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Sunday, 30 May 2010

Michael Moore appointed Scottish Secretary

The deputy leader of the Scottish Lib Dems has been appointed Secretary of State for Scotland.

Michael Moore, one of my "four to follow" I suggested had the potential to replace Vince Cable as deputy leader in the Commons, succeeds Danny Alexander who was promoted to Chief Secretary to the Treasury following David Laws' resignation.

Mr Moore is an ideal choice for the role of Scottish Secretary. An MP for 13 years, he previously worked for David Steel and has proved his political value after holding a string of senior roles within the party. His understanding of Scottish issues is unrivalled among MPs and I have no doubt both Moore and Alexander will not only prove capable ministers but will give the coalition credibility among Scottish voters.

The Daily Mail was quick to write off the Scottish portfolio as a "non-job". Well, that neatly sums up the Mail's attitude towards Scotland. On the contrary, Moore now has the very significant job of helping to implement the recommendations of the Calman Commission. This provides him with the scope to champion increased autonomy and influence for the devolved Scottish parliament, and the chance to advocate what Tavish Scott calls "Calman plus" - additional powers beyond those recommended in the Calman report.

Far from being a "non-minister", Moore will be at the heart of government promoting a Liberal vision of increased Scottish autonomy and ensuring that sensible, forward-looking and constructive powers will be given to Holyrood, especially in relation to its ability to raise taxation.

There are those in Scotland who remain understandably suspicious of the coalition. To those people I would point to Michael Moore and ask this: isn't it better to have a Liberal Democrat in government pushing for Scotland's interests than to allow responsibility for acting on the findings of the Calman report to Tories historically unfriendly towards devolution and Holyrood?

Tatchell on David Laws' resignation

A lot has been said in the last few days about the circumstances of David Laws' resignation. I will not add to the myriad of political analysis other than to say that, whatever the rights and wrongs of David's actions, the nation has lost one of its most capable ministers and that the consequences of his actions are clearly disproportionate to the offence.

Peter Tatchell appeared on The Politics Show (30/5/10) and was asked if he had any sympathy with David Laws' situation, given that the minister's actions stemmed from his unwillingness to disclose his sexuality. Tatchell expalined that, in his view, the controversy surrounding Laws is exclusively about expenses, qualifying this by stating that "people's sexual orientation shouldn't be a private matter". He clearly couldn't comprehend why any person would want or need to hide their sexuality, and completely dismissed the idea that gay people such should be entitled to decide for themselves to whom they should declare their sexuality.

I admire the impressive work that Peter Tatchell has done on human rights. However, this extraordinary statement is judgemental, illiberal and assumes that "coming out" must be a prerequisite for anyone who is genuinely gay. Presumably private lives are only for heterosexuals. What utter rubbish. With attitudes like Tatchell's it's no wonder prominent individuals feel the need to keep their sexual identities secret.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

It's Hughes v Farron

Veteran left-winger Simon Hughes has announced that he intends to stand for Deputy Leader. His campaign, which promotes Mr Hughes as "the life and soul of our party", has already focused on challenging Labour, ensuring Lib Dem ministers "never forget they are our representatives in government" and "remain[ing] effective as community champions now that our party is in government".

Essentially, the kind of thing we've come to expect from Simon Hughes.

The media are already referring to Mr Hughes as the favourite. If the election of deputy leader was opened up to the party membership I might concur with this. We are all aware of the huge contribution he has made to our party over the years, and of the various posts he has held with distinction. There's no mistaking his commitment to progressive social liberalism, or to community politics.

But in what is - so far - a straight fight between the veteran and the young visionary promising a break from the past, I'm not so sure the media are right in their predictions. Out of the 57 Lib Dem MPs, there are several new, young MPs who will no doubt be attracted to what Tim Farron has to offer, and may feel it's time for new blood. Others, who are more than aware of Hughes' history and his reputation for what I shall diplomatically call independent thought, may prefer a safer pair of hands.

And of course there is the issue of age. While we all respect Mr Hughes' experience, we also remember the treatment Menzies Campbell received as party leader. Given this, it's quite easy to see our MPs opting to go with the younger man.

I am pleased he is standing, because there is no question that he the talent, the gravitas and the vision to excel in this role. His instincts are to unite the party, to "keep it real", to engage with the grassroots and further community politics.

The same, however, could also be said of Tim Farron!

