Wednesday, 3 December 2014

What does Osborne's uninspiring Autumn Statement mean for me?

Today, Chancellor George Osborne delivered his Autumn Statement.

What is particularly significant about this is that it represents the government's final opportunity to lay out its economic priorities ahead of the General Election.

Inevitably, the chancellor has heavily imbued the Statement with Conservative thinking, which is neither surprising nor particularly objectionable in itself.

However - lest we forget - the Liberal Democrats declared back in 2010 that the party should be judged according to the government's economic record. Effectively, this was tantamount to staking the party's electoral future on the Chancellor's economic plan. I have never believed that was a wise decision, and not simply because I had (and retain) concerns about Osbornomics.

So, what does the Chancellor promise in this final Autumn Statement? Is there anything that meets our "Stronger Economy, Fairer Society" ideals? Well, yes there is - a little. The problem with this Statement isn't that it's bad, because it isn't. But it's unconvincing and does little to actively further the Liberal Democrats' priorities, or indeed very much other than the kinds of initiatives welcomed by Tory voters. It's not so much what's in it that I object to, as opposed to what has been omitted.

Tomorrow's headlines will be focused on stamp duty reform. Some of my Lib Dem friends have hailed this as a positive move. Well, that's all good and well - but what if, like me, you don't own a home and have no realistic prospect of ever doing so? What if you happen to think there should be higher priorities than delivering an electioneering gift to the Tories? What if you're not particularly excited by the prospect of a 1.4% tax rate on your "average" £275,000 home?

Well, there are other measures. There's the so-called "Google tax", which is aimed at multi-nationals who divert profits to avoid tax. A good but overdue measure. There's also been the announcement that fuel duty will be frozen, that Britain will play a major role in the European Mars mission, and ISA allowances can be inherited after the death of a spouse. Nothing much to object to there, but also nothing that makes me think that the government is delivering fairness, or has the lowest-earning people in mind.

Useful, but insufficiently far-reaching, actions include bank profits offset by losses (for tax purposes) being limited to 50%. Again, this is an overdue measure but one that doesn't get to grips with the need to create a socially responsible financial sector. There was talk of creating a "Northern powerhouse" in England, which might finally go some way to dealing with unemployment hotspots, but it lacked specifics. A review of business rates has been announced to consider ways of helping High Street retailers. All fine in themselves, but there is a notable absence of detail, itself suggestive of a desire on the part of Osborne to talk the talk without actually delivering anything of substance. It's a party political broadcast on behalf of the Conservative Party - and one which is less than honest and lacks transparency.

I'm personally very happy with the advent of postgraduate student loans, but hy limit them only to the under-30s? In the aftermath of a recession, surely we need to be investing in reskilling people of all ages?

On the plus side, a further £2billion will be injected into the NHS and hospices and air ambulances will now be exempted from VAT.  But is that enough? Make no mistake, this is essentially a Conservative economic statement, with its emphasis on stamp duty and increasing the higher income tax threshold. These are not issues Liberal Democrats are passionate about and, dare I suggest it, not what the majority of "ordinary" people are concerned with.

Also concerning to me were the borrowing statistics. These do not make good reading. For all the bluster, and claims of having reduced the deficit, the 2010 deficit target has been missed. Essentially, the statistics confirm that the Chancellor does not have control of the structural deficit. That has to be a worry, especially for a party that hopes the public will reward it for the government's economic competence.

Did we really want to be judged in the next election on cuts to stamp duty and a one-off cash bonus to the NHS? It's not a terrible statement, but I'd hoped for something I could - as a PPC - campaign on...something I could sell on the doorsteps in Coatbridge and Bellshill. Somehow, I can't imagine many of my would-be constituents in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill finding much to shout about in this. Quite honestly, because it does very little for people like them, or indeed me, for whom stamp duty, missions to Mars and ISA allowances don't feature highly in their daily lives. In fact, while I am far from an economic expert, it would appear that the taxation changes will actually lead to the worse off losing out.

What do these announcements do for unemployed people? Or the lowest paid workers? Very little, which is why I for one am quite disappointed - the Autumn Statement is not merely an uninspiring lost opportunity, it is aimed primarily at delivering a party-political vote-grabbing message that fails to take into account the need to tackle rising poverty and social inequality.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Congratulations to Sal Brinton...and many thanks to Tim Farron

As far as party presidential elections go, this was not one to set the pulses racing.

That said, it has been one that should have a profound effect on how we "do" democracy in future - and it has been one that has asked questions about the kind of figurehead the party needs at a key time.

