Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Take pride in Bi Visibility Day

Today is Bi Visibility Day – which, since 1999, has been a day to celebrate and recognise bisexuality (and pansexuality), the bisexual community and bisexual history.

Initially set up by three activists in the USA – Wendy Curry, Michael Page and Gigi Raven Wilbur – to challenge what they considered to be “bi invisibility”, Bi Visibility Day is now celebrated internationally and helps to raise awareness of the issues bi people face.

Bi Visibility Day is more than a celebration – it’s a powerful statement. And it’s one that’s as relevant today as it was 16 years ago. It’s about proudly highlighting the B in LGBTI. It’s about putting a face on our bisexual communities. And it’s about challenging the many myths associated with bisexuality – as well as the biphobia such misconceptions inevitably create, both inside and outside the LGBTI community.

I’m bi. I also assume I’m visible, given most people have no difficulty in seeing me. But so often it’s very frustrating when I am perceived as either straight (I’m currently in an opposite-sex, bisexual relationship) or as gay – as any of us who are less than 100 percent bisexual are inevitably labelled.

Bisexuality is often seen as something of a curiosity, an obscure and perhaps confused identity associated with those who can’t make their minds up. There are those who believe bisexuality is mythical or impermanent, who fail to appreciate that sexuality is fluid and that sexual orientation doesn’t always come packaged in tidy boxes. What Bi Visibility Day does is to embrace bisexuality as a real sexual orientation, educate society and erase some of the false stereotypes.

Biphobia is also a very real, and very serious, issue. What Bi Visibility Day has done is to encourage society to become more bi-inclusive – and this is true even within LGBTI organisations, many of which have taken up the challenge to actively reach out to bi people and highlight uniquely bi issues.

For too long it’s been easier to identify as straight or gay – mainly because of societal biphobia. And yet, interestingly, a recent YouGov survey found that half of the UK’s young people do not identify as fully heterosexual – while hardly a measure of active bisexuality, it does point to the reality that many clearly feel uncomfortable with binary notions of gender and orientation. However, the same survey also found that a fifth of young people believed everyone was either straight or gay.

This survey shows the challenges for Bi Visibility Day. There clearly remain myths, misconceptions, prejudices and stigma associated with bisexuality – while the increasing number of people who find themselves somewhere between heterosexuality and homosexuality need to be empowered to proudly embrace their identity.

Improving bi visibility is vital to making life easier for those of us who are attracted to more than one gender, and Bi Visibility Day makes a huge difference in changing attitudes. Unfortunately, many more pro-equality organisations need to proactively embrace it: the shocking lack of any publicised Bi Visibility Day events in Scotland (aside from some Edinburgh-based events hosted by the Centre for LGBT Health and Wellbeing) suggests we need to be taking the issue more seriously that we do.

That said, it’s great to see #bisexuality and #BiVisibilityDay trending on twitter – so at least we’re visible online.

Whatever you’re doing for Bi Visibility Day, be proud and be visible!

Monday, 14 September 2015

Overdue honesty from Willie Rennie - but when will we admit our mistakes?

Willie Rennie: Better Together was "dark" and "secretive"
It's been a while since I've blogged.

It's been so long in fact that people are asking me what's happened.

Well, there was the issue of a lengthy hospital admission shortly before the General Election, a more recent rather nasty road traffic accident that left me unable to get around, the birth of a new baby (Heidi, who is now 11 weeks old), and the challenge of balancing my work and responsibilities with KaleidoScot with political activity.

It should also be said that I've become increasingly frustrated with life as a Liberal Democrat and, while I remain a convinced liberal and a card-carrying member, my motivation for activism has been somewhat drained of late. In short, I often have other things to do. There's nothing like a bit of honesty, saying it as you see it.

Which brings me to Willie Rennie.

I like Willie. I really do. Readers of this blog might not always have realised it, but we agree with each other 95% of the time - and when we don't I understand his good intentions.

Interestingly, during the weekend Willie decided to offload his frustrations about the Better Together campaign to a Herald journalist. It made for fascinating reading and suggested that - after all the talk - there's even more that we agree on than I'd ever have imagined.

During the independence referendum campaign I frequently complained about the tactics, strategy and negativity of the Better Together campaign. I blogged about Better Together's "disappointing negativity.  I questioned Better Together's commitment to Free Speech. I asked how "liberal" Better together was, suggested their tactics were counter-productive, and insisted that even if Better Together's strategy won the battle it would ultimately lose them the war.

I even argued that the Liberal Democrats should have withdrawn from Better Together entirely. Basically, I failed to see any political or electoral advantage from association with a campaign that was ineptly led, characterised by negativity and ill-informed asides at the SNP, resorted to peddling patronising semi-truths (at best) and which inevitably allied us to what was a Labour-dominated tribe in which our voice was completely sidelined.

I recall very clearly the party's response to my criticisms. Senior Lib Dems were always on hand to trot out the tired "it's not negative to ask hard questions of the SNP" line. Others stated that data sharing would help us fight the General Election more effectively (remind me how that went). Yes, they might concede that Better Together had made mistakes, but the Yes side weren't perfect either. There seemed a complete lack of willingness to accept that the Liberal Democrats were getting very little from being identified with a terrifyingly incompetent and at times rather nasty campaign.

