What I said about Sex Work at conference

Finally, I was called to speak on a Federal Motion! I’m so pleased that it was on a topic that’s so important to me. Here’s what I had written to say, though I did have to skip the last couple of paragraphs as I spoke for a little too long (oops!)

EDIT: You can now watch the speech as well:

Last year, I attended an event run by the Sex Workers’ Open University where we heard from sex workers from all over the world operating under different legal systems as well as from leading researchers on the topic, specifically covering what’s referred to as the Nordic Model.

The event sparked my interest and I’ve been working since then with sex workers and other Sex Worker Led organisations to come up with the best system possible for Scotland, and to oppose with them the Private Members’ Bill tabled by a Member of the Scottish Parliament recently that looked to impose something similar to the Nordic Model up here. Luckily, we were successful in that endeavour but there’s still a worrying appetite to see the clients of sex workers criminalised here in Scotland and in the UK.

In the time that I’ve been working on this, I’ve heard some very interesting and often shocking things about the harmful effects of criminalising the clients of sex workers and that’s why I’d like to urge you not to remove any lines from this very good motion, particularly not any that would remove the key protections it seeks to offer; namely standing against a model that seeks to criminalise clients.

Studies show very clearly that the demand for sex work does not alter when the laws around it do. That is to say that countries who have decriminalised sex work didn’t see an increase in the amount of people involved in buying or selling sex, and that countries who have criminalised the industry or the clients have not seen a drop in sex work activity.

What we HAVE seen, however, across the board, is that sex work that’s done out in the open (perhaps not literally) is safer for all involved.

And let me be clear, regulated sex work is not helpful. It is not a safe middle ground between criminalisation and decriminalisation, it can be as harmful as criminalisation in many cases and we’ve seen proof of that in parts of Australia where such systems exist. The evidence is that decriminalisation IS THE BEST OPTION and as Liberals, feminists and people who support evidence-based policy, it is the only option for our policy. Changing this motion to blue the lines on that helps nobody.

In Sweden, sex workers with criminalised clients are denied condoms in case those providing them with them are seen to be aiding a crime. They are unable to vet or even asses clients easily as meetings need to happen quickly, and in unsafe places. They don’t feel able to contact the police about sexual violence and the clients are unable to raise a red flag to the authorities if they suspect that sex workers are being mistreated or trafficked.

Sex work is work, and to undermine the choices of those involved in the industry by claiming that we need to rescue them in any way is demeaning, unhelpful, and simply untrue.

The biggest threat to sex workers a lot of the time comes from the harmful laws that are so often sought to be applied to their industry; and it is from those laws that they need to be protected, not from their own life choices or careers.

That is exactly what this motion is seeking to protect them from, and removing crucial protections from it would be doing a grave disservice to those we are seeking to help out.

So please, support this motion and do not remove the lines on which we may be taking a separate vote.

One Member, One Vote: What I wanted to say

Today, Lib Dems at conference debated a motion on One Member, One Vote. Unfortunately, I wasn’t called to speak but I wanted to share some of my thoughts with you anyway, so here is what I’d planned to say with my 3 minutes (please excuse any grammatical errors, this was written for me to say and was never intended to be published):

Here we are, back in the SECC after another busy year: in Scotland we’ve fought, and won, a referendum on top of campaigning for the Euros and multiple by-elections as well. Luckily, though, like most Liberal Democrats, we’re used to having a lot to do and never enough time or people to do it so we’ve gotten quite good at allocating the resources we do have to the places where they’ll be most effective.

Over the last 12 months, I have been one of those shuffled resources, as have many other Scottish, and I’m sure, UK-wide members.

As a Euro candidate in the run up to May, I liaised with, trained and encouraged other local parties to get out and get active in our best areas, and I joined the many other activists who’d left their home turf to campaign in our held seats to lend a hand to our MPs.

As the candidate for the Cowdenbeath by-election, I spent most of my time over in Fife grabbing hold of every possible opportunity to get our messages out through the national media to help ensure that listeners and viewers across Scotland knew that the Lib Dems were (and, indeed, are) cutting taxes, raising pensions, creating jobs and holding the Scottish Government to account on the big issues like childcare and, of course, independence.

