Monday, 21 October 2013

This was not the Republicans’ shutdown – it was the Tea Party’s

Written for the Young Fabians blog

It’s been an interesting time to be working on Capitol Hill. As I’m writing this on Wednesday night, the government has just reopened after being shut down for two weeks and three days, on the evening before the government would have defaulted on its debt if it hadn’t come to this agreement. With House and Senate offices operating with skeleton staff, Congress people and Senators have had to hash out some kind of deal which would allow them to pass a budget and fund, not just the government itself, but all federal programs, from NASA to the Department of Veterans Affairs to the National Parks.

For the past two weeks and three days “non-essential” federal workers haven’t been in work, and both they and the essential workers who have still had to come in haven’t been paid. They will all be receiving back pay now that the government has reopened, but those with government contracts will not, while the many businesses that rely on federal workers will never get the revenue they’ve lost back and small businesses that have been unable to get government loans will struggle to recover. The shutdown has cost the economy around $24 billion.

So what was this all for?

Well, from the Republicans perspective, nothing. They’ve not managed to delay Obamacare, they certainly haven’t managed to get rid of it, the debt ceiling has been raised and meanwhile they’re poll ratings have plummeted. Not that the Democrats have got anything good out of this situation either – they have managed to defend Obamacare and they haven’t had to give up anything up in exchange – but nobody wants to see their time in government wasted while they’re caught in the first government shutdown since 1996.

It’d be easy, as a Democrat, to blindly blame the Republican Party for holding the workings of the federal government hostage over a healthcare law that has already been passed. But while this was an awful thing to do, I don’t blame the Republican Party. During this shutdown, I’ve actually grown to respect a lot of Republican representatives – from John McCain, who has consistently said that the GOP should not have picked this fight the way they did, to Mitch McConnell, the minority leader of the Senate who helped to work out the bipartisan bill that went through the Senate (which over half the Senate Republicans voted for), to the 87 sensible Republicans in the House who voted with the Democrats for the bill to reopen the government. The Senate women’s caucus, featuring representatives from both parties, including Republicans Susan Collins from Maine and Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, as well as many brilliant Democrats like Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, were instrumental in getting the bill through the Senate.

To blame the whole of the Republican Party is completely missing the point. The Tea Party and people like its recent darling, Senator Ted Cruz, are the ones who made this whole debate, which should have been about the budget, about Obamacare and who were willing to take the government into shutdown over it. Ted Cruz, earlier today, called the actions of such Republicans a “courageous act”, a view which I’m sure would go down well with people who’ve been laid off because small businesses with government contracts couldn’t afford to keep them on during the shutdown.

There are also those representatives who are less obvious Tea Party hacks who deserve a share of the blame. Interestingly, today Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul both voted against the bill to reopen the government. Rubio, particularly, has a reputation for being a moderate, yet voted against this bill to reopen government, at the eleventh hour before the American government defaulted on its debt. Why? Well, this may not be the whole story, but both of these men have their sights on running for President. And they’ll need the votes of Tea Partiers to win the Republican Primary.

And then there’s Speaker Boehner, the chair of the House, who has, until now, refused to put a vote on the floor of the House. The Democrats have repeatedly said that if he put a bill forward, the votes would be there to pass it; today, finally, they were proved right. So why wouldn’t Boehner call of vote? Well, one theory says he was worried that he’d lose his speakership, because Tea Partiers would oust him.

It wasn’t the whole Republican Party that has been holding the government hostage for the past two weeks and three days. It was an extreme right wing faction and those it is pulling to the right with it.

So what does this mean for the future? Well, this deal has not ended the debate. What was passed was only a continuing resolution – which basically means government funding was approved, but isn’t a proper budget. This means we still have to reach a more long term agreement, or face another situation like the one in just in in a few months.

And with the Republicans being dragged further and further to the right, it’s going to be hard to come to a long term agreement.

It’s easy as a Democrat to rejoice at an increasingly unelectable Republican Party. But what might be making it easier to win elections is making it harder and harder to govern. The whole US system is based on reaching compromises, but when you have an extremist Republican faction which won’t compromise, which won’t accept that it can’t just have whatever it wants despite losing the Presidential and Senate elections, which won’t, frankly, act like adults, coming to such compromises is difficult, to say the least.

So while this may be making it easier for Democrats to be elected, what’s the point of being elected if you’re subsequent ability to govern is so stifled?

