June is your chance to change the direction of our country

So she did it. After months of rumours and hearsay, Theresa May finally called a snap General Election. Of course it has to be approved thanks to the Fixed-Term Parliament Act enacted by the Coalition in 2011, but it looks almost certain that the country will be going to the polls again, less than a year after the EU Referendum, to decide the direction of our country for the next five years.

It’ll come as no surprise to any of you that I’ll be voting for and supporting the Liberal Democrats. But this is a piece to urge you to do the same. The country has never been more divided: remain and leave; nationalists and unionists. The politics of fear, division and intolerance have swept across our nation and has reared its head elsewhere too – Donald Trump is the President of the United States and is edging ever closer to conflict with North Korea – who’d have predicted that this time last year?

But there is still chance to change the direction our country is heading in. There is still chance to send a signal to Westminster, Europe and the world that Britain is outward looking, kind, caring and compassionate. By voting for the Liberal Democrats on June 8th, you are supporting the UK’s continued membership of the Single Market. You are supporting close cooperation with our European neighbours; you are supporting democratic process by choosing to give the people the final say over Brexit in a referendum on the terms of the deal negotiated by the deal; you are supporting liberal values of openness, tolerance and unity; you are saying no to a hard Brexit and no to Brexit at all costs. If you are one of the 48% who voted to remain in the European Union last June, then the only party who speaks for you is the Liberal Democrats.

Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn has not mentioned the EU or Brexit once today; this is both a bad and a good thing. It’s a bad thing because Brexit is the biggest issue facing our country in a generation and Labour’s apathy towards it means they seek not to challenge it in any way. There is no clear Labour position on Brexit. The Tories’ position is clear and unsurprisingly, blue has become purple, with the Conservatives seeking the hard Brexit espoused by the likes of Paul Nuttall and Nigel Farage. The Liberal Democrats’ position is clear: Brexit would be damaging to our economy and would countless jobs at risk when we eventually leave. Access to the Single Market and Customs Union is in the best interests of our country and its economy. After the deal has been negotiated, we believe that what started with democracy should end with democracy. If the people accept the deal brought back by the government, we leave the European Union. If not, then we should keep the arrangements already in place as being a member of the European Union is better than a poor deal for the UK.

The absence of any mention of Brexit from Corbyn is also a positive thing. It’s positive because it demonstrates that no matter how big an issue Brexit is, there are other issues that the government needs to address: the housing crisis; the NHS crisis; the environmental crisis; the school funding crisis – the list of crises facing our country goes on. Kudos to Corbyn for acknowledging that, but the Liberal Democrats’ policies on all of these things promote a liberal society, that is fair to everyone, no matter their standing in society, where they come from or where they live.

Extra funding for the NHS by implementing a dedicated tax for health and social care; extra funding for schools by taxing people and businesses fairly; extra funding for the environment by investing sensibly in green energy projects; building on our record in government of building more homes in those five years than in previous decades, creating jobs and infrastructure in the process. Increasing the personal income tax threshold for lower earners and asking corporations and big businesses to pay their fare share, whilst clamping down on those who seek to cheat the tax system: all things that will lead to a fairer economy that works for everyone.

What about creating a fairer, more liberal society? The Liberal Democrats would introduce a system of proportional representation, meaning that every single person’s vote counts equally, no matter which part of the country the live in or which party they vote for. We would give voice to the concerns and views of young people by giving 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote; rights and views, which were so cruelly ignored in last year’s referendum.

We would also introduce a regulated cannabis market, earning an extra £1 billion a year for the economy, ending the stigma attached to drug users who should be free to live their lives how they see fit, and ending the government’s complacency in funding crime by handing the profits to drug dealers and traffickers, rather than the Treasury. In addition, we would seek to decriminalisation drug use and treat addicts as patients, rather than as criminals. We would seek to regulate prostitution, making it safe for women and men who freely choose sex work as a profession. We would ensure that all school students are entitled to the same standard of education by banning selective education based on ability or faith, instead focusing on improving state schools to ensure that every child reaches their potential.

