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PRESS RELEASE: Campaigner highlights need to tackle Hate Crime

A Barwell-based LGBT+ Rights Campaigner has highlighted the need to stand against hate crime, amid reports that homophobic and transphobic hate crimes have risen.

Mathew Hulbert, who is a former Chair of the Leicester LGBT Centre, was active during Hate Crime Awareness Week which takes place each year with an aim of raising awareness about crimes against people based on a real or perceived difference and to stand against those who perpetrate them.

Mr Hulbert, who is the Independent Chair of the Leicestershire Police and Fire Services LGBT+ Independent Advisory Group (IAG), chaired a meeting of the IAG during the week which focused on hate crime and what the police are doing to tackle it, stand up for minority communities and raise awareness of the need for people to be upstanders not bystanders if we see a hate crime taking place, by reporting it to the police.

The meeting began with a minute’s silence in memory of those people who’ve lost their lives as a result of a hate crime.

Mr Hulbert also wrote two articles which highlighted Hate Crime Awareness Week, one for the LGBT+ pages of the Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council website and the other for the County Council’s Leicestershire Equalities Challenge Group (LECG) newsletter.

Mr Hulbert says, “It’s awful to hear that hate crimes are going up and we all need to take a stand against them and stand in solidarity with all minority communities at this time.

“It’s important that such crimes and incidents are reported to the police, so they can be investigated and so the authorities have a fuller and more complete picture of what is going on.

“The message of the week is that there is no place for hate in our society and it is one we will keep repeating. Love trumps hate.”

PRESS RELEASE: Pro-European campaigners say ‘No To No Deal,’ as clock ticks down to deadline

A pro-European campaigner from Barwell has joined with thousands of others up and down the country to say ‘no to deal’ and call on the government to ensure a meaningful deal is secured with the EU to try and mitigate the economic, social and cultural negative impact of leaving the European Union.

Mathew Hulbert took part in the ‘No To No Deal’ day which was held earlier this month, with campaigners taking to social media to make clear that exiting the transition period without a deal would likely be disastrous for the economy and would lead to many, many jobs being lost at what is already a devastating time for the local economy in Hinckley and Bosworth due to the impact of COVID-19.

Photos and videos were posted online, as well as many tweets and Facebook entries, making clear that Boris Johnson and his negotiators must do all they can to achieve a deal and one which is meaningful and ensures, as much as possible, the continuation of rights and social protections which were ensured to UK residents as full members of the EU.

Dr Carol Weaver, Chair of Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland European Movement UK, says “The #NoToNoDeal action day was needed in order to remind our politicians that there is no mandate for a no deal Brexit. Boris Johnson was elected Prime Minister by the promise of an ‘oven-ready’ deal yet there is no deal that can bring the same benefits as membership of the European Union. Now we have left the EU, short of joining EFTA, we shall leave the singe market at the end of the year. The deal being negotiated currently with Michel Barnier is the best we can get for now and we do not want Boris Johnson to turn it down. Nobody wants a no deal Brexit.”

Mr Hulbert, who is the Press Officer, for the Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland European Movement UK, adds “Boris Johsnon and his negotiators must not only prevent a disastrous no deal exit but must ensure that any deal he and they do secure does as much as is possible to mitigate the economic, social and cultural damage that leaving the European Union will do to the UK and its citizens. However, no matter how good this government claims any deal it secures may be, it’ll inevitably not come close to the deal we had as a member of the EU, with all of the protections and guarantees that afforded our citizens, communities and businesses.”

You can follow the Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland European Movement UK on Twitter, via @LeicsEm.

“This will show how similar Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are in policy and actions.” An interview with Irish writer, poet and LGBT+ activist Scott De Buitléir

Scott De Buitléir is an author and poet from the Republic of Ireland.

He’s also the founder of EILE magazine, which focuses on LGBT+ issues.

In our socially distanced interview we talk Ireland’s potential new government, COVID-19, LGBT+ equality, and more.

MH: Scott, thanks so much for doing this interview.

SDB: My pleasure, Mathew! Great to be able to chat with you from across the water!

MH: So, for my readers who may not be aware of yourself and your work, give us a brief bio.

SDB: Of course: I’m a writer, poet, and a somewhat new political activist based in Cork, in the southwest of Ireland. By day, I work in marketing for a tech company, but my academic background is a mixture of media, journalism, and Celtic languages. I’m originally from Dublin, but I’ve lived in Cork for over three years now, having also spent time in Belfast and Nottingham.

MH: Yes, we’ll come back to your days in my own beloved East Midlands later on. And we first were introduced (albeit online) by one of my previous interviewees, the lovely Stephen Donnan-Dalzeil.

SDB: Yes, Stephen has been a wonderful friend of mine since living in Belfast some years ago. We met at first via Twitter, and Stephen quickly became one of my favourite people. I learned a lot about politics, Northern Ireland, and about the region’s unionist community from Stephen.

MH: Yup, Stephen’s great. So, how is lockdown affecting you?

SDB: I’m very conscious of how fortunate my partner and I have been during the lockdown, in that neither of us have lost our jobs, and we’ve been able to work from home without much interruption. Life in lockdown has been interesting for us, however; we had been in the middle of major home renovations when Ireland was placed under lockdown, and we have been living on a building site since! Thankfully, though, we’re slowly making progress, so the only thing I am missing now is the ability to see our families and friends in person. Most of them are in Dublin, some 260km (160 miles) away from Cork.

MH: What are the major differences between how the situation’s been dealt with in Ireland compared to the UK?

SDB: I think the leadership has been different from the very start. Our Taoiseach (prime minister), Leo Varadkar, had been a GP and physician, so his medical knowledge gave an air of competency at first. Ireland was in a precarious situation, in that we had a general election in February, where Varadkar’s Fine Gael party had been given a less secure footing by the electorate. That being said, there was initially a collective political ceasefire for implementing lockdown. Our government’s reaction to the pandemic was not without flaws or oversights, but the messaging was clear from the start: Stay safe at home, check in on each other if you can, and don’t put yourself or others in danger unnecessarily. Looking at it from outside the UK, I became worried for my friends living there, based on the messaging from Westminster. Boris Johnson’s laissez-faire attitude to the virus at first ultimately led him to contracting it himself, and I hoped that his recovery would make him see first-hand the horrific pressure facing health workers, including the PPE situation. Instead, we’ve seen Dominic Cummings effectively prove that the government is not adhering to their own advice for British people, and his continued presence at Number 10 shows a disrespect for those who have sacrificed so much or have lost loved ones. It is a tragedy that over 50,000 Britons have lost their lives to this virus, because I believe so many of them could have been saved sooner.

MH: It’s been interesting seeing how different governments and heads of government have dealt with COVID-19. I think probably Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand has done the best job, but from an outsider’s perspective Varadkar seems to have, broadly speaking, shone in the role.

SDB: If I were to grade Varadkar’s performance during this, I’d probably give him a C+. He has not been perfect, not by a long shot, but it’s not my style to ignore his efforts or good intentions during the situation. Jacinda Ardern would definitely deserve a higher grade, but I don’t doubt that she probably faces some criticism, too.

MH: You’re an activist with the Irish Social Democrats, right?

SDB: I joined the Social Democrats based on my own view that the State must act to protect the vulnerable and not scapegoat them for the sake of middle-class stability. The two are not mutually exclusive, but whereas Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have regularly allowed for less privileged sections of society to suffer, almost as the price to pay for the majority to be better off. I wholly disagree with such a philosophy, and I’m prepared to wait and continue building the party until we can say to the Irish people: “A practical, logical, and expert-vetted alternative is available which doesn’t sacrifice any of us.”

MH: I agree and watch the Soc Dems with interest, especially as I describe myself as a Social Democrat in the Liberal Democrats (the party, of course, having been a merger of Liberals and Social Democrats in 1988) and I’m heavily involved in the Social Democrat Group. I think Social Democracy, at its best, is the best political philosophy there is. But often it’s not communicated very well. How active are you? Would you like to stand for elected office?

SDB: In terms of political philosophy, I believe the best term for my view is Social Liberalism, so in an Irish context, the SocDems are best aligned with my own. I’m an active member of the party, and try to help with my local constituency of Cork South Central where I can. From a policy point of view, my academic expertise is best suited to Irish language and Gaeltacht-region affairs, which enjoys the strange status as being a nationally special but niche area. So, I’d like to improve the party’s standing for Irish speakers, but I leave it to others to use their expertise for areas like health, housing, and education. As for elected office, I’m not sure. I’ve lived in Cork for 3 years now, but I am and always will be a Dubliner. I’ve only moved to the neighbourhood we now live in last year, so I don’t consider my Cork roots to be deep enough to represent the area. I’m also quite introvert at heart, so the idea of canvassing – a ritual all elected politicians would face – is particularly daunting to me. That being said, maybe as I learn more about the party and settle into my new home, things might change in the future.

MH: Tell us more about your writing.

SDB: Ah, a very different topic from politics! I’ve written fiction, non-fiction, and poetry in both English and Irish since I was a teenager, as I’ve always found writing to be theraputic. I’ve four books published in total, with a fifth on the way later this year. My latest book, Forgiving Jake, is a novella based on a young woman whose life is changed when her boyfriend is killed in a car accident. It’s a story about love, loss, and learning to move on from the past. My poetry, meanwhile, deals with a wide range of topics from relationships to civil rights, and from history to love. All my books are available in paperback or eBook format from Amazon, Apple Books, or Goodreads.

MH: People should definitely check them out. And you ran a magazine previously, I believe?

SDB: Yes; in 2013, I launched my own digital publication, called EILE Magazine. “Eile” is the Irish word for ‘other’, and it was meant to provide a different perspective to previously existing LGBT media in Ireland. I ran the magazine as Editor-in-Chief for two years, working with voluntary contributors in Ireland, the UK, and the US. After the Marriage Equality referendum in 2015, I stepped back from EILE to pursue other projects, and my mother took over in the daily running and management of the publication. EILE still continues as a daily news and arts platform for the Irish LGBT community, thanks mostly to my mother and a handful of regular writers, and I’m still very proud of its legacy.

MH: Can I ask you for your response to the news that, subject to the agreement of the respective party memberships, Ireland has a historic new government?

