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Monday, 31 January 2011

That was the week that was

Yes, it was an interesting week. Sadly, all the news items of real interest such as the future of control orders, the surprise downturn in the UK economy and events in North Africa were sadly overlooked by the press, which preferred to concentrate on the misdemeanours of two sexist sports commentators and the outcome of the Sheridan trial.

The issue of sexism in football I've dealt with elsewhere. As for the egomaniac who is Tommy Sheridan, why is his trial of such interest and perceived significance? Other than giving Sheridan a platform from which to spout his class prejudices and rather disturbing delusions, it seems this circus has served mainly to provide the media with "good stories". Of course, it's in their interests to play up Sheridan as some kind of heavyweight politician whose fate is somehow linked to the future of the Scottish nation. Absolute tosh. Sheridan is not (and never has been) a serious politician. He might believe he is the champion of the workers and the saviour of Socialism, but there weren't too many workers passing much of an interest in the trial, let alone expressing solidarity with him. The masses are hardly in protest over the verdict.

He is a has-been, a man whose career lies behind him and whose ostensible political philosophy belongs firmly in another era. It might be a mistake, however, to assume he actually has a political philosophy; I've become more and more convinced that he now represents nobody's cause other than his own.

Sheridan was jailed for three years for perjury. He could perhaps have got more. He claimed this was "a result" - the fact that he may only serve six months of the sentence indicates he's probably right. This hasn't prevented that great man of integrity, George Galloway, from claiming a miscarriage of justice has occurred: "This is a dismal end to a dismal chapter in Scottish justice", he said. "A politicised and unnecessary prosecution has become a lengthy and expensive incarceration. I hope Mr Sheridan will appeal against both conviction and sentence."

He's right - it was a politicised trial, but only because is was politicised by Sheridan himself in a vain attempt to portray himself as the victim of political conspiracy. He's also right that the trial was avoidable: perhaps someone wiser than Sheridan would have simply ignored newspaper articles rather than take legal action knowing full well he would have to lie on oath to win.

The media allowed Sheridan's family and friends ample opportunity to demonstrate their lack of insight into reality. Sheridan's mother referred to him as "the man who could not be bought". Yeah, right. His wife, Gail, mused that "the real reason he has been imprisoned today is because he has fought injustice and inequality with every beat of his heart". Obviously not for lying in a court of law then? The rapidly diminishing band of fans that calls itself Solidarity issued a statement declaring that the sentence "will reinforce the widespread view that this is the culmination of a brutal vendetta carried out by the rich and powerful against Scotland's most prominent socialist." I almost choked on my Scotch Pie reading that one. Paranoid delusions of vendetta are one thing; imagining that such delusions are widespread quite another.

The bottom line is, as the judge (Lord Bracadale) stated in his summary, that Sheridan "embarked on an action knowing that for it to be successful [he] would require to tell lies under affirmation." Sheridan claims to be a strong advocate for justice but in truth he has little actual interest in justice as demonstrated by his actions. It didn't seem to matter to him that telling lies in court in is itself a very serious offence and one which threatened to undermine the entire justice system.

I hate to agree with Frances Curran, our former regional MSP for Sheridan's former party, the SSP. But she's right when she argues that Sheridan "still shows no sign of taking responsibility for his own actions". Another ex-MSP, Rosie Kane, used Twitter to post a barely legible tweet, the substance of which was that Sheridan had "put celebrity before integrity".

The big question, however, is "is this justice?" On one level, justice has been done and Sheridan has got exactly what he deserved. Fortunately, Solidarity will also get exactly what it deserves in the May elections.

On another level, I'm not too sure whether "justice" can be said to be done. The News of the World certainly doesn't come out of this with much credit intact. Most worryingly, it appears that most of the evidence for the prosecution had been bought by the newspaper. It strikes me as particularly concerning that so much evidence can be paid for and, while I reject Sheridan's more florid claims of conspiracy and vendetta, it is true that few other individuals and organisations would have the means or the willingness to pay out so much in order to obtain "justice".

What happens next for Sheridan? No doubt, he will attempt to use his time in prison to recreate himself as a martyr for the cause of Socialism. This leopard just doesn't know how to change his spots.

Onto more important developments (in my view) with the news that economy has contracted and the most recent figures show negative growth. Of particular concern is the health of Scotland's construction industry, high unemployment among graduates and the interest rate increase which will do nothing to stimulate economic growth.

Clearly, these figures have both surprised and concerned the Westminster government. They provide a real test for chancellor George Osborne who has repeatedly insisted that this decision to cut quickly and deeply would help the UK economy. I have personally never been convinced by this, or any approach to economic matters that fails to take into account either the human dimension or the inescapable reality that actions generally have unintended consequences that should be planned for. Osborne gave a string of interviews last week during which he seemed understandably keen to place the blame firmly with the previous government and refused to consider the possibility that his own policies were helping to create a double-dip recession. While Labour's economic credibility has hardly been lower, continually pointing to his predecessors' fiscal mismanagement isn't likely to provide the solutions Scottish people deserve.

Osborne is right on one score, though. The wrong course of action would be to panic or to dramatically change course on the basis of one quarter's figures. He understands markets; in particular, he recognises that markets are not always logical. Maintaining confidence in the UK economy is absolutely vital and any dramatic u-turns would undermine confidence, in turn threatening economic stability due to the volatility of the markets. I am sure there are many who have doubts about the wisdom of Osborne's policy but altering course so quickly may do more harm than good.

The responsibility for Scotland's economy lies partly with John Swinney. It's not an easy time for our well-meaning but ultimately ineffective finance secretary. I empathise with him, as I do with the leaders of councils across the country who have to try to provide as full a range of services as possible while making unpopular cuts because of Labour's poor management of the economy when in government. But Swinney is clearly doing little to stimulate job creation, preferring instead to act negatively in not making cuts to particular popular (i.e. vote-securing) services. His lack of courage in making the tough decisions is one thing; even more worrying is his doublethink on council tax. How is it possible to champion increased localism while actively backing the kind of regressive centralism that supports a council tax freeze?

Serious questions have to be asked about the wisdom of a council tax freeze in the current economic climate. No-one wants to pay more tax. But what are the views of councils? How many services will be threatened by councils' inabilities to set appropriate tax levels to fit their revised budgets? What will be the effect of a freeze on economic growth?

Swinney's budget is set for its final debate on 9th February. It is a far from perfect budget, as even the most ardent SNP supporter would agree. It must, however, be more bold, more daring, more focused on dealing with delivering economic growth and in assuring a strong future for Scottish business. What is particularly irritating is the insistence by the likes of Cameron and Osborne that public sector job losses can be absorbed by the private sector. This is patently untrue, and particularly so in Scotland where the absence of a thriving private sector means that the predicted public sector job losses can not simply be "absorbed": the end product would be increased unemployment. It is this human and economic tragedy that John Swinney must try to avert but, if his budget (as it stands) is anything to go by, there seems to have been little consideration given to meaningful ways of expanding the private sector.

And I didn't even mention the misconceived SNP policy of the "Tesco tax". This sop to populism shows how desperately short of imagination the SNP government is. While I'm not normally the kind of person to support the interests of the supermarkets, questions have to be asked about the wisdom of imposing such a tax at a time when job creation should be the government's top priority. Jeremy Purvis is right to have called this failed policy "shabby"; it's also based on a shamefully prejudiced perception of supermarkets which it singles out in a discriminatory way. Tellingly, the director of the Scottish Retail Consortium stated that the "Tesco tax" would "not [be] in the interests of the Scottish economy or Scottish jobs. The proposed large retailer levy endangers future job growth and investment." These feelings were echoed by the director of CBI Scotland who claimed the SNP was neglecting the "needs of the economy and business".

Last Wednesday saw Home Secretary Teresa May announce the government's plans to abolish control orders. Or rather, rebrand them. This is a significant disappointment for Liberal Democrats who actually wanted control order to be...well, scrapped.

The new "terrorism prevention and investigation measures" still allow the Home Secretary to impose certain restrictions on the liberty of terror suspects without either putting a case against them or securing a prosecution. In this sense all that has been done is a careful redecoration.

However, there was some good news. No longer would terror suspects be held under house arrest (a key Lib Dem election pledge). There would be stricter controls on local authority surveillance, and pre-charge detention has been reduced to a mere 14 days. The unnecessarily authoritarian ban on photography has gone. The terms of restriction have been drastically improved. Stop and search powers are now restricted. Significantly, there has been a welcome shift to ensure that the new system's emphasis would be on gaining eventual prosecution - something inconceivable under the current set-up.

And none of this would have happened without the Liberal Democrats. Let's be clear about this. The Conservatives alone would never have dared go so far. And while the final outcome isn't quite what Liberal Democrats would have hoped for, even the compromised replacements for control orders are a considerable improvement on the status quo and go some way to improving the damage done by Labour. Lib Dems in government fought very hard for an even better alternative but ultimately they deserve a great deal of credit for achieving as much as they have. The worst elements of control orders have been abolished and for that we should be grateful.