Interestingly, outgoing Deputy Leader Dr Vince Cable has endorsed Hughes' candidacy, saying: "Simon has given the most phenomenal service to the party over his 27 years as an MP. He represents the best traditions of the Liberal Democrats, both as a parliamentary campaigner and community activist. He is the person best placed to follow me as Deputy Leader, and to uphold the values of our party."

Hughes believes he has the support of 25 MPs, a few short of an overall majority.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Menzies Campbell - an unlikely rebel

Former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell has indicated he may vote against the government on the important issue of university tuition fees.

An ongoing and politically difficult debate about the future of university funding has for some time threatened to prove divisive. The previous government did not help by deliberately avoiding confronting this uncomfortable issue head-on. What we now have is a time bomb on a rather short fuse that needs to be handled with extreme care; if not managed properly this spectre could not only derail the coalition but undermine party unity.

Universities have for some time been arguing to increase student fees. Some would like to see the current rate of £3,225 per year doubled. As the Liberal Democrats have long argued, increasing tuition fees would effectively restrict access to education and would, indirectly, have detrimental social consequences.

There has benever been any real agreement between the Conservatives and our own party on this. The Tories have never seemed capable of grasping the importance of widening - and maintaining - access to higher education. While the coalition agreement outlined many areas of common ground and purpose between the partners, on the issues of nuclear power, tax breaks for married couples and tuition fees no realistic agreement was likely to be easily reached. While the coalition partners are bound by "collective responsibility", Lib Dem MPs can abstain on these key issues - but this isn't far enough for Sir Menzies.

He said that he would find it impossible to vote for any increase in tuition fees, adding "I have never voted against my party in the past but this is an issue of some importance and I signed a pledge, and I would find it very difficult not to reflect that pledge in my vote...[it would be] very difficult, I think, on an issue of this kind simply to abstain."

Sir Menzies is a very unlikely rebel. His views on tuition fees are, I imagine, at one with those of most grassroots members and activists. Certainly, as we Scottish Lib Dems know too well, tuition fees are historically an issue on which we have provided a clear, distinctive alternative to the other main parties, and on which we have provided signifcant leadership while in government in Scotland. His objections go beyond the ideological - for him, this remains an issue of conscience. He has not only campaigned for abolition, but as Chancellor of St Andrew's University has signed up to a pledge to oppose any rise in fees.

I respect Sir Menzies' views. Even for someone who has promoted the politics of compromise and co-operation, the abandonment of such a distinctive liberal policy will naturally hurt. No doubt, this will be exacerbated by the knowledge of what the Lib Dems were able to achieve in Scotland with the effective abolition of tuition fees.

An "independent" committee headed by Lord Browne, the former BP boss, is currently reviewing university funding arrangements. Whatever the committee's findings, there should be a free vote on the issue in the Commons. Sir Menzies is right - MPs who have campaigned on distinctive positions can not easily abandon them by merely abstaining.

Nick Clegg announced at last year's conference that total abolition of fees was unaffordable in the immediate future and could only be achieved over the medium to long term. While many of us objected to this, it was not the abandonment of principle some claimed but a realistic aspiration given the economic circumstances.

Liberal Democrats will tolerate realism. We will accept that not all of our aspirations can be achieved immediately. We understand that tuition fees can not be significantly reduced until the pressing economic challenges are met. What we can not tolerate is for our long-term goals to be taken away while our MPs are forced to stand idly by or abstain in crucial votes.

Any proposed increases to tuition fees must be opposed by our party. We would be being dishonest to ourselves and our political legacy to do anything other. There are social and political consequences for not challenging such increases and the rationale behind them, none of which are particuarly attractive. While I respect the need for "collective responsibility" in government, on this key issue MPs must be allowed to follow their consciences - and the wishes of grassroots activists.

Cable says there is "no split" over Capital Gains Tax

There has been some dispute between Lib Dems and Conservatives at the level at which Capital Gains Tax should be set. The Liberal Democrats have been looking for an increase, potentially in line with the higher rates of income tax. Some Conservatives on the other hand are appalled by the idea of taxing wealth in the same way as income, with David Davis telling Daily Mail readers that an increase would be akin to "punishing the virtuous...penalis[ing] hard work and saving." Yes, that old chestnut.

Business secretary Vince Cable has been at pains to stress that the coalition government has not been split over this issue. Dr Cable said that "[this is] not actually an argument between the coalition partners, as I understand it, it's an argument between a few Conservative backbenchers and others".

But the "few" Conservative backbenchers include the likes of John Redwood, who called for an "intelligent conversation" on Capital Gains Tax, while going on to express rather unintelligently his belief that increases would "clobber" those on "average incomes". Work and Pensions Secratary Iain Duncan Smith has been forced to reassure disquietened Tories that "George Osborne is not the sort of person that's going to do any damage to the British economy".

