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Thursday, 25 October 2012

The FA needs to become more inclusive.

Women's football - is it really a separate sport to the men's game?
I was interested to read in today’s Guardian that the FA has some interesting plans for the development of women’s football.  As someone who has been actively involved in promoting inclusiveness within football, in some respects this is welcome news.

For example, the recognition of the opportunity afforded by the increased profile of women’s football that the Olympic Games provided is positive.  These opportunities need to be seized.  Increased investment and a new commercial strategy are both needed and overdue.  On those scores, the FA is to be commended.

Less positive is the emphasis on the top teams, rather than the grassroots.  Talk of a professional league is good and well, but will in itself do little to facilitate the FA’s stated quest of increasing participation.  The top-down approach is concerning, and begs questions about how the promised additional funding is likely to be spent. 

However, my real concern is that the detail of the proposals merely forms part of a wider plan to “make women’s football England’s second sport”. 

Hmmmm.

Women already participate in England’s most popular sport.  It’s called football.

Making distinctions like these is not only unhelpful, but betrays a concerning attitude on the part of the FA.

Women’s football is seen by the FA as a distinct and separate entity.   That’s not my take on it.  I love the game; I’ve played, coached, managed, refereed and been on the board of a non-league club.  Football is many things: an art, drama, unrehearsed theatre and an essential part of our social and national identity. But when all's said and done it's a game – a game played by men and women, boys and girls, professionals and amateurs, gay and straight people, old and young.  That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a need to make progress in regards female participation, but is essentially creating the status of a sub-sport for games played exclusively by women likely to help? 

If the Sian Massey fiasco demonstrated anything it’s that the best way to challenge sexist prejudice is to make the game as inclusive as possible.  I fail to see how exclusivity and the creation of new “sports” based on the gender of the players is constructive.  If making the distinction between men’s and women’s football is so important to the success and development of the latter, why not extend this logic to other differentials – such as age, sexual orientation or religion?  Why not a drive to make gay football the third biggest sport in England, followed closely behind by Muslim football? 

Making this distinction on the basis of something as insignificant (in respect to the game itself) as gender is plainly mistaken.  If the rules of the “women’s game” were in any way different, as they are for Gaelic football, then I would accept the FA’s argument.   As it is, I accuse the FA of doing the cause of equality and inclusivity a huge disservice.

Of course I recognise there are physiological differences between women and men that inevitably have some effect on the pace and physical nature of the game.  But that does not make women’s football a separate sport, any more than women’s athletics is a distinct sport from the men’s.  It isn’t, even though they compete separately.  Same sport, same rules – and, in many cases, the same clubs.

Perhaps this is where action needs to be taken.  Almost always women’s clubs are “affiliated” to men’s clubs, while remaining separate entities.  If we want to see the emergence of a truly inclusive game, the clubs should take a strong lead and actively incorporate women rather than keep them at arms’ length.

The FA has had a difficult week, with Jason Roberts and Rio Ferdinand openly voicing concerns about its ability to combat racism.  It has talked the talk, but failed to deliver as evidenced by the recent race-related controversies.  Part of the FA’s problem is that it has spoken against the evils of racism, sexism and homophobia without actually doing much to create an environment in which women, LGBT people or those from ethnic minorities feel included – or even welcome.

The FA appears not to see footballers as individual human beings – instead, it sees male footballers and female footballers.  When the FA stop making distinctions on the basis of gender, race or sexual orientation we will know that progress is truly being made.

Anyway, I'm going to have to close here.  There's a game of bisexual snooker waiting for me...

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Two SNP MSPs quit the party

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Two Scottish Nationalist Party MSPs have today announced their decision to quit the party following the conference decision to change its policy on NATO membership.

For decades the SNP’s stance has been that an independent Scotland should not be a NATO member, due to concerns about joining what it saw as a nuclear alliance.  Like the Liberal Democrats (and the Liberal Party before), the SNP has a history of expressing suspicion towards the nuclear deterrent and the recent conference vote – in which the leadership won the day arguing that it was possible for a nuclear-free Scotland to part of the military alliance – was passed with a slender majority of just 29.  Clearly passions run as high within the SNP as they do among liberals where this issue is concerned, and while the leadership successfully fought off rebel amendments this victory has come at a price.

John Finnie and Jean Urquhart, both list MSPs for the Highlands and islands region, have decided they cannot longer serve the party they have been members of for 39 and 35 years respectively.   Mr Finnie told The Herald that “although I envisage that I will continue to share common ground with the SNP on many issues, I cannot in good conscience continue to take the party whip” while Ms Urquhart explained that "we believe in an independent Scotland, not a NATO-dependent Scotland."  They will now serve their constituents as independent MSPs. 

Clearly both leave the party without rancour and will, in all likelihood, continue to take the SNP line on most issues.  However, the resignations are a serious blow to the First Minister – not least because they coincide with accusations that he has lied, or at least misled the public, in relation to legal advice in respect to EU membership.  

If I was an SNP member, I would probably have been persuaded that NATO membership was not entirely incompatible with the vision for a nuclear-free Scotland (other NATO members are similarly nuclear-free).  However, I would also be concerned that parliamentarians who take a different view would feel strongly enough to leave the party over the policy change.  Could more have been done to keep them on board?  For the previous few years the SNP has successfully managed to appear united in policy and purpose, relatively free of the bickering and internal divisions so apparent within the Scottish Conservative and Labour parties.  While it is difficult to ascribe any particular medium or long-term significance to the resignations at this stage, there is certainly scope for divisions to be widened.  The public image of a party united has been challenged by this announcement and there is definitely the potential for this to create lasting damage, although to its credit the SNP has so far done well to behave in a courteous and respectful fashion towards Mr Finnie and Ms Urquhart.

