biologically, is not a good enough reason for the law not to apply to that person. For goodness sake, why do ‘committed’ religionists always think that exceptions should be made for them? You choose to believe it; you interpret your book in that way, nobody is making you and nobody should be making an exception for you!


On a more positive note I've finally worked out how to deal with the increasingly 'anti-atheist/agnostic' comments that have been cropping up on Thought for the Day; I now make sure I'm blow drying my hair at about 7.50am and I don't get to hear them at all!

Of course, this completely crews up my critical path on the major project that is getting me from my bed into my clients office looking vaguely presentable and professional, but it is worth it.

Better to be into the office 10 minutes later than be continually offended each morning; we only have the one life and it's far too short for that kind of stress!!

PMQs! Ugh!

I haven’t blogged for ages and in truth I’ve been waiting for something positive to say about politics, being a political activist and parliament before doing so again…and I’ve been quiet now on the blog for over a month. I still can’t find much positive to say, so I’m going to give up and tell you about something I hate about politics.

I hate the bear pit that is the House of Commons, particularly at PMQs.

Ugh, where do I start? Perhaps, with listening to it on the Today Programme, as I did this morning before pulling the covers back over my head and attempting to burrow into the mattress to get away from it.

Clear GB lost it and yes, I think it would’ve taken a saint not to mention the election that never was, and DC is no saint. But I wouldn’t mind if it was just the two of them, but it is all the braying and shouting and honking and no doubt hand gestures, that I can’t even begin to imagine from the radio, from the other 600 odd farm yard animals in the place that is so revolting. And these are the people that we elect to scrutinise our legislation, to represent our interests, to think about the impact of their decisions on the most vulnerable in the country and world! The childishness of it all, yet worse than any school playground, whether public and private and the self indulgence! Entertaining it may have been to some, especially to themselves, but I say shame on them all!

And people wonder why the place is not more diverse? With behaviour like that it’s no wonder that women don’t want to get involved in formal politics and political parties.

How do you tackle patriarchal attitudes?

Many thanks to The Free Think Blog for picking up on this item of interest to at least 52% of the population, if not the Lib Dem Blogosphere.

Well, the pay gap between men and women far from slowly improving is has widened for the first time in 10 years. Yes, I agree with the feelings of Free Think:

'Such inequality is depressing, and reveals how deep-rooted discrimination is in the workplace, with simple anti-discrimination legislation failing to tackle tacit patriarchal attitudes'.

However, I think it is naive to think that changing a law could be enough to really change attitudes.

Cultural change, and we are talking about a cultural change here, always requires something else...in business, and in change management circles (which I inhabit from time to time) it is understood that an effective change in culture always comes from the top. If the directors are clear that certain behaviour is unacceptable or acceptable then it tends to filter down pdq.

An example: a good friend of mine, a COO , went to work for a new company. In this company it was perfectly accepted (apparently!!) to use the 'c' word in meetings. My friend was quite clear that he did not find it acceptable to use that sort of language in the workplace and it very, very quickly stopped.

To effect a cultural change requires leadership and can rarely be left to the grass roots; I don't like that that's the case but empirically it is so. I might add that I don't believe the kind of nebulous, hard to pin down and impossible to prove legally discrimination confines itself to the workplace.

And whilst we look to legislation and/or rules to solve the problem for us we will be looking in the wrong place.

Often times in countries that are made up of many different nationalities or ethnic groups we ensure they are allocated fair quotas in government and the legislature so that those in the establishment cannot ride roughshod over those with less power.

But in the most of the UK we expect it all to just happen by itself when it comes to gender balance and then we are surprised when the outcomes are not as we liberal fair minded people would wish.

Apparently, it's not women that need fixing....phew!

Tipped off by Blunt & Disorderly, I read this great article from the Guardian ….someone somewhere has done some research on why women don’t demand the same salaries as men and come up with the conclusion that it’s not just a case of fixing women and making them more confident…that there might be something wrong with the environment itself.

I’ve been conscious of the fact that women are earning less and not getting promoted because they tend not to negotiate or demand as much as men for some time. This feminine habit of ours comes from a long socialisation that suggests to women that it is not pleasant behaviour in a woman to be too demanding…in any number of spheres. So, over the last few years, buoyed on by my professional and financial success even when I haven’t been that demanding I have been ‘coaching’ myself to start negotiating on my own behalf. The fact that it is on my own behalf is important because I have never faltered from asking for things on behalf of my employer or the organisation that I have been working for. I am not a meek person.