However, as a member of Liberty, I am refusing to cease campaigning on the issue. As Shami Chakrabarti summarised, "when it comes to ending punishment without trial the government appears to have bottled it. The innocent may be punished without a fair hearing and the guilty escape the full force of the law." I agree. Here is a question about our justice system that is far more relevant than the outcome of the Sheridan trial, even if a newspaper as respected as The Scotsman didn't feel the need to give it any attention. Those who believe strongly in liberty can not simply remain silent because some overdue progress has been made. We need to keep pressing for an end to the distasteful practice of removing liberty without charge or prospect of a trial, while simultaneously advocating a shift not only in emphasis but also in regards the process. If I was English, I might say "it's just not cricket, old chap!"

Lord Macdonald, the Lib Dem peer, observes that "the British are strong and free people, and their laws should reflect this". We must keep up the fight until they actually do.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Sexism is society's problem, not football's

I'm sorry that my blogging has been less frequent this week. I'm afraid sometimes life and more pressing commitments get in the way of my good intentions.

It's been a fairly interesting week. Let's kick things off with the story everyone seems to have an opinion on - the row over sexist comments made by Sky pundits Andy Gray and Richard Keys in reference to a female assistant referee.

The official in question is Sian Massey, who has suddenly become a household name. Prior to the Wolves v Liverpool match in which Massey was due to officiate, Gray and Keys were recorded making apparently sexist remarks including making a judgement about her perceived ability: Gray observed that she "did not know the offside rule". Keys added: "Somebody better get down there and explain offside to her."

Well, clearly she does know the offside rule. In fact she knows it better than they do because she allowed Fernando Torres to run on to score Liverpool's first goal when the commentators and a lot of fans within the ground evidently thought him to be offside. It was only after TV replays that we saw exactly how good an official Massey is. She got that one dead right.

More tellingly - but regrettably overlooked by the media - is that prior to the off-camera "joke" at Massey's expense Keys and Gray had already complained that "the game had gone mad" because West Ham United vice-chair Karren Brady had recently written a piece about sexism in football. That Brady's contributions to both football and the business world far exceed their own seems to have passed Keys and Gray by. Their attitudes and prejudices were evident for all to see. This wasn't simply a silly joke blown out of proportion; the unadvised pop at Brady suggests more deeply held convictions than a peculiar belief that only males can comprehend the offside rule. They obviosuly interpret any woman's involvement in football as encroaching on "their" territory - unless, of course, they're working in the snack bar.

We know what happened thereafter. Gray was dismissed and Keys forced to quit after further evidence emerged about their misogynistic behaviour. In Gray's case this bizarrely took the form of an accusation from within Sky of sexist behaviour and lewd comments directed towards a colleague, Charlotte Jackson. In the meantime a clip emerged showing Keys making deeply personal and unpleasant comments to ex-Liverpool star Jamie Redknapp about his partner.

Whether the pair should have been sacked is a question I'm not in a position to answer. But their conduct was embarrassing and raises the issue of sexism in football. People defending Gray and Keys are quick to dismiss the comments about Massey as "banter" and nothing more harmful whereas others see this as evidence of sexist undercurrents within the game. Curiously, sections of the media supposedly horrified at the "sexist outburst" and "shocking behaviour" took a great delight in publishing several pictures of Charlotte Jackson - the victim of Gray's unwelcome attention - wearing only a bikini. Describing her casually as "the glamorous sports presenter at the centre of the sacking" and invariably referring to her "attributes" (as if that's relevant) the tabloid press seemed more determined than Gray and Keys to prove that sexism is alive and well - at least in Fleet Street. The Daily Star went so far as to suggest that Jackson actually enjoyed Gray's suggestive behaviour, claiming that "she appeared to be giggling. She doesn’t seem to find it offensive in any way." How helpful.

Let me put one thing straight. Football isn't sexist. Football is a game, enjoyed and appreciated by millions of people around the globe irrespective of gender. Women watch football, play football, coach football and - yes, actually officiate in matches. It's not the game itself that is sexist. Neither does it create the misogynistic attitudes, which in turn lead to the kind of behaviour we've witnessed in the last week. The problem, as we see, lies with a resignation that such behaviour is inevitable, that it is an integral part of the "lad's culture", which - in Key's words, "is common to pubs and dressing rooms up and down the land". And so sexism is accepted and where it manifests itself is normally casually dismissed as "male humour". As the wonderful Jane Martinson makes clear in a Guardian column, "a culture of sexism is endemic at our dominant sports broadcaster".

What Keys and Gray failed to realise - especially the former - is that society has moved on. Not sufficiently, that is true, but enough that the "lads' mag humour" Keys referred to is now a minority taste. Keys argued that he was simply reflecting social attitudes and "what goes on in pubs and clubs" but that's simply untrue. Nobody thought it was funny that Keys referred to Redknapp's partner as "it" and the sexual act as "smashing it". Few people really believe the inaccurate perception that the ability to understand something as mind-bogglingly complex as where someone is standing when a ball is played forward is determined by gender. (Actually, in my experience, women are much quicker at grasping this than most male players - and Premiership managers.) For so long sexist and other primitive language that would have been unthinkable elsewhere has been allowed to flourish and thrive in football circles by the likes of Sky. So long as it was kept behind closed doors or in "between the lads" situations. But by doing so, Sky - along with other sections of the media - have tacitly approved the existing culture rather than challenging it. Now, rightly embarrassed by Gray's and Keys' comments, Sky has been forced into taking overdue action.

This should have been the end of the matter. But it isn't, because Massey was withdrawn from officiating in the midweek game between Crewe Alexandra and Bradford City and also in yesterday's FA Cup clash at Torquay United. While I fully understand the reasons behind this thinking, surely the best way to deal with the unwelcome attention Massey has received is to allow her to do what she's clearly good at? Shielding her from the media glare is counter-productive.

Keys and Gray behaved despicably. However, in my view, the real problem is the media's willingness to both cultivate stereotypes and play to them. Through resignation towards outdated attitudes rather than openly challenging them, it is the media have helped to propagate, if not create, the demon of sexism.

I should make it clear I have an interest in this. I was, for a season, on the board of a non-league English club, during which time I experienced a number of female officials in action. At that level it was not unusual to see a female referee or assistant referee every other game. It was very clear that while there remained some supporters (and, sadly, players) with less than progressive attitudes towards women, the general view was that officials should be criticised for their performances (and frequently were) but not for their gender. Many fans rightly felt that more women becoming actively involved in this way was good for the sport - some had always felt this way; others had their minds changed over time, often being convinced by strong performances from the women. It was obvious to me that as the presence of female officials became more normalised (at that non-league level at least) there was less of a focus on their gender. Referees and their assistants might be called cheats or incompetent, but wouldn't be abused on the basis of their gender any more than they would for their skin colour.

Then again, non-league referees don't generally come to the attention of Sky Sports and are spared unhelpful public attention. It's hard enough dealing with unhelpful attitudes among supporters without having to endure the stupid, uninformed criticisms of Andy Gray. Unfortunately for Sian Massey, she's one of a tiny group of female pioneers who have earned (yes, earned) the right to officiate in the top league. With this comes more media exposure and the obvious pressures. She's dealt with these reasonably well and is the only person to come out of this sorry saga with any credit. As someone who has actually been a referee I don't quite understand why any intelligent person let alone a woman would wish to take charge of 22 men on a Saturday afternoon while having every decision made scrutinised by those hoping for you to make mistakes (answers on a postcard please). Hopefully, however, as female officials become a more regular feature of Premiership and SPL football and becomes "normalised", perhaps the media might have something more interesting to say about Sian Massey and others than the quite obvious fact that they're women? Let's hope so.

Sexism is society's problem, not football's. In the light of recent events, I hope the FA and the Referees' Association (and their counterparts in Scotland) take further action to tackle sexism in football, as they have done reasonably successfully with racism and (less successfully) with homophobia. But they don't carry the ultimate responsibility for ridding the game of sexism. While the media has a huge role to play, society must also do its part to ensure that football more accurately reflects the realities of the modern world and women's roles within it rather than the taxi-driver, footie lad, backward-looking attitudes expounded by Keys and Gray.

It might also be helpful if some politicians started to take the issue more seriously. For every Jo Swinson there seems to be a Dominic Raab. For those not so enlightened in respect to the attitudes of MPs towards gender equality, Swinson is a passionate advocate for both women's interests and equality, while Raab has recently described those who pursue increased equality between the sexes as "sexist". Not for him any positive action to reduce the pay gap, or to encourage greater levels of female participation in certain professions such as politics - that's just sexist. He probably just feels threatened, poor man! Perhaps like Gray and Keys, Raab should be disciplined for spouting his prejudices at work; his attitudes certainly deserve to be made an example of but I'm not living in hope. Strangely, it seems that football has a greater potential to strike a blow for equality than does parliament.

A final thought: while I am appalled by the views of Gray and Keys, it should be noted that - like Gordon Brown in his infamous "bigot" remark - their comments about Massey were made when they thought they were off-air. This doesn't detract from my argument that it's the culture which is the key problem. But surely broadcasting what was believed to be being said in private is illegal? Is there really a difference between covertly gathering material in this way and subversive phone-hacking?

Friday, 28 January 2011

"There is no coalition" says Miliband

Ed Miliband - you know, the guy who does party leader impressions - seems very angry at the moment. It seems to be catching in the Miliband family - a few weeks ago brother David got all upset about something and he's hardly spoken since.