The Liberal Democrats are the progressive force in British politics. We are the liberal voice in an increasingly illiberal and dangerous world. Our membership has doubled in two years, with 4,000 members joining today alone. We were beaten at the last election. We were beaten badly. But make no mistake, the Liberal Democrats can provide the society that so many of us dream about. No matter where you live, make sure you vote with your heart and your head on the 8th June. Vote to change from the unnerving and ambiguous direction the Conservatives have opted to take us in.

Vote for the Liberal Democrats.

 

Faith schools should be a thing of the past

It’s only a week to go until the Liberal Democrats’ Spring Conference in York and one policy motion in particular, has me quite animated. It’s the policy motion regarding faith schools and the role they should, or shouldn’t play in our education system, moving forward.

Those of you know me (and for those of you don’t), ought to know that religion is something I dedicated five years of my life to studying at university. It’s something I feel very passionately about and am dismayed when I learn that Religious Studies (or Religious Education as some call it), is not offered or taught as a single subject in schools. The policy appears to be divided into two main parts: the first deals with securing RS’ role in state schools and its inclusion on the Lib Dem’s proposed ‘slimmer National Curriculum’; the second deals with the role of state-funded faith schools. I don’t need to explain why I fully support the first part of the motion, but I need to explain why I support the motion’s ‘Option A’ when it comes to faith schools.

Option A:

Ensures that selection in admissions on the basis of religion or 66 belief to state-funded schools is phased out over up to six years.

Finally. Something in writing from a political party that deals with the atrocity of state-funded faith schools. I’m a Christian; I’m a theologian; I worked in education for three years. Many people would think that I’m somehow in favour of faith schools, but I’m not. The bottom line is, no school that uses public money, should be able to discriminate against employees and/or students based on their faith or religious beliefs, no more so than they should be allowed to cherry pick students based on their academic ability. The Liberal Democrats have already come out against grammar schools on the grounds that academic selection is wrong; so too is religious/faith-based selection.

I’ve had a chequered past regarding faith schools. At the age of 11, having recently moved 70 miles away from my father after my parents divorced, I was refused a place at an Anglican school in Harrogate, despite that’s where the few friends I had made during my final year at the local primary school, were going. Why? Because I didn’t attend the local church and have a reference from the pastor there. At the age of 21, I went for an interview at a Catholic school in Harrogate for a teaching assistant job. During the interview, I ended up engaged in a heated theological debate with the Chair of Governors over what it was to be Catholic. The question I had initially been asked was how I would uphold the Catholic and Christian ethos of the school. My reply, I thought, was fairly well-considered, as I explained that having a degree in theology made me fairly well-placed to understand the beliefs and values of Catholics. That didn’t go down very well, as I was told that a degree wasn’t anywhere near good enough to understand the Catholic way of doing things, as I actually had to be a Catholic. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.

Not only do faith schools discriminate based on faith or belief (as has been demonstrated above), but I believe they also have a negative effect on other non-faith state schools in the local area. Let’s take Harrogate again as my example. Excluding Harrogate Grammar (which isn’t actually a grammar school), the top two schools in the area are the faith schools. In Scarborough where I currently live, the top school in the area is a Catholic school. This may only be two small examples but my argument is this: faith schools perform better than non-faith schools and because they discriminate against students based on their faith, they in turn, deny them the right to what appears to be an excellent education.

I’m not saying that non-faith schools are bad schools, of course they aren’t! But in principle, any selection that is funded by the state is wrong. All students regardless of their ability, faith or socio-economic background should have the right to the same standard of education as anyone else and this is not achieved by selection in schools.

If the Lib Dems oppose grammar schools we should therefore oppose state-funded faith schools. They should be a thing of the past and I sincerely hope the policy motion, along with Option A, is passed at Conference next Sunday.

Don’t dismiss the victory in Richmond Park; this could just be the beginning

For Liberal Democrats and remain supporters, this week brought an early Christmas present; victory in the Richmond Park parliamentary by-election. Toppling the incumbent, Zac Goldsmith, who was standing as an independent candidate after resigning from the Conservative Party over the government’s plans to expand Heathrow airport, the Liberal Democrats’ Sarah Olney won with 48% of the vote share and crippled Goldsmith’s former 25000 majority. Adding one more MP to the Lib Dem’s ranks will always be a welcome thing; winning an election off the back off our party’s absolute dedication and commitment to the EU is something that should not go unnoticed.