Before entering into any kind of analysis, it is right to congratulate Sal Brinton on her victory in the election. She will serve as the next Liberal Democrat president when Tim Farron's term expires at the end of the year.

The result, announced yesterday, is as follows:

1st round:
Sal BRINTON: 7865
Daisy COOPER: 4530
Liz LYNNE: 4389
Spoilt Ballots: 25

2nd Round:
Sal BRINTON: 10,188
Daisy COOPER: 6,138
Ballots not transferred or spoilt: 458

Turnout: 39%

This came as something ofa surprise to me - and, no doubt, many others. A poll of members conducted by Liberal Democrat Voice gave Daisy Cooper on 52% of first preference votes just days ago. The Liberal Democrat twitterati have been keen to express support for their chosen candidates and pro-Daisy avatars were far more numerous than those promoting her opponents. Most activists I know seemed to be, at the very least, very welcoming of Daisy Cooper's candidacy and she appeared to be - of the three - the one who had most to offer to the party's grassroots.

Daisy was in many respects the "alternative" - the non-parliamentarian candidate with reasonably well-developed ideas for progressive cultural and organisational change. As such, she inevitably faced intense scrutiny but emerged with tremendous credibility. Her campaigning team clearly understood how to use social media; they also knew how to reach out to specific groups within the party. Reading the respective candidates' messages to internal groups such as LGBT+ Lib Dems and the Secularist &Humanist Lib Dems, it was obvious that one candidate had done their homework and was able to speak with both knowledge and sensitivity on the issues that affected members - in a way that the others simply didn't know how to. One candidate was clearly better at communicating and reaching out. That person was Daisy Cooper. Never before has a non-parliamentarian put together such a cohesive and effective campaign.

If Daisy was the "alternative" then Liz Lynne was an "alternative alternative", who wasn't remotely shy in furthering her reputation as nobody's yes-woman - Liz retains something of a reputation for standing up to Paddy Ashdown's proposed pacts with Labour. Selling herself as the working-class woman made good, she also has credibility from her time as an MEP. Unfortunately for her, Rochdale isn't far from anyone's minds at the moment and there remain many unanswered questions about what she knew. All the same, I considered she might have an outside chance and touring the country while nursing a fractured wrist won't have done her any harm.

The "establishment" candidate was Sal Brinton. Sal was endorsed by the likes of Paddy Ashdown,Ming Campbell, Jim Hume and Navnit Dholakia (and many others). Perhaps known chiefly for her advancement of equality issues, she's also utterly decent and respectable - and the party knows it. She's intelligent and loyal, and also the proverbial "safe pair of hands". She's someone for whom I have huge respect, but who doesn't really inspire me. And what we need, as a party, is a president who really can inspire people - both inside and outwith the Lib Dems.

In fact, the election campaign itself was less than inspiring. But it has raised some questions: most obviously, when Linda Jack failed to gain the required 200 nominations from conference delegates. Linda would have offered something different and while I would not have envisaged her winning, her presence would have made for a far more engaging debate and she would perhaps have been more focused on the nature of our party. The number of conference reps effectively this limited the contest to three candidates, which is hardly in the interests of democracy. Given the criticisms we have historically levelled towards the Labour Party for its refusal to endorse OMOV, this situation highlighted our own need for overdue reform of internal democratic practices.

Furthermore, it raised the question of whether a "non-establishment" candidate ever really has a chance. I would like to see a non-parliamentarian president, but after this election it would appear that this isn't likely to happen. The problem with my own - and Lib Dem Voice's - gauging of members' views is that they're not representative, simply because we're talking to activists who are motivated, who are informed and who are engaged. They know the candidates, they've attended hustings, they've debated the issues at conference and aren't shy in promoting who they feel is best-prepared to take the party forward. But these represent inevitably only a minority of the electorate, and more significant in elections of this type were the many relatively disengaged voters who make their mind up purely on the basis of a personal manifesto and endorsements from former leaders. This is why the LDV poll was so wildly wrong - and why any non-parliamentarian is always going to find it a near-impossible task to reach out to people who may never even have heard of them. Clever internet campaigns and insightful messages delivered to key groups are all good and well, but clearly lack the same impact with armchair voters as recommendations from the great and the good.

That is not to suggest that Sal Brinton is anything other than an excellent choice to succeed Tim Farron, but the outcome has left me wondering whether our presidential elections can ever be anything other than a popularity contest. Certainly in the next couple of years we will need Sal to use all her expertise and experience to inspire the party membership and reach out to the public in much the way that Tim Farron has.