What is irking Ed is the media's continued references to "the coalition". Some Lib Dems and Tories might agree with him...but no, it's not the constant misrepresentation of the respective coalition partners' positions or the incessant negativity on the part of broadcasters that bothers the Labour leader. It's something much, much worse - in his jaundiced eyes at least.

The press should not refer to "the coalition" which sounds very nicey-nicey, huggy, centre-ground, co-operative and liberal. No, it's not a coalition, says Ed; the correct terminology is "Conservative-led government" and it's by time the media got it right. Or people will forget who's really in charge - yes, Maggie Thatcher!

Ideally, Ed wants the "correct" term to be barked in one of those hilariously spooky accents that only exist in Holywood horror movies, immediately followed by evil laughter, peals of thunder and a flash of lightning.

"This is not a partnership...the government is not what it claims to be" says Ed. "Call them Tories". Call who Tories, exactly? The Lib Dems who in the past few months have stood up to the Tories on control orders and civil liberties? Even Labour were appalled about the government's liberalised policy towards "anti-terrorism" measures (which wasn't actually liberal enough by half) - a strange example of Labour doublethink. Sorry, did I say think?

It is ridiculous that Miliband thinks he can use the labels "Tory" and "Liberal" as interchangeable terms of abuse. As for people claiming to be what they're not, hmmmm....

Come on Ed. Believe it or not, the media isn't there to do your bidding and to promote Labour spin (although in the case of the Daily Record I'm not too sure). Get over yourself. And the fact that, whatever the merits and otherwise of the coalition, a partnership is exactly what it is. Not a partnership of equals, because the electoral arithmetic of a democratic election (an inconvenient and irrelevant statistic I know, Ed) determined that the Tories were by far the largest party. We're the minor partner in government. But a partner nonetheless, with Lib Dem ministers making a significant contribution.

I actually have a lot of time for the Labour Party. I have respect for its history and its social democratic tradition, even if I am critical of some of its "achievements" in government. But I have little respect for Ed Miliband's leadership which appears to be built on hot air, bluster and a contempt for the politics of collaboration.

And what kind of guy gets so upset about a few words? This just makes Ed look ridiculous and over-sensitive. And so, over to Stephen Fry for some sober words of wisdom: "If I had a large amount of money I should found a hospital for those whose grip upon the world is so tenuous that they can be severely offended by words and phrases yet remain all unoffended by the injustice, violence and oppression that howls daily".

Yes Ed, it's the injustice and oppression you should be getting to grips with - the kind of thing Liberal Democrats have been doing in government this week to rid this country of Labour's draconian anti-terror laws. Not petty arguments about words.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

30 years on: Remembering the SDP

You may not have noticed - judging by the lack of interest shown by the press - but today marks an important political anniversary: that of the Limehouse Declaration which established the Council for Social Democracy and allowed for the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

It seems rather hard to believe now, but following 25th January 1981 the formation of the new party dominated the news - and the political agenda - for several months. There was wide popular support for the SDP and through much of 1981 were riding high in the opinion polls. The new party was running before it could walk; having successfully tapped into public dissatisfaction with both the Thatcher government and Labour's determination to move ever leftwards, its founders were stunned by the initial response of the public, eager to embrace the promised "change" and the desire to "break the mould" of British politics. As Crewe and King state in their excellent history of the SDP, "the sense of release was tremendous, the pace of events exhilarating. Indeed the rush of events was such that [the SDP's leaders] felt more like surfboarders borne along by events than sea captains calmly charting a long voyage".

It's difficult to grasp the euphoria which greeted the new arrival. Thirty years on, people struggle to identify with politics and political movements as they did in the early 1980s. Even the short-lived "Cleggmania" (the product of media hype more than anything else) doesn't remotely compare with the unusual position the SDP found itself in. It rode so high in the opinion polls that, at one point, it was speculated that the Tories might be reduced to one MP in the general election. Even more sober opinion polls suggested the SDP would sweep all before it; The Observer found 46% support for the new party in January, compared to 27% for Labour and 25% for the Conservatives. A single advert in The Guardian published in the week following the Limehouse declaration resulted in 25,000 letters of support.

Initially, it seemed that everything touched by the new party turned to gold. Roy Jenkins narrowly missed out on winning the supposedly safe Labour seat of Warrington (a defeat he successfully managed to claim as a moral victory) before winning in another "safe" Labour constituency, Glasgow Hillhead. Shirley Williams won a stunning victory in Crosby. The ranks fo the new party were being swelled by new defectors from Labour (and one from the Conservatives). And in David Owen, Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and Roy the party had a frontline which was not only experienced but hugely respected.

Ultimately, events were to play a significant role in denying the SDP the opportunities it perhaps deserved. Thatcher's popularity improved following the Falklands war and the government's announcement of the "right to buy" council houses. Labour's leader Michael Foot continued to wander in the general direction of the political wilderness but his party was saved from more embarrassing defeat by the democratically deficient First Past the Post voting system. FPTP was the cruelest trick the establishment could play on the new party and the popular ambition to "break the mould" in bringing about a new kind of politics.

The history of the Alliance - initially an electoral pact between the Liberal Party and the SDP, which ultimately resulted in merger under the respective leaderships of Steel and Maclennan - was both a difficult and productive one. In 1987 the hoped-for breakthrough again failed to materialise (again, in many respects due to the voting system) and, after a year in which merger was brokered and the SDP split, another new party was created: the Social & Liberal Democrats, later the Liberal Democrats.

The Lib Dems are, of course, just part of the SDP legacy. The SDP provided the new party with a more professional edge than the Liberal Party could have provided alone. It also provided key personnel, such as Charles Kennedy (even now the popular face of the Lib Dems), Shirley Williams and Robert Maclennan (who, as Party President, typified the Lib Dems' ideals). Most significantly, of course, is the fact that the SDP (and Maclennan and Kennedy in particular) helped create the Liberal Democrats and create a stronger and better equipped third force in British politics. Without the popular appetite for change the SDP helped cultivate, I doubt whether the Liberal Party alone could have become the force the Liberal Democrats emerged as. I suspect it wouldn't even have been conceivable to most Liberals.

There are those who claim the SDP's legacy is a negative one, and argue that the SDP/Alliance performances in 1983 and 1987 allowed Margaret Thatcher to continue in office for 11 years. While it is true that the SDP took much - but by no means all - of its support from Labour, it's simply glib to suggest that it was the SDP's popularity that kept the Tories in power. Such observers view political beneficence only through the narrow focus of what negatively affect Tory votes. They overlook the fact that Labour lost in 1983 and 1987 because it deserved to lose. it was only the electoral system that spared Labour the punishment it actually merited. The SDP was a much needed and necessary political movement that inspired a generation of people to believe in politics and to hope for more than what Britain's polarised system was offering.

Another SDP legacy is the rebirth of the Labour Party as a responsible party of the centre-left. That it seems inconceivable now that Labour could be so successfully infiltrated (and represented by) elements of the far-left is a credit to the SDP. It was, after all, the SDP who played a significant part in condemning Labour to defeat in 1983 - a defeat which spelled the end of Foot's tenure as leader and brought in the more reformist Kinnock. The SDP experience and its success in capturing the public imagination convinced Kinnock (and later Smith and Blair) of the need to make Labour a credible choice in the eyes of voters. While clearly not the only key factor in Labour's reinvention, there can be little doubt that SDP principles and its popular appeal precipitated a change of direction in British politics that Labour had to take notice of.

The SDP spoke up where no-one else would for a sensible and considered position on Europe, for combining social justice with economic efficiency and for a more democratic system of government. It brought some overdue honesty into the political arena. Most significantly, perhaps, while not "breaking the mould" it modernised British politics.

Thirty years on from the Limehouse Declaration, I can see the spirit of the SDP alive within the Liberal Democrats (and, to a much lesser extent, the Labour Party). The General Elections of 1983 and 1987 were notably unkind to the SDP, but I hope history will be kinder. It should be. The experiment failed on one level, but the SDP succeeded in taking its arguments to the electorate and popularising them. It ensured that no longer would British politics be dominated by the rhetoric of extremes as it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In tribute to the "Gang of Four" and the MPs with the courage to follow them from the Labour Party (risking their careers in the process), I am taking the liberty of quoting from the Limehouse Declaration, whose principles and vision remain pertinent all these years later:

We do not believe the fight for the ideals we share and for the recovery of our country should be limited only to politicians. It will need the support of men and women in all parts of our society...from those outside politics who believe the country cannot be saved without changing the sterile and rigid framework into which the British political system has increasingly fallen...

...We want more, not less, radical change in our society but with a greater stability of direction. Our economy needs a healthy public sector and a healthy private sector... We want to eliminate poverty and promote greater equality without stifling enterprise or imposing bureaucracy from the centre...

...There must be...an effective and practical system of democracy at work.



In short, the Limehouse Declaration was a bold and revolutionary statement in support of commonsense politics. It deserves to be remembered as more than a mere footnote in political history.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Democratic ideals of internet-inspired revolution should be applauded

I’m not an expert on North African politics, but I broadly welcome the news that there has been an outbreak of democratic protest in Algeria. The Algerian police have been quick to break up demonstrations and there are reports that two people have been killed.

