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Friday, 30 March 2012

What does the Bradford West by-election say about the UK’s political parties?

I fully expected that, when coming to write about yesterday’s by-election, it would be to defend the inevitable erosion of Lib Dem support, offer congratulations to the victorious Labour candidate, examine the reasons for Respect and UKIP polling moderately well and repeat a few oft-expressed truisms about parties of government and by-elections.

I, like so many others, not only expected a Labour victory – I imagined it to be an inevitability. What is even more surprising than George Galloway proving that his inimitable style and cynical tactics can still upset the Labour Party is the scale of his win. I cannot imagine that anyone saw this coming and the result is as much a statement on the state of the mainstream UK political parties as much as it is one of Galloway’s continuing appeal to specific elements of the electorate.

The shock result in full:

George Galloway (Respect) 18,341 (55.89%, +52.83%)
Imran Hussain (Lab) 8,201 (24.99%, -20.36%)
Jackie Whiteley (C) 2,746 (8.37%, -22.78%)
Jeanette Sunderland (LD) 1,505 (4.59%, -7.08%)
Sonja McNally (UKIP) 1,085 (3.31%, +1.31%)
Dawud Islam (Green) 481 (1.47%, -0.85%)
Neil Craig (Dem Nats) 344 (1.05%)
Howling Laud Hope (Loony) 111 (0.34%)

This is, of course, not the first time that Galloway has defeated his old party – but it’s certainly the most significant of his victories to date. To poll almost 56% of the vote in what was seen as a contest for second place is quite breathtaking and of such staggering proportions that questions must be asked about how and why it happened. There was so little interest in the outcome outside of Bradford that it would have been understandable if the vast majority of people had no idea that a by-election was taking place, and this lack of knowledge about how the campaign has been conducted on the ground is surely partly to blame for cultivating the belief that the election was simply a procession to the winning post for Labour’s candidate.

It’s too early to fully understand the many factors behind the decision of Bradford’s voters to return Galloway to the Commons. What can be categorically stated is that the result demonstrates significant difficulties for the mainstream parties that must now be addressed with some urgency. And so, while Galloway will understandably be celebrating his achievement and relishing the opportunity to bring his demagogic charms to the corridors of power, others will be asking serious questions about their own failures – in the case of Labour, very serious questions.

The Liberal Democrats

It was not a good by-election for us, losing our deposit as we did in Inverclyde and Barnsley Central last year. It was not, however, the disaster that Inverclyde or Barnsley were and we were starting from a particularly low support base. Expectations were understandably low and, as far as I have been able to discern, the Lib Dem campaign was low-key. The machinery was never seriously utilised; there were none of the appeals for activists (and subsequent arrivals of masses of Lib Dems to work the area) that characterised the party’s approach towards the Oldham & Saddleworth and Barnsley campaigns.

There was clearly an expectation and a resignation that we were not likely to fare well. In the context of current political events, a 7% drop in support is disappointing, but far from the humiliation experienced in by-elections last year and in real terms a better result than that “achieved” by the Conservatives and Labour. Interestingly, a spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats admitted that “we were always expecting to fight for fourth in this election... If turnout had been as expected (i.e. lower), we believe we would have fared much better”. I’m not convinced that this is actually true, or that hoping to keep turnout low as an electoral strategy is particularly effective or indeed democratic.

Was it a disappointing result? Yes, of course. I take no pleasure from it. But what the outcome demonstrated is that other parties have equally serious, if not more severe, problems in appealing to electorates. It is also worth pointing out that I had actually expected a higher reduction in support from 2010 levels and that, given the embarrassment of Barnsley in particular (a not too dissimilar constituency) , there are grounds for being cautiously positive.

It’s impossible to draw any firm conclusions from this single result about the party’s standing in the country but it is quite obvious that as a party of government we’re unable to capitalise when others haemorrhage support – even when Labour and the Conservatives are both on the receiving end of losses of support in excess of 20%.

When voters look for alternatives, they no longer look to the Liberal Democrats. That may be inevitable as a party of government, but so much of our identity has been built on the premise that we are an alternative to the main two parties, that we are different. While this result is far from spelling an imminent crisis, it does reinforce our need to redevelop a distinctive identity.

The Conservatives

Life isn’t becoming any easier for the Conservative Party. In fairness, Bradford has not been remotely friendly to David Cameron’s party for decades – but there is no doubt that this result will give the Prime Minister some further headaches. The “cash for access” controversy will in all probability have had its effect on the outcome, as will perceptions of the Budget and the spectre of people panic buying petrol, Cornish pasties and stamps. Fears of strikes, Royal Mail privatisation and accusations of corruption can only have served to strengthen the kind of arguments usually employed by George Galloway.

Baroness Warsi told the Guardian that “this is certainly not a seat we would expect to swing towards us. We kept our deposit, we felt we fought a good, clean campaign on the issues that mattered and of course parties in government don't win byelections.” I don’t really buy that, true as it is that parties in government generally suffer in mid-term by-elections. Would any self-respecting Tory be happy at simply having fought a “clean” campaign, or having kept their deposit? I don’t think so. Warsi did, however, add that “ the Conservative party has to get out there and do more … and one of the things I have campaigned for is for us to get out there and connect in more diverse communities. I think this result says to all parties to get out there and campaign." That is very true, and the evidence in Bradford suggests that the Tories’ brand of community politics is not proving particularly effective.

How can the 23% drop in Conservative support be accounted for? Why would such a large proportion of Conservative voters simply turn away from the party or lend their support to a left-winger of Galloway’s reputation? Unlike in Barnsley, disaffected Tories generally did not opt instead to support UKIP, which saw a meagre increase in its vote and lost its deposit this time around.

With the exception of the Democratic Nationalists, there were no far right parties standing either, with those normal depositories for protest votes from disgruntled Tories - the BNP – thankfully but surprisingly not turning up. The Greens and the Loonies failed to make much in the way of an impact and therefore it isn’t altogether unreasonable to suppose that many people previously voting Conservative voted for George Galloway because they either like him or because they felt he was the candidate most likely to take the seat from Labour.

The latter hypothesis is the more convincing and, while this doesn’t explain a similar proportion of Labour supporters making the same move, it does suggest that tactical voting was taking place not against the parties of government but against Labour.

The Conservatives will be concerned at the outcome and have every reason to be. However, they will also realise that losing support in unwinnable seats in a mid-term by-election is no cause for inward-looking introspection or cries of “crisis”.

Labour

I have said for some time that Labour don’t look like mastering the art of opposition any time soon. Not in Westminster, nor at Holyrood.

That said, I felt confident that a by-election in the safe seat of Bradford West at a time when they’re 11 points ahead in the opinion polls wouldn’t prove a banana skin for Ed Miliband’s party. How wrong I was.

While the result was disappointing from the perspective of the coalition parties, there can be no escaping that it is a disaster for Labour and potentially catastrophic for Miliband’s leadership. Quite how Labour contrived to snatch dramatic defeat from the jaws of presumed victory is at present uncertain. What I would imagine is that a combination of arrogance, a sense of entitlement, local issues, a lack of clear vision and a poor campaign proved to be Labour’s undoing. On the other hand, Galloway’s energy, highly visible campaign, ability to touch on issues that concerned local people and high-profile personality were strengths that he used fully to his advantage.

Harriet Harman was on hand to tell the media that this was a “very bad” result for Labour, clearly looking to understate the damage done. It wasn’t simply bad – it was abysmal and symptomatic of a party that lacks identity, purpose or any sense of direction. And while Labour were able to limp unspectacularly to by-election successes last year, even in spite of tactical voting against them, it seems that the cynical style of opposition Miliband is currently providing is unable even to secure results in safe Labour seats. Even when the government is on the back foot amid the donor scandal and the pasty controversy , Labour simply don’t know how to persuade voters to back them.

Harman seems determined to learn from the mistakes of Bradford West. She has stated that “We have to really understand why people who as recently as a week ago were saying they were going to support us, when it came to the vote, they voted for Respect. It was a real bandwagon.” I’m sure. Unfortunately, in the immediate aftermath Labour have turned to internal squabblings over the selection process used to adopt Imran Hussain as their candidate and making promises of sending Ed Miliband personally to the constituency to help regain the seat.

I can think of nothing more likely to turn voters off Labour and to suggest a leadership in desperation than Ed Miliband personally visiting Bradford West. It’s not a move that inspires belief that Labour are actively trying to learn from this defeat, or to determine what motivates many Labour supporters to support the candidate best placed to defeat their own man.

