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Time for the Lib Dems to put the amateurs out to pasture

By Angela Harbutt
May 10th, 2015 at 2:00 pm | Comments Off on Time for the Lib Dems to put the amateurs out to pasture | Posted in Liberal Democrats

Following the “evisceration” of the Lib Dem parliamentary party on Thursday, will the Lib Dems finally wake up and smell the coffee?

Losing some 47 seats in the House of Commons and somewhere in the region of 350 deposits, on May 7th, was not an accident. It was not a “price paid for being in coalition” – particularly when the entire South West was lost to a party to the right of them. It was not the “brutal tactics of the Conservatives” – they simply fought an excellent campaign – and won. Did Lib Dems really expect Lynton Crosby to back off in the South West because the Lib Dems had been good eggs in 2010? Of course not. It was not a price paid for the tuition fees debacle. It was certainly not the “unfairness of the voting system” (we presumably knew that before we started) and it was definitely not a lack of media coverage or the “biased” media coverage (the much-loved “all the media hate us” hobby horse of the party).

It was the total and utter failure of the Lib Dems to offer anything interesting or compelling to the country.

It was a shambles of a campaign. And it was a total and utter failure of Nick Clegg to make the necessary changes to the party, its structure and its personnel over the last 5 years that made such a disastrous campaign inevitable.

Let me be clear; I know Nick is a good man. He is an excellent media performer (as he showed yet again during the General Election). He is also a brave and honourable man. Had he not been prepared to drag the party into the 2010 coalition, the country would not just be on its knees right now it would be on the floor. I hope that history will recognise this contribution, because it was truly noble and magnificent.

But for all the bravery he showed for the sake of the country, he was a coward when it came to taking tough decisions for the sake of the party.

He did nothing to modernise the ludicrous archaic committee structure of the Liberal Democrats (too many groups with lots of power and prestige but no accountability). You can hardly make a cup of tea in the Lib Dems without half a dozen committees getting involved. It probably has more rules than it has members.

This is no way for a political party to operate in the 21st century. Take just one example. Why on earth did Nick allow the perpetuation of the wholly undemocratic conference elite (those who have been awarded a magic “voting card” by some local party ) deciding party policy rather than, oh I don’t know, those who actually have been elected by the voters? If the idea of accountable MPs determining policy was a step too far, at the very least we should have moved to a democratic “one member one vote” system by now. Why no change?  Of course the answer is probably that Nick didn’t want to take on the 29 person Federal Policy Committee and the 20+ person Federal Conference committee (and possibly several other committees I have never heard of) who would undoubtedly have fought tooth and nail to protect their power base. But that should not have stopped him from doing it.

Likewise, he did nothing to end the spectre of hapless amateur hangers-on at the top of the Lib Dem hierarchy surrounding the leader like a ring of steel; getting their kicks from “being important”, hoarding information, and lauding it over everyone else – hopelessly out of their depth and too self-obsessed or too stupid to know the limitations of their own abilities.

You might have thought that Nick would learn from the omnishambles of the “YES to Fairer Votes” (Yes to AV) campaign – possibly the most disastrous campaign ever witnessed by mankind (up until the General Election of 2015 that is). For the 2011 AV campaign he appointed his mate John Sharkey  to head up the fight. Sharkey, you will recall, was the bungling strategist in charge of the lacklustre 2010 election campaign which was saved single-handedly by Nick’s own performance at the TV debates (not helped by the hapless Sharkey apparently leaving his secret TV debates notes in the back of a cab).

Yet come 2015 Nick does the same thing again, appointing his patron and friend Paddy Ashdown as Campaign Chair and Olly Grender (ex everything in the Lib Dems) as Deputy Chair. It was like YES to AV all over again – a total misallocation of resources, and silly gimmicks (a manifesto launch in a nightclub where the sound fails) failing to cover up the lack of any coherent proposition to the electorate.

And if you want proof positive that the amateurs in charge at the top of the 2015 campaign were living in la-la land right up to the end,  then look no further than Paddy’s assertion that it had been “a wonderful campaign” on May 6th and Grender’s preposterous tweet on May 7th in response to the “I’ll eat my hat” gaff:

“@campbellclaret will eat his kilt, @paddyashdown will eat his hat …… right now I’d settle for a sandwich #GE2015”.

