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Sunday, 30 June 2013

Welcome Croatia...28th EU member state

As of midnight tonight the Republic of Croatia will be a member of the European Union.

This is a very positive development and represents a significant move forward for the Balkan nation, which in the recent past was ravaged by war. Croatia's accession will hopefully encourage other former Yugoslavian states to join the EU, and underlines the progress both the country and the region have made since the horrors of ethnic conflict in the 1990s.

Representatives of the press gather in advance of
President Schulz's welcoming speech
There are celebrations today in Croatia, although they are almost certain to be somewhat muted in spite of Croatian people voting overwhelmingly to approve EU entry last year.  Croatia has significant economic problems and the general mood may not be over-enthusiastic. That said, it is clear the majority of Croatians understand the importance of joining the EU, the stability it will bring and the importance of this milestone in the nation's modern history. They also understand the role of the EU in securing lasting peace - surely a compelling argument for the EU and an explanation for the scale of the referendum result in 2012.

Martin Schulz: a "common and peaceful future"
The President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, is in Zagreb today as part of the official celebrations. Germany's Angela Merkel and the UK's David Cameron have opted not to be there, presumably in the latter case because enlarging the EU is perceived as a threat rather than an opportunity to further the interconnected causes of peace, prosperity, co-operation and freedom.

Politically speaking, Croatia has come a long way in short time. Its recovery is quite remarkable against the backdrop of its turbulent recent history.

Zoran Milanovic: looking to the future
Whether membership of the EU will provide economic as well as political stability is open to debate, but what should be celebrated is the extent to which nations that in the 1980s had weapons pointed at us, and even more recently were subjected to brutal civil wars, now aspire to join the European family.

This development means a great deal to my brother, Adrian, who served in the Army in the Balkans during the 1990s and has a particular affinity to Croatia and its people. Incorporating former Yugoslav states into the EU will ensure that the area with a historic tendency to confirm its reputation as "the powder keg of Europe" can be sure of a peaceful future.

Milanovic and Schulz
On Thursday, I was present at an official welcoming of Croatia into the EU at the European parliament in Brussels. (More can be found on the EU's website here...if you look closely you may see me in the picture).  The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz gave a speech in which he drew attention to the shared culture and emphasised the importance of "common and peaceful future". Zoran Milanovic, the Prime Minister of Croatia who spoke with an American accent and appeared to model himself from the US President in the film Independence Day, was surprisingly non-triumphal in his speech. He preferred to concentrate on the task ahead but did find time to stress the importance of commonality of purpose, close economic ties and integration.  He sounded a bit like he was auditioning to be a spokesman for Better Together. 

Actually, Milanovic himself is a symbol of how far Croatia has progressed.  The leader of the Social Democratic Party (which has only recently become the dominant force in Croatian politics; with the exception of three years the conservative and "patriotic" Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica - HDZ - held power between 1992 and 2011), Milanovic describes himself as "a liberal" and has championed equality, LGBT rights and women's issues. Croatian politicians simply weren't talking about these kinds of issues even ten years ago.


Hannes Swoboda, President of the group of the
Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats,
welcomed EU enlargement
What was particularly touching was the way in which the talented photographer responsible for the impressive and forward-looking exhibition of artworks marking Croatia's cultural heritage was given the opportunity to stand on the platform with Milanovic and Schulz and give his own speech. Damir Fabijanic didn't say much, but he didn't need to. His few words underlined the reality that it is creative, forward-looking people who have been responsible for Croatia's political recovery and reinvention as a modern nation.

Croatia was keen to showcase its artistic heritage,
including traditional dress.
Following the speeches an exhibition was opened, entitled (excruciatingly) Be CROATive. It could have been better, consisting mainly of non-persuasive arguments for relocating business in Croatia. The artistic work was pretty good, however.

Martin Schulz will welcome the 12 new Croatian MEPs tomorrow. Obviously this also means that a new portfolio will be created - perhaps by splitting maritime affairs and fisheries?

It's worth noting that Croatia has signed up to neither the Euro nor the Schengen regulations (although in regards the latter will have to do so before 2015).

So, welcome Croatia to the EU. Here's to a peaceful and prosperous future.

Dobrodošli, Hrvatska. Želim vam uspješan i miran budućnost.

All photographs taken by myself on 27.6.13



Review of Scottish Social Liberal Forum 2013

Allan Heron and Norman Fraser
The Scottish Social Liberal Forum held its annual conference at the Partick Burgh Hall on Saturday 29th June 2013.  The agenda was reasonably adventurous and the debate, while perhaps not reaching the combative levels once played out on the sporting field across the road (Hamilton Crescent being the home of the first ever Scotland v England internationals), was certainly lively.

Skivers or Strivers?