A final word for Tim Farron. Or two words really: thank you! In 2010 I spoke to both Tim and Susan Kramer at Scottish conference, and both commented on the fact that the party president role is what the incumbent makes it. That admission made quite an impression on me. I cannot deny that, in the four years since then, Tim Farron has shaped the presidency in his own image to the degree that any future president will inevitably (consciously or otherwise) be following his example. Tim has been incredibly outward-looking in his approach, has come across to members and non-members alike as the amiable and appraochable face of the party, has excelled in communicating positive messages, as used his position to advance key campaigns and has - at specific times - become a figure behind whom the party can rally. He's shown the rest of us how to use the media. His immense charisma, energy and sense of humour have all helped to make his as popular as he has been impressive.

Even his occasional forays into religious controversy are relatively easily forgiven against the backdrop of the sterling work he has put in to advance the cause of liberalism.

So Tim, thanks for your efforts over the previous four years...Sal, it's over to you.



Friday, 21 November 2014

Another by-election - another dreadful result

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

And so the media circus named the Rochdale and Strood by-election comes to a conclusion.

And a predictable one at that.

Anyone not expecting UKIP to win here is clearly out of touch with current political reality.

Firstly, it would take an exceptionally abysmal performance for a party with the incumbent MP, which has effectively called the by-election on its own terms, and with the ability to direct all its resources into the constituency to find itself on the losing side. Add to this the media presentation of the election as a straight fight between UKIP and an unpopular party of government in shape of the Conservative Party, and a UKIP victory becomes a near certainty.

That does not mean, of course, that UKIP have not worked the constituency - indeed, they have. The somewhat disingenuous "Vote Mark Reckless for Change" slogan aside, they've done many of the right things to benefit from the Conservatives' tactical mistakes and perceived weakness on the EU and immigration. Indeed, such was the emphasis on immigration that we are now seeing UKIP as something more than an anti-EU membership party; it has morphed into a general anti-immigration, anti-progress party.

The strength of UKIP's appeal can be demonstrated in the reaction to Reckless's careless intervention at a hustings meeting, in which he indicated immigrants would be asked to leave the UK. For any other party, this would have been its undoing. Almost instantly, UKIP distanced itself from its candidate's comments - and then came the claims that his words had been minconstrued, misinterpreted, and taken out of context by a hostile media.

The fact that this was caught on video and the context made abundantly clear, the ease with which UKIP can play the "victim of the media" card is stunning. Not only was UKIP able to escape unscathed by Reckless's foolish intervention, they were actually able to use the alleged media "persecution" to their advantage. This is a tactic that they are becoming increasingly dependent on, given the increased scrutiny on such matters as the party's confused and contradictory position on the NHS, but so far cries of victimisation have won the day. How long they can continue to do so remains to be seen.

One surprise from the result was that Reckless's majority was not bigger. The scale of victory was much less that recent polls suggested, something that will privately be of concern to UKIP. In the General Election, when turnout will inevitably be higher and the Labour vote will not be so easily squeezed, Rochester & Strood would be likely to return to the Conservatives. This will provide perhaps a crumb of comfort to the Conservative Party, who have succeeded in winning only one by-election in the currrent parliament (Newark) and seem to dread by-elections in the same way that Northumbrians once feared a Viking invasion. In both cases, the likely outcome is the same - annihilation.

Interestingly, the media are already asking whether this latest by-election result shows that UKIP has "broken the mould" of UK politics and "become by-election experts". The answer is no on both counts. UKIP should learn some lessons from the SDP (who consistently polled much higher than UKIP is currently). Furthermore, the media commentators making such suggestions need to retain a sense of proportion. UKIP has won two by-elections, both of which were essentially called by themselves following defections, with the territory and timing being ideal. A cynic might suggest that UKIP was particularly anxious for both Carswell and Reckless to trigger by-elections so as to gain some momentum and credibility. What is certain is that UKIP are yet to win a by-election where it deos not hold the incumbency, so I'd hold back from making wild assessments as to its expertise at by-elections just yet.

Moving away from UKIP. it was a particularly poor night for the Liberal Democrats. Another by-election, and another dreadful result. It was predictable, but that does not make it any easier to accept. It was not fertile territory and it was always going to be tough to get our message across given the emphasis on the battle between UKIP and the Conservatives, and the kind of dialogue that inevitably framed the by-election. But there can be no escaping that this is our worst result since the party's inception in 1988, and that's a quite incredible statistic in itself given the scale of some recent reversals. It should serve as yet another reminder of our current difficulties and will (hopefully) result in some sober reflection and action from our campaigns unit. Certainly, the candidate - Geoff Juby - performed as well as could be expected and deserves credit for taking on some of the poisonous rhetoric surrounding immigration. I hope the party thanks him for his efforts - I know how difficult it can be to be a candidate in a constituency where the cause is effectively hopeless, and the thankless task carrying the Lib Dem standard often is. So, many thanks Geoff.