Although we did manage to fit in 2 or 3 Focuses and a handful of Knock and Drop rounds locally, we have been told all year, quite sensibly, to focus elsewhere.

Now, these are scenarios we’re all used to. Campaigning in the areas that will benefit from it the most isn’t a novelty for the Lib Dems but, unfortunately, this year it has come back to bite our local party quite hard.

Our membership dropped this year, as you might expect, and as a result we’ve found ourselves with less than 30 members.

Despite all of our hard work over the last 12 months, conference, I’m standing here today without a vote, without a voice, and without the ability to represent the other dedicated, hard-working members of my local party who have been left with no conference reps at all; disenfranchised for going where we were needed.

Going forward, we hope to spend a bit more time in our own area, but with the General Election is just around the corner and we know that we’re needed more in East Dumbartonshire and Argyll & Bute.

We’ve been told again this morning, by Willie Rennie and Ming Campbell, that Scottish members need to go and campaign in our held seats. It is vital that we do that but there’s a huge conflict of interest there for 12 Scotland’s local parties who will continue to be denied representation under the current system until they ignore these calls for help and focus instead on recruitment in their own areas. And we’re just a handful of the 68 local parties throughout the UK who find themselves in the same position.

If we pass this motion today, we can carry on lending support where it’s most needed, rather than worrying about representation which is something we should be able to take for granted in a Democratic Party.

And as we gear up for our own local elections in 2017 and start really upping our local activity and hopefully start calling in some of these favours we’ve earnt, I hope we can go out recruiting equipped to sell the greatest benefit there is of Liberal Democrat membership – internal democracy. I’d like to stand on the doorstep and tell people that joining the Lib Dems will give them a real say in policy, rather than mumbling away to them:

“hey, join our party! If we sign up a few people today you might POSSIBLY be in with a chance of convincing one of us to s let you have a go at being a rep one day so that you can vote on policy…”

No, that’s not good enough.

So, if you do have a vote today, please consider how you’d feel if it was taken from you, and vote to pass this motion. Because I can’t.

My Promise to the Nationalists

I’ve made no secret of my intention to vote No on Thursday but I’ve not been quite as vocal about it amongst friends or on social media as I expect I would be under other circumstances. It seems to me that the debate has become quite difficult for everybody involved and that personal relationships all across Scotland are feeling the strain as each half of the country is battling tirelessly against the other in the last few days we have left before making what could be the biggest decision any of us will make in our lives.

I genuinely do believe that both sides are doing what they believe is best for the country and how can you be upset with anybody for that? You can certainly disagree with their means, but is it rational to be upset with anyone who is doing exactly what you are, albeit having reached a different conclusion? After all, I can and do dislike the policies of other parties without letting it affect the relationships I have with members of those parties – when you wear your colours on your sleeve as much as we do, you have to learn to put aside those differences and focus on friendships independent of politics.

As rational as all of that is though, I can’t help but be deeply saddened at the Yes campaign and I find myself biting my tongue around people with whom I’d normally engage in good-natured debate. It really does feel like this is an issue that lasting friendships rely on us avoiding. In a very real sense, the debate is creating deep divisions throughout the country and causing rifts between people who never expected their political involvement to interfere with their friendships.

So, why is that? For many of us, getting people engaged is a constant struggle. If you’d told me last year that everybody I know would be talking about the referendum today, I’d have been elated! I know people who have never voted before who are now out campaigning for their cause – surely that’s a great thing? Why is it then that things can so quickly turn so nasty when the topic comes up? Although many people are asking this question, I think it’s quite clear that the answer is simply that people on both sides are so genuinely passionate about this issue that we all find it difficult to conduct ourselves appropriately.

