Friday, 23 March 2018

What was our press team thinking?

Vince Cable met with ALDE leaders yesterday
Yesterday afternoon the Lib Dem press team put out a statement making quite a claim.

The media release stated that "Liberal Prime Ministers from eight EU countries have publicly backed the Liberal Democrats' call for the British public to have a vote on the final Brexit deal."  

The statement the Prime Ministers supposedly signed reads: "We regret Brexit, but acknowledge the choice made by British voters for the UK Government to negotiate withdrawal. We further acknowledge and support the Liberal Democrats’ call for the British people to have the final say on the Brexit deal. All parties need to seek a broad deal accommodating both the position of the UK government and the principles on which the European Union is built.”

As you can imagine, the mainstream media picked up on this, because it was quite a statement on so many levels. Not only was it timed to coincide with the Prime Minister's meeting with EU leaders, it would have represented a historic departure from the usual practice of the leaders of sovereign nations not interfering in another state's constitutional or electoral affairs.

I read the statement with some surprise. Surely no Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) leader, let alone a Prime Minister, could sign up to such a statement - whatever they thought privately? To make the observation that Brexit is far from a done deal would be reasonable enough, but to go as far as offer explicit support for the policy of the Liberal Democrats (which is only one member of the wider Liberal ALDE family) would be a potentially very dangerous, not to mention unprecedented, step to take. 

I would have thought that anyone with any understanding of European politics would realise that the statement, as written, would prove impossible for any ALDE leader to sign. I was suspicious of the claim that any Prime Minister could have signed this, never mind eight of them. So what actually happened?

Vince Cable did meet with fellow ALDE leaders in Brussels, including the eight PMs, for a working lunch. It seems that conversations were had about Brexit, and that there was some broad agreement on various issues, as one might well expect from a gathering of Europe's Liberal leaders. While this was taking place, the party issued the media release making the extravagant claim.

Immediately following the meeting, the news media naturally wanted to know the detail of what had been agreed. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was happy to put on record his view that, if Britain changed its position on leaving the EU, it would be highly welcomed by “almost everyone in the European Union. Of course, whether that happens is up to the UK itself and UK politicians, but I am very happy my friend Vince Cable and his party are very much pleading for a discussion with the UK to make that happen.” A supportive statement indeed, but a more cautious and measured approach that the one our party press team claimed had been agreed.

It got worse. Very soon it became apparent that, while productive conversations were had, nothing formal had been agreed. The ALDE group couldn't have been more frank: "No statement has been agreed upon or released". Ouch!

The end result is that several newspapers today are running headlines that, from a Liberal Democrat point of view, are quite damaging. The Guardian runs with "Lib Dems embarrassed as EU leaders deny Brexit statement", the Daily Mail has "Lib Dem leader Vince Cable humiliated over botched Brexit PR stunt", while the Scotsman takes the view "Vince Cable humiliated as EU leaders disown call for new Brexit vote". 

It's difficult to disagree with either of these headlines, but especially the Mail's. Someone clearly thought this stunt - which is what it was - would be a good idea. That person, or people, should have understood that Prime Ministers of fellow EU states were not remotely likely to make public statements amounting to interference in another country's constitutional affairs. To imagine any ALDE leader would do something so illiberal defies belief. As far as stunts go, this has to be one of the most amateurish and self-defeating I've seen for some time.

I do not know who was responsible for devising this bizarre stunt, but it seems hard to believe it would be someone actively involved in politics. Anyone with a modicum of understanding would appreciate that the pre-written statement could not be publicly agreed by ALDE leaders, whatever their private sympathies. They would also know what the inevitable media reaction would be.

This leads me to ask questions of our press team. Why did no-one, at any point, realise this was a foolish idea that would only leave us looking silly and dishonest? Why did no-one look at the statement and think, "they're never going to sign this"? Why would a media release of this kind be circulated without knowing whether a statement had actually been signed?

It is deeply illiberal to interfere in another state's constitutional and electoral matters and I would have expected the Liberal Democrats to appreciate this. I would also have expected a competent press team to have realised what the inevitable outcome would be, and warn against it. The headlines are as predictable as they were avoidable.

For many people, this simply confirms their view of our party as being dishonest. For me, it confirms my view that our communications unit is amateurish and incompetent. 

If anyone needed evidence of quite how incompetent it is, take a look at the party's website. In spite of ALDE's confirmation that nothing was agreed - and the embarrassing headlines in the national press - the dreadful media release is still there, as the main "news" story...

Sunday, 4 March 2018

About this Thatcher statue...

Parliament Square: The statues of Churchill and Lloyd George (left)
will not be being joined by that of Margaret Thatcher
People talk about all kinds of things. Most lately it's been snow. Go onto facebook or twitter and all you'll see are pictures of people finding imaginative ways to enjoy being outside in the cold. Either that or people complaining that Britain can't cope with a bit of a cold snap.

You'll be pleased to know I haven't posted hundreds of pictures on facebook this week telling all my friends there's snow outside. I am sure they can see it for themselves. But today I have got into a few discussions on social media - about a statue.

Yes, a statue. It's really got a lot of people engaged, and not necessarily in a positive way...and that's because we're talking about a statue of Margaret Thatcher.

For those of you who don't know, Jo Swinson (MP for East Dunbartonshire and deputy leader of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party) wrote an article for the Mail on Sunday arguing that Westminster Council should have given permission for a statue of the former Prime Minister to have been erected on Parliament Square. "Whatever one thinks of Margaret Thatcher's policies, there can be no dispute about her significance", Jo explains. "If we want gender equality, we have to fight for space for women we vigorously disagree with, as well as those we support".

The headline, for which Jo was of course not responsible, screams rather sensationally: "We MUST have a monument to Maggie".