For all his grandstanding and goading of the Liberal Democrats, Ed Miliband must realise that his own party has serious problems. Labour is terminally ill. It is the sick man of British politics, itself a ward full of others whose prognosis is less than positive. Perhaps Miliband should accept the lessons he should have learned from the Holyrood elections last year: opposition for opposition’s sake doesn’t win elections and focusing your energies on the Liberal Democrats doesn’t necessarily translate into support for Labour. Just as Miliband and Gray contrived to ensure their negative tactics rewarded Alex Salmond, so in Bradford West Labour’s tactics contributed in no small way to George Galloway’s victory.

Galloway has hailed the result as the “Bradford spring”. He’s misguided on that count. Galloway has name recognition, a high profile, reputation, charisma and a certain amount of respect. The result in Bradford was the result of many individual factors but it should be noted that it was the product of a particular time and place. It is unlikely that respect could replicate this in many other UK constituencies, or be so fortunate in the quality of campaigns from the main parties (or the absence of the BNP) . Nonetheless, it seems that none of the major three parties are immune from the threat of protest parties – be it UKIP in Barnsley Central or Respect in Bradford West.

There is obviously a fair amount of public dissatisfaction in politics generally and, while by-elections often are used by voters to express anger or protest, it seems that not since the early days of the SDP have the main parties been so electorally vulnerable. At the heart of the matter is not simply disillusionment with the parliamentary system or concern of government policy, but the stark truth that the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and particularly Labour are undergoing something of an identity crisis. They seem not to understand their purpose, their core principles or their strategy and – when they do – are completely unable to articulate this to voters.

Labour’s plight is particularly sad, especially at a time when strong opposition is urgently required. But this wider malaise affects not only Labour and it must be a priority for our party to reinvigorate itself, forging a new and positive identity while talking about the issues that the public are interested in. The strategy of playing up achievement in government is not entirely without merit, but there is little more certain to damage the party than for the public to see Liberal Democrats talking about nothing other than the Liberal Democrats.

Time for sober reflection is needed after this remarkable result. I suspect that won’t be George Galloway’s approach. Having him back in parliament will not necessarily be a bad thing, and will allow reason to show him for what he is. The rest of us should be thinking how we can rekindle public confidence and faith in our own parties. There is a lot we still have to learn about the Bradford West by-election, but what we as Liberal Democrats can ill afford to do is ignore it.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

I break my silence on the NHS Bill

I appreciate that I’ve said nothing to date on the Health and Social Care Bill (referred to almost universally as the NHS Bill) – something that has been commented on by some readers.

There are a number of reasons for my apparent silence. The first is that this Bill will not have much of an effect on the Scottish NHS, concerned at is it with the reorganisation of the NHS in England. Secondly, I actually continue to work in the NHS and it is therefore appropriate that I am more careful than usual regarding what I say in relation to the Bill. Thirdly, as a former director of a national pressure group for health improvement I appreciate that it is almost possible to have a sober, non-emotive and pragmatic discussion about the future of the NHS. And, finally, I realised at an early stage how easily, if not managed effectively, this Bill could threaten to divide and potentially destroy the Liberal Democrats. I foresaw these divisions and decided I didn’t want to be pinning my colours to any particular mast.

When it comes to issues affecting the NHS, I always favour approaches that depoliticise as much as is possible, rather than attempt to turn it into a partisan party-political football. The NHS is far more important that that - at its heart are human problems, not exclusively political ones. The NHS is not the preserve of any politial party and collaborative working generally is far more effective in delivering NHS improvement than the tribal arrogance of politicians.

Let’s start off with some fundamental truths. The NHS’s 64 year history (65 in the case of Scotland, whose separate NHS was founded in 1947) is not as glorious as some would suggest and has for decades been a canvas onto which successive politicians have chosen to paint their very different and sometimes contradictory portraits of the future. It has been pulled one way and then another by health ministers with more interest in their careers, reputations or ideologies than in ensuring the health service is fit-for-purpose. In spite of the esteem in which the public seem determined to hold it, the NHS’s often credible successes cannot conceal the reality that, too often, it fails its most vulnerable service users – particularly in regards mental health care and services for elderly people. We don’t, as some naively insist, have “the best healthcare system in the world” - but I for one would settle for a system that at least cares for its patients and their families. Given that I work in mental health services, I’m sure you can appreciate that on many occasions my belief that the NHS should work in the interests of its service users has been utterly shaken to the point of destruction.

Let’s also take a look at the “p” word – privatisation. This is not a new phenomenon, or even a new feature of government policy. Ever since the Griffith Report of 1983 every successive government’s attempts at NHS reform have met with cries of “privatisation” as if public ownership in and of itself guaranteed a quality of service. Of course, the public backlash was often based on something more than an irrational fear of the private sector; the Thatcher government’s ideological obsession with the private market would undoubtedly have undermined both the service delivery and the ethos of the NHS itself. But the Conservatives did indeed introduce the internal market and this marketisation of the NHS was, contrary to the hypocritical howls of objection from Labour whenever any suggestion of private sector involvement is concerned, actually extended under Tony Blair.

I can remember as a health campaigner being at a meeting with then Secretary of State for Health Patricia Hewitt and having my objections to the economics of PFI practically ridiculed. Hewitt, lest we forget, was a health minister who oversaw job cuts and service closures as part an ambitious and poorly-considered plan to increase efficiency, while at the same time being determined to secure a place for the private sector in delivering primary care – New Labour had an almost obsessive belief that greater use of private hospitals for elective surgery was a necessary part of “patient choice”. That most people would “choose” a good, local NHS hospital providing as a full a range of services as possible didn’t seem to occur to Labour.

Labour’s thirteen years in power were not marked by a rolling back of the privatisation agenda, whatever they might be saying now. Some people clearly have very short memories. I’m not suggesting that Labour got everything wrong, but let’s not pretend that the Blair-Brown governments were anything other than friendly towards increased private sector involvement in frontline NHS services.

And there has historically always been a role for the private sector in the NHS – in the shape of the GP practices we all love. It’s not private services that are in themselves dangerous but the power of private providers to dictate terms to the NHS, to steer its direction or cherry-pick the more lucrative services.

Thirdly, the NHS needs reform. It doesn’t, as some seem to insist, need saving – at least not yet. What it does need is rethinking. Services should be constantly evolving and adapting to changing needs, but change must be carefully considered and clinically driven. If the NHS is to be an effective service and meet the demands of 21st century Britain, it cannot afford to behave as if it’s still 1948.

What the NHS does not need is permanent revolution – this, as we saw during Hewitt’s disastrous time in office – proved to be seriously destabilising. And so, when Andrew Lansley suggested before the 2010 election that NHS reconfiguration would be more considered and less kamikaze-style than his predecessors he seemed reassuring. He promised a moratorium on hospital closures, and that “all service changes...must be led by clinicians and patients and not from the top down.” This was something which, as a liberal, it was easy to identify with and while his insistence that patient choice should include “new independent and voluntary sector providers that meet NHS standards" was more than a little concerning, he was – effectively – only reiterating what Patricia Hewitt and other Labour ministers had several times before.

Within weeks of becoming Health Secretary, Lansley committed a significant u-turn. No longer did he support a softly-softly approach to NHS reconfiguration with policy direction being informed by clinical evidence. In addition to the broad and undefined pledges in the Conservatives’ manifesto (such as enabling patients to rate services, linking GP pay to results and providing opportunities for voluntary and independent sector providers) Lansley now promoted an unashamedly pro-competition Bill for NHS reconfiguration that was the product of neither coalition party’s manifesto nor a feature of the coalition agreement.

The rest, as we now know, is history. I do not wish to spend an inordinate amount of time discussing the evolution of the Bill during the previous 20 months. What I think is evident is that Lansley and Cameron have a greater interest in ensuring this Bill is passed than we do, and that had it not been for the intervention of Lib Dem conference last spring it is likely that our parliamentarians would have passed this without giving it much of a thought. Certainly many who have expressed criticisms in the last year, since concessions have been made, were making more positive statements about a much worse draft Bill prior to the wider party making its voice and concerns heard. While this underlines the influence of conference, it also suggests a certain lack of scrutiny of legislation on the part of our MPs.

And so we come to another federal Conference, in Gateshead, at which the party membership apparently wished to discuss nothing other than the NHS – not even Syria. That’s the view taken by the press of course; not having actually been there it is difficult to gauge the mood of delegates. The Independent was eager to describe how “the party’s unruly tendency…embarrassed Mr Clegg, reinforcing a perception that the Liberal Democrats’ leadership are doggedly pursuing a piece of unpopular legislation for the sake of showing political strength rather than being fully signed up to the merits of the changes”.