From my own experience, as much as I’d like to stick to the academic questions of the economy and the currency in these discussions, it feels like a smoke screen. I feel like I’m desperately clinging to the very rational and reasonable arguments (all of which I genuinely believe in on their own) but what I really want to do is drop all of that, lose all pretence of civility and shout out, “why are you trying to tear my country apart?” Always just beneath the surface of my reasoned arguments are passionate accusations like, “What right have you to make me an expat here in my home?” and, “how could you even consider risking my job, my mortgage and my pension?” I don’t want to have a reasoned discussion about who would set interest rates anymore, I want to stand up, wave my flag and scream “How dare you try to erect borders between my English family and myself!”

On the other side though, I know that I have friends who get angry with me when I’m singing the praises of the Union. I’m sure some of you are reading this right now wanting to ring me up and holler, “Why are you trying to deny me the right to self-determination?” Many of you are no doubt looking around at problems like unemployment, over-crowded classrooms and NHS waiting lists and genuinely believing that independence is the answer. It’s no wonder that we don’t chat that much anymore when you see me as somebody actively trying to block the fix to these things, and I understand that, because I find it hard to chat to you these days as well.

I am desperately hoping that the Union remains intact but if, in the early hours of Friday morning, I do find out that things have gone my way, I’m going to find it very hard to celebrate. I may exhale a sigh of relief and revel in the good news for a few moments, but my thoughts will quickly turn to the large minority of people in my country who are devastated that their months and years of hard work have been fruitless. I will feel for my friends and neighbours who will mourn what they perceive as their missed opportunity to make things better and I will sincerely hope that we can work together to mend the divisions that feel so deep from this side of polling day.

Whatever the result, almost half of the country will be hurting on Friday and we’re all going to have to work together to make the best of whatever it is we’re left with. It’s going to be difficult to move past the last few months, especially for those who find themselves on the losing side, but there will be no sense in dwelling on our differences anymore come this weekend.

So, I want to say now to my nationalist friends; I understand your passion. I understand how much this means to you and I hope you understand what it means to me. I know you’re campaigning for what you believe to be best and I hope you can respect that I’m doing the same. I know you’re going to be hurting on Friday if ‘my side’ wins and I hope you spare a thought for me if things go well for you.

I’m not going to gloat if we win and I’m not going to be bitter if we don’t – I promise now to put this past us and work on making things better again after Thursday, no matter the result, and I hope that that’s something that all of Scotland can agree to do, for all our sakes.

Margaret Thatcher 1925 – 2013

Yesterday the news broke that former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had died and the UK was instantly united in conversation and divided in opinion. ‘Divisive’ is already an overused adjective in the debate but I’m not sure that anybody could claim to embody the word quite like Maggie did.

 

I’m not sure that I have much to add to the discussion as I was born two weeks after she left Downing Street and my opinions of her can’t come from personal experience but from the opinions that she inspired in others.

 

I can look to the current government though to understand a little better how accurately public opinion can assess what a government does. I don’t think it’s too controversial to suggest that bad news is more likely to be discussed and remembered than good. I don’t think anybody coming to power in 2010 could have been seen in a very positive light as the situation required (and still does require) a lot of difficult decisions to be made. When talking about Maggie, my mum pointed out that “it’s almost like people have forgotten how bad the ‘70s were” and I think that sums up a lot of how I feel about Thatcher. I don’t believe that any Prime Minister in the 1980s could have been remembered positively because the choices then were similar to those that we face now.

 

That’s not to say that I think she always made the right choices, far from it, but her reputation was doomed from the moment she took the job and it was never likely that her good decisions would dominate the headlines or stand out in hindsight.

 

She inspired some while inspiring hate in others. Some mourned the loss of a great leader while some partied in the streets last night. To get reactions like that over 20 years after last being in power, and from a lot of people too young to even remember her time in office, confirms at least one thing: she will be remembered.

 

I don’t intend to list the good and bad things she did but I do think that both sides are wrong. I think the good and bad were a lot more balanced than many are suggesting.

 

I will say, though, that whatever you thought of her or her politics, she died an elderly widow with a family that she loved and it is never ok to celebrate the death of a human being. RIP.