It seems, however, that Willie Rennie agrees with me - and others who made similar observations.  Behind the mask of acquiescence, privately Willie and other senior Lib Dems had serious concerns about Better Together on virtually every level. They certainly appear not to have bought into the "positive case for the union" lie that many of our own members, doubling up as Better Together activists, were trying to sell on doorsteps across Scotland.

Willie told The Herald that Better Together was “shambolic in its development”, its output “dark”, its operations “secretive”, and that - while it won the referendum did so in a way which "didn’t make us feel very good about it”. That all sounds very familiar.

He even targeted David Cameron as the man who "did more damage to the Union than the SNP had done for years.” Well said Willie.

He didn't stop there. He criticised the internal dynamics of Better Together, in which the distinct parties had little in common other than shared opposition to independence. “It was a clash of three different political parties. We all had very different visions for the union, so inevitably the common element was what we were against, which was independence.

“So to get a consensus, you were focusing on the negative. You couldn’t do a positive vision.”

Turning on the divisive influence that was Scottish Labour, Willie added: "Labour had a dark campaigning style. It was very secretive. Everything would be last minute. You would never be told much about what was going on until it happened. We all suffered. The Tories and ourselves suffered more, but some in Labour were out of the loop as well."

He describes a situation in which a closed clique was all-powerful. "It was Blair [McDougall] and Rob [Shorthouse]. People like that were making decisions and had this addiction to secrecy. It was quite shambolic in its development. Internal communications were poor. You just weren’t told about plans. Things were kept back." He also expressed frustration at the baffling decision to use some of Better Together's least attractive supporters to defend the union: "You want to give people confidence in the UK, not mavericks [like George Galloway].”

According to Willie, Better Together was top-down, negative, inept, unable to grasp opportunities and with a tendency for self-destructive actions. He's not wrong - but I could have told him this a couple of years ago. In fact, I did.

Willie added a final, rather interesting observation. He claimed that Better Together failed to make a strong "emotional" case, and admitted that yes Scotland managed to be "more open, more trusting, more positive about the country, and present a bright vision for where we want to be. That’s what the SNP managed to sell quite effectively. It was all hogwash. But they sold it quite well, and that’s to their credit. I just wish we could do a bit of that ourselves.”

This is a very welcome admission form our Scottish leader. On a personal level, I find it quite affirming - especially given the opposition (and at times abuse) I received from fellow members for saying precisely the same thing. It's vital that - given the potential for another independence referendum in the not too distant future - the Liberal Democrats learn the necessary lessons. Never again can we be allowed to find ourselves mumbling impotently on the sidelines, our positive ideas being reduced to academic footnotes in a poisonous and tribal narrative.

However, while I am happy to praise Willie for his (overdue) honesty, I still have some questions. Why did these experiences not demand a change in his own strategy and choices? Why did the Scottish Liberal Democrats remain (publicly at least) so assenting towards Better Together? Why did we allow ourselves to be effectively sidelined, thus depriving ourselves of the opportunity to sell our genuinely distinctive policies on Home Rule and federalism? Does the party now accept that association with Batter Together had destructive consequences? Does Willie rue not making a case for the second question on the ballot form?

Most importantly, have the Scottish Liberal Democrats moved on from the binary thinking that frame the independence debate? Certainly, the counter-productive General Election strategy of appealing to "No" voters in the Labour and Conservative parties suggests we have some way to go on that front.

While Willie Rennie's remarkable honesty in the Herald interview is very welcome, there appeared no willingness to admit to mistakes or provide any explanation for the way in which decisions made during the referendum campaign have contributed to our current predicament. His criticisms of other parties and the organisation are justified and accurate, but I'd be reassured to know Willie understands the degree to which some of the choices made in recent years have ill-served the party.

I'd be even more reassured if he could confirm that he understands that rebuilding the party requires reaching out to SNP-sympathetic voters and selling a distinctly progressive - and Scottish - vision, rather than concentrating his efforts on convincing unionists to begrudgingly lend us votes. Whether we, like it or not, the new political realities require new thinking - and an insight into the reasons behind our increasing irrelevance.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Some reflections on Charles Kennedy's life

Charles Kennedy speaking in Glasgow, 2013

Like many of us, I was shocked and saddened in equal measure to learn of Charles Kennedy's passing.

I didn't know Charles particularly well, although I would have liked to. He was someone I admired and, whenever I met him, I found him amusing, sharp-minded, warm and unusually interested in others. I last saw him at Conference in 2013, when he joined Bob Maclennan and myself outside for a chat about Europe...and the inevitable cigarette - but what stays with me was his genuine interest in my own life and various projects I was working on.

I was not a member of the Liberal Democrats when Charles served as leader, but he was someone it was easy to respect. His leadership coincided, not accidentally, with improved General Election performances and with a renewed emphasis on social justice and equality. On the key issues he has been proved right time after time - on Europe, on human rights, on the Iraq invasion and on Scotland. He understood Scotland. Unlike myself, Charles was a committed believer in the United Kingdom, but he recognised that the constitutional status quo was unsustainable and undesirable. He was a federalist who had no truck with much of the unionist scaremongering of Better Together, which he labelled "stupid".