Now, before we talk about the statue it's fair to point out there's a lot in Jo's article that makes perfect sense and I'd recommend reading it before commenting. Jo talks about feminism, equalities, and history. She challenges institutional misogyny. She makes it clear she loathes Thatcher's political legacy - and she goes so far as to suggest if Thatcher should have a statue erected in her honour then so should Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

There is merit in Jo's argument. Certainly, her observations in regards gender equality are perfectly valid. That we should honour people where appropriate irrespective of whether we like them also seems quite fair-minded.

But it's understandably left a lot of people quite angry. This from Owen Jones neatly encapsulates the prevailing mood on twitter: 

I had a chat with Jo on twitter about her article. I understood her points completely, while disagreeing on the main issue for reasons I'll go into in a minute. What I don't understand is why we continue this ridiculous Victorian obsession with putting up statues everywhere to celebrate the lives of the great and the good.

There are quite a lot of statues of women around. Apparently, having done some digging, it turns out that there is a female statue for every 2.5 male statues. So this isn't quite the scale of female invisibility you might imagine. However, take the 78 statues of Queen Victoria out of the equation in addition to the various other Royal statues and depictions of classical or mythological figures, and the picture isn't so good. When we consider solely the statues dedicated to historical people, we're looking at less that 3% of the total being women. 

While accepting the historical injustice, I asked Jo whether there are better ways to remember and reflect than erecting statues. Given the controversy both erecting and potentially removing memorials is creating at home and abroad, surely there are more intellectually honest and imaginative ways of recognising and celebrating human achievement? Putting up more and more statues of women seems an odd way to right this historic wrong, and would only re-open debates about who is/is not deserving - and which historic statues should/should not be removed.

The statues littered around our towns and countryside are memorial stones to a different era. They tell us more about the people who erected them than they do the people in whose likeness they were created - as Jo admits in her own article, she has no idea who Viscount Falkland was. We accept history for what it is, however uncomfortable it might make us feel now. Of course, previous generations esteemed wealthy people, usually men, who were involved in such morally questionable pastimes as slavery or found fame through their "exploits" in fields of mass slaughter; today, our values are somewhat different. But how will future generations judge our "heroes"? Couldn't we leave them something better than a stone likeness that even those who walk past it every day will have no idea who it represents? 

Shouldn't we do more to acknowledge and recognise so many people in other ways, rather than maintaining this (to my mind ridiculously dated) obsession with statues? Do we really have to do the same tired thing in a more gender-balanced way?

To her credit, Jo engaged with my questioning and responded with this: "[But] the visual wallpaper stays mainly male. Even if historic, this has an impact today." As for my suggestion that statue mania should be consigned to history and historical memorials judged in their appropriate contexts, she said: "I am more sceptical about the possibility of eroding visual impact by rational thought. My work on body image shows it's not that easy to disassociate."

Which is all perfectly reasonable. We can agree to disagree - the reality is the visual history of previous eras was male-dominated and there is no real escaping that, but I won't diminish the point she makes about impact.

The question, however, is whether erecting a statue in honour of Margaret Thatcher would help achieve any of these utterly reasonable objectives. We live in an age when we are all familiar with who Mrs Thatcher was, and most of us have some view on her political legacy. It's also an age in which, whether we like it or not, the presence of statues (even historical ones) suggests validation and approval. The nature of public sculpture is changing: we tend not to put up statues of divisive figures, but of sports stars and generally popular local personalities (think Ken Dodd in Liverpool). Today's society doesn't value what previous generations did. Arguments in the US about potentially removing statues of not only Confederate figures but also Christopher Columbus underline the degree to which modern society is increasingly questioning the ways in which we remember history and how - to use Jo's term - the "visual wallpaper" affirms the lives and actions of people many of us find unsavoury.

We cannot simply dismiss the implications for apparently validating Thatcher's politics on the basis that she was the first female Prime Minister. I admire John Major for being the first PM to have grown up on a council estate, but I'm not advocating erecting a statue to his honour outside a high-rise block in Brixton. In recognising the milestone we can ill afford to overlook the inevitable consequences of affirming destructive actions.

Statues would also serve as a focal point for protest and vandalism. I can only imagine the security costs Westminster Council saved themselves by refusing the planning application. Would this really be a good idea? I'm not really sure it's appropriate for a Scottish MP to be publicly questioning the decision of a London council either, but that's a separate issue.

The substance of Jo's argument is not without value - far from it. I appreciate where she's coming from and what her intentions are. It's not those I have a problem with. She's not an apologist for Thatcher.

However, Jo is not a political novice - she is the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, a party still struggling from close association with the Conservatives. She will have known exactly how this would be spun and headlined - and what the likely reception would be. She's managed to upset a lot of Lib Dems and earn the derision of many others who find Thatcher's legacy too toxic.  The headline has certainly been an absolute treat to opponents such as John Nicolson (who WILL use this to great effect in East Dunbartonshire, I'm sure).

He won't be alone. Across the UK, in areas where Thatcher's destructive policies are still felt (and despised), expect Labour, the SNP and Plaid Cymru to have this headline prominently on all their election literature. And why shouldn't they? After all, the Liberal Democrats were quick to seize upon Gordon Brown's meeting with Mrs Thatcher in 2007 to appeal to Labour voters - with some success.

It's not so much what Jo thinks that concerns me. We can agree to disagree on the relative non-issue of public sculpture, and agree on the general issues relating to gender and inclusion. I really couldn't care less about statues of repulsive people - there are already a lot of them around. What's more worrying is Jo's judgement in deciding to unburden herself of those thoughts to the Mail on Sunday. Sometimes nothing is a very sensible thing to say - and when it comes to discussing Margaret Thatcher, it usually is.

As a party we have to find ways of rebuilding trust. I have no simple answers as to how we do that, but it's quite obvious giving our opponents gifts like this won't make the task easier. 

UPDATE: I think it's important to add some context to the discussion. As Jo herself points out, this was a decision taken by Westminster Council. She says: "it was disappointing to see Westminster Council last month turn down an application for a statue of Margaret Thatcher in Parliament Square...Apparently one of the reasons given for refusal was the state robes Thatcher would have been wearing. Even in death, it seems there are no limits to how society judges women by how they look and what they wear."

