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James Belchamber

James Belchamber is a member of the Liberal Democrats and the founder of justLiberals. He has a long career working with computers, and trains people wishing to make this their career.

Posts by James Belchamber

It is hard to underestimate the scale of the Liberal Democrats North Shropshire win last night. Turning a Conservative majority of almost 23,000 votes into a Lib Dem majority of 6,000 is no easy feat - and it has sent shock waves through the political world.

John Curtice called the win an 8.5 on the political Richter scale - a devastating earthquake. Even the BBC - who have been so very cautious in their news reporting of late - are now asking questions like "Has Boris Johnson lost his winning touch?".

Labour's equivalent by-election, in Old Bexley and Sidcup, is also a Tory stronghold - and one the Lib Dems largely "sat out", with a humiliating drop to only 3% of the vote - behind even the Green Party (though they did campaign). Labour has an extensive activist base in London, with control over 21 councils and 45 MPs to call on (vs 27 Lib Dem councils in England, and 12 - sorry, 13 - MPs total). Despite this, Labour could not muster the electoral force to even reduce the Conservative majority to a plurality, let alone risk an upset - Louie French was returned to the commons with 52% of the vote.

So, the question has to be asked - why aren't Labour winning by-elections?

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Over the last year we've been running justLiberals, there has been a Discord keeping us going. Now we've decided to throw it open while we re-work the website to include a link to it.

Come join us.

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Knives are an inseparable part of everyday life. We use them when cooking, we use them at work. Every day, millions use their nearest knife to open boxes, packages and letters. Just have a think about how many knives are in your house right now.

We also know that knives can be used for great evil; something communities have struggled with for.. well, forever. The solution? Regulation.

Regulation of knives is mostly uncontroversial - as a society, we mostly accept that a chef can carry very sharp and dangerous knives between home and work, but we expect them to travel directly between those places (and we enforce that expectation). Knives for general carry are limited in length and in the way they lock - outside of this, you need a specific reason. Some bemoan this, but generally it's agreed that the liberty of.. well, living - outweighs the infringement on liberty of needing a reason to carry about a dangerous weapon.

The message is clear - knives are a tool, they can cause a lot of harm, and we do not rely on owners of knives to be benevolent and ethical in their ownership, storage and operation of knives. We regulate knives, and the owners of knives, in the pursuit of better outcomes - not banning them, but very clearly setting out rules based on avoiding harm and promoting freedom.

But with capitalism - and, more generally, free markets and commercial enterprise - some have bought into the myth that there is an "ethical" variant we can nurture and trust.

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In a previous article I was scathing about this government's approach to education - a regressive insistence on churning out compliant automatons while employers demand creative, self-directed and specialised workers. But in their approach is a logic - that learners all need to be calibrated to a common criteria. This plays out in a national curriculum - literally, everyone learning the same things at the same point in their lives - and comes with the values (uncritical obedience and an unwavering respect for authority) that are required of any system that tries to achieve this.

I no longer believe that should be our goal.

It would not surprise you to know that, as a Liberal, I believe everything starts with - and comes back to - individuals. But education should not just be focused on the individual based on an abstract idea - we need to ground it in the practicalities and intent of education.

So let me convince you of an alternative goal: a much expanded "national curriculum", that every learner progresses through at their own pace and in their own order - and that no one person should ever come close to completing.

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On Wednesday an opposition political banner was taken down in Stanway, Essex, on the orders of Kevin Bentley, the Conservative deputy leader of Essex County Council. Kevin says he "reported" it but didn't specifically "order" for them to be taken down - in the same way that your boss might tell you about a problem but not specifically demand you fix it. This silencing of opposition is.. well, fascist in nature.

Don't squirm - that's the word for it.

It's also not the only instance - the Scottish Conservatives also slipped "14 words" into a Tweet about IndyRef, a famous dog-whistle designed to signal support for white supremecy that has been repeated uncritically by news outlets.

If there were any indication that the Conservative Party has now embraced populist nationalism, with all the fascist-inspired excesses that come along for the ride, this should be what awakens us to it.

But why are the Tories embracing fascist ideas?

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Lesson: Educating our Children
Reading time: 5 minutes
Required watching: This chilling little video from the Department for Education, where this quote in particular stands out:

"Our silent corridors, where we transition around the building in silence, and having our equipment out ready to go when we arrive at our next lesson - all just helps get us focused and keeps us in that working set of mind when we arrive in our lessons"

Ignore the dystopian chill that just ran down your spine  - just for a second. Ignore the inhumanity of expecting children to be silent in the small periods of free time between classes (socialising, one assumes, being limited to three "meals" a day). Just have a think..