And whilst, my consciousness raised, I am getting better at it, I am still sure that my fellow, male self employed interim managers no doubt earn the 11% more than me that the study suggests, partly because I have yet to have a daily rate turned down. This indicates to me that I am still not pitching myself high enough. Although statistically it’s hard to tell as there are very few female, self-employed interim managers, working at the level I do.

It comes as no surprise to me that men don’t like women that ask or negotiate; generally, it’s referred to as nagging. But it is a strange relief to learn that it’s just not encouragement, training or confidence building that women need (although we do) but a change in the complex, sociological and psychological situations that we find ourselves. Situations that mean a decision not to ask for something for ourselves is not always down to meekness or irrationality but a logical, assessment of the social impact of any such decision – albeit that we’re not conscious of doing it.

Which leads me to the fact that although our selection rules attempt to be scrupulously fair and provide ‘an even playing field’, they are not going to solve the problem of the lack of female MPs. An imbalance that will take 200 years to correct before women are represented fairly in parliament and 300 before ethnic minority women are. An environment of complex social and psychological attitudes that are individual and often unconscious undermines those rules.

Prejudice is something we tend to keep to ourselves. If you think that Lib Dems are too liberal to be prejudiced then I point you in the direction of a member who said to me, less than a year ago during a parliamentary selection campaign, that she wouldn’t be voting for the candidate that I was campaigning for because their surname sounded ‘too Irish’. I’m sorry; clearly some people don’t keep their prejudices to themselves.

Likewise, I often hear that the problem is one of supply; women are just not coming forward, there just aren’t enough. We aren’t interested in formal politics and political parties; we prefer other outlets for our political activism. Like not negotiating a raise, our lack of representation is clearly all our own fault!

We all know some of the practical reasons why women don’t come forward; they’re too busy looking after a family or they just don’t have the support at home that helps when you’re standing to be an elected representative. Unlike male partners of women often the girlfriend or wife of an activist will find them selves getting involved in politics to support their man, if only making the tea to start with. Boyfriends and husbands with no interest in politics are more likely not to get involved, even with the tea making – they go out or find something else to do that is of interest to them.

With the exception of the odd crèche here and there, I don’t think completely re engineering in the next few years the division of labour between men and women is within the budget of the Lib Dems gender balance agenda.

Perhaps the women who are not coming forward aren’t just too busy or lack the confidence, perhaps they are not coming forward for the same reason that they don’t ask for more money; because the social cost of doing so is too great. As a PPC you do have to be quite demanding, wanting to be the candidate can be perceived as quite egotistical and it would seem women, if this research is to be believed, would suffer disproportionately as being seen as ‘not nice’.

So, it is all more complicated than just ensuring that members are at least able to pick a woman or sending us on women only training courses. If we spend all our focus and energy on an unbelievably complex, but still inherently blunt selection process then we will not solve our dilemma. For all our efforts women only have 18% of the MPs in parliament and it’s only that much because of the Labour party contribution.

I know that some will come up with all sorts of statistics around the proportion of women selected as candidates and how much it has improved but how many are in winnable seats? Do we even have a target and is it 50% in winnable seats? And how can you say? Crikey, with the political weather being as choppy as it is at the moment who can tell which are the winnable seats and look at the level of replacement in held seats, since 2005 we have been busy replacing male and female MPs with men.

I know there are many who say that it doesn’t matter whether an MP is male or female, all that matters is that we have Lib Dem MPs but even that is a little short sighted. Votes go up with a female candidate: more women come out to vote (that is why diversity matters and why role models matter) and most importantly it increases female political activism. In my London Borough, female activists, you know, really active ones, are thin on the ground! Even next door, in exciting, go ahead Lewisham only 2 of the 16 councillors are women.

