Sunday, 29 August 2010

Ed Miliband: tactical genius or irresponsible scaremonger?

One one level I like Ed Miliband. I really do. He's young, intelligent, energetic and - like many in our own party for whom I have admiration - has a strong appeal to his party's grassroots. He's also not afraid to admit where Labour have made mistakes and unlike some of the other candidates for Labour's leadership has in the past been far more forward-looking in his approach to politics.

However, Ed has recently launched something of an offensive against the Liberal Democrats. Thinking he's onto an obviously good thing repeating the misjudgements, half-truths and blatant misinformation of the tabloid press, he's targeted the Lib Dems in recent weeks. In attempting to portray the party's leadership as having "betrayed" its support and "sold out" on principles, he's clearly hoping to sow party division and damage the coalition.

A few days ago, Ed claimed that, in the event of any potential coalition between Labour and the Lib Dems in the future, that he "would not work with Nick Clegg" due to the Lib Dem leader's "support for [non-specified] spending cuts". Repeating the tactic Clegg himself used during the election to distance himself from Labour's leadership, Ed Miliband told the New Statesman that Labour should not be appealing to "Tory-supporting" newspapers and suggested instead that disillusioned Lib Dems were more likely potential converts to a revived Labour party. He was reported in The Scotsman as encouraging Lib Dem members and MPs to defect to Labour, claiming that Nick Clegg was "a kind of Tory" (Miliband throws down welcome mat for Liberals, 23/8/10).

I'm not convinced by any of this. I don't believe that there are these huge numbers of disaffected Lib Dem supporters, ready to jump onto a Labour ship that's lost its way. I'm not sure that Labour's claims of having already recruited so many defectors are actually accurate. And I fail to see that the tactic of targeting the Lib Dem leadership is either responsible or sensible in the long-term. This kind of grandstanding will appeal to the unions and the "left-wing" Labour grassroots, but it is counter-productive and tactically naive in regards to forging more positive future relations between Labour and the Lib Dems.

I've met some Labour members who have been keen to tell me what a tactical "genius" young Miliband is. Amongst other things I have heard is that "he is taking the fight to the Lib Dems", "exposing the Lib Dems for what they are" and "returning the Labour Party to its roots" . All this praise, and he hasn't even been elected as leader yet.

Already, Ed Miliband's insistence that he "can't" work with Nick Clegg appears tribalistic and short-sighted. Most voters are not left-wing tribalists or union officials, and don't care for this kind of approach to politics. They want politicians who can responsibly work through their difficulties and differences, not those who are eager to throw their toys out of the pram. They don't like mischief making or personality politics of the lowest common denominator variety. These tactics don't work.

Let's take the ridiculous rumour of the Kennedy non-defection (which was encouraged by Ed Miliband). Kennedy stated that "it is absolute rubbish, I am not joining the Labour Party and have not had any discussions about it with anyone from the Labour Party. I will go out of this world feet first with my Lib Dem membership card in my pocket", after which Ed Miliband was forced to publicly agree that no talks have taken place on Kennedy joining Labour. Not only did this make Ed look foolish, the issue undermined public confidence - not in the coalition - but in the media (which appeared irresponsible) and Labour (whose tactics were exposed as amounting to dirty tricks).

I'm not accusing Ed Miliband of personally sanctioning publication of these false claims. But this kind of ill-judged tactic is certainly in keeping with Ed's campaign; overly keen to resort to tribalism and smear and reluctant to fully engage with the wider spectrum of political thought. Pandering to the trade unions and old fashioned "lefties" doesn't actually help him but rather establishes him as a puppet of the unions and the more backward looking elements of the Labour party.

Tactically, he's picked the wrong target. And it's based on the outdated assumption that Lib Dems are ideologically closer to Labour that they are to other parties and therefore that Labour is a "natural home" to some of our members. In some respects this may have once been true, but a lot has happened since the days of Blair and Ashdown, especially in regards Labour's position on civil liberties. Instead of cynically targeting the Lib Dem leadership, any incoming Labour leader would be better advised to seek closer working relations with the Lib Dems - especially within, for example, the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament. This may have the effect of weakening the coalition to some degree and would also demonstrate Labour's commitment to bipartisanship. It would also provide policy platforms on which Labour and the Lib Dems can campaign together, potentially influencing the direction of Westminster coalition policy. In any case such relationships would create the necessary political environment in which future coalitions and understandings can be forged and would create a few problems for the Tories.

