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Monday, 11 January 2010

Clegg shelves key policies

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has today confirmed that he will "shelve" some of his party's key policies in order to concentrate on "priorities".

Mr Clegg said it was unreasonable and unrealistic for parties to prepare "shopping lists" of policies, saying that times had changed and that the recession demanded realism.

Mr Clegg has come in for criticism in recent months for the executive way in which he has made decisions, for planning policy changes without consulting the party and for appearing prepared to abandon the Lib Dems' historical commitment to abolishing tuition fees.

On tuition fees, Mr Clegg stated that he could not scrap tuition fees in one Parliament but said he would do it over six years. He added that many of the policies he has previously advocated are no longer affordable - although questions remain about whether they were "affordable" in the first instance.

On free personal care, free childcare and a citizen's pension based on UK residency Mr Clegg has conceded that they are now "on hold" until they become affordable and that the Lib Dems' manifesto will contain no "firm commitments" to them.

He was critical of the Lib Dems' previous manifesto which he says contained too many spending commitments. Quite what "firm commitments" there will be in a Liberal Democrat manifesto that will say nothing concrete about their most distinctive policies of recent years remains to be seen.

Mr Clegg appears at pains to appear "sensible" and reasonable, but in my view he's gone further than he needs. He should be promoting liberal alternatives to the status quo; rather than surrendering his supposed vision to current economic realities, he should be advocating a more liberal economy. Instead of abandoning historical pledges, he would look more mature and responsible if he considered practical liberal methods of achieving the Lib Dems' stated goals.

Mr Clegg's weaknesses were exposed when he dodged questions about the possibility of a hung parliament. He said he was "not a soothsayer". No, he's a politician. But any politician worth his salt can see that the public will naturally be interested in what the Lib Dems will do in the quite possible event of a hung parliament. Any Lib Dem leader should - rather than ditching their policies - recognise that distinctive policies are a useful bargaining tool. Furthermore, like David Steel in 1987, Nick Clegg should be honest about the possibilities for a hung parliament and - while not committing himself to supporting either of the main parties - declare himself willing to co-operate with them in return for some concessions on policy.

It is hard to believe that Nick Clegg does not see the electoral possibilities in such an approach. Constantly evading questions about hung parliaments and co-operation is not only disingenuous but foolish given that this year's General Election could be the closest since 1974. There is an opportunity to put out unique, distinctive and progressive policies as an alternative to the main parties' unimaginative proposals. A strong, distinctive manifesto would give Mr Clegg something to bargain with in the event of the Lib Dems holding the balance of power.

That does not mean that some sober-mindedness is not welcome. It is. There is nothing wrong with stating that this a marathon and not a sprint; that some objectives can only be realised in the long-term. But people vote for vision as much as they do policy and I am concerned that at the moment it is very difficult for voters to see what Mr Clegg's vision is. It is true, especially in the event of a hung parliament, that the Lib Dems may have to be realistic and negotiate policy proposals in a responsible and practical way. They may have to make concessions, as they did in coalition in Scotland. But they must do so from a position of strength, not of weakness.

Mr Clegg should be leading the Lib Dems into the next election with the best possible cards in his hand.

Ditching his party's most distinctive policies is not responsible leadership, and is likely to anger many Lib Dem supporters and activists. Nick still comes across as honest and realistic, but he has miscalculated if he believes that reneging on key commitments amounts to being "driven by clear sense of conviction".
The country needs a Lib Dem leader with vision and clear strategy for the future. Come on, Nick . Be adventurous! Be liberal!

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Homophobic MP to step down

Iris Robinson, the unashamedly homophobic "born again Christian" Democratic Unionist MP for Strangford, is to step down from her parliamentary responsibilities "imminently", reports the BBC.

Mrs Robinson, who is married to Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson, is known for her illiberal views towards homosexual people. In 2008, after describing homosexuality as "an abomination" and suggesting that gay people could be "turned around" and cured of their "illness", a number of groups - including Stonewall, the Labour Party and Amnesty International - called for actions to be taken against her.