More positively, however, is the democratic contagion apparently moving across North Africa. Last week – in what is already being termed the Jasmine Revolution - President Ben Ali of Tunisia was overthrown following dramatic protests which rapidly spread across his country over four weeks until they finally engulfed the capital, Tunis.

It is worth looking into Tunisia’s recent history, the causes of the “revolution” and its unusual characteristics. Ben Ali’s Tunisia appeared to outsiders to be a model Arab republic; an oasis of progression in a desert of Islamic conservatism. Unlike other Islamic nations, Ali ensured Tunisia had a strong and inclusive education system. He protected women’s rights. He was opposed to the Islamic radicalism that is taking hold elsewhere across the Arab world. Ostensibly, Tunisia was a more liberal country than its neighbours and one of the most prosperous: Tunisia’s economy was among the strongest in Africa with a per capita income of $US 8,000.

But appearances can be deceptive. Even the benefits of Ben Ali’s dictatorship had a price and Tunisians paid for these comforts by surrendering their freedom. Opposition was suppressed. The media existed purely as a propaganda machine for the Ben Ali regime. This contract between the dictator and his people – the exchange of liberty for social and economic improvements – worked for a while. But in recent years as opportunities have diminished, unemployment has increased, inflation soared and the regime become more corrupt, it has become more difficult for the government to contain mounting frustrations.

It isn’t difficult to empathise with Tunisia’s people. A once thriving economy had found itself in freefall. Unemployment, particularly high among the youth, had taken hold. Living standards were falling. Curiously, the disaffected did not turn to Islamic radicalism as might have been the case elsewhere. Instead, their frustrations and grievances found expression in an unusual way as young people turned to the internet in the aftermath of what seemed a small and insignificant incident.

A young fruit seller named Mohammed Bouazizi – a computer technician struggling to find work – was slapped by a policewoman as she ordered him to pack up his stall. Bouazizi responded to this humiliation by demanding to see the governor, threatening to set himself on fire if turned away. He carried out his promise and, with a martyr, the Tunisian people now had a rallying point. His death unleashed the bottled-up, seething anger and resentment of a generation of young Tunisians. Bouazizi had unwittingly set off a time bomb on a very short fuse.

What happened next is more than interesting. Instead of turning towards an iconic leader as might be expected, Tunisians looked to themselves. And the internet. Many young Tunisians are computer literate and familiar with the likes of Twitter and Facebook. The government had, over the last few years, attempted to suppress expression on the world wide web just as they did the Tunisian press. But the younger generation understood the internet far better than Ben Ali’s elite and, in spite of their websites being regularly shut down, turned their expertise into a weapon. They were able to undermine the regime’s propaganda, effectively rendering state media irrelevant.

Here was revolution by text and twitter. There were no rallies, no leaders, no speeches...nothing on the basis of top-down organisation. Spontaneous demonstrations broke out; these were small at first but as the brutal government response was spread via mobile phone and YouTube - including beatings and shootings of protesters – the mood of the nation quickly changed. Sensing an opportunity for weakening the government, protests became larger and spread to Tunis, prompting President Ben Ali to announce that he would step down in 2014. If this was an attempt to appease the demonstrators it failed miserably. The momentum for change was unstoppable. Within hours, the President had fled.

The lack of a leader or figurehead may prove problematic in regards filling the power vacuum. The fact that there was no organised campaign means an absence of credible political representation to express the will of the people. There is no movement or party with the democratic mandate, or even the popular support, to reflect the mood of the country. The protests delivered a message to Ben Ali’s government: we want change and we want you out. However, what will replace it has yet to be seen. Given the lack of democratic channels in Tunisia, it is concerning that many of Ben Ali’s elite remain in power and a militant Islamic Party is demanding a role in government.

Whatever the future for Tunisia, the recent actions of its people have proved that revolution is possible in the Islamic world. The Arabic-speaking world has remained largely unaffected by democratic movements but suddenly other North African and Arab nations are worried. They have every right to be. Protesters in Algeria yesterday were waving Tunisian flags in reference to the “Jasmine Revolution”. Deep frustrations about worsening economic conditions and political corruption may find their expression as the Tunisian experience emboldens and empowers, inspiring hope among people who have been oppressed for so long.

The governments of Jordan, Yemen and Egypt are so fearful that they have already cut the prices of food and fuel. Whether that will prove sufficient to disquiet unrest remains to be seen. The Sudanese government has already come down heavily on proponents of Tunisia-style demonstrations and has jailed the ringleaders.

Sadly, in a Commons debate on Tunsia on 17th January, some MPs were already expressing fear about a potential “domino” effect and an unevidenced concern for the spread of Islamic militancy. Robert Halfron (Conservative) thought that “Tunisia will move out of the frying pan of dictatorship and into the fire of Islamism” while Richard Fuller (Con) asked: “Does my right hon. Friend agree that the right way to stop the violence, to push back against al-Qaeda and to create the basis for stability and elections is to support the interim Government behind Prime Minister Ghannouchi?” The misplaced obsession among British politicians with Al-Qaeda is blinding them to the reality that this was a spontaneous outbreak of rage at an undemocratic system rather than a stage-managed Islamic revolution. As for Britain supporting Ghannouchi (known to Tunisians as 'Monsieur Oui Oui' on account of his always saying yes to Ben Ali)...would that really endear the UK to the Tunisian people? Backing the man who had served as Ben Ali’s Prime Minister is hardly responsible (in any case, he survived only one day as president and was replaced by another of Ben Ali’s close circle, Fouad Mebazaa) and goes against the grain of encouraging for formation of a new democratic system in Tunsia. Admittedly, there may be a long road ahead in forging new democratic structures but it is wise to start by recognising Tunisians’ democratic right to choose their own leaders rather than backing the object of their rebellion simply to counter what is (so far in Tunisia) a non-existent terrorist threat.

We can not allow the future of North Africa to be determined by retarded attitudes and paranoid misconceptions. African people should not live under dictatorships simply because it is convenient for Western democracies to allow them to.

Besides, I have no truck for those who only view negatively the potential for unrest to spread across North Africa. I for one would not object too strongly with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi or Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika suffering the same fate as Ben Ali. Dictatorship (however “benign”) is no substitute for democracy, for which it is clear there is now an increasing appetite. Neither is it an effective bulwark against terrorism in the long-term. I have doubts that there will in fact be any major movement for democratic change emerging in North Africa; the very thing that made the Tunisian “revolution” so authentic – i.e. its spontaneity and its lack of either an incoming figurehead or cohesive organisation – will probably mean that the scope for it to have a major effect upon the Islamic world is minimal. However, change should not be feared. Those who speak against a “domino effect” should cast their minds back to 1989-90, when dictatorships in Eastern Europe fell, one after another. At the time of the revolutions in Romania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc, these countries had no more experience of democracy than Tunisia and arguably less capacity for creating new democratic structures. Noticeably, the attitude of UK politicians (and the media) in 1989-90 was broadly positive towards developments in Eastern Europe, largely because Soviet Communism was correctly perceived as a negative influence. Unfortunately, North Africa’s dictators are being supported (Ben Ali was an ally of the United States) because of the pathological fear of Al-Qaeda in the mind of western politicians.

The people of Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Libya and Sudan deserve their democracy as much as Eastern Europeans. Obviously Tunisia faces an uncertain future, but the role of international organisations should be in facilitating democratic change rather than supporting a discredited and unpopular regime. Nothing would be more certain to turn people towards radicalism than for their democratic ambitions to become thwarted.

Any expression of democratic revolt in North Africa is a welcome development. Its overall impact may be minimal; only time will tell. It is clear that the “revolution” lacked any clear goals other than the removal of the regime. But it signals a huge change: a willingness of the part of an oppressed people not known for their rebelliousness to stand up for freedom. This was almost the last place in the world where a revolution would be anticipated, least alone a successful one forcing the premier from power.

This was not so much a “Jasmine Revolution” but the first real “Internet Revolution”. It is the power of facebook and twitter that allowed a small-scale demonstration to develop into an expression of anger on a national level. Perhaps this will prove a turning point in history, as the internet becomes a more effective and powerful tool for spreading democracy than anyone could have predicted. In any event, the democratic appetite of Tunisia's unlikely revolutionaries - while not being overstated - should be welcomed.

Friday, 21 January 2011

SNP sacrifices economic growth to protect "free" services

There were two surprises in yesterday's Daily Telegraph. The first was that the London-based daily published an article on Scottish politics. The second shock was that the article was actually quite good.

Simon Johnson (Scottish Budget "sacrifices growth for benefits") produced an intelligent, well researched and thought provoking piece that questions the SNP's commitment to longer-term economic recovery over short-term electoral priorities.

Johnson examines the Scottish Parliament finance committee's inquiry into the Holyrood government's budget proposals. He reports that concerns have been expressed about SNP ministers protecting popular "free" services, such as concessionary bus travel, the NHS and personal care while slashing the budgets in areas such as enterprise, housing and Higher Education - which encourage economic growth.

The obvious point being made is that the SNP's proclaimed commitment to growing Scotland's economy is paper thin and that Alex Salmond's party's real priority is electoral success in May. While it is hardly surprising for a party in government to want to steer clear of unpopular decisions in the run-up to an election, it is regrettable that the SNP have shirked away from making the tough decisions that Scotland deserves.