I believe it is beholden on us, not just be satisfied with our processes for selection but with the outcomes as well. Outcome is a perfectly reasonable measure of fairness. Voters don’t give two hoots about whether we think that our processes to ensure diversity are fair or not, they just notice the outcome. In the Liberal Democrat case it is that we choose predominantly white men to be our candidates and elected representatives, particularly in winnable seats. I wince as I write that, but it is the fact of it. We need to start measuring success in terms of the outcome not the application of the process. Process purists will argue that the purpose of the process is not to deliver diversity but what the members want - if that's the case then the short listing requirements should be ditched. I might mention it just one more time; it needs to be the outcome that counts.

This is not an issue just for the Lib Dems; there isn’t a national parliament in the world that has achieved even 30% female representation (which is seen to be the minimum number needed to start influencing the political agenda and modus operandi) without some sort of zipping or quota. This is because not matter how ‘fair’ the process, or how much you encourage and train women to come forward there are all those unconscious, or even conscious, prejudices that you can’t legislate away that are getting in the way of both the supply and demand for female candidates and elected representatives.

Ram FM

When I blogged the other week about the Palestine/Israeli problem getting worse I didn’t even imagine then that it could get as bad as it is. But this morning just as I was going into Brixton station I caught, on my iPOd, the beginning of a piece on the Today Programme on a relatively new radio station, Ram FM and for the first time in days I can see something that might, possibly create something good over there.

One of the big problems in any area where there is conflict is the difficulty of getting a balanced view of what is going on. Even when there is access to balanced programming it is perceived by many as unbalanced – note the number of complaints that go into the BBC of equal number that accuse the BBC of being either anti-Semitic or pro-Israeli in their coverage. Ram FM is trying to be different; it is reaching out to Israeli’s and Palestinians using pop music and balanced news bulletins.

It was started up by a South African company that did a similar thing in the dying days of apartheid. And it seems to be working with listeners from both communities. One of the most important messages that I took away from the LIBG Fringe Meeting on Palestine last year was the need, in order to create peace, the people had to start seeing each other as human beings. Changing habits, getting the kids to stop throwing stones at each other in the street, as they do in the West Bank, is a pre-requisite of not a dividend from peace.

I am in awe of those like Ram FM who get in and start doing the right stuff on the ground. It is small, things may get worse before they get better but someone somewhere is trying to reconcile ordinary people to each other.

It is hard though even to attempt to look positive; a Bedouin friend was visiting his family farm last week, which is on the main road from Egypt to Israel in north Sinai. He tells me that the guns, tanks and explosions from Gaza made his family house shudder. They have there own problems. Egypt, so often portrayed as a benevolent host of peace talks in the Middle East is particularly harsh on the Bedouins in north Sinai. there have been demostrations against the governemnt and he tells me there are so many Bedouin in prison now from the north, they are literally full up.

As I write to my friend, telling him how worried I am about Gaza and how sad it makes me, he replies that I must stop worrying about the whole world; that this is the life and that it is only by seeing the evil that you can understand the good. I can even see in my mind his shoulders being shrugged!

Crystal Palace Park: the masterplan

I went to a very interesting meeting at the Penge Forum on the LDA masterplan for Crystal Palace Park last night.

The plans for the park look really exciting – I’m particularly interested in the ‘rooms’ and tree planting at the top space (where the park is all scrubby and horrible now), the removal of the massive car park which is just a honey pot for car thieves and vandals at the moment but most of all by the Energy Towers, the glasshouses which might have a café in them and the tree top walk around my end of the park. I am intrigued by the idea of removing the fencing from the park and having it open, a la Blackheath, but only if it is adequately policed. I’m a little disappointed about the vagueness of the plans for the sports centre; the only mention of the Olympics that was made that there would be more money available afterwards and nothing about the potential for the site to be used as a training ground.

If we can get all this funded, it will be so exciting. It will make the park a local, regional and national resource. Such things as the energy towers and the tree top walkway would bring in international tourists – it could become a stop of the London mini-break trail and that would help not just the CP triangle but the economies and high streets of Penge, Anerley and Sydenham as well.

Of course, there is a possible price to pay in that a potential funding stream of £12m will mean that 1 acre of land where the current caravan club is (currently taking up about 4 acres) will have flats built on it and another three blocks of flats will be built on the site of the St John’s Ambulance building and the Rangers big ugly shed on Crystal Palace Park Road. My concern is that some of this land is technically Metropolitan Open Land and then the whole ‘thin end of the wedge’ turns into a slippery slope and before we know it there’ll be no park land at all. If I am honest, the land they are looking to build on is not parkland at the moment, is not really providing good value to Londoners and local people – I just wish it wasn’t MOL.

