Thursday, 8 October 2015

Lib Dem jobs - opening them out to the regions

Following my post yesterday, I was in the pub with some Lib Dems talking about Lib Dem jobs (and specifically Mark Pack's post on the HQ restructure).

One of the points we all agreed on (unsurprisingly for a group of Yorkshire Lib Dems) is that it's all too London-centric. Having part time jobs (which would be accessible with longer commutes) could be part of the answer - but the other is, why can't we do more work remotely, or based in other offices around the country.

For example, why can't a Head of Digital Engagement (for example) be based in the Scottish or Welsh Lib Dems HQ, or in the ALDC HQ in Manchester, and travel to London once a week. Office costs could be slightly cheaper, we could probably pay them slightly less, and the difference would probably more-or-less cover their travel costs. And by advertising the jobs with flexible location, we'd open them out to the widest possible range of people - which means the best possible hires.

Being really radical, people could even work remotely and then travel to London 1-2 days a week, or we could come to agreement with one of the bigger local parties to allow them to use their space.

If we wanted them to be in London two days a week - there are thousands of Lib Dem members in London, and I'm betting that at least one of them could be persuaded to offer up their spare room one night a week to a visiting employee (incidentally I've often wondered if we could also do this for interns, but that's another story), saving the cost of hotels (and we count as an in-kind gift to the party and treat them as a valued donor accordingly).

Flexible working opens up jobs to a wider range of people, it cuts the costs of commuting (both financial and environmental), it can help people with young children remain in the workforce, and it can help rebalance jobs to the regions. All of these are things the Lib Dems talk about - time to start walking the walk.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Lib Dem HQ should embrace job shares (and part time jobs)

Earlier this summer LDHQ advertised for political advisers - three posts, each containing a range of linked policy areas. They were advertised on a reasonable salary (£28k, though that's pretty tight for London) and it was great to see the party investing in policy advice for the new parliament.

I don't know who they hired - but I suspect youngish politicos. I say this because although £28k is pretty good in most places - in London it doesn't go all that far. It's not likely to be appealing to people much beyond their early 30s, unless they're fortunate enough to have savings from previous jobs or a higher-earning partner.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing - most youngish politicos are incredibly smart and dedicated, and I'm sure the people hired will be nothing but assets the party. But I also think it was a missed opportunity. While the jobs were advertised and in the months since, I've spoken to a number of people - all genuine experts in fields relevant to the jobs - who said that they'd been interested but hadn't applied for various reasons, including: £28k not enough to pay the mortgage; not keen on a 5 year break from current career; don't live in London and don't want to move; kids.

When I asked if they'd have considered applying for an equivalent part time job or as a job share, several said yes. Working part time would have been more flexible for the people with kids. It would enable people with technical jobs or academic study relevant to the subject area (e.g. teachers, doctors, economists, PhD students) to stay in touch with their careers. People living outside London who might not be willing to move, might be willing to commute 2-3 days per week. Some of our local councillors (those we have left) might not want to work full time but might want to work part time.

More people would be able to access party jobs - and the party would be able to access advice from a broader range of people, including those with experience 'at the coal face'. And the half-a-week that people spent not at HQ would mean continued interaction outside the Westminster Bubble - closer to the people who actually vote for us.

It's possible that that's not what the party wanted - they're Westminster Bubble jobs, so it makes sense to hire Westminster Bubble people. And when things can come up at short notice, having someone only in the office 3 days a week may not be what you're after (though in practice, lots of very busy and fast-paced organisations make it work). But we know that diverse teams make good decisions - so expanding the pool and giving yourself a choice has to be a good thing.

So a concrete suggestion: next time something link this comes up, instead of advertising for one job, advertise for two, grouped jobs. For example:
Political Adviser for Bears and Wolves (20 hrs per week, £28k pro rata)
Political Adviser for Hawks and Kites (20 hrs per week, 28k pro rata)
These two jobs may be appointed separately or as one full time position. Please indicate clearly your interest in your application.

Political Adviser for Bears, Wolves, Hawks and Kites (full time, £28k)
As well as full time applicants, we would encourage people interested in doing this position as a job share to apply.