Did these people have absolutely no idea what was going on, even that late in the game?

And that is the problem with the Lib Dems. It is the plaything of too many amateurs and wannabes – whether they prance around at the various committees feeling self important (with all the power and none of the accountability), wander around on stage at conference admiring their own images on the TV and grinning whenever they “take a lump” out of the leadership, or head up disastrous self-indulgent campaigns, for which they all too rarely face the consequences.

Nick has stood down as leader, but what of Olly Grender and Lord Ashdown? They have, presumably, been automatically stood down now the campaign is done. So what do they do – just move on and go back to writing books or popping up on the odd TV programme? I trust they will never be put anywhere near the Lib Dem levers of power ever again. And, that the time for appointing amateurs is well and truly over.

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By Editor
May 8th, 2015 at 1:26 pm | 1 Comment | Posted in Liberal Democrats

Pretty much everything that can be said, has been said, by Mark Littlewood in the Telegraph today:

Nick Clegg has spent five years trying to appeal to no one. His party has paid the price.

In their worst nightmares, the Liberal Democrats surely never believed they would meet with such total catastrophe at the ballot box. Even as he held his own seat, against the expectations of many, Nick Clegg looked a broken and defeated man.

Results are still trickling in, but the exit poll – ridiculed by Lib Dem high command on Thursday evening – indicating a tally of just ten seats now looks to towards the top end of their expectations. As a national political force, the Liberal Democrats have been eviscerated. Clegg was right to say that the results of this incredible election raise profound questions for the country and for his party. With regard to the latter, one wonders if it can continue to survive at all in its present form. Perhaps Nick Clegg would actually have preferred to have lost his own seat, rather than return as the nominal leader of a microscopic Parliamentary Party.

The central problem for the Lib Dems was that they could never really work out what they were saying and who they were appealing to. There’s nothing wicked about moderation and seeking to position yourselves as equidistant between the two major parties, but it hardly sets the pulse racing. In essence, the Liberal Democrats were saying that they knew the British people would select gin or vodka – but their pitch was to be the tonic water to pour on top. It is, at root, a pretty feeble and uninspiring offer….

…The party faces a further, long term problem. Although swathes of senior Lib Dem politicians – including those who are household names, such as Vince Cable, Simon Hughes and Charles Kennedy, have had their political careers terminated by the electorate, the truth is that the Lib Dems would have fared even more catastrophically in most of their seats if less well known candidates had been bearing the party colours. Having lost these seats, it is hard to imagine how they can ever be won back.

Once the LibD ems had taken the step of entering government, they may have had the opportunity to define themselves as a genuinely classical liberal party, seeking to shift power in every area of life away from the state and towards individual men and women. But they fluffed it. They retreated to their comfort zone of not really saying anything distinguishable. And – as a result – they fell off the edge of an electoral cliff.

The Lib Dems might decide to limp on as a sort of confederation of residents associations. Almost for old times’ sake. As a sort of hobby. They can gather by the seaside at conferences and reminisce about the old days. Such a future might even be just about viable, but it cannot be described as serious politics and it is hard to see how it meaningfully contributes to promoting liberalism. A lot of people will ask whether anyone would bother creating the Liberal Democrats if they didn’t already exist. And the answer to that question, for many, would surely be “no”. 

You can read the full article here.

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Nick’s nursery-school economics

By Angela Harbutt
February 19th, 2015 at 2:50 pm | 1 Comment | Posted in Uncategorized

The new Family and Childcare Trust report , out today, is receiving wide coverage. Dramatic headlines proclaim that “The cost of childcare so high that it does not pay UK families to work” (Guardian headline). The price of a part-time nursery place for a child under two has gone up, the report states, by almost a third in the last five years with parents now being forced to pay more than £6,000 a year.

The cost of childcare is undoubtedly an area that political parties are likely to squabble over as the general election approaches. Indeed Nick Clegg has already come out of the traps promising more for “hard working families”.

At present, parents of three and four-year-olds, and some two-year-olds, are offered 15 free hours’ childcare per week in termtime. Nick has pledged today to extend this to give away 15 hours a week “free” for all two-year-olds and for those children of working parents aged between nine months and two years “saving families thousands of pounds”. He also said Liberal Democrats aimed to increase free provision to 20 hours in the longer term.