Discussion commenced with a debate on the causes of poverty. Robin Tennant, representing the Poverty Alliance, gave a presentation on poverty in Scotland in which he sought to destroy some myths and challenge the current direction of government policy.  He began by highlighting some fact about unemployment in Scotland: unemployment among under-25s doubled to 90,000 between 2008 and 2012; there has been an increase in low income working families and a similar increase in part-time employment during the same period – from 70,000 in 2008 and 120,000 in 2012. AT the same time, the number of people employed in full-time work fell by 120,000. Youth unemployment continues to rise, although Robin also observed that even in the “good times” it never fell below the 12% mark.  Most significantly, he demonstrated that life expectancy in the most deprived 10% of Scottish communities is a mere 68 years – 14 years below the highest 10%. His assertion that the government’s welfare cuts will hit the poorest hardest has also been backed by the SNP in today’s Sunday Herald.
Robin Tennant destroys some myths

He went on to look at the nature and effect of welfare cuts, citing evidence from the Fraser Allander Trust to argue the, of the £20bn cuts, £2bn relates directly to Scottish claimants. Inequalities will continue to increase and children and families will be disproportionately hit. He was particularly critical of the fact that all benefits (with the exception of Pension Credit) have been uprated by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rather than the Retail Price Index (RPI) – something he regards as the single biggest cut of all the government’s measures.  The 1% cap, locked by legislation, actually impacts many in work and would therefore have the opposite of the intended effect of “making work pay”. He also voiced concerns about the new Universal Credit, not least on account of the stringent conditionality that could see benefit being stopped for up to three years.

Robin seemed keen to shatter some pervasive myths and, with an impressive armoury of data and statistics, proceeded to show that both current and previous welfare reforms were based on a series of myths.  Among these myths were the dependency culture, the notion of generations on welfare, that benefits are too generous, and the idea of benefit fraud being rife. He was particularly concerned with the language being used to currently frame the debate – most obviously George Osborne’s simplistic and divisive differentiation between “skivers and strivers”. It is at best stigmatising and at worst blatantly untrue. He accused Osborne, and others, of using “a new language to reinforce old myths”.

Terms such as “benefits lifestyle”, “cultures of worklessness”, “a lost sense of responsibility” etc. suggest a moral dimension to living in poverty and that the mere existence of welfare encourages certain types of unethical behaviour.  It is also intellectually dishonest to make the “dependency” arguments, he claimed, when all of us are to some degree dependent on the state – e.g. for healthcare, for maintaining the roads, for providing policing services. As for the claim of “generations” on benefits, Robin quoted evidence from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that confirmed that no cases of three generational worklessness have been found and that households with two generations who are both workless amount to a mere 0.04%. (Even this statistic inflates the level of the problem as it only takes into account permanent employment).

The real problem is the lack of jobs. Less that 10% of people in receipt of JSA have been claiming for more than 1 year – and the majority claim for less than three months –but that the proportion of repeat claims is high. 46% of new JSA claimants have had a previous claim within the previous 6 months. There are far more JSA claimants than there are job vacancies and conditionality, while it reduces claims, has not been evidences as having any positive effect on increasing employment. Similarly moving people from other benefits onto JSA does not actually increase employment and serves principally to increase the claimant to vacancy ratio.

Without job creation the problem cannot be alleviated. In fact, there is also a very real problem with the growth of in-work poverty that the government is failing to address with its punitive measures.  We have a government short on ideas of how to tackle poverty and its associated problems, whose actions are exacerbating them.

On the question of benefit fraud, Robin compared the DWP’s own statistics (showing £1.6bn lost, including overpayments) with those suggesting that tax evasion, avoidance and non-payment in combination costs the state £120bn, in doing so asking questions of the government’s priorities. Poverty, said Robin, is “complex, dynamic and multi-dimensional”, caused by “structural rather than individual failings” – such as low pay, inflation or lack of childcare. It is these failings the government is failing to get to grips with, impacting negatively on health and education.

So, what is the solution? Robin was keen to state that “eradicating poverty is everyone’s responsibility” and advocated a combination of adopting the JRF’s Minimum Income standard, a rise in the value of benefits and payments, the minimum wage being a living wage, a progressive tax regime, and a programme of affordable social housing.

The boring stuff

Next up was Allan Heron asking conference to approve changes to the draft constitution. It was not the high point of the day’s business.