Trying to restore some sense to the Republican Party is a task that lies primarily with the increasingly exasperated moderates in that party, but there is one factor in this that is worth us all considering. Gerrymandering – the redrawing of congressional boundaries to create seats which will always vote for one party of another – is a large factor in this GOP swing to the right. There are now many seats where Republicans will always be elected, so instead of worrying about the electorate, they worry about the Primary, where the registered Republicans who will be voting are inevitably to the right of the mainstream. This is dragging the whole party to the right. Fixing the problem of gerrymandering is a problem for all parties.

I have to give a quick shout out to the absolutely fantastic Democrats in the House and in the Senate who have all worked so hard to end the shutdown. And here’s hoping we can really move forward from here and really start finding long term solutions to America’s problems (the President has said his first priority, starting tomorrow morning, is immigration reform which is exciting). But with the Tea Party still here, still powerful and still scarily detached from reality, getting things done in Washington DC is still going to be very difficult for a the foreseeable future.  

Saturday, 31 August 2013

The Syria vote: the wrong way to decide foreign policy...

The vote in Parliament on intervention in Syria was pretty much a how to in how not to make massive decisions on matters of foreign policy. For a start, the whole discussion was characterised by the kind of school boy jeering which is standard practice in the House of Commons, but I would have liked to think our elected representatives would rise above when discussing the potential of sending our army into a country in the midst of civil war. Apparently not. Syrian children are being massacred, but this is not, it seems, a matter serious enough to forgo an opportunity for some laddish taunting of those on the opposite bench.

Both the government and the opposition put forward motions, Labour’s slightly more cautious and restrained (and, in my opinion, better for it) but broadly both motions were rather similar; both saying military intervention was an option, but neither calling for it immediately or without further evidence.

This begs the question of why Cameron decided to call the vote at all. With UN inspectors currently gathering greater evidence, and the wider response from the international community not yet clear having a vote on “whether we might do something at some point maybe depending on what happens” seems at best pointless and at worst damaging; and the result was closer to the latter.

Both the government and the opposition put forward motions which left the option of military intervention on the table, and the result seems to be that military intervention is no longer on the table.

Parliamentary democracy at its finest? More of a muddle, with many MPs being interviewed afterwards citing Cameron’s motion being hasty and reckless as their reason for voting against, rather than total opposition to intervention (you’d imagine, since both the motions put forward left it as an option, neither side was really against it, right?). Cameron’s motion was concerning, most clearly for its short termism. If we go in to Syria, we are not leaving for a very long time and if we were to intervene we’d need to accept this and have a long term strategy; that would be truly learning the lessons of Iraq.

But if the reason Labour voted against the government’s motion was not that they opposed intervention entirely but that they disagreed with the motion itself, why have Cameron and Miliband decided that, no matter what happens, no matter what happens on the ground in Syria, no matter what the international community does, the UK will not be taking part in intervention?

I’m not saying I definitely think we should intervene in Syria; I’m actually really sceptical of the idea. Although my instincts are fundamentally internationalist and interventionist, the situation in Syria makes it next to impossible to know what a successful intervention would actually entail – with no clear “good guys” on either side of the conflict for us to work alongside – and intervention might well do more harm than good. As hard as it might be to accept, at least right now, they’re might not be much we can do, humanitarian support and aid aside.

What I don’t understand is what is to be gained from completely rejecting any possibility of intervention no matter what happens or what is discovered about the situation, based on a vote which arguably shouldn’t have happened at all, where party politics was more relevant than it should be on issues of this magnitude and complexity, where all sides went in wanting the opposite of what happened and where many  MPs reasons for voting the way they did were not that they completely rejected intervention.

People are being massacred in Syria and though we should be cautious and measured in our response, we should not be taking options off the table and we should not be limiting the ways in which we can, potentially, help. The vote on Thursday night was about as far from the right way to take a decision, to take any decision, on this situation, as we could have gotten. 

