Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Lib Dems diversity problems - will they ever be solved?

Many years ago the black Democrat politician Jesse Jackson created what he called a Rainbow Coalition to support his bid for the Democratic nomination for president of the USA. This Coalition was intended to include all those who are oppressed by hostility to their identity, whether women, BAME, LGBT and other groups.
It is something all Liberals aspire to achieve and in theory should be able to achieve. Liberalism celebrates diversity does it not?
The lack of female, BAME and disabled MPs suggests otherwise, but for this blog I want to focus on religion.
People who are religious often look at the great moral issues of the world and find this draws them into politics. It is remarkable that if we take Christianity that as a religious faith it's set of moral values do not sit easily with any political ideology. Christians can be found in all political parties, and it is worth considering that many were founded by Christians based on their interpretation of their faith. Foremost amongst those was the Liberal party of course.
Everything seemed fine for many years, religious and secular members of the Liberal party and Liberal Democrats worked well together. Some were put off Christianity because it was used by Mrs Thatcher in particular to support her "Victorian Values" where women knew their place and homosexuality was not allowed. Generally Christians who joined the Liberal party and the Lib Dems did not support that interpretation of their faith and so there was no problem.
However there has over the past 20 years or so been a dramatic rise in the Humanist movement and parts of this movement has changed the conversation. Today there are humanists who support toleration and those who do not and both types are members of the Liberal Democrats. So if you are a Christian or a Muslim you are often made to feel unwelcome within the party. How can this be?
There is a new cadre of evangelical atheists who not only disagree with religion, they consider it beneath them. This critique of Richard Dawkin's autobiography by John Gray puts it well:
"If religion comes in many varieties, so too does atheism. Dawkins takes for granted that being an atheist goes with having liberal values (with the possible exception of tolerance). But as the Victorians well knew, there are many types of atheism, liberal and illiberal, and many versions of atheist ethics. Again, Dawkins imagines an atheist is bound to be an enemy of religion. But there is no necessary connection between atheism and hostility to religion, as some of the great Victorian unbelievers understood."
And so many followers of Richard Dawkins do believe in Liberal values and naturally would join the Liberal Democrats. But in one sense they are not liberal in that they are intolerant. Why is that? It is their insistence that anyone who believes in a religion can only believe in it literally, as Gray points out:
"Quite apart from the substance of the idea, there is no reason to suppose that the Genesis myth to which Dawkins refers was meant literally. Coarse and tendentious atheists of the Dawkins variety prefer to overlook the vast traditions of figurative and allegorical interpretations with which believers have read Scripture. Both Augustine and before him the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria explicitly cautioned against literalism in interpreting the biblical creation story. Later, in the twelfth century, Maimonides took a similar view. It was only around the time of the Reformation that the idea that the story was a factual account of events became widely held. When he maintains that Darwin’s account of evolution displaced the biblical story, Dawkins is assuming that both are explanatory theories—one primitive and erroneous, the other more advanced and literally true. In treating religion as a set of factual propositions, Dawkins is mimicking Christianity at its most fundamentalist."
And so it is this insistence that the literal interpretations of religious texts are the only valid one which makes it easy to lampoon and ridicule religion. And with that comes a sense of intellectual superiority. Within a political party that believes in diversity, that celebrates that different people think differently, this attitude is counter productive and makes religious people feel unwelcome. As far as the Lib Dems are concerned, in some constituencies with a large Muslim population this could make them unelectable, and if we want more ethnic minorities in the party this will be another barrier stopping them from joining.
There are understandable concerns that many religious people are socially conservative and will not support policies such as gay marriage or LGBT rights in general. Often that is not so much to do with religion and more to do with people coming from societies - particularly authoritarian societies - where are serious debate on LGBT rights has not even started.
Those who have been on the receiving end of homophobia may feel unsafe in the presence of religious people joining the party. But in politics our aim is to change things for the better, not accept them as they are. Many Muslims and Christians support LGBT rights, and many more can be persuaded. It is not the job of the Liberal Democrats to turn religious people into atheists. Maybe Richard Dawkins can do that. And given that is not our job, what we do need to do is make the case for Liberalism and invite people of all varieties to join us and help us campaign for it. A campaign instead to exclude people will only make us a smaller party and less diverse.
The problem though is an ideological one. The believers of evangelical atheism also believe they are Liberals and in many respects they are. On policies outside of religion I often find myself in complete agreement with them. However if the problem with diversity is simply a disciplinary issue, or an organisational issue, that can be tackled. If it is an ideological division, then who gets to adjudicate, or do we somehow muddle along regardless - and not get anywhere?

The Lib Dem roller coaster continues

It is 5 years since my last blog post.
In that time there has never been a more challenging time to be a Lib Dem, apart from in the 1950s when the Liberal party almost died.
We can see from what the government is doing today that the Lib Dems did perform a useful role in Coalition in moderating the Tories. Even so, the reputation and the appeal of the Liberal Democrats has taken a battering. Some policies that should not have seen the light of day got through and the Lib Dems have a difficult legacy to deal with as they now hope to recover. The election of Tim Farron as a new leader has given a new hope to those of us on the left of the party, upon which he has only partially delivered.
His majority was small and his strategy all along has been to try and keep the party united and this probably accounts for his record so far. He was able to oppose the Tory welfare cuts with conviction and he has made tackling inequality - not just social mobility - a priority. How that fits in with austerity economics and what our take on it is remains to be seen. On the other hand he has supported Trident replacement and air strikes in Syria.
I think he was relishing outflanking Labour on the left, but the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party has made that impossible. Jeremy Corbyn is on the hard left and they have their flaws as well. In the 32 years that Jeremy Corbyn was elected the MP for Islington North, he has often walked through the same voting lobbies as the Lib Dems, both in opposition to the Tories and Labour. There is more we agree on than we would both like to admit; on civil liberties, tackling global warming, opposing benefit cuts. Jeremy Corbyn has a laid back personality, very different from some of his hard left allies. The hard left have a culture of believing that anyone who opposes them on any issue should be treated with contempt. As the soft left Guardian journalist John Harris pointed out, they are not interested in listening to the electorate if they say things they do not want to hear.
For that reason a lot of the new recruits to Labour have joined the wrong party. Unfortunately because on the policies they are closer to Jeremey Corbyn than Tim Farron, that does not seem obvious. No doubt some will eject from Labour when they find out what it is really like, but it would have been better if they joined the Lib Dems in the first place. The Lib Dems have plenty of new members themselves and that is an opportunity they must capitalise on.
But what about the bigger picture? Global warming will continue it's deadly path. There is no end in sight in the so called war against terror. Will Assad be overthrown and will the Syrian state collapse in a similar fashion to Iraq in 2003? Will the government really find the money to replace Trident? Will Donald Trump or Ted Cruz become the next US president? How will the global economy fare as the Chinese economy falters? What if the British people vote to leave the EU? Will Greece leave the Euro currency, and will others follow? Will the far right prosper in Europe in the UK? How will Daesh be managing in Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebenon, Jordan, Egypt and will they attack Israel? And these are just the known unknowns.
Despite appearances the Tories are not invincible. They governed Canada for 10 years but they got defeated by the Liberals in Canada in 2015. Even so, politics is getting harder whoever is in power. Can the Lib Dems keep up with what is happening in the world today?