The Case for Scottish Independence


Allan Heron in conversation with Blair Jenkins
Blair Jenkins, the CEO of Yes Scotland, was present for a discussion entitled “The debate we’re not having on Scottish independence”. Blair was what we might expect – sensible, reasonable and positive. He made a number of points, which are summarised as follows:

There is a need for an honest debate about the kind of society we want and the kind of people we want to be.
What is at stake is not identity but democracy, fairness and prosperity.
The nature of campaigning is important. When YES wins, he insisted, NO supporters will be equally committed to the success of an independent Scotland. Campaigning cannot afford to be polarising and divisive, and should be simply an expression of a temporary disagreement about the direction of travel.
The big question is about the kind of society we want Scotland to be. Blair noted that CND have asked their supporters to vote YES as it represents their best prospect of achieving their goals.
We need to move away from the simplistic “could Scotland be independent?”  - which he feels no-one on either side seriously doubts – to the more “grown-up” question: “should Scotland be independent?”
A significant advantage of independence would be our own constitution, and the guarantees and rights underpinned by it.
Blair Jenkins: what is at stake is not identity but democracy,
fairness and prosperity
Scotland has the lowest life expectancy in Europe and the greatest social disparities in terms of life expectancy. An independent Scotland can be better equipped to change this.
While data around the economy demonstrates that Scotland can be independent, it’s impossible to accurately predict what Scotland will do if it becomes independent...but it is impossible to facilitate greater economic equality and change our society for the better unless we control these levers.
Good economic outcomes produce good social outcomes, as evidenced by the Scandinavian nations – where both societal and economic outcomes score highly. There is compelling evidence that smaller countries do well in terms of these outcomes.
In apparent reference to the previous debate, it is harder for smaller nations to disassociate from poverty.  Scottish politics should not be understood in terms of right and left, but right and wrong. A feature of Scottish life is an acceptance of the need to respond to poverty, but we are unable to fulfil our responsibilities as policies are created in Westminster that are often destructive to this ethos.
The artistic community is behind the YES campaign. This is unsurprising as these people have the power of imagination to conceive a better society by voting YES.
The ability or integrity of those on the other side of the argument cannot be questioned. (Although he did suggest later, on questioning, that Ian Davidson is perhaps not a good ambassador for Better Together)
60% of Scots have not made up their minds how to vote.
The overriding need for independence stems from a need to control our own destiny and create a society more reflective of our values.

Elspeth Attwooll: a "liberal nationalist"?
After making his case, questions were invited from the floor. First up was Elspeth Attwooll, the former MEP.  Stating that she was often described as a “liberal nationalist” she expressed disappointment about there being no second question on the ballot form and that this represented something of a problem for her. What prevents her from saying with certainty she will vote YES is that a YES vote will commit Scotland to whatever settlement is decided consequently and that the detail of the final package cannot be known until after the referendum.

Blair agreed that successful outcomes of negotiations depend on various factors and that it’s not easy to see a final package. But Scotland is better prepared for independence than any other European country that has attained it in the last 100 years. Of course it is a risk to ask people to buy into a package whose details are far from certain. But polls will put pressure on Westminster government to consider what it will do and Blair was positive that it would adopt a pragmatic and self-interested approach to negotiations.

Another questioner asked about the risk of “a permanent Conservative government in England”. Blair pointed out in response that this is not necessarily true and that the north of England would derive benefits from a strong Scottish economy. He observed that independence would also facilitate many of the things that Lib Dems have consistently fought for. He stressed that Yes Scotland has no policy platform and seeks to be distinct from political parties, adding that it is a national movement in which he hopes political parties will gradually have a lesser profile. He expressed concern that the media frame the debate in party-political terms.

The next questioner was Robert Brown, former MSP and one of the most articulate voices in support of the NO camp. The challenged what he considered contradictions in Blair’s speech, notably:
1) The identity v fairness rhetoric. The starting point must be identity, asserted Robert, as political structures must reflect this. Like Giuseppe Garibaldi, Robert stated that (as someone born in England) he did not wish to become a “foreigner in my own country”.
Robert Brown: Would an independent Scotland be able to
control its own destiny?
2) The assertion that independence would provide more powers and greater control of our own destiny does not sit comfortably with continued control of the pound and fiscal levers by powers outwith Scotland. This is a permanent decision and a Scandinavian outcome cannot be guaranteed.

In response Blair confirmed that identity is part of the debate but is not the central issue. In Catalonia language and culture are very much front and centre but this is not driving the case in Scotland. Ethnicity is not an issue; the SNP have always been civic rather than ethnic nationalists. As for the currency debate, would Scotland be able to pursue a non neo-liberal approach? There are correlations between fiscal policy (which can remain quite distinct from what the rest of the UK does) and social policy. The Euro, while faring badly in the disparate economies of Southern Europe, has actually done well in Northern Europe and has demonstrated that it is likely that countries in monetary unions with not altogether dissimilar economies can have very different social policies. He ended by quoting Alistair Darling as being supportive of the retention of the pound as “logical”.

All in all, it was a good natured and sober-minded discussion, with the respectful exchanges between Robert Brown and Blair Jenkins a welcome reminder that this debate can and should be rescued from the shrill negativity and entrenched tribalism that have characterised it to date. It was also surprising to see so many independence-sympathetic Liberal Democrats in attendance.