There will, naturally, be further criticism from within.  Not simply criticism of a policy change, but also the way in which the issue and the debate were handled.  I profess no knowledge of such things, but if I was a member I would be deeply concerned at this development and would naturally ask questions in regards the extent to which rebels’ concerns were accommodated by the leadership.  It is difficult to know at this stage whether these resignations could have been avoided through more careful handling of a controversial issue or whether the principle of NATO membership was always a line in the sand the MSPs were never prepared to cross.

There have been some speculating today that these resignations signal “internecine warfare”, and that the two MSPs could become a rallying point for other SNP members dissatisfied with either the NATO stance or the SNP leadership more generally.  I see no reason to assume either.  However, with the SNP’s majority now reduced notionally to one, this will create headaches for Alex Salmond and has done little to strengthen his authority.  Today was a day I suspect he won’t want to remember.

I should commend John Finnie and Jean Urquhart for their stance.  While as a natural pragmatist I may disagree with them, I commend any politician so evidently making a sacrifice on a point of principle.  Whether those sacrifices were necessary or inevitable is, however, another matter entirely.

It is undeniably self-evident is that the one thing that unites the SNP is the commitment to independence.  What this debate, and the aftermath, has shown is that when it comes down to policy detail there is not that same level of unity.  While inevitably other matters may not arouse the same kinds of passions as the nuclear debate, as the political conversation surrounding independence moves from the general to the more specific we can expect more of these policy divisions to emerge.

Alex Salmond is a clever political operator and a shrewd tactician.  He has done well to see off various Labour leaders, defeat an electoral system designed to prevent any party from securing a majority and ensure the SNP’s policy of an independence referendum becomes reality.  Perhaps, however, a greater challenge will be to articulate a detailed Nationalist vision of an independent Scotland his party can fully agree with.

For those interested, a Scottish nationalist blog, Auld Acquaintance, asks Principle or Stupidity?

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Independence battle begins in earnest

I believe an agreement of "historic significance" was signed in Edinburgh yesterday.

This is welcome, if largely expected, news.

I didn't foresee the Westminster government actively blocking the SNP's reasonable claims to hold the referendum on the date of their choosing, or the SNP providing too much resistance to Cameron's insistence of a single question.  I was moderately surprised that 16 and 17-year olds will be allowed the vote, something of which I am personally supportive.

There has predictably been a great deal of excitement surrounding this.  I'm afraid I don't share it.  To be honest, I was more concerned about developments surrounding Halls meat factory and the resultant loss of both jobs and a once-thriving Scottish business.  It was why I used facebook to suggest that the referendum question should be "Under which constitutional arrangement do you prefer to be unemployed?"

Some things really are too important to be overshadowed by the so-called Edinburgh Agreement.

That said, I'm not understating the importance of the agreement.  The referendum has now become very real.  It is certainly going to happen in 2014.  Gloves can now come off and the battle begin in earnest.  No doubt campaigning will continue in the same vein that it has for the previous few months, characterised by negativity, simplicity, personality and entrenched tribalism, but at least we can concentrate on the arguments about the outcome, rather than the process.

I must admit to feeling that yesterday amounted to something of a personal psychological battle between Alex Salmond and David Cameron, with Michael Moore regrettably left on the sidelines with his efforts largely unrecognised.  Salmond has certainly "won" in regards the timing and the referendum will now take place in the aftermath of a (hopefully) successful Commonwealth Games, the Batttle of Bannockburn commemorations and the Ryder Cup - all of which the SNP calculate will increase the sense of national identity and allow Scots to feel could about themselves.  On the other hand, Cameron will be happy he's ensured the referendum will consist of a single question.  Neither obviously wished to appear too smug before the TV cameras, but clearly the First Minister has waited for this day for some time.  There was a sense of pride evident in his announcement that "the very substantial gain Scotland now has is an agreed process to this referendum".

As for Mr Cameron, he used the opportunity to reassert his own commitment to the union and to extend an appeal to those who are pro-change but who would not necessarily support independence as a default option.  He promised nothing but insisted that "further devolution was possible".  The Conservatives even showed signs of beginning to understand the nature of Scottish politics, quickly killing the idea of a televised debate between Salmond and Cameron when it dawned on them that it would play directly into the First Minister's hands.

Personally, I find it regrettable that yesterday's proceedings were dominated by the First Minister of Scotland and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.  Those who deserve more credit for ensuring this outcome are Nicola Sturgeon and Michael Moore.  In fact, The Times - in praise of Cameron's statesmanship, fails to mention either the Deputy First Minister or the Secretary of State for Scotland.  Moore's had a difficult hand to play and while he's not played the perfect game deserves credit for what he has achieved.  That we will have an undeniably fair and legal referendum is testament to his energy and to the successful negotiations between himself and Sturgeon.  That he was able to confirm that the electorate will be extended to 16 and 17-year-olds was a remarkable success given Conservative opposition and Labour indifference.