Frankly I won’t be sorry to see the Caravan site go – far from being any sort of resource for local people it has always seemed to me to be filled with tourists from outside of London getting straight on the No3 bus and heading into town. I’m not sure they spend any money in the CP triangle and certainly not in Sydenham or Penge!

If we can fund the improvements without building the flats then so be it, but only today, there has been discussion on the radio about the affordability of housing and the desperate shortage which is most acutely felt in London. I think, frankly, that more housing would be a better resource for London than a caravan park. I suspect the conclusion that I am coming to is that the land under question should not really be designated as MOL.

But what frustrated and irritated me most was the internecine warfare and arguments between the various groups claiming to represent various residents and interests, who took up half the audience and the vast majority of questions. Most of which were not questions but rants that they’d already given in a meeting the previous Friday and seemed to be concentrating on arguments that went on around who really defeated the multiplex and with how little money i.e. the past!!!! So, I only got time to ask a question on security measures if the park was opened up (as I chair the Crystal Palace Safer Neighbourhoods Residents Panel, it was my priority) and no time for a question about how we could contribute as a training ground for the Olympics.

Crystal Palace Park has been waiting for redevelopment for 80 years, let’s look to the future and please, please let’s get on with it!!!

Stranger Danger

It is not every day that I agree with Anne Atkins but I agreed with her absolutely on the Today programme this morning in discussion with Esther Ransom. It was following The Children’s Society findings that although many of today’s adults were allowed out for unsupervised play as children they are not giving their own children the same freedoms.

Anne’s argument was that this approach is illogical because children are at no higher risk of stranger danger than we were ourselves, the risk that our children won’t learn independence and grow up is far higher than anything untoward; that parks are in fact safe places. Esther Ransom’s argument in return was that letting children out wasn’t worth it because you would feel very bad if it turned out to be your child (one of the approximately 12 a year) that was killed by stranger.

This, I find an entirely parent rather than ‘child centric’ view from Esther Ransom, it is incredibly selfish, not to mention illogical.

Firstly, it should not be how the parent feels about something that is important; it is about what is best for the child. So a parent worries; well, big deal, that’s part of being a parent and it is not right to try and deal your own fear by attempting to remove any risk to your children. There is risk in life and there is a balance.

And that is why it is illogical to be so fearful of stranger danger when in fact more children are killed by their carers, by being in a car or by accidents at home than by strangers. And yet, we ignore all that and harm their development by keeping them tied to our apron strings until they are 14. There is no balance in that.

It seems to me that we have got too used to being able to control so much that we are unable to cope with the ambiguity and lack of control in providing our children with the freedom they need to develop,

When I was 9 or 10 I had a friend that I used to go out to play with and we would maybe come back for lunch or maybe at the end of the day. I was probably always pretty independent but it gave me a belief in my ability to negotiate my way through life that has been the most valuable thing in my life. From an early age I have travelled all over the UK and all over the world, taking sensible precautions but never in fear. I really do feel for the teenagers, that I know, whom are not even allowed to go on an hours journey by themselves because of their parents’ rather than their own fears.

UK's DNA Database Shame

There’s an interesting discussion going on at the Radio 4 PM Blog about the impact of the new stop and question powers that the government want to bring in. My concern is particularly on the impact that it will have on the DNA database and I see I am not the only Lib Dem concerned about this today.

If one assumes that the purpose of new stop and questioning powers is to identify, arrest and convict more potential terrorists or just 'ordinary' criminals, then the police will be able to take more DNA and put them on the DNA database.
Some DNA database facts from Lynne Featherstone’s blog:
· 25% of the people on the database innocent of any crime
· In London, 57% of the innocent people on the database are in fact non-white.
· A third of all the black population in England & Wales is already on the database.

And now, Lib Dem Research suggests that in 3 years half of all black men will be on the database whether they have been convicted of a crime or not.

As I've blogged before, the DNA database is racially skewed, to mirror a racial skew in the police’s stop and search/questioning policy. This will eventually mean that an even higher proportion of convicted people are non-white (hence the Lib Dem researched projections).