SDB: Although I’m cautious, I welcome the aims in the Programme for Government set out by the three parties, as at first glance, it seems to have a decent balance between social and economic goals. It’s not exactly historic – Ireland has had a 3-party coalition before – but it is a contemporary approach to our country’s needs. Part of me is cynically aware that no government agenda is completed fully, so I would be concerned that the targets influenced by the Green Party may fall down the priority list, but for now, we await the approval of each party’s membership. It will then fall upon Opposition parties to hold the triad to account once the new Dáil is finalised.

MH: Tell me if I’m wrong, but it’s historic in terms of the two old Civil War parties going into government together, right?

SDB: That much is true, yes. This will show how similar Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are in policy and actions, and how they act together will have major implications for the narrative of the next election (whenever that may be). Whereas usually one will attack the other based on their actions in government, with both in power together, it means that neither will be immune from criticism of their roles in government. If this government doesn’t truly satisfy the Irish people over the coming years, then the following general election should surely see a major opportunity for left-leaning parties other than the Greens.

MH: I often have an internal debate with myself on whether, if there’s a chance to govern and enact your policies, parties should always govern whatever the potential electoral consequences. My party, the British Lib Dems, were all but decimated as a result of being part of the 2020-15 UK Coalition Government, and the Irish Greens lost every single one of their Dail seats after their first time in government. What’s your view?

SDB: Ireland may be used to the idea of coalition governments a little more than the UK, but I’ve seen the damage done to the Greens and to Labour here after their work in coalitions. To some voters, their association to the larger parties is seen as selling out their principles in order to gain power, and any genuinely good intentions are dismissed by the cynics (of which there are many, both left and right leaning). It falls upon parties like the Lib Dems, or Alliance in Northern Ireland, or even the Social Democrats in Ireland, not to be deterred from their mission; to call for a fairer, sustainable, equal, and inclusive society for their respective peoples, not allowing for the vulnerable minority to be abandoned for the sake of the majority. Where there is common ground with other parties, that should be explored for government, but the duty of keeping the electorate informed of achievements and challenges, while in coalition, falls on party leadership and organisation. If that information doesn’t get through, the public will be disillusioned and the party may not get the credit it may deserve, as I feel was the case for the Irish Labour party in its last role in government with Fine Gael.

MH: Can I ask to please reflect, as a gay man, on the symbolism and substance of Ireland having had it’s first ‘openly Gay’ head of government? Whatever Leo Varadkar’s politics, that has been significant hasn’t it?

SDB: Yes, but not in the way one might expect. To me, it was more telling of how far our nation has come that Leo’s political actions and stances were criticised far, far more than his sexuality. His being gay was very much a “so what?” moment for the public, which is as it should be. There will always be some ignorant and downright horrid comments on the likes of Twitter from the far-right (of which there’s thankfully few in Ireland, although it doesn’t stop others internationally from chiming in) but generally the last few years have shown that we can and do have openly-gay Councillors, TDs, and Taoiseach. I wish he had been a better advocate for the LGBT community, both before and after he came out, but he cannot be denied his title of being the first openly-gay Taoiseach, and that is a good thing for our country, regardless of his politics.

MH: Does this new likely government give you hope of a better future or not?

SDB: I’m seeing various figures on Twitter make efforts to tear the new Programme for Government apart already, and part of that is good – it shows that people will be quick to notice if something is wrong or not achieved. Personally, I’d rather wait and see what happens next; the members of each party will have to green-light their move into coalition, and then our collective effort – not just in politics, but as a society overall – must be to recover from the pandemic without placing vulnerable sections of society under even more financial and social hardship. All eyes are on what happens next in Leinster House, but every citizen has their own duty of holding all politicians and representatives to account. That is of paramount importance, regardless of who’s in power next.

MH: So, this is Pride month, what’s your assessment on where we stand re LGBT+ rights and equality. We’ve come a long way, but a long way still to go?

SDB: The 2020 Rainbow Europe report from ILGA Europe placed the UK in 9th position in terms of legal and policy practices for LGBT+ people, and Ireland came 15th. That shows that we still have a lot to do. Ireland, for example, still doesn’t have hate crime legislation, which affects much more than just LGBT+ people, and our Asylum-related policies are severely lacking. We also have a duty to call out homophobia beyond our shores, as the horrific conditions in Chechnya and Russia have not gotten better for LGBT people there. As someone who is pro-EU, it worries me a lot when I see news from fellow EU states like Poland and Hungary about homophobic or transphobic attacks. We have certainly made progress, but the fight is not over.

MH: And intersectionality is important, isn’t it? If, for example, you’re BAME, gay and Trans you are very likely to face discrimination on a host of fronts. And, public services don’t seem to have any clue how to help/reassure/protect people who may be vulnerable to hate crime etc. We want to put people in certain boxes and don’t seem to be able to cope when people could be put in several boxes.

SDB: I very much agree. Recent events in the US with the killing of George Floyd have not only caused shock around the world, but they’ve also sparked conversations here about how we perceive and deal with racism. Ireland is still arguably over 90% white, with our largest non-national ‘ethnic’ minorities being from Britain or Poland, so we are not immune to abject racism by any means. Even the most well-intentioned of us have a journey to go on in order to support others of one or multiple different communities, and it starts by listening to the experiences of others.

MH: Absolutely. So, just a couple more questions. Tell me, how did you end up in my university city, Nottingham, and how did you like my beloved East Midlands?

SDB: My partner was living in Nottingham when we started dating, and for the first 18 months, we had a long-distance relationship between Dublin and Nottingham. Then, when it was clear that he couldn’t move back to Ireland yet (as he’s also a Dubliner), I decided to move to England instead. We lived in Nottingham for another 18 months or so, until my partner was given the opportunity to relocate to Cork with his job. I loved my time in the East Midlands, and I made some life-long friends from my time in Nottingham. My partner and I love to travel, and we took advantage of exploring England whenever we had a weekend free; including visiting Leeds, Manchester, beautiful rural Leicestershire, Derby, and Warwickshire. I had a wonderful time in Nottingham, and love the atmosphere of the city, especially around the artistic Hockley district, and where we lived in West Bridgford. We still own an apartment there, so thankfully we have a reason to return every so often and catch up with friends while in town.

MH: And we still didn’t manage to actually meet! 🙂

SDB: If anything, I’ve proven to my friends and colleagues in Notts that it’s usually very cheap and easy to fly from East Midlands to Dublin! I did it once a month at least while living there, so now I’m keeping an eye on when my English friends can visit me for a change – once normality returns!

MH: Well, maybe I’ll have to pay a trip when things return to some kind of normality!

SDB: There will be a “céad míle fáilte” (hundred thousand welcomes) awaiting you when you do!

MH: Hahahahaha. You are a charmer. Thanks for your time today, Scott, and very best wishes for all that you’re involved in.

SDB: Thanks for the chat, Mathew, it’s been lovely to catch up.

 

 

“There has been a vicious campaign against Trans women.”A special interview, marking IDAHoBiT, with Baroness Liz Barker

Baroness Liz Barker was made a life peer representing the Liberal Democrats in 1999.

She is the party’s Lords Spokesperson for LGBT+ issues and the Voluntary Sector.

Baroness Barker is also a Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Global LGBT+ Rights and is involved with a number of LGBT+ charities.

For many years she worked for Age Concern.

Earlier this week, to mark today’s International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHoBiT), I conducted a socially distanced interview with Liz, who I’ve known for many years and worked with on various issues around LGBT+ equality.

We talked COVID-19, LGBT+ equality, being an ‘Out’ Parliamentarian, and more!

MH: Thanks for doing this interview. I’d like to begin with the present crisis. How has it affected you, both on a personal level and in terms of your work as a member of the upper house?

LZ: Thank you, Much to my surprise I coped better with lockdown than I expected.  I had to isolate for the first two weeks, and I set up my office on the kitchen table.  I love reading and had expected to get through tons of books, but I have struggled to get through two. I was doing a fair bit of exercise, and I need to get back to that. Last week the government and the House authorities unilaterally proposed huge cuts to Lords expenses.  Crucially they’re only paying us for days on which we speak.  They don’t pay us for days in which we do preparation or research, or meet government ministers or lobby groups.  So for those of us who are working peers our income has gone down by about 95%  and that limits our capacity to hold the government to account. Peers have worked hard to learn new tech platforms, and are doing their best in a virtual parliament to hold the government to account, but it is not satisfactory.  Yesterday I asked the Health Minister why he said that COVID 19 deaths in care homes have always been included in official figures, when the government advice in March was that people in care homes would be unlikely to be infected, and day after day the nation watched ministers and officials cited the number of deaths  in hospitals.   The Minister didn’t answer and there was no chance to go back at him. Today when Keir Starmer did the same to the Prime Minister the whole country saw another barefaced Johnson lie. So it is frustrating that when the government has taken sweeping powers and limited civil liberties, which was necessary, they should be open to greater scrutiny, but that is being stymied.

MH: When I recently interviewed Baroness Natalie Bennett she suggested that the necessity of having to find remote ways of working during this crisis will lead, when things return to some kind of normality, to fundamental changes to how Parliament works. Do you agree with that? It sounds like there can be significant restrictions in regards to holding government to account when not physically in the chamber.

LB: I agree that there will be changes, and some of them will be better, greener I hope, and could make Parliament more  inclusive.  But at the moment, rather like the Downing Street  press conference, it is frustrating to see Ministers spouting scripted answers which don’t answer the questions and serious points which peers are making.  In the physical proceedings, and in a hybrid to a certain extent you do.  If we are not careful we could be paving the way for authoritarian governments to go largely unchallenged and that would be wrong.

MH: I know there’s been surveys looking at how the crisis might have particularly affected LGBT+ communities, some of whom can already feel marginalised in their families/communities. Do you feel, as with poorer and BAME communities, that LGBT+ people are affected in a particular way?

LB: Yes I do. Recently I was honoured to join the board of GiveOut the charity which raises funds for LGBT campaigners and human rights defenders around the world.  We launched a COVID 19 emergency response fund and the first grant was made to an LGBT+ organisation in Asia which is busy making sure that people have access to HIV meds,  support to people locked up with unsympathetic families or abusive partners. We are a community which is perhaps more reliant than others on  the  support of chosen families, and in many places, unlike Leicester with its great LGBT centre, we have traditionally relied upon commercial bars and clubs to meet.  I do fear that many of those businesses will be under severe pressure for some time. That said, it is always the case that visible minorities are the ones who suffer most, so now is the time for us to show solidarity with those for whom life is tougher than others.