Yes, one parliamentary by-election isn’t going to change the course of British politics overnight. Jacob Rees-Mogg was quite right to say that in his interview the day after the election result. This result is about the wider implications. Let’s put things into perspective: Zac Goldsmith won the Richmond Park constituency in 2015 with a majority of over 20000. The by-election was fought, on his part, on the issue of Heathrow and on the Lib Dem’s part, on Brexit. Goldsmith had the backing of both the Conservatives and UKIP; the Liberal Democrats had the support of the Green Party and a couple of the initial independent candidates. The Liberal Democrats’ current party policy is to block the triggering of Article 50 unless a commitment is made by the government to hold a referendum on the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU. That was the policy that was put to the people of Richmond Park. That was the policy that people voted for and that was the policy that returned our ninth MP, crippling Goldsmith’s majority and his political career along with it.

Now many commentators and political analysts are saying that a pro-EU candidate winning in a pro-EU constituency is no big surprise. Well, no. It isn’t. But according to Lib Dem statistics, which, happened to be the most accurate on polling day, revealed that 33% of Conservative voting leave supporters, voted for Sarah Olney last Thursday. What this shows is that even those in favour of leaving the European Union are not in favour of the government’s current “direction” or “plan”. (I write in inverted commas because let’s face it, there is no direction or plan). Our party’s promise to hold a referendum on the terms of the deal of our exit from the EU is appealing not only to remain supports, but those on the side of leave. It’s only right that a process that started with democracy, end with democracy.

Nobody who voted to leave the European Union knew exactly what our exit would look like…not one of them could tell anyone definitively. And that isn’t their fault! It is the fault of Cameron’s government to simply assume that his side were going to win and not putting something in place should they lose. The truth is, the current government led by Theresa May cannot justifiably seek a course of action that has not been mandated by her party, Parliament or the British people. The only action she can seek now is to leave the European Union. The process of how our country leaves the EU should be consultative; involving both Parliament and the people.

What Sarah Olney’s victory shows is a growing support for the Liberal Democrats’ vision for how Brexit should be conducted. This along with the countless gains we’ve made in council by-elections since the referendum in June shows, especially in areas that voted to leave, that people are turning to our party to provide the sensible, calculated and level-headed approach to leaving the European Union. Not to mention how we slashed the Conservative’s majority in David Cameron’s former seat by 20000 votes. We’re the party of the 100% – not just the 48% or the 52%.

So no matter how small or insignificant you may think this by-election victory is; no matter how small or haul of MPs may still be, do not write it off. In the absence of a credible voice from the Labour Party and in the face of a confused and uncertain one from the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats are providing direction during these difficult times. Richmond Park may have just been the start of something, and those authoritarians seeking to impose a hard Brexit should jolly well take heed.

We’re coming for you.

Theresa May: Stop this Madness

Dear Ms. May,

I am writing to you as very concerned citizen of Yorkshire; a citizen of England; a citizen of the United Kingdom; a citizen of Europe; a citizen of the World. I, like 16 million others voted to remain a member of the European Union back in June 2016 and undoubtedly shared their despair and devastation at the result that came on the 24th. It is a result I regret and a result that I do not agree with, but it is a result I accept.

That is however, until the economic warnings espoused by the “fear-mongers” started to come to pass. A plummeting pound, evidence of an increase in fuel prices, big businesses threatening to cease investment and move their operations elsewhere and now the UK’s largest supermarket chain refusing to sell products because they are now deemed too expensive. As a politician, I’m sure you’re aware of all of this so you don’t need some 24-year-old Liberal Democrat from Yorkshire reminding you. But perhaps what you do need reminding of, is the duty of elected representatives in the House of Commons, to serve the British people and the country in the best way possible, by making decisions that work to the country’s advantage.