Loads more work in the hiring process? Definitely. But the benefits we could get from diversifying our team could justify it. I know very little about the black box that is HQ - but given the current reorganisation, maybe this is something that could be piloted with some of the roles? 

Thursday, 27 August 2015

There isn't a migration crisis - only a migration opportunity

The narrative around the migration crisis has been shocking to many of us. The language used by the UK foreign secretary is eerily reminiscent of the 'cockroaches' language of Rwanda. The only positive is that it's been shocking enough to cause a backlash. An article from Al Jazeera refusing the use the term 'migrant' because of it's negative connotations has been widely shared - it's depressing that  it's come to this (it should be a simple descriptive term), but at least people who object to this kind of dehumanising are starting to speak up.

In parallel, today we see that net migration is up (cue dramatic music). Great news! People are moving here because our economy is growing, albeit slowly, and they're helping grow our economy further while not claiming benefits, shrinking the deficit. Only, even on the 'neutral' media, that's not what we're supposed to think. The BBC has a quote from the government ("deeply disappointing"), a quote from Nigel Farage (let's not go into that). Only right at the bottom does it have a slightly more positive quote, from Yvette Cooper, pointing out the difference between economic migration and asylum.

These are two different stories, but they're linked. And many of us joined the Liberal Democrats because we object to this sort of thing. We welcome diversity. We're open to reviewing the evidence, which overwhelmingly shows the benefits of immigration. And most of all, we believe in protecting human rights - which means offering sanctuary to the brave people fleeing impossible situations. 

We need to be speaking out about this, loudly and at every opportunity, even if it makes us even less popular than we are already. Tim Farron is doing his best on this - but the language we're using is still defined by our opponents.

Proposal: every time someone talks about the 'migration crisis' let's correct them to call it the 'migration opportunity'. 

As in 'in further development in the European migration opportunity, 4,000 brave, determined and dynamic people are crossing from Greece into Macedonia every day, seeking to contribute to Europe's economy, pay taxes and create jobs. Despite this, European governments seem determined to send them back to face war and torture'.

Anyone with me?

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

If we want to call ourselves liberals, we must vote for inclusion

One of the first votes I cast as a conference voting rep was in favour of One Member One Vote on all conference votes (rather than electing conference reps as at present). It was my fifth conference, and having been selected as a PPC, I was finally able to vote (though most of the policy I'd have to stand up and defend had already been set, without my being able to vote on it). Unfortunately it was defeated (largely because the FE royally messed up the motion) – but it’s back again now and the debate is in full flow.

I strongly support introducing OMOV. The system we have now, where local party AGMs anoint some people as conference representatives is opaque and exclusionary. It systematically excludes some groups: young people, people who move around a lot, people who aren’t closely involved with local party structures, and new members. I'd go so far as to say it's illiberal.

To be elected as a voting rep you need to be linked in with the local party where you live (i.e. if you’re involved with a local party it normally has to be the one where you live – going to all the action days for one on the other side of town doesn’t count). Young people move around more and especially in urban areas where there are lots of parties in a small area, you often end up moving parties but keeping going to your old party action days because you know everyone, and who cares about the AGM when the priority is to win elections? I now know that you can move your membership to another party even if you don’t live there – but that’s not widely known. Oh, and some local parties send invitations only by post (really) and are rubbish at updating their systems, so if you move house then good luck finding out about the AGM.

You need to be quite closely involved to know how it all works. I didn’t realise I couldn’t vote until I’d been to a couple of conferences, because I was more interested in trainings and fringe events than the conference floor, and after that had no idea how to become a voting rep. Wasn’t until the OMOV debate at conference last year that I worked THAT one out. Actually once I WAS a voting rep (having been elected in my absence at the AGM), but the local party forgot to tell me so I booked a non-voting ticket and wasn’t able to change it once I got there. So the current system doesn’t even always work for the people who SHOULD be able to vote.

Small parties with fewer than 30 members get no reps. So if you live there, no chance. Unless you’re super connected to another party and can arrange to switch your membership and get elected in time.

If you’re in a small party that only gets a couple of reps, there’s often one old guy who always goes, so all the young fry don’t get to vote.

If you can only go for the weekend, you can get a cheaper weekend ticket - but can't vote - or fork out the full amount to vote. If you're a mid-range activist looking to take your involvement up a level, that's got to come as a bit of a slap in the face - these are the people we should be welcoming and encouraging, not telling them they aren't good enough.