Whatever can be said of Charles, there can be no escaping his political courage. Earlier today, I wrote for KaleidoScot, outlining the consistent and principled stance he made on LGBT equality - at a time when there was no electoral advantage to doing so. Furthermore, lest we forget, when the Liberal Democrats took a position of opposing the Iraq invasion public opinion supported the war. That we were later proved correct, with the public mood shifting dramatically, obscures the riskiness of the decision. It was a difficult one to take. But Charles, after some persuasion I believe, had the courage to take up a potentially unpopular position for no other reason than it was the right thing to do. For me, this typified his approach to politics: if something is right, then it is worth doing.

It was also true of his approach towards the European Union. He was far more overtly pro-Europe than any leader before or since. His last conference speech, in 2013, saw him articulately extol the values and benefits of the EU. It was compelling viewing - an example of the great orator at his irresistible best. I remember another of his conference speeches - his leader's speech in 2001 - when he turned on Euroskeptics: "well I say to those people - you are wrong, you are wrong." He did not, however, explain why they were wrong. I considered this odd at the time, but it became clear to me that he felt the case was so obvious and so sensible that no argument was needed. It was, as always, a simple matter of making the right choice.
Two former SDP MPs, two former leaders:
Charles Kennedy and Bob Maclennan in 2013

I have been somewhat dismayed today to see so much focus on Charles's "demons". That is not because I believe these diminish Charles - in fact, as someone who has his own "demons", I feel it actually adds to his humanity and demonstrates his deep courage in facing them. Indeed, the decision to effectively oust him in 2006 is, even now, something I consider a deep stain on the party. But, in considering his life, these difficulties should not be defining, and they should not be perceived as character flaws. Flaws are not unique to politicians, or even those with alcohol difficulties and mental health problems. Charles suffered - and he did suffer - not from some flaw of personality but from a tragic illness that took its toll on him, his relationships and his political potential. 

Charles's battles, often very public, show his determination to overcome and succeed. At a time when the party needs - more than ever - people of those qualities, losing him now is particularly cruel. Probably (on his day) the finest orator our party has produced in decades, and unquestionably the most personable leader in living memory, Charles was able to command respect as a serious politician while also presenting himself as affable, amiable and "in touch". His ability to project both a statesmanlike understanding of government with a gift for being able to easily relate to "real" people can be seen in his performances on Question Time and Have I Got News For You. He was himself real, authentic, decent, principled - and yet was able to be those things while wearing his politics lightly. He hated formality and stage-managed situations, thriving on spontaneity and the freedom to be himself.

Of course, some would argue that "being himself" ultimately became the problem. They may be right. However, Charles's image as an honest, principled, people-person outlived his leadership - something admitted by even political opponents. 

We owe more to Charles than simply the successes of his leadership period. An SDP MP since 1983, it was Kennedy who - with Bob Maclennan - made the merger of the two Alliance parties a reality five years later. What would have become of the Alliance, and third party politics more generally, without his characteristically bold and unpopular decision to support merger in a meeting of the 5 SDP MPs is open to question, but my personal belief was that merger was necessary with Kennedy playing a significant (and often underrated) role in bringing it to fruition.

Charles Kennedy was, electorally speaking, our most successful leader since Lloyd George. He did more to facilitate equality than any modern Liberal leader, and brought a credibility to the party that no other leader was able to. In creating a Lib Dem shadow cabinet, he also professionalised the parliamentary party and, more than any other, sought to prepare it for government. Perhaps more significantly, he was an effective constituency MP who never lost sight of what was truly important: empowering people. 

Charles spent more than half of his life in politics, but politics did not define him. He was always his own man, bringing his own humanity and innate decency into his political activity. He preferred collaboration over conflict, but was unafraid of combating prejudice and injustice when he encountered it. He could be cautious, but ultimately willing to take risks if he felt it was right. In the modern era, in which politics has become a media circus, he rejected the carefully orchestrated and stage managed politics typified by New Labour - opting instead for a more relaxed authenticity.

I loved him for it. I still do.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

What the General Election told us

Paddy Ashdown: doesn't he have some
headgear to get his teeth into?

It’s a few days now since the voters of Great Britain gave us an election result that was as surprising as it was unpalatable for liberals (and I mean in all parties and none, rather than merely Lib Dems).

I didn’t wish to write anything in the immediate aftermath because, like many of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, the hurt was very real. I might have come across as too defensive, or unwilling to accept the verdict of the electorate.

During the last few weeks I’ve asked myself some hard questions – the result of the election doesn’t necessarily answer them but it confirms a few of my suspicions. Questions not about left or right, Orange Book or Social Liberal, or the merits of coalition – but about what our values are. For example, how we treat people with mental health problems (especially if they are PPCs admitted to hospital on the week nominations close) says far more about who were are as a party than dozens of positive pronouncements on mental health policy. The existential crisis so many observers are openly discussing is not new, and should have been apparent to any impartial observer for some time. 

Actions always speak louder than words. And if anyone wanted to know what the Lib Dem values were – the best way of judging that was to see how we behaved during the election campaign. 