Having looked a bit deeper, I think this is in fact incorrect. Jo makes a judgement about the motivation behind the ruling and the societal values that judge people according to clothing.  However, it appears it was neither the council nor "society" but Thatcher's daughter Carol who objected to the statue. She didn't want to see her mother in state robes, but more informally dressed and with her trademark handbag. That's quite understandable - if my mother was going to be immortalised in a statue I'd want her to look as I remembered her. That's not being judgemental; it's wanting to capture someone's humanity.

This undermines Jo's argument - at least in relation to the council's reasoning for refusing planning permission for the statue itself; the wider points remain as valid as ever.(

Given that, I fail to see what is so unreasonable about the council's decision. Surely, if Mrs T's own family aren't happy with the statue, who are we to argue with them? Who are we to express "disappointment" with their wishes? For me that settles the question on the monument, although clearly Jo is right that much more needs to be done on the gender issues she raises.

I do note that the council has no objection in principle and that it was the design of the statue that proved problematic with the perhaps in a few months we'll have to go through all this again! AP, 5.3.18

Monday, 15 January 2018

RIP Cyrille Regis - a legend, a trailblazer and pioneer.

It was a real privilege to play with Cyrille.
He was then, as always, a class act.
I was shocked and deeply saddened to discover that Cyrille Regis, the former West Bromich Albion, Coventry City and England striker, has died at the age of 59.

As a child, Regis was a hero to me. I was not a West Brom supporter - but you didn't need to be to admire his flair, his athleticism and his creativity. At a time when black footballers were few in number and regularly subjected to racist abuse, Cyrille and his team-mates Laurie Cunningham and Brendan Batson (known as the "Three Degrees") not only produced some of the most attractive attacking football ever seen at the Hawthorns, but were to prove transformative in other ways too.

It may be difficult for many now to fully appreciate how hostile an environment Regis and other black players were entering every time they took to the field at that time. While they would inspire many, they would also become targets for the worst kinds of abuse. As Batson recounted: "We would get off coaches at away matches and the National Front would be there. In those days we didn't have security. We'd get to the players entrance and there would be spit on my jacket or Cyrille's shirt. We coped. It wasn't a new phenomenon." Playing at some league grounds was notoriously tough for black players, with ferocious crowds booing every touch of the ball and shouting racist slogans. The trio also received death threats.

But, whether consciously or otherwise, Regis and his friends resisted. And the more they did, the more they inspired more black people to participate in sport. Attitudes didn't change immediately, and one of the short-term effects of the Three Degrees was that they become the focus for a particularly vitriolic form of racism. But they endured, and in doing so helped create a culture in which such racism would no longer be tolerated. Whenever I see "Kick racism out of football" adverts, I can't help but think of Cyrille.

As I mentioned, Cyrille was a hero to me as a child. This was, inevitably, party connected with the great entertainer he was on the football pitch. There can be no doubt about the fact he was one of the greatest players ever to grace The Hawthorns or Highfield Road. He was undoubtedly a football genius, but he was so much more than that. Even as someone aged about 7 or 8, I subconsciously recognised that to be accepted as a black player back in the early 80s you had to be exceptionally gifted, and I had some idea of the unfair treatment people like him had to experience. It's hard not to admire someone you know is standing up to injustice, but in such a way as to let his sporting ability to all the talking.

I played with Cyrille in a charity/legends match in 2007. It's not everyone who gets the opportunity to spend 90 minutes on a football pitch with a childhood idol, of course - but what says more about the man is what happened afterwards. After a conversation about our various charitable efforts, he agreed to help support one of my causes through his association with Christians in Sport. We also discussed how we could work together to use football to provide opportunities to underprivileged young people. Challenging racism also, somewhat inevitably, came into the conversations - and I went away feeling that Cyrille was the kind of person who would just want to help in any way he could. That was his nature.

He also did a lot of work for Water Aid and similar charities, and if it is possible to sum the man up in a sentence it would be this: "a humanitarian who changed the way we look at the world". There can be no greater tribute. That he happened to be an immensely gifted footballer allowed him to have the huge impact on challenging the shameful prejudice and abuse that the likes of the FA and the BBC preferred to overlook (the latter famously claimed it was impossible to make out what was being shouted from the terraces). He was a real pioneer - both on the pitch and off it, and committed his life to improving opportunities for others.

I can't count Cyrille among my friends and it would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise, but I am very proud to have had the opportunity to play with him and to have been involved in some projects that made a positive contribution to empowering others. What I know is that, at a time when racism again is rearing its head and needing people to directly challenge it, we need to remember Cyrille's example. The world is a poorer place for his passing.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Farron might regret saying gay sex is not a sin. I never will.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
Tim Farron is making headlines again.

And what would the reason be? Yes, he just can't leave this issue alone.

Much as I try not to identify Tim with any kind of sex (he is a political colleague after all), the inescapable reality is that he has become firmly associated in the public mind with same-sex relations. And sinful ones at that. When you're a former party leader with some forthright views on such things as Brexit, tackling poverty and cancer care at his local hospital, it might be a good idea to make sure the positive messages aren't overshadowed by controversial and rather unnecessary interventions on religion.

The Liberal Democrats' 2017 General Election campaign was hardly a work of genius and it would be wrong to blame one individual for a failure to make significant gains - but there can be no denying that Tim's refusal to answer the "is gay sex a sin?" question damaged our chances. After evading the question on multiple occasions Tim eventually responded to a question from Nigel Evans MP in the Commons, who asked whether Tim believed being gay was sinful. Tim replied: "I do not".

Which seemed pretty unequivocal.

However, today Tim has given an interview to Premier Christian Radio in which he expressed "regret" that he had "bowed to pressure" to say that gay sex was not sinful. He said: "the bottom line is, of course, I did [feel pressured] and there are things - including that - that I said that I regret."