MH: It does appear that some authoritarian regimes in parts of the world are using this crisis as an excuse to crackdown on LGBT+ communities in various ways. Is this something the APPG on Global LGBT+ Rights, which I know you are very involved in as a Vice Chair, is/will be looking at? Do you know how aware of these attacks on LGBT+ communities the Foreign Office is?

LB: Yes indeed. In Hungary Viktor Orban’s use of  powers he took because of COVID 19 to end gender recognition was an abuse of human rights. Abuse of police powers to harass LGBT people in Uganda was another. At a time when the lack of  world leadership from the USA, Russia and China is woeful, it is very important that sympathetic governments keep their focus on justice (and) equality for all, including our community.  Officials in the FCO, and DfID are aware of the vulnerabilities of LGBT communities.  In recent years the UK Government has helped to defend people, for example in Commonwealth countries, but given the recent statement by the Minister Liz Truss to the Women and Equalities Committee, I don’t think this Conservative government can be relied on to do the right thing.  I fear that the nasty party is back.

MH: Turning to the position re LGBT+ Rights more generally, it seems there is increasing hostility towards some members of our communities; especially Trans, non binary and gender fluid individuals. This interview will be published on IDAHoBiT day. How important is having a day focused on us standing against those who peddle hatred towards LGBT+ people? The theme this year is ‘breaking the silence.’ Many LGBT+ people still do live their lives having to keep their sexuality/gender identity secret in certain situations, don’t they?

LB: Yes,  I   work closely with trans groups, intersex groups and non-binary people.   When the government’s LGBT Action plan was published there was some optimism that long overdue legal reform would happen. Sadly for the last three years there has been a vicious campaign against trans women. It is orchestrated by extreme right wingers from the US, but it is perpetrated by people, many of them women, who are traditionally on the left.  Despite a stark lack of evidence, the constant assertions that trans women pose a threat to other women are fanned by journalists. We are not talking about the usual suspects like the Mail and the Murdoch sheets, media such as the Guardian and the BBC have endlessly and relentlessly given credence to views which on any other subject would be subject to journalistic scrutiny and dismissed. Worst of all,  lesbians and gay men, many of whom know what it is like to be subject to discrimination and misrepresentation, are now subjecting trans women to that same unfair treatment. That is utterly disgraceful.

MH: You’re one of the most high-profile LGBT+ Parliamentarians and do a huge amount for our communities. What is life like as an Out Parliamentarian? Are there still those who are negative about it?

LB: That is the case at the moment, and I hope it can remain so. I wasn’t able to come out for many years for personal reasons.  To work every day under the threat of being outed took a toll on me, but also friends and colleagues who worried for me.  When I could come out I did and I decided to use my position and influence to make life better for others, especially those who still face discrimination in their communities.  There are now more LGB parliamentarians, sadly no trans MPs or peers yet, but I do hope that the brilliant campaigner Helen Belcher can break that barrier. I co-founded the APPG on Global LGBT Rights and, despite current restraints on the Lords imposed by government, I hope to continue that work. And I have worked a lot on building LGBT issues into discussions about equalities, especially with parliamentarians from abroad.  I try to help activists from other countries too. I consider it my duty to help as many groups and activists from our communities to engage effectively with parliament and government. I hope that I can continue to do this work, because in this COVID world I think it is more necessary than ever, because since Brexit there has been a rise in intolerance of minorities and that is unhealthy, for everyone.

MH: And, finally, I appreciate party politics isn’t the top priority for anyone at the moment or, at least, shouldn’t be, but how do you think the Lib Dems are faring at present? We feel a little bit direction-less at the moment, in my opinion. How do we regain the success of the local and European elections a year ago?

LB: I am writing this just before the publication of the view of the 2019 General Election, which I have not seen. I contributed to that via an article which I wrote for Liberator in which I was forthright about the failures our campaign, who should take responsibility. In the current political situation we are doing what a responsible opposition party should do. We support the Government when it does the right thing to fight the virus e.g. giving resources to the NHS and  being critical when it doesn’t e.g. not giving resources to local government to get PPE and staff to care homes. I also think that Ed has rightly identified the failure to support small business, and the need to build environmental concerns into every stage of the recovery. Liberal Democrats have always been the champions of liberty and empowerment of local communities and those two things will be of huge importance as society works out what is the new normal.  Moreover we are the party which sees the importance of working locally, nationally and internationally to build security and resilience.  The challenge for all of us is to communicate a vision of a future in which there is security and hope for everyone.  I am confident that if we keep listening to people in our communities and devising solutions to the economic and social problems which this pandemic has exacerbated, we will win through.

MH: Thanks again, Liz, and best wishes for IDAHoBiT (when this will be published.)

LB: Thank you. You too.

My next interviewee will be former Labour MP, Andy Reed. 

 

“Just because Labour and the Tories have been the two largest parties for a century doesn’t mean that is going to continue” An interview with Baroness Natalie Bennett, former Green Party leader

Natalie Bennett (Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle) is only the second ever Green Party member of the House of Lords.

She was the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales from 2012 to 2016.

She is the party’s Spokesperson on Rural Affairs, Wildlife and Habitats.

Natalie was born and raised in Australia and previously worked as a journalist.

Last week I conducted a socially distanced interview with her.

We talk COVID-19, building a new economy post the crisis, life as a green peer, the future of the Green Party, and more.

MH: Hi Natalie, Thanks, again, for agreeing to this interview for my blog. So, to begin with, I’d like to focus on the present crisis. Before turning to the politics of it, can I ask what impact it’s had on you personally and in regards to your role as a Member of the Lords? It’s forced the Upper Chamber to embrace more technology than usual, I believe?

NB: Personally, I’m very privileged by having a house and a garden (and an allotment that’s something less of a jungle now than it would normally be). I think of people in cramped flats and overcrowded houses, and know how lucky I am. And having been an only child, with no brothers or sisters, I’m very used to being on my own. The House of Lords, to give credit where credit due, although a lot of members – some in hope perhaps  rather than prediction – said virtual sitting couldn’t be done, has done a good job of switching to partial virtual operation. Last week we did questions, statements and debates virtually, with a recording posted later and the full record on Hansard, and from today it is going to be online through parliament TV. It is easy for people to mock the occasional hiccup and mistake, but many lords have embraced the technology, even those who hadn’t previously, and come a long way very quickly. Huge credit to the staff  who have done a mighty job of remote training. We’re still got to get online voting going, meaning debates on Bills could be done with virtual participation, but I believe the Commons has just about got that sorted, so hopefully we’ll just use that technology. There is going to be resistance to going fully virtual, but I can see no reason why we shouldn’t, and there’s a real problem of power imbalance if ministers and shadow ministers are in the House and questioners around the country.

MH: And do you think, post the pandemic, that things will just reverse to as before in regards to the way Parliament operates? Or, as I’d certainly hope, the forced changes will lead to the permanent modernisation of our democracy?

NB: I’ll divide that into two parts – the practical and the revolutionary. On the practical points, once we’ve had remote voting and participation, the arguments for that continuing are going to be immensely powerful. Once it has been shown to be possible, any kind of equalities assessment – for people with disabilities, those with caring responsibilities and just those who live at the ends of the country – would surely insist that it be allowed to continue. And it is going to raise real questions about the massively expensive plans for refurbishment of the Houses of Parliament and our return there. Why not turn it into a museum and put us in a new, modern, technology-equipped facility not in London? On the more structural side, the utter failure of our system to deal effectively with coronavirus, to plan for a known, highly damaging threat, the weakness of a government utterly dependent on one man and the impact of his illness, is surely going to massively build the demand for making the UK a functional democracy. That we have far too much power and resources centralised in Westminster, and insufficient in local communities, that the government is not representative of the people and has scant awareness of life in much of the country (e.g. the focus on drive-through testing when so many workers don’t have cars), is surely going to be a major part of the postmortem, and the opportunity to deliver the massive changes needed – proportional representation in the Commons and the Lords, massive decentralisation of power and hopefully a rethink of political culture.

MH: You’ve touched on it there, but can I ask you what you make of how the government has and is handling this crisis? I don’t envy Ministers at this time but, equally, I think there’ll need to be an independent inquiry looking into how they dealt with the pandemic once it is over. I mean, for one thing, why did it take so long for us to go into lockdown…when other countries did so weeks before?

NB: The whole coronavirus crisis is going to be a marathon not a sprint, and what individual decisions turn out to have been right or wrong will only be known with hindsight. But we can see the massive failures in preparations for resilience – not just the lack of PPE stores and the fact (internationally) that efforts to develop vaccines against MERS and SARS, which would have given us a head-start on a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, were abandoned, but also the problems with food distribution and the impact of under-funding on the NHS, social care and other support services. Zero-hours contracts, people on low insecure pay, having to go to work or starve, the rightful fear of dealing with Universal Credit and its inadequacy, all of these things created spaces for the coronavirus to spread. We need to look at not just narrow medical issues, but the social and economic factors.

MH: A number of commentators and others are suggesting that among the things that will never be the same after this crisis will be our economy, that how we look at our economy, what and who is prioritised will have to change and that we’ll finally see public services properly funded. Do you think that is more a hope than a likely reality, or do you think that a genuine shift-across our politics-has taken place? And if change is set to come, what would you like to see that change be?

NB: History is not pre-written, but made. It is clear coronavirus is going to have massive impacts and create enormous change, but what direction they will go in depends on all of us. The society we created, deeply unequal and poverty-ridden, dominated by multinational companies, built to deliver maximum profit rather than resilience and security, was not inevitable. That’s the product of choices in the past, but we can make different choices in the future. And there are clearly the seeds of a positive future taking root now. The understanding that it is the underpaid, insecurely employed, previously little-respected works who are the key workers in our society. The enjoyment of our cleaner air and quieter roads, even hearing bird song that was previously drowned out by traffic, is making people think about how to keep these changes. And there’s clearly going to be a shift towards more working from home and less travel, which also has the potential to help rebuild stronger local, decentralised economies – restoring village shops, helping keep local independent suburban coffee shops going and not leaving empty suburbs and towns occupied for most of the time by only the isolated older residents. People may be less forced into crowded, chain-dominated city centres and able to stop commuting long, uncomfortable distances. There was already a big debate about the food we eat and how we use our precious land. Covid-19 is going to push along the debate about growing more food locally, about growing varied foods, particularly fruit and vegetables, and ensuring all have access to it.