Assessing the impact of coalition politics

After a break for lunch, Robert Brown facilitated a group discussion on the successes of coalition – and its less positive effects. He was also keen to spend time suggesting ways of moving forward. While there was widespread recognition of what Liberal Democrats have achieved in coalition there was also wide concern about its legacy and in particular the electoral impact of a combination of poor decision making, a loss of trust, a leadership at federal level perceived to be out of touch, and the effect of welfare reform. There was a range of contributions from members present, although they can be generally characterised as combining negative perceptions of some elements of our performance in government with a cautious optimism that the party can be rebuilt.

Rebuilding the party

This led into a presentation by Craig Harrow, the convenor of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, who advocated ways of “building the party through to 2017”. He stared by quoting Nick Clegg on the dangers of “impotence, irrelevance and decline”, and by affirming that in Willie Rennie the Scottish party had a “great leader, a great campaigner and someone who will take on these issues surrounding the coalition.” He then made the following points:

The bedroom tax is “not good in any form”.
Clegg’s apology on tuition fees should have come sooner.
Inevitably the Scottish party is tainted by association with the Conservative Party.
Not only do we have fewer MSPs and councillors, we now also have fewer aspiring candidates.
We have suffered a 25% loss of membership since June 2010.

Having stated clearly our current predicament and briefly considered the reasons for it, Craig moved on to the elections ahead and what our targets are. In the European elections of 2014 it is vital to ensure George Lyon is re-elected. (I agree; losing our only MSP – and a very good one at that – would be as bad if not worse than the catastrophe of 2011). In 2015 we must aim to hold everything we currently have – there is no point is considering potential “sacrifices”. The aim for the Holyrood elections of 2016 should be to increase our representation into double figures while in respect to the local election of the following year we need to be looking at using them to increase our activist base.

Craig focused on the needs to increase membership, as well as revenues and resources. But how is this achieved?
Craig Harrow: bedroom tax "is not good in any form"

He said a priority for the party was to “win the [independence] referendum convincingly” – I suspect forgetting that the AV referendum proves that a heavy defeat for constitutional change sets back the cause of any further change significantly as it will be interpreted (by Labour and the Tories at least) as confirming overwhelming support for the status quo. He stated that being part of Better Together brings great benefits to the Liberal Democrats, not least in the form of data collection.

There is the need to develop liberal messages and deliver liberal values said Craig, for a moment reverting to Nick Clegg’s management speak. Fortunately he was soon back on track.  He spoke of the need to professionalise membership practices (something I’d discussed earlier in the day with a membership secretary). Craig was not afraid to admit we have done things badly – we are not sufficiently welcoming; when people leave the party, we don’t thank them for their contribution; we haven’t shown sufficiently that we’re distinctive and different. The way we treat people in a difficult place is vitally important.

We also need to professionalise our campaigning, with an increased focus on the longer-term – “to keep going on and on in regards the key messages leads to association” – and on grassroots activism. We have to keep saying liberal things, which is precisely what Willie Rennie has been doing on such issues as Nigel Farage’s visit to Scotland and prisoner voting.  We’re going in the right direction, insisted Craig, recruiting new campaign staff, using data more effectively and selectively and learning from the Obama campaign. We have to get the simple things right, such as the way we treat people. We also have to get into the way of using volunteers to enthuse more volunteers: techniques are useful but the key is in involving people.

Craig was eager to provide reasons for optimism. He referred to the local government by-elections in Kirkintilloch and Rutherglen, as well as the recent Scottish parliamentary by-election in Donside. There is more reason for positivity than may be apparent in the case of Donside: due to limited resources, the Liberal Democrats only targeted the Gordon region of the constituency where the box count amounted to 18%. That sounds impressive, although I’d have liked to know how this compared with voting habits in this more Lib-Dem friendly area in 2011. It also confirms that if we’re winning voters back in areas where we work hard we’re also continuing to lose them in those where we don’t.  All the same, it suggests progress is being made.

Craig finished with a call to diversify and reach out, but was frustratingly short on detail. And so, when given the chance to ask questions, I invited some further information on how the party is developing its diversity strategy. Craig explained that Willie Rennie is far more in tune than previous leaders and that he is increasing engagement in minority ethnic communities. He intimated that Willie has been involved with the Friends of India, the Friends of Pakistan and attends various events, having cultivated a positive relationship with mosques. This has positive results: for example, after the leader recently gave a speech on Syria at an event organised by the Asian community, several people joined the Lib Dems. We’ve never really done this before.

That’s excellent and tells us something about Willie Rennie. The challenge of course is for local parties to follow his lead, and indeed to be better equipped to do so. We also need to take a wider view of diversity beyond gender and ethnicity, but it was positive and welcome information.