Having listened to the interview, it would appear that Tim privately believes same-sex relationships to be sinful but, as a Liberal, be can hold that view while simultaneously defending individuals' rights to make their own choices. I might - indeed, I do - disagree with that, but his personal views are not what concern me.

What is more worrying is that he is now expressing "regret" about statements he made on the floor of the House of Commons. Taking back an expressed opinion (and blaming others for it!) naturally raises questions of integrity and honesty, and also re-opens the issue, which is only likely to cause the party further embarrassment.

I don't know what his motivations for speaking to Premier Christian Radio are, but while I'd defend his right to do it I have to question the wisdom of his decision. Tim seems determined to project himself as a Christian martyr, unfairly hounded out of the leadership by intolerant pseudo-liberals - but what statements like this actually do is suggest that he is hypocritical and untrustworthy. What sort of leader admits to buckling under pressure - especially when such pressure is a fairly innocuous line of questioning that a more proficient individual would have dealt with far more convincingly?

This is the same Tim Farron who, when pressed on the gay sex question, often responded with the "I don't pontificate on religious matters" line. It now seems all Tim wants to do in pontificate on religious matters, which would be fine if he was the independent MP for his local Evangelical Church. As it is, his continued - and continuing - interventions on religion (almost exclusively about same-sex relationships or Christian persecution) only serve to damage his own reputation and standing and the cause of the party he clearly loves.

During the Premier interview Tim promised that, on the specific issue of Biblical teaching on same-sex relationships, he "will write a little bit about this in the coming weeks". Do us a favour, Tim. Don't. Really, just don't. No good will come of it, and the rest of us will almost certainly regret it. Use your time to talk about something else instead - women's rights, the EU, electoral reform, international relations, the NHS, public transport...even Blackburn Rovers!

Vince Cable also now has to decide whether any discipline is appropriate given Tim appears to be admitting to lying in Parliament, and misleading the Commons (even if he does blame others for "pressuring" him into it). His position on the Lib Dems' front bench team is becoming increasingly untenable.

I have no reason to doubt that Tim genuinely feels regret, just as I also have no reason for doubting that he always believed relations between same-sex couples to be sinful. However, as ever with Tim's public statements on faith, I wonder why he had to say this when he must have realised the damage that will arise from it. I defend his right to believe what he likes, even to say what he likes. But I will always ask why he seems so determined to pursue a course of action that brings the party into disrepute, makes himself appear untrustworthy, leads to people becoming even less open to listening to him and undermining his positive messages on more pertinent political issues.

Tim talked about regret in his interview. He also said this, not referring exclusively to the media: "the idea that the people asking these questions were interested in theology is naïve in the extreme." Well, as someone who has been asking these questions of Tim for almost 13 years (I first asked him the gay sex question in March 2005 and he was no more convincing then) that dismissal actually hurts a little. Some of us are not only interested in theology, we are studying it. Tim should know that many of those who take a completely different view to his are Christians, and for him to deny this is unacceptable. I do not deny his existence or his faith; he should not deny mine or that of other progressive Christians.

I am sorry that Tim regrets saying that gay sex is not a sin. Speaking of regrets, as a proudly liberal Christian I have a few confessions to make too - especially as tonight, as a result of Tim's interview, a fellow Christian asked me if I ever had regrets over my position on same-sex relationships.

No, I do not regret having stated on countless occasions that same-sex relationships are not sinful. I do not regret my own relationships. I do not regret who I am. I do not regret having campaigned for LGBT+ rights for the best part of two decades. I do not regret working within the church to create faith communities that are inclusive and open to LGBT+ people. I do not regret championing LGBT+ inclusion - and same-sex marriage - at political hustings way before it was ever fashionable. I do not regret being part of a church that affirms the lives of same-sex couples and marries them. I regret not a single public statement I have ever made that has challenged the notion that there is something inherently sinful in homosexuality or bisexuality. I do not regret having used this blog to question the wisdom of Tim Farron's many statements on religion or his connections with CARE.

Non, je ne regrette rien.

What I do regret is having a loose cannon of a former leader in the parliamentary party who doesn't seem to understand that it isn't the wisest thing to unburden oneself to the listeners of Premier Christian Radio. Sometimes, Tim, nothing is a very sensible thing to say.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

An inept reshuffle that underlines Prime Ministerial weakness

Justine Greening (Photo: Standard)
In advance of the Prime Minister’s cabinet reshuffle, I thought that the events of yesterday would tell us a great deal about the Prime Minister, her direction, how well she is able to reinvent and rebrand her party and how effectively she can revitalise her cabinet.

My expectations were not particularly high, but even I was surprised by the ineptitude of the attempted reshuffle. It did indeed tell us a great deal about the Prime Minister and her government, some of it quite surprising.

From the official party’s twitter account wrongly congratulating Chris Grayling on becoming Tory Party chair to Theresa May’s refusal to move any of the key personnel, this attempt at a reshuffle was an exercise in ineptitude.  What was supposed to be a show of strength and an opportunity to refresh the cabinet has instead starkly underlined the Prime Minister’s many weaknesses.

Twitter accidents happen, of course, but the Grayling non-appointment won’t have helped convince anyone that the Conservative Party is an efficient communications outfit.  With the outside world – well, the British media at least – watching developments eagerly and expecting some kind of radical shake-up, what actually happened was a series of unambitious reappointments of less than inspiring ministers. As a reshuffle this was not only disappointing, but fundamentally futile: what is the point of a reshuffle when the key protagonists all stay in place, especially when they include David Davis, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt?

This was not a reshuffle worthy of the name. Even the oft quoted “deckchairs, Titanic” metaphor fails here, as the proverbial captain actually moved the chairs around a bit. A generous commentator might see that as a sign of confidence in the team, but it is more likely that May has played safe so avoid political fall-out. Unfortunately, this has served to further undermine her leadership. It has now become painfully transparent – if ever it was really in doubt – that those who hold power in the Conservative Party (and cabinet) are leading Brexiteers that May feels powerless to take on.