I have written in the past in support of the principles of coalition. I still believe in those principles. We are not in government to obstruct, but to imbue government policy with a strong liberal identity. It would be wrong to wish to drop this Bill simply because it would make us unpopular. What should ideally have happened at the outset is for the Liberal Democrats to have forced Lansley to drop the Bill as it stood, to rethink his vision for the NHS with input from clinical expertise and to redraw a new fit-for-purpose Bill. That has not happened and instead we’ve had a number of concessions, a fair bit of tinkering at the edges, plenty of hysteria and misinformation peddled on all sides and Dr Evan Harris given the opportunity to enthuse Conference and irritate the Tories. While the concessions are welcome and progress has meant that the Bill is certainly less toxic than it once was, there can be little escaping the fact that the government’s determination to push through the Bill is simply an exercising in saving face. Lansley’s position depends on a successful outcome which is why the Tories are willing to apparently offer any concessions in order to ensure this Bill finds its way onto the statute books.

Now, is Andrew Lansley’s political future something that we should have risked dividing our party for? Something we should risk our own values and principles for? Something we’re willing to pay the inevitable electoral price for?

Not everything in this Bill is bad. In fact, there’s a lot that is positive. But that does not mean that it’s a good Bill and it’s also true that many of the positive changes outlined within it do not require new legislation. What this Bill has not been is – to quote Lansley – “led by clinicians and patients” and is most definitely of the “top down” approach he claims to dislike. The various concessions that have been made to date, welcome as they are (especially in relation to the role of Monitor), do not obscure the inescapable reality that this is still a badly constructed piece of potential legislation, based on assumptions rather than evidence and political ideology rather than clinical practice.

The Bill has represented something of a triumph for Lansley – no previous Health Secretary has managed so successfully to secure opposition from practically every union, health pressure group and Royal College. That in itself is a telling statistic. Reaction from the likes of Unison, Unite, the RCN and the BMA was as predictable as it was inevitable. But when the Royal College of Psychiatrists claims that patient services will worsen as a result of the Bill and other usually silent, intellectually respected and more conservative voices such as the British Psychological Society make a similar case the government should realise it has problems.

What is the point in the government imposing its will on medical and health professions that are unwilling to accept the Bill or are even hostile to it? So much for the “hearts and minds” concept - it is setting itself up for inevitable confrontation with potentially damaging ramifications for both the government and the NHS. It would be an arrogance beyond belief that insists on kicking against the collective resistance of health professionals. At least Nye Bevan was able to fill the BMA’s mouth with gold – Lansley doesn’t have very much of that at his disposal and lacks the required skill or appetite for constructive negotiation.

Fellow blogger Andrew Emmerson fears that the issue has so divided that party that it has been “dragged...to the point of civil war”. I hope that is not true. But there can be no avoiding that this is a problem of the leadership’s making, that that issue has been badly handled by the party and that tensions within the party are now strained as a result. It isn’t helpful to see words like “traitor”, “Judas” or “hypocrite” being used by Lib Dems to describe fellow Lib Dems.

Where should the party go from here? As a believer in coalition, and the principle of collective responsibility, I’m not one for suggesting that we turn this into a war with the Tories. Many party members have the appetite for that sort of thing: Lib Dems such as Liberal Left who can see no scope for any relationship with the Conservatives or those who naively believe we will be rewarded in future elections for making the Tories a little less obnoxious. The truth is that we’re not in government to be a moderating force on the Tories – that is simply a by-product of our effectiveness, not our raison d’etre. We’re in government to work collaboratively to take the country forward and to ensure there is a liberal thrust to government policy.

If the Health and Social Care Bill was a product of the coalition agreement then I’d be encouraging our MPs to fight for whatever concessions we can achieve but not to reject the Bill outright. As it stands, the Bill is not even the product of Conservative policy, but of the disjointed and untested political ideology of one man – Andrew Lansley. No number of concessions can alter that. It is not being untrue to the responsibilities of coalition to tell our Conservative partners that the Bill in its current form cannot be supported – as Andrew George, John Pugh, Adrian Sanders, Greg Mulholland and David Ward have done. While Shirley Williams is no doubt correct when she insists that the Bill is very much better for its many changes, that in itself is no reason for accepting it.

I have sympathies with those who want the Bill to be dropped and never revisited. However, a more “grown-up” and constructive move would be to shelve it, consult with professional bodies such as the Royal Colleges and service users’ organisations while negotiating with our Conservative partners a new draft Bill based on our respective manifestos, the coalition agreement and the recommendations of professional experts.

It might not be a bad idea to establish an independent commission to report back within a year, which would base its findings on a range of clinically-driven and professionally respected evidence. This approach would go some way towards reassuring the public as well as taking some of the wind out of Labour’s sails. It would be difficult to accuse the Liberal Democrats of deliberate and direct sabotage, while providing a means of maintaining positive working relations around the cabinet table.

It may well be too late for this idea to prove workable. I suspect that irrespective of our Conference vote and the well-publicised concerns of many Lib Dem parliamentarians the Bill will become law. But that can by no means be guaranteed and I think a “shelve, consult, revisit” approach is likely to be more fruitful than either dropping outright or voting for a Bill for reasons of ensuring the stability of government. There is, of course, no immediacy or urgency and therefore no sound political or clinical reason for rushing the Bill through. There is still time for sober reflection, reconsideration and input from expert advisors.

Did I use the words “sober” and “reflection” together in a piece about the NHS? I am beginning to fear for my sanity.

As indeed Nick Clegg must also be doing. This debacle is largely of his creation and could arguably have been avoided if he had been less dispassionate and more obviously uncomfortable with the Bill from the outset. While very few people have come out of this with much credibility intact (including Shirley Williams who has unfairly been victimised by petulant individuals with little realisation of how hard she has worked to improve the Bill) Clegg looks as if he’s just received an important lesson in taking members’ opinions and expectations for granted. Let’s hope that he learns from the experience.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Combating violence against women should be applauded - not ridiculed

Credit should go to where credit is due, which is why the government should be commended for building on the positive work initiated by Labour’s commitment to the Council of Europe’s convention of violence against women.

The Prime Minister announced two days ago that the UK has agreed to become the 19th signatory to the convention – a move which would see the convention’s recommendations translated into British law. That is no bad thing. The fact that Cameron, with his reputation for pandering to the Europhobic elements of his party, has fully embraced the convention’s ideals more than demonstrates that this is a positive initiative to reinforce a zero tolerance attitude towards violence rather than an EU drive for political conformity.

Unfortunately some of our leading newspapers have failed to grasp what the Council of Europe’s aims are or fully appreciate what the government is trying to do. Predictably, the Daily Mail chose to consider what signing the convention might mean for “acts such as wolf-whistling [which] could be outlawed” and while the responsible journalist was more friendly to the idea that UK courts would have powers to prosecute British offenders who commit crimes overseas he (it would be a he, wouldn’t it?) clearly subscribes to the idea that anything emanating in Europe must be faintly ridiculous. The Daily Mirror was no better and made the same points while reinforcing them with a picture of a reasonably attractive young man with his thumb and index finger in his mouth. Unfortunately even more reputable newspapers have been quick to trivialise the matter, with The Guardian worrying that new legislation might risk making “sexist remarks and wolf-whistles... criminal offences.”

This has, inevitably, led to a great deal of misunderstanding about both intention and consequence.

Anyone who wishes to know a little more about what the convention is and what it aims to do in practice can read here: Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. Even Mail journalists can access this information quite easily, so why anyone would choose to so misrepresent the government’s position so badly is anyone’s guess.

What each signatory actually agrees to do is to “aspire to create a Europe free from violence against women and domestic violence”. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like something positive to me. The preamble to the convention also condemns “all forms of violence against women and domestic violence” and “recognises that the realisation of de jure and de facto equality between women and men is a key element in the prevention of violence against women”. Of course there’s a great deal more to the convention – a lot of the kind of detail that the likes of the Mail often seem to find the Devil in – but there is absolutely no reason for supposing that signing up to the convention will lead to British prisons suddenly being filled with wolf-whistlers who have had their human rights and basic freedoms to express their macho masculinity denied by a government that refuses to stand up to Brussels. Neither is there cause to suspect that the most insignificant comment could risk prosecution – so sadly no end to tiresome mother-in-law jokes.

What the convention does make clear is this: "psychological violence" (i.e. "seriously impairing a person's psychological integrity through coercion or threats") is to be outlawed. As you may be aware, I work in mental health and have some experience of dealing with the effects of psychological violence. It is a very real phenomenon, often overlooked and which I am pleased is finally being recognised. You don’t have to work in mental health to appreciate that psychological violence by its very nature has the potential to be more damaging and far-reaching in its consequences than other forms of violence. We’re not talking about a few foolish comments here, but serious intimidation, control and bullying.