..does anyone work like this?

Well, actually, yes - there is one class of worker that would be expected to work like this - but we're rapidly making them obsolete.

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Philip's story is sometimes controversial, sometimes inspiring. It is sad that he has died, and I am sure I reflect the feelings of all Liberals in sending my condolences to the queen and to everyone that is grieving their loss. It is reasonable for public resources to be used in supporting and reflecting that grief, and I take no issue with reasonable coverage of Philip's death and his funeral.

But what isn't reasonable is the national tub-thumping that's going on, treating the population like worms that must rise to the beat of a drum of conformity. What isn't reasonable is the selective reading of Philip's own wishes for his death, in pursuit of a specific political agenda.

So let's talk about what it means to be a patriot - and I can assure you that it has nothing to do with royals, nothing to do with big black funereal bars on children's programmes, and absolutely nothing to do with the size or prominence of your flag.

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Fire your rockstars

This week, the Free (Libre) and Open Source Software community are attempting to remove an activist (known for their repugnant and bigoted views) from the board of the Free Software Foundation, an important institution in the FLOSS community. The activist - Richard Stallman - founded the organisation and is widely considered to be the founder of the Free Software movement.

He is also something of a cult figure amongst many, who respect his achievements and follow his leadership in all walks of life - something of a problem with leaders that (in a most charitable reading) are thoughtless about who they harm when they speak.

Every community starts with one person - as such, it's tempting to think that these "rockstars" are an inevitable and innate risk. But what if we re-framed the role of a leader - not as a big personality that led from the front, becoming an embodiment of the community they created - but with an expectation that they create communities that quickly outgrow them, and build the processes and institutions that don't need them?

What if we expected all leaders to become quickly unnecessary, before some of them become embedded and toxic?

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In the latest attempt to get one over on a squirming Left, this government is reportedly issuing guidance to see "the Union Jack flown on UK government buildings every day  - not just on designated days as is the current practice". This is clearly part of a wider culture war, waged by a resurgent new right and, in an attempt to neuter it, adopted wholesale by the Labour Party. Of course, you can hear the Liberal response..

..ugh, fine?

Is this what you're going to do to solve the country's problems? Wave flags? Well get on with it - quickly - and then get back to these substantive issues that really matter to the electorate - like housing, supporting small business, and ensuring our COVID heroes in the NHS get paid fairly.

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Protests have been an essential tool for achieving greater freedom, and for highlighting the plight of oppressed people, for almost all of humanity. Without the protests of the UK civil rights movement we may still have "No Irish, no blacks, no dogs" proudly displayed in our B&Bs; without the marches of the WSPU women may still not have the right to vote.

But protests have another function: when properly enabled, they are an effective and relatively non-destructive option for trying to achieve social/political change. People can come out and march, even with their families and their friends - without having to prepare to defend their right to do so. By heavily restricting the right to protest, the Tories are giving those people a choice: shut up, or prepare to be attacked by the police.

This risks an almost certain escalation of violence between protesters - of all stripes - and the state.

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Once again the Shamima Begum case is doing the rounds, with people pontificating on whether or not she is - in turn - deserving of citizenship, repatriation, or sympathy. Most people can't muster the game face to pretend the woman - now largely waiting out her fate in a Syrian refugee camp - would be a serious threat to the British people if she were repatriated and arrested (although that doesn't seem to have stopped the Supreme Court from being swayed by the fantasy). Instead, the conversation has focused on moral hazard - "If we repatriated her, what's the punishment for her crimes?" (judge, jury and prison), "If she's allowed to keep her citizenship then what's the threat to others tempted to follow in her footsteps?" (..judge, jury and prison).

And, of course, the conveniently glossed over: "What if we DIDN'T leave a child to die for the sins of their parents? How would they learn?"

For while adults play deadly games of brinkmanship over how many rights we can strip in the name of security - fair trial, duty of care, the right to a nationality - the death toll can be counted on little tiny toes, of little tiny feet.

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Liberals can disagree on a lot (as the joke goes, put four Liberals in a room and you'll land up with six different opinions), but one thing that unites every Liberal is the concept of Individual Liberty. In very broad strokes, most of what Liberals do - at a local level, with oppressed groups, internationally, or wherever else - is about empowering individuals: equalising power between people, and distributing power away from where it's been concentrated.

