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The hard reality of power

The Liberal Democrats are now the constructive party of progressive politics, writes Simon Hughes, a

For liberals, there are good reasons to be cheerful. For the first time in more than 60 years, a new year breaks with the proud and progressive Liberal Democrat successors to William Beveridge and Jo Grimond in the government of the United Kingdom. Although the electorate (and, to a lesser extent, senior people in the Labour Party) did not give us the chance to form a coalition of the centre left, which many of us had hoped for, we rose to last year's challenge and did not run away either from practising what we preach about pluralist politics or from taking responsibility at one of the most challenging economic and political times for this country since the Second World War.

We start the year not just in government but ensuring every week that progressive policy is agreed upon and implemented. Not every policy that we would wish to implement - nor for which we have fought - can be delivered. Not getting your own way on everything is the inevitable consequence of coalition.

Opportunity knocks

There are battles to fight and hard concessions to make - on areas such as schools, immigration caps and, above all, tax and spend. These issues can lead to intellectual and political struggles of conscience. But this is the hard reality of power, not the easier world of opposition. And even when we are not able to deliver the policies on which we campaigned, Liberal Democrats are perpetually striving to make new laws as progressive as possible.

The most recent example is higher education. The proposal put forward by the coalition government is a huge improvement on the recommendations made in Lord Browne's review, commissioned by Labour with support from the Conservatives. By our introducing a system in which both the total amount and the monthly contribution paid are entirely dependent on the level of earnings after graduation, university remains affordable. This is why, despite not being a supporter of tuition fees, I am happy to take a role in working to broaden access. Labour's reaction to a scheme that, in terms of repayment, is almost the same as the graduate tax it says it now supports is hypocritical and demonstrates why the responsibility of being the constructive party of progressive politics in Britain has moved from Labour to us.

In other areas, there are still huge opportunities to implement a liberal agenda in every year of this parliament. The opportunity will come this year to win the referendum for a fairer parliamentary voting system - a huge and important prize not delivered by Labour during its 13 years in power, despite manifesto pledges, and now resiled from by many Labour MPs who were elected on this very commitment only months ago. There is the referendum in March on further powers for devolved government in Wales, as well as the significant transfer of powers to local government in England contained in the recently published Localism Bill. Above all, there are the plans - never delivered by a Labour or Conservative administration in the past 100 years - for a predominantly elected second chamber of parliament. Liberals are delivering urgently on a progressive agenda where Labour has consistently failed.

Economic and social liberalism remains as important as constitutional and political reform. I believe in reversing the gap between the rich and the poor: economic fairness should not just be a mantra or an election slogan. In my constituency of "two cities" - which has a greater percentage of council property than any other in England and some of the most expensive riverside homes - restoring the earnings link between state pensions and average earnings matters (a link broken by Margaret Thatcher and not restored by Messrs Major, Blair or Brown). Taking people earning less than £10,000 a year out of tax altogether matters, as does ensuring that richer people pay higher capital gains tax. All three are now government policy. None would have happened without progressive Liberals in this government.

Coming of age

In education and health, there are undoubtedly changes proposed or under way that do not form part of a traditional Liberal Democratic prospectus but, as the chair of governors at an outstanding inner-city primary school with a new nursery class, I know the importance of investing in children under five and between five and 11 and we are doing that. I know, too, the importance of investing in further education and non-university training and apprenticeships and we are doing that. And as a civil liberties lawyer, I know the importance of abolishing identity cards, reducing detention without trial and having an independent inquiry into allegations of torture.

The huge Budget deficit means that we cannot do all that we would wish. But budget reductions nationally or locally are not ideological: they are a response to the legacy created by the international economic crisis, the greed of the banks and the decisions of the last government. So, ahead of the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election and two referendums and elections in the spring, liberals and Liberal Democrats must never waiver in our commitment to a fairer and more liberal Britain - something not delivered by the Labour and Conservative governments of my lifetime.

It will be a five-year job. And we will be able to go to the next election proud of what we have achieved. The alternative to coalition was a single-party Conservative government. I have no doubt about which I prefer. And no progressive British voter should be in any doubt about which is preferable for Britain. This is the coming of age for Liberal Democrats. The coming of age has its challenges - but we will deliver.

Simon Hughes is deputy leader of the Liberal Democrat Party and MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze

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Is the Catholic Church about to welcome the LGBT community?

Something beneath the surface is shifting in the Catholic Church regarding its attitude to gay people, as its Synod on the Family gets underway.

Is the Catholic Church reaching an LGBT tipping point? The short answer, for anyone so buoyantly optimistic as to expect the imminent arrival of Elton John whirling a thurible round his head and backed by a leather-clad heavenly choir, is: No!