Before I consider the campaign from a Lib Dem perspective, it’s perhaps best to firstly state the obvious. The SNP got precisely what they wanted from the election. So did the Conservatives. The latter means that we now have Trident renewal, potential withdrawal from the EU, repeal of the Human Rights Act, EVEL, the Snoopers’ Charter, acceleration of private sector involvement in the NHS, further erosion of welfare, cuts to renewable energy and the further erosion of welfare to look forward to.

The SNP’s success was not remotely unsurprising to me, although the scale of Labour’s collapse was utterly stunning. Our own predicament in Scotland has been apparent for some time, and back in December 2012 I forecast our being reduced to a single MP in Orkney & Shetland If our losses in Scotland were painful but perhaps expected, the annihilation in England certainly was not – I had predicted 23 MPs (i.e. around 1992 levels) because I had believed that the Conservatives would be in no position to benefit at our expense. Opinion polls seemed to back this theory, with most giving the Lib Dems somewhere between 22 and 31 seats, mainly where our nearest challengers were Tories.

There are reasons for the SNP’s success. Some of that is down to the slick, populist campaigning machine the SNP has become. They know how to take advantage of opponent’s weaknesses in ruthless fashion. They have a leader who is an able communicator. They have, in a word, credibility. Again, this counts for so much more than policy positions – the health and public standing of a party is not determined by manifesto commitments. However, while I acknowledge the SNP’s strength, I would also like to repeat what I’ve been saying for the last four years: that our own failures and strategic shortcomings that have contributed in no uncertain terms to the SNP’s rise. An impotent and unimaginative Scottish Labour Party has had an arguably even greater impact, but if we are to understand what has happened here in Scotland we have to look at the last 5-10 years honestly and recognise that, time after time, our tactics and messages have damaged our own interests and played into the hands of the SNP.

The SNP won in Scotland because it deserved to. If we are to make some inroads in 2016 then we need to appreciate that, rather than seek to appeal to unionists for tactical votes, we must instead demonstrate that we understand why many voted Yes and to reach out to them.  We have to listen. Moreover, we have to become more than a depository for anti-SNP votes.

Many of us expected the story of the night to be about Scotland, with the SNP potentially holding the balance of power. That they did not was due to a combination of factors: an efficient (if uninspiring) Conservative campaign, Labour’s incoherence and campaigning incompetence, media focus on potential coalitions and deals, and our own inability to hold on where we fully expected to.

We lost 49 MPs – among them good people of such calibre as Adrian Sanders (no friend of the coalition; ironic he should suffer on account of it), Lynne Featherstone, Simon Hughes, Julian Huppert, Steve Webb and Norman Baker. We lost all our female MPs. Even those like myself, who were seen as being somewhat pessimistic with predictions of returning just 23 of our previous 57 MPs, found the scale of the crushing defeat staggering. Did anyone imagine Vince Cable would lose (even his Conservative opponent?) or foresee Ed Davey looking for new employment? 

This, I believe, was part of our problem. We believed, like we did in 2011, that the electoral system would help us where we had strong incumbents. We believed the polls, and we believed our own myth of Lib Dem resilience rather than the evidence. Just like in 2011, however, we have paid a heavy price. I repeat what I said after the Holyrood elections – that the result has set the cause of liberalism back 50 years (i.e. to 1964 levels).  Not only have we lost 49 MPs, catastrophic in itself, but we have also lost hundreds of councillors, 341 deposits, and – most significantly – have become entirely irrelevant in places where we were once highly influential. To come a distant fourth place in such constituencies as Chesterfield and Camborne & Redruth (both of which we held until 2010) underlines this point and emphasises the difficulty of rebuilding once incumbency is lost.

The result makes it clear that we have made some serious miscalculations – and I’m not referring to entering coalition. For example:

·         * We were resolved to show that coalition would work. We would show that the era of two-party politics was over. If we had power, we would inevitably break the proverbial mould. We were wrong on both counts – the “new politics” now seems a distant pipedream and no party, having seen what has happened to us, would even consider coalition.
* We put so much emphasis on “putting the country first”. I don’t doubt his motivations in doing this, and Paddy Ashdown praised Nick Clegg for his willingness to prioritise the national interest. He may deserve such praise, but personally I feel the national interest may also be served by ensuring that progressive, liberal voices are able to speak loudly in the future. “Putting the country first” required a longer-term perspective rather than self-sacrifice. It's harder to serve the country with only 8 MPs and 5 MSPs.

·         * We imagined that the Tories would be worst hit by the increase in support for UKIP. As we saw on Thursday, this seemed to have little if any effect on the Tories, while in many constituencies the increase in the UKIP vote was nearly identical to the decrease in Lib Dem support. Go figure.

* We stressed that we had “transformed from a party of protest to a party of government”, and the leadership were eager for the party as a whole to embrace this new identity. Not only was it a false dichotomy, based on flawed appreciations of our party’s history, but it failed to recognise that such a transformation required the party to develop a new appeal to a different kind of voter. I have seen no evidence that any attempt was ever made to identify who we were now seeking to appeal to, or even that it was considered necessary to review our campaigning strategy to reach out to a different audience.
* We depended on the same, tired campaigning strategy. How we sell our horse races hasn’t changed – but the appeal certainly has. Attempting to persuade the public to vote tactically to keep out someone less bad is hardly the action of a “serious party of government”. We also built our campaign around opinion polls – big mistake, given that in the last two General Elections the only polls that have been remotely accurate were the exit polls. We also poured so much energy into ensuring Nick Clegg held Sheffield Hallam that it is more than likely other candidates’ chances elsewhere suffered as a result. I believe we paid an enormous price for sparing the leader’s blushes.