MH: You mention the cleaner air levels, especially in our big cities, during this crisis. And, obviously, there’s many fewer planes in the sky. What long-term impact do you think this period will have on the fight against potentially catastrophic Climate Change?And, speaking more generally, what do you make of this government’s alleged commitment to tackling Climate Change?

NB: There has been a sudden drop in carbon emissions. (There’s a good article here for anyone interested in more: https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/environment-and-conservation/2020/04/carbon-emissions-are-falling-sharply-due-coronavirus-not-long) But it is a drop in the ocean compared to our accummulated emissions that have now taken the global temperatures pretty well to 1.2 degrees above pre-industrial levels – this year already looks likely to globally be another very hot, maybe record, one. There are two chief causes for hope, however. One is that the pace at which human societies can change and adapt has been demonstrated in the pandemic – “we can only make that climate improvement over a couple of decades” is an argument that just isn’t going to wash any more. The other is that there is clearly going to have to be massive government investment after the epidemic is contained or beaten, and that means a chance to implement a Green New Deal. With renewables now the cheapest form of energy, storage and smart grid management coming along in leaps and bounds, and a real desire for movement towards agroecology and away from industrial methods, now is a great time for that to happen. I spent four hours last week chairing a Westminster Forum event on domestic energy efficiency (and yes four hours is too long to chair), but it was fascinating to hear how much knowledge, understanding and possibilities there is in this area, even though progress has been stalled by government failure, particularly in England. (Wales and Scotland are doing better although still not nearly well enough). And this is a total “no-brainer” area – giving everyone a warm, comfortable, affordable to heat home has great social and health advantages, as well as environmental.I wrote about the positives and practicalities of the COP26 postponement here: https://greenworld.org.uk/article/cop26-delayed-change-coming

MH: Can I please ask you about your role in the Lords? I was really pleased to hear about your appointment because I think more Green voices are needed in Parliament, but it must seem a bit strange to be a member of a House which the Green Party wants to see reformed/abolished. Do you hope to achieve reform from the inside?What have been your initial thoughts about how the Lords/Parliament works? And, can you please give us a sense of a regular day as a Peer (pre-COVID19, that is)?

MH: Thank you. The first thing that I did after my maiden speech was to visit the Bills Office with my private House of Lords (Elections and Reform) Bill (https://services.parliament.uk/bills/2019-21/houseoflordselectionsandreform.html) and I did modestly well in the ballot for the latest parliament, with hopes of a Second Reading of it. So of course I keep pushing on that every chance I get, and talk more broadly about the need to make the UK a democracy. A couple of weeks after I was introduced, a fellow peer lent over to me in the chamber and said they could see that as certain peers always talk about submarines, or trees, or learning disabled children, I was always going to be talking about democracy. And of course as I said in my maiden speech (https://www.nataliebennett.org/latest/maiden-speech-in-the-house-of-lords), I bring the politics of the anti-fracking protesters and the Sheffield tree protection groups into the Lords – so many of the things I say are a bit shocking to many members. But what I aim to do is comply with the small matters – say remembering as best I can to refer to bishops as “the right reverend prelate”, while being prepared to ask the government “what will you do to end our growth dependency?”, a question the Minister clearly found shocking (https://www.politicshome.com/thehouse/article/the-government-must-reduce-the-growth-dependency-of-our-economy). A typical day in the House might run: a couple of morning APPGs (all-party political groups on, for e.g. Limits to Growth and Immigration Detention; hearing from experts, absorbing reports and information and discussing what parliamentary steps might be taken), doing a supplementary question to an Oral Question in the House (the part where you have to bounce up and down shouting “my lords, my lords” to get in), meeting a minister to talk about an amendment to a bill that you are promoting, then taking part in a debate on a Bill that might start at 5pm and finish around 10pm. If you are making a speech you generally have to be at the start and the wrap-up, and “a substantial part” of the rest of the debate, so that’s a big time commitment. On Thursdays there are debates on subjects put forward by parties or individual peers,  which often are very good quality and well-informed – e.g. the one done last week virtually on prisons and COVID-19 (https://hansard.parliament.uk/lords/2020-04-23/debates/C4CE65CE-796D-4E65-BD4E-B0FA0FAFF863/Covid-19PrisonsAndOffenderRehabilitation)

MH: Well, I look forwarded to following your progress in the Lords in the coming years. Finally, can I ask you about the Green Party’s future. How does the party build from here? Do you think there’s an opportunity for it, given Keir Starmer’s election, to be a progressive force to the Left of Labour? And I’m a big supporter of a progressive alliance…do you think Labour will finally agree to such an arrangement with the Green Party and the Lib Dems at the next election?

NB: I have long been saying that the future of politics doesn’t look like the past, but even I didn’t envisage the dramatic nature of the past few years. Just because Labour and Tory have been the two largest parties for a century doesn’t mean that is going to continue. There is a lot of focus on the troubles of the Labour Party, but the Tory Party, which has seen a populist, far right takeover, and a rapidly ageing, shrinking membership means that anything now is possible. I think we will see electoral reform, and hence a very different political landscape, but even without that, maybe soon the Tories will implode and you’ll see Labour and Green as the two main forces. Even in the current circumstances, the European election demonstrated our base level of support at around 10%, when the vote isn’t suppressed by first-past-the-post. That’s a great foundation to quickly get to another level. Will Labour agree an electoral arrangement? I very much doubt it. What really matters is that they acknowledge the urgent need for electoral reform – if the next Commons is elected with a majority on that manifesto, then we really can bring the British Parliament out of the 19th century and into the 21st.

MH: Thank you, again, for your time Natalie.

NB: My pleasure, thank you.

My next interviewee is Andy Reed OBE, former Labour MP for Loughborough.

“The rise of nationalism everywhere has left us less able to tackle this crisis” An interview with Cllr Lucy Nethsingha, former Lib Dem MEP

Councillor Lucy Nethsingha is leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Cambridgeshire County Council.

She served as a Lib Dem Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from July 2nd 2019 to January 31st 2020 (when the UK left the European Union.)

Whilst an MEP Lucy chaired the Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI.)

Towards the end of last week I conducted a socially distanced with Lucy.

We talk COVID-19, local government, Brexit, youthwork and more!

MH: Lucy, thanks so much for speaking to me for my blog.

LN: It’s a pleasure.

MH: For readers who may not be aware, please give us a brief bio of your political career so far.

LN: I’ve been a Lib Dem Councillor for about 20 years, first in Gloucester and now for over 10 years in Cambridge, where I’m the Leader of our County Council group of 17. Last year I had the huge privilege of being an MEP and Chair of the JURI committee. I’m also the Lead Member for children on the LGA.

MH: We’ll get in to some of that a bit more shortly, but first the issue which is affecting just about every human being on the planet right now; COVID19. Firstly, what impact is it having on you personally? Obviously in lockdown right now, as we all are.

LN: Yes I’m at home with my family. I have 3 children who are all feeling the impact in different ways. Emily is having to miss her last term at university and doing revision for finals with no access to libraries. Peter’s A levels are off, Helena has loads of online school. I am shopping for several elderly neighbours and trying to keep up with Council work. It’s all quite strange!

MH: Yes, it’s the weirdest experience I can remember. Is your Council coping well? I take it, just like my parish council, that it means online meetings etc? And lots of added demand for already stretched services?

LN: The County Council has moved to on-line meetings. I’m not impressed with their format as they have chosen to limit public speaking almost entirely. As an upper tier Council their main focus is keeping the social care system functioning and making sure that people can leave hospital as soon as possible. My local district councils are doing an amazing job of supporting residents.

MH: Let’s turn to the national picture. I wonder if you feel the same as me, lots of sympathy with Ministers and civil servants having to deal with this crisis…but also mounting anger at the needless delay to the start of lockdown and the apparent inability to get PPE to frontline and key workers?

LN: I think more anger than sympathy I’m afraid. I’ve seen what the Conservatives have done to our public health system over the past 5 years, along with the massive cuts to Councils providing social care. The NHS has done an incredible job to try to get into a position to cope with this pandemic but the failings in the system were there for all to see before this came along. I’d also like to add that the huge cuts to Universal credit mean that there is no safety net there for thousands of people who are going to lose their jobs. On PPE, that was clearly flagged as a major issue in the investigation in 2016, but the government was so focused on Brexit they did nothing and let our stocks run down.

MH: Yes, I admit my sympathy is very thin now. And I agree I think lots of Tory chickens are now coming home to roost, if I can put it that way. Do you think this will lead to fundamental change in how we think about our economy, public services and so on? And, if so, what would you change if you could?

LN: I hope so, I think there are a number of factors, which combined with Covid-19 mean it is time for a fundamental review of the way our social safety net works. It is clear that Universal Credit has been cut to the level where it no longer provides any security for people moving in and out of work. As the IT and on-line revolution continues, combined with advances in Artificial Intelligence, it seems to me that the whole way we work is likely to change. We are seeing more and more people working multiple jobs, sometimes through choice and sometimes because the income from one simply isn’t enough. I was really pleased to see the level of cross party support for a Universal Basic Income. This may be the way we can offer people security in the future. There is a lot of discussion to be had first though, as UBI means different things to different people. I also think we urgently need to see a major transformation in our energy use, and the amount of carbon we burn. This Covid-19 enforced working from home is likely to lead many more people to want to work from home more in future, and that may be a very good thing. We may have a short time to make big progress on climate change which is urgently needed!

MH: As you say you’re our children’s lead on the LGA and, I know, have a long association with the Lib Dem Education Association, what do you think this will mean longer term for education and, a passion of both of ours, youth services? In terms of how services are delivered but also the lasting impact on mental health etc?

LN: I think that’s a really interesting question. There will clearly be a big move to more on-line learning, which could be a good thing in many cases, but also risks increasing the already wide educational divide in this country between those with good internet access and those who don’t. We need to be very wary of an increase in educational inequality as a result of this lockdown. I am concerned that Youth Services will continue to be the poor relation. I had been hopeful that some of the messages about the importance of youth services in helping with mental health issues were getting through. I am now worried that this important story will get lost in the urgent need to get the economy back on track after this lock down. I hope I am wrong on that. Youth services have so much to offer in helping young people not only to stay strong and healthy, mentally and physically, but also to support them into sensible career paths.