Another questioner asked about whether our communications should improve, not least in relation to the language we use (i.e. Nick Clegg referring to those who favour independence as “extremists”; Willie Rennie’s attempted association of the SNP with the English Democrats; the defense of Ian Taylor) which seems at times to be unnecessarily divisive. Craig admitted there was a need for better links between the executive and local parties and agreed that care must be taken about the language the party used in its messaging. He made some sensible suggestions for softening perceptions of Unionist/Nationalist division, although this was somewhat let down by a further defense of Ian Taylor (“he’s a nice man...gives a lot to charity”) and by accusing Taylor’s critics of conducting “a smear campaign”. There was, he agreed, a need to be more respectful of our audience – a positive note on which to end.

We're Scottish. We're Liberal. We're Democrats.
This was followed by a further short session on developing the SLF in Scotland, which included a number of useful suggestions such as more active recruitment away from the Glasgow area and raising our profile in innovative ways.

This was my first SLF conference. My impressions are broadly positive and clearly the Scottish section benefits from the experience and expertise Elspeth Attwooll and Robert Brown provide. It was also welcome to witness such intellectually honest debate, often wrestling with uncomfortable realities, and most obvious in the constructive and tolerant way in which members engaged with the question of Scottish independence.  The event also showed that representatives of Yes Scotland are as capable of listening as they are of championing their own cause.

All in all, the day was characterised not only by quality, open discussion but also a respect so often missing from political conversation. For this reason I hope that the SLF can cement itself as a positive force in Scotland not only as an advocate for progressive change but also as an example of a different way of doing politics.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Does the Donside by-election tell us anything we didn't know before?

After a few weeks of hype and speculation, we finally have a result in the Aberdeen Donside by-election.

Political anoraks like by-elections. I'm not sure other people do particularly, but for the politically obsessed they tend to provide hours of conversation and indeed entertainment of sorts. We speculate about share of the vote, turnout, swings and of course the political implications. It's an odd pastime in honesty and personally I prefer to try to make sense of by-elections in their aftermath.

Before discussing this particular by-election in some depth, it may be worth mentioning that on 1st June I made the following prediction in regards placings:

1) SNP
2) Labour
3) Liberal Democrats
4) Conservatives
5) Greens
6) UKIP
7) Scottish Democratic Alliance
8) Scottish Christian Party
9) National Front

That's not entirely accurate but it was a reasonable prediction and one that bears some similarity to the final result:

SNP                                                  9,814
Labour                                              7,789
Liberal Democrats                             1,940
Conservatives                                    1,791
UKIP                                                  1,128
Greens                                                 410
National Front                                      249
Scottish Christian Party                    222
SDA                                                      35

So did this tell us anything new? Not really, as my prediction suggests. The SNP won (congratulations to Mark MacDonald) while Labour narrowed their majority. I was, however, wrong on a couple of counts: I had predicted "a close battle for 3rd place between us, the Greens and the Tories" - well, the Greens' poor performance suggests they have their own problems and are entirely unable to capitalise on the unpopularity and difficulties of others. I also expected a little more of Scotland's newest political party - the centre-right Scottish Democratic Alliance - and, even although this was their first outing and they're relatively unknown - I was a bit surprised to see them poll fewer votes than the National Front. We also discovered that, even with a disproportionate and unmerited amount of media coverage, UKIP do not poll well in Scotland.  I'm not sure whether Nigel Farage actually appreciates the difference between English and Scottish political culture but after a few more lost deposits he should get the message.

What did it tell us about the Liberal Democrats?  To listen to some others you would think that this creditable third place means that a corner has been turned. Some were making dramatic statements such as: "the fightback has begun", while Malcolm Bruce claimed this showed that "voters are returning to Lib Dems". Willie Rennie took to twitter to express his pride in our candidate, Christine Jardine, and the campaigning team.  Quite rightly, too.  That's all terrific and it's great to see Liberal Democrats feeling good about themselves.

Others were not only feeling good, but were clearly ecstatic. Some facebook and twitter comments hailed "the massive increase in vote share" (it was up 2.3%), the "largest increase of votes by any party" (obviously ignoring UKIP - and Labour's superior increase in vote share) and went as far as to say that "anyone who writes us off in Scotland now is in for a surprise."

However, a sense of proportion is needed. The orgy of self-congratulation is seriously misplaced. Yes, voters did return to the Liberal Democrats in Donside - 334 of them to be precise. What this shows is that we're moving in the right direction, but at a painfully slow rate. As another party member observed, "it shows that it'll be another 20 years of effort to recover our position". While I'm happy with the third place I am less concerned with the final placing than I am the number of voters who actively support us and I would have exchanged finishing ahead of the Tories for ending in fourth place with another 1,000 votes.