The obvious inability to identify potential terrorist subjects by sight and therefore the need to use crude indicators based on colour of skin, or length of beard or dress underlines why these things are so pernicious. A leap is made from appearance to behaviour and then, in the UK, it gets hard coded into data on databases.

I consider myself very fortunate to be living in Britain and I love my home, the country and the city I live in but when I think about how we as a nation are the world leaders in compiling databases on our citizens such as the DNA database I hang my head in shame.

"Those who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security." (Benjamin Franklin)

Chavez and Livingstone: a tawdry alliance

More reports today than Hugo Chavez has an eye on yet another TV station that he doesn’t like. It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, watching someone pulling the switch on such foundations of democracy as free speech.

But here in London of course, Mr Chavez is our great friend, since the deal done by our Mayor, Mr Livingstone with Mr Chavez back in February for cheap oil to fuel our buses. Yes, Venezuela, a developing country is helping to subsidise the travel of one of the most prosperous cities in the world.

So, what’s in it for Venezuela? Apparently part of the deal is that we are giving them advice on recycling and waste management! Us! In that case one might expect that we are a best practice City for recycling; but we’re not. In fact our recycling figures in London are some of the worst in the world, far behind such cities as Berlin, San Francisco or Seattle.

Not only that, but recycling isn’t even within Ken’s powers at the GLA. He has failed to get his own Government to include in the GLA bill provisions for a pan London waste authority. So presumably Ken is providing advice on the basis of what he’s like to be doing as opposed to what is actually happening in London.

A raw deal for Mr Chavez, perhaps? For Venezuela, maybe; for their increasingly despotic leader, no.

Because what Mr Chavez gets are signed contracts with one of the greatest cities in the world, which he can tout around other countries just like service organisations provide in their sales pitches their list of blue chip clients. London’s business is in effect a loss leader for Mr Chavez.

What Mr Livingstone has given him is an air of respectability that he does not deserve.

And so to my day job....

Today I read with dismay but also a certain level of comfort about the almighty cock up in the development of a ministry of justice. Why comfort? Because as long as the government doesn't follow even the most basic principles of good change management there will always be work for someone like me! And that means I get to fund the new extension to my flat that I've just today commissioned an architect to design! Because this is all a very expensive mistake!

I have to admit that I raised a bit of a professional eyebrow at the speed at which the new organisational design for the home office came out - I gave them the benefit of the doubt that they'd had people beavering away doing all the hard thinking about how it was going to work, the legal and constitutional constraints and making sure they kept all the interested parties on board along the way, for the years that everybody's been talking about it.

But no, my benefit of the doubt was sorely misplaced. Not only was it poorly thought through in terms of feasibility but they didn't even bother to speak to the Lord Chief Justice about it! And where was their stakeholder plan!

This is just plain incompetence and if there are any external companies advising or working with them on this they should be dumped forthwith; and if they're working under a contract that doesn't allow them to be dumped when they screw up like this then, frankly all the OGCs work on government procurement has been done for nothing!!!!!!!


Woman forced to divorce husband

More human rights abuses from Saudi Arabia, well, what a surprise!!

Fatima A has been forced to divorce her husband because her half-brother, her legal guardian, has claimed and won in court that her husband failed to disclose that he was from a tribe with a lower status than his wife to be. This is effectively, under Saudi Law, a breach of contract.

Both Fatima and her husband wish to remain married to each other; they have two children. Fatima is currently staying in al-Dammam Prison with one of her children rather than return to the house of her half-brother. If she contacts her now ex-husband then she will, by law, be guilty of adultery and subject to the death penalty.

In Saudi Arabia, a woman is not a human being but just a possession of her nearest male relative; having asking permission from a male guardian to travel is just the start of it.

I have been trying to imagine what my life would be life if it were to be lived at the whim of my nearest male relative; but it is impossible to compare. In the west we are lucky, with our relatively small families, that we can have close relationships with our male relatives. But neither, my uncle living in Thailand, my two cousins in Australia nor my Step-Dad would ever contemplate telling me what I could or could not do, firstly because the culture we have all grown up in means that they view me as an equal; secondly, frankly, they wouldn’t dare!! Although that last bit may be a function of the first; perhaps my character and my confidence would be altogether different if I were brought up in Saudi Arabia. So, it is hard to imagine any of them ordering me to break up my family against my wishes even if they had that legal power! I tell you something, I wouldn’t want to have been living at the whim of my (ex-)father in law; he certainly wasn’t one of my fans! Apparently he thought I was ‘too bossy’, I can’t imagine why.

