Friday, 24 February 2017

Some thoughts on Stoke and Copeland

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

And so the much anticipated by-elections of Copeland and Stoke threw up results that were interesting but not altogether surprising.

In Copeland, the result was what I feared it would be. True, there were positives for the Liberal Democrats - we increased our vote and moved into a creditable third place (up from 4th in 2015). I'm not sure it can be called a positive result for us, as a Tory win - the first time a party of government has gained from the official opposition since 1982 - has resulted in Conservative triumphalism and has inevitably been taken by the government as an indicator of approval in its policy direction. After Witney and Richmond Park, the momentum was very definitely with the Lib Dems - but there can be no escaping that the real winners last night were the government. Coming third of course represents some kind of progress, but I argued in December that our main objective should be to avoid a Tory win and that was, unfortunately, something we were unable to prevent.

The Conservative victory is as much a setback for everything we stand for as it is for Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party. It's a defeat for progressive politics. This is so self-evident that I shouldn't have to explain the point further.

Labour is clearly a party with some real problems, most of them of its own making. Copeland is an unusual seat in that while it has been Labour-held for 81 years, for much of that time it was a two-way Lab-Con marginal. But in usual circumstances a Labour Party in opposition would hold somewhere like this, and hold it comfortably. On the other hand, the Conservatives have proven themselves able to squeeze UKIP and effectively appeal to UKIP supporters. Labour have an identity problem; the Tories are happy to adopt a new Euro-hostile, UKIP-lite identity.

I asked in December whether we should stand a candidate in Copeland at all. In the final analysis, our vote made the difference. In the absence of any constructive dialogue with Labour it is doubtful that any "progressive alliance" would have been possible, but I think serious questions now have to be asked about how collaboration around by-elections can take place. I suspect that More United isn't the answer, but we can ill-afford too many more Copelands.

The media were naturally far more interested in Stoke, not least because of their UKIP obsession. Would Paul Nuttall deliver on his promise to unseat Labour in their heartlands? Well, no - and no-one should realistically have expected him to. Nuttall is clearly a liability and, unlike Farage, struggles to be taken seriously.

In the event Labour held on easily, with UKIP (in spite of all the hype) very nearly falling into third place. Dr Ali, for the Lib Dems, did well to significantly increase our share of the vote and finish in a decent fourth. For me, the Stoke result was the least interesting and unlike Copeland there is not an obvious winner - yes, Labour have a new MP in Gareth Snell but it is clear the party has little direction and that victory was owed, in part at least, to UKIP's counterproductive strategy. There is, however, an obvious loser - and that was Paul Nuttall.

The UKIP leader might only be twelve weeks into his new job, but he staked a lot on this campaign and it failed spectacularly. He went into the campaign in the shadow of Nigel Farage and came out of it with any credibility he once had in shreds. In a constituency in which 70% of voters opted to leave, this really was UKIP's great chance of a historic breakthrough, whatever Nuttall said subsequently about Stoke being way down the list of UKIP target seats. Nuttall successfully managed to transform himself from a relative unknown to a figure of fun and ridicule - quite a triumph in the space of a few weeks. His "honeymoon" period is well and truly over. Indeed, when he insisted that UKIP "aren't going anywhere, and I'm not going anywhere" he was inadvertently making a significant admission. His party aren't going anywhere. Like Labour they are directionless, reduced to unsubtle appeals to working class voters and taking populist potshots at "the establishment".

In all the excitement, for all parties (the Tories aside) there will be some disappointment. For the Lib Dems, there will be some encouragement that the toxicity that saw us reduced to eight MPs in 2015 is evaporating. In both contests our vote share was up on the General Election, which looks good on paper and is certainly evidence that we are moving in the right direction. However, given the huge effort in Stoke, can a distant fourth place be called a good result? There is clearly still progress to be made to get back to 2010 levels. And, while we moved into third place in Copeland at the expense of UKIP (even if it was the second lowest percentage of the vote we have received in that constituency since 1979) a Tory win was the last thing we needed - I suspect I'm not the only party member to see that as a disastrous outcome and a significant setback to the pro-EU, pro-inclusive, tolerant approach being advocated by Tim Farron.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Why we should stop speculating about Trump's mental health

US President Donald Trump (Photo: Quartz)
In recent weeks, there has been - unsurprisingly - a lot of speculation about the mental health of new US President Donald Trump.

I'm no fan of Mr Trump or his policies. I find him genuinely frightening. However, as someone who's spent most of their adult life working in NHS mental health services, I am uneasy to see so many people commenting in public forums on his mental health - usually in reference to whether he has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

I'm very uncomfortable with armchair psychology, but especially when it is reduced to some throw-away lines on twitter.

I'm also very worried about the scope for using mental health terminology as a form of abuse.

Of course, it's perfectly acceptable to look to make sense of someone's behaviour. Historians often do this retrospectively, using evidence from  a different time to suggest someone may have had a condition we now recognise as a medical problem. From Henry VI to Nicolae Ceausescu, historical figures have had their lives and achievements revisited to take account of likely mental health issues. Relatively recently David Owen wrote a book, considering world leaders including Tony Blair and George W Bush as potentially suffering from a "hubris syndrome". He brought both political and medical expertise to his work, and while I felt it unfairly judgmental in some respects, ultimately he was merely putting forward a medical theory. Should that be allowed? Should historians be permitted to speculate about physical health problems, while mental health is off-limits? I'm not sure I would support a "don't ask, don't talk" approach towards mental health, as if it should somehow be taboo.