Ed Miliband's campaign has been a dismal one, unnecessarily negative and dependent on scaremongering. He has been too keen to embrace tabloid-style politics, encouraging unfounded rumours, suspicions and fears to spread and targeting personalities.

From a tactical perspective, it's suicide. In the absurd undemocratic logic of a Labour leadership contest, as a member of an affiliated trade union, I have a vote. At this stage I am not sure which way I will vote, as Andy Burnham, David Miliband and Diane Abbott each have qualities to recommend them from a Lib Dem point of view. But I will assuredly not be voting for Ed.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Kennedy not defecting

Have you heard the one about Charles Kennedy defecting to the Labour Party?

I have to say I didn't until I read Saturday's Herald. I must admit it's one of the silliest things I have read in some time, and that's quite impressive given that I regularly give more than a quick glance to the offerings of the Daily Record.

The Herald reports that "[we have] been told that there have been talks between the MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber and Labour whips, but that they came to nothing."

Journalist Michael Settle draws on Mr Kennedy's well-known displeasure about certain aspects of the coalition with the Conservatives in Westminster and gives undeserved credibility to Mark Seddon (former Tribune editor and ex-Labour NEC member) who wrote in his blog that Mr Kennedy had “been discussing defecting to the Labour Party with four or five Liberal Democrat colleagues”. Who these unnamed colleagues were is anyone's guess.

I don't know Charles personally, but I would think - given his history and his huge contribution towards our party's continued progress - that whatever his concerns are about the coalition he's not likely to seek out a new political home in the Labour Party. This is little more than media speculation based on the rambings of a Labour blogger whose motivations for publishing this "information" are more than questionable. It's a non-story.

Admittedly the Labour Party is doing its utmost to undermine the coaltion and this looks like a classic plant. But why should the likes of The Herald lend it any semblance of credibility?

I also noticed that, in the same article, The Herald argued that Nick Clegg "risked angering his grassroots by signalling he would not walk away from the coalition if electoral reform was blocked." It is an absurd for anyone to suggest that the Lib Dems should give up on the coalition like a petulant child if the AV referendum is lost, or that any referendum on electoral reform should be allowed to become essentially a vote of confidence in Nick Clegg. Lib Dem members will accept the verdict of the electorate because we understand democracy. Doesn't Michael Settle grasp this? Or is he simply trying to find a story where there isn't one?

So, we have one of Scotland's most respected papers offering silliness, empty speculation and more negativity. A democratic society deserves a little more informed and responsible reporting from its quality press; if The Herald wants to be taken seriously it really has to stop going for the esay headline and repeating the tired, ill-informed perspectives of the tabloids.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Hughes calls for Lib Dem coalition veto

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes has argued that his party's MPs should have a veto on policies put forward by the coalition government.

The first hundred days of coalition government have seen the Liberal Democrats exert considerable influence over the government's policy direction. However, the government has made some decisions that many Lib Dem members and MPs feel understandably uncomfortable with - most obviously in relation to the VAT increase and spending cuts.

In addition to suggesting Lib Dems should have a veto - "we should be able to say 'no, we can't go down this road'" - Mr Hughes also suggested that there existed a genuine possibility for a future coalition between the Lib Dems and Labour. He stated that such an alliance was still "on the agenda", possibly as early as the next general election in 2015.

Some of this is understandable. Simon Hughes is, of course, keen to offer both a distinctive voice on policy and reassurance to members concerned about the performance of the coalition government. He was, after all, elected as deputy leader promising to "fight every day for the principles which underpin our party". No-one doubts the authenticity and passion of these sentiments, and I am convinced Mr Hughes' motivations are to see his party maintain its distinctive position on key policy issues.

However, on one level a veto would be purely academic. As John Redwood points out on his blog, even "if all Lib Dem backbenchers vote against a coalition government proposal, even with Labour support, the government will still win the is only if more than 40 Conservatives vote against the government and Labour opportunistically agrees that the government might lose. Democratic politics is about numbers as well as arguments." While a veto might allow Lib Dem MPs the opportunity to "make a stand" on principle, in reality it would not in all likelihood make much of an effective difference in relation to policy outcomes. Significantly, however, it would be likely to undermine the collective responsibility of the government - and relationships between ministers and their respective parties.