I am not a token

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When I look at a group of people, I don’t break it down into a mental pie chart of the genders, races, ages or disabilities represented within that group. To me, removing barriers for everybody and seeing all people equally is the best thing we could possibly aim for as a society and it is my view that any kind of tokenism directly contradicts that mindset. To try to ‘balance’ any selection of people is to categorise them by the very things that I wish we could all be blind to.

I’m not, however, saying that I’m happy with the status quo. Where under-represented groups exist, I believe that we need to find the root of that problem and deal with it effectively. Quotas and tokenism achieve nothing but to undermine the very people they are trying to help.

Liberal Democrats celebrated this week when a popular fringe panelist announced his intention to refuse to sit on any more all-male panels. A few of us, however, were upset by the wider-implications of stands like this but quickly found ourselves in a minority. It’s easy to dismiss us as being too ideological or as not being committed enough to solve the problem and, through that dismissal, I felt very much excluded from the debate.

We spent a good while on Wednesday night getting our ideas and objections together for a concise blog post which was published over at Liberal Democrat Voice today and I am now really hopeful that party members will understand where we’re coming from a bit more now that we’ve reasoned it all out and, maybe, that some might even agree with what we’re saying.

At the top of this post is an avatar that we made of myself and the two other co-authors (Ewan Hoyle and Eilidh Dickson) for the original blog post. The Campaign for Gender Blindness, however, is not limited to 3 people writing a blog. If you like our view of a world in which nobody is judged by their identifiers and in which all barriers are broken with nobody excluded or included on the basis of anything other than what they can bring to the debate then, please, let’s start a movement.

We are not tokens. We are all worth so much more than that.

Granny Whitehead

Long before I ever had an interest in politics, my great gran used to tell me stories about canvassing for her party and standing as a councillor. The only anecdote I can recall is about a delivery drop when a man chased her down the road after reading a leaflet to announce that he wouldn’t be voting for her but, not to worry, because he wouldn’t be voting for “any of those other buggers either!”

At the time, I never imagined that I’d have similar stories of my own but I often wish she was still about to compare stories (and I wonder what she’d think about me campaigning for the Lib Dems!)

Before she died, she gave me a large envelope full of some of the letters and documents she’d kept over the years and I was looking at them today when I found some of her old campaign literature and correspondence. I’m sure she wouldn’t have minded me sharing them with you now and it’s interesting to compare some of the Tory messaging under Thatcher with the Lib Dem and Tory messaging that we have under the Coalition today.

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This is a photo of the front and back of the leaflet. I think it’s interesting to note the focus on local issues and no mention of the national picture, something that can be seen all over Tory and LD leaflets today!

Grandma wasn’t sucessful in her campaign:

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The letter she got from the MP about her campaign noted, again, the problems in getting the electorate to focus on local rather than national issues. This is something that hasn’t changed much and that Lib Dem councillors have struggled with greatly since 2010.

It is evident from the other letters in the bundle that grandma must have been campaigning with her local party for a while before her candidature. Activists generally get all-member emails these days so letters like those below must have been nice back in the day!

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I also found the candidate list for the local Hyndburn elections in 1986 which gives an idea of the political make up of the area at the time (and even includes a Mr. Holden standing for the Liberal-Alliance in Overton, I do hope he’s another relative!)

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Votes at 16, but just this once?

Tomorrow morning, the papers will announce that the Scottish Government will allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the independence referendum in 2014. This has caused dismay amongst the most unlikely of people: the pro-votes-at-16 group!

Last Spring, the Scottish Liberal Democrats debated the issue and, as I said to Conference on the day, I am hugely in favour of extending the vote to 16 and 17 year olds for the referendum, whether or not the right is extended to all elections in Scotland. My reasons for this are three-fold:

Firstly, I strongly believe in votes at 16. I don’t want to focus too much on that debate because that could take all day and may over-shadow my point. So, let’s just take it as read that I think the voting age should be extended to include 16 and 17 year olds. I share this view with many people (particularly fellow Liberal Democrats), yet I feel quite alone in my support of the Scottish Government’s decision with regards this particular vote. It seems odd to me that anybody who supports the rights of 16+ year olds to vote could campaign against the decision, simply to serve their own political agenda (eg. “I will only support this if it will apply to all elections”.)

