Sunday, December 23, 2012

Review of 2012

This is my last entry of 2012 so I am using it to review the year gone by.

The highlight of the year was the London Olympics. I took two weeks off to follow TV coverage, visited various events on five occasions, and thoroughly enjoyed it all.

The highlight of my five visits was taking my wife to Wembley Stadium to her first ever football match, where we saw Team GB Ladies defeat Brazil 1-0 in a great atmosphere. We also met some Brazilian supporters at a volleyball event in Earls Court and the colour and enthusiasm they showed on both occasions convinces me that the next Olympics in Rio 2016 should also be a success.

The low point of the year was the death of my best friend, Adam, in October after a long battle with liver disease at the age of 42. We had been good friends since meeting at university in 1988 and even now it is hard to comprehend that someone younger than me has gone so soon. As someone told me, remember the smiles. And with that spirit, I think back to the good times and to many Christmas and New Year events which we enjoyed together with other friends over the years.

Politically, it was not a great year for me but then chances were limited. There were no local elections in my area, although we had a council by-election in March which got me back into the campaigning spirit. I aimed to be an MEP candidate for the Liberal Democrats in London and, while enjoying the six week campaign, was disappointed to fall short of the final list.

Blog-wise, my most read entry was back in January with ‘Be loud and be proud. The Liberal Democrats are the party of the poor’ which, having thought about it, makes a rather misleading headline – it should mean that the Lib Dems are the best representatives of the poor, and not the fact that the party is very poor itself – although that is not too far from the truth.

I argued that by taking a million people out of paying tax completely, cutting taxes for every basic rate payer, bringing in the pupil premium to invest billions in under-performing schools, and restoring the pensions to earnings link – all of which are measures that would not have happened under a ‘pure’ Conservative government nor a Labour administration – that it is to the Liberal Democrats that the poor can look to for support. To add to this, we can point to the fact that we are vetoing over-the-top Conservative measures to cut the benefits bill. The bill needs to be cut but fairness should be the watchword. I hope we can do more to get this message across.

My favourite entry was in July when I talked about the ‘war of two coalitions’. In my view, it is a fact that the Conservative and Labour parties have an unofficial unwritten alliance to ensure they keep all the power between them, and that other parties (of whom are growing support all the time) should be kept in their place. This is chiefly why both parties are so angry with the Liberal Democrats rather than each other for daring to get into government.

This point is further strengthened by the year’s biggest political disappointment – the failure of the House of Lords reforms. Labour decided to betray their great forefathers and ally themselves with the right wing Tories in order to protect privilege and patronage in the Lords against democracy – a once in a century opportunity – which just displays the emptiness and vanity of the modern Labour party. Who would ever have thought that the Conservative party leadership would be more reformist than that of the Labour party?

As for the Liberal Democrats, I am pleased to see us pursuing our policies on tax, education and the environment. I am concerned that our ‘differentiation’ strategy has started too early – we are only halfway through the parliament and I would much prefer both parties getting on with the job. We don’t need to lower ourselves to the yah-boo spoilt-child level of Peter Bone, Nadine and the others on the Tory backbenches.

If the Conservatives can exert some discipline and keep their loony element quiet then it is quite possible the two parties can work together up to and through the next election to sort out the economy, bring in social and political changes, and keep Labour out. This, however, would be up to David Cameron. If he continues to show weakness and fails to exert discipline, it may not be long before Ed and Ed are in Numbers 10 and 11 – and then we are all in trouble!

Come 2014 we can think more about differentiation. But I want to see more co-operation and productivity in 2013. If we are worried about the council elections, we should remember that Labour did very badly in 2009 – so we will take a hit and Labour have a good result regardless.

My last act of the year in my blog is to thank you all for reading, whatever your views and whichever party you support. Without the Olympics or the Diamond Jubilee, 2013 will undoubtedly be a quieter year but I am sure we will all have just as much to talk about.

I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Who will save the Church from itself?

One of our most treasured institutions in English life is the church, and, in particular, the Church Of England. Religion and faith is deeply rooted within our national conscience. Go to any English village or town and you will see, in pride of place, a church – sometimes it dominates the area, other times of more modest size, but in nearly every case it will be a main centrepiece of the community, an organiser of social activities, a place of celebration at Christmas, a place of solemn reflection on Remembrance Day, and always a place of worship and thanksgiving.

I write as a regular attendee at my local church. I am actively involved in event organisation and fund raising, I sit on the Church Council, and I edit the church newsletter. On Sundays, when I can, I go along to pray for my friends and family, enjoy some fine hymns, and partake in the service.

So it grieves me when I see the church and its leadership regularly shoot themselves in the foot, completely unaware of how their actions, or inactions, may make a difference to the future of the existence of the church itself.

Everyone who loves the church should bear in mind two simple facts and commit them to memory. These facts are (i) each year, the numbers regularly attending church have been steadily reducing – congregations get fewer and fewer in size, and (ii) the average age of those who regularly attend church has been increasing. Even at the age of 45, I am one of the youngest in my congregation. Apart from the children, who may have been dragged along, the vast majority of those present are pensioners – and there are very few young adults.

Should these two trends continue then, sooner than we think, congregations will die out and disappear altogether. And churches all over England will become empty disused buildings.