I strongly believe introducing a veto could have a destabilising effect on the coalition. While I do not, like Mr Hughes, have any love for the Conservative Party, there should be a recognition that we are now locked into the coalition agreement and that Liberal Democrats will do everything in their power to imbue government policy with a strong liberal ethos.

Of course, Mr Hughes is correct in asserting that alternative arrangements should be considered after the next General Election. I would hope that Liberal Democrats can demonstrate the ability to work with any party when the national interest demands it. That is mature politics.

What is not mature politics is for our party's deputy leader to apparently undermine Nick Clegg's description of the Tory-Lib Dem government as a "long-term" arrangement, to suggest personal preference for co-operation with a Labour Party which was clearly uninterested in such working arrangements and to effectively question the leadership's decision to enter into government with the Conservatives. The timing of Hughes' statement about potential future relationships with Labour suggests his personal dissatisfaction with current arrangements and reinforces the mistaken perception that the Lib Dems are struggling to retain their distinctive and progressive identity in government. It certainly contributes to public doubts about the Lib Dems' role in government.

Simon Hughes' contribution may have been more helpful if it had perhaps focused not on the rights and wrongs of post-election manoeuvrings, but on Lib Dem achievements and our prospects in government. There is a great deal more to responsible coalition government than for the minor partner to be afforded the freedom to consistently oppose the policy of the larger. There are certainly more positive means the party can use to ensure the public remain aware of our distinctive policy positions. Mr Hughes must forget the recent past and has to recognise that he can not allow himself to be perceived as either disloyal or a Labour sympathiser. And those of us who, like him, are uncomfortable with certain aspects of the coalition's performance must do more than simply express disagreement.

As a party with lengthy experience in opposition, we have to become accustomed to our new role and ensure that we remain a key part of an effective government. We have an opportunity to make a significant contribution in forging a farier and more liberal society, but it will take people of vision with a realistic outlook - not loose canons with one foot in the past.

Alan Milburn appointed "social mobility tsar"

Former Labour minister Alan Milburn has been appointed to a role in advising the government on policies promoting social mobility. his role as "social mobility tsar" will involve advising the government on how to break down social barriers for people from disadvantaged backgrounds and combat social inequality.

Milburn, who previously served as Secretary of State for Health, last year chaired the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions. The Panel's report in July 2009 recommended certain actions to widen access to key professions such as medicine and law, which in spite of progress remain virtually the preserve of certain social groups. As a former medical student from what might be considered a "disadvantaged" background, I am more than aware of the inequalities inherent within the system and the acute financial pressures that forced me to abandon both my studies and my otherwise achievable aspiration to practice medicine - and would welcome the findings of Milburn et al as an overdue step in the right direction.

This report set Milburn apart from most of his colleagues in the Labour Party. For all its positive social achievements, under Labour social inequalities widened. There were many Labour MPs who cared deeply about improving social mobility, but they seemed to believe that achieving progress would simply be a by-product of government policy. Consequently, it was not seen as a pressing issue and very little thought was given as to how improvements in social mobility could actually be achieved.

Perhaps because of my own experiences I saw things differently. I could see that not only was the notion of social mobility a myth, but that Labour had failed to address inequalities. My dealings with Labour minsters and MPs in relation to widening access to medicine and increasing support for medical students led me to believe that Labour was ignorant of the fact that it was actually contributing to a shocking constriction of social mobility. Because of this I was relieved at the findings of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions - not simply because of its findings (which I recognised might never be acted upon) but because it actually recognised a real problem. And it realised that action had to be taken to reverse social inequality.

There has understandably been a lot of reaction to Miburn's appointment. John Prescott, forthright and tactless as ever, labelled him "a collaborator". Andy Burnham was surprisingly judgemental towards his former colleague, alleging that he was "putting his ego and his own social mobility above the people he used to represent". Conservative blogger Iain Dale, always entertaining in his analysis, bemoaned the appointment of a Labour advisor and asked why there "are no Conservatives with the capability or talent to carry out these roles". (Answers on a postcard please.)

I have to admit that I see things differently. Simon Hughes observed that "we have got to be non-partisan and non-tribal about these things and if good people are willing to work for the Government, whatever their background, they should be welcomed." This commonsense approach is what is necessary for effective government. In Alan Milburn, the coalition has at its disposal the abilities and experience of someone who chaired what was effectively a Social Mobility Commission who was determined to break down what he called the "closed shop mentality" and was critical of the Brown government's failure to implement his proposals. Milburn is not a political tribalist but a realist with the necessary passion, ideas and track record to deliver progress on increasing social mobility.