Many of those opposing OMOV reply to these by pointing out that there are ways around them. And it’s true, there are. If you can’t vote somewhere, there’ll be another local party with a spare slot and if you know someone they’ll let you in. But it requires you to be proactive, and quite confident (I'm not sure I'd have dared ask until quite recently) – whereas more established people or those who move house less just get to show up – and it relies on having connections. A system reliant on working your connections isn’t what I want my party to be about.

At the moment, all the analysis is on the risks of moving to OMOV – but the system now has downsides too.

All those keen new members? Most of them won’t be able to vote at conference. How will that be for enthusing our membership? 

Worse still, I believe that the system has affected our policy. By excluding half the people at conference from voting, we’ve enhanced the power of the payroll vote, which allowed the leadership to tilt the playing field at key moments (especially when they moved conference to Glasgow so no-one could afford to go). We’ve also enhanced the power of the ‘patronage’ vote – those who aren’t on the payroll but who care about climbing the greasy pole in the party, every one of whom will have managed to get a voting ticket, as compared to the ‘disruptive’ vote – those who don’t care about the greasy pole and do care about the policy.

We’ve also ended up with voting reps who are more likely to be older with established, stable lives. While younger people are more likely to be excluded. In the last few years I’ve been disappointed by our failure to take a strong stand on youth issues (housing, and particularly buy to let, is the obvious one) and to build a coherent narrative around intergenerational justice, even these issues all fall in the ‘liberal’ policy space and urban 20 and 30 somethings should be a core vote for us. I have no way to know, but I can’t help wondering if this would have been easier to change if we’d actually let the people affected by the issues vote on our policy.

The debate at conference last year was pretty unedifying. Lots of older people (mainly white men) talking about how other people couldn’t be trusted to vote (apparently we'll vote for Lembit for dictator or something). Some of the lines were depressingly similar to Victorian debates about expanding the franchise to women or the working class. 

The overall impression was of an established, comfortable elite trying to defend their position, while the excluded fought desperately to open the system – but of course only the established can vote, the excluded can’t. It’s the antithesis of what Liberalism should be about – and it made me furious.

Here’s a suggestion: this conference, for the OMOV vote only, let everyone vote – and see what happens when the excluded get a say in their exclusion.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Aidworker Choices

Life is full of choices. In aidworkerlife, they're particularly stark

The big one: 'field' or 'HQ'.

HQ means a normal life, with friends and a partner and a home and the ability to plan more than six months ahead. It's pretty awesome.

But on the other hand, the work is pretty dull and bureaucratic, you're living on an NGO salary in the UK, which means that you're always skint, and you spend your day telling field people to do things that waste their time when you know they're working 24-7

'Field' in this context means 'not HQ'*.

'Field' has advantages: you don't spend any money, you get per diems, so suddenly you feel rich. You get to interact with beneficiaries and see your own impact. It feels adventurous.

But on the other hand, you rarely see your friends, you can forget about normal relationships, you work all the time, you live in a weird bubble with coworkers that might or might not be health, you might get kidnapped, and eventually you crave a dust-free room, wifi, and sushi.

There isn't really any in-between. It's one or the other. And every time you apply for a job, you have to choose.

I made my choice in February 2014. I was living in Libya and had an offer for a job in DRC. It was the job I'd always wanted – running a cash programme in a district. I turned it down to move back to the UK – to invest in a normal life and a partner.

A secondary motive** was that there was an election on: aid and politics aren't compatible.

Tonight I had dinner with two friends, one from Mali and one from Libya. The Libya friend has made the same choice and lives in Brixton with her partner while working for an INGO in London. The Mali friend is still living the old carefree life.

I knew then and I know now that I made the right choice. But I'm homesick for the field, and I think I probably always will be.

*In reality, 'field' means 'one step closer to the beneficiaries than wherever you're standing'. From HQ, a country office looks like the field. From a country office, HQ people coming in and refering to you as the field is about the most patronising thing in the world. To you, the field is the Sub-office. From the sub-office, the field is the village. The village might actually be the field, but as the closest I've been is the sub-office, I'll never know.