Whether the referendum will be "decisive" depends on interpretation.  In my view, the result of the referendum will be the beginning - either of the rebirth of Scotland as an independent nation or of the re-opening of debate surrounding Scottish devolution.  What Scotland will look like post-devolution will largely be determined by the inevitably lengthy negotiations that must take place in the aftermath of the voters' verdict.  If the result is "Yes", then at least there is an agreed course by which to resolve issues and establish independence. If "no", then while there will be talk of further devolution, there is no certainty or guarantee about either the nature of inter-party conversation on the matter, the collective commitment to constitutional change or what precisely that "change" might be.

No doubt that while the result might be decisive, the outcome will not.  It could be extremely messy and in all likelihood will lead to lengthy and potentially acrimonious dialogue that could take several years to arrive at a way forward.

What is now obvious is that those hoping for a second question have lost.  Alex Salmond is surely not one of them; his persistence in keeping it on the agenda stemmed from political motivations - specifically to remind the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats of the opportunities a second question might afford them.  There has been much discussion of the merits of an additional question; I for one preferred the idea of a two-question referendum using the 1997 model, in which the second question only became relevant if the outcome of the first was a rejection of independence.  That however has not happened and we must now accept this.  The debate is academic, even if Professor Michael Keating of Aberdeen University used today's Times to argue that the case against was flawed: "We are told you cannot have a referendum on 'devolution max' because that would require Westminster to agree.  But any settlement will require negotiation and agreement [even independence].  And isn't the Conservative Party not talking of a unilateral referendum to redefine our place in another union?"

The referendum is going to present voters with a straight choice: Independence - Yes or No?  Those supporting change must decide whether they believe their hopes can me fulfilled post-referendum in a Scotland that remains part of a dysfunctional union.  For federalist Lib Dems, this involves asking whether our progressive and proudly held aspirations are likely to be met via negotiations with those who do not share such aims.  We cannot achieve anything alone, the implementation of our fine and noble proposals being dependent on convincing other parties of their value.  Can we trust the Conservatives, whose UK leader yesterday gave no commitment other than suggesting that "those who want to see...further devolution...must vote to stay in the [UK]" and whose Scottish leader seems resistant to the idea?  As for Labour, can they be relied upon to support our objectives, even a watered down version of our proposals?  And what about the SNP, should they lose the referendum?  Would they be disposed to constructive discussion on full fiscal federalism and extending devolution?

Oddly enough, that last question is the one more likely to be answered positively.  What is certain is, if independence is rejected as Cameron says it should be, there is no vehicle through which to guarantee further constitutional change.  To vote "no" therefore, in the hope of further change, is a significant gamble.

In one respect at least, the outcome is irrelevant.  That is in respect to the extension of the franchise to all aged 16 and over.  This is to be welcomed.  There were some, even within the Liberal Democrats, who were cynical about the SNP's motivations and who struggled with the notion of doing this specifically for the referendum.  There were concerns about setting precedents by which electorates could be self-determined by those holding referenda.  Fortunately, common sense has prevailed and the referendum will indeed set a precedent, one which will hopefully lead to extending the electorate for other local and national elections.

The Times asks whether "a 16-year old is ready to exercise democratic responsibility, whether we want schools to be involved in the electoral process and whether we want to take another step in blurring the lines between children, teenagers and adults".  The answer, it concludes, is "surely not".  I disagree.  Such lines are  largely artificial and ignore the inescapable reality that different individuals develop at different rates.  And what could be so wrong with schools actively becoming involved in promoting democracy, rather than having a day off whenever there is an election?

This is an incredible achievement and one which, I hope, will lead to all over-16s being given the vote in future.  Certainly this referendum has given those of us who believe in extending the franchise more cause for belief than the Liberal Democrats, acting alone, have been able to.  And if part of the legacy of 2014 is a permanent reduction in the voting age, even the two years of bickering and relentless negativity that will ensue between now and that fateful day will be but a small price to pay.

The real battle for the SNP is only just beginning.  Alex Salmond, his party and Yes Scotland have a challenge convincing Scots to embrace independence, given that support for it has almost never registered at over a third.  Salmond recognises this, saying yesterday that "I believe in the ability of persuasion on this argument."

So, in two years' time we will finally know the verdict of the Scottish electorate.  In the meantime, I'll live in hope that intelligent voices will dominate a political discussion that will inspire and empower Scots to arrive at informed decisions.  I am a positive person deep down...


No, Nick Clegg has NOT cocked up over page 3

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has today been accused on Lib Dem Voice of having "cocked-up" over his refusal to sign a petition calling for an end to topless women appearing on Page 3 of The Sun.

Daisy Cooper, arguing that Nick Clegg should "sign the petition now", feels that by not signing it, and through defending this decision on Radio 5 Live, the Deputy Prime Minister has undermined Lynne Featherstone and Jo Swinson, who are both supportive of the campaign.

Some background would perhaps be useful.  The campaign, @NoMorePage3, has been campaigning for the cessation of Page 3 for understandable reasons: the objectification and dehumanisation of women and the inappropriateness of such images in a "family newspaper".  It has been openly supported by a few Liberal Democrat MPs, namely Featherstone, Swinson and Tom Brake.  The main weapon in the campaign's armoury has been an online petition whose aim is to convince The Sun that Page 3 girls should be confined to history.

Actually, I agree with these aims.

Indeed, I have signed the petition.