We were starting from a very low base (2011 was an unmitigated disaster) and if the electoral massacre of the last Holyrood elections represents our nadir then some progress should be expected. I secretly hoped for a larger increase in the vote and imagined the Tories' support would remain static. All in all, it seems we gained a little over 300 votes while the Conservatives lost about the same. We finished 812 votes ahead of UKIP, who have never previously stood in the constituency. That isn't something to get overly excited about - we're still 2,400 votes behind 2007 levels. There's nothing in this result to suggest the kind of recovery that will increase our representation at Holyrood in 2016. But at least it's a step forward.

What I actually sense in the excitement is a sense of relief. I suspect many of us feared the worst and, unlike myself, didn't see third place as a realistic prospect. In fairness, other recent by-elections haven't given much cause for optimism. The media seemed to be obsessed with the two main parties and UKIP, suggesting we could finish fifth or even sixth, losing our deposit in the process. It's quite right that we should be openly delighted with proving such predictions wrong, and that after a string of admittedly dreadful results we have something more positive to think about. Personally, I expected a good showing here...but I also understand this was by no means certain and I'm sure there are many Lib Dems who are simply relieved we avoided another disastrous outcome. It's little wonder this feels like a great victory - but it would be wrong to attach too much significance to the result.

I'm not going to be making suggestions that this constitutes some kind of dramatic signal for a wider fightback or that it shows that public faith in the party has been restored, because it does nothing of the sort.  More former Lib Dem voters are continuing to cast their ballots for other parties than are choosing to return to us.   There remain fundamental questions about our purpose, how we engage, and how we regain voters' trust and confidence.

Coming back to the predictions I made earlier in the month, I reflected on the perils of finishing in third place: "personally, I'm worried we might come 3rd...if we do Willie Rennie and Nick Clegg will spin this as a positive, and the outcome will not be the wake up call to the leadership that it should be." Cautious optimism should be the order of the day. The apparent triumphalism must give way to sober-minded consideration of how the party can be rebuilt and revitalised. Rather than justify the stance of the leadership who seem to believe we must simply keep on preaching the same messages of achievement in government, the result acutely demonstrates how long the road back actually is.

Glossing over our problems so spectacularly on the basis of securing 8.3% of the vote in a by-election would be irresponsible. So, yes - let's enjoy the moment for what it's worth. We should take some encouragement from a creditable third place. However, real politics (rather than nerdy self-indulgent semi-intellectual speculation) isn't really about by-elections but people and issues, and we now have to build on a respectable result through connecting with people and making a stand on the right issues.

What this result does confirm is that the SNP and Labour remain the dominant forces in Scottish politics and that, for the Liberal Democrats, 2011 is as bad as it got - or is going to get. The only way for us now is up. However, it also underlines how deep our problems are, both internally and in relation to our popular appeal, while reinforcing the unpalatable reality that a full recovery is far from around the corner.

The final word goes to David Smith, the former Lib Dem PPC for Wakefield: "In tough times, it doesn't help to gloss over things." Indeed. We needed a good result and we got a decent one, but what we also need is an intellectual honesty and realism that both grasps the nature of our predicament and can fathom a way out.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

My take on the Morrissey Report

It's been a while since I wrote anything. An uncharacteristically long time, I should add.

Such is life when the combined challenges of a full-time job, running a business, trying to be the best possible parent to Xanthe and dealing with what at times can be debilitating depression. There are at times other things to concern myself with than attempting to make sense of political developments.

However, I want to respond to the Morrissey Inquiry's report, published earlier this week.  This is not least because I provided evidence to the inquiry, but also because it touches on issues of such significance that it has the potential to act as an antecedent to a cultural shift of enormous proportions if acted on appropriately and responsibly.

I stress the word "potential", because it is by no means certain what the response will be.  But it has laid down a very clear challenge not only in relation to sexual harassment and how the party deal with complaints, but the more general but equally pressing matters of inclusion, increased participation of women in politics, and power abuse. It is a challenge that the Liberal Democrats cannot shirk, and one which I imagine also applies to other political parties.

I should firstly make clear what my own participation involved. When the allegations of Lord Rennard's impropriety became public, I was involved in a conversation with one of the female complainants. While concerned about the sexism and blatant abuse of power at the heart of the allegations, I was equally (if not more) troubled by the fact that this also seemed to be merely the tip of an iceberg; the by-product of a culture in which such attitudes thrive and through which such inappropriate behaviours become tolerated and in fact commonplace.

I discussed my own experiences  - some of which affected me directly and some of which was directed towards others that I knew. What became very obvious through the sharing of personal experiences was that there exists a culture - or a sub-culture - in which sexual harassment, and the attitudes that inevitably lead to and stem from it, is at best not seen as a problem.