Good for the kids, great for the parents, fantastic for society. Maybe….

But let us consider for a moment why childcare is so expensive and indeed why costs have risen so dramatically and look set to rise further.

Let’s start with the basics. Childcare is labour intensive. The law says (last time I looked) that one nursery worker can look after no more than three children under two, where children are over two the ratio is 1:4 and for over-threes it is 1:8. National Insurance, pensions and salaries for workers account for 77% of a nursery’s costs – that’s a healthy slug of the cost. Added to that, nurseries are also now expected to have more qualified staff, adding to the costs. And lest we forget, nurseries’ staff costs are set to increase in 2015 with pension auto-enrolment responsibilities coming in for many small and medium size businesses.

Government giveth with one hand and taketh away with another.

And if nurseries are forced to pay all staff the Living Wage, as many Councils appear to be considering, this would push up costs further (by an estimated 13%).

Then there are the additional costs facing a typical nursery. Insurance is very expensive (and rising every year it seems). Add in rent, heating and lighting, cleaning, food, maintenance etc most of which have risen dramatically in one way or another over the past few years. Then consider business rates and VAT (up from 17.5% to 20% in 2011) pushing up the cost of childcare. The average annual business rate paid by nurseries is almost £16,000. Most nurseries are not able to benefit from small business rate relief, as their rateable value at an average £30,000 is well above the threshold. And let us not forget that compliance with the never-ending list of Government rules and regulations has also added to costs (providers of childcare are subject to Ofsted inspection in the same way as schools for older children).

This can explain part of the rising cost in childcare fees, but by no means all of it. The biggest cause of the rising costs of childcare is the “free” Government subsidy.

Nurseries have to provide 15 hours of free childcare for children over the age of three. Although the Government (i.e. the taxpayer) pays for this, according to the National Day Nurseries Association, (NDNA) they only get paid £3.80 an hour per child from the Government to provide the care. This payment does not cover the cost of care, it argues, leaving a shortfall per child per year. Underfunding has been reported by NDNA in six successive nursery surveys over four years.

So how do nurseries make up the shortfall? By effectively increasing the costs to parents who pay for care above and beyond the 15 hours and those with children under 2 years old.

Simple economics!

The more hours nurseries are expected to provide at a loss to their business, the more they will pass the cost on to parents paying for additional hours of childcare beyond the free 15 hours, or for children below the entitlement age.

Don’t take my word for it. The NDNA says

“The money that childcare providers currently receive to deliver free hours falls short by an average of £800 per child per year for each funded three to four-year-old place and £700 for each two-year-old place.

“Nurseries are being forced to increase their fees to parents who pay for additional hours, or for younger children not eligible for funded places, to make up the funding shortfall.

“For most nurseries, the average sum received of £3.80 per hour does not cover the cost of high-quality childcare, let alone make a surplus.”

“This is the biggest single reason that nursery fees are rising for some paying parents who end up subsidising the free places.”

The more governments tinker with the market, and meddle in matters best left to parents the more problems they cause.

So Nick please note, offering more “free” places is not the solution, nor is the planned extension to 20 hours. It’s most likely to exacerbate the problem, driving more nurseries out of business; limiting choices to parents and driving up costs still further for parents seeking more than the “free” entitlement. It may get you a few extra votes this May, but, voters wont thank you in the long term.

“Free” is not “free” it always costs somebody something – more when the Government get’s its sticky fingers involved.

Of course some will say that the simple solution is to pay nurseries more. That might reduce childcare costs in the wider sense – removing the subsidy effect.

But what will get cut to fund this act of largess to those who choose to have children? And is it fair? Nick appears to be penalising parents who elect for one parent to stay at home to nurture their children in pre-school years. Why are they excluded from this election gift to parents? Indeed why make it free for all? Much like the winter fuel allowance, why provide this those who don’t need it.

This is the worst kind of lib demmery. No wonder the party is the mire if this is typical of it’s offering.