** Fine, a primary motive!

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

What's the point of the SLF?

OK, it's a spuriously provocative title. But if you can't be spuriously provocative on your blog, when can you be?

I joined the SLF shortly after they were formed, and have been a member ever since. At the time, they were a welcome voice standing up for the membership against a leadership that all too frequently ignored party policy in favour of 'tough decisions' that they never bothered to justify. When the party was dominated by the right (and by the Cleggbunker), they were a welcome counterbalance.

I was pretty turned off in the first days after the election. Their blogs, when they went up, were reasonable. But the tone in unofficial communication was too often gloating and sneery, and I don't like it. I get that everyone was tired, and it may be unfair to hold people to what they said and how they said it. But it made me wonder.

Thinking about it further, I think the reason for my discomfort is deeper - I'm not sure what they're for any more.

The SLF were founded to counterbalance the leadership. Then Liberal Reform founded to counterbalance the SLF... wondering how long it'll take for the Radical Liberal Movement to counterbalance Liberal Reform and for someone to shout 'splitters' at conference. They played a valuable role in the coalition era in doing that, in vocally standing up for party policy, for radical liberalism, and for the 'left' of the party.

But post-coalition, we all *agree* that centralist managerialism is dead, that we need to reflect party policy, and that we need to be radical in our liberalism. We're less at risk of forgetting our social liberal heritage than of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and renouncing the positives from our experience in government.

The likely leader, Tim Farron, is as SLF as they come - and is gathering significant endorsements from the party 'establishment'. Presumably, we're all SLF now.

If anything, as we react to coalition, Liberal Reform is likely to be the more important of the two. And now that we don't have one camp forced on us by Great George Street to react against, perhaps it's time to be less factionalist and stop dividing ourselves into 'left' and 'right', and concentrate on being 'liberal'.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

How Tim Farron saying what I think worries me.

In the Guardian this weekend, Tim Farron responded to his critics, explaining his votes on gay marriage. This is what I asked him to do, and in regretting his abstention on the third reading of the equal marriage bill, he's moved closer to my position. Great! Unfortunately, the interview as a whole has somehow left me more skeptical than I started out.

Obviously if Tim is now pro-equal marriage (or always was) then that's great. But he must have known at the time that abstention would be perceived as opposition - and it bothers me that he isn't willing to defend this position. And he also fails to mention the vote against the programme motion - where he effectively voted against taking the legislation forward - which feels like dodging the issue.

Even more so because if the basis of his opposition really was to do with conscience clauses and free speech, it is possible to mound a reasonable defence of this position on liberal grounds. If Tim felt that the bill did not adequately protect the rights of one minority (very religious people) while enforcing the rights of another minority (same sex couples), then either voting against it or abstaining is the right thing to do.

If Tim really believes that this was the case, then he should be willing to defend his record. The fact that he now 'regrets' his position looks weak and flip floppy - and I can't help wondering if he regrets it on its own merits, or because its harming his leadership chances.

I'm starting to worry that Tim is too keen to agree with the activist base on everything - I'm not sure I can remember a time when he's taken a controversial position and disagreed with the activist base. This makes me concerned that I don't completely understand what he believes - and I'm keen to have a leader willing to set out his stall on key issues and justify them, even when he disagrees with me (ideally as long as he doesn't do it too often!).

His interview with Pink News, today, was better. Talking about trans issues (yes!) and how the equal marriage legislation was a missed opportunity to do lots of good things (yes!). They put to him most of the questions I would have done (go Pink News!) and made him answer them.

In response, he offers the kind of liberal justification I've wanted to see all along - that you have to protect the right of people to say offensive things. That part, I'm convinced by - but if he's got good reasons, then why has he changed his mind, and what to?

In fairness, there's lots of good stuff in there - not just the liberal justification for his voting record, but also on disestablishment of the Church of England and internationalism.

But overall, the interviews have given me an impression of a flip-flopper unwilling to defend his record. If you're explaining, you're losing, and once the public starts to see you as untrustworthy or weak, then you're basically toast (see: Clegg, Milliband). And if the Lib Dems aren't the party of equal rights, then what are we for?

I started out wanting to vote for Farron - but I'm starting to feel that his votes on gay rights could be as toxic as Lamb's vote for tuition fees.