Monday, 29 September 2008

Inspiration for Liberal Democrat women

On 27th September the latest “Inspiration Day” was held in London by the Campaign for Gender Balance. These are friendly and informal events, designed to give female members the opportunity to learn more about becoming more active in the Liberal Democrats.

More than fifty women attended Saturday’s session, which included advice on becoming an MP, a Councillor, or a member of one of the Party’s committees. Training on key skills was given and everyone had a chance to contribute and to ask questions.

Commenting afterwards, Layla from Acton said, “I hope we’ll be able to keep in touch and create a support network for one another as we embark on whatever paths we decide to choose.”

Anjeliki from Chingford, said, “Saturday’s meeting was truly inspiring and extremely rewarding. Meeting such dynamic people was a complete surprise.”

Only a quarter of Liberal Democrat approved candidates are women, and just 1 in 7 Lib Dem MPs. The Campaign for Gender Balance was created to seek out, train, mentor and provide practical support to women candidates.

The next Inspiration Day is for the Yorkshire and Humber region, and takes place in Leeds on 18th October 2008, between 10am and 5.30pm.

If you are interested in attending, please contact the Campaign Organiser, Vicky Booth, on or phone 020 7340 4992.

Crossposted from Liberal Democrat Voice, an independent, collaborative website run by Liberal Democrat activists. Helen is a contributing editor at the site.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Nick Clegg: In the family way

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Families come in all shapes and sizes - the Lib Dem bloggers are no exception. On the day of their happy family reunion during party conference, I was among the bunch of blogging Liberal Democrats who interviewed Nick Clegg. And family was very much up for discussion.

Our session began with congratulations on the news that Nick and his wife Miriam are expecting their third child. Nick declared that he is “incredibly happy.”

He continued, “As any prospective parent knows, it’s quite a nerve-wracking process. My main concern is that the pregnancy goes well, the birth goes well: it’s very, very exciting. We’re going to be so utterly exhausted, both of us trying to work and have three young children, but it’ll be wonderful”

Richard (a Daddy himself) pointed out that this was “quite typical of a lot of families nowadays, that both parents are having to work, and the children are the most important thing to them, and they find themselves caught up. Which kind of leads me into my first question: Now that the Labour party have so obviously and painfully surrendered their position, how do we go about convincing people that we are the party that stands up for everyone... the man/woman/family in the street?”

Nick said that “We do that by first identifying what’s harming people, bothering people, holding people back, listen to those concerns, develop the policy that will provide solutions and go out campaigning on them. “ Then he gave us a quick tour of our positions on various subjects such as fuel poverty, education, health and where we can target resources much more effectively towards those people who need it most.

“At a time at which millions of British families are having to tighten their belts, we should be saying that a bloated, centralised Government should have to tighten its belt too.”

On another aspect of family life, we talked about the culture of long working hours, not just in Parliament, but in elections and selection; how attempts are being made to attract more women into candidacy, including those with young children.

I asked Nick, “How can parenthood and politics mix?” and “What can we practically do to encourage more women with children to go for it?”

“We’re still only at the beginning of a culture shift that is necessary. Even I feel as a young father that the political environment as a whole, but frankly if I’m blunt, even our party... they’re just not attuned to the needs of young mothers and fathers. The way meetings are scheduled, the demands on evenings, dinners, weekends... It’s always an afterthought, of, “Oh well, that might be difficult for people with young children. It needs to be right at the core of the way we work.”

“... And I see it with Miriam and myself, it places a huge demand on Miriam, on my kids. It’s not that different to the pressures that many young parents find in working life. But bluntly, we in politics are behind the curve, compared to some of the most enlightened employers in the public and the private sector. I look in envy, when I speak to friends, who work for good public and private sector employers, who help with childcare, provide flexible working, where it’s actually fully integrated into the way they work, and it isn’t with us.”

I asked, “What can we DO?”

Nick: “Well, my hope is that in Westminster, a change of generations, which is now taking place quite rapidly, will lead to a reopening of the debate that went off a bit half-cocked a couple of years ago, about hours. It does come down to time. As any young parent knows, there are lots of commodities that are precious in parenthood. Actually the most precious commodity is time. It is time, time time.

"You don’t have the time to do what you need for your kids, you don’t have time to do what you need for yourself, you don’t have time to do what you need for your work and until Westminster gets to grip with time... If we can’t lead by example, as a political establishment, what kind of hope do we have as a country?

“We need a change in the law. Parental leave is a classic example. So I am being told that I am entitled to no more than two weeks at the beginning of a baby’s life. It’s like....what?!” (Nick has said that he will be taking paternity leave when his next baby is born.)

He described the situation in Greece where they have very progressive parental leave arrangements: parental leave is granted as a block of time, to be divided between parents as they wish. This, said Nick, is exactly what we should be moving towards, ” It’s one of the things, incidentally, that we’ll be debating, in our spring party conference, where we’ll be talking about children and education and childcare, and education from cradle to graduation. I think we need to look at all these things in the round.”