Secondly, I don’t care what reason the SNP has for allowing this.I do not care that the SNP are hoping that 16 and 17 year olds will be more likely to vote for independence (something that is disputed anyway) because, at the end of the day, the motive is irrelevant if the result is desirable.

Finally, I think that it is imperative that 16 and 17 year olds get a say on this issue. Scotland’s relationship with the UK (and potentially even with all of Europe and, indeed, the rest of the world) hangs on the results of this referendum and that will affect the way the country works for a long, long time. It is Scotland’s youth that will grow up with the decision made in 2014 and they should get a say. I don’t want their voice taken from them because of party politics.

Me addressing Scottish Conference in support of votes from 16 at the referendum

Me addressing Scottish Conference in support of votes from 16 at the referendum

The truth is that we cannot achieve votes from 16 if we hold out for an ‘all or nothing’ agreement. By supporting their right to vote in 2014, we have an opportunity to extend that right to more elections. For a start, the Scottish Government don’t even have the power to change the voting age for Holyrood, Westminster or European elections. Should we pressure them to change the voting age for council elections? Yes, we should. Let’s do that in time for 2017! As for Scottish, General and European elections; let’s use 2014 as a precedent for those.

Taking policy away from the membership?

Tonight, the Liberal Democrats are sharing their next Party Political Broadcast with the media. The video features Nick Clegg apologising to the British public for breaking the pledge on tuition fees… or does it?

As we’ve heard from the leadership before, the party is adamant that voting for increased tuition fees was not a mistake but that making the pledge in the first place was. This is very contradictory to a lot of Liberal Democrat values and, while I hope the video goes some way to regaining the trust of the British electorate, I’m not sure that the message is going to get a lot of support from party members.

Firstly, the focus is very much on the pledge that all Liberal Democrat PPCs were instructed to sign ahead of the 2010 General Election. Although the pledge was good media for us, it was not a Liberal Democrat campaign. ‘The pledge’ was a campaign run by NUS that we jumped on as a way to broadcast our policy. Nick is saying, quite clearly, that signing the pledge was a mistake but are we also to take from this that he is declaring, as Party Leader, that the policy itself is also an error?

In the video, Clegg says that “we shouldn’t have made a promise we weren’t absolutely sure we could deliver” and he also says that he “shouldn’t have committed to a policy that was so expensive”. It isn’t much of a secret that Nick doesn’t support free tuition fees and this broadcast, along with previous similar statements, shows a huge disregard for the majority of the membership with regards this particular policy.

The Liberal Democrats pride themselves on being the party whose policy is made by its members. How true can that be when a policy that is strongly supported by the membership is disregarded in government and then publically damned by our leader? Forget letting down the voters for just a second (and I do mean ‘just a second’, that is not something to be sniffed at) – what about the members? What about the campaigners and supporters that got the party to where it is today? To keep the policy for free tuition fees after this broadcast would be political suicide! We are now left with two options:

1. Revoke our policy on tuition fees. This won’t be popular with the membership and would probably have to come from ‘on high’, thereby contradicting our value of having policy made by members; or

2. Maintain our existing policy and face further ridicule for a meaningless and disingenuous broadcast.

Those aren’t options that I like very much.

Secondly, the video suggests that the policy was not something that we, as a country, could afford. The DPM then goes on to promise that we won’t make any more policies that we aren’t certain we can uphold. How can he say this when another thing that the party prides itself on is being the only party to have costed policies? We had a 6-step plan for tuition fees. We campaigned on tuition fees by marketing that plan on the doorsteps! If we knew all along that, actually, the plan wasn’t accurate; could we not have changed the policy BEFORE the 2010 campaign? Signs of recession were certainly there before the GE campaign started so there’s no excuse for keeping a policy that we apparently knew was unworkable.