The Catholic Church remains, for the most part, deeply suspicious of homosexuality: as for transgender, the word is that – despite the claims of mostly right-wing, reactionary evangelist types – the term, let alone the issue, has scarcely registered the quietest of blips on the Vatican radar.

Still, something is stirring: if this is not a tipping point, it may yet be the moment that the balance is beginning to shift towards greater, more open acceptance, which, by my calculation, might just break out sometime around 2030. And that’s 15 years hence – not half eight this evening...

Cause for optimism is the Synod of bishops on the Family, taking place in Rome on 4-25 October. Its theme is the distinctly unsexy “vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the modern world”.

Its scope, set out at the conclusion of a previous session in October 2014, includes “the importance of affectivity in life” and “guiding engaged couples in their preparation for marriage”.  Important, but in the end, quite dry stuff.

What has set secular speculation off is the fact that also on the agenda are the “pastoral care for couples civilly married or living together”, as well as “pastoral attention towards persons with homosexual tendencies”.  Note the p-word: “pastoral”. It's key to understanding what is at stake here: what the bishops might be debating, and what they cannot.

This body cannot change policy: cannot, in the jargon of the church, address “doctrinal issues”. Pastoral is about how we treat people: whether, for instance, the Church should exclude divorced and remarried couples from receiving Communion; whether a woman requires absolution at bishop level before she may be reunited with the Church, or whether her parish priest may suffice; whether a gay couple may attend mass together.

Secular readers may, at this point, shrug and decide the whole thing is beyond them. Yet that is to ignore the importance that faith continues to play in the lives of hundreds of millions of people the world over. These things matter: they have an impact on individual lives and they influence, and are influenced by, the politics of each country in which the Church exists.

Moreover, how these things are managed reflect two very different ideas of what the Church should be and the role it should play in people's lives. Reformers and liberals, one of which Pope Francis is widely considered to be, seek guidance in the New Testament. They look to  evidence, particularly in the gospels, that sin is an individual issue, a matter between God and the person concerned, and not for other humans, however imbued with book learning they are, to judge.

Others take a different, more dogmatic view. Some might even characterise it as pharisaic: a tendency towards strict observance of the rules with little regard for the spirit. This is why the constant drip of stories about how Pope Francis has extended the hand of welcome to those traditionally considered sinful – phoning a divorced woman and telling her she can receive communion, or hugging a trans man – are significant.

So much for the split – and it is significant – within the Church. Though you’d be hard-pressed to understand this in classic political terms. The accepted gloss is that this Synod is all about learned debate. There is no lobbying, and absolutely no playing out of the issues in the wider press arena.

Do not be fooled for an instant. Lobbying is going on behind the scenes. But not as we know it.

Over the weekend, the news lit up with the removal from office of Monsignor Krysztof Olaf Charamsa, a gay priest who rather unhelpfully came out shortly before the Synod. Far more significant was the launch in Rome of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics (GNRC), attended by over 120 people, and including an interview with former Irish President Dr Mary McAleese and a keynote closing address by Bishop Raul Vera from Mexico.

Pressure is being applied, and the quieter the pressure, the more confident you suspect are those behind the pressure. The letter from the GNRC to the Synod contained no demands; was little more than a gentle wave, a nod to say that LGBT Catholics exist – and they are not going away.

In the wake of the 2014 Synod, the Pope wrote openly of the twin "temptations" that the Church needed to avoid. There was, he suggested, a need to "chart a middle course between 'hostile inflexibility' to the letter of the law and a 'false sense of mercy'”.

Hence the many, many cryptic references to be found, these past months, in the Catholic press to the “need for mercy” or, conversely, “the danger of too much mercy”.

In practical terms, this is about keeping the Church together, while managing expectations both inside and out as he does so.

The first Synod, attended by the most senior clerics in the Catholic hierarchy, still managed to open up some radical discussion around the issue of gay people within the Church. This second Synod, which includes input from bishops and lay people, is widely expected to be significantly more radical – and while that may find favour across broad swathes of the Western Church, it must also contend with the fact that in numeric terms, the Catholic Church now draws heavily from Africa and Eastern Europe, where views on LGBT issues are far more conservative.

Already, the Vatican press office has revealed that bishops have said they feel the need to change the language used by clergy with regard to gay people, cohabiting couples or, in the case of some African nations, polygamous marriages.

That may seem little to those of us used to the straightforward democratic battles for equal marriage and LGBT rights. It is, within the Catholic Church, a shift of tectonic proportions: and the Synod still has two and a half weeks to run!

Jane Fae is a trans activist who is also a practising Catholic. In the run-up to the synod, she co-ordinated the writing of a document on transgender in the Church for key attendees at the synod – and later this month she hopes, along with other trans Catholics, to be meeting with senior officials of the Catholic Church in England.

Jane Fae is a feminist writer. She tweets as @JaneFae.