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!