Your clear pursuit of the so-called “Hard Brexit” clearly stands in contention with this. Rather than focussing your efforts on securing UK membership or indeed access to the single market, thereby securing British jobs, businesses and the success of our economy, you are chasing a dystopic future in which immigration is tightly restricted. A future which answers the prayers of those on the hard-right; a future which sees an end to our country’s open, tolerant and united vision of the world; a future which you appear to think 17 million people voted for when they crossed the “LEAVE” box on 23rd June. The fact is, Ms. May, nobody had the opportunity to say why they were voting leave. Nobody made it clear to you or any of the other Brexiteers why they were voting leave. And now, as you seek to command the respect of 17 million people by following through on their wish, you are imposing your will onto them. So much for taking back control; so much for being the leader of a party who “works for everyone”.

Your refusal to let our sovereign parliament vote on the terms of the negotiation is in breach of democracy and is an absolute disgrace. You have hijacked parliament, with no mandate to govern from the British people, to commit to the biggest act of political masochism in a generation. Your refusal to even consider the notion that the people who you trusted to choose to depart the EU, should have a say on the nature of a future relationship with it, shows how elitist and out of touch you are.

But you are the Prime Minister. You can see what damage even the thought of Brexit alone, is doing to our country. Whilst the pound’s value plummets, hate crime rises. You and the Tory elite are talking behind closed doors about the future of the entire country, whilst your shut out elected Members of Parliament from across all parties. It is not only disgraceful but shameful. You talk about unity yet you fail to see that what you are doing is further dividing our country and our parliament.

You can put an end to all of this. Let us not forget that the referendum result is advisory only. Let us not forget that you were elected to the House of Commons to act in our country’s best interests. You were elected to the House of Commons to make decisions that would strengthen our country. I’m no economist, but it doesn’t take one to know how damaging Brexit is and is going to be for our country. The mere fact that you continue to pursue it is not only irresponsible, it is an abuse of power.

Let our MPs vote on your negotiating terms; let the country decide on your deal. It is our future in your hands.

Yours sincerely,

Clarke Roberts

The Christian Case for Electoral Reform

It’s a topic many within the political sphere talk about, but far fewer want to see anything done about it. The issue of electoral reform has been on the Liberal agenda for decades and more recently has gathered support from UKIP, the SNP, the Green Party, Plaid Cymru and even from some within the Labour Party! But even when the public were asked in a 2011 referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote system, there appeared no appetite for change. The 2015 General Election yielded the most disproportionate results in modern history and reignited the demand for the introduction of Proportional Representation, making the number of seats a party wins match the number of votes they receive. There have been so many political, sociological and in some case, moral arguments put forward for the introduction of PR, but why should Christians fight and campaign for PR? What’s the theological case to be made for electoral reform?

During the process of researching for my Master’s dissertation, I interviewed a number of people from within the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum. I asked them questions about their faith and their politics, in an attempt to understand how they interact with each other. When I asked them about the key political issues that they cared about most, it became blindingly obvious that there was one issue upon which all Liberal Democrats were concerned: electoral reform. Whether introducing the Proportional Representation, reforming the House of Lords or giving 16 and 17 year-olds the vote, there was a clear desire to see British democracy reformed and modernised, to further reflect the diverse and equal society so many of us claim to be part of.

One of the easiest arguments to articulate in favour of electoral reform from a Christian perspective, is the idea of fairness and equality. It’s often accepted by Christians that Jesus taught us to love one another and treat each other with dignity and respect, regardless of where someone is from, but what our current electoral system demonstrates is a clear bias to those who support one of the two largest parties; either the Conservatives or the Labour Party. In a system where a party can receive fewer votes than their rival yet still win control, people’s voice are silenced because they support one of the smaller parties in the UK. Parliament is not representative of how people vote; where is the UKIP representation? Where is the Lib Dem representation? Where is the Green representation? First-Past-the-Post is unfair and treats too many people with ignorance as it makes their vote worthless.