I am not at all offended by photographs of topless women.  In fact, as a photographer, I've taken quite a few.  Generally more artistic than what appears in The Sun each day, but you get the point.  Nudity is not offensive.  There are many places that are appropriate for such images, but The Sun is not one of them.  The wider political issue is actually very complicated and in a liberal society it's important to value the choices people make as individuals.  However, I agree with Daisy Cooper and Jo Swinson on the signals that axing Page 3 would send out - like Swinson I am equally concerned about the impact images of "beautiful bodies" have on the quest for perfection, and the often negative consequences - something I recently discussed in an article for Gay Star News.  And while Page 3 is merely the tip of the iceberg as far as near-perfect images of women (and men), often airbrushed, are concerned I agree there would be many positives to The Sun, and other newspapers, calling time on it.

That said, I don't see how Nick Clegg has "cocked up" by refusing to sign the petition.  In fact, the vast majority of Lib Dem MPs have not.  Clegg qualified his decision by arguing that the government has no role in determining the content of newspapers.  On this he is quite right.  And, as a member of the government, he should not be seen to interfere with the freedom of the press.

Copper suggests that, as the petition is not aimed at the government but the editor of The Sun, this defence is redundant.  She then goes on to criticise Clegg's comments, which she states have been used to undermine Lynne Featherstone in particular.

She is right on one count  -someone did attempt to undermine Lynne Featherstone.  But it wasn't Nick Clegg. It was The Sun.  Predictably, the newspaper was keen to play up the significance of Clegg's more relaxed stance and his assertion that "if [people] don't like it, they shouldn't buy it".  Equally as predictably, The Sun was keen to name MPs who are taking the opposite view. How is that Nick Clegg's fault?

Let's put this another way.  Imagine that Nick Clegg had signed the petition.  The fact that it was aimed at The Sun, rather than the government, would be minor detail as far as the newspaper was concerned.  He would be inevitably portrayed as against the freedom of the press and a greater controversy about freedoms and the nature of Clegg's liberalism would have been sparked.  Clegg has the integrity and dignity of his office to consider - he really would have "cocked up" if he'd allowed himself to be undermined by adding his signature to a petition.

The Sun takes no prisoners.  If Clegg had signed the petition it would have mercilessly pilloried him and openly raised questions about his commitment to press freedom.  He would have been presented as some kind of control-freak politician, interfering in business that should be no concern of the government.  This would have done little to aid his personal standing or that of the party.

I actually think Nick has acted wisely.  And, much I support the broad aim of the campaign, I don't disagree with anything he said on Radio 5 Live.

I'm also sure that Lynne Featherstone is neither surprised nor particularly perturbed by The Sun's behaviour towards her.  In fact, if I were her, I'd take it as a back-handed compliment.  She's obviously rattled The Sun - which is surely a key objective?

What is concerning is the near puritanical stance of those who would criticise Clegg over this.  They need to see the bigger picture.  Effective leadership is not about simply supporting populist causes.  On this case, Clegg has reinforced his liberal credentials (the only answer he could give when asked if he believed in a ban is "no"), skilfully giving the media no room to undermine him while simultaneously neither distancing himself from the campaign nor offering it personal support.

And so, I would suggest to Daisy Cooper and my fellow Liberal Democrats involved in this campaign this: the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.   That is not Nick Clegg, and quite what these criticism achieve I'm not sure.  I would also ask them to remember that we are a liberal party.

It is sometimes appropriate to question Nick Clegg's performance in government, his leadership qualities, his strategy, his stance on policy issues or his inter-personal relationships with Conservative colleagues.  But on this issue, Clegg has performed as well as anyone can have expected him to and deserves credit for the way he's handled the media.

Monday, 15 October 2012

British politics – is the future plural?

So asked the Fabian Society at Labour conference two weeks ago.

I’ve struggled to find the time to write in the last couple of weeks.  Part of this is workload – in the last four weeks I’ve worked at five weddings and a party conference, which rather sounds like an idea for a film.  Added to this is the inevitable effect a 13-week old baby has on both production and inclination. 

But I do want to discuss this matter.  There are several reasons.  Firstly, I am a pluralist and I believe that discussion of the nature of British politics is necessary and will be topical for at least as long as we have coalition government.  Secondly, this debate evidenced attitudes that are both encouraging and concerning in equal measure.  Thirdly, given the coalition’s internal dynamics and the latest news that a new coalition document is already being drawn up, it must be asked whether the coalition is actually pluralism in action or in fact simply a different expression of tribal affiliation.  And, finally, as I’d written copious notes I didn’t want to waste them.

The Fabian Society pointed to research suggesting that 30% of Labour supporters favour coalition.  They also observed that Liberal Democrat and Labour supporters are in many respects very similar and asked the question: “How desirable are pluralist politics?”  To answer the question was a panel made up of Labour MPs John Denham and Caroline Flint, Lib Dem MPs John Pugh and Simon Hughes and Katie Ghose from the Electoral Reform Society.  It might have been useful to have also included a Conservative but this didn’t seem to have occurred to the Fabian Society who seemed to view pluralism through the narrow prism of Labour-Liberal Democrat relations.

John Denham
First to speak was John Denham.  Denham was interesting.  He was measured and sensible.  He was strangely positive.  He openly embraced pluralism and was critical of partisan politics.  The past has always been plural he explained, but that this was not necessarily about coalition government.  This plurality was evident in the battles for women’s suffrage, the NHS, workers’ rights and devolution.  Unlike some other Labour figures, he conceded that neither of these would have been achieved without the help of “others from outwith the Labour Party”.  Progressive change, he insisted, “can never be delivered solely by one party in parliament” – which sounded a little like a criticism of the Blair-Brown governments, but perhaps was not intended to be.