Having cleared up that small matter, what else does the convention actually commit us to? Quite a lot actually. Our legal system must in future pay compensation to victims of domestic violence. It must also allow for easy dissolution of forced marriages and provide appropriate sentences for those found guilty of forcing women into having abortions or sterilisations – or for enforcing genital mutilation. These still affect many women living in the UK and it is only right that our legal system is armed with the necessary ammunition to tackle what is a very real problem.

The convention also recommends more serious action to be taken to tackle the phenomenon of stalking, something which itself should not be understated and often has a deep psychological impact on its victims.

And so on Thursday – International Women’s Day – the government took a positive step towards tackling violence towards women, and was rewarded with misleading headlines and ridicule from the press. Actually, perhaps it isn’t fair to use the word ridicule. The truth is far worse than that. What certain sections of the media have done on this occasion is to belittle the government’s efforts, to reduce the convention to a legalistic call for criminalising such enlightened activities as wolf-whistling and in the process diminishing the real problems experienced by countless women in the UK and beyond. Trivialising both violence and attempts to combat it is neither clever nor responsible.

Why wolf-whistling is such a precious and integral part of British culture that it requires protection by the likes of the Daily Mail I don’t know. Personally, I find it a patronising gesture on the part of insecure men who are usually over-emphasing their sexual power.

I don’t want the media to uncritically support the government (even I won’t agree to do that!). What would be preferable is that, when the government supports a useful European initiative to prevent violence against women, it receives a bit more positivity than cynical opposition from the Euro-suspicious. Violence is violence is violence – and is a crime against humanity. And that is what the government is getting to grips with, not some puerile and pathetic gestures that the lads find identity in.

As Nick Clegg and David Cameron said in a joint statement, the convention will “lift the standards of protection for women across Europe, give greater support for victims and – crucially – bring many more perpetrators to justice”. Now, what’s so objectionable about that?

Friday, 9 March 2012

Electoral Reform Society support second referendum question

Following on from yesterday's blog post, in which I revealed that constitutional expert Professor Vernon Bogdanor supports an option for further devolution finding its way onto the independence ballot form, I have today discovered that the Electoral Reform Society backs a second question in the independence referendum.

Scottish TV reported on its website that the ERS actually backs a question on "Devo Max" but this is not precisely true. The ERS have refused to back "a particular choice" - simply the principle of a second question. A spokesperson for the society argued that "avoiding a 'second question' represents a false choice. It risks not giving the Scottish people the choice of a future which polling shows many of them can unite around."

I don't disagree and it's encouraging to see that my own views might be out of sync with many in my party but are in keeping with those of leading constitutional experts and the foremost campaigning organisation for democratic reform in the UK. I don't make that statement to express an arrogance or to suggest that my views are somehow superior to those who take another. I am merely pointing out that, with the Lib Dems having ruled out supporting such an option, there is not a single political party willing to side with the reason of Prof Bogdanor and his fellow academics. Neither are any, other than the SNP, happy to embrace the recommendations of the ERS whose membership include a sizeable proportion of Liberal Democrats.

I wonder if at any point the party consulted the ERS or the constitutional experts prior to embarking on a course of action that I personally feel will prove destructive to our future electoral prospects? I have no idea, but I imagine not - in which case it is a great pity because this debate should be wider than what the interests of political parties dictate. Putting it bluntly, what is the point of a "consultation" when every party opposed to the SNP has indicated its unwillingness to countenance the prospect of a second question? The possibility is dead in the water even before the consultation has closed - and rendered such by what amounts to the determination by Scottish political tribes to kill off independence. The matter has been decided by the political parties before the public's views have even been considered. Is that democracy in action?

What seems to matter most is not the will of Scottish people but the defeat of the SNP's independence agenda. Alan Reid cynically suggested last week that "it's not who votes that count, but who counts the vote." I would paraphrase that slightly to give it a more accurate ring: "it's not who votes that count, but who has the voice". Clearly the voice that matters belongs to those who would oppose what the SNP government would pursue, irrespective of what its consultation would suggest is the will of the Scottish people.

Looking at the wider situation - with the aforementioned contributions from high profile groups and individuals as well as the fact that the Scottish Government's consultation doesn't close until today - the party may have been better advised to have waited until later in the year to debate this issue and to seek expert guidance to shape our direction rather than reacting to political pressures and the typical games that characterise Scottish party politics. In that sense people like myself and Denis Mollison grossly miscalculated in wanting to put the issue on the conference agenda at the earliest possibility; what this actually achieved was to make it easier for the party hierarchy to sell its current position to the membership and enshrine it into party policy very early in the day.

Och well, we live and learn I suppose. But supposing the ERS has spoken up sooner - could it have more effectively informed the discussion and shaped attitudes?

It is encouraging that the ERS has put forward a democratic case for the two-question referendum even if ultimately this voice of reason has little chance of achieving anything remotely significant. Perhaps if this option hadn't been categorically ruled out by ourselves there would have been more scope for bringing to life what promises to be a less than inspiring debate on the benefits and otherwise of independence with some interesting discussion about the detail of the option that could have been presented to Scottish voters at the same time. Far from "playing into Salmond's hands" as one notable person insisted, this would have shifted the focus considerably away from the usual narrow, constricted vitriol that passes for political debate here in Scotland and onto constructive dialogue in which the Liberal Democrats may have been able to exert some real influence.

That opportunity has now surely gone. There is little purpose now in labouring the point, and in the next few days I imagine my attentions and energies will be turned towards the NHS or other more pressing matters. (I sense a collective sigh of relief from some quarters). But I imagine that many supporters of further devolution short of independence will for some time continue to ask why a second question was denied, and I suspect this may create more than a few headaches for the Liberal Democrats.

At least the party's convinced of the rightness of its position - the challenge now is to convince Scots we've acted in their interests. I look forward to seeing how Willie Rennie and Michael Moore in particular plan to do this.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Constitutional expert wants Devo Max option on ballot form

Days after the Scottish Liberal Democrats' conference voted to support a single-question yes-no referendum on the basis that independence should be defeated before additional powers for Scotland are considered, a constitutional expert has announced he favours including an option for Devo Max on the ballot form.

Vernon Bogdanor, author of Devolution in the United Kingdom, also expressed criticism of the position, taken by the Liberal Democrats as well as Prime Minister David Cameron, of waiting until after the referendum to reveal the extent of any further powers. This he dismissed as "hardly satisfactory", claiming it was unfair to ask Scots to make their minds up in regards independence when they were unaware what the alternatives might be. He supported a single multi-option referendum question over the SNP's favoured two questions in order to minimise confusion and believes that the date of the referendum should be brought forward due to fears of a prolonged campaign creating economic damage.

As a respected academic, Professor Bogdanor is worth listening to. I am not convinced entirely by his argument that a two-question referendum would cause confusion, given the experience of a similar exercise in 1997 and the multi-ballot parliamentary elections that have been held for Holyrood since 1999. However, I entirely agree with his insistence that Devo Max or a similar, well-defined alternative option should be made available to the electorate for the reasons he gives and because this appears to be the option that the vast majority of people actually favour.

The political difficulty with Bogdanor's recommendation is that the SNP have the democratic mandate to ask the question they choose. Having been denied the opportunity in the past, I can not argue that the SNP should be made to do anything other than ask as their primary question whether Scots wish to become independent or remain part of the union. While from a constitutional point of view Bogdanor's multi-option question would be the simplest and most direct way forward, politically speaking the SNP have won the right to ask about independence. And that's what I defend their right to do.

However, it is also important that in making the choice Scots need to be made aware of what exactly it is they're voting for. This means that Mr Salmond and his party have to be more precise where possible about the nature of a post-independence Scotland. But the converse is that the exact extra powers that will be delivered if independence is rejected must also be made clear, as well as the framework through which they will be achieved. There also needs to be some clarity as to how binding loose commitments to change are in practice and whether the delivery of further powers can be legally guaranteed.

The Daily Telegraph reported that Professor Bogdanor is critical of existing plans to offer a "mystery prize which cannot be revealed until after independence is rejected", adding: “A suspicious Scottish voter might fear that, if (s)he were to reject independence, and if the SNP were then to be defeated in the Holyrood elections in [2016], Westminster might then forget about ‘devo max’ and the status quo would be preserved.” That is my fear exactly, and also a view shared by fellow Lib Dem blogger Nicola Prigg.