I said that a wider cultural change would definitely be needed, so that mothers are not the only ones expected to be caring for children. (And let's not forget, small children aren’t the only family members who need caring for. You can hardly leave an aging parent or sick partner in a workplace crèche. Or a teenager who’d like your company in the evenings. What is needed is time away from work, during sociable hours: a difficult thing for elected politicians and grassroots campaigners alike.)

Steph Ashley asked Nick for the meaning behind the frequent referral to "families” in the vision and values paper, “Make it Happen.” She hoped that we weren’t “adopting the rhetoric of the other two, paternalistic parties.”

Nick said that he’s aware of the sensitivities surrounding the word, “family” and said that it should be used in a non-exclusive way. I asked whether it had been a dog-whistle to would-be Tory voters but Nick insisted that it was quite the reverse:

“We all live in a web of family relations. Very few people don’t, but... my concept of it is to try and create a language which talks about the kind of relationships that many people have in their lives without trying to impose the moral straitjacket of what a family should look like, as the Conservatives do.”

Richard suggested that we make it clearer: “When we say family, we don’t mean what David Cameron means...a very nuclear, very 1950s vision. The Conservatives do use it as a dog-whistle. We need to reclaim the word.”

It's a big word. It's an old word. It's a buzz word. It's still up for discussion - pregnant (sorry!) with possibilities.

So, family's what you make it? How to facilitate people to make it what they want?

Nick was also interviewed by Steph Ashley, Millennium Dome, Neil Stockley and Alex Wilcock. No one knows how Pink Dog managed to slip in.

Photo by Alex Folkes.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Hashtag taxonomies: the last word in Tweeting?

Wait, come back! It’s me, Helen, and I’m not going to blind you with science – just give you a guide to the craze that swept this year’s Liberal Democrat Conference. Or at least among its Twitter users. By the final day of Conference it had gained national media coverage. Because I slipped it into an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live!

It’s pretty simple: Twitter is a micro-blogging service which lets users send each other text-message-length updates. This can be done by sending an SMS to Twitter, or by logging on to and posting there. Then your friends can follow them on the website, and in some countries (but no longer in the UK) receive a text containing your latest offering.

These short posts are known as 'tweets' and the overall effect is like being surrounded by birdsong; various voices calling back and forth. Bursts of communication that let others know, 'I’m here.'

Friday, 12 September 2008

Ever thought of standing for Parliament?

The new approvals process for Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidates is now up and running in England. (Scotland and Wales will be adopting the process in the near future).

I’m one of the first to have gone through the new scheme, so I thought I’d give the inside track on it – and encourage more people to apply. There are still plenty of vacancies around the country for the role of PPC (Prospective Parliamentary Candidate) and YOU may just be the person to fill one of them!

The new process is designed to be as accessible as possible. It assesses competences rather than qualifications, and an epic and illustrious track record in the Party is not necessary. The previous long and probing application form has been replaced with a much shorter one, so that the onus is on the day itself: this way you get to show off in person what you’re good at. It gives a good snapshot of you as a potential candidate.

So what’s all this about “competences”? That’s just another way of saying “skills” – not connections, degrees, high-flying career, etc. Whatever your hinterland, the assessors are looking for evidence of valuable skills. And it’s up to you how you show them.

The competences you’ll need to demonstrate are:

• Communication Skills
• Leadership
• Strategic thinking and judgement
• Representing people
• Resilience
• Values in action

These can be gained in many areas of life. And let’s face it, we need to see a LOT more diversity among our representatives. So if you’re thinking, “I’m not the type to become an MP or candidate,” then think again. Your unique background and talents may be just the things to bring to the, er, Party!

Maybe you’ve been doing voluntary work, bringing up a family, or doing a job not directly related to politics. Your transferrable skills will be recognised. Make sure you can also show sound knowledge of campaigning and Liberal Democrat policy, and you’ll be equipped.

The Assessment Day itself is split into five sections, with a mixture of written and spoken exercises. I found that this gave the day variety and an interesting change of pace. These also test the six competences from a number of angles, so it’s reassuringly thorough. The panel of assessors collates all your results at the end of the day, and you’ll be notified of the outcome a few days later.

(A quick aside for those who are new to the party: you need to have been a member for at least a year before applying for assessment. However, there’s no need to wait before you start getting experience and information. I recommend that you get cracking as soon as you can, in local campaigns, by-elections, etc. Go along to Party events and training as these are further great ways to meet people who can advise you.)

Well since you’ve read this far, you’re obviously interested: Why not find out more?

Come to the official launch of the new Candidates’ Approval Process at Party Conference in Bournemouth:
Sunday 14th September, 1-2pm at Bayview 2, Bournemouth International Centre.

If you’re not at Conference, or if you’re suitably fired-up afterwards, visit the new Liberal Democrat website for more info on becoming an Approved Candidate. The English Candidates’ Office has a friendly team who can explain the competences in more detail, as well as pointing you towards any training or mentoring you may require.

Send off for an application pack soon, and good luck!

* Helen Duffett is a Liberal Democrat campaigner in the London Borough of Redbridge.

Crossposted from Liberal Democrat Voice, an independent, collaborative website run by Liberal Democrat activists. Helen is a contributing editor at the site.