Why is this the case? Why don’t people go to their local church? Some tell me they are simply too busy, others that they like a lie-in on Sunday mornings after a busy working week, and others, not unreasonably, think churches are full of old people and they would feel out of place. But the most common reasons are that people say they ‘don’t feel religious’, although these people celebrate Christmas and see their kids in nativity plays or, the issue I wish to deal with, they simply do not see the relevance of the church to themselves and to today’s world. It is part of the old corrupt British establishment of politicians, financiers, businessmen, people who are only in it for what they can get out of it, and of complete disinterest to ordinary working people

Now I defend the institution as much as I can but feel the Church is its own worst enemy and this viewpoint is only confirmed by two massive blunders in recent months. Blunders which continue the battle between church and society (and history has shown that when the church battles with society, it is usually society that wins out).

The first blunder refers to female Bishops. There is still some way to go but, in the modern age, women have made great advances in all areas of society and that is something we should welcome. You would have thought the General Synod would almost unanimously have voted to allow women to be ordained as bishops – after all, why not?

The Synod did indeed vote for this measure by a considerable majority, but in the House of Laity it fell a few votes short of the necessary two thirds requirement. But people at large are not interested in the finer details and procedures of church decisions – all they know is that the church has considered the issue of women bishops and held out its hand with a big NO!

The second blunder, in my view, refers to the, perhaps more divisive issue, of same sex marriage. In the week that we learn that fewer couples are getting married than ever before, the church considers the government's proposition of same sex marriage and once again it is the hand with the NO! To be fair, some would consider allowing same sex marriages in their church, but the government decided on a complete ban on the Church of England while those of other faiths and religions have the option of ‘opt-ing in’ – a clear case of religious discrimination. Had the church shown a more positive and enthusiastic response, then the situation may be different.

In my view, the institution of marriage is a wonderful presence. I have been happily married for ten years. If two people wish to publicly commit themselves to love and protect each other, under the eyes of God and regardless of their gender, that is something we should welcome and encourage. Opponents say that marriage should be solely between a man and a woman, and I have sympathy for that view, but in the modern age, many couples are of the same sex.

Statistics show that married couples live happier, healthier and longer lives. If more people were married, the world would be a happier place. I believe that the institution of marriage would be protected not undermined by same sex marriage. As more heterosexual couples see the happiness that marriage can bring, they may well take the plunge themselves. Allowing and blessing more unions would reverse the current trend towards marriage dying out.

So what do people see of the church? They see the Archbishop of Canterbury and an array of old men dressed splendidly in fine robes, preaching to us about charity and sacrifice but not showing signs themselves of either, of an old boys club living in a long forgotten world where women know their place and the presence of homosexuality is not acknowledged.

Now, like most people, I am no religious expert. I am in no doubt there are many who would defend the Church’s view with quotes and passages from the Bible and the study of theology. I respond by borrowing the phrase of the Occupy London movement – what would Jesus do?

If he were around today, would Jesus prevent the full inclusion and participation of women in his church? Would Jesus close the door to gay people who wanted his blessing in their unions? Of course not – Jesus, and God, loves everyone. It is the Church of England who apparently does not.

We are deep into the 21st century, and as we go further on, and as society continues to change, however much many may not like it, the Church of England is crying out for the modern and forward thinking leadership that is necessary to make it relevant once again to people’s lives and the modern world. Will we see that leadership come to the forefront soon? Will the Church find the backbone within to save itself from extinction? Will anyone save the Church from itself? We can only watch, hope and, yes, continue to pray.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

My MEP Campaign Part Five - Over ... and Out!

It was a cold morning on Saturday the first of December as I made my way to the Liberal Democrats headquarters in Great George Street, London. Today was the count to establish all the MEP candidates for England – London were to choose eight of which I hoped to be one. I had enjoyed the campaign over the last six weeks and meeting London’s Liberal Democrats, but now it was over and time to see how the London members had voted. There was a distinct ‘exam results’ feeling – with that mixture of helplessness and apprehension that all former students are familiar with.

The count for all of England’s regions was to take place that day but fortunately London were first on. Most of my fellow candidates were there and, with those from other regions waiting, we all hovered in the kitchen and corridor. Topics for discussion included the recent Croydon North by-election, the Thames Christmas cruise, and the Middle East (The EU-Israeli agreement being the most common subject of my email in-box).

A slight delay in the announcement occurred due to a computer problem, which meant the candidates for the next count started arriving and the area got very crowded. It reminded me of the old joke about Liberal MPs in a taxi when I started thinking how many Liberal Democrat European candidates can you squeeze into a corridor?

Finally, the call went out for the London candidates, we entered the presentation room and sat along the long table like they do in The Apprentice. Who will be fired?

We were treated to a whole series of charts but it was the first list that decided it. The eight candidates were listed in front of us – and my name was not there. As the programme worked through the spreadsheets to explain how the eight were put into order, my heart continued to sink.

We Liberal Democrats are used to disappointment, and I get my fair share (as any regular reader of this blog can testify), but it is still not easy. I’ve worked in London since 1994 and know the city very well. However, I was aware from the start that I was not too well known, lacked a local party base, and hence the odds were against me. Of course I was not expecting to come near the top – but was hoping to get on the list as a marker to campaign towards and promote myself. Sadly, back to square one.

This was my first campaign of this type carried out over six weeks, I did enjoy it, and I’ve learnt quite a bit to take away. If I am still in London next time round, I intend to have another bash – and by 2017-2018 who knows what the political climate will be like?

The main consolation was meeting the eight people on the London list – a highly impressive group of people with a formidable list of achievements and experience. Despite being rivals, everyone was courteous and friendly and the campaign was held in a great spirit. The air of positivity and cheerfulness as we discussed European issues, as well as the various email exchanges and discussions with the members that I met, made a great comparison to the gloom and doom we get so much of from the Tories and UKIP.

I am glad we have such a strong Liberal Democrat team to present to Londoners and I hope they do well.