Sunday, May 2nd, 2010 05:36 pm
'If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and one, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind' – John Stuart Mill On Liberty

One important test of a political party is how well it stands up for its principles, even when those principles may cost it votes. I'd be the first to admit the the the Liberal Democrats do not have a 100% record on this, particularly in some local councils and election literature. But we also have some notable successes, and I feel that it's worth celebrating them.

I've already mentioned that we, both as a party and as individual activists, were deeply concerned with 'green' issues way before they hit the wider consciousness. The same goes for gay rights, as part of a wider commitment to equality, and it's easy to forget how far we've come in the last ten years, let alone the last twenty. In our 1992 manifesto, we included the following commitment: 'Guarantee equal rights for gay men and lesbians through changes to criminal law, anti-discrimination legislation and police practices. We will repeal Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act. We will create a common age of consent regardless of gender or sexual orientation.' Yes, there's a missing 'b' word there, but for 1992 this was remarkable, and Jeremy Paxman indeed mocked Paddy Ashdown for including such an obviously unpalatable clause in the manifesto.

But we stayed firm on that. Here, in 1999, is the vote to ban workplace discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Even just over ten years ago, this was considered a sufficiently tricky subject for the government to block it, but the Lib Dems were solid in their support for it. Here is Dr Evan Harris, almost ten years ago, being awesome on the subject of gay, lesbian and bisexual students being bullied as a result of the continued existence of Section 28. Even today, there are still battles to be fought, and here Nick Clegg is still fighting them (although, yes, I'd prefer it if he included 'bisexual' and talked in terms of 'same-sex' rather than 'gay' marriage).

Nick Clegg's support for the Gurkha cause is now well known, but Lib Dems have been campaigning for justice for the Gurkhas for over five years now, led initially by Peter Carroll, a Lib Dem activist in Maidstone. Again, it may be hard to see this as an unpopular cause now, but it was only just over a year ago when we were being warned of the supposed dangers of 100,000 Gurkhas and their dependents flooding into this country. Most of the credit for the victory belongs to Joanna Lumley and the many Gurkhas who tirelessly camapigned for justice, and I would never want this to be seen as mainly a Lib Dem victory, but it was a victory in which we gave strong, principled support.

Just over a year ago, there was a large protest planned in the City of London against the G-20 summit. Worried about the possibilities of police violence – based on the policing of similar protests earlier – the Lib Dems sent along several independent parliamentary observers, with the specific remit of monitoring the behaviour of the police, not the protesters. This was not a particularly popular move – this article by Daniel Finkelstein in The Times accurately reflected the view among much of white middle-class England that the protesters were a bunch of dangerous anarchists out looking for a fight, and that the the police were justified in using whatever tactics they needed to in order to stop them doing damage to valuable property. This view is still depressingly common even a year on, although I'm pleased to see that Daniel Finkelstein no longer shares it.

I have no idea to what extent Shirley Williams, David Howarth, Tom Brake et al shared the views of the protesters; I suspect that they were sympathetic to many of the concerns, but would probably disagree about how to address them, but I may be wrong. There was, in any case, no single message coming from the protesters. But as Liberal Democrats, they all had a genuine commitment to the rights of the protesters to protest.

As it turned out, it's a good thing they were there. Tom Brake's report from within the kettle was one of the key ones highlighting the problems with the police tactics, all the more powerful by coming from an MP. His convincingly-argued claim that the crowd was infiltrated by police agent provocateurs trying to goad the protesters into attacking the police has never, as far as I can tell, been satisfactorally addressed.

But it could have been very different. When the Liberal Democrats decided to monitor the protests, they had no idea how the day was going to go. The publicity for us, if we had been seen to be supporting violent protesters against a police presence trying to contain them, could have been very bad indeed. In fact, that's how the protests were reported for about 24 hours afterwards, until it emerged that no, the protesters hadn't been bombarding police trying to help Ian Tomlinson, and that the mysterious absence of any CCTV footage didn't stop there being plenty recorded on the ground on camcorders and mobile phones. However, our observers weren't there to get good publicity. They were there to defend the rights of the protesters against the police, and they'd be there again whatever the outcome.

We also, as I've mentioned before, have a manifesto commitment to scrap control orders and reduce pre-charge detention to a maximum of 14 days. In this, we are standing up for the rights of terrorist suspects, not a well liked section of society (and, therefore, a section with the greatest need of protection).

The principle of evidence-based policy making scored a recent victory in the Science and Technology Committee's recent recommendation that the MHRA should stop licensing homoeopathic remedies and that the NHS should stop funding them. Dr Evan Harris's contribution to this debate has been so widely recognised that it's often missed that the Committee's chair, Phil Willis, is another Liberal Democrat MP who was instrumental in asking searching questions of those giving evidence in favour of homeopathy. Phil is retiring at this election, and will be sadly missed. Evidence-based policy making may not seem like an unpopular cause to many people reading this, but in the wider community, threatening to stop funding homoeopathy did not go down well.

I should probably mention the Real Women campaign, launched by Jo Swinson at our Autumn conference last year. This has been the subject of some derision – the positive body image aspect of it was mocked by Anthony Jay's Yes Minister segment on the Lib Dem manifesto on Newsnight – but is something we're campaigning on because we feel that it's vitally important for the welfare of women in our society. The issue that's got most attention is that of labelling adverts that use airbrushed images – and note that it is labelling not banning, as many critics of the campaign would have you believe – but the paper has also contributed policy on name blanking on job applications to the manifesto. Whether or not you feel that the Real Women campaign is an unpopular cause will probably depend on your familiarity with the issues, but it is a grass-roots campaign that arises out of principle and attempts to persuade others that it's right, rather than being an obvious vote winner.

I like being in a party where I have at least some hope that if our principles are unpopular, we'll stick to our principles and try to change public opinion.