This week’s newsletter on the work of the Liberal Democrat group in the House of Lords
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“Congratulations, damn it!” This is the note Sal Brinton’s father, Tim, the former Conservative MP for Gravesham, sent with a bunch of flowers to his daughter when she was first elected as a Liberal Democrat councillor in 1993.
“Engagement in politics is more important than having rows in the family over what you believe in,” Brinton chuckles after telling me this story. “I think that’s the one thing we agreed on!”
And there has been plenty more in the Lib Dem peer’s career to congratulate her on. Following her work in floor management at the BBC having studied at the Central School of Speech and Drama, Brinton has long been an influential figure in liberal politics. She reached the House of Lords in February 2011, and has recently been elected party president. She replaced Tim Farron MP in this role at the beginning of the year, defeating two other candidates and winning 10,188 votes in the final result.
Farron – the media-friendly imp popular with the left flank of his party – treated the role as a mouthpiece for the Lib Dem party faithful, often straying off-message to the delight of many of his fellow Lib Dem MPs frustrated and constrained by coalition with the Tories.
The full interview is here
Last Friday, the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee did something I don’t recall any other Committee doing before it. It published a report in draft, and has asked for public feedback before making final recommendations.
In announcing this initiative Graham Allen, the Committee’s Chair, writes, “we raise issues around re-building our political parties, their funding, conduct of MPs, how the Media can work to improve public involvement, and how we can restore a sense of excite around our democracy”. These are all clearly crucial issues for Liberal Democrats.
Despite being dominated by Labour and Conservative MPs, there are suggestions in the draft report of a fairly radical prospectus to increase participation. They even took evidence and considered the thorny matter of electoral reform but – unsurprisingly – did not agree a recommendation in this area. Specifically, they call on all parties to consider the following issues for inclusion in their 2015 manifestos:
• The civic and legal duty of all citizens to register to vote
• Registering to vote closer up to or on the day of an election
• Online voting
• Extended or weekend voting, or a public holiday for voting
• Compulsory voting
• All-postal voting
• Extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds
On the last in that list, we made significant progress last week. With Liberal Democrat and Crossbencher colleagues in the Lords, I had tabled amendments to the Wales Bill suggesting that the franchise ought to be extended for Welsh Assembly elections and for any referendum on tax-raising powers. Working with Jenny Randerson, our Minister in the Wales Office, we secured a very positive response.
Full article here
In a week when the big news is about changed faces in government, there is also much manoeuvring in the political undergrowth about the rules which govern government: our constitution.
The House of Commons Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform (P&CR) has launched a debate on a written constitution for the United Kingdom. This has been a Liberal and Liberal Democrat objective for all my time in politics, but the question has always been how such a document would be drawn up, agreed and entrenched beyond the usual parliamentary processes and partisanship.
Such a process could today be so much more open than it might have been had all our allies in Charter 88 made it start 26 years ago. Today, this need not be the preserve of a closed convention of the great and good. The Select Committee is asking expressly for the public to give their views through their A New Magna Carta? website.
Full article here
Last week, I was encouraged to see more political parties coming around to the (long-held Liberal Democrat) view that we need to make voter registration easier, accessible and engaging, and allow young people to register from an early age. Only then can we seek to inspire future generations to take a stake in democracy and truly make ‘politics’ open to all citizens.
To this end, today is the formal first reading of my Voter Registration Bill in the House of Lords. I very much hope that Members from all parties (and none) welcome and support its aims.
As honorary President of the non-partisan movement, Bite The Ballot – a fantastic organisation seeking to empower young voters – I know just how enthusiastic young people are about political issues when they are taught about the power they hold at the ballot box. It is this simple premise that forms the basis of my Voter Registration Bill, which has two parts. The first concerns the sharing of information between government bodies and electoral registration officers; the second concerns the duties of electoral registration officers.
Full article here
Mike Storey used Oral Questions in the Lords today to quiz the Government about engaging young people in democracy – coincidentally, the morning after Russell Brand rubbished the idea in a Newsnight interview. The key, he says, are quality citizenship lessons in schools followed by the chance to register to vote
During Lords Questions this morning, I asked the Government how it is ensuring that young people are given the tools to understand, engage and participate in the UK’s political and democratic systems.
On a day when the press were zoning in on Russell Brand’s ‘I’ve never voted, never will’ spat with Jeremy Paxman, I pressed the Minister on how the Coalition is planning to support youth democracy groups in its efforts to increase awareness via voter registration. One thing I know Russell Brand won’t find surprising is that if an election was called tomorrow, only 12% of young people would be certain to vote. A recent YouGov survey asked almost 1,000 young people if they had ever voted in a general or local election – only 47% had done so.
Statistics such as these should be wake-up calls for politicians. It’s for these reasons that I support campaigns such as the British Youth Council, Operation Black Vote and the work of the Citizenship Foundation. All young people should leave school with an understanding of the political, legal and economic functions of society, as well as, crucially, the social and moral awareness to thrive in it. Like me, I’m sure the Foundation has praised the Coalition for ensuring that active citizenship education remains a central tenant of the secondary curriculum. But more must be done.
This isn’t to say I wasn’t pleased with the Answer I received from Lib Dem Minister, Baroness Lindsay Northover. The Government has cemented compulsory citizenship education for 11- to 16-year-olds and highlighted the subject’s importance at GCSE with the new ‘best 8’ attainment measure. Yet I suggest we should turn these good words into great education. As I’ve said before, it’s easy to describe citizenship as a ‘doss’ subject. Most young people participate in politics on an issue-by-issue basis. And just look at the Ofsted reports (2009-12). A quarter of schools had insufficient citizenship teaching standards. Where standards lacked, attempts to improve them was superficial. I hope the Government will reflect on how standards may be improved, bearing in mind at all times, that practical citizenship education must be engaging, useful and fun.
An easy way to accomplish this is to encourage schools to recruit properly qualified citizenship teachers. Here it’s worth highlighting that free schools and academies, which have greater freedom over their curricula, aren’t in fact required to teach citizenship. How will the Government keep the National Curriculum ‘national’, ensuring that all pupils are given an equal opportunity to grasp the importance of citizenship?
Furthermore, in highlighting the importance of getting young people to register, then vote, I expressed my support for Bite the Ballot and its efforts to increase the number of young people actively participating in democracy. In the past I have attended their debates in Parliament where young people are invited to directly engage with parliamentarians on the issues that matter to them (as set out in ‘My Manifesto’). I was extremely impressed by the enthusiastic response from so many young people who were actively engaged in politics, many of whom had never heard of the electoral register.
This is why I’m calling for all young people to be equally engaged at school. Government says that the new National Curriculum will underpin students’ interest in how democracy works, thereby increasing interest in voting and voter registration. Like Bite the Ballot, I believe that the Government needs to do more. 16- and 17-year-olds need opportunities as well as reasons to register to vote. Why can’t every citizenship course culminate in the opportunity to register? A question I hope to pursue.
‘Active citizenship’ must be just that; active. I was delighted to hear the Government voice their support for National Voter Registration Day on February 5 next year and I urge all organisations – schools, supermarkets, community groups and students’ unions – to pledge their support to a cause that’s central to the health and future of our democracy.
Published and promoted by Tim Gordon on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, both at LDHQ, 8-10 Great George Street, London, SW1P 3AE.