But it is difficult - especially when mental health isn't so black and white and a great deal of stigma remains - and how we do it is of enormous importance. I'm reasonably comfortable with people questioning whether someone's behaviour is narcissistic, etc in general terms - I have more of a problem with people arriving at their own (public) diagnoses, however consistent a presentation may appear with the diagnostic criteria. We reduce both humanity and psychiatry when we do that. Those who make diagnoses about public figures can do more damage than they know.

I worked in both acute and forensic mental health services over 16 years, and have some experience of working with people with NPD. What I would say is that NPD is notoriously difficult to diagnose, and is rarer than people imagine.

It's not only on social media. This week a number of prominent psychologists have stated their belief that Mr Trump suffers from a "malignant narcissism". John Gartner described him as being "dangerously mentally ill and temperamentally incapable of being president"; Dr Julie Futrell believes “Narcissism impairs his ability to see reality so you can't use logic to persuade someone like that". While these people are undoubtedly expert clinicians, their public statements give fuel to others who use them as ammunition for their own insults on social media and elsewhere. So while their views may be informed, we should ask: are they helpful?

Added to this, yesterday House minority leader Nancy Pelosi has publicly stated she would support legislation requiring the President to undertake a mental health assessment. It should be obvious to anyone why that would be a terrible idea.

Equally unhappy at the NPD-focused conversations on twitter and in the wider media, psychiatrist Allen Francis has hit back in a series of tweets. Some of these raise very valid points, and are definitely worth repeating. For example, he warns that "instead of misdiagnosing Trump, we must analyze the societal sickness that gave someone so flawed the power to determine fate of the world", and observes that "calling Trump crazy also insults people who suffer from mental illness, most of whom are well meaning & well mannered. Trump is neither." So far, so good.

But he goes further, and insists that Trump has no psychiatric condition: "Constantly saying Trump's crazy wrong & misses point. He doesn't meet DSM Narcisssistic criteria (I wrote them). It's worse-he's bad, not mad".

So for Dr Frances it's open and shut. A closed case. Trump is pretty nasty. He's bad, not mad. All based, presumably, on his public appearances and statements.

The news article in Refinery 29, a US online lifestyle magazine, states that Dr Frances "wrote the diagnostic criteria for narcissism" - it's not quite true; he has never defined narcissism. He was part of the task force that helped to revise the framework for defining NPD (which has undergone several revisions). That's a significant distinction. No doubt it's possible to be narcissistic without having NPD, just as it's possible to be anti-social without experiencing Antisocial Personality Disorder.

I'm concerned about his response. Just as I am troubled about the kind of armchair psychiatry that positively diagnoses from a distance, and uses mental health related terms to insult and abuse, so too am I concerned that an eminent psychiatrist has weighed in, presumably without ever having met Mr Trump, to assert an absence of NPD. As he should know, NPD is notoriously difficult to diagnose. I have no doubts about his expertise and experience, but isn't he too guilty of making diagnoses from afar? Isn't this undermining psychiatry? Should health professionals be making any kinds of diagnosis of public figures on twitter?

I accept a lot of the points Frances is making, especially in relation to society, but did he need to go so far as to make a negative diagnosis? I don't know whether Trump has a mental health problem; he may have, he may not. He may need help, he may not. Bad guys can have mental health issues too. Ultimately, I think Frances is guilty of a similar "well meaning, but misguided" approach he accuses others of following - namely, of trying to destigmatise mental illness by public declaring that the objectionable Mr Trump doesn't have one. But at best it's an unprofessional approach - unless you sit down with someone and undertake a proper and full mental health assessment you have absolutely no right to speculate (publicly or otherwise) on their mental health, let alone make an unequivocal diagnosis.

For me, two wrongs don't make a right.

Ultimately, I think the problem here is how we view mental ill health. It is with dismay I see the words "personality disorder" used to insult and demean - or, even worse, used in a politically partisan way to depict someone as somehow less than human. That it's often liberals doing this, who honestly should know better, is equally worrying.

If we can strip away the stigma and it is seen as a health problem like any other, perhaps the idea of suffering from it will seem less offensive. A positive flip side would be fewer people using mental ill-health to abuse and insult others. We need to work to create a society - and health system - in which mental well-being is given parity with physical well-being, and in which stigma and discrimination towards mental ill-health are eradicated. In the meantime can we concentrate on resisting the President's destructive policy direction, rather than allow ourselves to be distracted by the question of his mental health?

Saturday, 31 December 2016

My predictions for 2017

So, that was 2016 - a year that many of us won't be too upset to see the back of.

For the last few years I've generally made predictions on New Year's Eve for the coming year - some serious and some not quite so serious. However, I decided to sit it out last year - in part because I'm not spending the same time on the blog I once did, but also because I genuinely believed the UK would vote to leave the EU and also suspected Donald Trump's chances of winning the US Presidency were higher than many thought. And I didn't want to think too much about what they would mean, privately hoping the bookies knew something I didn't...

In a sense the predictions I didn't want to share last year were more accurate than those in any year previously. So I've decided that I should trust my crystal ball after all, and have looked into 2017 to let you all know what you can expect. Will it be better than 2016? Hard to say...