If a powerless Prime Minister isn’t worrying enough, the appointment of Esther Mcvey as Work and Pensions secretary should chill us all. This is someone who, as Employment minister, suggested benefit sanctions “teach”JSA claimants to take job seeking seriously  and as late as February 2015 defended such sanctions as “effective” in spite of growing evidence to the contrary.   There are surely more suitable people in the ranks of Conservative parliamentarians for the DWP portfolio, but clearly McVey has friends in high places.

Equally concerning is the fact that not only is Jeremy Hunt continuing at Health, but his brief has been expanded to include Health and Social Care. I have for some time championed greater integration of health and social care, but a merged department is not the way to approach this, and Hunt is certainly not the ideal person to be overseeing it. Anyone who, during the recent pressures within the NHS widely claimed to represent a “crisis” refuses to take any responsibility whatsoever, is hardly the kind of person who should be rewarded in this way. What has he done to merit this?

May’s ultra-cautious approach and reluctance to move people makes her removal of Justine Greening from Education all the more inexplicable.  I can’t comment on how effective a minister she was, but the statements from the teaching unions in the last few hours must count for something. Greening was certainly competent and understood her brief; in trying circumstances, she was seeking to positively engage with teachers and, admirably, kept her focus on young people. As Stephen Bush writes in the New Statesman, May’s ideal Education Secretary would be someone who could “drive through big reforms...during the first real-terms decrease in school spending in the modern era, while not becoming a hate figure with parents, teachers, academics or teaching’s hard to see how Theresa May will find someone better than Justine Greening.”

I quipped in my New Year predictions that Philip Hammond may well be sacked for being too competent. I was half right – I focused on the wrong person. Competence is clearly not an attribute that matters when it comes to cabinet appointments. Inept and disloyal people continue, while a strong performer like Greening is sidelined. The message is clear: ministers who endanger British citizens abroad or mislead select committees are safe because it would be political suicide to sack such “personalities”, however deficient. The likes of Johnson, Fox, Davis and, to a point Hunt, have become untouchable in the post-referendum political climate. The only person to be effectively sacked was a woman who was arguably one of the better performers in cabinet.

Greening was offered the opportunity to move to the DWP, and refused. The Prime Minister was resolved not to back down and the stand-off ended with Greening’s resignation. Hunt, on the other hand, was offered the role of Business Secretary and similarly refused, but was able to convince the Prime Minister to not only keep him at Health but effectively promote him with additional responsibilities. What does that say about cabinet dynamics? What does Hunt have that Greening doesn’t? Why was the Prime Minister unable to impose her will on an under-fire minister like Hunt, capitulating entirely to his demands, while standing firm against Greening?

As an aside, how can we possible trust the Prime Minister to successfully negotiate with the EU to get the deal she wants when she allows herself to be bullied out of a pre-determined course of action by Jeremy Hunt?

Ultimately, Theresa May can’t even manage to carry out a reshuffle properly. It is clear she is not in charge and, in spite of talk to the contrary, the cabinet is far from refreshed. It remains stale; worse, it is full of inept but untouchable ministers who owe their position at the cabinet table to their Brexit stance. In another era, Johnson would have been sacked and Davis would have resigned months ago.

Tim Farron got it absolutely right when he tweeted: "That wasn't a reshuffle, it was a half-hearted stir, with all the useless lump bits unmoved in the middle." That's as apt a description as offered by anyone.

What does this mean for May? I think she has made a huge mistake in her appointments and has undermined her own fading authority. If I can draw a parallel to a previous Prime Minister who demoted a competent colleague in a reshuffle back in 1989, Greening now has the potential to be as difficult for May as Geoffrey Howe was to Thatcher. Neither Howe nor Greening were ever likely rebels but May has now created a potential troublemaker, with many influential allies and a strongly pro-remain constituency, and allowed her onto the backbenches.  Greening has the potential to be equally as dangerous as Johnson or Davis, perhaps more so.

All that bold talk of "strong and stable leadership" last year has now been shown up for the vacuous nonsense it was. The Prime Minister is far from strong; indeed, she appears to be even weaker than most commentators imagined. 

The reshuffle has failed in its key objectives: to detoxify the party in the public mind, to provide a freshness at the cabinet table and to demonstrate the Prime Minister’s authority. As reshuffles go, it was undeniably amateurish – but the real question is whether May’s treatment of Justine Greening will come back to haunt her.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

My predictions for 2018

Philip Hammond: could he be sacked for being too competent?
(Photo: The Independent)
Every year I make some predictions - inevitably some are more accurate than others. There is no real reason for doing this other than for a bit of end-of-year fun, but it's become something of a tradition and I will stick with it!

How did I do last year? Why don't you take a look for yourselves? Clearly I didn't get everything right, especially on the political front, but it's becoming near-impossible to make accurate political predictions at a time when the once-unthinkable daily becomes terrifying reality.

So I've decided to consult my crystal ball once again, and have looked into 2018 to let you know what we can expect in the coming twelve months. 


The Liberal Democrats

* This will not be a terrific year for the Liberal Democrats. The focus on Brexit means messages on other issues are inevitably drowned out, and this has an effect on public perception. The party will remain at 7-10% in opinion polls, but will continue to make steady gains in local elections. 

* Tim Farron will continue to make statements on religious issues – always, of course, from the evangelical Christian perspective. Later in the year he will retire from politics to take up full-time employment with a Christian organisation. 
* Willie Rennie will continue to make clear his opposition to Scottish independence and any further referenda on the issue. What will be less clear is what the long-held aspiration of federalism means in practice. 

The Conservative Party

* The Brexit negotiations will go from bad to worse. It will become increasingly apparent that the government has no real strategy, and that it has seriously underestimated the complexity of leaving. This will lead to significant delays, potentially jeopardising May’s arbitrary leaving date, and leading to a series of government defeats on EU-related legislation.
* Confidence in the Prime Minister – especially among the fanatical Brexiteers – will suffer.  However, there will be no election and May will survive largely because no-one wants to openly challenge her and most Tory MPs appreciate there is no alternative who can actually hold the party together (I would say unite, but this is the Conservative Party we’re talking about).