But I have acquaintances, who are from traditional Bedouin families (not from Saudi Arabia, I might add, so they don’t have such direct legal power) that have up to 30 siblings – so you might end up hardly knowing the person who has effectively the power of life and death, happiness or misery!

And, no, I can’t even begin to imagine the constraints that one half of the population of Saudi Arabia have to live under. To my mind, this is surely a form of slavery.

And this is a country that we are so eager to do business with, that we suppress investigations into corruption with BAe in order to keep on the ruling Saud family’s good side.

You can find more details on Fatima’s case and how you can help from Amnesty.

Further from peace than ever....

I am feeling miserable and full of gloom for the world and the Middle East today.

In the autumn of 1994 and stretching into the summer of 1995 I spent the lion’s share of my time in the Levant, specifically Israel, Jordan and Egypt. In those days, once you’d paid your airfare, volunteering on a Kibbutz or Moshav in Israel was self funding and was a ticket to a mild winter, at times boredom and more than a passing acquaintance with Carmel wine, of which it was rumoured, had a complete absence of grapes in it! The fact that I saw Jerusalem primarily as a weekend clubbing destination should give you an indication of the fun that was to be had pootling around the region in those days. I arrived on the 26th October 1994; the day the Israel Jordan Peace treaty was signed.

It was a trip that literally changed the course of my life because on travelling to the Sinai, I fell in love, came back to the UK in order to settle down, got a proper, reasonably well paid job with Barclays Bank and the rest, although not an entirely straight path, is history. Somewhere in another a dimension, is Jo Christie-Smith the slightly poorer University Lecturer, who continued on with her studies and didn’t go to work in the City.

So far, so what? Last night it became absolutely clear just how much the lack of peace in the region has spread to every corner. It is a sign of the utter misery of the situation in the Middle East that the very sites of some of the most precious memories of my twenties have now become imbued with the war and terrorism. At times I feel like my anger at what is happening, makes me sound kind of spoilt because frankly my memories are the least of it; but for me, the fact that now so many things that are precious to me are being subsumed into the violence is evidence of the all pervading nature of such violence. If it does this to me, a woman, who just happened to spend a few months of her twenties in the region, what must it do to the people whose home it is?

I haven’t been back to Israel but I have lost count of the number of times I have been to Egypt since.

Just under a year ago, I was holed up in a hotel in Halifax, eating my room service dinner when I recognised on the 10 o’clock news, a bombed out shell of a bazaar in Dahab, Sinai, where I spent the summer of 1995 hanging out with my Egyptian boyfriend, Azima.

Last summer I stood where the blast of the bomb had made it’s indentations into the concrete of the pavement on the exact spot that I had first clapped eyes on Azima back in 1994. In the end, the pavement had got off lightly and by the time of my visit, about 6 weeks after the bomb, the shop had been rebuilt. But now it is the spot where ‘Little’ Mohammed, a young man, in 2006 a great hit with the girls who came to dive in Dahab but who as a 12 year old had trailed around behind me in a persistent, and at times quite annoying manner, was killed by the bomb. His father, who owned the shop opposite for getting on for 20 years, has sold up and gone back to Cairo. How would you be able to face work every day looking out onto the site of your son’s death?

And then last night another 10 o’clock news, I got another jolt. I have been getting used over the last couple of years to hearing the small town of Sderot described by BBC correspondents as a city and each getting quite annoyed because the Sderot that I knew 13 years ago was much more of a large village than a city, as anyone who had been there would know!

I worked on a kibbutz which was in between Gaza and the village of Sderot, so that rockets that fly over from Gaza must have to fly over where I once lived. But Sunday night, and this shows that seeing something really is believing, it came home to me with a thud, as the correspondent delivered her broadcast from the fields in between the village and Gaza; the very fields that I had driven a tractor up and down when I was 23. Another precious memory! I had been so excited that I was being allowed to drive a tractor, even if it was only pulling a trailer of irrigation pipes. As I go about my daily business in London, I don’t have the look of a woman who knows how to drive a tractor (not very difficult, in fact, as long as you’re not ploughing) but it is certainly on my list of my life’s achievements.