The Liberal Democrats

* Tim Farron will become increasingly bold in his pronouncements. It will be obvious to anyone and everyone that he is unashamedly identifying himself as the voice of "the 48%". Increasing numbers of "the 48%" will look to him, in the absence of any real leadership on Brexit from Labour.

* The party's message of tolerance and inclusion sees steady gains, including another Westminster by-election in which we win a seat from the Tories. The Lib Dems will do very well in local elections in England and also make some progress in Scotland. There will be consistent improvement in the opinion polls.

* In spite of this progress, and the success of the leader in forging a positive identity for his party, it will also become clear that the Lib Dems still have no idea what federalism means in practice.

The Conservative Party

* There will be no general election. There really would be nothing for the government to gain. This comes as no surprise to anyone.

* The Conservatives will gain the Cumbrian seat of Copeland in a spring by-election. This is significant, because it will represent the first by-election win by a party of government over their official opposition since 1982, and the first time Copeland has had a non-Labour MP since 1935. More importantly, the victory will prove to be a huge blow for the government, which with some justification claims the result confirms public support for its Brexit strategy.

* As the Conservative Party becomes ever more populist, wrapping up its policy positions in jingoism and seeking to appeal to the most unsubtle aspects of British nationalism, it does increase the government's standing in opinion polls. The Prime Minister feels emboldened by the approval ratings and announces a hardening of her position on immigration, the European Court of Human Rights and Scotland.

* Theresa May will invoke Article 50 on the date of her arbitrary deadline, in spite of having to put the issue to a parliamentary vote in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling. It is, after all, "what the people want". As negotiations proceed, it becomes very difficult to see what the government's end goal is, other than to do "what the people want". By the end of the year it is obvious that the government underestimated its EU counterparts, and that (now the real war has started) it is not prepared to commit economic suicide. This supposed "compromise too far" leads to hostile reactions in the right-wing media (and from Nigel Farage) and puts May, Johnson, Davis and Fox under real pressure. It also becomes apparent in the confusion, claim and counterclaim that British voters have as much idea of what they want from negotiations as the government does.

* Rumours of a new banking crisis will also threaten to destabilise the government towards the end of the year. Anxieties are increased when Boris Johnson, caught off guard by Channel 5 News while opening a new trampoline at a nursery, reveals that the government has contingency plans for such an outcome and that we should simply trust Philip Hammond.

* Towards the end of the year, May's patience with Johnson finally becomes exhausted when he makes some comments about Strictly Come Dancing. There is relief all round until it is announced that his successor as foreign secretary is Peter Bone.

The Labour Party

* For all the talk, Jeremy Corbyn will remain as Labour leader. Indeed, he will not even face the serious challenge from his parliamentary party many in the media seem to want. This is partly because the party membership see no reason to displace him, and MPs know this - but also because there is no real credible alternative on the Labour benches. There simply isn't a Labour MP who is forward-looking, pro-EU, who understands how to win in Scotland and is popular with voters. Consequently, for better or worse, Corbyn is here to stay.

* Labour will lose the Copeland by-election. The surprising thing about it is that it doesn't really come as a surprise. Corbyn supporters accuse the losing candidate of not being sufficiently left-wing; his critics meanwhile insist Labour's predicament is all of the leader's making. None of which actually helps Labour recognise either the real nature of its existentialist crisis or how to address it.

* Labour will, finally, communicate a firm position on Brexit. Essentially it amounts to "the people have spoken; their democratic will is sovereign" and commits Labour to not opposing the government on the issue of withdrawal and pushing for Brexit to happen as soon as possible. However, Labour will be less sure of where it stands on the terms of Brexit - Jeremy Corbyn will be vocally critical in general terms of the government's "Red, White and Blue Brexit", instead promoting a "People's Brexit" which is predictably lampooned in sections of the media as "Red Brexit". But the real problem is no-one understands what the "People's Brexit" is, especially "the people" themselves, and not least when Andy Burnham makes further interventions about the need to "listen" and curb immigration.

* Burnham will win the Manchester Mayoral election, with around 25% of the vote and with the Lib Dems in second place. He will smugly make all sorts of claims about the significance of his win, neither of which will be remotely honest.

* Labour will continue to do poorly in elections, especially the local elections. The Scottish local elections will prove to be a disaster beyond imagination for Kezia Dugdale, who in spite of her best efforts cannot distance herself from the internal squabbling at Westminster or articulate an alternative, convincing vision to the SNP's. Kezia deserves better, but is inevitably blamed for the catastrophe by many who don't see the wider picture. After initially signalling an intention to stick it out, she leaves within weeks to be replaced by...well, the next person who has an inexplicable desire to take on the most thankless task in UK politics.

* While Jeremy Corbyn's position is secure, there will be talk in the media of Labour rebels forming a new party. Unusually, such talk has a basis in truth - the obvious suspects, and a few others, will be conspiring to create what would essentially be an SDP Mark II - but lack either the popular support the Gang of Four had in 1982 or the organisational/communications skills to make a success of the idea. Tim Farron wisely distances himself from the project before it even starts, insisting the nation's future cannot depend on "egotisical yesterday's men and washed-up Blairites", while a proposed launch descends into chaos when it transpires some of the MPs announced as defectors have had second thoughts. One Labour MP, disgusted by the whole saga, decides to defect to UKIP instead.

The Scottish National Party

* The SNP will have a very good year for the most part. The local elections in May will be dominated by even further SNP successes, aided by Labour's meltdown.