On coalitions, Denham said they were no bad thing.  He added that “the Lib Dems are OK really”, but went on to say that these assumptions, once common among Labour supporters, had been seriously challenged recently.  On critical issues such as social justice he claimed that Lib Dem supporters share very similar values to Labour and that, therefore, we need a system of politics that brings this to the fore, “challenging tribalism and sectarianism where it exists”.  He spoke of the AV referendum and how this didn’t aid the cause of “progressive politics” – something he clearly feels is the ultimate goal of pluralism.

He had a great deal to say on this.  Progressive pluralism is required, he argued, to ensure that the largely progressive views of the public were adequately expressed within the political system.  This is a challenge to all parties, he declared.  In particular, Labour face a challenge to become less sectarian while Liberal Democrats bust become better at articulating the progressive attitudes of  members and, in key areas, become more than a mere anti-Labour party.

John Pugh
Denham was followed by John Pugh, one of my favourite Liberal Democrat MPs.  Pugh chose to emphasise the importance of relationships.  He stated that he dislikes the politics of personality, but that ultimately personalities and how the interact have a huge impact on the success of cross-party collaboration.  He spoke of the need for a “tribal realignment” that he felt must go beyond coalitions – which he felt were both the results of electoral accidents and have a tendency to lock parties into them so that they become prisoners of events.  Some wise words indeed on the difficulties the party is currently experiencing.  Turning his attentions to the Lib Dems, Pugh spoke of the difficulty of implementing policy, of the spectre of an emerging tribalism within the party and the need to avoid knee-jerk reactions which are, more often than not, based on relationships between parties and individuals. 

Pugh announced that his principal aspiration in life is to avoid ever watching “The Sound of Music” and to date he has been successful.  I had to admit to feeling a pang of envy at that point.  His other aspiration is to go through a parliament without ever resorting to such lines as “I take no lessons...”  This is either grandstanding or intolerance, neither of which further pluralism.  The language of politics must change, he insisted, if there is to be a change in culture.  He finished by suggesting that voters are weary of tribalism and in fact like off-key messages.

Katie Ghose
Katie Ghose agreed that tribal allegiances were dying.  Support for the main parties is also in decline.  Parties now have the choice between pursuing the tribal or the plural and must have the courage to opt for the tougher option.  She suggested that the evolving nature of British politics meant that parties need to learn to “retain their sense of identity while changing the conversation” or risk irrelevance.  While admitting that support for coalition itself is in freefall among Labour members, a high proportion continue to value collaboration. 

Unless the political system recognises this and parties learn to both co-operate and communicate more effectively, the volatile nature of the modern voter and an increased willingness on the part of electors to shift their vote could force pluralism onto an unwilling parliamentary “system”.  Ghose’s message seemed to be one of the inevitability of pluralism based on voters’ dissatisfaction with their voices not counting and rising support for minor parties.  Better for the system to embrace pluralism now than have it painfully thrust upon it.

Caroline Flint: "I caught a fish that was this big!"
Next up was Caroline Flint.  Flint was not John Denham.  Flint was not a pluralist.  Flint was a reactionary Labour tribalist who didn’t quite seem to understand the point of the question.  For her, this was simply an opportunity to bash the Liberal Democrats.  And bash them she did.  She started off by suggesting that Labour lost the General Election because it wasn’t saying enough about immigration (never a promising introduction).  She then dismissed the argument that coalition is “an answer to our problems” as “sterile”.  Coalitions do not work, she said, forgetting about Scotland and Wales.  What Britain needs is not coalition government, but “more decentralisation of decision-making and greater differentiation at local level.”  That actually sounded quite good but ignores two key points: why does Labour refuse to lay down its centralising instincts and what alternative form of government at Westminster does she feel would provide an effective alternative?

But Caroline Flint was not there to provide answers, simply to criticise.  Among her more memorable quotes were these painfully predictable assertions: “coalition is not good”, “coalition is not accountable and leads to backroom, secretive deals”, “smaller parties make promises they can’t keep”, “principles are undermined by coalition”.  Each of these can be easily rebuffed and I can only imagine what Donald Dewar might make of that last one.  She went as far as to say the entire discussion was “dishonest” as the Liberal Democrats “only want [pluralism] as a means to power”. 

Her main objection seemed to be that “you can’t vote for a coalition” and therefore that it shouldn’t be an option post-election should no party have a majority.  Naturally, she saw no reason to suggest what other possible outcomes were acceptable, and whether the voters’ inability to vote for these might present equally tough democratic problems.  All in all, Flint’s contribution was a tribalist rant thinly obscured behind a veneer of an argument.  It was a huge disappointment and highlights some of the potential difficulties our party may have in future collaborations with key Labour personnel.

Simon Hughes makes his point
Finally it was Simon Hughes’ turn.  He did appear to respond to some of Caroline Flint’s facile criticisms: “do we ask how we can achieve some of what we want or do we take our bat home?”  He used Scotland and Wales of examples of both coalition partners being happy with what they got from the partnerships.  He added that coalitions were not natural alliances, and that the alternative to coalition in 2010 was potentially another General Election and three terms of Tory government.  Hughes gave examples of where the Liberal Democrats have opposed Conservative policies and admitted that he “is not embarrassed by these”.  He also pointed out that government is inevitably more uncomfortable than non-government as Labour knows.  “They both introduced and trebled tuition fees when they said they wouldn’t” he reminded the audience.