No one has died in Sderot, yet, but people are scared and angry and I know that I am glad that I’m not living in Kibbutz Gevim at the moment. What’s more, the price being paid by the residents of Gaza for those rockets is terrifying.

Of course the two incidents should not be conflated; the supposed reasons for the bombing in Dahab (according to the Egyptian Government a result of internal terrorists from northern Sinai, where there is a Mubarak resistance movement) and the rockets going into Sderot are different. But if I feel dismay having the scenes of my memories overprinted with death and fear then think how it must be for the people who live there.

I don’t have some perverse way of picking out future war zones for my travels; the increasing violence in my old stamping ground must mean that it is all pervasive, that in the 12 years since my life changing trip, nowhere is safe, nowhere untouched by sadness and loss. It’s true, it is worse in Iraq and no one knows what would be happening in the Middle East now, if Iraq had not been invaded in 2003. But the worsening situation in the Levant and the Sinai does reflect the action in Iraq. It is too easy to view the region as having a perennial problem, but make no mistake, it is getting worse.

But really, I have no great political point to make in this posting; just to wonder at the situation and to give voice to the sadness I feel for all the people who live there and have their happiness and joy rubbed out by violence.

The trouble with targets

The police federation is complaining about targets and saying that this is not what they all joined the police force for.

OK but all organisations that are spending someone else’s money, whether shareholders or tax payers, should be accountable and transparent in showing what they’ve done with the money.

BUT, lets face it, the government has a real blind spot when it comes to setting targets.

You get what you measure and when setting targets, you have make sure that you actually want what you’re measuring.

Too often, government departments set out to measure activity rather than outcomes. So, what you get is a lot of activity. In the example of the police’s you get a lot of arrests being made rather than serious crime being reduced; in education, you get good test results but kids who get to university unable to spell and in health you get short waiting lists but a rise in hospital acquired infections.

The trouble is, this government, does trust people to deliver those outcomes, it is unconvinced that it will be done their way and so, in the manner of a control freak (and Gordon isn’t even in charge yet) it sets out to measure what actions are taken as opposed to as what outcomes are achieved.

Outcomes are invariably harder to measure and often subjective and qualitative rather than easy numbers but it can be done. I have filled in enough Lottery and other Grant application forms to know that it can be done; it just takes more work and a bit more vision…or…..trust, even.

That said, one concern I have about the call from the Police Federation is their suggestion that dealing with small crimes isn’t what they all joined the police service to do and they should be focussing on large, serious crimes. Well, maybe they didn’t, but an awful lot of money been spent on a new focus, particularly in the Metropolitan Police Service, on community policing and dealing with low level crimes.

Safer Neighbourhood teams are the physical incarnation of that focus and they are as much about the perception people have of crime and dealing with their fear of it as they are about dealing with the big things – there is definitely no rushing around in police cars with the sirens on allowed – our PSCOs, in Crystal Palace, have bikes when they’re not on foot!

Key to this is dealing with signal crimes like graffiti, fly tipping, unruly teenagers and unruly adults and crime prevention. It is slow burn stuff but here in Crystal Palace Ward (where I chair the resident’s panel that provides direction to the team) we are just beginning, after two years, to reap the benefits. The police are starting to get more information about the drug dealing that goes on in the car parks of one of our estates because the residents are starting to know and trust the beat officer. This kind of success will eventually be measured in terms of arrests but in them mean time we need to protect and support the activity. Because what it seems do is change people’s perception and fear of crime and above all improves the quality of their lives.

This approach to community policing and its focus on dealing with low level crime is important and over the last 40 years the direction of the police, particularly in London has oscillated between the ‘Bobby on the beat’ and dealing with the big, ’important’ crimes that the Police Federation and John Denham (Chair of the Home Office Select Committee) seem to want them to go back to pursuing.

However, the model of community policing that is being implemented by the Met and funded by Londoners has not been made up on the fly…it is based on a model developed in the US and the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy that has been in place and successful since 1993.