* Nicola Sturgeon will continue to command high approval ratings. However, it is obvious that this does not translate into support for a second independence referendum and her Brexit strategy changes accordingly (indeed, it already is). Sturgeon proves herself to be adept at adjusting quickly to rapidly changing political realities, creating significant difficulties for Prime Minister Theresa May in the process.

* Theresa May might think she's laid down the rules, but Sturgeon makes it very clear she has no intention of obeying them.


* Paul Nuttall's talk of leading a party the will challenge Labour in the North of England loses credibility when UKIP is soundly beaten in Copeland, coming a distant third (only slightly ahead of the Lib Dems).

* UKIP will struggle to get across its message, especially when much of the rhetoric usually associated with them is being espoused by the Prime Minister. Somewhat unfairly Nuttall is not taken as seriously as Nigel Farage by the mainstream media, which proves problematic for him - especially when Nigel Farage leaves UKIP to "enjoy retirement", only to found a rival party three days later. Recriminations and a split among MEPs inevitably follow.

* UKIP will do moderately well in the local elections, but will make no significant gains and will see a slight drop in their vote.

* Just as significant support for the government's Brexit strategy poses problems for UKIP early in the year, once negotiations being in earnest and the government's ineptitude becomes apparent, Paul Nuttall will see - and exploit - opportunities for his party.


* The destruction of Syria will finally come to an end. Opposition forces will finally throw in the towel, and the international community (for want of a more apt phrase) will facilitate talks to move the country forward. Such talks are, inevitably, dominated by Russia  - which insists that Assad and his allies cannot be part of Syria's future. Cue political uncertainty and tests of wills. Putin will seek opportunities (here and elsewhere) to reinforce his influence.

* France will elect a new president in May. It will most definitely not be Marine le Pen. Francois Fillon will have a small lead after the first ballot, and will cruise to victory in the second. Le Pen will blame association with foreign right-wingers for her defeat, including Nigel Farage.

* How will it end for President Trump? When you think logically, how can it possible end well? But politics now is no longer about logic, especially in the US. Expect a bumpy first year but one in which, like the election, adversity and accusations only serve to reinforce his position. Impeachment is something many are talking about, and it's a possibility, but I wouldn't bank on it.

* In the Dutch elections, Geert Wilder's Freedom Party (PVV) will do well, but make less progress than most tipped them to. However, the PVV will become the second largest party, behind the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). The real losers will be the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA).

* Turkey will not only not be admitted to the EU any time soon, they will also leave NATO. Which, presumably, was always Putin's plan anyway.

* Angela Merkel's CDU/CSU Alliance will secure another term in the federal elections and just hold on to their overall majority. This will be in spite of recent results (e.g. Berlin). The result is testament to the Social Democratic SPD's inability to take advantage of the government's unpopularity and surrendering the initiative on the immigration issue to Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) - who will do moderately well mainly at the SPD's expense. The inability of the German left to put together a workable electoral alliance will also contribute to Merkel's victory.


* Leicester City won't be champions this year (yes, I'm sure you knew that). They will, however, reach the Champions League quarter-finals and easily avoid relegation. Chelsea will secure the Premiership title with several games to spare. Manchester United will part company with the not-so-special one after a disappointing 6th place finish. The relegated teams will be Hull City, Sunderland and Swansea City. Newcastle, Brighton and Huddersfield Town will be promoted from the Championship. Tranmere Rovers will return to the football league - as will Barrow after a 45 year absence.

* Manchester United will lose 2-1 in the FA Cup final against Liverpool, after which Mourinho will blame the referee, the crowd, the weather and the BBC for the "shameful" result.

* Manchester City will win the Women's Super League in England, after a close fight with Chelsea. Glasgow City will be champions (again) in Scotland.

* Celtic will win the Scottish Premiership (again, I'm sure you knew that) with Kilmarnock going down. Dundee United will be promoted, as will Greenock Morton - yes, they will! - after beating firstly Hibernian and then Hamilton Accies in the play-offs.

In lighter vein...

* There will be new political scandals in Westminster. Some Conservative MPs will provoke outrage by voting against Brexit, while another one will make headlines for historic use of recreational drugs.  A Labour MP will be accused of racism and misogyny after suggesting Diane Abbott should "man up". Meanwhile, a Lib Dem parliamentarian will be threatened with withdrawal of the whip when they reveal to the BBC that they "really don't like Doctor Who".

* The Scottish Episcopal Church will make further steps towards sanctioning same-sex marriages. No-one seems to mind, other than the Free Church of Scotland, which The Scotsman seems to believe merits a voice on such matters.

* There will be some localised bad weather in Southern England that will dominate the BBC’s news coverage for most of January.

* Kim Kardashian will continue to appear on our TV screens far too often. Fortunately, however, we'll be seeing less of Simon Cowell after he announces the 2017 X-Factor will be the last.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Another by-election...but should we stand?

We have another by-election on the horizon - this time in Copeland, Cumbria, following the decision of incumbent MP Jamie Reed to literally take the nuclear option and call time on his political career.

Copeland is an interesting seat. On the face of it, it seems like it's Labour's to lose. After all, they've held it since 1935, and no party of government has gained a seat in a by-election from the main opposition since 1982. But those statistics don't tell the full story - this has often been a marginal Lab-Con seat. Frank Anderson won it for Labour 81 years ago with a majority of 352, and in more recent years since Labour have retained it with majorities of less than 2,000 (1,837 and 1,894 in 1983 and 1987 respectively). Reed's majority in 2015 was 2,564.