All this is very interesting, and shows that Tory backbenchers' historic unruliness is still a force to be reckoned with. Not for them the politics of compromise. Threatened rebellions seem the tactic of choice, rather than responsible discussion. All the same, the fact that government policy - streaked as it is with Liberal Demcorat values - is proving unpalatable to right-wing Tories demonstrates the success of the Liberal Democrats in helping to formulate socially responsbile ideas with which the coalition government can move forward.

David Cameron has advised his critics to hold fire until the budget on 22nd June, insisting that they were being "listened to". While the media focus on the non-existent split at the top of the coalition, Cameron's dilemma is how to bridge the rapidly widening divide between the executive and a legislature that clearly doesn't grasp the concept of collective responsibility.

Farron to run for Deputy Leader

One of my "four to follow" has intimated he intends to run for the vacant position of party Deputy Leader - Tim Farron, MP for Westmorland & Lonsdale.

The media favourite still seems to be Simon Hughes but Tim has some of the qualities needed in a Deputy Leader. Personable, straightforward and a confident speaker, Tim also has the advantage of being young and one of "tomorrow's people". He's only been an MP since 2005 but in that time has managed to turn a previously Conservative marginal into a seat with a comfortable Lib Dem majority of 12,000.

Admittedly, having a good agent and a local Conservative opposition in total disarray do not necessarily indicate Deputy Leader material. But I'm very pleased that Tim has put his name forward (on his 40th birthday, no less) and that's not just because my in-laws live in his constituency. His candidacy shown the depth of quality that exists within our parliamentary party, and he is a man who not only has a vision for the party's future, but respects its past and connects well with its grassroots.

Tim told BBC News that he believed it was the "right decision" to enter into coalition, "but it is also vital that the independence, radicalism and distinctiveness of the Liberal Democrats are maintained." Most Lib Dem members would agree that the party needs a Deputy Leader with such an outlook.

Having said that, I would still prefer Jo Swinson for the reasons I gave in my previous post. But I am looking forward to a contest which, unlike Labour's leadership election, will not be being fought by dinosoars of the past but by forward-looking liberal progressives.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Cable resigns as deputy leader

Yesterday Vince Cable announced his decision to quit his role as party deputy leader to focus on his responsibilities as business secretary.

In his resignation letter, he stated "...in joining the cabinet I have taken on many new challenges and responsibilities and it is right that I focus wholeheartedly on the job in hand...these are exciting times to be a Liberal Democrat and, despite all the challenges we face, we have a real opportunity to change Britain for the better. There are great opportunities for the party alongside our working in coalition."

Nick Clegg has already paid tribute to a "fantastic deputy" (something of an understatement) and added that they will continue to work together in government.

There has been the usual, and unhelpful, media speculation about possible political motivations behind Mr Cable's decision. While myself and several other Liberal Democrats will be sorry to see him step down from this role, especially as he provided some real leadership for our party during the economic downturn, this is a decision based on pragmatism. The role of business secretary is a demanding position which will require a greal deal of Mr Cable's considerable energy in addition to his obvious leadership skills. It is likely he feels he no longer has the time to give the deputy leadership role what it deserves and therefore it is entirely understandable that he should concentrate on cabinet responsibilities, allowing someone else to step up and help take our party forward.

I am sure I speak for most Liberal Democrats when I say how appreciative we are of Vince Cable's incredible contribution to the party and the country during his time as deputy leader, in addition to the intellectual rigour and credibility of his vision for an economically healthier Britain which he now has the chance to implement.

The question now is who will step up to the deputy leadership? I believe a lot of smart people's money is on Simon Hughes. I have no doubt this would be a popular choice among activists and a just reward for almost three decades of dedicated service. The "radical" (left-wing) Liberals love him and he looks pretty good on TV. He clearly has both the ability and appetite for the job. What I do doubt is whether he would be the choice of most Lib Dem MPs, who might see his appointment as a retrograde step.

I personally think the party should take this opportunity to look to the future. Having many of our talented and capable MPs are serving as ministers allows us the luxury of turning to the next generation. I can think of a number of young MPs who I believe have the dynamism and qualities to both effectively serve as deputy leader and help move the party forward.

I would love to see either Steve Webb or Lynne Featherstone as deputy leader although, given they are serving ministers, they are unlikely to put themselves forward. The same applies to Sarah Teather.