Labour will be licking their wounds too. They cannot afford to take much pleasure from either the Lib Dems' misfortunes or the Tories continuing failures in by-elections. Reduced to 16.8% of the vote in a seat they finished a decent second in 2010, Labour will realise that much of their supporters opted to vote UKIP this time around. Questions remain about how temporary such an arrangement is, and whether this will be replicated on a larger scale in next year's General Election.

In times gone by, Labour would have been set to capitalise on the divided Conservative vote; now they are getting their excuses in early and tying themselves in knots over shadow ministers' foolish tweets.  If this by-election confirmed anything, it is that Labour are unable to provide an effective alternative to the government. This naturally benefits UKIP.

More positively, the Greens put in a credible performance, which was remarkable in the circumstances, polling almost 1,700 votes and finishing fourth (although still losing their deposit). It was their best result since the General Election of 2010. It was equally pleasing to see the Monster Raving Loony Party finish convincingly ahead of Britain First.

And so, this was another by-election that gave us something to think about, but not anything like as much as the political commentators at the Daily Mail would have us believe.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Malcolm Bruce's letter exposes nature of Lib Dem-Tory relationship

Sir Malcolm Bruce
The Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Sir Malcolm Bruce, has written an open letter to Conservative MPs following accusations that Lib Dem MPs have blocked Bob Neill's EU Referendum Bill.

I'll let the letter speak for itself, but it underlines the nature of the current relationship between the coalition parties, in addition to exposing the degree to which the fear of UKIP features in Conservative thinking.

Here is the letter in full:

Dear Colleague,

I am writing to correct the misinformation contained in Michael Gove’s recent letter to parliamentarians, which accused the Liberal Democrats of ‘killing’ Bob Neill’s European Union (Referendum) Bill.

The claim is utterly false. The Liberal Democrats have never had any intention of preventing this Bill from being debated in the House of Commons. We do not support it – in Government we have already legislated for an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. However, we are more than happy to allow the appropriate passage of Bob Neill’s Private Members Bill, in line with standard Parliamentary procedure.

On that basis, the Liberal Democrats were happy to grant the required money resolution for Bob Neill’s Bill in return for agreement to a money resolution for Andrew George’s Affordable Homes Bill, as is normal practice.

What we could not accept, however, was the demand by the Conservative leadership that - in return for a money resolution for Andrew George’s Bill - both a money resolution and government time were provided for the EU (referendum) Bill. This would have been highly unusual and would not have been a like-for-like arrangement.

The only logical conclusion, therefore, is that the real block to Bob Neill’s Private Member’s Bill is the Conservative leadership, who – by creating an impossible hurdle for the Bill’s advancement through the Commons – have scuppered it and sought to lay the blame at the Liberal Democrats’ door, while distorting the potential costs of Andrew George’s bill in the process.

I can only assume that the reason they do not wish Bob Neill’s Bill to move ahead is that it’s success would be a serious electoral inconvenience to the Prime Minister and his team next May – because it removes what they believe is their best offer to disaffected Conservative voters who may otherwise be tempted to vote UKIP. One can only infer from their recent behaviour that the Prime Minister actively wants his 2017 referendum to hang in the balance come the General Election, in order to enhance his own appeal.

The risks of such short-term political tactics are an internal matter for the Conservative party. However, the Liberal Democrats will not be used as a shield between a Conservative leadership determined to avoid providing a statutory guarantee for a 2017 referendum and a Conservative backbench determined to deliver it. From our perspective, Bob Neill’s Bill remains entirely within reach – all that is required is for the Conservative Party to follow precedent: providing a money resolution for Andrew George’s Affordable Housing Bill in return for a money resolution for Bob Neill’s Bill.

You will know from your time in the Commons that this fair, equitable arrangement is always the way Private Members Bills are advanced.

Put simply, the message from the Liberal Democrats to the Conservative party is: know a fair offer when you see it, play by the rules and you will get your Bill.  

This will remain our position for as long as it is possible for both Bills to proceed.

Yours,

Malcolm Bruce MP
Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Who will be Scottish Labour's next leader?