What it really needs is consistent funding and a belief that successful outcomes will be delivered in the long term and not necessarily in the short term; although, I have to say our experience in Crystal Palace is that it is a bit of both. The Government, the Select Committee and the Police Authorities all have to hold their nerve and not veer back to measuring just large scale crime detection.

I know that I am beginning to sound like a broken record on this, again, but the government and the centre has to trust locally accountable organisations (although not as accountable as I’d like them to be) to deliver and not force them to use just one method of getting to the right outcome.

We must stop measuring just activity; a good start would be to measure levels of satisfaction with the service provided or perception of crime or quality of life.

How to be happy

The government wants us to be happy and well. So now GPs should be prescribing country walks as medicine for those suffering from depression (actually, it’s called an ‘ecotherapy’) and happiness lessons for school children.

I am not going to do a rant about it all being common sense etc, etc because I do understand that the study on country walks, was looking at non-chemical responses to an illness that by its very nature leads the suffers to not believe that anything can improve their life, let alone something like a bit of fresh air. They are therefore are unable to apply such a self help approach without prompting. I am a great fan of cognitive therapies and this one sounds much better than filling someone full of drugs.

But it doesn’t take much to imagine how we’ll soon be getting leaflets through the door and adverts on TV about the anti-depressive benefits of a walk in the park.

What this has a whiff of, and the teaching happiness directive from a government advisor reeks of, is the habit of this Labour Government, promulgated by Blair, Brown and practically every member of the Labour Party I’ve ever met, of trying to legislate for human behaviour.

For some people this does lead them to wander off ranting about the glories of common sense (or maybe that’s just my Step-Dad!!) but what those rants fail to do is find a solution to the problem...which is, for the Labour Government at least, how to ensure that everybody applies the benefits of collective common sense to their lives.

So, Labour takes a typical process driven response which is to ensure that everybody follows the best practice route to achieve happiness. Rather like I, as a project manager, tend to follow a recognised project management approach to ensure the correct outcome for any change I am attempting to bring about is positive.

Many companies and organisations and, indeed, the Government make it ‘policy’ for their employees to follow these project management processes as otherwise they would have to rely on wisdom, experience and talent… which may or may not be there!

And the Government is trying to make it their policy that we too follow the correct process to deliver ‘happiness’ and ‘well being’.

They have to channel the implementation of these polices through the health service, schools and the police as even they cannot currently reach into our homes and make us do it for ourselves; hence why the responsibility for producing happy children now seems to be the responsibility of the teacher and not the parent.

So far, so logical; if not entirely common sense-ical.

But of course, what this betrays is the fact that the Labour party is pretty much convinced that we have neither the wisdom, talent nor experience to be happy or well human beings.

They do not trust us, and so, they step in and sort it all out for us.

Ten years of not being trusted to get on with things has created in many people a culture of being receivers of aid – it is not our responsibility to sort our problems out but the government’s. This is the nanny state in action and all coming on top of the previous 18 years of Tory ‘personal responsibility’, in other words responsibility for yourself, and maybe your family, but no one else.

As a civil libertarian I am all for a small government and am keen to be as free as possible to follow my own path to happiness and take advice from whom I choose on how to get there…if, indeed, that’s my aim.

But I, like many others, am concerned about reports that our children are the unhappiest in the OECD countries, that anti-depressant drugs are being prescribed more than ever before and that there are teenagers living in my community for whom the value of a human life is less than their pride at not being ‘cut up’ by another’s’ car on the Walworth Rd.

So, it is not enough to rail against the nanny state and leave it at that.

Firstly, we should not get it out of proportion; it is clear that good, well behaved and happy children and human beings do not make the news.

Secondly, we have to look to ourselves and take responsibility not just for ourselves but for our community. And. that, is why I find Liberal Democracy so compelling. At its philosophical heart it satisfies not just my need for freedom but also my desire to be free within a community.

The personal responsibility that I take on is not just a compact with the state but also with my neighbours and fellow human beings. By sucking up all the power into the centre and issuing policies on how to behave and what to do the Government undermine the local community and the personal responsibility within that compact.

Westminster politicians and the government do have a role to play and that is to give the power back to local communities and leave it to them. Of course, this requires them to trust people and communities which is why Labour will never do it, no matter how Gordon bleats on about personal responsibility because they will never be able to believe that they don’t know best, including on how to be happy.

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