I suspect many Liberals have forgotten their own power - and to recover, we must find it again. Let's start with a thought experiment.

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In most elections, the right outspend the Left. This is just a truism, and of no surprise to anyone acquainted with modern politics. In addition, the news media is strongly biased toward right-wing ideas and right-wing politics. In response, the Left reaches for their army of volunteers - doing for free (inspired by Left-wing ideals like equality, freedom and justice) what the right have to pay for. Even in this uneven ground, the Left - through sheer strength of message - can win out against what seem like unbeatable odds. It's this hard work, by many selfless volunteers, that has formed the bulwark against those that would lead by hate and fear, manipulated by false narratives and backed by wealthy donors.

Yesterday, the Tories wrote a decree banning this second, volunteer-led, approach to campaigning - and in so doing, tipped the scales massively in their favour.

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In May last year Twitter decided to place a small flag underneath a post by Donald Trump, which suggested that his claims of massive fraud in the 2020 election (which hadn't happened yet) were "potentially misleading". This substantial understatement from a platform that had otherwise only lightly moderated their platform led to enough outrage that alt-right figures surged towards "free-speech" platform Parler. But in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the Capitol building, this platform - at the centre of the insurrection - quickly collapsed in on itself.

In the ensuing wreckage is a goldmine of information for any Liberal - let's take a look.

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Let's start with something positive: you can donate to the Legal Defence Fund for Transgender Lives, being held by the Good Law Project, right now. I hope if you're not convinced already, this article will convince you to do something - if you have some cash to spare, donating to the Good Law Project is one thing you can do. Thank you.

Last week, The Scottish National Party voted in a new National Executive Committee. The incoming committee is being celebrated for their more hardline stance on independence - as well as their eagerness to scrap progress on trans rights.

For the "gender critical", this newly elected committee is one of many wins - and represents a wider abandonment of trans rights from the British Left.

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COVID-19 - the pandemic that has swept around the world and brought modern civilisation to its knees - should have been a moment in which the British people rallied together. Even Nicola Sturgeon has turned her eyes from much-coveted Scottish Independence to deal with managing the pandemic. We really need to be able to trust our politicians, in our hour of need.

This Conservative Johnson Ministry, however, has repeatedly demonstrated that they cannot be trusted - and with an attitude so careless, one wonders if they actually believe they could walk out on Oxford Street and shoot someone, only to have another small bump in their poll numbers.

What was the moment you realised this government could not be trusted? Leave them in the comments - and we'll give you three of ours:

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When people talk about politics, they inevitably break it down along a spectrum - with ideas and values attributed to each end of this spectrum. Social Justice on the left, respect for hierarchy on the right, etc, etc. Universal Healthcare, Wealth Redistribution and Workers Rights on the left. Law and Order, Discipline and a strong military on the right. etc etc.

Liberals often want to avoid this conversation entirely - believing (correctly, but unhelpfully) that the left/right spectrum lacks the nuance and dimensions necessary to convey what we believe, they instead seek to lecture on why the spectrum should be abandoned. "We're not left OR right - we're Liberal!", we will say (often smugly).

This just allows us to be cast in place by others: Conservatives define us as left-wing, Socialists define us as right-wing, and the public define us as centrist - as well as smug, lecturing, and devoid of any tangible values.

Liberalism is left-wing - let's consider why.

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Trump is winning

On "Good Morning Britain" yesterday morning we listened to Nigel Farage (the British Ambassador for Donald Trump) explicitly deny that Trump talked about injecting disinfectant, and then continue to deny it after they played the video of Trump talking about injecting disinfectant.

As Liberals we can easily mock this. How could anyone listen to a word this idiot has to say?

Well, 68 million Americans (and counting) watched this kind of thing play out for the four years (four years!) of Trump's presidency. They couldn't escape it - every news channel, every Facebook feed and every Twitter stream. Pervasive, nationwide coverage.

And then they went "that's my guy" - and they went out and voted for him.

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Last week Rob Davidson said "algorithms don't fail people, people do" in his article about the A-Levels results crisis. But did you know that people can teach algorithms to be racist too (Twitter managed it in less than a day) It's with this in mind that we need to approach the algorithms within our own party.

Thought experiment: let's create a Lib Dem voter detector. We would feed it existing Lib Dem voters, identify things that are common between these voters, and then use this data to seek out new voters. We would enrich this data with existing data from our central database, which is where we upload details on people our activists have spoken to.

How could this go wrong?

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