MH: Absolutely. And I look forward to continuing to campaign with you and others on that issue. Turning now to Europe, do you think our response to this crisis would have been better, certainly in terms of PPE, had we still been in the EU?

LN: I think this is a crisis where the whole world needs to work together to make sure that knowledge is shared and things like PPE get to the place they are most urgently needed. All international institutions help with things like this, and one of the tragedies of Brexit is that it damages not just the UK but the EU as well. The rise of nationalism everywhere has left us less able to tackle this crisis. It is really shocking that the UK government chose not to take part in the EU procurement scheme because of Brexit, but in the long view it is the weakening of so many of our international institutions which will be more tragic. The weakening of the World Health Organisation, the weakening of the UN, and the weakening of the EU all lead to countries fighting each other rather than working together to tackle issues like this virus. Brexit is part of that, but so is Trump, and the nationalists in Italy and Hungary. It is hard to know how much of that comes from Russian intervention and fake news, but there are certainly big issues with both.

MH: Give us a flavour of your time as an MEP.

LN: It was the most amazing experience. The European Parliament was an incredibly inspiring place to work. Seeing close up politicians working together in their various political colours, rather than sitting as nations, was really wonderful. There is nowhere else in the world that happens, and it is amazing for building relationships. I now have wonderful friends from so many different countries. I was also incredibly lucky to Chair a Committee while I was there. Through that I got to work closely with politicians from all the other political parties in the European Parliament, and with ministers from across Europe, attending the Conference of Justice Ministers in Finland. The EU institutions are very complex, which I think is one reason why they are so badly covered by the British press, but they are complex for good reasons. There are lots and lots of detailed conversations about any change, which makes the EU seem slow to respond, but also means many voices are heard and problems are seen early. It is very different from our adversarial politics, and people hear find it hard to understand, but I think we have a huge amount to learn from the way the European Parliament works! I think the most inspiring things about being there were the people I got to know. The other Renew Europe MEPs were wonderful people. Katalin and Anna from Hungary are two who I found particularly impressive. They are part of a new political party there, trying to hold Victor Urban to account. That is a risky job at the best of times. Katalin is also a qualified doctor, and has gone back to work in a hospital at the moment. Very very brave women!!

MH: What are the prospects longer term, do you think, of us rejoining? And how do we keep close links in the meantime?

LN: I think keeping close links now is crucial, and am utterly horrified by the government’s determination to push ahead and not ask for an extension in June. It is madness and will leave many more jobless next year. I feel sure we will re-join at some point in the future, but the question really is how much damage will be done to our country in the interim. If the Conservatives push forward with a very bad deal or no-deal in January the break-up of the UK seems increasingly likely, with some parts re-joining sooner than others. I am still so angry about the Brexiteers like Farage and Rees-Mogg who have EU passports, and have led us down this path, but kept their own route back clear.

MH: I absolutely agree. The Lib Dems didn’t reap the rewards of being the most pro-Remain party, however. Why do you think that is?

LN: We did in the EU elections, which are proportional, and perhaps give a better idea about how people would like to vote in a different voting system. The December election was the most presidential election the UK has ever seen, with the first TV debate with only two leaders. The public felt they had to choose between Corbyn and Johnson, however much we tried to persuade them otherwise. Changing our voting system has always been a key Lib Dem aim, and failing to get any change to our political system during the coalition must be regarded as one of its biggest failings.

MH: And finally, within the system we presently have (which, I agree, needs to change) what can/should the Lib Dems do to re-connect with voters?

LN: I think we need to re-build our local government base, which we probably always needed to do. We did well in local council elections last year, and the Lib Dem run councils I am connected to are doing an amazing job supporting their residents in this current crisis. I know a huge number of Lib Dem councillors are supporting their communities in so many ways now, and I hope they will be recognised for doing that in elections next year. The next General Election is a few years away now, so we need to take the time to re-focus on delivering for people locally, while also working with other opposition parties to hold this government to account in Westminster. Covid/Brexit aftermath is going to dominate in Westminster, and we will need to work with others to make sure Boris Johnson and his cabinet take responsibility for their actions not just now but since 2015.

MH: Thanks for your time, Lucy.

LN: My pleasure, thanks Mathew.

My next interview is with the former leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, Baroness Natalie Bennett. 

 

“Jacinda Ardern’s very popular here…but her government is frankly a shambles.” An interview with former New Zealand Government Minister Peter Dunne.

Peter Dunne was a Member of Parliament in New Zealand from 1984 to 2017, first for the Labour Party then for a number of centrist parties; primarily the liberal United Future Party, which he led from 1996 to 2017.

He held Ministerial office, in both Labour and National-led governments for a total of fourteen years, making him one of the longest serving Ministers.

He’s now a political commentator on TV and radio and writes regular columns.

Towards the end of last week I conducted a socially distanced interview with Peter.

We talk COVID-19, Jacinda Ardern, the future of liberal politics, and more!

MH: Peter, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for my blog.

PD: My pleasure!

MH: For my readers who may not be geeks about politics in New Zealand like I am, please give us a potted history of your parliamentary career.

PD: I was a New Zealand MP from 1984 until I stood down in 2017. Until 1994 I was a Labour MP, after that I represented United and then UnitedFuture from 1995 onward. I was party leader 1996-2017, and served as a Minister in Labour-led governments in 1990 and 2005-2008 and National-led governments in 1996; 2008-13; and 2014-17. UnitedFuture was a sister party to the Liberal Democrats but was very small – form many years I was its only MP, and with my retirement the party lost its representation in Parliament and has subsequently disbanded.

MH: We’ll talk more about your political career shortly, but first the present crisis which is effecting us all wherever we are in the world. Before we talk about the politics of it, how’s the situation affecting you? I take it there’s a lockdown in New Zealand, as here?

PD: We have been in full lockdown since March 25, and will move to a slightly reduced level on Monday next for a further two weeks, with a possible relaxation after May 11, although I think that is unlikely. Total New Zealand cases are just over 1400, currently growing by 5-6 a day, with 14 deaths. Because we are an isolated island with sealed borders – and a long way tom go to reach anyone else – the overwhelming of cases here have been come from travellers returning home. There is virtually no community transmission here.

MH: Obviously very different population numbers and countries and, of course, any death is a tragedy for the person involved and their families and friends, but I still must ask, from a UK perspective, what your country is doing differently to ours to see such small numbers of cases and deaths?

PD: I am not sure we are doing all that much differently. Perhaps we started sooner. However, I think what singles New Zealand out is that our population distribution is quite sparse by European standards. While our country is far larger in size than the UK, for example, we have only 4.8 million people. So, I think it has been easier to isolate people than in Europe. Also, the distance factor means that although our annual tourist intake was about 4 million people, it was nowhere as constant or large as Europe, for example.

MH: I believe you’ve described the lockdown as ‘Orwellian,’ is that right? Because, in such a situation, Ministers have much fewer powers than civil servants in New Zealand?

PD: Yes, I said it was Orwellian because Parliament has been suspended (it will resume next week); the government has proclaimed a state of emergency giving full power to the Director of Civil Defence and Emergency Management, the Director General of Health and the Commissioner of Police to run things; and there have been government advertisements in the newspapers and on television encouraging people to “dob in” anyone they suspect of breaching the lockdown. There has even been advice from the PM about what foods we should be buying at the supermarket, and which products we should be avoiding as non-essential, and part of the government messaging over Easter weekend, was for people not to drink too much! At the same time, the public tolerance for any criticism of the lockdown has become extreme. Dissenting opinions from academics and clinicians have been roundly attacked, and people like me have been accused of being “disloyal” and “encouraging civil disobedience” simply for asking questions. I have had a lot of negative responses by email and on social media for my public comments, although I have to say the positive responses outweigh them by at least ten times. I am genuinely surprised that New Zealanders who tend to like to do their own thing have fallen in so quickly and completely with the lockdown. The “we’re in all this together” mentality has really taken hold, perhaps not all that surprising for a country like ours that has such a passion for team sports!

MH: Speaking of dissenting voices, I believe the Opposition Leader Simon Bridges (leader of the Nationals, NZ’s main Centre-Right party) has been heavily scolded by members of his own party for a Facebook post criticising the handling of the crisis, is that right? Not an easy time to be an opposition leader, this. I know new UK Labour leader Keir Starmer is trying to keep the balance right. What would be your advice to both men?

PD: Yes, that seems to be so. He was criticised for saying the government was moving too slowly and not doing enough to help affected businesses get back on their feet. It is a very difficult for an opposition leader right now. The additional factor in New Zealand is that we are due for a general election on 19 September which the PM says is still going ahead., so the Opposition which has been starved of oxygen for weeks now is looking for a way forward. (Remember, as recently as early March polls were showing it on track to win the election – now private polls suggest the Labour Party will win hands down, without the need for any coalition partners.) I think the way forward for National here is to paint Labour as the party that managed the crisis, while they (National) are the party that can manage the future. as they did after the GFC a decade ago. It’s like Churchill winning the war, but Attlee winning the peace.

MH: We’ve talked about the leader of the opposition, let’s turn to the Prime Minister. Progressives around the world, including here in the UK, are huge fans of Jacinda Ardern. Is domestic opinion much more critical? And, what’s your assessment of the Coalition government she leads (of Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens)?

PD: The PM is very popular here, but is probably more popular overseas. She is a good and empathetic communicator, which goes down so well at a time like this. But her government is frankly a shambles. There are probably two or three truly competent Labour Ministers; New Zealand First (the party led by the Deputy PM) is basically New Zealand’s Farage equivalent, and the Greens have been largely left out to dry. Its majority is only just 6 in a 120 seat Parliament, which pre-Covid19 it was on track to lose this year’s election. On top of that, Labour’s 2017 promises have either failed or been abandoned – for example, Kiwibuild ,its flagship promise to build 10,000 new homes a year, 100,000 over ten years, has to date delivered only a few hundred new houses; and, the PM’s promise to have a light rail system running in Auckland by 2020, has ended up being work likely to start sometime after 2021. Prior to all this, the government’s overall reputation was talk big but deliver very little, but rely on the PM’s personal popularity to get them through. Of course, under Covid, she has been on national television virtually every day, with an address to the nation daily around 1:00 pm. Little wonder the government’s popularity has surged back. Having said all of that, the Opposition is little better, wracked by leadership doubts, and a dearth of talent!