By tough decisions I mean the kind of decisions Lib Dems are having to make in government. The kind of decisions that are necessary but do not win votes. Decisions about cutting the deficit in the interests of longer-term economic development rather than for short-term party political benefit.

The UK economy is in a delicate condition. Scotland has fared particularly badly. This is not necessarily Mr Salmond's fault, although if he had been allowed to develop Scotland's economy along the lines of Iceland the catastrophe would have been worse. However, while Salmond will happily shirk liability for the mess and continually blame the coalition in Westminster for Scotland's ills, he's less keen to take on some responsibility for turning Scotland's ailing economic fortunes around.

It's as if the SNP tactic is to take credit for retaining popular services while blaming the UK government for cuts elsewhere. That might win some votes, but hardly constitutes responsible government.

Importantly, according to Johnson, "the committee, including its SNP members, questioned the First Minister’s failure to explain the about-turn in its strategic priorities and whether economic growth will continue to play second fiddle in future." The inference is obvious. Necessary action isn't forthcoming. Instead of investing in Scotland's economic future and standing on a credible plan for improvement, the SNP prefer to prioritise their pet projects and populist rhetoric.

Salmond is a canny operator. I respect his intellect and tactical nous. I don't doubt that he knows how to win votes. However, I'm convinced that he is more than aware of the need for decisive action on the economic front and that a failure to deliver will adversely effect the Scottish economy's potential for growth. Surely he isn't willing to compromise Scotland's future by starving growth-facilitating sectors of funds while ringfencing other budgets?

Even from a nationalist point of view, this makes little sense. What's the point in neglecting an economy whose growth is central to the vision of independence?

The Budget vote, on 9th February is expected to be close. Salmond has intimated that SNP ministers could resign en masse if the Budget proposals are voted down twice - hoping the public will blame opposition parties for the Budget's failure. This would be a tactical error as an early dissolution would require a two-thirds majority that Salmond is unlikely to achieve, thus allowing an interim First Minister (probably Iain Gray) to take up office before the election and open the SNP up to accusations of incompetence and cowardice. Salmond is surely bluffing; I can't see him going for it.

In the lead-up to the budget, politicians have responded to the finance committee's report. SNP MSP Andrew Welsh, the finance committee’s convener,spoke of the “highly significant challenge” for the Scottish government given the £1 billion cut in public spending this year. “We have asked the government to respond to the view of a number of witnesses that the government’s priority is the protection of public services and not economic growth,” he said. Lib Dem finance spokesman Jeremy Purvis added that "the clear point has been made that the Budget doesn’t meet the needs of the economy”.

According to the Telegraph, business leaders are calling for bolder action. David Lonsdale, assistant director of CBI Scotland, wants a “far bolder approach to making savings”. Peter Wood, director of Optimal Economics, suspects that "the commitment to economic growth is more of a slogan than a reality.” And Jo Armstrong, from the Centre for Public Policy for Regions (CPPR), concludes that "it is difficult to see the link between the headline of sustainable economic growth and the current budget allocations".

All this comes in a week during which it has been announced that UK unemployment has increased and now stands at 7.9%. Of particular concern are the statistics for youth unemployment, which now stands at a frightening 20.3%. The statistics for Scotland show a minuscule improvement on the UK figures. The Bank of England signalled its lack of commitment to decreasing joblessness on Tuesday by putting up interest rates - a measure designed to tackle inflation but one which will have the inevitable consequence of higher unemployment. I'm not a Keynesian demagogue, but I think the Bank of England would have been better advised to allow for continued inflation above the government's target of 2% in order to tackle the more pressing problem of unemployment. Clearly the Bank has little concern for the human and social costs of raised unemployment.

Unemployment is a human tragedy and can not be ignored. What is needed is a government willing to take on the responsibility for job creation. The SNP must be willing to step up to the mark. Revealingly, The Herald this week tackled Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore and SNP Finance Secretary John Swinney in relation to new statistics regarding the problem of long-term unemployment in Scotland. Moore indicated that the coalition accepts that "tackling the deficit is unavoidable" and is "taking steps [which] are already helping keep long-term interest rates lower and encourage businesses to invest and grow.” At least he has a strategy, even if it isn't one reflected in the Bank of England's recent actions. Contrast this, however, with John Swinney's response: "the UK Government is wrong to threaten the positive signs we are seeing by cutting the Scottish budget by £1.3 billion next year.” Yes, that's it, keep on blaming the Westminster government. That old chestnut usually works for the SNP. It's a bit of a shame that Swinney doesn't want to discuss the SNP's strategies to tackle unemployment.

The political drama will unfold on 9th February, and it's certainly significant that Swinney's Budget has already been criticised by the finance committee and the business community aside from his political opponents. Whatever the political outcome and the inevitable compromises, it's unlikely that the Budget will contain any cohesive plans for job creation or for growing Scotland's economy. That is the SNP's failure, and a betrayal of the Scottish people.

Johnson resigns; Balls steps up

I am personally saddened that Alan Johnson has resigned as shadow chancellor over issues with his private life.

I don't think appointing Johnson the economic portfolio was the best choice Ed Miliband could have made. Neither do I think his performance as shadow chancellor was strong; on the contrary, he often looked confused and out of his depth. And no - I am not sorry to see him go simply because he was ineffective in his current role.

Alan Johnson was the one of the more likable of the Labour shadow cabinet. He of course is not a liberal - his record on civil liberties, anti-terror legislation and ID cards is testament to that. But he was the kind of Labour MP who favoured closer working ties with the Liberal Democrats - a moderate who naturally favoured collaborative approaches to politics. A supporter not merely of the AV referendum but real PR he's not of the tribalist ilk - in 1995 he was the only senior union official to support scrapping Clause IV of the Labour Party Constitution.

But the what Johnson really had going for him was that he was the most human of the Labour front bench. Not only that, he had a had the rare ability to easily identify with people; a "common touch" if you like that proved a considerable asset. Without him, the shadow cabinet have as much personality, charisma and humanity as a mannequin.

Johnson's time as shadow chancellor was characterised by gaffes. At times, he appeared to lack basic knowledge of his brief. But it would appear that his resignation has been genuinely prompted by unspecified personal issues rather than his performance. Channel 4 political editor Gary Gibbon blogged "it seems Alan Johnson's departure from frontline politics is to do with affairs of the heart not health and not politics."

Johnson's resignation statement read: "I have personal issues and not by decided to resign from the shadow cabinet for personal reasons to do with my family. I have found it difficult to cope with these personal issues in my private life whilst carrying out an important frontbench role. I am grateful to Ed Miliband for giving me the opportunity to serve as shadow chancellor of the exchequer. He is proving to be a formidable leader of the Labour party and has shown me nothing but support and kindness. My time in parliament will now be dedicated to serving my constituents and supporting the Labour Party. I will make no further comment about this matter."

There has been intense speculation regarding the nature of the "personal issues". I am not interested in the detail, but feel it a shame that they have fored him to cut short his political career. While he was undeniably a poor choice as shadow chancellor, he was an asset not only to Labour's front bench but to British politics more generally.

Ed Balls replaces Johnson; Yvette Cooper replaces Balls as shadow home secretary. On one level, this is positive for Labour. Balls undeniably has economic experience as well as the ability to more capably scrutinise the government's handling of the economy. He's clearly an able politician, who will want to take the economic debate to the government and will relish the battle with Osborne. Unlike Johnson, who recognised his limitations, Balls has a particularly high opinion of his own abilities. However, on another level, the decision is a strange one: not only does Balls lack popularity among the grassroots of his own party, he carries responsibility for the economic legacy of the Brown government. He's inextricably identified with the failed and discredited economic policy of the Labour administration and will struggle to shake off the association.

If Ed Miliband is serious about forging a new direction for Labour, it seems strange he should turn to Balls. Such a move suggests a continuity; that little has changed from the Brown era. As Lib Dem Stephen Williams observed, "the decision to appoint Ed Balls as shadow chancellor shows that the Labour Party is now determined to carry on with the Gordon Brown economic plan that caused so much trouble for this country. Ed Balls isn't just a deficit denier, he's a deficit enthusiast."

The loss of Johnson provided a test for Ed Miliband. Unfortunately, he's compromised his own position by appointing Balls. It's completely inconsistent and disingenuous of him to apologise for Labour's mistakes when he replaces his shadow chancellor with the man most associated with those mistakes.

Ironically, in spite of Johnson's inept performance as shadow chancellor and Balls' undoubted expertise, losing Johnson from the front bench could actually have a negative effect on Labour's credibility - especially among grassroots activists who shared an affinity with Johnson that the rest of the shadow cabinet, Burnham perhaps excepted, can not match.

I wish Alan Johnson the best for the future, especially in regards his personal life. His contributions to British politics were not always positive, but he was a rare human face among the Labour machinery of Westminster.

Balls will fancy himself as a skilful operator. I look forward to seeing him take on Osborne; I am sure the economic debate will now take on an increased intensity. However, it will be interesting to see where Labour now goes regarding economic policy - does it stay with its pre-election position or does it adjust to tackle the new realities? In short, does Labour draw up sensible policies to deal with the deficit and become an active part of the solution, or does it continue to simply opportunistically oppose whatever the government's current position happens to be?

Can a leopard change its spots? I for one can't wait to find out.