* While May will survive, several of her cabinet will not. Boris Johnson will finally be removed as Foreign Secretary after he is recorded making derogatory and sexist comments about fellow cabinet members in what he believed to be a private conversation with a Daily Mail journalist. Andrea Leadsom will also experience a fully-merited demotion when she is replaced by someone with a modicum of understanding of the energy and climate change brief.

* Philip Hammond will be removed for being far too competent for the job, much to the delight of the Daily Mail. 
* Liam Fox and David Davis will announce fantastic potential new trade deals with Zimbabwe, the DR Congo, Mauritania and the Republic of Nauru. This will prompt an angry response from the Nauruan government, which will state that a polite response to a tweet from Bill Cash doesn’t represent official interest in such a deal.
* There will be no General Election. Yes, I know I said that last year.  But the Prime Minister will not wish to risk another election given the outcome last time and with Labour beginning to pull ahead in the polls. 

* Ruth Davidson will struggle to keep the Scottish Tories in order - and will then surprise everyone when she successfully applies to be the Conservative candidate for an English by-election in a historically safe Tory seat. She wins the by-election by the narrowest of margins following a campaign in which she criticises the direction of the UK government on key issues. Her victory will leave the Scottish party in turmoil and will create fresh concerns for an increasingly nervous Theresa May.

The Labour Party

* 2018 will be Corbyn’s year - largely by fortunate accident rather than because of any real effort on his part. Only a year after ridiculing him as being unelectable, the Tories will be genuinely fearful of him. The policy adopted by both May and Corbyn towards the Brexit question – i.e. that of broadly constructive ambiguity to keep their respective parties united – will prove impossible to maintain as details become clearer and difficulties arise. As May becomes embroiled in difficulties of others’ making, especially in relation to Brexit promises, Corbyn will be able to poised to benefit. His new strategy of opposing the Tories at every turn will be opportunistic but effective.
* There will not be a Scottish Labour leadership election.  Richard Leonard will bring renewed energy to Scottish Labour and will appeal to many former supporters through his emphasis on socialism; however, he will face the same struggles as his predecessors in challenging the SNP and will be no more successful than they were. 

* Labour will not develop a distinctive stance on Brexit, but this won't actually matter. Ironically, Corbyn will seek to place himself as a "moderating" influence between the Tory "hard Brexit" and the Lib Dem/Green/SNP "anti-democratic" pro-EU positions.

The Scottish National Party

* Not a great deal will change for the SNP. The question over whether and when to call Indyref 2 will loom over the party and the First Minister. Eventually, the SNP will decide to play it safe – focusing on challenging the Tories for the time being and building for an SNP majority in the next parliament. 
* The SNP will have a pretty good year, with the Scottish Tories in retreat and Scottish Labour making only a moderate recovery. The First Minister will continue to command high approval ratings, but faces growing criticism on key elements of domestic policy.


Labour will not be the only party to benefit from the Tories’ Brexit farce. UKIP will also see a resurgence, with Nigel Farage resuming the leadership he claims he doesn’t want after being heavily involved with undermining Henry Bolton and effectively forcing his resignation. In spite of all the internal backstabbing, UKIP will overtake the Lib Dems in the opinion polls and will do reasonably well in by-elections without winning a seat. 


Not much will really change in Zimbabwe. President Mnangagwa, who replaced Robert Mugabe a few weeks ago, will be determined to prove himself on the economic front but will inevitably struggle to make the kind of early impact he hopes. He will, however, be very careful in his cabinet selections and will prove adept at creating problems for his opposition, who struggle to unite around a single candidate in the general elections. Zanu-PF, which will use the election to emphasise that this particular leopard has no intention of changing its spots, will take advantage of this disunity to emerge victorious with 112% of the vote. 

* Vladimir Putin’s re-election in Russia is even more of a formality than Zanu-PF’s win in Zimbabwe.  The consequences, of course, will be more widely felt.

* Tensions will increase between the USA and North Korea, as Donald Trump appears ever more determined to undermine peace via his twitter account. Fortunately, the US President’s attentions are diverted elsewhere after the Democrats make gains in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

* The supposed political crisis in Germany will prove to be nothing of the sort. Angela Merkel's CDU will find new coalition partners and put together a workable government. 

* The depth of Russian intervention in the EU referendum and the US presidential election will become clearer. This has serious consequences for Donald Trump - and for social media companies. Nigel Farage will claim it is all a BBC-created conspiracy.

* The Cuban elections will produce a Communist majority. No surprises there. Meanwhile the UK media will continue to ignore Hungary, where Viktor Orban will use his huge majority to undermine democracy (and the EU). 


* Manchester City will be champions this year (yes, I'm sure there won't be too many suggesting otherwise). Manchester United will part company with Mourinho after a poor run in the second half of the season sees the team miss out on European football. The relegated teams will be Bournemouth, Huddersfield Town and Newcastle United. Macclesfield Town and Wrexham will return to the football league - with Forest Green Rovers and Barnet going in the other direction.

* Celtic will win the Scottish Premiership (again, I'm sure you knew that). Dundee and Ross County will be relegated, being replaced by St Mirren and Greenock Morton, the latter beating Dundee United in the play-off final. 

* England will not win the World Cup. No surprises there. Neither will Russia, who will go into the tournament believing they can be the first host nation to win the cup since France in 1998. As for who will win – that’s more difficult, but I’ll go so far as to say it will be a Europe v South America final. 


* In regards the Church of England and same-sex, I can't possibly publicly predict what will happen there. I can only hope it isn't what I fully expect.

* The future of the Northern Ireland assembly will remain unresolved. Against the backdrop of Brexit and the border questions it raises, there will simply be no way for politics at Stormont to resume as normal. 