Thursday, 20 June 2013

London Labour Regional Board meeting 03/06/13 report

  • Following up from a discussion in our previous regional board meeting, we discussed working on a crib sheet specifically discussing how to deal with UKIP and how to talk about UKIP on the doorstep with voters who are thinking of voting for them.
  • This was followed with a discussion of a small working group around the changes to the NHS, including Fiona Twycross and NPF reps, working on a 10 point action plan for Labour’s heath policy in London, as well as campaigning ideas such as a card for the NHS’s birthday on the 5th July, to be circulated to all CLPs.
  • Len Duvall noted the hard work done by loads of regional board members on Parliamentary and council selections across London.
  • We discussed the need for greater feedback for candidates who do not get selected in both parliamentary and council selections.
  • I highlighted the importance of procedures secretaries and NEC reps from the regional board that monitor their work; we need to be aware of the amount of power we invest in them, especially when it comes to how well candidates are guided through the process.
  • Alan Olive discussed London Labour’s goal to have a Labour councillor in every borough after 2014, and the subsequent need to build home grown campaigning machines, as everyone should be campaigning in their own borough rather than going elsewhere.
  • Len Duvall brought up the importance of Young Labour activists in London targeting the areas which most needed their help, and I responded that we were very happy to work with region to ensure this happens. I additionally discussed how we can work with CLPs, and CLP youth officers, to integrate young people into their local parties and get them campaigning in their local areas.
  • We discussed the relationship between the Euro elections and the local elections, and the need to have a European narrative for the local elections.
  • Sadiq Khan and Gareth Thomas, Shadow Minister and Deputy Shadow Minister for London, attended the meeting. We discussed the most prominent issues to Londoners (cost of living and the NHS), why we should have a regional board representative at the London summit, the plan to develop clear, crisp policies for MEP candidates and to do a lot of work on messaging for those elections.The tone of the discussion with Sadiq and Gareth was frank, honest and open, and speaks of the work Ed Miliband and his team have done to develop a better relationship between the regional board and ministers, as well as MEPs.
  • Finally, we talked about how to have a London wide manifesto for 2014, which broadly outlines Labour’s vision for London, while allowing boroughs to be flexible in what they do in their own areas.

If you have any questions or anything, please email me -
Or tweet me - @rachellybee 

Monday, 15 April 2013

My voting record at NUS national conference 2013...

I was present for every motion, except for the final three in the union development zone, as my electronic voting pad broke and needed to be fixed in order to be used to recount some earlier close motions.
I've explained why I voted the way I did on the motions and amendments I feel were the most contentious, but if you’d like to ask about the reasoning behind any of my other votes, please do!
The motions document is available here:

Membership and Priority
Motion 001 – voted for
Motion 101 – voted for

Welfare zone
Motion 601 - voted for
Amendment 601a – voted for
Amendment 602a – voted for
Motion 602 - voted for
Amendment 602c – voted for
Amendment 602b – voted for
Amendment 603b – voted against
I voted against this amendment, because from talking to a lot of students, both FE and HE, at the conference but also beforehand, a lot of students really weren’t satisfied with EMA; it did not cater enough for a lot of students, while often giving money to students who did not need it. On the other hand, there were many students who would not have made it through college without EMA. This is why I voted for motion 602, which called for a more radical, creative and flexible alternative to EMA which caters to all students’ needs. I do not believe spending time and energy lobbying a government that isn’t listening to bring back EMA in its original form is a worthwhile time of NUS’s time, when we could be working on a better alternative which we can put on the agenda for the 2015 election.
Motion 603 – voted for
Amendment 603a – voted for
Amendment 603b – voted for
Amendment 603c – voted for, but voted to remove conference resolves 1
I voted to remove this part because it specified that no one should pay over £100 a week, and while this would be lovely, and I think reasonable for a place like Leeds, I don’t think that’s a possible or reasonable demand for more expensive parts of the country like London or Canterbury.
Amendment 603d – voted against
Although I think tenants unions are excellent, I do not see the need to create them for students, who are already represented by their students union, which should be fulfilling the role that a tenants union would normally.
Motion 604 – voted for
Motion 605 – voted for
Motion 611 – voted for the procedural motion that this should not be debated at this conference
Motion 612 – voted for
Amendment 612a – voted for
Motion 613 – voted for
Motion 614 – voted for
Motion 615 – voted for
Motion 616 – voted for
Motion 617 – voted for
Motion 618 – voted for
Motion 619 – voted for