Others that I am sure would serve with distinction (my "four to follow") are:

Lorely Burt. Previously Shadow Minister for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and spokesperson for Women and Equality. First female House of Commons chairman.

Tim Farron. Formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Sensible and decent; while he may be considered a "safe" option I believe he has the capability to serve as an effective "bridge" between the rank-and-file and his cabinet colleagues. Social liberal, contributed to Reinventing the State.

Michael Moore. Former Shadow Secretary of State for International Development; previous chief of staff to Sir Menzies Campbell and researcher to David Steel. Deputy leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

Jo Swinson. Previously Shadow Foreign Affairs Spokesperson and Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities. Independently minded and has shown dynamic and innovative leadership on women's issues. Titled "the nation's hardest working MP" by the Scottish Sun.

From these exceptional talents I would probably prefer Lorely Burt on a personal level, but also see the political potential of appointing Jo Swinson. She has an incredible ability to connect easily with people while providing determined leadership in difficult circumstances (think Real Women). I also believe that, given the position of the respective coalition partners in Scotland, a Scottish deputy leader would help instil a distinctly Scottish feel into the federal party - something which may be important in maintaining our party's continuing appeal north of the border.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Cable plans to “privatise Royal Mail”

So says today’s Guardian, which reports that Business Secretary Vince Cable is determined to restructure Royal Mail, which he believes is currently uncompetitive, and sell off sections of the network to private operators.

The detail of Cable’s plan has not yet been confirmed but his aims are relatively easy to follow and are not as controversial as is being presented. Given the scale of Royal Mail’s pensions deficit and Royal Mail’s lack of competitiveness in a more liberalised postal market, certain changes will have to be made.

What the Liberal Democrats promoted in their manifesto was this: to sell 49 per cent of Royal Mail “to create funds for investment”. The other 51 per cent “will be divided between an employee trust and the government”. This is an attempt to ensure the long-term future of the Post Office and is a far cry from the Thatcherite sell-offs of the 1980s. In fact, for traditional liberals, there is more than a hint of Grimondite thinking in this approach.

The CWU union is likely to oppose any such move forward, and there has been the normal, tiresome reaction within sections of the media about the Lib Dems having “sold out” and reversed their position. Such complaints are not only unjustified but factually erroneous. The Lib Dems have historically promoted employee ownership (or part ownership) and have never been committed to 100 per cent state ownership of public services. Furthermore, what such complainants fail to observe is that a Conservative government would have “adopted a straightforward sell off of Royal Mail” according to the Guardian – so rather than having “sold out” what has actually happened is that the Lib Dems have successfully managed to imbue government policy with a liberal outlook.

There should be no doubt that modernisation is necessary. While Royal Mail is clearly a historical institution of which the country has been proud, it can not survive on nostalgia. Largely due to changes in the way we communicate, Royal Mail estimates that its business is in decline and that the amount of mail it delivers is falling by 10 per cent annually. It also has a £6.8 billion pensions deficit, a problem which do date has found no practical solution.

The Post Office Network is being affected by significant changes which can not be reversed. What is needed therefore are imaginative, creative and realistic ideas as to how Royal Mail can evolve to meet these challenges. What is perhaps not needed are entrenched ideological positions and sensationalist headlines from the likes of the Guardian.

Tim Farron MP, in an otherwise good speech at party conference last year, embarrassingly said the solution to the problems facing Royal Mail was to "invest hundreds of millions of pounds". I’m not a huge fan of the populist approach, especially when it involves "let's throw money at public services" types of solution. But he was right to a point - Royal Mail requires significant investment to make it work. My own vision for Royal Mail would be to enable it to offer a wider range of financial services as part of a longer-term plan at ensuring the sustainability of Royal Mail and rural Post Office branches, but the question is how politicians positively empower the service to provide for the changing needs of British society without entering into an acrimonious battle with the CWU. Cable will be more than aware of the struggle Peter Mandelson had last year when he proposed a similar (but not quite as progressively liberal) plan to sell off 49 per cent of Royal Mail. He will surely want to avoid any confrontation with the CWU that would both damage Royal Mail and make it unattractive to potential investors, although given the CWU’s position it is unlikely to accept Cable’s proposals easily.

The problems affecting Royal Mail are not unique to our own postal service. The US Postal Service ended its third quarter in 2009 with a net loss of $2.4billion. Latvian Post claims that mail volume has fallen by 41 per cent and as a result has introduced urgent measures to revise employees' salaries so that they are more performance-related. Even Deutsche Post has been suffering, and has announced that it is to close all Post Offices it operates without a retail partner - this in practice means about 500 post office closures.

