Monday, 8 November 2010

Communicating with your values is underrated

Are you one of those people who've gone right off those Liberal Democrats? Maybe it's because they sought to create a stable Government with those nasty Tories (I mean, that wasn't easy for me to contemplate at first, that's for sure). If you're a little more pragmatic, it might be that you're angry with Nick and Vince about the tuition fees policy.

Let's go into 'imagination world' for a second. It's one of my favourite places and I'm often accused of spending way too much time there... but indulge me...

Imagine Vince Cable stood up the other week and said: "We're going to make the way university is paid for fairer. I've long been in favour of a graduate tax, so I've looked at the tax system and the fees system and I've found a way of creating something similar.

"I am going to scrap tuition fees for more than half of all students. Yes, 54.2% of students will now simply have a graduate contribution when they earn over £21,000 a year. Furthermore, I believe it is important to encourage people from all financial backgrounds into higher education, therefore under my new scheme the poorest 25% of students will pay less than they currently do under Labour's old tuition fees scheme.

"When I went to university, people got a grant to help them live. It's time those that need it most get one of those, so students from homes that have an income of less that £60,000 will have access to £3,250 in grants. This means the poorest students will be £700 a year better off.

"At the last election the Liberal Democarts made a pledge that we wanted to scrap fees entirely but we said in our manifesto, that we wouldn't be able to do this in the first term of a Parliament. What we have done today is made a great start and made sure the poorest will not only pay less for their university education, but that they will also be helped more than they ever were under the last Labour Government."

Ok - you can come back out of imagination land now. Let's get back to the real world shall we? Thing is, I've tricked you. All the statements above are real. They are based on figures from the Institute of Fiscal Studies and their analysis of the Coalition's policy on higher education fees. What you read above is really happening. I bet the Labour spin machine didn't tell you that!

I don't support fees. I'm not even a massive fan of the policy above. I see it as a mere stop-gap until we get fees abolished entirely, but I'm a realist. The Lib Dems are the junior partner in a coalition with the Conservatives. Isn't it amazing that they got more money for the poorest whilst reducing the amount the poorest will pay in fees? Isn't that progressive? Isn't that the sort of direction in which most of us would want to see our country moving?

Once again, the only failure by the Liberal Democrats, was in the way in which they presented this policy and the way they rolled over and got shafted by Labour's spin machine. Whilst I don't agree wholeheartedly with the policy and want to see a shift away from any financial burden on students for tuition, I resent seeing the Labour Party, the party that created the fees system, taking pot-shots at the Lib Dems over this. Already around 37 out of 57 of the Lib Dem MPs are considering voting against the policy, despite its more progressive elements, because they hold dear the pledge they made to the NUS. That is admirable. These MPs understand that whilst the spirit of the new policy is good, the letter of it could make them hypocrites. I'm encouraged by their positive stance.

So, what we see are the Lib Dems who take their pledges very seriously and have reservations about voting for this policy, and the other Lib Dems who believe that what they've come up with is a good compromise that benefits the poorest students considerably, thus passing the 'fairness test'. These are the hallmarks of a reasoned, progressive and imaginative party.

The Liberal Democrats need one thing more than anything else, and that's a better grasp of the language of influence. Being out PR'd when you've made improvements to fairness in the UK is inexcusable.

Monday, 1 November 2010

The sticks and stones fallacy

Most of us have heard the rhyme "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me". It's a rhyme we probably heard someone say at school. Maybe a well meaning teacher or parent who didn't want us to be upset because someone had called us a nasty name. As well meaning as this was, it simply isn't true.

There was a big controversy this weekend when Harriet Harman (the person who pushed the equality agenda in the last Labour Government in the UK) called a Lib Dem member of the current Government a "ginger rodent" who should be "extinct". I have no doubt Danny Alexander, the minister concerned, has heard such things before but that doesn't give anyone the excuse to use such a jibe.

I'm all for robust political debate. I think inventive ways of demolishing a political argument, be it through analysis, sarcastic metaphor or direct comparison are useful and necessary. Throwing playground insults around, however, has nothing to do with the debate and sends out a really bad message.

"Come on Lloydie, surely this is political correctness gone mad?". It's not. Far from it, in fact. Words have immense power and as a trained hypnotist I'm well aware of how humans can be affected by the use of certain words in certain ways.

If I have a room full of people and ask them to imagine sucking on a lemon and to imagine all the juice of the lemon dripping on their taste buds, most people in that room will start to salivate. That's a pretty simple demonstration of the power of words. If I hypnotise someone I can help them overcome life-long fears such as spider phobias or fear of flying. That, also, is done purely through the power of words.

Let's swap my room of people for a school yard for a second. Let's say someone is being constantly taunted by their peers for being ginger, or gay, or black - or anything that sets them apart from the rest. Given how powerful words can be, what message will that person go away with? Probably, over time, it'll be a negative message, possibly the message that their difference is what makes them "unacceptable" to other people.

I saw a pantomime a couple of years ago where, within the first five minutes they used the phrase "Well, at least he isn't ginger" in front of an audience made up, predominantly, of children. I wonder if that pantomime writer would have been as happy to write the line if they substituted "ginger" for "black" because both are pretty arbitrary. The line, no matter who it singled out, was giving the audience the message that "ginger" isn't ok, but it's fine for us to poke fun at.

This isn't a case of being "over sensitive" - this is about knowing the power of words. Words can be used to encourage, nurture, praise and, indeed to provide constructive, useful criticism. They can be used to express and explain emotions and ideas. Language can be the most awesome, effective tool we possess when we use it well.

The effects of sticks and stones is well know, but I believe it's also important to be sensitive to how powerful words and "name calling" can be. We all say things we shouldn't say but if we pay attention to the language we use, we can use this very powerful tool for good. I find that to be a very exciting prospect.