Following Johann Lamont’s resignation, which served to underline the self-created difficulties in which Scottish Labour finds itself, there has been much talk regarding her successor.

The Mirror has reported that Jim Murphy is the frontrunner. The Spectator disagrees, stating that Anas Sarwar is the favourite to succeed Lamont. Gordon Brown has been touted by many as a potential Scottish leader. What is quite obvious about those being touted is, while they undoubtedly possess leadership ability, their potential appointments would also create significant further problems for Labour and would be ignoring the reasons behind the party’s current problems.

As Caron Lindsay wrote for Lib Dem Voice yesterday, “the problems faced by the Labour Party are primarily to do with their sense of entitlement to power and their predilection towards factionalism, personality cults and in-fighting...the failure to understand devolution in its own ranks is mirrored by its failure to get why the Scottish Parliament needs more powers.” Johann Lamont was consistently undermined by Labour’s inability to devolve any kind of power to their leader in Holyrood – if Labour cannot be trusted to treat the Scottish leader as..well, a leader, why should they be trusted in facilitating any significant devolution for Scotland?

The next leader of Scottish Labour has to be someone who can unite the Scottish party and once again give it purpose, a message, and credibility. A few policy ideas wouldn’t go amiss either – the obsession with Alex Salmond really hasn’t proved effective.  But, more significantly, in the current political climate, Scottish Labour’s leader should be someone who understands the difficulties Lamont experienced – of being sidelined by Westminster, of being unable to lead the London-based big-hitters such as Jim Murphy, of being unable to communicate any kind of message without Westminster interference, of having inept advisors who has a flawed grasp of Scottish politics – and who has the courage to at least attempt to deal with them. 

Attempting to rectify the awkward and skewed relationship between Labour’s Holyrood team and its Westminster MPs is unlikely to be remedied by appointing an MP to lead Scottish Labour. Electing an MP to lead would be tantamount to suggesting that Westminster is Labour’s priority, that they have abandoned any serious plans to regain their Holyrood supremacy and that they simply do not “get” devolution. Furthermore, some of the MPs being touted as potential leaders are far more divisive and aggressive than Labour’s MSPs – although admittedly Labour also has a problem with the lack of talent in Edinburgh (an inevitable product of at least a decade of sending its second string to serve in the Scottish Parliament and, when most of them lost their seats in 2011, their third team).

Jim Murphy, according to Labour List, is a figure whose “stock has never been higher”. This is questionable. Johann Lamont was a decent person who regrettably resorted to unnecessary aggression in FMQs, usually to little positive effect. Appointing Murphy as leader, who is by nature far more combative but also notably aggressive and adversarial, may not serve Labour’s cause well. As one of those who appeared to undermine Lamont with astonishing frequency, it would not appear he will have learned the necessary lessons – in spite of his being relative young at 47, he’s a typical old-school Labour MP and may struggle to provide the change of direction that Scottish Labour desperately needs. In spite of being unquestionably bright,  he will inevitably be perceived by his opposition, and Scottish voters, as part of the Westminster establishment. 

Anas Sarwar suffers from some of these difficulties – as will any MP seeking to lead Scottish Labour. He is not, however, the establishment figure Murphy is, and neither does he have the same aggressive character. Sarwar, a former dentist, is less intemperate than Jim Murphy and in spite of being a relative newcomer to parliament (he was first elected in 2010, at the age of 27) has served as the deputy leader of Scottish Labour since 2011 and later in the same year developed a four-point plan to eradicate factionalism within his party and reform it from within.  He also was responsible for co-ordinating Scottish Labour’s referendum campaign. While these latter two initiatives were far from resounding successes, Sarwar’s diagnosis of the problems Labour were facing in 2011 was broadly correct.

Next up for consideration in Gordon Brown – a man who knows how to lose elections. Michael Connarty, the MP for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, told Radio Scotland that “people are talking about Gordon Brown as leader. I think he should lead us into this next election...Gordon has shown he is a Scottish voice, he is a voice for Scotland. We should be talking about Gordon and Gordon alone.” Undoubtedly he showed what he can do in the final days of the referendum campaign, but what signals would be sent out by selecting a 63-year old former Prime Minister with a questionable legacy to lead Scottish Labour? At best, it would look rather desperate. I suspect when Connarty states that “people are talking about Gordon Brown as leader” he means those within the Westminster bubble, for whom Brown – due to his inspirational performances in those final days leading up to the 18th September poll – will forever be seen as the Saviour of the Union. His overall record is less impressive, and his appointment would be a retrograde step. 