The reason I highlight this is to demonstrate the global nature of the problem. Postal administrations across the world are having to take action to ensure the future of their mail services. Royal Mail, in contrast to the above, actually made a significant profit in the last financial year, with the main letters and packages unit making £58million. This gives Royal Mail an advantage in putting into place a genuinely modern programme which will create a fit-for-purpose Post Office network, involves its employees to a greater degree in facilitating change and provides a valuable service to local communities.

The Lib Dem proposals provide a key means of tackling some of Royal Mail's problems and would enable communities to be empowered and assisted to take control of their Post Offices, reform of the Post Office structure and provide a wider range of services. Tim Farron’s “hundreds of millions of pounds” must come from somewhere.

Unfortunately, the historic narrow debate about the future of Royal Mail means that Cable’s constructive ideas are written off as Thatcherite privatisation. What Cable understands is that bureaucratic, centralised control of a monolithic Post Office is unworkable and that the service must evolve to meet the communication needs of today’s society. As a liberal, I deplore both the Tories’ approach (which would have been wholesale privatisation) and the traditional socialist attitude towards public services which results in uncompetitive and uncreative public services being propped up at significant cost by the taxpayer. Vince Cable’s vision is one which will responsibly ensure that our Post Office network has a real future and will work in the interests of the public. It should be applauded, not derided.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

The future is bright...the future is yellow

Thursday’s Question Time gave a few insights into what we Liberal Democrats can expect in the coming weeks. Simon Hughes, a man who no-one could ever accuse of being either unprincipled or the kind of person willing to sell-out for the trappings of power, defended the new politics of coalition in the face of fierce criticism from Labour’s Lord Falconer who alleged that our party had betrayed progressive politics and had sold out its values.

It’s not only Lord Falconer who has been making such criticisms. There have been many within our own party who are angry at recent developments, and some have felt so incensed as to resign their membership. A fellow Lib Dem blogger today claimed that the coalition “makes some of us feel like we have been turned into liars and fools...It's easy to compromise on your principles if you don't have any." Similarly, the former leader of the Lib Dems on Somerset County Council, Greg Jeffries, wrote in The Guardian that “[we] have lost all credibility...Liberals [didn’t] fight so hard to keep Tory candidates out of office simply to find themselves in bed with the old enemy whose values they do not share”. And this is mild compared to some of the harsher criticisms of the popular press.

Even Nicol Stephen MSP is on record as stating that Liberal Democrats have "deep-seated concerns about Conservative policies” and that “about a third of the party opposes working with the Conservatives”.

I do understand concerns about sharing power with the Tories. It was hardly the option I would have chosen; in fact, I would probably have preferred our party to work in opposition with Labour, using Cameron’s lack of a majority to ensure the worst excesses of Conservative policy are avoided and siding with fellow progressives to promote liberal values. But that would not have led to stable government, and there can be few people who fail to understand that stability is necessary to deal effectively with current economic realities.

Those of us with memories of the coalition deal struck between Jim Wallace and Donald Dewar in 1999 will remember how the media then hurled similar accusations in our direction. We had “sold out”, they said. We had “betrayed” the nation in exchange for the trappings of power. We had shown “weakness” over the tuition fees issue. Eleven years later, and nobody with a modicum of understanding of Scottish politics would even suggest such silliness, especially in light of our successes in government.

As Liberal Democrats, we recognise that coalition governments can be effective. For many years we have, rightly, promoted the politics of co-operation. Now that a genuine opportunity to put those beliefs into practice has emerged, it’s vital that we find ways of making it work. Co-operation and coalition rarely happen without compromise and, while I admire fellow liberals’ dedication to long-held principles, I can’t see how Nick Clegg could have realistically gained a better deal from the Conservatives. Those who see the deal simply as Nick Clegg gaining a small place at the top table, or as selling out his party in exchange for cabinet privilege, have misunderstood what he has actually achieved. There may have been little agreed on the potentially divisive issues of Trident and tuition fees (these will have to be dealt with in due course), the pledges on electoral reform may fall far short of what we would like and we might find ourselves sharing power with an unfamiliar partner; however, progress has been made on issues such as taxation, the Calman Commission, the environment and civil liberties. It may not be perfect, but this is politics. And however disappointed we might be at the admittedly unappealing prospect of working with the Tories, the position we are now in is certainly preferable to five more years of parliamentary irrelevance.