The second Christian argument for implementing electoral reform comes from the work of Robert Song. He argues:

…people receive from God, the right to self-government…while God is the ultimate source of political authority, the people are granted the right to be the proximate source of authority. As such, they are entitled to confer authority on the ruler or ruling regime… (1997:197)

Based on this, it can be taken to meant that the governing force in any situation must enjoy the support of a majority of people. It also infers that each individual vote cast carries the same weight. As we know from the 2015 election, the Conservatives only received 36.9% of the national vote which, although it was the largest share of the vote, cannot be considered a majority; 54.1% of the country voted against Conservative rule. What Song’s argument demonstrates is the need for a dramatic shift in the way governments are elected; as no party can ever claim to have won more than 50% of a national vote, it must be conceded that cooperation between parties is necessary.

Leading on from this point, if we take the Trinity as being a model for how our politics should work, then it can be argued that cooperation between the main political parties is essential, in order for cohesive and representative government to exist. It is accurate to say that without out of the persons of the Trinity, God would not exist in the traditional Christian understanding. Instead, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit must work in communion with each other. If we can apply to this to our political system, it can be argued, as Nick Clegg does, that coalition governments are the key to the future success of our democracy. We should no longer sign up to party tribalism and isolation and instead, seek to cooperate with our political partners cross-party, in the best interests of the country. We saw how this was successful between 2010 and 2015 and has proven to be successful all across Europe. Perhaps it’s time for a new style of politics in the UK.

Christian Liberal Democrats will, by virtue of their party membership, sign up to the commitment to electoral reform. What is needed however, is for Christians across the political spectrum to understand how their theological beliefs point to the implementation of a fairer and more representative voting system. We need to ensure the equality of votes, no matter what party they’re for; we need to ensure cooperation between political parties, to work together for the interests of the country; we need to see the governing forces mandated by a true majority where possible.

We need electoral reform.

Uniting the 52 with the 48

So I’m back from Lib Dem conference and what an amazing time I had. I met so many lovely people am grateful to them all for being so warm and hospitable towards me. I also attended some very interesting debates on future Lib Dem policy, the most attended of which was probably the debate on our EU position, which I voted in favour of. The debate attracted Lib Dem big wigs such as former leaders Ming Campbell and Nick Clegg, as they urged the delegates to support a referendum on the terms of the Brexit negotiation; something which, has attracted heavy criticism from political commentators and indeed some within the party itself. But I fully support the notion of a “terms of Brexit” referendum: here’s why.

We have to remember the question that was put to the British people on the 23rd June: “Should the UK remain a member of the EU, or leave the EU?” As we know, 52% of all those who voted chose to leave. They did not, however, choose whether they wanted to leave the single market or put a halt to the freedom of movement. Yes, these two issues were used by the leave campaign to bolster support for their case, but there was nothing about that referendum question that remotely indicated what our relationship with the European Union post-Brexit, would look like. So, addition to the left-right divide on the political spectrum, we now find ourselves faced with having to determine whether one is soft-Brexit or hard-Brexit. The soft-Brexiteers would ideally keep access to the single-market, therefore accepting the freedom of movement, as well as other perceived benefits of a non-membership of the EU. The hard-Brexiteers want a complete separation from the EU: no single market; no freedom of movement.

So we Lib Dems, as a pro-European party lost the referendum. We accept that. But what we think is in the interests of democracy and “having control”, is to let the British people decide what the destination of our departure should be. Is it right to allow the British government to impose a deal upon the country that perhaps many of those of voted leave did not want? Is it right for the government to select a deal for the country, knowing that it would have disastrous effects for our economy and businesses? We say, no it is not. And so we passed a policy on Monday to call for a referendum that allows the British people the chance to have their say on whether or not they accept the terms of the Brexit negotiation. If the public accepts them, then we leave. If they do not accept them, then that says that the public believes it is better off remaining a member of the EU than accepting a deal which they see as putting us in a worse off position.

There is nothing undemocratic or illiberal about that. We do not want to rerun the referendum simply because we did not get the outcome we so desperately wanted. As Tim Farron said throughout the party conference, what we believe on the 23rd June is the same as what we believe today – we will always think that the UK is better off inside the EU and we will always advocate that position. And by offering this referendum, not only are reaching out the 48% who voted remain, giving them another chance to have their voices heard, but we are also reaching out to the 52% who voted to leave. This referendum will give them the opportunity to express what sort of deal they want from their government; if anything, this referendum is more for the leavers than the remainers.