After this, Hughes turned his attentions to a more general vision of pluralist politics.  He expressed dismay at how so many votes are determined by party management.  He added that “big picture” politics needs co-operation in place of timid government.  We can’t know what electoral outcomes might be in the future, but that isn’t the principal point.  Future judgments should be made in an evidence-based way and should not be about personalities.  The focus “should be on the team, not the players” he maintained, referring to an Observer piece speculating about key personnel being sacrificed to facilitate a future Labour-Lib Dem alliance.  It is not for us to dictate who other parties’ spokesmen are said Hughes, overlooking Nick Clegg’s comments about Gordon Brown in 2010.  “if you want a deal” he challenged Labour, “have a radical manifesto that allows progressives to work together for a real redistribution of wealth and power, internationalism and environmentalism.”   He concluded by describing a pluralism in which “co-operative politics [could] be forged irrespective of the [kind of] electoral accident that produced the coalition.”

After this a more fierce debate ensued with contributions from the floor – some interesting and intelligent, others idiotic, tribal and hostile.  One of the better questioners asked why we are chiefly talking about pluralism in respect to the Lib Dem – Labour relationship and in a very narrow way.  Aren’t parties themselves coalitions?  And doesn’t the changing nature of pluralism go beyond party politics, such as those organisations much more able to mobilise people than political parties?  Shouldn’t they be part of the progressive future?

Fortunately Caroline Flint had left by this stage due to other commitments, so John Pugh answered that “Liberal Democrats reject a simple polarity of left and right...the change of conversation is the real prize”.  John Denham echoed this and extended the logic: “Progressive pluralism is the only way to achieve progressive change.  The purpose of pluralism is critical to the exercise.  The worst case for pluralism is pointing to electoral results and stating that it is inevitable.  Maturity of discussion is made difficult by political cultures in which differences are maximised.” He noted with regret that this too often extends to local politics where party politics becomes a roadblock to “progressive discussion”.    Simon Hughes agreed that there has been a rise of political activity outside of party structures and that the energy of independent organisations is an example of pluralism in action.

Of course pluralism is wider than the narrow activities of parliamentary party politics and is, in fact, far from dependent on it.  Pluralism is not an action or an arrangement but an attitude.  Indeed, as Liberal Democrats it is one that should influence how we relate to other parties and respond to political events.  As John Pugh observed, the coalition is not evidence of a pluralist system but has “created the need for a different, more civilised, style of politics.”  In his view, the adversarial nature of Westminster politics undermines coalition and progressive politics.

John Denham rounded up by insisting that “Labour will do better if not seen as a sectarian party” but was realistic enough to recognise the need to “minimise the number of people [within Labour] who consider electoral reform to be a barrier to dialogue”.  And then, it was announced, there was room for one final question.  The “questioner” was Austin Mitchell MP.  The question never came; what did was a rant of which Caroline Flint would be proud and an accusation that the coalition “shows that the Liberal Democrats are the enemies of pluralism.”  Inadvertently Mitchell had made a timely contribution, confirming every one of John Denham’s points.  Can there be a pluralist politics in the UK as long as the views of Mitchell, Flint and their ilk command support of a large proportion of their party?

It was certainly an interesting debate, hampered as it inevitably would be by the ironic decent into tribalism.  It suggested positive opportunities while reinforcing the need to proceed with caution as far as relationships with Labour are concerned.  As John Pugh stated, inter-party co-operation is largely down to successful relationships.  The prospect of having any kind of constructive relationship with the likes of Caroline Flint seems remote.

Pluralism in one sense is not an aspiration; it is a current reality.  We live in a pluralist society, work in pluralist offices and send our children to pluralist schools.  Pluralism is a product of contemporary social culture, a culture that the political system must both accept and adjust to.  We might not be a nation of pluralists, but it is certainly the predominant view of a society becoming ever more tolerant and inclusive.  Therefore any lead from parliamentarians to ensure our parliaments and councils need to more adequately reflect this reality is to be welcomed, even if exorcising the spectre of tribalism seems (for the moment) an impossible task.  

Monday, 8 October 2012

The SNP need quality opposition - the Lib Dems can provide it

The SNP government have had a reasonable eighteen months in which it has done many things that it, the country and in fact liberals can be proud of.

That said, there are times when its decisions really do need to be challenged.  It is at times like these that it becomes blatantly obvious that the SNP need quality opposition; the kind of opposition that might be expected from a Scottish Labour Party looking to forge a new identity and reconnect with voters.

Not that Labour are likely to be critical of the SNP's centralising instincts, but I would have imagined that Johann Lamont has had sufficient time to revitalise her party following its catastrophic defeat in 2011, and that she might have instilled in it a new sense of purpose and direction.  I might also have imagined that she'd have set out a distinctive policy platform - her speech last week suggested that she has grasped this realisation of the need for distinctiveness, but that there has been little imagination employed in creating this fresh new policy direction.

No doubt that Johann Lamont wanted to project a pragmatic and realistic alternative way forward.  What she has succeeded in doing is creating a confused, muddled mess.  Her conference speech, like many opposition attempts to outmanoeuvre the SNP, failed dramatically in its principal aim and serves only to underline how divided and lacking in direction Scottish Labour now are.  Opinion is divided on whether Lamont is, or is not, lurching to the right; whether this is pragmatic realpolitik or an abandonment of Labour principles.  And that's just among Labour members.