To Liberal Democrat members and supporters I would say this: please keep it real. Firstly, don’t treat the tabloids with the respect they don’t deserve. Don’t believe the lie that we are “supporting a Conservative government” – we’re not supporters, we’re liberal partners in a purposeful and pragmatic government. Don’t focus on the false accusations of betrayal and dishonesty. And don’t be so consumed with an almost puritanical obsession with principles that we fail to see the chance we have to genuinely influence society for the better. Remember, we’re liberals: we don’t like fundamentalism or arrogant self-righteousness in others so why should we make a virtue of such attitudes in ourselves? We are, by nature, pluralists. Not for us the old politics of tribalism or, as Jenkins put it, "out-dated dogmatism".

Those who criticise Nick Clegg’s decision (which was supported by our MPs and the FPC by the way) have to answer the obvious question: if we don’t work with the Tories, what other options are there? While I would naturally have preferred a coalition of “progressives” between ourselves and Labour there was always the risk that this would be seen as lacking legitimacy, while the prospect of allowing Cameron to rule on a minority basis was also fraught with danger and may have resulted in unstable government and our rejecting the opportunity of a lifetime to “break the mould”, to “create a new politics” or “to have a very great influence on the future of this country.” (OK, I’m through with the SDP clich├ęs now...)

How can the Liberal Democrats realistically achieve our aim “to create a more liberal society” without taking the opportunity to enter government? And how is it possible, short of winning an overall majority via an electoral system that works against us, to enter government without having to compromise or work with those with whom we may have sharp disagreements? What has actually happened is that Nick Clegg has crafted out a possibility for the Liberal Democrats to move on from the outdated duopoly of traditional politics and usher in a genuine realignment. The Liberal Democrats have the unprecedented opportunity to not only curb the excesses of rampant Conservatism but to imbue the new coalition, and its political outlook, with a refreshingly new and progressive liberalism. If Clegg fails, and our party is simply used and manipulated by the Tories, then the opportunity has been wasted and he should be judged accordingly. But early signs are good, and this new tree could yet bear good fruit.

Simon Hughes told the Question Time audience that “I didn’t go into politics to be in opposition, but to change society for the better.” After serving for 27 years in opposition, his urgency is understandable. Simon is no Tory sympathizer and I share his perspective. Some of us may be disappointed with the outcome of the election and the prospect of coalition, but we are partners in this coalition and we have no reason to lack faith in the determination of fellow liberals within the cabinet to ensure government policy is directed to promoting fairness and social freedom.

As a party, we need to show the country we are capable of working in the “national interest” rather than our own. We also need to focus minds on the fact that the future for our country is bright, because Liberal Democrats are now at the heart of government. Nick Clegg has shown leadership in an almost impossible situation and the party must follow that lead and remain united in our determination to promote a liberal agenda and a better future. If we can do that, then future political analysts may well reflect on Nick Clegg’s positive contribution to democracy in the same way one-time critics of Jim Wallace now praise his achievements in Scotland’s coalition politics.

Monday, 10 May 2010

A "marriage of principle" is the best way forward

Despite the disappointing General Election results, the Conservatives’ inability to gain an overall majority has presented the Liberal Democrats with both opportunities and dilemmas. Already sections of the media are referring to Nick Clegg as the Kingmaker – a role he has, rightly, always denied should be his.

That the electoral arithmetic provides exciting prospects for the Lib Dems can not be doubted, but these opportunities are fraught with dangers. The British electorate and the media are unaccustomed to the political complexities of power sharing and hung parliaments and, while in an ideal world negotiations would be calm, considered and patient, the economic realities and media pressures mean that talks are taking place in a regrettably rushed and scrambled fashion.

Nick Clegg finds himself in a position denied to his most recent predecessors; Steel and Ashdown in their times would certainly have welcomed the opportunity to help form an administration. But the peculiar circumstances mean that Nick Clegg’s situation is far from enviable. Whichever course of action he takes is potentially risky, with potentially disastrous consequences for party unity and Clegg’s standing in the country.

And yet this opportunity has to be taken. Failure to do so will result in our being condemned to yet more disappointment and national irrelevance. The moment must be seized and with it the chance for the Liberal Democrats to positively influence British politics.

Clegg has been right to stick with his strategy of dealing firstly with the party which has the most seats. He has to avoid being perceived as willing to prop up an unpopular Labour government. Furthermore, he must be careful to be seen to respect democracy and the wishes of the electorate by – at the very least – not preventing the Conservatives from governing.