* Myself and my friends Mathew and Michael will raise a significant amount of money for the Campaign Against Living Miserably. We will also help raise awareness of the high suicide rate among young males in the UK.

* My folk band will become world famous after a random and unexpected TV appearance. 

In lighter vein...

The month of May will be dominated by talk of a particular wedding (I would say coverage, but we’re talking about way more than reporting of the actual event).  Fortunately the Scottish Cup final being played in the afternoon will mean that at least one other channel will have something else to focus on. 

* Bitcoin's value will soar to around £50,000 before crashing spectacularly. No-one will really have much idea about what happened, or why. 

* There will be plenty of talk about creating a new "centre party", with most of it being generated by that most centrist of former politicians, George Osborne. "Centre" is finally launched in July, led by one of Osborne's former interns. No-one takes any of this seriously, apart from Paddy Ashdown who - without speaking with any of the leaders of other parties - immediately proposes a new "progressive alliance" in which the new party would help to finally "break the mould" of British politics. 

* The Commonwealth Games will be a surprising success in every respect. However the real talking point is Boris Johnson's speech closing the games, when the event is formally handed over to Birmingham. Johnson manages to insult legendary Australian swimmers, invokes colonialism with an ill-judged joke about aborigines, makes sexually inappropriate comments about beach volleyball and finally falls off the platform while attempting to demonstrate the British origins of water polo. 

* Piers Morgan will make a visit to Liverpool, during which he is stunned by the lack of welcome. He will attribute this to there being "too many liberals, women, transgender and non-binary people" who just don't understand how much he does for the world. In the summer, he will leave Good Morning Britain for an "exciting new venture" - which turns out to be a new show on Russia Today.

* The EU will order that all its member states change their passport colour to blue, just to anger the UK.

* Resigned to the inevitability of Scottish independence and following Donald Trump's example, Theresa May will decide pre-emptive action and will opt to build a 20 foot high wall to separate England from Scotland.  The Polish builders responsible for construction do the job in lightning quick time...between Chester and Hull. 

* There will be heavy snow in parts of the UK during February. This will allow the Daily Mail and Daily Express a break from demonising immigrants, high court judges, "Remoaners" and transgender people as they instead speculate about how many might be killed by freezing temperatures in Boscombe. 

* Nigel Farage will finally get his much desired knighthood...for services to television. 

Thursday, 23 November 2017

So, Kezia's going on a TV show. Why all the fuss?

A popular symbol of contentment...and Kezia Dugdale
(Photo: Sky)
The former leader of Scottish Labour, Kezia Dugdale, will be going into "the Jungle" today.

Yes, for some reason Kezia wants to go to Australia to appear in the utterly dreadful "reality" TV show known as I'm a Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here! (which should, frankly, be renamed I used to be a Celebrity - Get me back on TV!). I don't really understand her reasons either, but that doesn't matter. I honestly couldn't care less about Celebrity! and genuinely don't understand how this excuse for entertainment is now in its seventeenth - yes, seventeenth! - series. I don't watch it, I don't care who wins and I'm not interested in who is participating. If she wants to do embarrassing things on national TV, that's her decision.

However, I am interested in the reactions to the announcement that Kezia was to take part this year. And there have been quite a few - many of them negative. Some in Scottish Labour have criticised the timing, although if the party schedules its leadership elections to coincide with the start of this show then I'm not really sure we can hold Kezia responsible. There are others who feel a politician's place must be at Holyrood/Westminster - clearly they're the only places where political engagement can take place. And there are those who - I suspect with more honesty - are simply offended because they don't like Kezia.

Duncan Hothersall, a Labour activist with a reputation (not entirely deserved) for being unreasonably tribalistic, has written a fair-minded article for the New Statesman. It's well worth reading, and highlights, whether intentionally or otherwise, the personal nature of the "criticism" directed at the former leader. I quote: "Her Lothians MSP colleague and long-time foe, Neil Findlay, lost no time in denouncing the decision as 'ludicrous' and said Dugdale had 'demeaned politics'. For the Daily Mail, columnist Graham Grant summoned up previously unseen levels of chutzpah to channel Keir Hardie in his condemnation. And in the Mail on Sunday former Labour spin doctor Paul Sinclair concocted one of the most bile-filled personal attacks I've ever read, from which I won't even stoop to quote." Hothersall doesn't refer to it directly, but in all of these pieces there's more than a little misogyny lurking in the background.

Is Kezia demeaning politics? Famously, George Galloway featured on Big Brother and Nadine Dorries appeared on Celebrity!  - although admittedly they're hardly the best examples given their near-unparalleled abilities to undermine politics. Michael Fabricant appeared on First Dates recently; Penny Mordaunt appeared in Splash! Vince Cable has appeared in a Christmas edition of Strictly Come Dancing, while Scottish Conservatives' leader Ruth Davidson has been confirmed as a contestant in a celebrity version of the Great British Bake Off. There are other examples of retired politicians taking part in such shows - such as Ed Balls, Ann Widdecombe, and Lembit Opik. Has UK politics actually been demeaned by any of this? Not at all. There are those who have demeaned both Scottish and UK politics in recent years, but they haven't been doing it from the Australian Jungle or the Big Brother house.

Let's not forget this kind of criticism was also levelled at Charles Kennedy for appearances on Have I Got News For You?, Celebrity Countdown, Celebrity Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and MasterChef.  His opponents labelled him "Inaction Man", criticising what was (wrongly) perceived as laziness and a taste for self-promotion. Yes, he was openly accused of cheapening politics. But he successfully rose above such negativity, and used his TV appearances to raise the profile not only of himself but the Liberal Democrats. He came across as authentic and generous. There are not many who would claim today that he demeaned politics.

Duncan Hothersall admits that he is "highly sceptical of just how much political engagement [Kezia] will be able to shoehorn into a programme which is edited for entertainment and confected outrage. It'll be a tough challenge to be heard as a genuine voice amid the froth." It's hard to disagree. But positive engagement doesn't have to be overtly political, as we learned from Charles Kennedy. Here is a rare opportunity for a well-known face of Scottish Labour to come across as warm, personable, interesting and and deeply human. It's not how I would do it. But Kezia isn't me.