A great week for liberalism

I didn't say it had been a great weak for the Liberal Democrats, but a great week for the cause of liberalism. Of course the Liberal Democrats should be justifiably proud of their role in abolishing ID cards and reducing pre-charge detention to 14 days, but the real winners are those who believe in a more liberal society rather than the Big Brother surveillance society favoured by New Labour.

In relation to detention without charge, let's not forget that Labour had originally wanted to extend this to 90 days citing a terrorist threat that it had helped to create and perpetuate. But even the 28-day limit was unnecessary - no-one has been held for more than 14 days without charge since July 2007.

The government, ahead of home secretary Teresa May's announcement of the findings of the anti-terror review next week, has confirmed that pre-charge detention will not revert back to 14 days. Immigration minister Damian Green explained that "we are clear that 14 days should be the norm and that the law should reflect this". Ed Balls, in virtually his final act as shadow home secretary, retorted that the review process was "a shambles" and the government's position "deeply arrogant".

While there may well be some devil in the detail of the full package to be announced next week (Conservatives are said to favour a clause allowing for an extension to 28 days in extreme circumstances), there is little doubt that this represents a victory for liberal values and evidences the impact that Liberal Democrats have had in government. The findings of the review were originally expected to have been announced a few weeks ago, but it appears that fundamental disagreements between May and Nick Clegg have led to a short delay. If this is the case, then Clegg deserves a great deal of credit.

On the announcement Clegg said "I think it was wrong of Labour to say that in order to make sure that people are safe we had to somehow sacrifice our liberties. I've never agreed with that. I think we can both make sure that people are safe but also make sure we do so in a way that is in line with our very proud traditions of British justice." That he's managed to get the Tory cabinet members on board in spite of predictable opposition from the more right-wing Conservatives is testimony to the value of Lib Dem input.

And so, finally, the supposedly short-term "exceptional" piece of Labour legislation is finally removed. Much more satisfying was that, rather than the tired old excuses from Labour for further erosion of personal freedoms, we witnessed a government minister standing up for liberal values. Green's assertion that government power should not compromise the “hard-won civil liberties of the British people” is one that should resonate with all who value liberty.

Also, from today, ID cards will cease to be valid for...well, ID purposes. Admiitedly, this is not the most groundbreaking news and obviously abolishing ID cards was a key proposal in both the Tories' and the Lib Dems' manifestos. But it constitutes one more step on the road to restoring civil liberties and a move towards a more liberal society.

And next week we should know a little more about what exactly is likely to happen with control orders. I expect that they will be axed and be replaced with a compromised alternative which will not be everything the Lib Dems envisaged, but will be far fairer than the status quo.

Of course, the Lib Dems - and Nick Clegg personally - will not be given the credit for this they deserve. On one level, this doesn't matter. It's been a great week for liberalism. Let's hope that Teresa May gives us more cause for cheer next week.

Clegg urges realism and optimism

According to today's Herald (Scots ‘will see through SNP and Labour’)
Nick Clegg has suggested that Lib Dems should be "realistic that we have got a challenge" while being "optimistic about the good sense of the Scottish people".

Scottish voters, argues Mr Clegg, are "much more level-headed than the day-to-day breathless coverage of politics". He added that the electorate would be able to see beyond the SNP (which offers "just complaining from the sidelines, scaremongering, just constantly blaming everything on everybody else") and Labour ("who are so cynically living in denial about their own responsibility for the terrible mess we are in"). While admitting that defending "over and over again" the decision to enter into coalition with the Conservatives is a challenge, Mr Clegg was positive about the forthcoming Holyrood elections.

Referring to the opinion polls, he wryly observed that they have historically overemphasised his party's difficulties: "My response is the same as every prediction of the demise of the Liberal Democrats delivered by polls, articles and by commentators pretty well every single week since the Liberal Democrats were formed...each time we confound people. We did most recently in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election."

And if a week in politics is a long time, three and a half months is an eternity. The press talk as if the results of a single opinion poll somehow constitutes a firm indication of the Lib Dems' demise. Certain sections of the media have already pre-determined the attitudes of voters: this is not only unwise but also premature. They also seem to forget that not only can opinion polls be spectacularly wrong (as in the General Election, when experts refused to believe the exit polls because they were so different to the opinion polls) but that a Labour resurgence in certain areas might actually help the Lib Dems, as explained in my previous post.

Clegg is right to be positive. In fact, you won't be finding much negativity among the Lib Dem candidates, or amongst the Scottish leadership. No doubt Tavish Scott recognises the peculiar challenge the Lib Dems face this time around but he will have a strategy for communicating the party's distinctive message. He will also be aware that the SNP have hardly covered themselves in glory in recent months and that Iain Gray's personal approval rating is lagging behind public support for his party.

I'm not into predicting outcomes, other than to say the "massacre" the media hope for won't happen. We might lose a few seats - I'm certainly not going to plum for many dramatic gains. But for the press to attach so much significance to one opinion poll really is short-sighted. A YouGov poll yesterday had us up 3 points already...if we can maintain this for another few weeks...!

Whatever the result of the Holyrood elections, I strongly believe that Tavish Scott will lead a positive campaign focusing on the party's strengths and achievements. The fact that this election will provide probably the toughest test yet for any Scottish Lib Dem leader should not be taken to mean that negativity is rife. Unlike the press, we have a real faith in the Scottish people to make decisions based on policy and the respective parties' records rather than simply following, sheep-like, the views of polls or the predictions of newspapers who simply play up perceived weaknesses for the need of a "good story".

It's not just the SNP and Labour that voters will see through, but the negative rhetoric of the media.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Gay couple in B&B row win court case

"The law is a[n] ass" supposed Mr Bumble in Dickens' Pickwick Papers. An ass it may well be, but yesterday - in a groundbreaking decision - the law judged B&B owners Peter and Hazelmary Bull of acting illegally in denying a room to a gay couple. And rightly so.

The couple were awarded £1800 each in damages.

This case has been the subject of intense debate in recent months. Conservative MP Chris Grayling even went so far as to publicly back the B&B owners' position. Some more fundamentalist Christian groups have alleged that this represents an anti-faith conspiracy and that the Bulls are victims of a deliberate campaign by the pro-gay lobby to discredit their belief system.

Hazelmary Bull issued a statement in which she complained that in today's society "some people are clearly more equal than others" and stressed that her policy not to let rooms to unmarried couples extended to heterosexual as well as homosexual people. It was a shocking admission of discriminatory practice and a strange one coming from an adherent of a religion whose founder preached "do not judge, for as you judge so you to will be judged".

The Bulls are not being discrimiated against on the basis of their beliefs - which they are entitled to hold and express. They're simply being told that legally, if they wish to provide a public service, they can't discriminate as to whom the service is offered on the basis of sexuality. Like Peter Tatchell, I would defend to the hilt someone's right to express their beliefs, even if that person happens to be expressing views I find repugnant. However, it is another thing entirely to actively deny someone the right to receive a service that is freely offered to others. Allowing the Bulls to continue with their unreasonably discriminatory practices would require a raft of equality laws to be revisited and tightened following a probable deluge of similar exemption claims.

The Bulls' actions were intolerant and judgemental; the defence of their position ill-judged and arrogant. I for one am delighted that behaviour which was clearly unethical has now also been deemed unlawful.

Furthermore, the Bulls' behaviour was far from Christian. Most Christians I know are not homophobes - in fact, some of them are gay. I was speaking with one of my gay Christian friends yesterday about this very issue. His response was along thse lines: "homosexuality is becoming more normalised now, even in the church. These people are forcing their beliefs onto others, which is hardly very Christian. They're also very judgemental and seem more pre-occupied with people's sexual practices and living arrangements than anything else about them. I can't imagine Jesus Christ behaving like that, you know, he was with the lepers, the down-and-outs, the prostitutes and other people who were rejected by their society. Come to think of it, I can't see anyone in my church holding such disgraceful attitudes towards gay people."

I completely agree. But so often whenever Christians are in the news, it's usually because of some fundamentalist stance they're making which is unfair on the growing ranks of liberally-minded churchgoers who are inevitable tarrd with the same brush. So why don't all the moderate, sensible, tolerant Christians out there reclaim their faith from the fundamentalists - and while they're at it help kick homophobia into touch?

Monday, 17 January 2011

Clegg announces radical parental leave plans

Nick Clegg has today announced a new change to the law which will allow couples to share maternity leave. The plans will come into force in April and will allow fathers to use their partner's unused leave if she returns to work early.

In a speech to the Demos think tank, Clegg set out proposals designed to ensure that parents are "empowered" and "supported". Concentrating on the need to further social mobility, he insisted that "what we are doing [will] help the majority of parents – giving them much more opportunity to balance work and home...I want to pay particular attention to flexible working and shared parental leave...this Government made clear that our primary social policy objective is to improve social mobility. In particular, intergenerational social mobility [which is] a more complex concept of fairness than has been prevalent in policy making in recent years. Income is, of course, important but it doesn’t tell you everything about a person’s life chances, or the life chances of their children. And you simply cannot overestimate the role that parents play in that."