Education zone
Motion 201 – voted for
Motion 202 – voted for
Motion 203 – voted for
Amendment 203a - voted for
Motion 204 – voted for
Motion 211 – voted for
Motion 212 – voted for
Motion 301 – voted for
Amendment 301a – voted for
Amendment 301b – voted for
Amendment 301c – voted for
Motion 302 – voted for
Motion 302a – voted for, but voted to remove conference resolves 1, 6 and 7
I voted against these parts, because, especially as a representative of Leeds University the idea of a “Take Back your campuses” campaign seemed strange and unnecessary to me; of course our union’s democracy is not perfect, but we are constantly working to try and improve it and I think the idea for this campaign was rather sweeping and geared a tackling problems that a lot of unions don’t have. I also voted against the idea that we should work alongside NCAFC; NCAFC is a faction with NUS which runs candidates, and I don’t think that NUS should be mandated to work alongside any faction which participates in its internal democracy.
Motion 303 – voted for
Motion 304 – voted for
Amendment 304a – voted against
Amendment 304b – voted against
Amendment 304c – voted against
I voted against these amendments because I simply don’t think free education is a realistic possibility right now, and I also don’t believe that, with our current structures, it would make university more accessible. Simply trying to lobby the government – or any government – for free education is a waste of time and resources that will get us nowhere, and we should be focusing on making sure university is accessible to all and that cost is not a barrier to any student. I voted against having another demo because right now I don’t think it’s an effective strategy; demo 2012, despite a great deal of effort from campuses across the country failed to bring in enough students, it wasn’t effective and there are better ways for NUS to keep fighting for students.
Motion 311 – voted for
Amendment 311a – voted against
Motion 312 – voted for
Motion 312a – voted for
Motion 313 – voted for
Motion 314 – voted for
Motion 315 – voted for
Motion 316 – voted for
Motion 317 – voted for
Motion 318 – voted for
Motion 319 – voted for
Motion 320 – voted for
Amendment 320a – voted for
Motion 321 – voted for
Motion 322 – voted for
Motion 323 – voted for
Motion 324 – voted for

Union development
Motion 501 – voted for
Amendment 501a – voted for
Amendment 501b – voted for
Amendment 501c – voted for
Motion 502 – voted for
Amendment 502a – voted for
Amendment 502b – voted against
I voted against this, primarily because it’s implication of general meetings as a preferred model for union democracy is at odds with the experiences of Leeds University Union, and with the democratic structures we use, which work for us.
Amendment 502c – voted against
Although I do not think it’s right or democratic to have external trustees voting on trustee boards, I voted against this amendment because I think the decision should be that of the individual Student Unions, not NUS.
Motion 503 – voted for
Amendment 503a – voted for
Amendment 503b – voted for
There was some discussion here about whether it’s right to target unions in swing seats; although I do not believe any union should simply fall off the radar in terms of increasing student voter turnout, I agree with the amendment that we have to be realistic with our time and resources and target to them to where the student vote can make the most difference.
Motion 511 – voted for
Motion 512 – voted against
I voted against this motion because of its preference for a style of union democracy built around General Meetings and councils (although councils are not specified as mandatory by the motion, General Meetings are). This is not the model we have at Leeds, nor a model that I think would work for Leeds, and I do not think NUS should prescribe ridged democratic structures on Students Unions which will all have different structures which work best for them.
Motion 513 – was unable to vote because my electronic voting pad was being fixed, but would have voted for the procedural motion that this not be debated at conference as it’s a matter for the disabled students campaign, which passed.
Motion 514 – was unable to vote because my electronic voting pad was being fixed, but would have voted for (motion passed)
Motion 515 - was unable to vote because my electronic voting pad was being fixed, but would have voted for (motion passed)

Society and Citizenship
Motion 401 – voted for
Motion 401a – voted for
Motion 402 – voted for
Motion 402a – voted for

Annual General Meeting
Amendment to estimates CTE1 – voted against
The task of the NEC is not and should not be to travel round student unions; although it is great if they can, their primary task should be scrutiny of the work of the full time officers, therefore dedicating money to a travel fund for them, I don’t think, is a valuable use of resources.
Motion 701 – voted for
I don’t want this to turn into a rant. So I’ll just say that I’m really disappointed this motion fell. This motion was not about giving women an unfair advantage; it was about correcting the unfair disadvantage they already face in society. The majority of people in education are women but the majority of delegates are consistently men and it’s just not right.
Motion 702 – voted for
Amendment 702a – voted against

My thoughts on NUS national conference 2013...