Bogdanor is entirely correct to assert that precise alternatives should be spelled out beforehand. Currently, if there is confusion over the issue it isn't about the uncertainties of a "yes, yes" outcome in a potential two-question referendum but on the precise meaning of such terms as "Devo Max", "Devo Plus", "Devo Minus" or "Devo Lite". What the Liberal Democrats could (and, I'd argue, should) have done is to use what influence and leverage they have to work with the SNP to ensure a comprehensive, radical and easily understood package of reform was included as a secondary option. What may well happen now is that, while the SNP campaign positively for what they want in the shape of independence, mixed noises will be expressed about the various options for further devolution and what may or may not be delivered. Confusion is likely to abound unless a blueprint for "further powers" and constitutional change can be articulated, agreed and guaranteed by the Lib Dem - Conservative coalition and assurances gained from Labour that the plans will not be reversed in the event of their winning the 2015 General Election.

Interestingly, while Bogdanor clearly prefers the single question arrangement, the Telegraph reported that the professor believes "public support for extra powers means there is a 'strong case' for the inclusion of a second question". Now that is very interesting. Willie Rennie has consistently made the claim that not a single academic supports a two-question referendum. It is certainly true that Bogdanor is not fully embracing it but he appears to favour it over the single option on independence currently in front of us and is evidently supportive of ensuring that an arrangement for the delivery of further powers makes it onto the ballot form. Given that this is no ordinary academic but probably the most respected constitutional expert in Britain - and a distinctly non-partisan one - I wonder what Rennie makes of his well researched and informed contribution? If he and the party are so keen to use academic recommendation (or lack of it) as a basis for the party's policy decisions, surely we have to at least take Bogdanor's criticisms and advice seriously and, ideally, act on it? Surely outright rejection would not only be foolish but hypocritical given the importance Rennie gave Dr Matt Qvortrup's expertise.

Speaking from a personal perspective, I find it unfortunate that this academic endorsement of a third referendum option was not made public prior to our conference last week. It would certainly have provided some useful ammunition to those in the party in favour of such an option. It perhaps might also have ensured that a greater emphasis was put on the question rather than on the SNP.

As for Bogdanor's argument that the referendum date should be brought nearer, I can only state that his basis for making the assertion that Scotland could suffer economically during a protracted campaign is based on the Quebec experience of 1995. What I might suggest is that the localised economic pressures of the time were caused by a combination of factors (not least that the status of the economic relationship between Quebec and Canada was explicitly being consulted on) and that it is therefore difficult to determine precisely the impact of the duration of the 1995 referendum campaign - or to necessarily assert that those factors would inevitably come to bear in relation to Scotland and the UK, although it does remain a possibility.

I think ultimately it is Alex Salmond's right to ask the question he wants at the timing of his choosing. I hope that a double question referendum can go ahead, however unlikely that may seem. Failing that, the parties opposed to independence must state specifically what their vision for Scotland's future is and how they plan to achieve it. Not only is it the only way that their vague promises and good intentions can gain the necessary credibility, it's also the only means by which these parties can be brought to account post-2014 and for change to be guaranteed.

I welcome this purposeful intervention from Bogdanor, which to some degree puts the ball back into the Liberal Democrats' court. How do we respond to it? How do we convince the public that not only do we want to deliver but that we can and will deliver? And how can we articulate a vision for our nation's future that is positive, resonates with the public and can actually be assured to become reality if an independence option is rejected? I suspect we've got a lot of work to do if we want the public to take us seriously as the "guarantors of change".

Professor Bogdanor was addressing the Scottish Affairs Committee yesterday in the House of Commons. His arguments and recommendations are also backed by other academics who addressed the committee including Professor John Curtice (profssor of politics at Strathclyde University), Professor Iain McLean (fellow in politics, Nuffield College, Oxford University) and Peter Kellner (President, You Gov). An impressive array of leading intellectuals, I'm sure you'll agree.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

It's been a week to celebrate stupidity

It's been a week in which prominent people have been eager to outdo each other in saying stupid things.

First, there was the "most senior Scottish Catholic", Cardinal O'Brien - oddly enough not the inspiration for Orwell's character of the same name who takes pleasure from "curing" others' "insanity"- who foolishly weighed into the marriage equality debate, branding same-sex marriages as "grotesque" and "madness". As if that outburst wasn't sufficient demonstration of his intolerance and inflexible mindset, O'Brien has today gone further - writing a letter to all Catholics in which the most sensible thing he argues is that "changing the legal definition of marriage would be a profoundly radical step." Indeed it would - a radical step in the right direction which is why I am proud of the Liberal Democrats and politicians of other parties who have championed marriage equality. As for whether most Catholics see fit to recognise O'Brien's polemic as authoritative is questionable; I for one would imagine the majority of the "faithful" couldn't care less.

By fascinating coincidence, O'Brien's ill-judged remarks hit the headlines at the same time as Scotland's third most prominent homophobe (after O'Brien and Brian Souter) Bill Walker MSP was alleged to have physically abused his three former wives. Walker claims that respect for marriage lies at the heart of his personal philosophy but I wonder which shows more "respect" - empowering committed same-sex couples to celebrate their love in a marriage ceremony or a record of having committed acts of violence against multiple spouses? The allegations have already forced Walker to resign from two Holyrood parliamentary committees, and he has been suspended from the party with an SNP spokesperson confirming that "the SNP's strong and consistent position is one of zero tolerance of violence against women".

I could argue that it's also the SNP's position not to compare LGBT rights activists with Nazis, something that Walker did last year and escaped any form of sanction. Although these allegations show his professed compassionate Christianity to be something of a sham and I find it ironically appropriate that his past has returned to haunt him, it does seem odd that offences committed before entering politics should merit greater punishment than his behaviour as an elected MSP. However, that's not the point I'm making. It does seem strange given these revelations that another SNP MSP, Joan McAlpine, should use her first column in the Daily Record to make an unwise comparison between Scotland and the victims of domestic abuse.

McAlpine's article - Time to end Scotland's culture of dependency - claimed that Scotland was "a talented, well-educated girl with good prospects and her own income" married to a "domineering man...an old sexist old dinosaur who insists men should handle the finances". It was an argument that I understand even though I find it simplistic, more than a little naive and not the kind of work I'd expect from a journalist of McAlpine's quality and experience. What I don't understand is why she felt the need to insensitively and carelessly use this kind of unhelpful allegory to illustrate her point. There were predictable complaints yesterday, including several from SNP members, who felt that her comments were in poor taste and insulting to the many real victims of domestic abuse who were having their problems trivialised for the purposes of party politics. At one time I would have expected so much more of Joan McAlpine but she is rapidly becoming something of a liability for both the SNP and the pro-independence cause. She is too canny a figure not to have appreciated the likely reaction to her comments and best thing I can say is that she enjoys being unnecessarily controversial.

And of course we have our own Alan Reid, the less than colourful MP for Argyll & Bute, whose intervention at Scottish conference included making a comparison between the First Minister and Stalin. I can only imagine the outcry within the Lib Dems if an SNP parliamentarian made the same claim about Willie Rennie (not that the mud would be likely to stick). Fellow Lib Dem MP Malcolm Bruce also made some unwise and uncharacteristic comments in relation to Alex Salmond and Scotland itself which suggested the Lib Dems are more pre-occupied with frustrating the First Minister than they are achieving what is in the best interests of the Scottish people.

UKIP have also been very keen to get in on the act. The euroskeptic party has aspirations of overtaking the Liberal Democrats as the third party of UK politics, something it feels opinion polls suggest to be a realistic possibility. They are keen to depict themselves as libertarian, tolerant and modern - yet today issued a statement in which the party's National Executive declared itself to be "opposed to the move to legislate for same-sex marriage". Why? They're not homophobes of course, it's just that "through some kind of political correctness, David Cameron is picking a fight with the millions of people whose religious faiths do not recognise same-sex marriages. That, in our view, is an aggressive attack on people of faith, and an act of intolerance in itself." UKIP goes on to explain that it is concerned about criticism of same-sex marriage being classed as a "hate crime" - which would be "a grotesque assault on people's freedom of conscience". So that's that one settled then. UKIP are a libertarian party so long as you're not gay and wanting to get married, in which case your freedoms are less important than those of the less than enlightened individuals who oppose your union from a position of intolerance and prejudice. Well, I'm glad we got that one out of the way, as are hundreds of people at this minute using twitter to highlight UKIP's hypocrisy, inconsistency and outright idiocy.