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Lib Dem disaster – you may as well blame the bird

By Angela Harbutt
May 28th, 2014 at 4:39 pm | 10 Comments | Posted in Europe, European Politics, Leadership, Liberal Democrats, Nannying


A lot has been said (and written) about why UKIP performed so well, and the Lib Dems so disastrously, last week. Much of the Lib Dem analysis has focused on the curse of coalition,  the thorny issue of Europe/migration (where the voters are merely misguided/stupid/plain wrong) and, more latterly, on playing the blame game -it wasn’t the message it was the messenger.

Sorry – it is none of the above. It is the simple fact that people don’t know what the Lib Dems are about …and don’t care about the things the party seems to care about, or simply disagree with them. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but people have had enough of bossy Europe, don’t want a nanny state that treats them like children and couldn’t give a toss about electoral reform.

In opposition, the LibDems were the party of protest – the “none of the above” party. With no one else on the block it had an easy ride.  It possibly didn’t matter that whilst some Lib Dem policies straddled the vast majority of its members – opposition to the Iraq war.. a stance against ID cards.. internationalism (although even there we all have our views on how to define that) – the rest of the policies were a mish-mash … a little bit liberal a little bit social democrat.  But no clarity. No one really knew what the Lib Dems stood for, (apart from “none of the above”) . To overcome this dog’s breakfast, each Lib Dem nuanced the message on any individual policy  to try to weave a cohesive message – inevitably sounding increasingly like political automatons than real people. The “curse of the coalition” has been simply to expose the fact that the Lib Dems don’t have a clear and simple proposition. (And no! asking the electorate to reward the party for making the ultimate sacrifice of going into coalition and/or for putting a stop on some Tory policies wont cut it)

Well now there is a new kid on the block. UKIP – which has an extra-ordinarily clear and simple message and (potentially devastating news for Lib Dems) it extends well beyond Europe and immigration.

Jeremy Brown summed it up pretty well on Question Time :

” …When it comes to globalisation our best prospects for being successful as a country are to be outward looking and internationalist, but I think there is a perfectly legitimate opposite view, and that is the view that UKIP put forward.

But that is not just what UKIP represent. And I think that the political classes and the media elite need to understand the state of mind of a lot of people, particularly beyond London, who are voting for UKIP… Now some of them may be racist or sexist. I am sure some of them are.

But I think some of them object to being told the whole time by that elite, what they should eat, what they should drink, what they should say, what they should believe in. And I think Nigel Farage for quite a lot of those people is just a big two fingers stuck up to what they feel is a hectoring out of touch elite. Now they may be unreasonable, they may be angry beyond the point they should be, but I think politicians in the other parties need to spend a little bit of time reflecting if there is a protest vote, why people are wanting to protest, and not just bandy all those people as being racist or what ever it might be.”

Actually I am not sure that UKIP opposes being “internationalist and outward looking” – they have a different solution. And to be honest I don’t agree that people are “angry beyond the point they should be” – I think the voters have a right to be bloody angry – and show it. But Jeremy is right that the UKIP rise much much more than being anti-EU.

Dig below the media caricature of UKIP and the message is plain and simple (and potentially rather attractive) – Return more power to an accountable Westminster – and deliver a Westminster that will interfere less. Of course there are some pretty unsavoury characters within UKIP and some rather unpleasant utterances from time to time. But the party is very young and voters (who are not as stupid as the elite seem to think) are willing to look past their mistakes in the belief that something exciting, clear and refreshingly straight-talking is being formed.

If the Lib Dems are to survive in any shape or form they need to stop being the party of “stop” or “none of the above” and find an equally clear, simple and human message that voters understand – and just to be clear …ideally one that a reasonable number of voters agree with and care about.

That is not a revelation. Many have been saying the same thing for some considerable time. The question is how to get to that point.

I think it is simple. For too long the Liberal Democrat party has been a party of fudge, priding itself on being a party of process, committees and sub-committees seemingly oblivious to the fact that this is the very heart of the problem. There are too many people with a slice of power but no accountability. Nick may be called leader – but he is in effect little more than the chief spokesperson – the face of the party – you may as well blame the bird as the leader for the disastrous results last week. As for conference… the party declares itself democratic but denies the vast majority of Lib Dem members the opportunity to vote on policy . That is not democratic that is elitist. You have to be one of the “in-crowd” to obtain a magical voting card – and have the means and opportunity to up-sticks and get to some far flung place to exercise that right.