NUS national conference 2013 was my first time at an NUS conference. Overall, I found it an incredibly positive experience; in fact the more I think about it the more I feel invigorated and excited about the student movement and proud to be a part of it.
From working on a better alternative to EMA to raising awareness about mental health to increasing student voter turnout in elections to fighting for proper careers education in schools and against the reforms to GCSEs and A levels, some really excellent motions passed. The quality of the discourse was really high and there were some fantastic speeches from delegates. I really enjoyed the zone reports, which reminded me that for all its faults NUS does some incredible work, and I think the motions we passed at conference put NUS on course to continue doing great work, research and campaigning that helps students on a day to day level.
My biggest disappointment of the conference was that motion 701 fell. I understand all the issues with gender quotas, and I honestly wish we didn’t need them, but we do. Even mainstream political parties use them…even the Tory party uses them! NUS should stop fantasising that all we need to do is encourage more women to get involved. Frankly, it was really patronising to hear delegates stand up and say that delegates should be elected “on merit”. The fact that only about 30% of delegates to conference are, on average, women, despite women making up the majority of students is not because of merit, it’s because of our societal structures which disadvantages woman. I’m angry that a floor made up of mostly men voted against this motion, but I’m also angry at the women who voted against. To get elected as a woman is awesome, but it doesn’t mean you can leave other women behind. The main losers from this motion falling were the women who should have been at conference but, because of the way of society is structured, weren’t. Oh, and to all the delegates who didn’t get out of bed in time to vote for the motion; what the hell?!
Rant over.
In better women related news, I’m thrilled NUS elected a woman as its president (and also thrilled her main opponent was a woman…go women!). Toni Pearce is quite simply fantastic in every way, and will be an incredible president. That she is NUS’s first president from FE is as wonderful as it is shocking; the majority of NUS’s membership is FE students, and it shouldn’t have taken us this long to get here. But at least we have now. The number of FE delegates at this conference (many of whom I had the pleasure of hanging out with) is a tribute to the work Toni and Vice Presidents have done before her to engage FE students with NUS.
I’m also thrilled that Joe Vinson was elected Vice President Further Education, Dom Anderson Vice President Society and Citizenship, Rachael Mattey Vice President Union Affairs, Colum McGuire Vice President Welfare and that Rachel Wenstone was reelected as Vice President Higher Education. They are going to make a fantastic team.
I still think NUS needs to do a far better job at reaching out to ordinary students. As a delegate, I did my best to consult students about the motions I was voting on, but it’s difficult to create that engagement, especially when what you’re sending them is a god knows how many page document. I can’t pretend I have all the answers, but it starts with NUS being more present on our campuses. NUS needs to go to students because students aren’t going to go to them. I was really pleased to see full time students like Rhiannon Durrans and Ben Dilks standing for Block of 15; it’s good to have someone other than sabbs (nothing against sabbs, but…) standing, and I hope to see more of this in future.
NUS is very factional, and I don’t think this is a completely bad thing. I agree with what Liam Burns said in his leaving speech; factions are about students coming together and organising around shared beliefs to put those beliefs into practice and that’s a good and admirable thing to do. But though I do think factions are a force for good, there needs to be a way into NUS for students who don’t ascribe to this factions or that faction.
There were also some quite serious access problems at this conference; most notably the length of the days. It was hard for me to maintain concentration but for students with certain disabilities it would have been close to impossible. Additionally, with issues such as whooping and clapping in the middle of speeches, the importance of not doing things like this should have been outlined clearly at the beginning. The chairs (who all did a fantastic job, by the way) did keep reminding people throughout, but as they hadn’t been told properly in the first place I can sympathise with delegates who were confused and didn’t fully understand why they were being told not to clap and cheer.
None the less, it was fascinating to final see the sovereign body of NUS in action, and I would defiantly encourage anyone who wants to to run to be a delegate. Sitting through slightly more procedural motions than you would like (to note I think the Democratic Procedural Committee did an excellent job, and I certainly do not envy them!) is worth it to get to be part of setting the direction of the student movement. 

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

My motion to Labour Students National Conference 2013, on democratically electing the Chair of Steering.

Labour Students notes:
- Currently, the constitution states that the Chair of Steering will be nominated by and from among the democratically elected three members of the steering committee.
- The constitution is unclear as to how this decision should be made.
- Although the Chair of Steering does not have voting rights on the committee, they none the less perform a very important function, requiring an in depth understanding of democratic process. They are also a very high profile position, as they chair debates at democratic events.

Labour Students believes:
The current process is unclear and confusing, especially for those on the steering committee who are required to make the decision as to who the Chair of Steering should be.
- The current process is not transparent, and means that the Chair of Steering is not directly accountable to Labour Students members.
- All positions on the Labour Students national committee, whether or not they have voting right, should be elected in a way that is clear, open and transparent.

Labour Students resolves:
- That the Chair of Steering should be directly elected by the Labour Students membership at Labour Students National Conference.
- That a steering committee of three should still be elected at council, and the Chair of Steering be elected from among them.
- A person may still stand for steering committee but then choose not to put themselves forward to be Chair of Steering.
- When standing for steering committee, candidates should declare their interests in running to be Chair of Steering to ensure transparency.
- The Chair of Steering should be elected by club delegates, until such point as One Member One Vote is introduced, and then they should be elected by One Member One Vote.

(motion was passed and will go to National Council, where if passed a second time it will become constitutional)