However, all this stupidity pales into insignificance compared to Alex Salmond's growing association with Rupert Murdoch. Please do not misunderstand me - I am not taking an easy swipe at the First Minister. Neither do I think it is right for other political parties, especially those with records of intimate relationships with News Corp, to jump on the rather convenient bandwagon. Even we in the Lib Dems are not without sin and should take no glee in casting the first stone. But when the First Minister appears to defend, or at the very least overlook the phone-hacking taken out on behalf of News Corp, he does himself, his office and the country a huge disservice. Stating that "the questions the probe is looking at relate to the industry, not one newspaper or company" is technically correct, but is disingenuous in that the brunt of the Leveson Inquiry's activity is taken up with allegations relating to Murdoch's various newspapers and that the News of the World has already been shown to have carried out some of the worst instances of hacking including that of Milly Dowler's phone. It is not difficult to see why Salmond's opponents have been keen to suggest that his dalliances with Murdoch amount to a kind of mental prostitution - or what Willie Rennie calls "dining out with the Devil". Quite why a man riding high on the crest of a wave called popular appeal feels the need to court such a pantomime villain as Rupert Murdoch I can't say, but the association could have a damaging impact on the way the First Minister is perceived. It's a move that doesn't sit comfortably with the popular image of Salmond as an astute and shrewd politician.

Finally, the Monster Raving Loony's London Mayoral Candidate Chris Dowling is keen to appeal to voters to back him in May and hopes people will "vote for insanity - you know it makes sense". He hasn't got round to deciding a policy platform yet but has turned his ire on the main parties' ability to "buy democracy". At least that argument makes sense up to a point. But the main difference between Chris and the aforementioned individuals is that the others were serious when they made their respective points or gave their speeches and have so far not seen fit to retract their comments, issue an apology or even make an effort to rearticulate their points in such a way as to avoid misinterpretation.

I'd like to see some kind of acknowledgement from O'Brien, McAlpine, Reid, Bruce, the collective genius of UKIP's NEC and Salmond. Sadly it seems they neither understand how offensive their words have been or patently, like Edith Piaf, have no regrets. And the political scene is all the worse for it.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Leadership defeats pro-change rebels at Scottish conference

A few weeks ago I put together a draft topical motion with Derek Young on the issue of the party’s position on a second question in the independence referendum. My motivation for doing this was primarily to ensure that this issue is debated rather than being decided for the members by the party leadership. I was also concerned that the Scottish Liberal Democrats can campaign positively during the independence referendum, that we seize the best opportunity in decades to achieve our vision for a constitutional settlement and simultaneously ensure that the Home Rule Commission has some purpose other than cynical opposition to the SNP.

Unfortunately our proposed motion didn’t receive the required number of signatures but, by fortune, Denis Mollison of East Lothian successfully managed to submit a topical motion that made it onto the conference agenda. Denis’s motion was more direct and perhaps less comprehensive than ours, but it made the same fundamental points as well as raising the issue of extending the electorate to include those aged 16 and 17. The motion called on the Lib Dem leadership to "to engage with the Scottish Government so as to get the option of Home Rule included in the referendum in a fair way” as well as to run a "positive campaign in favour" of this and to support the Scottish Government in seeking to enfranchise 16 and 17-year-olds. Hardly revolutionary, you would think, and not likely to offend.

Senior figures within the party were perfectly aware of the importance of this motion, which is why so many of them made reference to the importance of not having a second question in their contributions in the conference hall. There can be little doubt that they were anxious to persuade delegates to reject both the motion and the thinking behind it and ultimately they were successful. I have to say that myself and a number of other party members find the refusal to countenance a second question as illogical and tactically naive. I would go further: it’s also a wasted opportunity which will have tragic consequences for the party. Furthermore, it’s indicative of political attitudes whose basis is very firmly in the past; prejudices and mindsets born in a different era that not only keep us looking backwards but prevent us from looking positively towards the future.

According to The Herald, Denis (who is a professor emeritus in Applied Probability) “claimed the party would pay a heavy price for insisting on a straight yes or no to independence” and warned of the “danger of being dragged into negativity". A timely contribution, but one which was seized on and ridiculed by senior Lib Dems.

Scottish president Malcolm Bruce exposed some of the collective thinking and motivations of the leadership when he claimed the motion was a “naive response”. The reason for this? “Alex Salmond is the most brutal, cynical manipulator in British politics” he explained "You would be playing into the hands of Salmond, handing him a get out of jail free card. He loses this referendum, he goes. Do we want him to stay?" And so, this is what the debate is really about in the minds of those leading our party. It’s not about facilitating a progressive liberal settlement, but about Alex Salmond. Bruce and others are so obsessed with Salmond and his party, so stinted by resentment, bitterness and intolerance that their energies are entirely concentrated on defeating the SNP leader. How pitiful. I was clearly right when I said in November that the unfortunate cartoon was suggestive of an almost pathological dislike of the SNP: “the whole tone of what the party leadership is saying [is misguided and self-destructive]: we’re so anti-SNP, so cynically negative and so focused on targeting the First Minister personally that it’s no surprise the public aren’t attracted to our broader message.” The cartoon was simply an indicator of a misplaced logic that seems to have taken hold over senior Lib Dems as well as our campaigning strategy; what is worse is that in spite of the problem being highlighted little has been done to remedy it.

The Herald indicates that Bruce’s other contributions included comparing Scotland to a host of other nations including “South Sudan, Republic Srpska, South Ossetia, Kashmir, Basque Region, Catalonia, Chechnya, Greenland, North Cyprus, Transnistria... Do we really want the world to break up into a growing list of tiny countries nursing their grievances through the international community” I don’t see the point he’s making, unless it’s the predictable and tired argument that Scotland is ill-prepared to take care of its own destiny. Of course it may be that he is suggesting these areas claims to self-determination is questionable. Either way, the comparison is both flawed and facile in addition to being loaded with ill-disguised prejudice. If Scotland can be compared to other areas of the world, I’d suggest Luxembourg, Belgium, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Austria, Liechtenstein, Montenegro, Slovenia and Slovakia. Those countries are either small or emergent and have their own problems, but are hardly “nursing their grievances through the international community” and there is no reason to suggest an independent Scotland would be any different.

Bruce went on to insist that it would be wrong to go down the independence route as it would disassociate Scotland from “UK institutions such as the BBC, the World Service and the Department of International Development which employs 500 people in Scotland.” Another simplistic argument, and one that doesn’t convince on any level although what this has to do with a second question on the referendum ballot, I’ve no idea.

If Bruce’s words had been misadvised and unhelpful, blinded by intolerance towards the SNP, worse was to follow in the form of Alan Reid, MP for Argyll and Bute. He compared Salmond to Stalin, insisting that “it's not who votes that count, but who counts the vote." You don’t have to be an SNP supporter to find that one offensive. Again, this had little to do with the actual motion and everything to do with a retarded attitude towards the SNP. When, in my predictions for the year, I stated that “most Scottish Lib Dems will continue to suffer from Tourette's Syndrome whenever the word ‘independence’ is whispered.” I was of course joking. But there’s a serious underlying truth that has been exposed by Bruce, Reid and others. Just as Godwin’s Law dictates that as an online discussion grows, so the probability of a comparison to Nazism approaches, my observations (let’s call them Page’s Law) have determined that as Scottish Liberal Democrats discuss anything openly, so the probability of inappropriately hostile references to Alex Salmond is vastly increased.

Fortunately there were some sane voices. Galen Milne noted that in denying a second question the party would be "denying people the chance to vote in favour of something which a majority support." Denis, in summary, stated his desire for the party to " adopt a positive, distinctive position. Refusing to accept a second question on Home Rule is cutting off our nose to spite our face." He also reiterated "the party's long-standing commitment to Home Rule and a federal UK, the only major party in Scotland with such commitments". But it has little effect, with conference voting to approve a self-defeating campaign of negative and cynical opposition to the SNP rather than an opportunity to set out a distinctive vision for Scotland’s future that is as far removed from the unionism of the Labour and Conservative parties as it is the SNP’s nationalism. What has essentially been done is to ally the party into an anti-independence alliance with the Tories and Labour in the vain hope we will be able to persuade the SNP to do what our five MSPs want in the event of Scottish electors voting “no”. Now, Mr Bruce, that is naive.

This approach is flawed for several reasons. Firstly, it undermines the Home Rule Commission. The findings of this commission will be announced in the near future, but there will be no framework for putting them into place; any positive action from the Liberal Democrats now being dependent on a negative outcome in the referendum. Opposition to a second question has not only deprived us of the one meaningful opportunity to realise our aims, it has also rendered us and the Commission itself impotent.

Secondly, the idea that a defeat in the independence referendum will render the SNP and Alex Salmond dead in the water is wildly optimistic. Salmond’s popularity has not stemmed from his championing of independence but has occurred in spite of it. The notion of the SNP becoming a spent force if the verdict of the voters goes against it is an ill-conceived one. There is no doubt that such an outcome would create serious problems for the SNP, but there is no reason to suspect that it would signal the death of the party. On the other hand, a victory in the referendum for Alex Salmond would expose deeper questions for his party to answer and, with the SNP having fulfilled its raison d’etre and questioning its purpose and political future, there would surely be opportunities for the Scottish Liberal Democrats in an independent Scotland.