* Defining ourselves according to how we perceive other parties was hardly productive.  Claiming we would put "the heart into a Conservative government and the brain into a Labour one" suggested that we didn't really have either, while "You can't trust Labour with the economy or the Conservatives to deliver fairness" sounded like an endorsement of the Tories' economic plans and a willingess to trust Labour's fairness agenda.

Willie Rennie said, after the result, that he was proud of the campaign. I am proud of many of our former MPs, our candidates, our agents, and our tireless activists. I am proud of many of the messages we put out. I am proud of the dedication to the cause. But I am not proud of the campaign, or its strategists – one of whom has some headwear to be eating soon. It was amateurish, too focused on the mythical “centre-ground” and insipid soundbites, never getting to grips with the lessons from the recent past and complacent in its belief that incumbency and advocacy of tactical voting would win the day in key constituencies. It also left many candidates isolated and unsupported, something I find personally difficult to accept.

·         * We naively believed that the electorate would reward us when they could see how much we did in government. I think we did many things in government of which we should be proud, and that ultimately history will look more kindly on our party than the voters did on Thursday. This said, we failed to appreciate that electorates generally don’t reward – they punish. Building a strategy on such wilful thinking was ultimately doomed to failure.

We must learn the lessons – both of 2011 and 2015. In fact, we must learn the lessons of how we failed to adequately respond to the challenge faced after the 2011 meltdown. It therefore dismays me to hear all the talk of “fightback”, “resilience” and “rebuilding” in recent days. All this is so familiar - I heard it all four years ago, and what happened? Of course, we need to be positive, but fighting talk is not a substitute for sober reflection. Contrary to belief, the Lib Dems would not survive a nuclear war and may not even survive another election simply on the basis of blind optimism.
The cause of Liberalism has indeed been set back by half a century. It will take decades to rebuild – those who assume otherwise fail to appreciate how our party was built up in the first instance. There are no quick fixes and even fewer certainties. I want our party to survive, but it will only do so if we can ditch the “full steam ahead” approach and make the necessary changes to our thinking.

We have to change. There can be no denying that – we must change our attitudes, our campaigning style, and our strategy. We're going to have to - to use coalition business jargon - make some tough choices if we are to deliver. Our organisation has to be overhauled. In terms of personnel, we might have to change more than merely the leader. We have to recognise what has gone wrong, and the role our own failings played. This isn't just a slap in the face, but a destruction of so much we've worked for over decades. Some sense of longer-term reality among the positive fighting talk would be helpful. I'm sure there is a way forward, but it certainly requires a bit more than to dust ourselves off, say the same kinds of things and to hope the next election will be more favourable.

The General Election told us many things - but what we have to accept is that the principal message was that voters don't really like us. That the 2011 and 2015 results are so similar is not coincidental. It's going to take more than positive reinforcement of the stereotype of Lib Dem survival to turn that around.

Those of us thinking seriously about how the party can adapt to meet tomorrow's challenges may well wish to consider former MP David Howarth's advice, which I consider to represent a timely contribution:

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Should zero-hours contracts be shown zero-tolerance?

Vince Cable told Radio 2 that Miliband's
proposals are not "practical".
A great deal is being said about zero-hours contracts at the moment, and rightly so.

Ed Miliband has today promised to end the "epidemic" of zero-hours contract that "undermines family life". Labour has announced today it proposes a new law by which anyone working on such a contract for more than 12 weeks will, "if [they]'re working regular hours...get a regular contract."

This doesn't go far enough for some.  Plaid Cymru has unequivocally committed itself to "say NO to Zero-hour contracts." While it actually appears, on further investigation, that Plaid is actually opposed to mandatory zero-hour contracts - how helpful is tough talk when it reduces complex realities to easy soundbites?

Embedded image permalink

I should say that I have a fair bit of experience with zero-hour contracts. First up, the negative. After my wife was made redundant from a technical support job, she managed to find some employment working as a junior graphic designer for a national company (which I won't name). In spite of it being a leading business within the industry, not only she but all new staff were given zero-hour contracts. In addition to regular hours, staff were expected to do extra work at weekends and evenings, often at very short notice. Such basic entitlements as holiday pay and sick leave could be overlooked. Everyone was dispensable - and thoroughly aware of it. Job security was non-existent aside from for those who, by historical accident, had a permanent contract. The employer needed no reason to show anyone the door - hardly the environment in which employees were likely to perform to their full potential.

My wife, at least, was highly skilled and her consistently high quality work helped - until, of course, she became pregnant. Informing her manager was tantamount to writing her own P45. The final few weeks of her pregnancy, during which she was forced by the JobCentre to "look" for jobs in spite of no employer being likely to take on anyone whose pregnancy was so far advanced, were unnecessarily hard. I still find it difficult to forgive DWP officials for the unnecessary hurt they caused with their bullying - but the zero hour contract played its role too.