I’ve thought of a helpful analogy for this question. Let’s imagine you offer someone boiled eggs. You don’t offer them hard boiled or soft boiled eggs – just boiled eggs. The person accepts boiled eggs and you present them with hard boiled eggs, with no toast soldiers. The person who you asked actually wanted soft boiled eggs with soldiers, but they weren’t given the opportunity to speak out about that, instead they’re having what the chef thinks they want based on no evidence at all. The Liberal Democrats’ Brexit-deal referendum is giving the British people the chance to decided whether or not they want hard boiled eggs, or soft boiled eggs. And if it comes back that soft boiled eggs with toast isn’t even on offer, well then the British people can decide they don’t want boiled eggs at all.

Ladies and gentlemen – the Breggsit referendum…

We are the only party offering this referendum: unless of course Labour is lead by Owen Smith after Saturday. We are the only party prepared to entrust the British people with departure and destination. We are the only party committed to speaking to and learning from the 52% who voted to leave. We are the only party, speaking to and for the 100%.

Why There Must Be An Early General Election

So history has been made this week: David Cameron has become the youngest Prime Minister to leave office at the tender age of 49. In his place, former Home Secretary Theresa May, who was elected by…oh. That’s right. She hasn’t been elected at all. The new Prime Minister has assumed office with the backing of 199 Conservative MPs, a mere 0.0004% of the British electorate. Not even the Tory members were given a say (which would have improved the percentage to 0.03% of the electorate), after her rival Andrea Leadsom withdrew her challenge for the UK’s top job.

Whether or not you vote Conservative or whether or not you happen to be quite pleased with the “coronation” of Theresa May as Prime Minister, there can be no question that to assume office with the support of 199 people is in no way democratic and contradicts the claims from the Leave campaign in the recent EU referendum, of “taking back control” from “unelected leaders” in Europe. #awkward.

It is accurate to say that we do not have a presidential system here in the UK, thus meaning that when people vote in an election, they vote either for the party they wish to assume office or for their local representatives, and not for the candidate they wish to become Prime Minister. For me, this argument really hold firm against calls from the Liberal Democrats and others, for an early General Election.

The Conservative Party were elected into power last year on a mandate built around and taking into account the UK’s position inside of the European Union. That manifesto is now outdated, untenable and defunct. Whilst it is entirely the fault of the Conservative Party to have not put a plan in place for the eventuality of a leave result in the referendum, it must be acknowledged that the new government formed by Theresa May is acting in immensely different circumstances to those under which her party was elected last year.

There is an entirely new Cabinet. There is an entirely new agenda. There is an entirely different manifesto. The British people must be given a say on this new government and on this new post-Brexit era; without an election, Theresa May has no elected mandate and is leading an illegitimate government. The British people voted to leave the European Union, but in no way does that result indicate the sort of relationship people want the UK to have with our European neighbours. Each party should have the opportunity to put their case to the country, for the sort of future they see for the UK and the EU. People should be able to vote for which they prefer: whether it’s access to the single market and free movement from the Tories or remaining altogether from the Liberal Democrats, there needs to be a democratic decision taken to ensure people’s trust in the government does not falter.

Already there is talk of remaining within the single market and maintaining free movement of people, meaning continued payment into the EU budget along with a loss of influence at the debating table when trade laws are being made. Is this what people who voted leave really thought they were getting when they put that little cross in the LEAVE box on their ballot paper? I think for the majority, the answer is no. If we’re so obsessed with upholding the democratic right of the British people, then how does it make sense to take that right away by simply handing the premiership down to an unelected successor?

To ensure the continuation of democracy, to legitimise May’s premiership and to give the British people the opportunity to have their say on what they want the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU to look like, there must be a General Election. Without one, I can see many leave and remain voters alike, feeling extremely cheated by the actions of the forthcoming government, actions which will not have been mandated by the people they claim to represent.

Liberal theology. Liberal politics.