Another MP being considered by some as leadership material is Douglas Alexander. Another typecast former minister, and media-declared “big hitter”, like Murphy probably is too establishment and in any case would be unlikely to surrender his role as elections co-ordinator immediately before a crucial General Election. I’m pretty confident he won’t stand – he’s too sensible for that.

Onto our MSPs now...and I genuinely believe there is more talent within Labour’s ranks in Holyrood that even they seem to realise at times. Kezia Dugdale is written off by some for her relative youth (she’s 33) and her lack of experience (she was first elected in 2011) but the same arguments could also be applied to Anas Sarwar. But she is highly regarded and well respected by colleague and opponent alike, and has been one of Labour’s star performers in the Scottish Parliament in her role as Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning. She also has a weekly column in the Daily Record, which usually reads well and underlines her connectedness with the pertinent issues in addition to suggesting she possesses a popular touch Johann Lamont did not. The name recognition her column gives will help her hugely. For me she should be the obvious frontrunner, but whether she appears as such to Labour members is another question altogether. 

Another possible contender is Jenny Marra who, similarly to Dugdale, was also elected for the first time in 2011. She is currently the Shadow Minister for Youth Employment and Shadow Deputy Finance Minister – she has perhaps not caught the attention of the media and politicos in the same way as Dugdale, but she has been reasonably effective and understands how to take on the SNP – or, more honestly, how not to. 

Some people’s money is on Ken McIntosh. There can be no denying his experience – he’s been an MSP since the inception of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. McIntosh’s Holyrood seat covers much of the Jim Murphy’s East Renfrewshire constituency, and the two have had a long political relationship. McIntosh has seen off several strong Conservative challenges at successive elections and with his experience (previously Deputy Convenor of the Standards Committee) he should be popular among members and activists. While close to Murphy and others, he would not suffer from the same “establishment” identification – in fact, in 2011, even Ed Miliband was unable to recall Ken’s name. McIntosh is also not afraid to speak his mind – famously voting against the Labour-Lib Dem executive on the future of A&E units. However, McIntosh’s previous bid for the leadership in 2011 failed, in spite of being supported by Jim Murphy, Kezia Dugdale and Jenny Marra – i.e. individuals who should now fancy their chances of a successful bid themselves – and there would be a suspicion that McIntosh is “yesterday’s man”. His time has come and gone. He may have proved a better leader than either Iain Gray or Johann Lamont had he been given the opportunity, but it is difficult to see how a McIntosh leadership would revitalise the party. Extensive experience in itself does not necessarily make effective leaders. 

There are naturally other MSPs with potential such as Drew Smith and Neil Findlay who may fancy a run for the leadership. It is difficult to see them, however, as serious contenders.

As a Liberal Democrat and a pluralist, it gives me no great sense of satisfaction to see Labour in their present predicament. Scottish democracy requires a strong opposition. That said, Scottish Labour does not deserve to be that opposition if it is unable to put forward a radical plan to move itself forward. Anyone who believes that simply replacing Johann Lamont will result in a change of fortune is likely to be disappointed; Lamont was the symptom of a deep malaise within the Labour Party, not its cause. The real question is not who the next leader will be, but where that leader will take Scottish Labour. 

For me the “right” leadership candidate would be whoever advocates organisationally separating the Scottish party from Westminster, and whoever can explain how and why a Labour administration would be better than one which is SNP-led. For me, that person cannot be Westminster-based, and electing an MP would be tantamount to reinforcing the perception that, in Labour’s mind, Holyrood is simply a branch of Westminster. It would fail to resolve the key difficulties Labour is facing in Scotland, and may in fact reinforce them.

My vote would be for Kezia Dugdale. But I am not a Labour member. Scottish Labour has the chance to elect a leader who has the energy, vision and tactical awareness to create a modern, progressive, social-democratic force in Scottish politics. If that chance is squandered, Labour could spend the next few decades in the political wilderness, struggling for purpose and relevance.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Johann Lamont to resign as Scottish Labour leader

Alex Salmond shocked the political world when he announced his resignation as First Minister, following a campaign in which the Yes side were generally acknowledged as having exceeded the expectations of many commentators who had failed to foresee how close the result would be.

If the First Minister's resignation surprised observers and stunned many Scots, the departure of his Labour counterpart, Johann Lamont, will be greeted in many circles with a shrug of the shoulders and an acceptance of the inevitable.