MH: You served a number of different Prime Ministers but, arguably, most notably Helen Clarke (Of Labour) and John Key (of the Nationals.) Perhaps an impossible question but which was the best in your judgement and who, as an MP of a different party, did you find it easiest to negotiate with?

PD: It is a toss-up between Key and Clark. Two very different characters in public, but very similar in private. If I go back to 1994 when I was leaving the Labour Party – a process that took some months – the one person whom I could talk to in confidence about my plans, and who never betrayed me, was Clark, even though she was leader at that time, and had no reason to protect me. Key was of a similar mould, and I enjoyed working with both very much. Of the others, (Sir Geoffrey) Palmer has been a long-time personal friend, and I think I would have developed a similar relationship with (Bill) English (Key’s successor), had he been in office longer. (We had worked well together 2008-13 when he Minister of Finance and I was Minister of Revenue.)

MH: Just three more questions. Firstly, from your vantage point, what do you make of British politics today. Boris, Labour Post Corbyn and your fellow Liberals, my own party, the Liberal Democrats?

PD: 1) Labour has an enormous task rebuilding after Corbyn. I do not know much about Starmer but he seems more mainstream. While Corbyn excited the radical edge of the Party, he lost its centrist supporters, and they have to be regained somehow. That is always a problem for Labour Parties – here and in the UK – their supporters expect much more than the wider electorate will, ever for them to deliver in office, so the struggle will always (be) to do enough to keep the Left on side without alienating the moderates or the wider electorate. (2) The Conservatives look to be on an unlikely roll under Boris, although his handling of Covid may change that. And the Brexit issue and what comes next still looms. I suspect wining the referendum and getting out of Europe will be like child’s play to the reality now of keeping the union in place, and the social and economic costs involved. With Covid added, it may all prove just too much, with Labour, whatever state it is in at the time, the likely beneficiaries at the next election. (3) As we both know, it is often very difficult to be a Liberal, especially in a world where you are expected to be either Left or Right. The Lib Dems are caught in that squeeze, but I think they have to show patience. When you finally elect a new leader, I think the party has to regroup around a single coherent philosophical approach, and stick to it, as a voice of commonsense, toleration and moderation in an increasingly confused world. For the Lib Dems, it must always be the long game, as the patience of the period 1922-2010 underscored, but the flame must be always be kept alive, however faintly it may seem to be burning at times.

MH: How was life as a one person parliamentary party? Not easy, I’d imagine. A little lonely, perhaps…but meant you were free to negotiate with the main parties and have a longer ministerial career than many. Lib Dems have a similar situation in Wales; just one Assembly Member, but that person is education minister in the Labour led government. Very small parties can punch well above their weight, can’t they?

PD: It was tough and lonely at times, but far more often it was fun. Frequently, I was the critical vote, the difference between winning and losing. Sometimes I stopped a government doing things, sometimes I gave the Opposition a win, but I always tried to work on a “no surprises” basis because upholding political stability was always an important part of my platform. Ultimately, of course, politics here and in the UK is all about the numbers, and if they are falling your way you do not need to have a large number of colleagues to make a difference.

MH: Indeed. And finally, Peter, how’s life post Parliament? Do you miss it? You do a lot of writing, broadcasting and political commentary these days, you must enjoy that?

PD: Life is good. I remain addicted to politics, but I don’t miss Parliament at all, which surprises me after (spending) more than half my life there. I am enjoying life as a commentator, am doing a lot of radio and a reasonable amount of television work. I am also chairing a company board, four national bodies and a couple of local groups, so life is far from dull. And before lockdown we were spending a lot of time with our grandchildren who live nearby and doing some travel as well.

MH: That’s great. Well stay safe and well, Peter, and thank you so much for your time.

PD: Thank Mathew, my pleasure entirely. All the very best to you. Keep in touch!

My next interviewee is Lucy Nethsingha, a former Lib Dem MEP. 

 

“Media irresponsibility and arrogance rarely fails to astound me.” An interview with LBC’s Iain Dale

Iain Dale has been a Parliamentary Candidate, Chief of Staff to an MP, a book publisher, presenter on an internet TV station, and more.

He’s now one of the most important voices on British radio, presenting the 7-10pm slot Monday to Thursday on LBC.

He is also a regular political commentator on TV, hosts a interview show at the Edinburgh Festival and up and down the country, and co-hosts the irreverent podcast ‘For The Many’ with former Labour Home Secretary Jacqui Smith.

He’s also got a new book out soon, called ‘Why Can’t We All Just Get Along…’

This weekend in a socially distanced interview, I spoke to Iain about COVID-19, the new Labour leader, ‘For The Many’ and his many bookshelves!

MH: Iain Dale, welcome to my blog.

ID: Nice of you to invite me!

MH: This must be a career highlight!

ID: It ranks along sitting next to Margaret Thatcher at a dinner in 2002 for 90 minutes.Let’s hope I’m less tongue tied over the next hour…

MH: So, COVID-19, have you ever experienced anything like it? How’s the crisis affecting you?

ID: Clearly not. And I hope I never will again, but the fallout from it will probably affect our society and economy for the rest of my life. It’s an era-defining moment. I have now been in what I call ‘splendid isolation’ for 26 days. I’m at home in Kent with my partner and dogs and our lodger, Dan. Apart from them, and two short trips out to the corner shop, I haven’t set eyes on a single other person for nearly a month. I’m broadcasting my radio show from my bedroom and catching up on a lot of things I haven’t been able to do for years-like totally rearranging my bookshelves. And I have A LOT of bookshelves!

MH: As everyone on Twitter is now aware! What do you make of how the UK government is handling it so far?

ID: I think the first thing to say is that given what we all know now, we can all agree that we were woefully under-prepared, but then again I suspect the same could be said for most countries. Far East countries were less so because they have had more experience of epidemics, but in Europe I don’t think there’s a single country that could say it was prepared. Germany is perhaps the exception because they clearly had huge numbers of testing kits ready to use from day one. I always thought we had a very advanced bio-tech industry but it was clearly incapable of producing testing kits very quickly. More generally, I think the economic response has been very good, although it is a disgrace that only 5,000 firms have been able to secure the much vaunted emergency loans. The furlough scheme and the one for the self employed has worked well, but inevitably there are some people that fall through the cracks. I think the lockdown could have been imposed a bit earlier and it was madness to let things like Cheltenham (race meeting) to happen, and football matches could have been abandoned a week or so earlier than they were. But it’s very easy to carp. I would say if you compare is to what other countries have done overall, in football terminology, we’re probably pushing for the Europa League. Brazil and the USA are clearly in the relegation places.

MH: You’ve been around politics a long time, how easily or otherwise does Whitehall cope with emergencies? Are Ministers and civil servants nimble enough?

ID: Actually, the civil service can be very fast moving in an emergency, despite being normally more difficult to turn around than an oil tanker. I know some people don’t like wartime analogies, and obviously it was a long time ago, but look at how the whole machinery of government changed almost overnight in 1939-40. I think the DWP is a department which often gets dog’s abuse but actually has performed miracles over the last 6 weeks. Universal Credit has had a lot of bad press-deservedly so in many ways-but I defy any benefits system to cope with one million new applicants in three weeks. Yes, phone lines have been clogged, but after the initial problems it all seems to have calmed down and from my own experience, I haven’t had many calls on my radio show people in the last week making the same kind of complaints that were common previously. They also had to cope with losing 40% of their staff at one point. But they’ve recruited thousands more and made tweaks to the online application system, and touch wood, things seem to be working better, albeit not perfectly. I think the weak point in the whole civil service/NHS operation has been the logistical side of supplying PPE equipment. I also think Public Health England will have a lot of questions to answer when there is a full inquiry into what has gone on.

MH: I’m personally sceptical of grand claims like this, but I’ve seen a number of commentators claim that this situation will change the way we think about the economy and public services going forward. That government will value the NHS etc more and pay frontline workers properly. Will this mark a fundamental shift in thinking? Is small State ideology dead?

ID: I don’t think it’s dead, but we certainly won’t see it again in my lifetime. I am a dry as dust Thatcherite in economic matters, but even I can see that it will take at least twenty years to recover from this. This is not something you can put right in one economic cycle and it is the government which will have to take a leading role in creating the conditions for the private sector to be able to get back off the floor. I do think there will be many Right-of-Centre politicians who will accept the fact that the public will demand (that) much more emphasis is put on improving the NHS. So, yes, I think there is going to be a fundamental shift in thinking and doing. Business as usual is not an option. The big question is this: do we have the people in politics, on all sides, who are capable of doing the big ticket thinking that will be required? I think the jury is out on that.

MH: Well, on that, what do you make of the new Labour leader Keir Starmer? What an uphill climb that man and his team face, eh? And what a balancing act for him at the moment. What are your thoughts on his new frontbench?

ID: Well, it’s safe to say it’s an improvement on the previous shower. Sir keir Starmer looks like a leader, which is something his predecessor never did.  And that’s important. He is somewhat charismatically challenged, though, which when you have an opponent like Boris Johnson can be seen as either a disadvantage or advantage. People are rather lazily drawing a contrast between Attlee and Churchill, as if to prove that Starmer’s victory is inevitable when the time comes. He faces a monumental task, but he has four years to climb that mountain. If the Brexit issue fades away, it will be to his advantage because his main downside is his record on that issue vis a vis Labour voters in the Red Wall seats. He is the very antithesis of what Brexity Labour voters want in a leader, and I am not sure he will be able to overcome that. Having said all that, he’s made some very good appointments both in his shadow cabinet and in the more junior ranks. It’s a team that is more than capable of matching the government line-up.

MH: Should Parliament be recalled virtually?MPs, especially opposition ones, must be allowed to do their job of holding ministers to account, right?

ID: Well select committees were being held all last week, so that is actually happening anyway. Parliament is back on Tuesday week. It clearly can’t meet physically, so I suspect they need another week to get the technology working so it can all be done online. I don’t think in these circumstances a recall of parliament will add much to the ability to hold ministers to account in the short term. I think that’s being done fairly adequately by opposition MPs through the media.

MH: You mention the media, do you think the daily press conferences have shown political conferences have shown political journalists at their best? And, shouldn’t health journalists be asking some of the questions, not just the Lobby?