My brother, Adrian, has also had negative experiences at the hands of employers that can only be described as abusive and exploitative. Since he left the Army (having served in the Balkans, among other places) he had a string of jobs, working in security, care/support work and factories, before deciding to return to education. Almost all of these "jobs" were on zero-hour contracts; almost all of his employers were simply looking for maximum flexibility for themselves while offering little to the employee in return. The companies in question would use such contracts for all their staff, and one insisted on employees not working elsewhere in spite of being unable to guarantee any work at all.

However, I've also experienced a more positive aspect. For over 16 years I worked in the NHS. While a student, I worked for the nurse bank - which gave me financial means, vital experience and flexible hours. For anyone doing a health-related course, such opportunities are immensely valuable - arguably more so even than placements as they allow insights into the working realities of a multi-disciplinary team. Our employer benefited from our own skill and experience; we benefited from flexible work patterns and being able to remain solvent throughout our studies!

It's not only students who benefit, however. It's often parents with young families, who can only work particular nights and weekends - and don't want to work at all during school holidays. Or it's someone who is taking a career break for whatever reason, who needs to work a minimum number of days a year (at times to suit them) in order to maintain their registration. Or it's a community nurse who does a shift a week in a ward environment to keep their skills up to date. There were also retired people on the nurse bank - and one man who ran his own fledgling business who worked a few shifts a month to ensure he had a reasonably healthy income. Actually, there are many reasons why people might want flexible working arrangements, and not be obligated to work set hours every week. Zero-hour contracts do not have to "undermine family life" but can actually enhance it.

Certainly, there was a time in my life when it worked to my benefit, and I'm not going to jump on the bandwagon now.

However, as a former UNISON rep, I also see a need for exploitative employers to be challenged. We cannot allow for the development of a culture in which workers are simply undervalued disposable commodities. The needs of businesses themselves should not trump employee rights - often compromised when they are reduced from the status of "employee" to "worker". Employees cannot be allowed to treat people as less than human; to exploit them at busy times and then dispose of them when business is quiet.

But what will Labour's policy achieve? More than likely little other than such unscrupulous employers dismissing workers after 12 weeks, greater use of fixed-terms contracts and those who can only work flexibly opting not to work at all. The apparent automatic upgrade of a zero-hour contract to something more substantial may not be in everyone's interests - although workers being empowered to opt-in would be a better proposal. We need some common-sense on zero-hour contracts - to challenge the maltreatment of workers while recognising the benefits for many.

Fixed-term contracts are, to my mind, almost as big a problem as zero-hours contracts. They offer very little job security - usually up to 13 weeks only - but don't allow the same degree of flexibility for the employee and are often used to reduce employee rights. As a UNISON rep I dealt with countless abuses of successive fixed-term contracts - with implications for pay, holidays and parity with colleagues. (I should add that there were some fellow reps who took the view that temporary "workers" were not equivalent to "employees" and therefore were not entitled to representation in spite of paying their dues. Discrimination is not only the preserve of employers.)

Fortunately Vince Cable has stepped up to the challenge. Having during the last two years looked to expose loopholes in zero-hour contracts, he is committed to "tightening the screws on rogue employers who try to abuse workers on zero-hours contracts [while] ensuring there is access to justice for workers treated unfairly." Today he told Radio 2: "I just don't see the Miliband proposals as being practical because we know there are large numbers of companies that don't have constant work and there are large numbers of people who prefer flexibility." Cable has also pointed to the fact that 700,000 people are on zero-hours contracts - roughly one in 50 workers. That figure is still too high, but an outright ban seems the wrong way to improve the situation.

Labour's contribution shows a lack of foresight and would appear to be little more than gesture politics.The problem is not with the contracts themselves, but how employers use them. It's a question of how people are treated. So, by all means, let's see some co-ordinated and sensible suggestions to improve workers' rights and tackle unfairness - but let's direct this zero-tolerance talk towards exploitative employers rather than flexible working arrangements.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Why anti-SNP tactical voting may not work

Recently, we have seen widespread appeals for non-SNP supporters to unite behind the party best placed to defeat them in the forthcoming General Election.

There are online campaigns, instructing people in various seats how best to use their vote to thwart the SNP. On twitter, there is a politically illiterate movement, using the hashtag #SNPout (quite odd, as they're not actually "in" government in Westminster), suggesting we vote for either the Lib Dems, Labour or the Conservatives to keep the dreadful nationalists out. I'm not sure I could countenance a tactical vote for the Tories simply to keep out a party whose policy standpoints have far more in common with my worldview than the Conservatives do, and I'd imagine many Scots feel similarly.

As a feature of the flawed First Past the Post electoral system, tactical voting is a phenomenon likely to stay with us for some time. However, we have to ask the question: will tactical voting keep the SNP from a significant role in UK government?

The latest opinion poll from The Guardian gives the Conservatives 277 seats, Labour 269, the SNP 53 and the Lib Dems 25. This would mean the Tories remain the largest party, but unable to secure a working majority with any single party other than the SNP. A Tory-SNP deal is hugely risky and difficult for either party to sell; a Tory-Lib Dem-UKIP-DUP alliance is impractical on so many levels. The combined total of 322 for the Labour and SNP combined is just short of a majority (326) but could be workable.