Aside from the unhelpful tribal attitudes towards Milburn's appointment, it should be pointed out that this is evidence that the government is serious about taking action. While Nick Clegg has consistently berated the unfortunate reality that "a child born in a poor neighbourhood in Sheffield where I’m an MP will die on average 14 years before a child born in a wealthier area" it was not something taken up as a matter of urgency by many of his government colleagues. In fact, the orginical coalition agreement only mentioned social mobility once (in relation to the review of tuition fees).

Nick Clegg clearly realises that any genuine eradication of social inequality requires action to be taken urgently to increase social mobility. He is right to adopt it as a personal issue, and to champion liberal solutions. Clegg has already established an independent commission to examine social mobility and has committed the Liberal Democrats to providing "equality of opportunity".

Now in government, Clegg and the Lib Dems can begin to make overdue progress. Whatever his party affiliations, there can be no escaping the fact that Alan Milburn has the experience, determination and understanding to help the coalition achieve some tangible success in creating a genuinely free and fair society.

A distinctive voice in government

I've been away for a short while, so please excuse the lack of posts of late.

Today marks 100 days of coalition government. It's been a more than interesting first hundred days. It is, of course, still early days but early signs are that Lib Dem involvement in government is producing positive results.

The most curious thing is that, over the last three months or so, the most vocal opponent of the coalition government has not been the official opposition, which is so pre-occupied with its own difficulties and its leadership contest that instead of providing constructive opposition ( e.g. asking tough questions of Cameron and his cabinet) it has resorted to cheap, tribalist and cynical remarks from the likes of Prescott, Straw and Ed Miliband - aimed almost exclusively at the Lib Dem leadership.

No, it's not the Labour Party but the media who have been the most outspoken critics of the coalition government. On one level, I welcome a critical and analytical media which questions, interrogates and challenges. It's what we need in a strong democracy.

But what we have witnessed, especially from the daily newspapers, has gone beyond the analytical and critical. It verges on institutional hostility. Almost without exception, as if demonstrating en masse that the journalistic profession can not grasp the concept of coalition, no story can be told without reference to "splits", "divisions", "tensions" and "possible defections". It really is tiresome, and it certainly isn't news.

The media simply doesn't "get" this idea of coalition government. You know, that you can have two partners who sometimes disagree on important issues but are committed to working through their differences. Obviously journalists are all single people.

Inevitably, the daily papers are going to want to find news stories where there aren't any. It's natural that they will exaggerate the nature of any disagreement and speculate about the potential fall-out. But it's the sheer vitriol that I struggle with. The Daily Telegraph in particular has been unfriendly towards even the notion of Liberal Democrat involvement in government; the Daily Mirror and the Daily Record have been equally keen to claim the Lib Dems have "sold out"; The Guardian, which backed the Lib Dems and the possibility of coalition prior to the election, now feels it has a right to attack the party for pursuing a responsible role in government. Decca Aitkenhead, writing for The Guardian on 9th August, claimed that "almost everyone I know ...has been saying more or less the same thing; that [the Lib Dems] have traded their principles for a taste of power, and betrayed its supporters". Even in Scotland, where the likes of The Scotsman and The Herald are more familiar with the politics of coalition, they have similarly looked to create sensationalist stories in regards the coalition's prospects, with The Herald helpfully pinpointing a number of seats it expects the party to lose in next year's Scottish Parliamentary elections as a result of being associated with the Conservatives.

I could write a very lengthy post detailing this poisonous and badly informed media campaign to discredit both the Lib Dems and the coalition. I'm sure it would be interesting to examine the motives of the press in being constantly on the lookout for tensions and division, or relentlessly rubbishing the coalition. But to be honest I'm not as interested in them as they are in us. And I'm also convinced that the media only speak for themselves, and that the public are far more canny than The Herald suggests. Most people understand and appreciate that responsible, mature, grown-up politics requires discussion and co-operation - and that successful coalition means more than one partner getting everything they want, all of the time.