The media are playing this up as a three-horse race between Labour, the Tories and UKIP. Personally, I don't see UKIP as a significant player in this by-election. It is true that in 2015 they increased their vote share from 2.3% to 15.5%, but they still finished 10,000 voted behind Reed. They also have no local party to speak of, and failed to stand any candidates in the 2011 local elections for Copeland Borough Council. That changed in 2015 when they stood a single candidate, who finished fourth - which suggests the absence of a strong local organisation. They may well poll similarly to the General Election, but for all the media talk I can't see this as anything other than a straight Lab-Con fight. Paul Nuttall's already ruled himself out of standing, a sure sign he doesn't believe he can win.

What about the Tories? Well, they have good presence on the local council, but more tellingly they have strong and well-organised local parties not so far away - in Penrith and the Border and Westmorland and Lonsdale. Conservatives in Cumbria are relishing the opportunity to turn this patch of the county blue - not only because of what it means on a national level but also on account of the huge boost it will give them locally. They cut significantly into Tim Farron's majority at the General Election and haven't given up on taking back that seat.

As for Labour - well, their own problems are sufficiently well-documented I don't feel the need to add to what has already been said. Labour could well hang on in Copeland - especially if they select a good local candidate with both a knowledge of the area and a reputation for campaigning on the right issues (including the local NHS, which will be an issue of huge significance in the weeks to come). But while failure would increase the pressure on Corbyn's leadership, scraping home in a seat they've held for eight decades won't do a huge amount to relieve it.

What's in it for us? Well, not a lot. Fourth place seems a foregone conclusion. No doubt we would increase our vote and keep our deposit, which would be a victory of sorts. But, more importantly, we should be aware of what this by-election would mean for our wider strategy and message, especially in relation to Brexit.

Although the Tories held Witney and Sleaford and North Hykeham, our strong performances in both of those - in addition to the amazing win at Richmond - have helped pile the pressure on the government. Our sense of purpose, multi-faceted but focused on providing a voice for "the 48%", is something many have found themselves able to identify with and has had the Tories rattled. In Richmond, there were also appeals for a "progressive alliance" which, however vague and ultimately unheeded by Labour, seemed to have some level of popular support and resulted in the Greens standing aside.

Our messages on Brexit seem to be getting home. Tim Farron's uncompromising and clear position has resulted in significant progress being made in a short time, resulting in an increase of members and improved polling. The momentum is with us. The Prime Minister and her government have come under relentless pressure, their apparent indecision and lack of preparedness widely criticised. What a Conservative victory in Copeland would do is to undermine all that.

If the Tories win, the result would be spun (with some justification) as evidence of public support for Theresa May's Brexit strategy. It would be a major setback to the Lib Dem approach and would undoubtedly be a huge blow for the government. Irrespective of how we feel about Labour presently, we have to ask the question of what best serves our own party's interests at the moment. Would it be better for a divided Labour Party to scrape home, or would we prefer a triumphalist Conservative government to use the excuse of breaking an 81-year Labour stranglehold on a constituency to justify its populist position?

Essentially, if the Tories win we lose - irrespective of how much our vote share increases. Make no mistake - it would be a disaster, a setback of monumental proportions. It would arguably be even worse for us than it would for Labour.

Don't get me wrong, I don't believe we owe the Labour Party anything - especially after Richmond Park. But that's not really the issue. We have to do what is in our own best interests, and the worst thing that could happen in this two-horse race is for the Conservatives to win. Logically, we should therefore do what we can to avoid that outcome. This doesn't mean we should always take this approach, but we're talking within the context of a particular time and place. We could talk all we like about our terrific increase of the vote share, a positive campaign and a well-deserved 4th place...but will anyone notice if everyone's talking about the Tories' success and its implications?

That doesn't mean we should simply stand aside for Labour. But we should at least consider the option. The Greens stood aside for us in Richmond, because they saw the value in doing what was ultimately in their best interests. So did UKIP and the Conservatives, to encourage their supporters to vote for Zac Goldsmith. We shouldn't be afraid of doing the same, but it will require Labour to step up, open some positive dialogue and select a candidate who isn't ashamed to oppose the government's Brexit stance. That's unlikely of course, but it's an option and a potential opportunity. Just as Labour gained nothing from standing in Richmond Park, Copeland offers little for us. We could gain far more by standing aside for the right candidate than we do in standing what will ultimately be a paper candidate.

Certainly the only people welcoming this by-election will be Conservative activists. Ultimately much will depend on the Labour candidate, and clearly this is a decision for the local party to take. But I can't help feeling that the smart money will be on a Conservative win, and that is something we should do our utmost to prevent.

Update (24.2.17): The result, now declared, confirms the Conservatives as winners. Their candidate, Trudy Harrison, secured 13748 votes - with Labour's Gillian Troughton on 11,601. Rebecca Hanson for the Lib Dems came third with 2,252 votes, with UKIP disappearing into fourth (as I fully expected).

The Tories are predictably triumphalist. Already the victory is being spun as "historic" and proof of public approval of Theresa May's government. While our party may have finished in a creditable third place (and yes, that is an achievement) the losers here are anyone who cares for progressive politics.

Labour's predicament is one of their own making. That does not mean it is necessarily in our interests, or those of the country, to see them losing by-elections to the party of government - especially when that government is bent on pursuing socially destructive policies.