Let's take a look at the current state of play. Prior to the dissolution of Parliament this week, Labour had 257 seats, with the SNP 6. This gives them a combined total of 263, of which 46 are Scottish seats. Focusing on Scotland, let's say for the sake of argument that the SNP does as well as polling suggests and take 36 seats from Labour, leaving them with 4. That still gives a combined total of 46. The seat currently held by "independent" Eric Joyce will assuredly be won by either the SNP or Labour, taking the total to 47.

Admittedly, the SNP are also likely to make gains from the Lib Dems - even if they were to take all of our seats that gives a combined Labour-SNP total of 58. This could be telling. But would anti-SNP tactical voting really prevent the SNP holding the balance of power?

Let's take the 11 Lib Dem held seats out of the equation and focus on the 47 currently held by Labour or the SNP. Neither the Lib Dems nor the Conservatives are seriously targetting these. Voting Labour to keep the SNP out may well prevent the return of an SNP MP in that constituency, but it will do nothing to influence the overall combined total of Labour and SNP seats. It will not diminish the arithmetical probability of a Labour-SNP deal being the most liekly and workable option after the election.

From the pespective therefore of diminishing the potential of the SNP involvement in the next government, voting Labour to keep out Nicola Sturgeon's party is relatively futile. Even if Labour somehow managed to keep two-thirds of its seats in Scotland (about 26) the SNP still look set to reduce the Lib Dems' seats - even if they took only 6 of the 11 that would give them 26 seats - still possibly the third largest party at Westminster.

The seats currently held by the Lib Dems are of greater significance to the overall arithmetic. Any gain by Labour or the SNP will add to the core of 47 seats inevitably won by one or the other, making a deal between those parties more likely. In these seats I can therefore understand the principle of tactical voting to some degree, although I note at least one pro-tactical campaign is suggesting voters in Michael Moore's seat of Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk and Alan Reid's Argyll & Bute constituency vote Conservative - which could allow the SNP to come through the middle. I appreciate that Alex Salmond is clearly a love-hate figure and that Gordon will inevitably see a great deal of tactical voting, but in many other Lib Dem seats Labour will also fancy their chances of unseating our incumbents (e.g. East Dunbartonshire, Edinburgh West) which complicates the picture further.

What will actually determine whether an SNP-Labour deal is workable is not the strength of the SNP in Scotland but that of Labour in England and Wales. That is the key battleground. The Labour-Lib Dem and Labour-Conservative marginals will prove decisive. The SNP and Labour in Scotland will have a combined total of around 50 seats, but whether they will have a combined strength of anything near to 326 MPs across the UK depends on how well Labour performs - and whether they can persuade people to vote tactically for Ed Miliband.

The Conservatives realise this, hence their anti-SNP rhetoric looking to scare English voters into voting anything but Labour. The evidence is that, while an unintended by-product is the strengthening of the SNP in Scotland, that tactic is working with those it is aimed at. The majority of voters in England, apparently, find a Tory-Lib Dem coalition more palatable than a Labour-SNP one.

There does remain the tantalising possibility of Labour emerging as the largest party with something like 295 seats, and being possible to work with either the SNP or the Lib Dems to achieve either a majority or something very near to the required 326. This is less likely, as it requires both Labour and the Lib Dems to exceed expectations. Even in such circumstances, however, would Labour's instincts be towards the Lib Dems or an SNP whose policy positions are probably more closer to their own? Would they opt for a more formal coalition (as the Lib Dems would prefer) or a looser agreement (which would suit the SNP)? As many within Labour clearly dislike the notion of coalition, I'd put my money on the latter.

No doubt tactical voting will have a huge impact on the UK election - in Conservative-Lib Dem marginals especially - but the idea that any pro-union Lib Dem voters should seek to support either the Labour or Conservative parties (especially in seats where they have an incumbent MP) is an absurd one. There also needs to be a sense of proportion - amongst all the scaremongering about what the SNP, the Greens or UKIP might want to do - about what they can actually achieve. Minority parties cannot simply impose their will upon government - if that was true we'd have had a proportional voting system, an elected House of Lords and a mansion tax introduced in this parliament.

I'm not one for tactical voting, as I prefer to see the General Election in terms of 650 local contests. That said, we all vote with a view to the national picture, and I for one see many worse possibilities than the SNP working with the Labour Party to ensure workable government. But, even if you perceive that as the ultimate nightmare scenario, the real threat to that eventuality is Ed Miliband's inability to project himself as a real alternative to David Cameron.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

SNP and Labour remind me why I'm a Liberal Democrat

I'd be lying if I said there haven't been times when I've asked myself why I'm a Liberal Democrat.

Even with a well considered philosophical liberalism, frustrations with party messages, elements of coalition policy and strategic mistakes can be very testing. I know many good Liberals who have left the party in recent years, and I understand perfectly why they have made their respective decisions. I know how difficult it has been for some of them to leave a party they have served for decades, and naturally I have reflected more than once on my own future within the Liberal Democrats.

But the simple reason is that, in spite of some our parliamentarians acting (in my view) with poor judgement at key times, I am still a Liberal and a Democrat. I'm a member of the Lib Dem family and, like many families, relationships can sometimes be fraught and challenging. But there's a real respect for individuality within the Liberal Democrats - something I value highly.