Clegg set out a liberal agenda for empowering parents whose likely effects include tackling poverty, relieving the financial pressure on families and promoting fairness. While stating that he was offering "no magic wand solutions", he criticised the current rules as "Edwardian" and discriminatory: "when a child is born, men are still only entitled to a paltry two weeks of paternity leave. These rules patronize women and marginalise men. They're based on a view of life in which mothers stay at home and fathers are the only breadwinners...[which] has no place in 21st Century Britain. Women suffer. Mothers are expected to take on the vast bulk of childcare themselves. If they don't, they very often feel judged. If they do, they worry about being penalised at work. So it's no surprise that many working women feel that they can't win. Children suffer, too often missing out on time with their fathers. Time that is desperately important to their development."

All this is correct. Labour, to its credit, also proposed similar changes when in government. But, as Nick Clegg highlighted, we must go further than an approach aimed merely at reducing gender inequalities and providing increased flexibility for parents. If implemented carefully, these proposals have the potential to go some way in dealing with the complex social problems of deprivation and poverty.

It is vital for fathers to be given more time off to spend with their children, but this not only requires a change in the law but a change in culture. Men should be actively encouraged to become more involved in their children's early development and a change in parental leave arrangements will be a step in the right direction. But these proposals will only have the desired outcome if there is a corresponding change in attitude among men towards their roles as fathers. Attitudes and perceptions towards gender and parental roles are naturally evolving, but the one weakness in Nick Clegg's speech was his failure to spell out how he would encourage men to take advantage of the new arrangements or how the government proposed to assist businesses to adjust to them.

However, Clegg's speech spelled out a welcome direction from the government which will help create a more liberal society in which parents can be set free from the current rigid and patronising rules.

Lib Dem support "fallen by half"

Support for the Liberal Democrats in Scotland has "fallen by half" since the general election, according to a poll in today's Herald.

The Lib Dems are down to 7% in the constituency voting, with the Tories on 9%, the SNP on 33% and Labour on 49%. Minor parties are polling at 2%.

It's hard to know what to make of this. It's hard to take a poll seriously that has the combined support of the Greens, independents, the SSP and assored other groups on a mere 2%. But there's doubtless some truth in the fact that Lib Dem and Tory support is in decline as criticsms of the Westminster coalition mount and adverse publicity is heaped on the Lib Dems.

Obviously this looks exclusively at the national picture and as such gives little indication of voting intention in key constituencies. The poll does suggest that the Lib Dem support has also dipped in the regional votes, but this would in all likelihood have little impact on the number of Lib Dem MSPs elected as we currently only have five regional MSPs. More interestingly, the poll shows SNP support to be stagnant with Alex Salmond's party unable to capitalise on the unpopularity of the Wetsminster government. This is positive news for the Lib Dems, as it suggests they SNP may struggle to take a number of Lib Dems seats. A sizeable increase in the Labour vote is of concern but this may present more of a problem to the SNP as, with a couple of notable exceptions, most Lib Dem seats look out of reach for Labour without huge and unprecedented swings.

What the Herald's report does make startlingly clear, however, is the press's obsession with using opinion polls as evidence of the Lib Dems' pending demise. Can I suggest that a responsible critique of the respective governments' failings and accomplishments would be a more worthwhile contribution to political debate than this tired speculation. It isn't original. It isn't interesting. And it's no substitute for real discussion about issues of substance.

George Galloway to stand for Holyrood seat

Former Labour and Respect MP George Galloway has announced that he is to stand as a candidate in the Holyrood elections.

Galloway, one of the most abrasive characters in UK politics, declared at a press conference in a Glasgow restaurant that there were too many "non-entities" serving as MSPs and that there was a need for a "heavyweight parliamentarian". I'm not too sure that Galloway could be realistically termed a heavyweight, but delusion has fuelled many a political career.

He arrogantly proclaims that celebrity culture should be central to Scottish politics: "It's my contention, you may think it's rude, but I think it's accurate, that today's Scottish Parliament has too few real parliamentarians in it - [most of them] would [not] be recognised outside their own street, [or their] voice recognised if heard on the radio," he said. In a word, he'll be a better MSP because he's been better at attracting media attention. Following this logic, Ally McCoist or David Coulthard would be better MSPs than George Galloway because...oh, hang on, they would!

Perhaps Glasgow's voters will opt for a deluded, self-promoting egomaniac with an inflated view of his own importance and a love of his own voice. Perhaps. Then again, they might prefer to vote for someone with a record of working for their community, or someone with tolerant, sensible and moderate ideas for changing Scotland for the better - you know, the type who pragmatically prefer to get things done rather than rant about how bad things are while defending totalitarian regimes.

Galloway looks set to stand in the Regional list, although has apparently not decided whether to stand for Respect or as an independent candidate. There are possibilities for Galloway, especially as he appears to have the cash to bankroll his campaign and is well-equipped to step into the void created by the implosion of the SSP. While he and his party will surely have only minimal appeal, achieving the 6-7% of the vote required for a seat via the regional list may not be beyond him. He will, however, face competition for the far-left vote from the SSP and Gail Sheridan, who is standing for her husband's rapidly diminishing band of sycophants euphemistically named Solidarity.

Galloway has a pop at Alex Salmond and Iain Gray, calling them "the political equivalent of the Krankies". If that is the kind of limp excuse for political debate that he hopes to bring to Holyrood, maybe it's best for everyone concerned if he quits now. Galloway's press conference was notably devoid of any talk on policy, but obviously that kind of detail doesn't matter if you're George Galloway.

He's of the same political ilk as that other self-proclaimed defender of the workers - Tommy Sheridan. The difference is that at least Sheridan was a man connected with his community whose personal touch helped generate both respect and loyalty. Galloway has staked everything on his reputation as a "heavyweight" and this is a gamble that could backfire. I seriously can not see him endearing himself to Glasgow's voters as a workers' champion. His socialism is too obviously of the "champagne" variety, his rhetoric tinged with resentment and his agenda dictated by personal grudges. He represents nobody's cause but his own.

The only things Galloway has going for him are his opposition to the Iraq invasion (surely of negligible significance nine years on) and his public profile. He clearly thinks he's someone special; the question is, what do Glasgow's voters think of him? No doubt the media will give him a disproportionate amount of (undeserved) free coverage in the run-up to the election, but I hope that Glaswegians have the courage, the strength and the indefatigability to reject this self-indulgent nonentity at the polls in May.

Is David Owen to join Labour?

I noticed in The Scotsman that Lord Owen, the former leader of the SDP, is reported as saying that he would consider rejoining the Labour Party.

Not that this matters in the bigger scheme of things, of course - Owen's political career was finished as soon as he refused to abide by the democratic decision of his party to fuse with the Liberals. But he remains a significant figure in British politics and his views are often sought by journalists and TV news correspondents.

I interviewed David Owen last January and discussed various elements of recent British political history. Interestingly, at the time we were both agreed that the General Election could provide an unprecedented opportunity for Nick Clegg, especially given that the TV debates offered equal status to all leaders. Clegg, said Owen, was a leader in the SDP mould, with strong internationalist inclinations and an understanding of markets. He said he hoped Clegg would do well and that he believed the Liberal Democrats were moving in the right direction. Owen was less complimentary towards Labour, admitting that he had in the recent past been asked to rejoin but that he could not possibly consider doing so.

So what has changed in a year? Well, quite a lot - but very little about the character of the Labour Party is different to what it was twelve months ago. Owen is now reported as saying "I'm old enough to remember Labour when it was, in my view, a genuine social democratic party and I think it has come back again to that."

David Owen always was a controversial figure and will be remembered as such. At his prime he was a popular figure, but could be a divisive influence and his actions in the lead-up to, and immediately following, the merger of the SDP and Liberal party even now provoke emotional reactions from his contemporaries. But there was more to him than that; Owen resigned on principle from the Labour Party to help found the SDP because he felt - almost certainly correctly - that Labour's social democratic tradition was being systematically eradicated in favour of pursuing a more left-leaning agenda. He was a man of conviction, not of sentiment.

He's also a deeply insightful person and his political analyses are usually quite compelling. This makes his suggestion that Labour is a "social democratic party" all the more odd - especially given that he refused to rejoin Labour early in the Blair era when Labour could be said to have been following a social democratic route.

As I posted yesterday, there are copious reasons why I would not join Labour. Quite simply, it is not a social democratic party. Of course, Labour has moved on from the days of Michael Foot and the Militant Tendency but so much of what Owen objected to so strongly back in 1981 - especially in regards Labour's democratic structures - remains. Perhaps Owen has identified Ed Miliband as a moderating force, but such an assessment would in my view be both premature and wildly inaccurate.

Owen has, in the past, been associated with all three of the main parties on various occasions - which probably says far more about the media's obsessions than it does about David Owen!

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Ed Miliband should get his own house in order

I see young Ed's been at it again.

When you're a bit short on ideas, it always helps to have a pop at your opponents. Ed's tactic has been to attempt to undermine the coalition by saying how terrible it is that Lib Dems have been working in government with a party that won the most seats at the election rather than propping up a discredited Labour administration that wasn't too keen on working with anyone else in any case.

For what seems the millionth time since he spoiled his brother's party and surprisingly won his party's leadership, Ed has again - according to the BBC website - "appealed to disaffected Liberal Democrat voters to work with the opposition against the coalition government". And for some reason the media keep thinking that this is news.