ID: Health journalists have asked questions. But the standard of questioning from the political lobby has been absolutely lamentable in too many cases. (On Saturday) there was a journalist I had never heard of, from Channel 4 news, who demanded Priti Patel “apologise” for the lack of PPE, knowing full well it wasn’t her responsibility as Home Secretary and she couldn’t possibly do so in the way he was demanding it. Pure showboating and grandstanding. There’s been too many ‘gotcha’ questions or questions asked so that in two weeks time they can come back and ask why they hadn’t delivered on what they’d said two weeks earlier. There’s little attempt to elicit information or explanation-it’s all about the blame game. The public are seeing through it. So many of these journalists give the impression they think they could do a better job. Well maybe they should try it, and get their hands dirty. Their irresponsibility and arrogance rarely fails to astound me.

MH: I agree, but I’ve long since felt that political journalism in our country is in need of root and branch reform. Speaking of the media more widely, this must be a very challenging time for broadcasters like LBC. Yet people have never needed reliable information more than now (probably since the War.) DO you think broadcasters are meeting the challenge?

ID: It is indeed a challenge, and I have never been more aware of the crucial role of a station like LBC. We hear a lot of talk about public service broadcasting, and people assume that is only something the BBC does. Wrong. I know that people rely on us, and me, to be their friend at a time like this. I’m there to tell the truth about what is going on but not to hype up anything. I’m also there to reassure, cajole, and encourage people to do the right thing-not in a preachy way, and not as a government mouthpiece, but as someone the audience trusts. We have all had to adapt. Yes, it’s a bit weird broadcasting from my bedroom, but if I hadn’t been honest and open about where I was, I doubt whether most people would have realised. We do an hour every night of Q&A with an expert from the world of medicine, mental health, employment law or business. It’s amazing the questions people still don’t know the answers to even though you feel that they have been blitzed with the answers. I regard these hours as a form of social service, a bit like a surgery. I’ve also done shows where I just throw open the phonelines and let people phone in about whatever they like. Sometimes they have got incredibly emotional. Cliff in Hoddleston phoned me to tell me his mother had died of coronavirus only two hours previously. Like most of the audience, I suspect, I thought this was an odd thing to do, until he started talking very emotionally about social distancing and how he hadn’t practised it and was worried he may have infected his mother. A week later he phoned back, gasping for breath, having developed the virus himself. I was very worried about him. He sounded awful. Yet on Friday he phoned back again to tell us he was on the road to recovery. Andrew phoned in a few weeks ago to tell us about how difficult he had found it going from being in a busy office and being a very sociable person, to staring at four walls with no one to talk to. He cried when he told us about his Indian girlfriend who was stuck in Goa looking after her elderly parents. A week later he phoned again to say his mother had been taken to hospital with symptoms of COVID-19. He broke down on air. I have felt at times like an armchair psychotherapist. I have no training, but I know I can put a metaphorical arm around listeners and at least provide a bit of comfort, however inadequate i feel. Let me tell you, three hours of that and I am mentally exhausted by the end of it. I think some of the TV news channels and programmes are struggling. They have to provide pictures, we don’t. I’m not going to criticise any of them, but I will admit that I have found some of their continuous coverage far too repetitive and predictable to the extent that I don’t have them on in the background any longer. And I feel better for it.

MH: Would you agree that, actually, too much news at the moment isn’t good for our mental health? I’ve found I can only watch the main bulletins.

ID: I think it depends on us as individuals. But in general yes, I agree. I am a news junkie, but even I am finding I am rationing myself. I actually told a listener the other day that she shouldn’t listen to LBC 24/7 if it was making her anxious. I’ll probably get sacked for that.

MH: Do you think we are/will start conversing with and understanding one another better due to this crisis? And, if so, what does that mean for your upcoming book?

ID: My book, which is called ‘Why Can’t We All Get Along: Shout Less, Listen More,’ was supposed to be out on May 28th, but has now been delayed until August 6th, which is a bit of a bugger as I had developed a marketing plan which entailed doing about 30 events in June and July. It’s all gone for a burton. Hey ho. I wrote the book because I sometimes despair at our level of public discourse, especially on social media. I fully admit I have at times been no angel in this regard, but it actually makes me quite a good person to write about the subject. I’ve got to write a new prologue to the book which I think will be quite an optimistic look at how the events of the last few weeks might actually encourage a different sort of dialogue. I do think strangers are finding something in common, and the NHS applause every Thursday has enabled people to meet their neighbours, maybe for the first time. I also think that our politics may become a little less tribal given we’ve now seen the departure of Corbyn. I think he and his more disgusting acolytes poisoned the well of politics in this country in a way we’re only just beginning to fully comprehend. I really hope the country can come together and just be a bit nicer towards one another. It may be a pipedream  but I’ll always be a glass half full kind of person. In the TV series ‘Madam Secretary,’ Tea Leoni, who plays the Secretary of State, Elizabeth McCord, says rather poignantly: “Each one of us has to find the beauty in our differences instead of the fear. Listen instead of reacting. Reach out instead of recoiling. It’s up to us. All of us.” I endorse that message!

MH: So, how are you keeping yourself entertained when not working? What are you binge watching?

MH: I haven’t watched as many box sets as I thought I would. I’ve been doing a lot of research into my family tree and rearranging my bookshelves. However, I have finished ‘Madam Secretary.’ I watched the last episode (on Saturday night) and it felt as if I had gone into mourning at the end of it. I have somehow become rather addicted to South Korean dramas on Netflix. It started with the Korean version of ‘Designated Survivor’ and now I am into a series called ‘Crash Landing On You,’ which is about a South Korean businesswoman who goes paragliding but gets caught up in a tornado and unbeknown to her lands in North Korea. She falls in love with the North Korean soldier who finds her. I’ve also watched a cricket fly on the wall documentary called ‘The Test,’ which follows the Aussie cricket team in the aftermath of the ball tampering scandal. I hated myself for liking Steve Smith.

MH: I must admit you do have very impressive…book shelves, Mr Dale. What are you currently reading?

ID: The third volume of Charles Moore’s Thatcher biography. I’m actually a very slow reader. I normally only read when I go to bed and (am) usually asleep within four pages. I usually have three or four books on the go at once. I generally read political biographies or football biographies. I want to get back into reading a bit of fiction. I just haven’t had time for it in recent years. I do love a bit of James Herbert or Amanda Prowse.

MH: Last question: The ‘For The Many’ podcast is a guilty pleasure of mine and many others. It is as much fund to record as to listen to? And is Jacqui Smith even smuttier off air?

ID: Jacqui and I have great fun doing it. It’s been going since November 2017 now and, after a slow start, it has really taken off and got a bit of a mass audience now. I think we goad each other into being progressively more outrageous every week. And it’s totally unedited. I did consider asking one anecdote to be taken out last week (when i admitted once driving 40 miles for a one night stand only for it to be “over” rather sooner than expected!) but didn’t. People like the fact that even though we come from different political tribes we can have a discussion without resorting into tribalistic behaviour. We are totally ourselves and have been very open about aspects of our personal lives. I think people respect the genuineness of our relationship and our views. And as for the smut, I do sometimes think we take things a bit far, but I can only think of three people who have ever complained. And as for the question as to whether Jacqui is even smuttier off air…well, what happens off air, stays off air…

MH: Hahahahahaha. Well, thanks Iain for taking the time to do this interview. I appreciate it. Stay safe and well and best wishes.

ID: Thanks Mathew. I’ve enjoyed it. I expected you to be more Paxman than Frost, but I was wrong!

MH: Hahahahaha. I shall take that as a compliment.

My next interview is with former long-serving government minister in New Zealand, the Honourable Peter Dunne. 

 

Jesus was a radical, who upturned the tables of unearned privilege and fought for the least, the last and the lost

Today is an Easter Sunday like no other any of us can remember.

Across the world, Christians have celebrated this most special of days in lockdown; unable to go to church (though, by the means of modern technology, church has been able to come to us), unable to go and visit family and friends, and so on.

I’m sure, for many, it has been a day of sombre reflection.

Especially those who’ve lost loved ones to COVID-19, which now numbers more than 10,000 here in the UK.

My thoughts and prayers are with all who mourn their loss today.

May the God of love and of comfort be with them.

Easter is a day of celebration for all; not just those who are Christian.

And that’s fine, because Jesus wouldn’t want anyone excluded.

But, let’s not seek to remove that humble carpenter from being absolutely central to what this day is.

Let’s also not seek to make Him meek and mild when, although He was certainly that in temperament, in word and in action He was a radical.

He was a revolutionary who was appalled at the status quo of His day.

He sought to upturn the tables of those who’d grown fat and satisfied on the backs of the poorest in society.

He stood with the poor, with the prostitutes, with the marginalised.

With the least, the last and the lost.

He was anti-establishment.

I’m not seeking to claim Him for any one political creed or party, but to deny His radicalism is to deny what this day means.

Why His was the most important human life there ever was or ever will be.

I’m reminded of one of my favourite Christian songs, ‘God of Justice’ by the great Tim Hughes.

Which says…

‘God of Justice, Saviour to all

Came to rescue the weak and the poor

Chose to serve and not be served.

Jesus, You have called us

Freely we’ve received, now freely we will give.’

And the chorus is a call to action for all of us who claim to live for The One who knew every hair on our head before we were even born.

‘We must go, live to feed the hungry

Stand beside the broken, we must go

Stepping forward, keep us from just singing

Move us into action, we must go.’

This is my Christianity.

A faith-lived life, with a servant heart.

Never in almost all of our lifetimes has that been more needed than now.

I fail at it often, but I know that in Christ I have a Saviour and a friend who doesn’t frown at my failings, but rejoices in when I seek to do better in humble service to Him.

Let us not just sing His name today. Let us not just raise our hands or bow our heads.

Let us step forward.

Let us feed the hungry and stand beside the broken.

And may He forever hold us in the very hollow of His hands.

 

“The focus needs to be on saving lives, not winning votes.” An interview with Stephen Donnan-Dalzell.

Stephen Donnan-Dalzell is a writer, campaigner and LGBT+ activist, from Belfast.

This week, in a socially distanced interview, I spoke to him about COVID-19, politics in the North and South of Ireland, LGBT+ rights, and much more!

MH: Stephen, thanks for doing this interview.

SD: No worries.

MH: So, let’s start with what’s affecting the lives of just about every human being on the planet right now, COVID-19, how’s it changed things for you?