Thirdly, in allying ourselves with the Tories and Labour we have ensured that our voice, comparatively small but ideologically distinct, will not be heard. We will be perceived simply as a minor and rather insignificant partner in a coalition of negativity.

Fourthly, if the party had agreed to accept a second question, we could have campaigned distinctly for a settlement that the majority of Scots broadly agree with. There is little doubt that, should the initial question of independence be rejected, the alternative pro-change option would carry the day. The argument that independence must first be defeated before such change can be achieved is therefore nonsensical. There is, however, absolutely no reason for believing that the kind of change we want will ever be offered to Scots people in a referendum again. If the Lib Dems genuinely believe that a “no” vote will crush the SNP – what hopes are there that Labour and the Conservatives will work with us? If not, why should the SNP want to work with us? And the “vitally important influence of Lib Dems at Westminster” that Willie Rennie puts so much trust in (something he revealed during the bloggers’ interview) is not something that can be depended on post 2015.

Fifthly, the Scottish Liberal Democrats have wildly overestimated their influence if they honestly feel that, having got the independence question out of the way, we can then embrace the opportunity to facilitate the further devolution we want. It’s arrogant to state that we will work with the SNP, but only after their plans have been frustrated. That’s not pluralism. But that’s not my principal objection. The real flaw in this thinking is that we fail to recognise we are a party of five MSPs and will be until at least 2016 – and even then we can not be sure of a kinder verdict from the voters. If we were the Labour Party then I’d accept there’s a chance this tactic could work. But we simply lack the numbers, or the ability to positively influence the other parties, to ensure that our vision is even taken seriously, let alone implemented.

What has happened is that the cause of Home Rule has been dealt a fatal blow by those claiming to champion it.

I cannot support the status quo. I will not defend it, because it is not worth defending. And yet there appears to be no realistic, liberal alternative on the horizon other than independence. It is foolish to talk of opportunities post-2014, not least because those opportunities are now dependent on the negative outcome to the referendum the Liberal Democrats have committed themselves to campaigning for. There is no guarantee that the recommendations of the Home Rule Commission, or the views of the party membership as a whole, will ever make it onto a ballot form, or will even form the basis of cross-party talks for Scotland’s future.

And so, I will be voting for the most liberal option on the ballot form – independence. I have come to believe in it not so much from a conviction that it is the best option for Scotland but that it is the best achievable outcome. I know there are Liberal Democrats who think similarly and are bitterly disappointed that an alternative pro-change option, supporting the kind of positive alternative they believe in, has been denied to them.

Unfortunately, it seems that the party leadership cares little for the views of such people, including Professor Mollison, motivated instead by its suspicion and intolerance of the SNP and Alex Salmond in particular. This episode reveals many things – the inflexible attitudes of senior Lib Dems, the willingness of the party membership to follow obediently, the lack of a sound strategy for achieving our professed objectives and a failure to grasp the unique opportunities we have been provided. But most importantly of all it demonstrates that the party has no idea where it is going – other than to do its utmost to defeat the “Yes” campaign of which I will be a dedicated supporter.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Nick Clegg’s speech to Scottish Lib Dem conference

Unfortunately this year I’ve not been able to attend our spring conference in Inverness. I’m not thrilled about that because conference to me is a rare opportunity to meet with fellow party activists and contribute to political debate. I was particularly keen to be supporting a topical motion advocating a second question on the ballot form for the independence referendum and would have been able to move it had other events not intervened. And so, in the sense that I’m missing out both socially and in regards supporting a cause I’m deeply passionate about, I could be said to be doubly disappointed.

But what has really disappointed me is what should have been the highlight of the opening day – the speech by our esteemed federal leader, the Rt Hon Nick Clegg. It contained a great deal of what I have generally come to expect from Clegg – not all of it bad. But it was so lacking in dynamism, so devoid of vision and full of the usual emphasis on Lib Dem achievement in government that it missed a valuable opportunity for Clegg to show he “gets” Scotland. Tellingly, he refused to mention the term “federalism” once, squandering another opportunity to lay down a distinct and progressive Scottish agenda and suggesting that the party’s hierarchy hasn’t the faintest notion of what federalist principles are.

Of course, a speech sounds very different when it’s being read from a party’s website than being received directly in the auditorium. No doubt Clegg’s oratorical skills will have helped give what I perceive to be a rather uninspiring speech a bit of life. I’m sure there were many in the hall who were inspired by it, who will cling onto the positive points that he made. I don’t doubt some will have applauded the anti-Salmond rhetoric (yes, Tavish and Willie, I mean you!). But I can’t help feeling that this was poor by Clegg’s standards. If I was a man of few words I would summarise the lengthy speech in two words: “wasted opportunity”. But, as I’m not, I’m afraid I’ll have to subject you to some further analysis.

The full speech can be found on the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ website: Nick Clegg's Speech to Scottish Conference

It even started off poorly. In his opening paragraph he referred to Bob Maclennan and Charles Kennedy as great leaders. Well, Bob Maclennan is a personal friend and we all owe a great deal to a man who ensured not only that the merger between the SDP and the Lib Dems went ahead in 1988 but that the new party was founded on federalist principles. But a great leader? I don’t think so. And I think it’s safe to deduce what Kennedy and Clegg think of each other, which makes Clegg’s words ring hollow. It simply seemed like a dismal exercise in patronising Highlanders; a misplaced attempt to woo the local liberals. He may as well have turned up in full Highland regalia - it would have been equally convincing.

THE SCOTTISH LIBERAL DEMOCRATS

Clegg started off discussing the Scottish party. I was pleased he mentioned Andrew Reeves’ sad passing last year. After that, he moved to comedy, suggesting that “what Willie Rennie has done at Holyrood is to put last May behind us and move on”. If only. We’re still very much living in the past, as evidenced by Willie Rennie himself in the bloggers' interview with him last week in which he spoke positively about Cameron and Johann Lamont but couldn’t resist taking a few swipes at Alex Salmond. We have attitudes towards other parties firmly based on the politics of the past and our campaigning machine, so dependent on the same old methods and a few staff using twitter, is struggling to adjust to new realities. Far from having moved on, we’re still having difficulties facing up to last year’s catastrophe and lack any kind of cogent plan for rebuilding.

Clegg also added that we were “punching above our weight” and “holding the SNP to account”. In some respects I’d agree, although I suspect often we forget that we have a parliamentary party of 5 MSPs and that the way to achieve tangible success isn’t opposition but co-operation. But the idea that “Willie has been running rings around Labour and the Conservatives” is ridiculous. It’s not an affront to Willie to suggest that it’s been a tough first year but that he’s acquitted himself reasonably well under difficult circumstances. That’s being realistically complimentary. Nick is simply talking tribalistic tosh when he says such things; I for one have found Ruth Davidson cuts a far more impressive figure in Holyrood than Willie Rennie does, and I’ve never seen Willie actually take on Lamont openly or even outclass her. What I have seen is Willie bringing sobriety and commonsense to exchanges in Holyrood; ever workmanlike but never spectacular. Perhaps Clegg should actually watch FMQs sometime?

He also referred to last year’s Holyrood elections as “painful”. Painful? What’s truly painful is the ease with which Clegg dismisses the disaster, At least Tim Farron, when speaking at federal conference last September, had the decency to apologise. Clegg seems to feel this is just a temporary setback, understating what this catastrophe actually means for Scottish liberalism and believing that a “take it on the chin and keep on fighting” approach will lay the basis for a liberal revival. At least he’s consistent – he said the same sort of thing last year.

It was positive that Clegg talked up the achievements of Liberal Democrats in local government, a welcome emphasis given the forthcoming local elections. I’m not too sure that improved recycling rates in Fife are necessarily the most convincing means of persuading the electorate to give us their votes, but the general idea is the right one. It’s an inescapable fact that “our councillors don’t get the same recognition as our MPs, MSPs and our MEP [and that] they are the unsung heroes of politics here in Scotland” and one that Clegg clearly recognises. But when he states that “without their good work we would not be able to make the difference we are making in Holyrood or Westminster” I must object – such work in Westminster happens in spite of, not because of, our councillors and activists. Please don’t blame them for what you’re doing, Mr Clegg.