Mrs Robinson's claim that homosexuality was more vile than child abuse and her stubborn refusal to soften her tone on the issue brought her the unenviable accolades "Bigot of the Year 2008" and, from Pink News, "The Wicked Witch of the North".

While as a Christian myself I don't see any religious justification for marginalising social minorities or for peddling hate against them, I at least thought I understood Iris Robinson's narrow-minded perspectives. However, I now share Peter Tatchell's view that she is hypocritical and "two-faced". Her homophobic outbursts are, in my view, made worse by the fact that at this time Mrs Robinson was having an affair with a man 40 years her junior and was involved in what are surely illegal financial dealings.

Curiously, and ironically, the Belfast Telegraph reports that the young man in question has become an instant gay pin-up!

Mrs Robinson failed to register £50,000 she obtained from two property developers which she then gave to her lover to help him set up a cafe. It has since transpired that Mrs Robinson's mental health has deteriorated following depression and a failed suicide attempt.

Anyone with any understanding of mental health issues is bound to feel some sympathy towards Mrs Robinson, as do I. Depression is a crippling and debilitating illness. However, while Mrs Robinson claims to have been "forgiven by God" she continues to express no regret for her hurtful statements and remains as unforgiving as ever.

It is true that many outwardly harsh and critical moralisers often have their own demons and it seems Iris Robinson's may well destroy the political careers of herself and her husband. Shaun Woodward, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said this was a "personal tragedy". It might be. But it is a greater tragedy for the voters of Strangford, the gay community and British politics that Ulster politics continues to operate on sectarian lines, with parties unperturbed by the kind of outdated, illiberal views that even right-wing Tories would be uncomfortable with.

Iris Robinson is a product of deep-rooted sectarian attitudes and a political system in which historical prejudice, old-fashioned religious division and a reinforcement of sectarian identification are actively promoted by the main parties. The worst thing that can be said about the DUP isn't that it promotes self-serving individuals such as Iris Robinson, but that within its ranks intolerance is tolerated.

Neither Iris Robinson's imminent departure from the political scene - or that of her husband - will resolve Ulster's long standing problems of social incohesion and intolerant attitudes. The DUP and Sinn Fein, Ulster's largest parties, have vested interests in the status quo and a divided society.

The Ulster Unionists in recent years have made renewed moves towards the British Conservative Party, which might be a subtle plan by David Cameron to ensure his party's electoral majority in the next election, but also represents an opportunity for Ulster voters to move away from their traditional sectarian politics. Short of the Alliance Party making surprise gains in the Westminster elections, the moderating influences of the UUP and the SDLP are to be welcomed.

Iris Robinson's actions are regrettable on many levels. They show how far removed she is from those she pertained to represent. She will inevitably be portrayed as an unprincipled hypocrite, and will surely cost the DUP at the General Election. Whether they will trigger a wider dissatisfaction in sectarian politics and a move towards the moderate, progressive parties is yet to be seen - although if contributors to the Belfast Telegraph are to be believed, the DUP is now going through something of a credibility crisis and that Ulster politics needs "faces that can be trusted".

Northern Ireland needs a new generation of forward-looking progressive politicians. They will not be former card-carrying members of the IRA or bigoted sectarians but reformists with a fresh vision for Ulster.

I have a dream that Northern Ireland can be released from the prisons of her past. I have a dream that one day Northern Ireland will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. I have a dream that children will one day live in an Ulster where they will not be judged by a badge of sectarianism, but by the content of their character. Now is the time to lift Northern Ireland from the quicksand of historical prejudice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children...Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring — when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from Portadown to Portstewart, from Newtownards to Newcastle, from Lurgan to Limavady, we will be able to speed up that day when all of us, Protestants and Catholics - will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

(Apologies to Martin Luther King for the last paragraph)