The strategy itself was sound in advance of the election; the likely political ramifications less so. As I write, talks are ongoing between the Lib Dems’ and the Conservatives’ negotiating teams. I would not wish to pre-empt the outcome, but as an instinctive liberal I would have huge concerns with the concept of our party entering into any kind of formal agreement with Cameron’s Conservatives. As a pro-European, multilateralist and a pluralist, I would find the Conservatives’ stance on a number of policy issues – for example immigration, the EU, taxation, defence and social policy – almost impossible to reconcile with that of a party committed to creating a more liberal society.

I strongly believe that many of our members and supporters feel similarly uncomfortable at the prospect of a Lib Dem-Tory pact. From Westmorland to Torbay, countless voters deliberately voted Lib Dem in a bid to keep out the Conservatives. Such voters did not vote yellow to get blue.

Cameron has indicated that he wants to “make a big, open and comprehensive offer to the Liberal Democrats”. It is difficult to know what to make of this in the absence of concrete promises. There is speculation surrounding the potential inclusion of senior Lib Dems in a Cameron-led cabinet; while I am too pragmatic to suggest we should reject such an offer in favour of ideological purity, it would be unwise to base negotiations on anything other than policy. Only when agreement has been reached on this level should front-bench line-ups be discussed.

Clegg is not likely to sell out his principles for a ministerial limousine. But, like his predecessors, he years for the opportunity to “break the mould” of two-party politics. This in itself makes any deal with the Tories more unlikely as, even if Cameron was sufficiently insincere to offer his personal support for political reform, he will surely be unable to win over his rank-and-file.

For any deal with Cameron to be effective will require significant concessions from the Tory leader which go beyond the insignificant and superficial (and flatly insulting) offers of “an all-party commission of inquiry” into proportional representation. He has to make a solid pledge on constitutional reform and should soften his tone on a range of issues including Europe and social policy. Irresponsible references to “Broken Britain”, the most shamefully deceptive slogan of the election, must be dropped from Toryspeak.

Of course, for Cameron to even consider genuine compromise would risk splitting his party just as Clegg risks dividing the Lib Dems if he allows himself to enter into any agreements without firm policy commitments.

There remains the possibility that, if the talks between the two parties fail to deliver agreement, Cameron could lead a minority government. Alex Salmond has been reasonably successful to date in heading a minority administration in Holyrood, seeking support from other parties in a day by day basis. Although technically feasible, even this arrangement will in all likelihood require Lib Dem support for a Queen’s Speech likely to include proposals for significant spending cuts.

The key to any deal therefore lies with the 57 Lib Dem MPs. They will realise that the party is in just the position its leaders have hoped for for decades. If Cameron genuinely wants to make a “comprehensive offer” he is going to have to provide Clegg with a convincing policy package with which to win over MPs who have, in fairness, a well-deserved reputation for indiscipline – as Jim Wallace discovered in 1999. The anarchic tendencies of Liberal Democrats who have for years fought against Conservatism – and are, after all, fresh from electoral hostility with the Tories – will not be overcome easily.

My own view is that, short of Cameron offering concessions that would threaten to tear apart his own party, our MPs will not only find a formal agreement with the Tories unpalatable, but will find it virtually impossible to lend sufficient support to even allow a Cameron-led minority government to operate effectively. At a time when the country urgently requires strong government it is vital that – if talks come to nothing – alternative possibilities are explored.

Clegg was not only right to speak to the Conservatives first; he was also right to state that it is “for the Conservative Party to prove that it is capable of...govern[ing] in the national interest.” The onus is on Cameron to win over the Lib Dems. A failure on his part to deliver a policy platform acceptable to Lib Dem MPs will force Clegg to open discussions with Gordon Brown, who to date has been waiting patiently in number 10 for his opportunity to entice the Lib Dem leader.

I was unnerved by Clegg’s previously stated unwillingness to work with Gordon Brown. There were two reasons for this: firstly, that this was said in advance of the election result being known and, secondly, because I believe negotiation and co-operation should be determined by policy rather than personality.

Understandably, no Liberal Democrat wishes to prop up a failed and unpopular government. But the alternative may be less agreeable. The Labour Party has much to recommend it and – on policy at least – has more in common with our progressive vision for Britain than do Cameron’s Conservatives. There is also the fact that Brown has mean making positive noises on the subject of electoral reform. Labour and the Lib Dems have also worked effectively together in the recent past, most notably in Scotland where they were in government for eight years. Granted, the relationship between Brown and Clegg is not that shared by Wallace and Dewar, but it remains true that there would be less ideological difference to overcome.