INDEPENDENCE

Clegg was very keen to get onto what appears to be rapidly becoming his favourite subject – Alex Salmond (sorry, independence. He couldn’t bring himself to utter that poisonous name!) . He pointed out quite correctly that the political landscape has changed dramatically in the last year and that this presents the Scottish Liberal Democrats with “a challenge”. I won’t disagree with this statement of the obvious but unfortunately Clegg didn’t elaborate in the precise nature of this “challenge”, or how he proposes we overcome it. I was pleased to see that he accepts that Salmond has the mandate to ask the independence question; somewhat less pleased that he views the question not in terms how we can shape a positive, liberal future for Scotland but rather as a matter of whether “the Scottish people want to stay within the family of the UK or break up the longest and most successful political and social partnership of nations in history?” Sigh! Yawn!

Then he proceeded to make the usual tired economic case (curiously ignoring the current strength of the Scottish economy as a distinct entity and the various reasons for this) and emphasising the “shared culture, history and identity”. “For centuries we have crossed each others borders, married each other, raised families together” he declared. That’s true. It was also too prior to 1707. It’s also true of French and German people, or of people from various independent states across the world. My own grandfather was Polish, but I wouldn’t suggest the large number of Poles who have settled here means we need to be politically unified with Poland. While this may be a valid argument in favour of free movement of people and internationalism, it’s facile when made as a case against independence.

“I believe the bonds that bring us together are stronger than the forces that would tear us apart” Clegg concluded with a cliche. I’m afraid I’m not altogether convinced that it’s true and as for the relative strength of the political forces in Scotland I’d have to say I’d back the SNP every time. That there are cultural similarities between Scotland and some other areas of the UK, as well as a historic co-dependent relationship, is undeniably true. But that’s also true of Ireland and the UK, of the Nordic countries and of the Benelux nations: close cultural ties and economic collaboration are ongoing in spite of the countries in question being distinct sovereign entities.

Clearly learning from David Cameron, Clegg went on: “it is not for me to tell the people of Scotland what they should think.” Wow. That’s a relief! “The debate over Scotland’s future is one for the people of Scotland.” Amen, brother! “And I hope all of you will support Mike and Danny, and Willie and all of our team in Scotland in making the case for staying in the UK.” Hmm, what was that about not telling us what to think?

DEVOLUTION

Clegg decided to then make it clear that he doesn’t believe in the Liberal Democrats’ constitution. Or, at least, that he doesn’t believe in a key component of it – namely federalism. As he declared earlier in the year, he’s not a federalist, but a devolutionist. I’m pleased he’s made the distinction because it shows us something of his thinking, but it’s not being exactly true to the Lib Dems’ founding principles, is it?

“We have always been a party that is committed to devolution. For Liberal Democrats devolving power is in our DNA and we are delivering that in Government.” Very true,and fine sentiments indeed, but why the lack of any real progress since devolution was achieved in 1997? Clegg didn’t say. What he did do is point out that Michael Moore (our “excellent” Secretary of State for Scotland) is leading the Scotland Bill through parliament, which represents “the biggest single transfer of power from the UK to Scotland since the Act of Union. More power for Scotland because Liberal Democrats are in power in Westminster.” Quite. But why we couldn’t have done more when in power at Holyrood? And why is opposing a second question on the ballot form - with the likely even larger transfer of power to Scotland – such a passion for senior Liberal Democrats? Again, Clegg had nothing to say.

He did talk about the Home Rule Commission. “Who better to lead that process than Ming Campbell, a statesman who commands such huge respect on both sides of the border?” asked Clegg, clearly in generous mood towards his parliamentary colleagues. (Personally I’d prefer Bob Maclennan or the Earl of Mar and Kellie, but that’s another matter.) “If the Scottish people decide they want to remain in the United Kingdom, then we can get on with the business of giving Scotland more power” he explained, “[but] we need to settle the independence question first.” Really? Why? I for one don’t see why we should. And, in any case, doesn’t this effectively render the Home Rule Commission either useless or its recommendations dependent on a negative outcome in the referendum? If the Commission exists, as Clegg suggests, simply to “look at the next stage in the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK” then why is it putting forward its findings and recommendations imminently, well in advance of the Scottish people deciding exactly what that relationship should be?

Clegg left many questions unanswered, such as how the Commission can possibly hope to achieve anything if it refuses to press for a second question on the ballot form or be anything other than a talking shop for a minor party. Again, a wasted opportunity to assert the value of the project and explain its political relevance.

SCOTLAND’S ECONOMY

Clegg was at his most positive and effective on economic matters. “I want nothing short of a green economic renaissance for Scotland. A Scotland where green jobs fuel a thriving economic future.” The attractive vision went further: “Scottish universities [will be] developing new green technologies for Scottish companies to export around the world, with Scotland’s young people trained in the skills they need to be at the heart of our green economy.” Sounds good? Indeed. Read on, dear friend.

Clegg looked into his crystal ball and saw “a nation with vast natural resources. A nation of thriving businesses with skilled, motivated workers. A nation at the heart of a green energy revolution.” He spoke of that green revolution as having already begun. He suggested that Scotland could be a world leader. In fact, so positive was his rhetoric that for a minute he reminded me of another political leader whose name I temporarily forget. Alex Somebody...

It was good stuff, as Clegg realised the importance not only of having positive ideas but of communicating them effectively. Here was Clegg at his best, an artist painting with broad brushstrokes a futuristic landscape of a Scotland people might actually want to live in: a Scotland that is economically strong, prosperous, innovative, creative, outward looking and at the cutting edge of an exciting revolution in the energy industry. I hope he received an ovation for that. Sadly, then he went and spoiled it all by saying something stupid like “we believe a strong Scotland is good for the United Kingdom and a strong United Kingdom is good for Scotland”- as if Scotland’s economic wellbeing is dependent upon the continued union. Yawn!

AND WHAT HAVE THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS EVER DONE FOR US?

Clegg was keen to point out how much the Liberal Democrats have done for Scotland. But first, back to the patronising remarks and unconvincing attempts at empathy. “I know how families are feeling. And I know how people worry about paying their bills... You get up early, you work hard, you never ask for anything and yet everything is getting harder.” I have to say I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t ask for anything. More importantly, I think Clegg needs to drop this kind of talk: it no longer feels real – and it no longer works for him. “There is no magic wand that will make everything better overnight” he told us, as if condescension of the worst kind was an effective substitute for a solution. Maybe he was still thinking of his discussions with Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe...

Clegg did explain what he felt the Liberal Democrats had done for Scotland. Tax cuts aimed at lifting the poorest people out of tax altogether was something he was justifiably keen to play up. But that wasn’t all. We’re “standing up for the culture of work that is such a proud part of Scotland’s history. By making sure that work always pays. By making sure people can keep more of the money they earn. And by making sure our young people have the skills they need to enter the world of work. And for those of you whose working life is over, Liberal Democrats are on your side too.” As you’ve gathered, sentiment outweighed substance and detail throughout Clegg’s speech but he was eager to provide some specific details. “A million Scottish pensioners will receive the most generous rise in the state pension for a generation. From next month, you will receive an extra £5.30 a week.” Given that there are only 879.500 pensioners living in Scotland today I’m not sure his boast rings true, but let’s not waste time on pedantry. It is a good move, but whether it will be enough to convince elderly people we’re on their side is another question altogether.

Clegg finally drew attention to the £103million Fossil Fuel levy investment in renewable energy. “Labour didn’t do it” said Clegg. “The SNP said we wouldn’t do it. Now we have done it. Liberal Democrats in Government delivering for Scotland.” Excellent. Now all we have to do is convince the Scottish public that we’re a party worth voting for. He finished with a summary of achievement in which he commented that “we go into this May’s elections with our heads held high”. Positive fighting talk is expected from leaders, but I feel the party needs more than the “keep calm and carry on, the public will eventually reward us when they see how much we’ve done in government” mentality espoused by Clegg. I also seriously doubt that too many sitting councillors will be going into the May elections with their “heads held high”: in spite of their tremendous efforts they will realise that it’s going to be a tough fight in which we’re more than likely to haemorrhage support and lose seats. Misplaced positivity is worse than negativity.

Oddly, Clegg failed to talk about his plans to revive either the party or the more pertinent cause of Scottish liberalism. He failed to advocate the kinds of actions that would facilitate the liberal renaissance I strongly feel we need. For him, the future of our party is bound to our performance and achievements in Westminster and he can neither perceive nor comprehend the urgent need for revival and regeneration of the philosophy, the party and the brand.

This was a speech short on ideas and as predictable as it was unimaginative. It was clearly a speech aimed at pleasing the delegates, although whether it succeeded in this aim I can’t possibly say. What I do know is that this particular Liberal Democrat is feeling deflated and more than a little disappointed at Nick Clegg’s latest intervention into Scottish politics.

At least by getting these predictable, dated and clich├ęd arguments in early, Clegg has opened the way for Willie Rennie to say something different, something imaginative, something radical. Things can only get better, right?