Instead, I want to shatter the principal myth being peddled by the press: that the Liberal Democrats have sold out, are impotent and ineffective, lack a distinctive voice and have no influence on government. This product of wishful thinking on the part of the press is far more dangerous than the witch-hunt for splits and tensions because in fairness it's more believable. No-one really expects Simon Hughes to emulate Michael Meadowcroft and form a new party. Neither does anyone seriously think there's any real likelihood of division in government given the commitment of both Cameron and Clegg to ensuring the coalition succeeds. But, in the absence of much in the way of quality, reasoned, informed and realistic commentary on the Lib Dems' role in government, it is easier for the public to accept the lie that the party lacks principles and influence.

A couple of weeks ago I watched the Six o'clock News as Prime Minister David Cameron announced what I will diplomatically describe as controversial proposals to reform the benefits and social housing systems. As someone who works in the field of adult mental health, I have some understanding of the human dimension to this admittedly complex issue and recognise that such "radical" (i.e. ill-considered) changes would contribute negatively to many people's mental well-being. There are complex social issues at the heart of it which Cameron clearly has no idea how to resolve. It was as if the PM was looking for some easy headline with which to placate the less progressive wing of his party. But I was particularly horrified because I couldn't see a single Liberal Democrat idea in any of Cameron's announcement. It was hardly the product of "coalition" thinking.

Cameron tried to sell this as policy, although it clearly was nothing of the sort. What was more disturbing than Cameron's narrow-minded views was the fact that he had not discussed the issue with his coalition partners. There had been no dialogue whatsoever. As Simon Hughes pointed out the following day, "[this is just] a prime ministerial idea – it has no more validity...I think our party would need a lot of persuading that it has merit or could work. Council tenancy agreements have not been discussed by the coalition, and any idea or proposal floated so far is nothing more than that – an idea or a proposal and not a policy. So the ideas put forward by David Cameron this week in no way represent the policy of the coalition and certainly do not represent the policy of Liberal Democrats."

While this incident begs questions about Cameron's leadership style as well as his political judgement, it also highlights the influence of the Liberal Democrats. Within hours it became clear that "most" Lib Dem MPs (including Nick Clegg) were opposed to Cameron's proposals and that they resented having not been consulted. In fact, almost the entire Lib Dem parliamentary party stood up to the Prime Minister and essentially told him that his conduct was unacceptable. Hardly behaviour one associates with the toothless, spineless and impotent.

Did the media report on such a show of strength from the Lib Dems? You can bet it didn't!

The Lib Dems also have had some significant policy success. Let's take, for example, wheel clamping. It's been illegal to clamp vehicles on private land in Scotland for some time, but last week it was announced that the social menace of wheel clamping and vehicle removal is finally being dealt with in England and Wales. And about time too - the illiberal practice of one citizen punishing another has no place in modern society.

There have been so many personal stories of "rogue" clampers and their abusive behaviour that current arrangements clearly were not working. This is why the Liberal Democrats, in their manifesto, promised to "regulate the parking system to remove unfairness and stop private sector wheel-clamping". No other party promised to do this.

And now, this policy has become law. And this welcome change can be directly attributed to Lib Dem involvement at the heart of government. It represents a key policy success, and demonstrates that the party is making a positive difference. I noticed that the Daily Mail and Daily Express were absolutely delighted with this development, but do you suppose they gave credit to the party who advocated this change? You can bet they didn't!

As Vince Cable points out, there are many other examples of the Lib Dems distinctive ideas influencing government policy. He says (in an interview in The Guardian, 9/8/10): "we've got principles we've tried to inject into the coalition's thinking. The whole civil liberties agenda has changed out of recognition...and on tax policy, the Tory government on its own would never have dreamed of some of the things that appeared in the budget. This idea of lifting the tax threshold is something I've fought for years in our party to get accepted, and it's a very big thing if you're a low paid worker. Getting the bank levy through, getting the pension properly indexed..."

But, for me, one of the areas in which the Lib Dems have been most influential - and which has been almost completely ignored by the press - is prison reform. Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke recently announced that new prison reforms would save the government money while "shutting the revolving door of crime and reoffending". Essentially, he was advocating a change in sentencing policy and admitting that the government are examining alternative sanctions and reducing the prison population.

On one level, this is a response to economic reality. Andrew Neilson, from the Howard League for Penal Reform, wryly observes that "a fiscal crisis can create the space for a sensible strategy of decarceration". However, on another level, it demonstrates the influence of the Liberal Democrats in shaping a responsible, and more workable, justice system.