And it is the elitism that permeates the very heart of the Lib Dems that sucks. We have bumbled along allowing too many elites on too many committees to exert power without any responsibility. They rejoice in getting one over on the leadership at conference- even when that message is out of kilter with the rest of the party, or indeed the wider voting public. And if they can get conference to pass a motion to form another panel or sub-committee to investigate x y or z policy, providing they can fill it with their buddies, they are in clover.

The Lib Dems has become a party run by smug middle classes who think they know best on everything. Better than the leadership, better than the constituents our MPs are supposed to serve.  If we allow the leadership to be batted from pillar to post and forced into pledges and promises they don’t agree with or cant deliver by countless numbers of committees and policy groups, voted through by a minority of activists at the seaside, we should not be surprised that the result is a disjointed message, political double-speak and a hopeless mass of contradictions. We are a party of freedom of speech but voted in favour of Leveson’s press restrictions (we hate Murdoch). We are the party who says “trust in people” but support the plain packaging of cigarettes and appear to want a fizzy drinks tax ( we only “trust in people” when they agree with us).  We want to champion “hard working” people – but heaven forbid that those people are sufficiently successful in their endeavours that they become rich because we will tax them to hell and back (basically we all work in the public sector).

While the Lib Dems play introspective sixth form politics, UKIP is getting on with the business of telling people what it stands for. Maybe that is because the smoking, drinking, straight-talking leader of UKIP is actually allowed to lead – not just be a figurehead. I am sure that Nick will say he has more power than that… perhaps… but not much.

Egos need to be crushed. Committees slashed. Decision making on policy and manifesto returned to those who are accountable. A camel is a horse designed by committee – and at the moment we are one sick-looking camel.

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Nick Clegg should say No Thank EU

By Angela Harbutt
August 1st, 2013 at 11:52 am | 19 Comments | Posted in EU, EU Politics, European Politics, Liberal Democrats

A couple of days ago I re-read the “Liberal Democrat Manifesto for Europe”. On the summary page it says

“Liberal Democrats don’t believe in one-size-fits-all solutions. This is because Liberal Democrats believe that individual people, families and their communities know best about the things that affect them, so decision should be taken by them, not by distant politicians and bureaucrats in Westminster or Brussels.

That is why we insist that Europe does not act when national, regional or local action is more effective.”

I assume that is still the party position (given that the web site is still live).

I am sure that most Liberal Democrats agree that on matters of public health this is especially true.  Decision-making should wherever possible, be taken at national, regional or local level, not left to the whims of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels.

I am also sure that the party will agree that if the UK parliament has been deliberately denied the opportunity to scrutinise any European legislation, (having refused to provide a waiver on scrutiny), then that legislation should not be allowed to proceed until such times as it has.

All that being the case I will be asking Nick, as Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, to take action on a rather scandalous state of affairs.

Back in June, Conservative MP and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, Anna Soubry was summoned, very hastily, to attend a General Council meeting in Luxembourg on 21st June. The purpose of the meeting was to agree, with other health ministers from around Europe, the “general approach” to be taken on the revised Tobacco Products Directive.

Soubry requested waivers from the scrutiny committees in both Houses. The Lords agreed but the Commons European soubry picScrutiny Committee said no on the grounds that there was insufficient time (less than two weeks) to examine the very many (and complex) issues involved. Soubry decided to over-ride the House of Commons scrutiny committee, and played a full and “crucial” role in the discussions on Europe-wide regulation at the June 21st meeting.

The Directive is now due to be voted on by MEPs in the first week of September. This vote too has been hastily forced up the agenda (scheduled for October, it has now been moved to early September).

Voters in Britain will rightly wonder what is going on. Why is Brussels in such a hurry to get this legislation rushed through? Why has UK parliament been denied the right to examine the proposed EU laws? Why are most of the public wholly unaware of the proposals and therefore prevented from expressing their views on the matter? Why indeed is Europe forcing through laws banning swathes of products that no UK government has sought fit to do?

No wonder Euro-scepticism is on the rise. No wonder at least half of the adult population believe that the UK would be better off outside of the EU if this is how legislation is introduced.