There's much that I can commend my party for - especially in policy areas of huge personal significance such as mental health, drug law, LGBTI rights, and Europe. But it isn't merely distinctive policies that convince me to remain a member - sometimes other parties remind you why you're a Liberal Democrat.

This week Labour have proudly advertised the fact that they want to be tough on immigration. I'm not really sure what kind of pride it is that drives Labour to enter an absurd race to the bottom with UKIP and the Conservatives, each of them using divisive language while playing the populist anti-immigration card. You can even buy an anti-immigration mug from Labour's online shop - something that Diane Abbott has labelled "shameful". Taking to twitter to express her anger, Ms Abbott wrote: "This shameful mug is an embarrassment. But real problem is that immigration controls are one of our 5 pledges."

That today's Labour Party has taken such a stance is testament to its current predicament. No longer the champions of freedom of movement, Labour's policy of banning EU migrants from receiving benefits for the first two years of residence is the brainchild of shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves. Reeves is so keen to outflank the Tories (and even UKIP) on immigrant benefits and welfare more generally, that she has effectively become the Echo to Iain Duncan Smith's Narcissus.  Whatever she might have meant about reducing benefit dependency and tackling the vilification of claimants, the "not the party of people on benefits" and "working people" rhetoric is not accidental. It is part of Labour's psyche, pointing to its "us and them" mentality in setting different social groups against each other.

And that's just one reason of many. I haven't even taken a look at Labour's self-inflicted predicament in Scotland.

In the last four years, I have been asked many times to join the SNP. I can understand why, and I know that most of those doing the asking are decent, reasonable people who feel that I could be an asset to their movement. They are wrong, because I am not and never could be a nationalist, but I appreciate their motivations.

I do not deny the many positive policy positions of the SNP, but it's not so much policy perspectives that have proved the most powerful dissuasive factor but the culture of that particular party. Dissent is practically unheard of; individuality almost indiscernible. Recently, I was speaking to friend of mine who is an SNP supporter (and an "out" supporter of LGBTI equality) about various Lib Dem policies. He agreed with us on some key issues - most notably the danger of the SNP's super-database. But to him these were all a price worth paying. "The specific policy doesn't matter", he said. "The main thing is to get as many pro-independence MPs to Westminster." To which I quipped: "OK, so if the SNP promised to bring back the death penalty and make homosexuality criminal you'd still vote for them?" I wasn't sure what I expected him to say, but it wasn't "Yes, of course, we need to be free". It's clearly futile debating policy with such attitudes. What was even more obvious was his discomfort at being even asked to consider ideas that could appear critical of the SNP or its leadership - something that I believe is widespread among his party's supporters.

At the SNP's conference the party has passed a motion introducing new rules requiring strict loyalty from MPs. These rules are as tough on individuality and dissent as Labour's proposals are on immigrants' benefit entitlements.

I understand the need for collective responsibility and professionalism, especially in advance of a General Election that could yield significant opportunities for Nicola Sturgeon's party, but the motion strengthens party control to a degree that would, at aone time, have been unthinkable and allows for the introduction of disciplinary procedures to ensure all MPs toe the party line. Not only this, but "no member shall, within or outwith the parliament, publicly criticise a Group decision, policy or another member of the group".

You have to wonder why the SNP feels such a motion is necessary. I would ask if I could ever join a party that had conformity and authoritarianism written into the heart of its being. As a general rule, I accept that professional standards and respect for colleagues should debar negatively briefing against them, but there are also times when expressing disagreement is necessary and actually aids democracy.

Imagine if such a stance was formally adopted by Labour or the Lib Dems. No doubt Simon Danczuk would be up for expulsion from the party - as would, in all probability, Diane Abbott. Dennis Skinner would have gone years ago. Nye Bevan would have never been a minister. Severe punishments would no doubt have been handed out to the Lib Dem MPs who either voted against tuition fees or spoke out against the way the issue had been handled. As for this blog - it would surely have been suppressed at the moment I suggested a cartoon of Alex Salmond was, to put it midly, ill-advised.

This has also got me thinking about whether an SNP MP's first duty will be to their constituents or their party.  The interests of the party and those of the constituency are not necessarily aligned. The public appreciates those MPs who go against their party line either on issues of principle or to champion local issues - it is, in fact, not altogether uncommon. I can promise that, if ever elected to public office, I will be nobody's yes-man - I could never be a tribalistic politician adhering to an imposed rigid orthodoxy. As George Orwell observed, "orthodoxy is unconsciousness". That should not be taken as suggesting I would be reckless and dismissive in my relationship with colleagues, but I recognise that ultimately I am accountable to those who elected me. I also respect others' individuality and would hate the idea of curtailing their freedom to speak according to their consciences.

I am pleased I belong in a party in which individuality is not dangerous. For all our current difficulties, I am proud to carry a party membership card that reminds me that the Liberal Democrats exist to, amongst other things, ensure "no one shall be enslaved by...conformity." For all the merits of other parties, I have yet to find the Liberal Democrats' culture of openness, respect for diverse views and acceptance of everyone as an individual (as epitomised at our conferences) anywhere else.

We may be an anarchic lot with a rebellious and anti-authoritarian streak that has frustrated several party leaders, but I wouldn't change that for anything. It certainly beats the culture of conformity and control.