The coalition government hasn't fully developed the policy yet, but what can be said with some certainty is that the coalition's position is a long way from the Conservatives' populist "tough on crime" approach. Let's be honest; their manifesto was full of the usual backward-looking rhetoric such as "early deportation of foreign national prisoners" and "[no] early release". They campaigned on a platform of lengthening sentences, locking up more criminals and - bizarrely - even suggested the almost unworkable notion of converting ships into prisons in order to boost capacity. In addition to this, the Tories had pledged to continue Labour's prison building programme which would increase prison capacity by more than 10 per cent by 2014.

On the other hand, the Liberal Democrats' manifesto focused on "making the justice system work to rehabilitate criminals and reduce crime", arguing that "once a criminal has been caught, it is vital that the punishment they are given helps to turn them away from crime, and set them back on the straight and narrow. Too many politicians have talked tough, meting out ever-longer prison sentences, but doing far too little to tackle reoffending and to stop crime happening in the first place."

What the government is now doing is to move away from the sensationalist and irresponsible line the Conservatives fought the election on and examine more progressive ideas for the future of the UK justice system. There is a recognition that real change requires dealing with the complex social and dependency problems which often result in reoffending. Significantly, even the Conservative Party are beginning to realise that simply banging people up to serve short-term sentences often does little more than to isolate prisoners from their jobs, families and communities. And it costs - it is more expensive to keep a prisoner behind bars than it is to send a child to Eton.

It's difficult to predict exactly what form the coalition's policy will finally take, but so far Clarke has made promising noises about "intelligent sentencing", reducing the prison population and moving towards a more results-based system to combat reoffending in conjunction with various charitable and voluntary organisations. Clarke has rejected much of the Conservatives' position and is essentially singing from the Lib Dem hymnsheet. He has already been criticised by Michael Howard, which is sufficient evidence that "traditional" Conservatives are uncomfortable with the direction being taken.

What can be said is that this change in direction and emphasis on rehabilitation would not become policy without the influence of Lib Dem thinking. As we can see, the Lib Dems are not just a moderating influence on the Conservatives but a coalition partner with ideas of their own. I don't believe for a minute that the likes of Eric Pickles and Teresa May would have accepted such a "betrayal" of Tory dogma on crime and justice without Lib Dem involvement in government.

I am quietly confident that, when the detail of the coalition's justice policy is announced, it will contain recognisably Liberal Democrat ideals, philosophy and principles. I wonder then if the press will give credit where credit is due?

Friday, 6 August 2010

The AV referendum: Labour tactics opportunistic and naive

It isn’t often that I agree with David Cameron about much. But when the Prime Minister accused Labour of “opportunism” after the party announced its opposition to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, he was absolutely right.

Last week I met a senior figure within the Labour Party, ostensibly to discuss Labour’s tactics in some key marginals during the general election campaign as part of some research I am undertaking. Inevitably, conversation turned to the Liberal Democrats’ fortunes and their prospects in government and my Labour friend shared, with obvious self-satisfaction, her view that the Lib Dems were “finished” as a result of being “locked into” a coalition they would inevitably be tainted by and that the referendum on AV would certainly be lost.

“Does that mean you’ll be campaigning for a ‘no’ vote?” I asked.


“But why? The Labour Party promised AV in their manifesto and would presumably have delivered on it if they’d won. What’s changed?”

“It’s not AV itself that we’re opposed to, it’s the other elements of the Bill we’re concerned about such as the redrawing of constituency boundaries to favour the Tories.”

I explained that the Bill, if passed, would allow for a referendum to take place on a change to the voting system as well as legislating for a reduced parliament and equalisation of constituency size. As the result of the referendum will only determine the electoral system used and will not in itself impact the shape and number of constituencies, I pointed out that I could understand why Labour might oppose certain elements of the Bill, but could see no reason to campaign for a ‘no’ vote in a referendum – especially a referendum with the potential to introduce reform to which Labour was supposedly committed. I suggested this tactic amounted to disingenuous and dishonest tribal politics and that opportunities for change were being lost as the price of small-minded political gameplaying. As Cameron said, this is raw, unadulterated opportunism.

To which the response was something along the lines of “there’s no way we can work with the Lib Dems at the moment”.