As for the promise that we won’t make new policies that we aren’t certain we can deliver on – how exactly will that work? Policy is made by the members. Are we now to reject any policy debates that don’t make more economic sense than Vince Cable’s 6-step tution fee plan? That is a very big ask and if that’s the case, Brighton Conference is going to be very dull next week when Conference Committee have had to cancel all the debates for lack of workable policy.

It took us two years to ‘hold our hands up’ and finally apologise for what we did in government on tuition fees for promising a policy that the membership had overwhelmingly (and repeatedly) supported. I really think that, as a party, we need to move on from tuition fees and focus on all the good we’ve done in government. I do not support free tuition fees as a policy and I am very pleased with the new system for fees and with everything else that we’ve achieved in government. However, I do believe in democracy and this policy was major enough that we can reasonably assume it played a part in getting some of our seats. I also believe that the best thing about being a Liberal Democrat is the ability to make and vote on all Liberal Democrat policy.

Hopefully this video will help lay to rest the tuition fees fiasco and allow us to move forwards in the eyes of the public. Hopefully this video will fulfil its purpose of regaining some trust from the public and perhaps even some respect from voters who have been waiting for an apology.

I am glad that Nick listened to party members and to the electorate and has stood up to apologise. I do not, however, think that he has apologised for the right thing and I, like many other party members this evening, am disappointed.

Is the Coalition actually coming to an end this time?

It’s something that’s been asked almost daily since this government was formed in 2010 but could we actually be looking at the beginning of the end for the Con-Lib Coalition? Both parties are fully aware that distancing themselves from each other in time for 2015 is in their respective best interests but with nearly three years still to go before the next general election, is now the time to start parting ways?

As a party member, I got an email today from Clegg’s office with the subject header: “The contract is broken”. Following the recent announcement that the Conservatives are going to back-out of their commitment to Lords Reform, the email starts by saying:

Reform of the House of Lords is a key commitment in the Coalition Agreement – the contract that keeps the coalition parties working together in the national interest.

The Liberal Democrats have held to that contract even when it meant voting for things that we found difficult.

The Conservative Party is not honouring the commitment to Lords reform and, as a result, for the first time part of our contract has now been broken.

When part of a contract is broken, it is normal and necessary to amend that contract in order to then move on. So that is what we are doing.

I have told the Prime Minister that when Parliament votes on boundary changes for the 2015 election Liberal Democrats in Parliament will oppose them.

Coalition is a two-way street. I cannot permit a situation where Conservative rebels can pick and choose the parts of the contract they like while Liberal Democrats are bound to the entire agreement.”

[Read the rest of the message]

So, is this a genuine stumbling block for The Coalition, or is this the beginning of a carefully-rehearsed split designed to serve the best interests of both parties? I sincerely hope that neither party started down the path of Lords Reform intending to play politics but Clegg’s language certainly seems to imply that he intends to use this dispute to drastically renegotiate the terms of our relationship with the Conservative party.

While I find it quite difficult to believe that this was a genuine shock to senior Liberal Democrats who are now having to react quickly, I believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle of the two extremes and that both Clegg and Cameron wanted the bill to succeed but, due to Cameron’s lack of control over his MPs, a tactical decision had to be reached quickly.

Of course this is all speculation but it makes sense that the party leaders found themselves in a difficult position that forced them to come up with new tactics. The Liberal Democrat leadership can now use Lords Reform to distance themselves from the Tories while, at the same time, giving Cameron our lack of support for boundary changes to use as his own distancing tool.

So, what now? Well, assuming that this is the start of a long and public fall-out, there are few options for how either party can advance. There’s far too much time between now and 2015 to see a troubled-partnership act through to the bitter end which means that we could end up with a minority Conservative government some time before 2015.

Labour were as guilty as anybody when it came to ‘playing politics’ with Lords Reform and, following two years of their bitter opposition to all things Liberal Democrat, it would make no sense at all for us to turn to them. That said, all parties will be in big trouble if a GE is called early as Labour still don’t have a full policy book ready and I don’t believe that either the LDs or Tories had prepared for a split quite this early.

With just 4 weeks left of Recess, all three parties are no-doubt planning furiously and the next few months will certainly be interesting to watch.