The question I asked remains valid. Our candidate polled sufficiently well as to be the difference between the two main parties in this race - if everyone who supported Rebecca Hanson had voted for Gillian Troughton, questions would be asked of the Tories' strategy and direction, while also providing a minor headache to a Labour Party who only just managed to hang on in their homelands. But most importantly, we'd have one fewer Tory MP.

I argued above that our main target shuld be the prevention of a Conservative victory - not for tribal reasons but because, in the context of the current political climate, that would provide a huge setback to our objectives. I don't know whether not standing a candidate would have made the difference, but I hope in the coming months we can have a serious conversation about how to effectively form some kind of loose alliance with a broadly progressive agenda. More United clearly isn't the answer, but when the alternative is the triumph of a particularly divisive expression of Conservatism a collaborative approach surely needs to be seriously considered.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Some thoughts on a couple of by-elections

(Photo: BBC)
So, the Tories held Witney while Labour easily topped the poll in Batley and Spen. No real surprises there.

However, there's a bigger picture. A much bigger picture.

Let's take Witney first - a by-election held because of the resignation of former Prime Minister David Cameron as the local MP. In 2015, just seventeen months ago, Cameron secured a majority of 25,155 with over 60% of the vote. Yesterday that majority was slashed to 5,702.

You might argue that's still pretty comfortable for the Tories. Indeed, asked yesterday by a former party member what I genuinely thought the result would be, I predicted a Conservative majority of 5,000-7,000, a strong Lib Dem second place and the Labour vote to collapse. You didn't need a crystal ball to predict that. However, I did add that I hoped I was wrong and that Liz Leffman might be able to pull of the impossible.

And it would have seemed impossible when the by-election was called all those weeks ago. Witney is hardly Lib Dem territory. Witney and its predecessor constituency Mid Oxfordshire have never voted for anything other than a Conservative MP, among them Douglas Hurd and David Cameron. It briefly was a Labour seat when its MP, Shaun Woodward, crossed the floor, but he knew he'd be on a hiding to nothing trying to defend his seat and sent off to St Helens instead. So for the Lib Dems to not only poll respectably but secure a solid second place finish is very good news for us, and clearly a number of positives can be taken from a campaign that has showed us to be a credible alternative and also suggested that those keen to write us off as a spent force may have to think again.

It's not just a question of the Tories' majority - although this isn't a typical "mid-term" by-election but the first of Theresa May's leadership and may give some indication of how she's perceived in this most Conservative of Conservative constituencies. Turnouts are generally lower in by-elections, and this was no exception, but the percentage of the vote can be a more reliable indicator of a change in voting intention. The Tories dropped from 60% to 45%, while the Lib Dem share of the vote went from 6.8% to 30.2%. This is astonishing, as it's the best vote share the Lib Dems have ever achieved in Witney since Philip Baston secured 30.8% in the heady days of the Liberal-SDP Alliance in 1983.

It's a 19.3 swing from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats.  By any measure, that's huge. Well done to everyone involved, and to those who across the country who have helped the "Lib Dem fightback" not only in Witney but in the various local elections in which we're making steady progress. This result shows what we can do. It shows that we're being seen as a serious and viable alternative, at least to the Tories. Taken into consideration with results from council elections, it confirms that attitudes towards the party appear to be changing and that our current leadership is having a positive effect on the party's image.

You'd think the media would find this sufficiently interesting to comment on what this means for both the Conservatives and Lib Dems. But it seems the significance has been lost on them, with a few exceptions. Sam Coates, in The Times, senses problems ahead for the government unless the Prime Minister calls a snap General Election before "Brexit troubles mount". He doesn't mention Witney specifically, but it is unlikely to be coincidental that in a constituency that voted to Remain the Liberal Democrats saw their support increase almost five-fold. From what I've heard from the campaign team in Witney in recent days, it's obvious that the local Tories have been pretty rattled and while they hung on, as expected, they won't have enjoyed the fight. Theresa May won't want too many more by-elections like this, especially where the incumbent doesn't have 25,000+ majorities to defend.

The Guardian focused on the Lib Dem resurgence as well they might. My only words of caution would be that we didn't actually win here in spite of the immense campaign and while this may bode well for future by-elections there is something quite unique about Witney, the Tory safe seat with a pro-European outlook. I find myself agreeing with Alistair Carmichael, who said: "What we are getting very strongly here, as a part of the country that voted to remain, is that the idea of walking away from the single market, the unpleasantness from Amber Rudd at Tory conference, these things have not played well in a constituency like this. These people liked David Cameron, his brand of centre-right Conservatism and the modernity of it. And they look at what they’ve got now instead and they don’t like it.”

Liz Leffman, the Lib Dem candidate, added: “People here don’t want to come out of the single market, they don’t want jobs at risk and that’s what we were voting on today. People who voted for me are traditional Conservatives, who have voted Conservative for decades. Mrs May is the new Ukip and people are not comfortable with a party lurching in that direction.” This seems to confirm particular local factors (Liz is also a local councillor) and it's unlikely that reaching out to traditional Conservatives will work everywhere. There will also be places of course in which the voters very much like the Theresa May brand of Conservatism.