It is this culture that needs to change and so, after a little encouragement I made a complaint to Tim Gordon and then to Helena Morrissey.  I did not wish to go public, or even to seek any action against the person in question. I did not want to open old wounds. What I wanted to do was to inform the conversation and hope that, in some small way, I may be able to contribute to changing a culture that is oppressive and archaic in equal measure.  Researchers should not expect to be propositioned, just as party workers should expect better behaviour from parliamentarians and senior figures than for them to be putting their hands where they don't belong.

And that is the extent of it. Of course, I advised Tim and Helena of the detail of my experiences, including when and where events occurred, but making a complaint against a particular individual was never at the forefront of my mind. I was very pleased that I was allowed to contribute anonymously and that my wish for the detail of the events not to become public knowledge was respected.  You may well ask why I didn't come forward previously and there is a quite obvious dual pronged reason: a) I didn't think I would be taken seriously, given how ingrained in the Westminster culture acceptance of such behaviour evidently is, and b) as is often the case, it is only when someone else makes that initial decision to talk that others find the courage and confidence to also come forward and confirm that (irrespective of whether Chris Rennard is not is not guilty of the alleged offences) there is a problem here that urgently needs to be remedied. Another reason for my reluctance to talk, and something only understood when considering these events retrospectively, was that in making my sexuality blatantly obvious to the individual concerned I subconsciously blamed myself for what later happened.

This is, of course, all in the past. I mention it only as background information, as well as to demonstrate an active personal interest in Helena Morrissey's investigation and what it may mean for our party and the (apparently widely held) view that sexual harassment is an inescapable inevitability.

Moving onto the report itself, it is a 60 page document which can not be done justice in the few words I am able to offer here.  However, I am of the view that it should be applauded and welcomed for the courage it has shown in daring to address questions which have, for too long, been ignored. I also think that its recommendations should be adopted in their entirety, but that we should not stop there. The many useful recommendations are but a step, albeit a significant one, in the right direction. But if we genuinely wish to become a party that "champions the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals", as we ambitiously claim, we have do go beyond these initial recommendations and find additional and alternative ways of creating a new culture of inclusiveness and accountability. In this sense, the Morrissey Report is merely a starting point.

So, what's good about it? Quite a lot. Of course, a great deal will already have been said elsewhere and I don't wish to labour the same points.  But here's a quick summary of what I'm most impressed with:

* the inherent honesty in the report. Helena Morrissey was not afraid to point to some uncomfortable and inconvenient realities. The commitment to truthfulness was of course necessary, but that does not diminish from her achievement. This honesty requires an equally honest response and a recognition of past failures, many of which are painfully difficult to accept.

It makes a welcome examination of the party structure, internal accountability and process.  While not stating it explicitly, I would suggest the report urges a rethink of the party organisation and a new review into the mechanics of how the Liberal Democrats function as a party.  Highlighted is a need to cut through the unnecessarily bureaucratic organisation - not before time. A radical overhaul is required, and one which enhances accountability and facilitates broader participation.

* Again, without making an explicit statement, the report manages successfully to challenge the apparent complacency within the party. We are, without doubt it would seem, very well intentioned. And yet it is clear that on crucial points we have failed - and are failing - spectacularly.  While a cover-up in respect to the Rennard accusations is denied (not altogether convincingly in my view) there is real and deserved criticism for the way the complaints were handled.  Without going into the detail, it is apparent that the Liberal Democrats have not been a model of fairness and equality in recent years, and we have patently failed to match our positive talk on women with action. Morrissey refers to "low-level sexism" and it the fact that we are deemed to be an institutionally sexist party is distinctly unsettling, whatever the level of sexism.

So much of what we thought we were doing well, we clearly were not. That's tough to take, but the complacent attitudes needed to be swept away for progress to be made.

* It manages to listen without making judgments and in doing so has put the party in a better position to deal with the various problems that have been unearthed by the investigation. Whatever the truth of the allegations against Rennard, the complaints were dealt with in a way that was at best ineffective and at worst dismissive. The report does not concern itself with the allegations themselves and is the stronger for it. What it does do is  examine the practice for dealing with such complaints and has found them to be woefully deficient, in the process asking serious questions of Danny Alexander, Jo Swinson and Paul Burstow (and to some extent Nick Clegg).  One can only imagine how much better a position the party might have found itself in if it had been better geared towards listening in the first instance.

* It recognises that harassment is not always sexual by nature and that all forms of harassment should not be tolerated.  The report recommends amending all standing orders and codes of conduct to incorporate the following: "You must treat others with respect and must not bully, harass or intimidate any Party member, member of Party staff, member of Parliamentary staff, Party volunteer or member of the public. Such behaviour will be considered to be bringing the Party into disrepute."

* It proposes not only a new system for dealing with internal complaints but a new Pastoral Care Office. I'm slightly uncomfortable with the proposed name, but the principle of an independent paid employee with responsibility for dealing with complaints, harassment and other grievances is a positive one.

