Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Gaza, a reflection

Like many people in the UK and elsewhere I've read in newspapers and on line, watched on TV and listened to the radio reports as the latest battles between Israel and the Palestinians trapped in Gaza have unfolded.  I've not said very much, mainly because words fail me in the face of so much inhumanity and suffering.  I'm not a great poet or artist, able to articulate the emotions that swirl around at such times but that doesn't stop me thinking or praying for those involved.
The historic reasons for the conflict go back many decades and I've come to the conclusion that understanding them doesn't help resolve the situation that exists at this time.  Maybe the British government and the UN and the Jews and Arabs who lived in the Middle East 50 or 60 years ago could have done things differently, but they didn't and we have the history that developed from those decisions.
Successive governments in Europe and the USA perhaps could and should have done more to encourage good relations between the countries whose boundaries they helped to create, but they didn't and now the clock can't be turned back.
For sure, the situation cannot continue as it is.  To imprison a couple of million people in an area of land, cutting many of them off from their place of work, taking many of their olive trees and the land on which they grew food for their families, making it extremely difficult for them to carry on their normal lives causes pressures which eventually reach explosion point.  Restricting imports, restricting jobs etc doesn't lead to good relationships with the neighbours.
Hamas seems to have little regard for the welfare of the ordinary Palestinians who struggle to eke out an existence in an area whose natural resources are insufficient for the number of people crammed in there. Their leaders surely cannot believe that they have the power or the ability to remove Israel from the map, so I cannot imagine what goes through their minds when they fire off yet another rocket into Israel to kill or injure civilians.  To do it from areas where their own people are crowded together in cramped living conditions, knowing that the Israeli military response will be disproportionately harmful to Palestinian civilians, is just unbelievably cruel.
But the Israeli government,supported it seems by a majority of Israeli citizens, sees these responses as legitimate.  Somehow they seem able to believe that men, women and chilren whose only wish is to have peace, food on the table, shelter and friends around them, are terrorists who can justifiably be killed in order to defend Israel.  Almost 40 Israelis have died in the last few weeks and in return almost 900 Palestinians have died.  Where's the proportionality?  Where's the justice?  How can that be defence?
In most conflicts for the last hundred years or more, it seems that an end to fighting came about not because one side won outright, but because brave people held talks behind the scenes and eventually got to the point where official talks could start in the public eye.  I pray that there are brave people doing that right now in the middle east.  Israeli people need to be able to go about their work and play in safety, without fear of bombs or missiles.  But so do Palestinian people.  Both sides need to be able to grow crops, build industries, educate their young, take care of the sick, in safety.  Both peoples need to be able to trust their neighbours.  How to reach that point?  No doubt by taking very tiny steps at a time, and by having brave men and women who will lead the way.
Meanwhile we in the UK do not help matters by claiming or implying that the fault is all on one side or the other.  As in all conflicts and especially those with roots as old as this one, there are many shades of grey on both sides.  Cruelty is apparent in the disregard for human life on the part of the Israeli government and of Hamas.  A ceasefire is the first requirement, and then opportunity for humanitarian aid to the thousands of people suffering appallingly.
A hundred years ago this week Europe started out on what became known as the First World War.  It took over four years to reach ceasefire and another thirty plus to reach real peace between the main protaganists. How much longer for Israel and Palestine?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

What I might have said

Last Wednesday I missed the meeting of Stockton Borough Council.  This is not something I do frequently or lightly but because I'd been laid low by a bug of some sort Wednesday was one of those occasions.  The agenda consisted of approving the decisions made by Cabinet the week before (officially known as recommendations but the inbuilt majority of the Labour/IBIS coalition means they're guaranteed a safe passage), debate and vote on a motion put by a Labour member and listening to the cabinet member answer a pre-submitted question from a back bench member, rounded off by the leader giving a summary of the forward plan for the council.
On only one of these items would I definitely have spoken and it would have been to point out the economic illiteracy of the motion proposed.  At first sight the idea of a Financial Transaction Tax might be attractive - extract some money from those who spend their efforts on moving money around instead of doing a "proper job" so that it can be used to reduce the burden on the poor of society.  I've had people encourage me to support such a tax and indeed I read up on it because it did seem like a good idea at first.  I was very quickly disabused though.  What do financially literate people do when faced with a tax charge?  They find a legal way to avoid it, whether by establishing an office overseas or by transferring their business elsewhere.  Witness the outcry over Amazon and other such large corporate entities.  So introducing a Financial Transaction Tax in this country would levy taxation only on those who can't move their transactions elsewhere - it wouldn't raise much if anything in revenue and would take business out of the country and along with it the income tax paid by its employees.
That didn't stop the Labour councillors supporting their colleague of course, especially as the opening paragraphs were the real point of the motion - a bit of coalition bashing always goes down well with Labour in Stockton.
So the only real vote on Wednesday night was to lobby the government to introduce something which it won't touch.  Great example of democracy!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Proud to be a Liberal Democrat

This week's announcement that Liberal Democrat members of the Coalition government are going to be pressing the Conservatives to agree to changes in the Spare Room subsidy (Bedroom Tax) is very welcome.  It's been a long time coming - last Autumn our federal conference agreed a motion which then became party policy to do just that.  Many of us in the front line of local politics knew it wasn't working as intended.  We'd heard from some of our own members about the worry of being reassessed every year to see if their disability entitled them to another year of help.  Imagine having that hanging over you as well as coping with a disability.
The thing that other parties don't seem to get about our party is that we genuinely are democratic.  That motion was based on the evidence in front of the members. We knew that the policy needed to change.  But we also knew that simply stating our party policy wasn't enough to change government policy, where two parties have to agree.  So setting up a review was the right and proper way to go about it.  The report was completed and presented to ministers this week.  It provided the evidence needed.  Now we need the Conservatives to agree to the changes which Liberal Democrats agreed last autumn.
The basic idea of the removal of that subsidy was fair but, and this is crucial, only if there was a real opportunity to move into a smaller property and only if exemptions were fair and carefully thought through.  After a marriage breaks down there is usually a need for both parents to keep in contact with their children and that includes having somewhere for them to sleep on their nights or weekends with the absent parent.  An electric wheelchair needs somewhere to be charged up overnight.  The son or daughter in the armed forces needs to be able to sleep in a bed when they come home on leave to visit parents.  Some medical conditions mean that a couple need two separate bedrooms in order for both to have a night's sleep.  Just some of the examples of the flexibility needed in such a policy.  More were given at our conference.
The review and the report give the government the opportunity to change the policy to make it work much better.  If the Conservatives won't agree in the lifetime of the coalition then it will be a manifesto commitment from the Liberal Democrats next year.
And that's why I'm proud to be a Lib Dem this week - a member of a party which looks at the evidence and is prepared to change its policy to make it fit for purpose.  No stubborn ignoring of the facts, no sweeping them behind the chair.  This need for a policy change was recognised by us last year. North East Lib Dems led the way on it, with Suzanne Fletcher from Stockton and Julie Porksen from Berwick giving moving speeches.  We also knew that we needed independent review to convince our coalition partners and set that in train.  Now we have the report and are acting on it.