Lamont has struggled to provide Scottish Labour with the vision and purpose it so desperately needs, and has come under particular fire for her role in the Better Together campaign. Recently, Labour's heartlands have shown indications of switching their allegiances, with areas such as North Lanarkshire and Glasgow voting Yes on 18th September and the media reporting on growing public disaffection in these areas towards the Labour Party. It seemed unthinkable only five years ago that many of Labour's safest seats in Scotland could ever be seriously threatened - now both the SNP and UKIP fancy their chances in North Lanarkshire.

Lamont has found it impossible to stamp her own authority on Scottish Labour, and if sections of the media are to be believed it would appear that she has been the victim of a "whispering campaign" from some Scottish MPs. Of that I cannot be sure, but her tactics in FMQs (she was much too adversarial) and her inability to demonstrate that she has the common touch - or at least the ability to come across as a little more human in TV interviews - did her few favours. Her poll ratings have been consistently low for some time, and in recent weeks she has been unable to effectively position Labour on the issue of further Scottish devolution.

Johann Lamont has been a largely ineffective leader for Scottish Labour, aside from a brief revival in the local elections of 2012, but in fairness many of her problems were not self-created. The lack of personal charisma and vision aside, her difficulties are largely historical. She inherited the leadership after Labour's worst election result in modern political history, with many of the more talented and experienced MSPs swept away in the SNP landslide. Labour's lack of credibility pre-dates Lamont's tenure and at least, unlike her predecessor, she was able to identify the problem even if she failed to provide a remedy. No previous Labour leader has faced such a challenging task - and never against the backdrop of a referendum on the nation's constitutional future. The reality is that Scottish Labour now finds itself in the position Manchester City were in during the mid 1990s - everyone can see its potential but no-one wants to take the reins.

In recent weeks, it's been painful to see how hamstrung Scottish Labour has been on the matter of devolution - paralysed by indecision stemming from the Conservatives' cynical manipulation of their position and the prominence given to Ed Miliband. Lamont's voice has, regrettably, been obscured by the Westminster infighting and the focus on the key players of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband. Whether she has a coherent, comprehensive and practical plan for Scotland's future is open to question, but as Scottish Labour leader she should have been afforded a more prominent role rather than being exiled to the sidelines.

Lamont will announce her resignation formally today, but The Herald reports that she has already issued a statement in which she says ""I am standing down so that the debate our country demands can take place. I firmly believe that Scotland's place is in the UK and I do not believe in powers for power's sake. For example, I think power should be devolved from Holyrood to communities. But colleagues need to realise that the focus of Scottish politics is now Holyrood, not Westminster." These few sentences neatly define the source of her problems: that Scottish politics is about Westminster and not Holyrood, and that she failed to realise this.

I am not convinced that her departure will restore the fortunes of Scottish Labour. Scottish Labour's biggest problem is with itself rather than its leader. Johann Lamont undeniably hoped to do so much more, and she was at least the first Scottish Labour leader since Donald Dewar to be an improvement on her predecessor, but her leadership was undermined by a combination of personal failings, tough circumstances and historic difficulties that even now Labour can neither face up to nor remedy.

There will now undoubtedly be speculation as to who will succeed her - there are no shortage of potential candidates. Talk of meltdown is premature and there is sufficient talent within Labour's ranks to re-create them as a force in Scottish politics if only they can learn the necessary - and often painful - lessons. What is certain is that, with the two largest parties having lost their leaders within weeks of each other, Scottish politics is entering a new chapter. Whether that is for better for worse only time will tell.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Why should the anti-scientific sit on science committees?

Michael Mullaney: "strains on the NHS budget cannot be
resolved by treating serious illnesses with herbal remedies."
It seems rather absurd that I should have to make this obvious statement.

However, there appear to be those who take a different line.

Conservative health committee member David Tredinnick MP has this week suggested that the NHS should treat patients with herbal remedies, astrology and homeopathy in a quest to drive down costs.

He explained to Channel 4 News that "in some cultures astrology is part of healthcare because they need to have a voice and I've got up and said that...but I also think we can reduce the bill by using a whole range of alternative medicine including herbal medicine, acupuncture, homeopathy.
 
Tredinnick has estimated that five per cent of the NHS budget could be saved in this way, although what precise calculations he has used were not disclosed. He has previously expressed interest in allowing astrology to replace more "conventional" NHS treatments, telling the House of Commons in July
that "I am absolutely convinced that those who look at the map of the sky for the day that they were born and receive some professional guidance will find out a lot about themselves and it will make their lives easier."

The MP is known to be a long-term advocate of alternative medicine, although oddly enough is also a member of the all-party Science and Technology Committee. Fortunately Tredinnick's rather eccentric beliefs say more about himself than they do the Conservative Party, but it does raise questions as to why someone with such anti-scientific views is sitting on scientific committees.