There was also of interest that while the Labour vote held up reasonably well, UKIP collapsed from a decent third place to finishing fifth behind the Green's Larry Sanders. It's difficult to make too much of that fact, but I doubt it's unrelated to UKIP's current difficulties. Mad Hatter of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party took the bragging rights in the battle of the satirical parties, finishing 8th - three places above Lord Toby Jug of the Eccentric Party (a recent breakaway from the OMRLP created after Jug was banned for making some derogatory comments about Nigel Farage and expressing criticism of Wetherspoons, an OMRLP sponsor - proving that every party has its problems).

Finally, in relation to Batley and Spen - the by-election to replace Jo Cox who was brutally and unnecessarily killed earlier this year - I was pleased to see Tracy Brabin elected (with 85.8% of the vote). Not because I support Labour or because I like Tracy personally, but because given the circumstances of Jo's death it only seems right for all parties to have stood aside and not contest the vacant seat.

The main parties (the Conservatives, Lib Dems, Greens, UKIP) did the right thing, and hopefully this will set a precedent for how they behave after such tragedies in future. There is no agreed protocol on this, and the last time an MP was murdered in an act of terror - Ian Dow in 1990 - the Lib Dems won his Eastbourne seat from the Conservatives. It seems right to have some kind of agreement in such cases. I can only hope that the example from the main parties will eventually be followed by the likes of the English Democrats, the BNP and the National Front, who opted to stand in spite of what Jo Cox's killer was reported to have shouted before his arrest.

We have two new MPs in Parliament and I genuinely wish both of them well. It cannot be easy for either of them to step into the shoes of their predecessors, for entirely different reasons. But we also have an "old" party that's refusing to die...and that's the real story.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Does Theresa May know what nationalism is?

Theresa May (Photo: BBC)
Finally, at last, Theresa May has shown us what she's all about.

I'm not sure I'm pleased to say it, but she's proved me right.

For a while I was having my doubts - I thought, perhaps, she was genuinely aware of the delicate nature of the situation and was attempting to act in a way that could both unite the country and provide a balanced and open approach to give the UK the best possible options during the pending negotiations. I shouldn't have given her so much credit. My initial instincts were absolutely correct.

We now know that "Brexit means Brexit" actually means "Brexit means appealing to the same right-wingers David Cameron did in calling the referendum". In repeating the mistakes of her predecessor the Prime Minister may well be inviting the same inevitable fate.

We now have a arbitrary timescale for invoking Article 50 - this announcement clearly is intended to show that Mrs May means business, but means that the EU will probably be in the driving seat when negotiations start and also - while answering one question - asks so many others. The "Brexit" being envisaged by Theresa May is so obviously of the "hard" type (to use media parlance) and her speech to Tory conference could well have been an address to the UKIP faithful.

A lot has been written in the last few hours about the kind of Brexit May is pursuing, and of the unsuitability of the Three Brexiteers/Three Blind Mice (delete as appropriate) supposedly overseeing the UK's exit. Tim Farron has already branded the "Hard Brexit" strategy "a disaster for British jobs" and described the Article 50 announcement as being tantamount to "jumping out of a plane without a parachute", which neatly sums up the irresponsibility of May's position.  I don't see much reason to add to the many expert analyses already out there or provide further comment other than to say that Mrs May's hard talk may actually serve to strengthen her political opposition (and, no - I don't mean the Labour party).

I know many who are appalled by Theresa May, who suggest that she shouldn't be seeking to pander to the Brexiteers in the way that she has or advocating the "Brexit" model that appears most damaging to UK's interests. And they're right. But, in case there was ever any real doubt, we now know what Theresa May is about. She's not a moderate. She's unlikely to listen to reasoned, nuanced arguments on how we negotiate Britain's exit from the EU. She also seems to relish conflict. All these things must shape the approach opposition parties take in the coming weeks and months.

This naturally provides opportunities for the Liberal Democrats as well as the SNP, Plaid Cyrmu, the Greens and potentially the Labour Party (if and when it ever decides it wants to get into the business of providing some opposition). Out-kipping the UKIPpers isn't the wisest thing to do, already alienating moderate Tories like Anna Soubry and risking inevitable backlash when negotiations don't go, erm, according to the Johnson-Fox-Davis script.

Interestingly, Mrs May also chose to identify, and turn fire on, her enemies. Surprise, surprise - those enemies aren't the Labour Party or UKIP. No, they're nationalists. Or Nationalists, even (capitalise them and they're even more nasty!

On the question of whether the devolved parliaments could be involved in the decision, the Prime Minister declared that there will be "no opt-out from Brexit" and that she wouldn't be held captive by "divisive nationalists". Which is laughable given how her predecessor, and now May herself, seem to be driven by a need to appease divisive nationalists.

I wonder if Theresa May actually knows what nationalism is. It's a bit much to take to hear May bleating about how she "will never allow divisive nationalists to undermine the precious Union between the four nations of our United Kingdom" while the divisive British nationalists in her own party (and, in fairness, others) have undermined the precious union between the 28 member states of the EU. It's also more than hypocritical to take a blast at nationalism in general terms and the evil forces of separatism when you're giving speeches about the UK "becoming a fully independent, sovereign country". And it's rich to describe the likes of the SNP, Plaid and the SDLP (as well as other voices in the devolved parliaments) as "divisive" given the Leave campaign's socially divisive rhetoric on immigration and race (amongst other things).

If she dislikes nationalists so much, why did she appoint so many Brit Nats to her own cabinet?