It is a great shame that Labour have chosen to go down this route. They needn’t have. Jack Straw is on record as saying that “If it had just been about the AV referendum, there would have been no difficulty in getting this bill through...what they have done is added to this bill their very, very partisan proposals effectively for gerrymandering boundaries...We are not arguing about the equalisation of seats. We are arguing about the unnecessary reduction in the size of the House of Commons and we are particularly arguing about the way in which they are proposing to go about redrawing the boundaries." To which I have a certain amount of sympathy; as a Lib Dem I’m not overly happy about manipulations of constituencies designed to help any one party. But it’s the wrong tactic. Firstly, it’s one thing to vote down a parliamentary bill; quite another to actively campaign in a referendum against endorsed party policy. Secondly, it makes Labour appear inflexible, small-minded, dishonest and unprincipled. And, thirdly, deciding not to work with the Lib Dems is the wrong way to damage the coalition.

Labour could achieve far more by reminding the Lib Dems about their recent history, and the shared work between the two parties. Admittedly, Labour were so strong in parliamentary terms that if they had so wished, they could have introduced a referendum on PR at any point during their 13 years in government. They didn’t deliver, in spite of good working relationships between Blair and Ashdown, Cook and Maclennan, and Dewar and Wallace. However, a positive relationship between Labour and the Lib Dems delivered a more proportional voting system for European elections, the use of the Additional Member System (AMS) for elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly and the Single Transferable Vote (STV) for Scottish local elections. While I recognise the Liberal Democrat influence behind these developments, I am also sufficiently realistic to appreciate that Labour involvement was key and that such developments would never have taken place under a Conservative-led administration.

There remains the very real and tantalising possibility for positive change. For that to happen, Labour’s role will again be of the utmost importance. The Conservatives are likely to campaign for a ‘no’ vote (something Labour seem to have overlooked in terms of tactical opportunities) and labour opposition, or even ambivalence, would surely result in the AV vote being lost. Unlike the senior labour figure I referred to earlier, I could not see a ‘no’ outcome as positive for Labour, whatever its impact on coalition relations. It would simply represent another missed opportunity from a directionless, toothless party.

Labour have to decide whether they actually support AV and if they are serious about being a force for change. If so, they could pursue the tactic of painting themselves as the champions of electoral reform and of AV in particular, putting forward amendments to the Bill in its current form with the potential to divide the coalition. Even if this tactic was unsuccessful a willingness to take moral leadership of the ‘yes’ campaign could be a useful propaganda tool and renewed co-operation between Labour and the Lib Dems would have the effect of at least weakening the relationship between the coalition partners. Alternatively, and more ambitiously, Labour could attempt to win over the Lib Dems by tabling an amendment calling for a genuine option of PR to be included on the referendum ballot paper, which would present the Lib Dem leadership with an awkward dilemma. Certainly, if Labour’s strategy is to damage the coalition, offering Lib Dems the tantalising opportunity for PR has a greater chance of success than cynically backtracking on manifesto commitments.

Cameron was right to point out that Labour were playing an opportunistic game. Simon Hughes was furious that Labour has “chosen to say no for opposition's sake" and the Electoral Reform Society attacked what it saw as “sabotage dressed up with a few principles". They are, of course, all right. But what they failed to notice was that Labour’s tactics are also at best naive and at worst plain stupid.

There are many opportunities here for Labour if they are canny enough to grasp them. Refusing to work with the Lib Dems is counter-productive, fails to take account of historic working relationships between the two parties and only reinforces the relationship between the Lib Dems and Conservatives in coalition. The position of the Conservatives on AV means that Labour are in a powerful position to influence the outcome of the referendum. They must choose to do the right thing.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Jo Swinson on "the first ten weeks"

I received an e-mail from Jo Swinson MP in which she outlines the principal achievements of the Liberal Democrats during the first ten weeks of the coalition government:

It’s been a little over ten weeks since the coalition government was formed, so I thought I would take this chance to illustrate Lib Dem influence on Government policy.

Going into the election the Liberal Democrats championed several new priorities: fairer taxes; a fairer voting system; a fair start for children with extra funding for disadvantaged pupils; and a green, sustainable economy.

Thanks to Lib Dem involvement, the Government will deliver on each of these.

There are also a large number of other Lib Dem policies and pledges that will now begin to make a real, positive difference to people’s lives because of our role in the Government.

These include everything from rolling back the surveillance state and giving people back their civil liberties, to prison and NHS reforms, ending child detention, fairer pensions, and the scrapping of the third runway at Heathrow.

It was a difficult decision going into coalition government - but I believe that putting these policies into practice was the right choice.