The concern about whether a serving politician should be involved in reality shows is another issue altogether, and less easy to answer. Celebrity! lasts for three weeks, and should Kezia win (I couldn't possibly comment on her chances) then she will be away from Holyrood for that time. If Harold Wilson is right when he said a week in politics is a long time, then three is an eternity. There can be no denying that flying off to Australia for three weeks means abandoning, albeit on a temporary basis, political responsibilities for which one has been elected to carry out.

And there is a difference here between something like Celebrity! and Have I Got News For You? - purely in regards the time commitment. That's hugely problematic. So I understand when people will argue "I'm one of her constituents - I didn't elect her to jet over to Oz for some TV show." However, let's take a look at the bigger picture.

Firstly, Kezia is a regional MSP and therefore shares her "constituency" with six others - including another Labour MSP. I'm being careful not to suggest regional MSPs are more entitled to do this kind of thing than constituency MSPs, but it is fair to note that a three-week absence is not necessarily disastrous for constituents. If she's away for the full three weeks then she will miss nine days of parliamentary business, but she will be aware of this and will know precisely what is being missed. It's unlikely she would have made the same decision if there were crunch votes on Scotland's future scheduled in the coming days. A quick look at her website confirms their were no constituents' surgeries scheduled during this time.

Secondly, MSPs and MPs employ staff who are more than capable of engaging with constituents for a short period of absence. I think the public often underappreciate the work these people do - they're perfectly able to deal with most of the day-to-day business and constituent engagement.

Thirdly, instead of instinctive outrage perhaps we should take a more honest look at what our elected parliamentarians actually do - and what our expectations of them are. Do we really believe they spend every minute of the working week in the debating chamber? Do we honestly expect them to be at the end of the phone when we call their constituency offices, or do we recognise that most of our enquiries will be dealt with entirely by employees?  Do we believe the only way of advancing their messages is through "conventional" means? And what about those who have secondary jobs, quite legitimately - who as a result may spend cumulatively far more than three weeks away from parliamentary responsibilities over a year?

Take the example of Douglas Ross - the Conservative MP for Moray who also happens to be a FIFA referee. He's clearly a very capable football official. His attendance at the recent Barcelona v Olympiakos match in the Champions League proved controversial, as his running the line at the Nou Camp clashed with a debate on Universal Credit. Theresa May quickly jumped to his defence - as did many who are criticising Kezia Dugdale now.

In the case of Mr Ross, his extra-parliamentary ongoing work schedule required him to travel across Europe to officiate in midweek matches. Being a highly rated official he was even listed as a potential for the 2018 World Cup, before he opted (or was pressured) to reduce his officiating to times when parliament was in recess. That was probably the right decision, but he was unlucky in that his high profile second job made it difficult to avoid scrutiny and questions over divided loyalties. He's far from the only one - prior to the 2015 elections, 180 MPs confirmed second jobs in the register of interests, working a variety of additional hours. It is unlikely much has changed in the previous two years. While MPs are now expected to step away from work in conflict with their responsibilities to constituents, how can that realistically be policed and how can "conflict" be realistically assessed?  Rather than the righteous indignation usually expressed at the mere mention of "second jobs", perhaps a more reasonable approach is to recognise that parliamentarians have a right to do such work on the condition it does not undermine their political commitments - and to recognise that some of these "second jobs" have the potential to improve the profile of both the individual and the party. In any case, if we are going to insist that some action is necessary on this front, shouldn't every case be judged on its own merits?

In Kezia's case, her TV appearance - which must be considered outside work - is potentially for a three-week block. However, I see no reason why this should be condemned when other elected representatives will spend far less time over the year on their parliamentary work than Kezia has done. If we want to discuss the pros and cons of secondary employment then let's do it in a constructive fashion, avoiding both judgements and simplistic solutions such as blanket bans  - and without singling out those who take part in reality TV shows as some kind of special case.

What is quite breathtaking about all the criticism directed at Kezia Dugdale is the rank hypocrisy of it. Many targeting Kezia now made no such complaint about Douglas Ross or Ruth Davidson. What much of the reaction has shown is the tribalistic nature of contemporary Scottish politics, and the reality of Labour's ongoing civil war.

Returning to Hothersall's New Statesman article, he demolishes some of the supposedly "reasonable" objections to Kezia's participation (from within Labour ranks) as being ill-informed. He doesn't state it specifically, but it is clear that the controversy is not really about the reality TV show and instead has everything to do with Labour's internal conflict. Neil Findlay's objections have nothing to do with a potential three weeks of increased casework. The further insults from some Labour "colleagues" are consistent with the way Kezia has been treated by them in the few months.

Kezia herself has said she is going into the jungle in memory of her friend Gordon Aikman, who died of motor-neurone disease earlier this year. She believes he would have wanted her to make the most of this opportunity, after she initially turned it down, to enjoy herself and raise some money for an MND charity. She clearly wants to do this. Some people would take time away from work to deal with grief, and it's not unusual for former leaders to visibly take a back seat after stepping down. I don't see how three weeks (and it may well be less) away from parliament is something to get worked up about.

Is it a good idea? I'm not sure, and the likes of George Galloway didn't emerge from the Big Brother house with much credibility intact. Does it make for good TV? I'm not really convinced that eating insects and kangaroo genitalia in a show notorious for animal cruelty makes for gripping entertainment, and I doubt Kezia's inclusion will change that. Should Kezia have done it? Ultimately it's a personal decision, and all I can hope is that she achieves what she wants to. While I loathe the show I simply don't think the issue is as black-and-white as some believe.

It's perfectly reasonable to have a discussion about the rights and wrongs of elected representatives appearing in reality TV shows. The vile abuse directed at Kezia in recent days is not how to do it.