Simon Hughes is right to dismiss Ed's overtures as mere posturing. "Liberal Democrats took up the challenge and decided that Liberal Democrats in government would achieve far more towards a liberal Britain by joining and making more progressive the government rather than stepping back and allowing Britain to be run again by the Conservative Party on its own," explained Hughes.

It's an odd tactic from Miliband. Rather than criticising the decision to enter coalition, surely the Labour leader's arguments would have more clout if he focused not on the rights or wrongs of a few days back in May, but on the decisions of the government since. Like many Lib Dems, I was broadly supportive of the decision to enter coalition - although I would have preferred a Lab-Lib Dem arrangement rather than one with the Tories if the electoral arithmetic would have allowed it. However, while I am comfortable that the right decision was taken to partake in government, I am not quite so enthusiastic about many of the actions of the government since.

And it's the government record Ed Miliband should be scrutinising, rather than making irrelevant and ill-judged remarks about a decision made eight months ago which was determined in part by his own party's unwillingness to co-operate.

Not only does Ed Miliband have few ideas about policy, he clearly has few ideas in regards strategy and tactics either. Already the appeals to Lib Dems supporters to return to their "natural" home has become not only laughable but tiresome.

Some advice to Ed Miliband: if you want to win new recruits to your party, get your own house in order first. I for one would not consider leaving the Lib Dems but if I did I doubt I would be attracted to the Labour Party. I don't wish to be in a party whose democratic processes are more than questionable. I don't wish to be in a party whose record on civil liberties is truly dreadful. I don't want to be associated with a party that hypocritically speaks out against tuition fees, when it both implemented them and later increased them in spite of promises to the contrary. I won't join a party which is still committed to a philosophy of centralisation. And I won't so much as lend support to a party in complete denial about its role in creating the recession, let alone one with nothing positive to bring to the table in respect to how to actually clean up the mess.

What I do want is to belong to a party that actually has workable ideas on policy, and is engaged in implementing them. I want to be a member of a party that promotes civil liberties, that believes in decentralisation, that supports electoral reform and has genuinely democratic channels with the party structure. Importantly, I want to be in a party that, while recognising the need to cut responsibly, is committed to getting a renewed grip on the economy and has realistic plans for doing it.

Can you say that about Labour? I don't think so!

Ed - if you want to win over Lib Dems, you need to do more than bang on about how evil the coalition is. Your own party is in desperate need of reform - and a few ideas of its own. Why would any Lib Dem of conviction want to switch allegiance to a party with Labour's record on Higher Education, the economy, human rights, civil liberties, electoral reform, international relations...?

However difficult it is to be a member of a party in coalition making tough, uncomfortable and unpopular decisions, it is infinitely better than throwing in the towel and defecting to Labour. The undemocratic machinery and sub-Marxist pholosophy of sections of the Labour Party mean that Miliband's party can never be a home to any principled liberal, whatever the common ground between our parties.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Oldham East & Saddleworth result gives cause for optimism

And so, following weeks of campaigning in the wind and snow, Labour have emerged victorious in the Oldham East & Saddleworth by-election called after their own MP was found unfit to hold public office.

Before entering into the obligatory tedious analysis, I would like to congratulate Debbie Abrahams on her victory. I hope she serves the constituency well, and I'm sure she'll be an improvement on her predecessor. I actually met her about four years ago at a Keep our NHS Public event in Manchester when I was an active health campaigner. She had just resigned from a well-paid position with her local PCT in protest at, I believe, government health policy. I had no idea she would become a Labour MP, but she struck me as decent and principled.

I would also like to congratulate Elwyn Watkins. No, not on his defeat - but in tirelessly pursuing electoral justice. Despite having little support from the federal party initially, Watkins put a great deal of effort (and money) into ensuring that Phil Woolas' dishonest tactics not only became public knowledge but that Woolas himself should be brought to trial for his actions. No-one expected Watkins' efforts to rid parliament of this peddler of intolerance to be successful. But they were, and all of us - including the Labour Party - should be grateful for that. There should be no place in British politics for those willing to stoop to such levels of dishonest and socially divisive manipulation.

On to the by-election result. The obvious thing to say is that Labour have done well while the Conservatives are the real losers. The Labour vote increased by 10% while the Tory vote collapsed - down by 14%. The Liberal Democrat share of the vote not only held up well, it marginally increased (by 0.4%) which, in the context of current difficulties, represents a huge achievement. It also puts paid to all those who predicted the Lib Dem vote would crumble and that voters would be deserting en masse.

Not only this - it confounds those who naively predicted that it would be the Lib Dems who would experience the effects of voter anger at the coalition. There have been many who have speculated that the Tories have been willing to use our party as "fall guys" or "human shields" for unpopular polices in the belief that we would suffer disproportionately at the polls. That theory has been blown to pieces - not only have the Conservatives suffered an unprecedented level of "squeezing" for a third-placed party in a by-election, but the folly of the "human shield" strategy (if it existed at all) is now apparent. It doesn't work; in many Tory-held constituencies or Tory target seats a drop in Lib Dem support would in all likelihood lead to a proportionate increase in the Labour vote - therefore the larger the reaction against the Lib Dems, the more likely it is that a Labour MP will be returned. Put simply, if Lib Dem support decreases while Labour support increases, this will hardly be of benefit to the Tories.

There is no doubt that the result will come as a huge disappointment to Elwyn Watkins and the team of volunteers who have worked so hard to take our message to the voters of Oldham East & Saddleworth. However, looking at the outcome from a realistic perspective, it would have been staggering if the Lib Dems were to have won the seat given recent events. As Nick Clegg made clear: "It was always going to be a big ask to take this seat from Labour, given the circumstances. We are undertaking some enormously difficult decisions because Labour left Britain’s economy in a mess and we are now forced to clean up after them. By 2015, I hope that the people of Oldham and Saddleworth will see, like everyone else in the country, that the difficult choices we made were the right ones and that Britain is in better shape than when we entered Government.”

What can we deduce from this result? Probably not a great deal. I don't accept for a minute that huge numbers of Tory voters simply switched to Labour. It is very possible that the Lib Dems lost some support to Labour, but gained votes from Tory supporters who saw voting Lib Dem as a means of keeping out Labour. All the same, predictions of crisis and electoral meltdown now seem very short of the mark.

The press have inevitably offered their own interpretation of the significance of the result. In relation to the position of the Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, the Daily Telegraph offers some encouragement: "Clegg-ism is still a work in progress. Time, though, is on his side. He has four years to make and win these arguments. And he understands how bad policies equal bad politics in the long run...If Clegg takes care to remember he is running a marathon, not a sprint, then the third party may prove its worth." The Guardian goes further, and argues that the loss will actually boost the Lib Dems' position. Martin Kettle believes that "electoral weakness paradoxically increases the junior partner's bargaining position in policy negotiations. So [while] it is theoretically possible that the junior party may respond to current unpopularity by turning in on itself and even breaking into pro- and anti-coalition factions...it is rather more probable that the larger party will offer further policy concessions. It will do this in the hope of bolstering its partner's popular support without at the same time eating into that of its larger partner or provoking an unmanageable backlash in its own ranks. This is precisely the context of the current UK arguments on control orders and bankers' bonuses." And a much more plausible theory than the "human shield" hypothesis.

Peter Hoskin, writing for The Spectator, suggests that the size of Labour's majority should give Ed Miliband encouragement but is hardly evidence of a significant shift in public mood. I would concur with this, but not with his suggestion that the poor Tory vote proves that Cameron's party "was actively pushing down its vote". It was instead caused by a combination of tactical voting, the inevitable squeeze on third-placed parties in by-elections and voter dissatisfaction with the coalition - which on this occasion affected the Tories far more than it did the Lib Dems. The result will surely cause Cameron a few headaches, but causes more trouble for those Tories who were sufficiently deluded to think their party would be immune from voters' discomfort with coalition policy. Hopefully they will now wake up to the realities of coalition and political collaboration.

The Independent led with "Labour win in Oldham deals blow to Coalition". In a piece that read more like a party political broadcast on behalf of the Labour Party, Jonathan Brown claimed that the Lib Dems lost "in a seat [they] had been widely predicted to win with ease". This is more than overstretching the truth. I have read no newspaper in recent weeks, or seen any betting odds, that suggested this. On the contrary - without exception the press were of the view that we were set for a real trouncing. Even the most optimistic of Lib Dem activists, while hopeful, did not anticipate winning "with ease"! I also fail to see how this is a "blow" to the government. A disappointment maybe, but a sense of perspective is necessary. Labour has won a seat it already held; a seat that Watkins failed to gain even in the aftermath of "Cleggmania" with the Lib Dems flying high in the opinion polls. There was also evidence of tactical voting against Labour, something that should be of concern to Ed Miliband.

Most importantly, this result should serve to give Lib Dems heart. In spite of almost apocalyptic forecasts, our party exceeded most people's expectations. It might not have been the outcome we wanted, but nonetheless, it was creditable and provides breathing space for the 5th May elections. It was a good performance, if not a great one - but one that serves as a tonic for Nick Clegg and should provide his leadership with some credibility. Moreover, the result is a licence to be hopeful!

A final point - it was good not only to see that the BNP lost its deposit but also that another far-right group, the English Democrats, was outpolled by the Monster Raving Loony Party. Fantastic.