The scrutiny committee has already summoned Soubry to explain herself (and a very sad and sorry affair it was too). The chair (Bill Cash MP) has stated :

“We consider that insufficient information was made available to the committee to enable it to scrutinise the Commission’s proposals”

“Negotiations on the draft Directive appear to have proceeded at unwarranted haste given its far-reaching implications”

“The draft Directive remains under scrutiny”

That begs the question how on earth can MEPs vote on the Directive proposals in early September when the Directive is still under scrutiny in the UK Parliament?

I will be asking Nick to take action. This is a cast-iron chance to make the words in the manifesto count; make it clear that EU laws that by-pass proper scrutiny in Westminster will not be tolerated.

I will be asking Nick to:

  1. 1. Work with others (including Lib Dem MEPs) to ensure that the EU delay any vote on this Directive (which has been rushed through faster than a high-speed train) until such times as Westminster has been given sufficient time to examine the proposals contained in the Directive. There is no good reason to force this through in September when, for want of a few weeks or so, the ministers can re-convene and discuss this proposal with the benefit of more time, consideration and proper parliamentary scrutiny. Then, and only then should MEPs be given the opportunity to vote on the proposals.
  2. 2. Ensure that decision-making on UK public health remains with elected politicians here in the UK, not Brussels bureaucrats.

Earlier this week the smokers’ group Forest launched a new campaign No Thank EU seeking to give the British people a voice on this piece of desperately hurried and deeply flawed EU legislation.road-sign-logo6

But it should not be left to Forest to bang on doors demanding  that the EU be made to pause whilst elected politicians here in the UK (and elsewhere I have no doubt) are actually given sufficient time to review carefully what is proposed.  Nor should it be Forest’s job to fight to ensure that decision-making on matters of UK public health remains in the UK.

This is an ideal opportunity for Nick in particular, and the party more generally, to demonstrate to voters that being Pro-European does not mean remaining silent when Brussels gets it wrong. To show that liberals are willing and able to stand up to Europe when UK parliamentary processes are circumvented or when the Commission moves beyond its remit.

I understand that smoking is a controversial topic and that some Liberal Democrats believe that any measures that may reduce smoking rates should be embraced. But this view is deeply flawed if they are willing to allow proper process to be casually caste aside in the process. Those who are passionate about the need for yet more smoking legislation and support the EU measures proposed should lobby for their inclusion in the Liberal Democrat manifesto – not hide behind Brussels bureaucrats. That is how democracy works, surely?

I have listed the key EU proposals below. I know that Lib Dem MEPs are already deeply concerned about the proposals on e-cigarettes contained in this Directive and have spoken out about it publicly on several occasions. But speaking out about some aspects of the Directive, or seeking amendments come the September vote, doesn’t go far enough.

It’s like agreeing to play a game of football knowing that the hosts of the game have changed all the rules and given themselves a 3 goal advantage. To play the game legitimises the new rules. That won’t help the 1.3 million+ vapers or 10 million+ smokers and it will outrage many ordinary voters who will wonder what on earth the EU will be allowed to railroad through next.

This is bad legislation, rushed through to avoid proper scrutiny. I am asking Liberal Democrats individually and collectively, and the leader specifically, to make a stand.

Signing the petition would be helpful so please do go ahead and sign. But I am also asking the party to show that when necessary it is willing to stand up to the EU, and to coalition ministers who have chosen to play fast and loose with parliamentary process.

What the EU proposes and Westminster hasn’t been allowed to examine:

As well as forcing all e-cigarettes to become classified as medicinal products Europe-wide, the EU Tobacco Products Directive proposes:

  • A  ban on menthol and ‘slim’ cigarettes throughout Europe.
  • Larger health warnings on packs and pouches covering  75 per cent of the front and back.
  • Standardisation of cigarette pack size and shape
  • A ban on packs of ten cigarettes
  • A ban on all smaller pouches of roll your own tobacco

For more information on these proposals, visit “What’s at Stake” on the campaign website.

For additional reading on the Tobacco Products Directive see this article “A dog’s breakfast” by Clive Bates (former director of ASH (Action on Smoking and Health).

Angela Harbutt is Campaigns Manager for No Thank EU (, launched on July 29.

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