SD: Well it’s meant that I’ve had to re-evaluate what I spend my time on and it’s made me realise that I need to be more aware of what I control, for my own mental health. The panic and anxiety that I feel because of the sheer horror of everything that’s happening can be quite overwhelming but I’m very grateful that I still have a job to go to.

MH: The mental health issues this situation is causing/likely will cause is a big concern, isn’t it? I don’t hear much talk of it though from governments/medical professionals.

SD: Well everyone is focused on flattening the curve, and trying to ensure that the critical facilities of the NHS aren’t overwhelmed with Coronavirus patients and that’s the immediate focus. The problem will be that social isolation and distancing will be incredibly hard for people who’ve never had to do that before, and are used to a routine. Having to adapt to a completely different way of working and living and being separated from their support networks. It’ll be very difficult for them to adapt and to go back to normal.

MH: Absolutely. And we know that, before all of this, mental health services and support groups were under-resourced and over stretched. What’s the situation going to be like during and after this crisis?

SD: Honestly, I don’t know and that’s the scary thing. People will be suffering massively in isolation and also with the inability to get on with their lives. I think we’ll see a wave of poor mental health and unfortunately suicides after this.

MH: Indeed. The victims of this pandemic will, sadly, not just be those people unfortunate enough to lose their lives to the virus itself. There’ll be economic victims and people who suffer due to mental health challenges as a result. What do you make fo the UK government’s handling of the situation?

SD: I’m not a scientist of an epidemiologist but I think we made a critical error in not enacting a lockdown sooner. The evidence from Spain, Italy and China that herd immunity doesn’t work, that it would be an unmanageable disaster and the Government didn’t listen. I’ve always considered the Boris (Johnson) government to be incompetent but I think now that they’ve realised how badly they’ve handled it they’re trying their best. Had they not underfunded the NHS for a decade and still been in the EU maybe we would be better prepared.

MH: I think there may well need to be some kind of inquiry looking into the response once this is all over. What about the response of the five party Northern Ireland executive?

SD: The amount of politics being played is just ridiculous. At a time when we need to have a united front we have government spokespersons briefing against the performance of one of their own ministers. The focus needs to be on saving lives and not winning votes.

MH: I believe (deputy first minister) Michelle O’Neill (of Sinn Fein) has in effect said her own administration’s Health Minister (Robin Swann, Ulster Unionist) is not up to the job?

SD: I think she said something to that effect but it was walked back rapidly.

MH: I appreciate it’s (made up of) five different parties, but it’s one Executive. And, surely, disagreements should be aired and sorted out behind closed doors?

SD: They should but, unfortunately, I don’t think the parties are able to see that, even at a time of global emergency. It’s incredibly disappointing.

MH: Looking beyond COVID-19, how would you rate the fledgling executive?

SD: They’ve only just started and the pandemic has halted any legislative plans and they had so I’ll reserve judgement until this is all over.

MH: Fair enough. What’s on top of the To Do list, once this is all over?

SD: Mental health and poverty. These two are interlinked demonstrably. We have serious and severe deprivation in Northern Ireland and mental health is a byproduct of that. A country that can’t feed its people is a failed state.

MH: And do you think this executive can deliver on changing that?

SD: They have no other choice. We’ve had three years of de facto direct role from an indifferent and, at worst, vindictive Westminster government. We can’t go back to that or devolution is dead.

MH: You’re a former member of Alliance (liberal, cross-community party in N.I.) It must be good to see Naomi Long in Ministerial office. Quite a year she’s had.

SD: It is. Naomi is a friend first and foremost and it’s great to see her take up the Justice portfolio. I was incredibly proud of her when she was elected to the European Parliament and I was sad to see her leave due to Brexit but I have no doubt that she will continue to advocate for stronger ties between N.I. and the E.U. in the future. Naomi is a formidable political operator who genuinely cares about people, and she’s always been a great friend to me.

MH: As you know, I think you’d be amazing in elected office. You have a loving heart for the least, the last and the lost. I know it’s far from the only way to affect change, but do you think you’ll stand one day?

SD: Haha, that is very kind of you but I’ve been there and done that. I think my passion lies in community development, lobbying and campaigning rather than in the chamber of a legislature but you never know! I would need to be sure that I had the mental fortitude to do it because the last time I did it I was burned out. I was naive about the commitment it involved, mentally and physically as well as emotionally but I was very proud to do it and if I was ever asked again I would definitely have to consider whether I was the right person for the job.

MH; You do such amazing work, Stephen. Please share a description with my readers.

SD: Thank you Mathew. So I’m a counsellor but I work in a homeless hostel with people who have mental health issues, addictions and social problems. It’s a real privilege. I’m also a writer and I like to talk about mental health, poverty, politics etc.

MH: Firstly, can I thank you for your service, especially at this time…and ask you what the levels of need are for the services your organisation provides?

SD: Thank you Mathew, I really love my job. A lot of the services we work with have had to significantly scale back their service delivery or have had to close altogether. That being said the initiatives being set up by community groups is incredible.

MH: Yes, at a time like this we really see the best of what communities can be. You mention your writing, Stephen. You’ve been published numerous times in a diversity of publications. Tell us about that.

SD: I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to have my writing published because it’s not easy to get that platform and I’m blessed to have been given so many opportunities. I’ve written for PunkOut (now defunct), Hornet, Elle magazine in Ireland, as well as GCN and GNI Magazine about LGBT Rights issues in Northern Ireland and further afield. I’ve also been published in the i paper, Prospect and Dazed about LGBT Rights issues and political coverage. It’s been an absolute pleasure and rather surreal. I’ve always wanted to be a writer and whilst I don’t make a living from it, I love it and it’s very rare that you get to say you able to make a little bit of money from your passion.

MH: Definitely. You mention LGBT+ issues, about which you’ve written so much. Obviously we saw the change in legislation in Northern Ireland to legalise Same Sex Marriage, which is fantastic, but is there still much opposition on the ground about this?

SD: Not really to be honest. There was never a lot of opposition outside of the churches and the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party,) The public were largely behind us and opinion polling demonstrated that time and again. What we need to focus on now is the delivery of trans rights, more robust action to stop homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools and allowing trans and non-binary people to self-identify. We also have miles to go on things like access to healthcare, battling the stigma of HIV, and removing the ban on blood donations completely.

MH: The level of transphobia, on social media and traditional media never fails to shock me. We need to call it out when we see it. Is there more we can do beyond that?

SD: Promoting the services that Trans people can access, calling for services to train their staff to properly support trans clients, and talking to our friends and neighbours and family about trans people we know and look up to so that we can break down those barriers for our trans and non-binary friends.

MH: Re the ban on sexually active gay men donating blood, it saddens me that this deeply discriminatory rule wasn’t got rid of years ago. It’s nonsensical.

SD: It’s nonsense and it’s not supported by science. It’s based on prejudice and stigma and the AIDS boogeymonster. It’s a hangover from reactionary health policies adopted in the mid 1980s.

MH: It is indeed. There’s still a lot of need for LGBT+ charities and services, yet many are finding it hard to survive (even before this current crisis), do you think governments (UK, devolved and local) recognise this?

SD: No, I don’t think there is enough support given to LGBT organisations or charities from central or local government. It’s just not happening and it’s not good enough. Services are dependant on the donations from the public as well as grants and other revenue streams to support the most vulnerable people within our community. Government needs to step up and have a ring-fenced fund for LGBT initiatives as well as other minorities.

MH: I absolutely agree. Leicester Pride (my local Pride event) is always one of my favourite days of the year. As I’m sure Belfast Pride is for you. Though still months away, they’re unlikely to be taking place. Do you think there’s any likelihood for virtual/online Pride events? To help cheer us all up and provide that crucial representation/visibility, which is so important.

SD: I’m not sure as it would be difficult to work out the logistics but the most important thing is keeping everyone safe. An online pride festival would certainly be interesting and I suspect that many cities and towns will be adopting new ways of delivering pride events.

MH: Just a final couple of questions, on the political situation in the Irish Republic. He may be now a caretaker Pm, but Leo Varadkar appears to be dealing with COVID-19 in a way which other governments may envy and, indeed, is going to be practising as a GP (his former profession) one day a week to help out in these exceptional times. Quite a balancing act for someone not given a vote of confidence by voters in the recent election, no?

SD: I mean it’s rather extraordinary and I think they have played a blinder. People are forgetting about the election results and its likely that this will translate as a boost for any future government with Leo at the helm. That being said the Fine Gael/Fianna Fail coalition which looks to be entering government soon will be the most right-wing government that Ireland has seen for a long time. I have serious doubts whether it will deliver any real change, and whether the next Dail election will see Sinn Fein win a majority outright. People are angry at the homeless and housing problems, the state of the health services, of the price of rents, of the constant increases in rates etc. Leo back as Taoiseach will be a slap in the face to those voters.

MH: Isn’t the likelihood that he will be back in government, but as Deputy PM?

SD: I don’t think so. I think, if anything, he’ll remain as Taoiseach but possibly only for another year or so. I think Leo wants his legacy to be how Ireland managed Brexit. He won’t want to go until that’s dealt with.

MH: Irish Labour has a new leader, the colourful Alan Kelly, following the party going backwards again in the election,,,yet, in theory at least, they could find themselves back in government. Mr Kelly once said ‘power is a drug.’ Will he be strong enough to resist it?

SD: I’ll be honest, he’s not who I would have picked for leader. I would have loved to see Aodhan O Riordain as leader of Irish Labour. They gained nothing but electoral oblivion when they went into coalition with Fine Gail a few years ago, and they haven’t recovered from that. The left wing surge that saw Sinn Fein, the Social Democrats and the Greens gain seats didn’t reach Irish Labour and I don’t see how Alan Kelly, or any leader for that matter, will be able to rebuild for quite some time.

MH: What’s most likely then an FF/FG/Greens administration?

SD: I think Fine Gael and Fianna Fail will have an agreement to form a minority government but with confidence and supply arrangements with the Greens and Irish Labour. But I can’t see it lasting. The Greens would be foolish to enter government with both or either of those parties.

MH: Well, Stephen, it’s been a delight to interview you once again. You are a total star and one of the nicest blokes I know. Stay sage and well. Best wishes.

SD: Thank you so much, Mathew. It’s been a pleasure.