I don't doubt Tredinnick's sincerity when he insists that "in future we [should] stop looking just at increasing the supply of drugs and consider the way that complementary and alternative medicine can reduce the demand for drugs, reduce pressures on the health service, increase patient satisfaction, and make everyone in this country happier." He clearly believes this. The difficulty I have is that when a serving member of Commons committees on health and science makes such statements, it is more than embarrassing for parliament and for the cause of evidence-led treatment. And, in this case, he's simply wrong.

I spent most of my adult life working in the NHS, including mental health services. I will not deny that there is a need for delivering holistic approaches towards patient care that take into account their personal and spiritual beliefs. There is also a need to facilitate better availability of treatments other than medication, especially in the field of mental health. The answer is not always to dispense more drugs. However, this is not based on some oddball plan to deliver costs reductions, but to create an NHS that is more responsive to patient need. Moreover, it is evidence-based and follows the lead of academic research looking at providing more preventative, rather than reactive, treatments.

The scientific basis for homeopathy is virtually non-existent and for Tredinnick's projected savings to be realised it would require "alternative medicine" not only to be effective but in demand by patients. I suspect that David Tredinnick has not spent 17 years of his life working within the NHS, so I hope he will trust my experience when I suggest that patients would be far "happier" if they were treated more quickly - and with greater dignity and respect - than they would if they were to be given an appointment with an astrological therapist.

NHS treatments should naturally continue to evolve and adapt, following scientific advances, to deliver the best possible care for patients. It is not so much Tredinnick's ridiculous call for herbs, homeopathy and horoscopes that I find offensive, but the fact that someone who is a member of both the Commons Health Committee and the Science and Technology Committee sees fit to make pronouncements that undermine scientific rigour and evidence-based approaches in favour of a personally held dogmatic stance.

It is true that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt also has an unscientific belief in the powers of homeopathy, but his championing of alternative medicine stops there. Tredinnick's continuing missions to regulate Chinese herbalists (and in doing so give them professional recognition) and his often-quoted reference to the alleged fact that he knew of "a psychiatric hospital that doubled its staff at full-moon" (it is, of course, entirely untrue) suggest that perhaps it's time he was reigned in. Speeches in parliament referring to the "fact" that blood does not clot under a full moon hardly give him much credibility with which to speak on health issues.

As far as I know, Tredinnick has not yet given evidence of the role of werewolves in hypogycaemia or the connections between fairies and cerebro-vascular accidents, but there is as much evidence for these as there are his plethora of other health claims.

Rather odd and eccentric people are all good and well, and there is a place for them in public life, but for the Conservative Party to appoint someone with these views to committees of such responsibility seems either absurd or some kind of unfunny joke. Health and science are not laughing matters, and the aims of the respective committees should not be undermined by those sitting on them. It's like having the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints sitting on a committee promoting atheistic humanism.

This naturally raises questions about how MPs are selected to serve on committees. As someone who is naturally pro-science and supportive of evidence-based approaches - especially on health issues - I find it an affront to democracy that while MPs are accountable to the public, committees are less directly accountable. Some serious rethinking of the relationship between committees, parliament and the civil service - and the way in which appointments are made - is overdue and patently necessary.

If the Conservatives are serious about keeping Bosworth, they perhaps should consider having a word with Tredinnick about his tendency to undermine scientific approaches from within the Science and Technology Committee. His contributions are becoming more unpredictable and unreasonable, and his appointment to these committees has seen an increase in such proclamations. Tredinnick has been the Conservative MP for Bosworth since 1987, but faced a tough challenge from Liberal Democrat Michael Mullaney in 2010 and his growing reputation as a pro-quackery eccentric is unlikely to help him.

Mullaney, who will again be conesting the seat in 2015, is understandably focused on his own constituency. ""People in Hinckley and Bosworth want an MP who will stand up for them on the important issues of jobs and services. Our current MP spends his time telling doctors not to operate on full moons, advising GPs to consult people's astrology charts when they come for treatments and suggests that scientists objecting to widespread use of Chinese Herbal medicines to cure serious illnesses are racially motivated."

Mullaney added: "At a time when the pressures facing the NHS are again under the spotlight, his answer to the strains on the NHS budget is to treat serious illness with herbal medicines and other ineffective and unproven methods. It's illogical.

 
"He has been MP for Bosworth for 27 years - this is far too long and it's about time he was thrown out by the voters next May!"