Last week also witnessed a rather ugly opposition day debate on "Scotland's future", in which Labour resorted to ugly and personal attacks.  If this partisan tribalism is "Scotland's future" then I for one don't want to be part of it.  This attitude, particularly on the part of Labour, is evident in all their dealings with the SNP.  On last week's FMQs, journalist Eddie Barnes observed that when "Salmond makes a defence of the principle of universal services...Lamont respond[ed] with a personal attack".  This tribalism neatly encapsulates everything we've come to expect of Scottish Labour.  

Lamont hopes to convince Scottish voters that her party is fit for government.  On recent evidence, Scottish Labour isn't even fit for opposition.

So, who else can provide the kind of opposition so necessary in a healthy democracy?  The Conservatives?  To a point they can.  There have been times when I've been impressed by Ruth Davidson.  Of course the Conservatives have their own internal difficulties, as well as suffering from inevitable identification with what happens in Westminster.  That said, Davidson is having a little more success that her Labour counterpart in articulating a policy direction and bringing her party with her.  The principal problem for her is that she isn't Annabel Goldie: she lacks that personal touch and struggles to resonate with the public.  When she does challenge Alex Salmond's party, especially on policy, her own ideas are often so out of touch with public sympathies that inevitably it hinders her effectiveness.  Davidson is finding a voice for her party, but it is still the toxic voice of Conservatism in the eyes of many Scots.

Partick Harvie is developing something of a reputation.  He has the advantage of being entertaining as well as  possessing a real knowledge of key policy issues. He is a natural pluralist but isn't afraid to hold the government to account. He also has the advantage of not having his politics determined by a defence of the Union - too often an impediment to reason in Scottish politics. Patrick's Green Party, with its two MSPs, clearly punches above its weight and provide the robust intellectual challenges to the SNP that really should be provided by Labour, but even this falls far short of the quality opposition Scottish democracy urgently needs.

Willie Rennie experiences many of the same difficulties as Patrick Harvie due to the Scottish Liberal Democrats' status as a minority party (with five MSPs).  Rennie has a different approach than Harvie, which works best when it is not personality driven and transcends the partisan divisions of Holyrood politics.  His FMQs performances have been somewhat mixed but an example of Rennie at his best can be seen in last week's FMQs when he asked a question about extending early intervention for two-year-olds, which he supported with expert opinion on the matter.  The First Minister was unable to answer the question satisfactorily, focusing instead on the government's existing commitment to three and four-year-olds.  Rennie's response?  To praise the progress made already but to add that "I want to join in the consensus...but we need a bit more commitment.  If a two-year-old misses out, they miss out forever. We need a radical change to do more.."  To which Salmond was left making comparisons between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

When Rennie's contributions are measured, considered and free from personal attacks he cuts a far more assured figure.  It also makes him more effective on a number of levels.  Firstly, in regards appearances, he is able to project himself as rational and above the pettiness of party politics.  Secondly, when he appeals to pluralism, as he did here, he shows a willingness to co-operate while placing the ball firmly in the SNP's court.  Thirdly, he is able to create more difficulties for the SNP and the First Minister via this approach than with the kinds of personality-centred methods that have persistently failed to deliver.

Of course, effective opposition goes beyond leaders' performances in FMQs. That really is Labour's problem: Lamont's conference speech has highlighted the divisions within the Labour Party and its ongoing identity crisis. The inability of Labour and the Conservatives to provide the level of opposition democracy demands means that Willie Rennie (and Patrick Harvie) must raise their games. If they are able to provide strong voices, critical where necessary but collaborative where possible, they could forge significant opportunities for their respective parties.

I wrote over a year ago of the need for a liberal renaissance.  If that renaissance is to become a reality, then the Scottish Liberal Democrats, and Willie Rennie in particular, have to make opposition work.  This is a tough challenge given the limited parliamentary numbers and public identification with the Westminster coalition, but if the quality of Rennie's performance as last week's FMQs is evidence of a new approach to opposition there is every reason to be optimistic.

Certainly, if the attitudes, reason, attention to detail, pragmatism and desire to achieve progressive change that so characterised Rennie's contribution can become hallmarks of the public perception of what our party is, we can be confident that our wider messages will be received more positively.  No-one wants to take lectures from arrogant tribalists, no matter how much truth those lectures may contain.

So, in a nutshell, with the principal opposition parties in Holyrood being either in disarray or ineffective, Willie Rennie has to master the art of opposition.  It shouldn't be too difficult - after all, isn't opposition what we're supposed to be good at?

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Yes Scotland denied stand at Scottish Lib Dem conference

I observed in The Herald this morning that the Scottish Liberal Democrats have denied Yes Scotland's application for an exhibition stand at the party's conference in Dunfermline on 27th October.

On one level this was unsurprising and consistent with the party's attitude towards Yes Scotland.  But, on another, it is inconsistent with our fundamentally liberal values, our respect for pluralistic democracy and our desire to facilitate political debate.  

I am not entirely sure who made this decision, but if either conference committee or the leadership feels that the party needs protecting from the evil rhetoric of Yes Scotland it demonstrates an insecurity and fear that is not befitting a party of our history and character.  Personally, I would welcome Yes Scotland attending - as I would Better Together.  There is nothing to suggest that we should agree with the aims of an organisation in order to allow it to exhibit at our conference - after all, at Labour conference this week there is a heavy "no to HS2" campaign presence in spite of HS2 being official Labour policy. 

If Labour can do it, why can't we?

There are some Scottish Liberal Democrats who favour an independent Scotland and it is wrong to deny this reality.  More importantly, while there  is undoubtedly a majority within the Liberal Democrats who are opposed to Scottish independence, I doubt whether there are any who do not favour a fair and transparent debate about the issues ahead of the 2014 vote. 