It's ironic that in the most heavily nationalistic speech a Tory leader has given in decades, the Prime Minister should see fit to condemn the nationalism of others. I cannot believe anyone who speaks about the need for the UK to be "fully independent" and "sovereign" can be anything other than a nationalist, or was ever anything other than a Leaver. At least she's now being true to herself. But she should also recognise that she is appealing to a nationalism, a British/English nationalism, and one that not only threatens to be divisive but also runs the risk of conflict with the more tolerant, inclusive expressions of "nationalism" she's already decided need to be attacked.

I'm not nationalist, but give me the SNP's "nationalism" over May's reckless disregard for parliamentary democracy any day. Give me their welcoming and inclusive approach over the genuinely divisive anti-immigration rhetoric May has consistently sided with. Give me someone of Nicola Sturgeon's or Leanne Wood's regard for human rights over Mrs May's. It's not "nationalism" that demands a parliamentary vote, or requests that all voices should be listened to, but democracy. May should perhaps learn the lessons of history - the last time a British leader tried to act on a whim, failing to consult parliament and taking on the Scots he overreached himself with fatal consequences.

By implication, of course, May was also suggesting that those who believe the devolved parliaments should be involved in the process are themselves "divisive nationalists". It seems Mayism is a bit like McCarthyism ("someone disagree? they're a communist/nationalist") and with a similar culture of paranoid suspicion.

I have, like most in my party, reservations about Theresa May's kamikaze-style Brexit. But I'm also concerned about the "divisive nationalist" rhetoric. It's a peculiar expression of Orwellian doublethink to condemn Scottish and Welsh nationalism while simultaneously promoting a backward-looking British nationalism. In regards the "divisive" accusations, perhaps Mrs May should take the plank from her own eye before commenting on the specks in others'?

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Scottish Government suffers NHS defeat

Something quite remarkable happened in Holyrood yesterday.

The SNP minority government experienced a rare defeat after all opposition MSPs united behind a Labour motion calling to protect local NHS services.

After the government's amendment, committing to "maintaining and improving safe and effective local services across Scotland" was defeated, the 62 SNP MSPs abstained from the final vote, meaning that the Labour motion was passed by a margin of 64 to 0.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and the Scottish Greens want the government to call in proposals affecting services across Central Scotland. What is particularly concerning is that proposals to reshape services could be made without ministerial approval, and the opposition parties believe this is an unacceptable situation. As Labour's Anas Sarwar said: "It would be a democratic outrage if we allowed health boards to proceed with these decisions without individual members of this parliament or indeed this minister having a say."

The health board proposals for service change affect maternity services at Inverclyde Royal Hospital and the Vale of Leven Hospital, children's services at the RAH in Paisley and orthopaedics at Monklands Hospital in Airdrie (all, oddly enough, places I've previously worked). Glasgow's Centre for Integrated Care and Lightburn Hospital could also be affected, with the latter potentially facing closure. There can be little doubt that much of the decision making is being driven by financial pressures, resulting in plans for increased centralisation of services.

It's very easy to jump on the emotive "save the NHS" or "keep our local hospital" bandwagons. I've done it myself when there's been good reason. But I'm also sufficiently aware that clinical needs are constantly evolving and therefore how we provide NHS services should, too. There are often perfectly valid clinical reasons for revisiting service provision. However, how we do this is vitally important and the process must be transparent and accountable. There has to be adequate consultation, and there must be opportunities for ministers to have a full discussion with, if necessary, the option to oppose such changes.

Cabinet secretary Shona Robison said it would be “inappropriate” for her to discuss the proposals in detail, or indeed whether or not she supports them. She did state there is the possibility that the final decisions could come before her for approval, but didn't make any guarantees. She stated: "Local people can be ensured that in all such cases, ministers take all the available information and representations into account before coming to a final decision. I think that is the proper and responsible way to run our health services." This was not entirely convincing,

Lib Dem health spokesperson Alex Cole-Hamilton said afterwards: "This vote sends a clear message to the health secretary that these damaging NHS closure proposals need to be called in by ministers and scrutinised by the Scottish Parliament." During the debate he had claimed it was "astonishing" that the issue was only discussed in parliament due to the opposition tabling a debate, and while recognising that "challenging decisions" needed to be made, called for Ms Robison to "enlist [MSPs] as champions" in redesigning health services.

It's extraordinary for anything to unite all the opposition parties in Holyrood, and this unprecedented (but not entirely unexpected) reversal for the government demonstrates the need to ensure it has the confidence of parliament. Some level of opposition support will always be necessary and the Greens cannot simply be assumed to offer it unconditionally. The outcome of the vote is not binding on the government, and inevitably uncertainty about the future of the NHS can unite across party lines in a way that other issues cannot. Perhaps it would be wrong to make too much of it - but the Scottish government was fortunate to narrowly avoid defeat (in rather bizarre circumstances) last week on its council tax proposals and this will be another shot across its bows. The Herald described it as "a bloody nose for the SNP", which seems to be overstating the situation, but the government will have had better weeks.

It's a good result in that it's sent a clear signal to the government that decisions affecting the NHS must be accountable and open. Whether the government acts on the vote is another thing, but I fully expect given the nature and sensitivity of the issue that it simply has to. Certainly, as a former Lib Dem member Gerry McGregor suggested, the result puts to bed the notion that the SNP government is effectively a dictatorship supported by the ever-compliant Greens. It's also positive to see the opposition parties working constructively to ensure democracy holds government to account - and for Labour to be showing a little of the kind of leadership we used to expect from them.