* More effective monitoring of complaint handling is a somewhat obvious recommendation, as is finding ways of "preventing issues [from] festering". But as a result of the report, there can be no doubt as the need for action on these fronts.

* The report looks in some detail at the party's approach towards women. In doing so it speaks of an "unconscious bias", for which is recommends that "training at Conference" should be used "to help people recognise and counter the biases we all suffer from." Again, this touches on the institutional low-level sexism referred to previously and challenges our complacency.

The report is critical of much of some of what has been done to date. It considers much of the training currently provided for women "to be focused on the women rather than on the Party itself" and argues that ensuring "there is diversity training provided to men as well as women" should be a "priority" as "it is much more effective to encourage men and women to work together to develop balanced teams than to treat this as a ‘special interest’ issue."  This is true and something I have been concerned about for some time. We have to move away from the thinking behind exclusivity; diversity is not achieved via such simplistic strategies.

However, for all that is positive, the report also has its limitations and the party, in my view, must go beyond Morrissey's nine key points if it genuinely wishes to become a fairer, more equal, less bureaucratic and more responsive organisation...or at least an employer that people might actually want to work for. I felt it could have gone further in relation to the following points:

* While being critical of women-only training within the party, the report regrettably directs much of its focus onto women.  It does little, in spite of the evidence I provided, to look at the broader picture of the diversity problem and in particular the party's approach towards (and its attractiveness to) minority groups.  The unconscious institutional bias the report refers to applies not only towards women and this should be explored further by the party.

* Furthermore, harassment was seen as something that normally happens to women and is always committed by men. There was mention of one of the personal experiences I reported (sexual harassment towards one male by another male) but otherwise the report conforms to and confirms the gendered stereotypes. It may, of course, be the case that in cases of exclusively sexual harassment this is generally true - but it does affect men in very real ways and this should (in my view) have been given more attention.  Actually, it affects us all because all of humanity is demeaned when one of us is stripped of our humanity and objectified - but that's a separate issue.

However, harassment is not necessarily always sexual in its nature or motivations, and this is something that the report affirms. It is odd then for it to fix its emphasis on women. I know people within the Liberal Democrats, of both genders, who have experienced harassment of various forms including bullying and intimidation from women and indeed from groups of people. Some of this was race-related, some of it based on political viewpoints and some of it on sexual orientation. Outside of politics I know of a trans person who is in her own workplace the victim of unconscious intolerance and it's hard to see how the Liberal Democrats would necessarily be so much better in their approach towards trans people given what we now know about the sexism that has permeated the attitudes of those at the top of the party.

The party, going forward, needs to consider more fully how harassment of all kinds affects people of all genders and particularly minorities. In this respect, I feel the report could have highlighted more specific shortcomings in the party's current approaches.

* The report comments that "women and minorities feel undervalued" and speaks of a need to address "under-representation".  It proclaims that we must "ensure that the efforts involve everyone, men and women, young and old, black and white: the most effective ambassadors for minority causes can be those in the majority group – a white, heterosexual, middle-aged man can be a very effective proponent of diversity as it then moves beyond special interest groups into the mainstream."  All that's very praiseworthy, but it provides very little solid advice as to how this objective can be met.

I believe the principal catalyst for both reviving the cause of liberalism and facilitating diversity must be local parties.  This is something completely overlooked. In fact, in spite of the laughably complex organogram, there is nothing in the report to examine the ways in which local parties and party-affiliated organisations can become effective at tackling the problem of harassment  and the associated issues surrounding sexism and other forms of discrimination.  Or, for that matter, to reach out more successfully to minority groups. While this did not really come under Helena Morrissey's remit, it is something that the party must urgently turn its attention to and represents a challenge for local party organisations and party activists.

* Finally, while questions were asked about the way the party appoints and recruits, the report stopped short of making any clear recommendations about the recruitment process. This was a missed opportunity. It is true that the report touches on monitoring performance and this is self-evidently positive but having explored in depth the way in which Chris Rennard was appointed, and suggesting fundamental flaws in that process, the report failed to make any firm recommendations for change.  I hope that the Liberal Democrats have the courage to accept the criticisms and go further than the report does in implementing a new process that is transparent and meritocratic.

In summary, I was highly impressed with the Morrissey report. In spite of a few criticisms I have, I believe it went further than I expected it would in identifying problems and I hope that the party takes it as seriously as it should. Failure to do so would have catastrophic consequences. The report represents a wake up call; no longer can we complacently believe that the kinds of issues raised in these 60 pages do not apply to our party of equality, fairness and social justice. Its true significance will only be determined by the response and so I eagerly await confirmation from Tim Farron as to what the next steps will be - I urge him to be even bolder than Helena Morrissey in plotting a route through these difficult waters.