Therefore, to deny Yes Scotland the opportunity to disseminate information to conference delegates is a shocking misjudgment and totally contrary to fundamental Liberal Democrat values.  I hope that for the sake of the party and for democracy, this decision needs to be reversed immediately.

I for one would love Yes Scotland to attend our conference.  I would personally welcome the opportunity to debate with them, as also I am sure would so many of our fellow members.  

Or is conference now a debate-free zone?

Monday, 1 October 2012

I challenge Simon Hughes on our pluralist credentials

I'm at Labour Party conference this week.

Well, I couldn't get to Brighton so I'm in Manchester instead. I'm addicted to party conferences!

Actually, I'm volunteering with a non-party organisation which means I'm missing most of the main event. However, on discovering that John Pugh and Simon Hughes, two Lib Dem MPs I have enormous regard for, were debating at a Fabian Society event, I wasn't going to be kept away. It was certainly more appealing than some of the other options.

The debate asked "Is the future plural?"  It was a fascinating discussion (about which I will write later in the week), with John and Simon making the kinds of points you might expect from Liberal Democrats.  They defended the coaltion, advocated coalition more generally and also argued for a broader pluralism that is both independent of electoral outcomes and goes beyond party politics.  John seemed particularly keen on changing the culture of political conversation and the adversarial style that characterises British politics, both locally and nationally.

It was, for the most part, an excellent debate.  It was difficult to disagree with the sensible arguments put forward not only by John and Simon, but also Katie Ghose from the Electoral Reform Society and Labour MP John Denham.  There was at least broad consensus that pluralism was positive and should be a key objective, even if the reasoning and interpretations of what pluralism actually was differed slightly.  Caroline Flint appeared to have been included as the token Labour tribalist, unhelpfully interpreting the Liberal Democrats' current difficulties as evidence that coalitions are bad, bad, bad.

I was somewhat uncomfortable, however.  This was because, while I was in agreement with John and Simon, my experience in Scotland in recent years is that we are not a pluralist party.  Their assertions and advancement of progressive pluralism simply did not sit well with the Scottish Lib Dems' behaviour in recent years.  If evidence of belief is to be found in actions and attitudes, then we simply don't believe in pluralism.  It was something I was keen to talk to Simon Hughes about afterwards.

Simon was happy to give me some of his time, perhaps only because I was a Lib Dem at Labour conference.  I am very grateful he did, because we had an interesting discussion about the recent history of the party in Scotland, my concerns for the future and criticisms of the tribalist positions we have taken in recent years.

I explained to Simon that I don't believe that the catastrophe in 2011 was, as commonly believed, entirely due to associations with the Westminster coalition.  We'd have faced a struggle in any case.  He agreed.  Many of our problems, I suggested, stemmed from our refusal to enter into coalition talks with the SNP in 2007.  Whether we decided to go into coalition is another matter, but not to even consider talks simply because the SNP supported an independence referendum was plainly ill-advised.  Simon had previously made some intellectual points about coalition which I felt this experience proved: a) that parties can be punished for not entering coalition as well as actually doing so and b) it is foolish of a minor party to align itself too closely with one particular partner - in our case the Labour Party.  The consequences of this non-pluralistic approach is our appearing petty and tribal.  It also led to a loss of political credibility in the eyes of many and compromised our democratic and pluralistic credentials.  Worse still from the point of view of those opposed to a referendum, continued objections from the Liberal Democrats and others simply played into the hands of the SNP.  That referendum will now happen.

We've lost some of our identity in the process, I told Simon.  And since then, our actions continually defend this decision as shown in our antipathy towards the SNP.  At leadership level, we still seem more willing to co-operate with Labour, as witnessed by Tavish Scott's recent comments in The Scotsman and Willie Rennie, at the bloggers' interview, saying positive things about Johann Lamont but nothing generous in respect to the First Minister.  If any more evidence was needed, one only has to consider the misguided attempt by the Scottish leader to smear the SNP in his conference speech.  Our attitude towards other parties is not governed by a pluralistic approach, but by resentments and past relationships.  I put it to Simon that this decision made it harder to defend the Westminster coalition in Scotland: how could we refuse to talk to a potential coalition partner who shared many of our political beliefs over something as trivial as a referendum, while happily entering a coalition with a party both unloved in Scotland and whose policies are often diametrically opposed to our own and the views of Scottish voters?

Simon agreed with most of this.  He explained that he disagreed with the decision made by the Scottish Lib Dems in 2007 and that he was surprised by it.  He agreed it was not pluralism in action.  He accepted the analysis that our identity, characterised by co-operation and respect for democratic outcomes, had suffered as a result.  He also expressed criticisms and concerns that I'm sure he wouldn't want repeated on here - but it was quite clear that he understands the nature of Scottish politics and some of the problems we've created for ourselves by forgetting that being liberal and democratic means that we're also pluralists.

As for the future, Simon was cautiously optimistic.  He sees opportunities for the Liberal Democrats in a post-referendum Scotland, as do I.  But they're opportunities that will only be taken if we again embrace genuine pluralism.

I have always liked Simon, but I like him a little more after last night's conversation.  There's no doubt he is a real pluralist committed to a politics of collaboration, for pragmatic as well as ideological reasons.  The Scottish Liberal Democrats, if we are again to become a force, would do well to adopt a similar approach.