There are potential problems with any prospective Lib Dem-Lab coalition. Firstly, there will be the inevitable accusations from sections of the media that democracy itself has been compromised. Secondly, the electoral arithmetic is such that the combined forces of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats would not provide an overall majority. Thirdly, and most crucially, there is a risk of the Lib Dems becoming tainted by association with labour in return for a referendum on PR that may not be won. Some will no doubt argue that a referendum would not be won if Clegg and Brown are seen to have “stitched up” a deal.

These difficulties can be overcome. The argument that a Lib Dem-Lab pact would run counter to democracy can be rebuffed if the leaders can demonstrate that a Conservative minority can not operate in a House of Commons that lacks confidence in it. If the Lib Dem-Tory talks come to nothing, Clegg must make clear the sticking points and reinforced the need to pursue the stable government Cameron alone can not provide. There is little doubt in my mind that a Lib Dem-Lab coalition, while lacking a majority, could provide stronger government than either a Lib Dem-Tory coalition or a Conservative minority. Political strength comes not from mere numerical advantage but from a unity of purpose unlikely in any agreement with Cameron.

The lack of an overall majority may not be the disaster for a Lib Dem-Lab coalition as it would be for the Tories. Alex Salmond has already expressed an interest in enabling the SNP and Plaid Cymru to join labour and the Lib Dems in a “Progressive Coalition” and, while that outcome is unlikely, it is not altogether unrealistic to imagine the nationalists would be more likely to lend support to a Lib Dem-Lab administration that to the Conservatives. It should not be impossible to work with nationalist MPs on an issue-by-issue basis.

PR is the prize Nick Clegg desires most. If Labour is honest in its offer of a referendum on a genuine system of PR (e.g. either STV or one conforming to the recommendations of the Jenkins Commission) then Clegg can ill-afford to spurn the opportunity to make overdue electoral reform a reality. The short-term political damage will be more than outweighed by achieving permanent change to the electoral system.

Jonathan Freedland, writing in The Guardian on Saturday, stated that “it now falls to [Clegg] to choose the next Prime Minister”. He is not entirely correct. The nature, structure and philosophy of the Liberal Democrats mean that ultimately the parliamentary party will decide which route to take. Lib Dem MPs will not be easily persuaded to follow their leader out of mere loyalty, as David Steel knows too well.

Our party has some difficult and potentially painful decisions to take this week. Not since 1989 have such questions about the future direction of our party been asked. We must not be afraid of the answers, even if they mean exchanging short-term popularity for long-term achievement.

There remain other possibilities in a hung parliament. David Marquand, also writing in The Guardian, calls for a “grand coalition” of the three major parties. As someone whose politics favour co-operative and collaborative approaches, I find this idea attractive and it would certainly be of benefit in tackling the economic issues. However, it may lack the capability to deliver on electoral reform as the Lib Dems’ role and influence within it would be less significant. It is also possible for Nick Clegg simply to do nothing and allow the Conservatives to rule without our providing any commitments; there is also the tantalizing potential of a “progressive alliance” evolving between the Lib Dems and Labour in opposition.

As a Scottish liberal, whose instincts are firmly progressive rather than Conservative, I am concerned about our long-term future if our party enters into any agreement with the Conservatives. Such a partnership would not represent a “marriage of principle”. It would not even represent a marriage of convenience, but a sop to those in the media who delude themselves that Cameron somehow won this election. We should not fear those who misleadingly would refer to a partnership of progressives as a “coalition of the losers”. We must remain true to who we are: liberals, internationalists and progressives. Our identity and long-term aims can not be compromised for an unprincipled alliance with a Conservative Party whose only interest in our party is to make their own task of governing easier.

The Liberal Democrats have a genuine chance to make permanent and far-reaching changes, while taking further steps towards creating a more liberal society. This can be most realistically achieved in partnership with Labour, however awkward the creation of such a partnership may be. We can not afford to indulge in ideological purity or empty populism when the times call for dynamic pragmatism.

From a purely Scottish perspective, identifying ourselves with a Conservative Party which has virtually no electoral base and remains widely mistrusted could prove to be an electoral liability. The old questions of the Tories’ electoral legitimacy in Scotland and the perceived “democrat deficit” may re-emerge with potential to damage the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

The complexities and possibilities of the current situation require considered, responsible and visionary leadership – not only from Nick Clegg but also Lib Dem parliamentarians. For all the difficulties, exciting and unprecedented opportunities are there for the taking. We must have the courage to realise them.