Sunday, 26 September 2010

Ed Miliband wins as New Labour dies

In a contest that could hardly have been closer, Ed Miliband defeated his brother for the Labour Party leadership by a margin of 50.65% to 49.35%.

As many commentators, including Lib Dem Voice's Stephen Tall, have observed, Ed's victory was heavily dependent on trade union support to overcome his brother's strong backing from MPs and party members.

In making his acceptance speech, Ed deliberately distanced himself from the era of Blair and Brown, pledging to "turn the page" with "a new generation [that] has stepped forward to serve our the work of the new generation begins". During the four-month campaign, Ed had repeatedly severed ties with Labour's past, criticising its record on Iraq, tuition fees and immigration.

He spoke positively of change: "I am going to show that I understand the need to change" he said. Exactly what form this change would take is the subject of much speculation, but it is clear that Ed wishes to move the party in a different direction to his predecessors. Recently, he declared New Labour to be "dead"; yesterday he killed it off altogether.

Roy Hattersley, writing in The Guardian, was particularly optimistic for Labour and its electoral chances under its new leader. "Labour [now] has a leader who...believes in the principles of social democracy...he knows that...a naturally progressive majority in Britain is waiting to support a genuinely radical party with an unapologetically radical leader." In describing Ed Miliband as a moderate, Hattersley suggests he has a distinctive personal philosophy: "He wants to see a more equal society and he knows that equality and liberty - far from being enemies - go hand in hand."

Perhaps this is true. If so, the new Labour leader shares a philosophy with many Liberal Democrats and this perhaps suggests that his unfair attacks on the Liberal Democrats' leadership during his campaign were motivated by opportunism rather than principle. One thing on which I would unreservedly agree with Roy Hattersley is his assertion that " more likely than either of [his fellow leadership candidates] to steer a new course." The question is: what will that course be?

I lost any enthusiasm I had for Ed Miliband when his campaign appeared to deliberately attempt to appeal for union support and endorsements. As we see now, this was a defining tactic. But I became unnerved by some of his rhetoric, his apparently anti-business stance, his apparent willingness to return to the left-wing politics of the past and his ill-informed attacks on the coalition. Publicly stating an inability to work with Nick Clegg was far from mature, but pledging to "make the Liberal Democrats history" was a step too far in my view. Bipartisanship and pluralist politics didn't seem to feature in his thinking.

It may be no bad thing that New Labour has been officially put to death. It has been dying slowly, and without much in the way of dignity, for some time. Even at its height, it was morally vacuous, representing little in terms of principle and as time progressed it became harder to identify what Labour actually stood for. This is a key challenge for Miliband - not, as was the case for Kinnock, Smith and Blair, to make Labour electable - but to make them distinctive. In doing this he must go beyond merely creating a new brand, but in successfully forging a party of convictions and original ideas.

Of course this won't be easy. Ed wasn't able successfully win over his party with much conviction. But now he is elected, I imagine both he and his party will be determined to work towards a new future in which Labour can be both convincing and united. The benefits of having emerged victorious from a leadership contest means that Ed will be unlikely to be subjected to the same intrigues and plots as his predecessor; the importance of party unity was evident in his speech. "I have to unify this party and I will" he declared.

Ed faces a few imminent challenges. Having been considered as the underdog during the leadership campaign he has rarely come under pressure and this could show in the coming weeks. The first thing Ed will have to do it distance himself from the unions in the same way he successfully distanced himself from New Labour. Already, his political opponents have sought to exploit the fact that he was the beneficiary of the trade union machine. Conservative Party Chairman Baroness Warsi has stated that "Ed Miliband...was put into power by union votes. This looks like a great leap backwards for the Labour Party". Tory MP Margot James commented that "trade unions - the paymaster and kingmakers of the Labour Party...I think Labour will be even more in hock to unions and Ed Miliband will be boxed in to opposing deficit reduction." Stephen Tall, writing for Lib Dem Voice, has also suggested he was the beneficiary of union voting and an undemocratic electoral system. Countless media commentators have referred to him as "Red Ed".

I don't agree with this tactic and that's not only because I reject the stereotype. I didn't care for the cynical way in which Ed courted the unions, but now he's Labour leader and he will have to deal with the consequences. It is Ed, and not the coalition, who will have to work with the General Secretaries of the unions if their unrealistic expectations are not met. I don't believe for a minute that Ed will take policy dictation from the likes of Derek Simpson or Dave Prentis. He won't allow himself, or the party, to become a puppet of the unions but there is little doubt that his election will have given the unions a boost, and he may have to deal with the inevitable political ramifications.

There has also been criticism within Labour, with one MP saying "I think this will trigger a constitutional crisis in the party. It is complete madness that we can be seen to have a leader who was put there by the unions."

What should the Lib Dem reaction be? I think outright hostility, of the kind Ed showed towards ourselves in his own campaign, would be counter-productive. Also, opportunistically portraying his as being in the pocket of the unions not only lacks evidence at this stage, but would only serve to inflate the unions' perceptions of their influence. It is not for Liberal Democrats to indulge in the facile caricaturing so loved by the tabloid press.

I think we're better to leave alone the narrow issue of the role of the unions in electing the Labour leader. If this election has triggered off uncertainty within Labour about the democratic basis of their internal elections, or if it makes some Labour supporters uneasy about the influence of the unions, then that is positive. But Labour's democratic processes are an issue for Labour - not ourselves. Ed has to persuade his party that he represents their interests rather than merely those of the unions.

What is an issue for ourselves is how Ed Miliband responds to the pressing issues of the time. Most obviously, in relation to the Comprehensive Spending Review, will he simply side with UNISON's Dave Prentis who claims to "look forward to working [with Ed] to challenge the coalition Government and its regressive cuts agenda", resisting every cut for short-term political advantage? Will he, as Margot James suggests, "be boxed in to opposing deficit reduction"? That is the easy route, but it is not the responsible one and if Ed does opt for the easy option he deserves all the criticism he will inevitably receive for his short-sightedness.

If, however, he resists the temptation to oppose all cuts and develop a sensible approach to economic recovery then there would develop genuine opportunities for them to make a real contribution towards a broad, multi-party consensus on responsibly reversing the economic legacy of the previous government. I am optimistic he will decide not to opt for short-term boosts in the polls as this will, inevitably, compromise his credibility.

So far, all the Labour Party have argued is that cuts might jeopardise recovery. There has been little else in the way of argument, either convincing or otherwise. This populism can not deliver in the long-term. The responsible action would be to outline a more sophisticated response which accepts the necessity of some spending cuts while setting a distinctive vision for Labour. Certainly, in this era of "new politics", if Miliband genuinely wants to demonstrate an appetite for change, he could develop a more collegiate and less tribal approach towards the coalition.

The difficulty for Ed is that the coalition has a clearly defined strategy for the economy. Neither he, nor Labour, have such a considered road map to recovery. He will clearly not want to associate himself too closely with a coalition accused of making deep public sector cuts, but similarly he can not be seen to be opposing for the sake of it - or for the sake of the unions. Voters are unlikely to take him seriously unless he is able to offer a new, sustainable and realistic vision of how to effectively handle the economy. Admitting the necessity of spending reduction would be a welcome start.

On the forthcoming AV referendum, Ed has an opportunity to demonstrate his leadership, conviction and more pluralist approach. He might have benefitted from union votes, but he also was elected by virtue of the AV system, which Labour feels is sufficiently good for choosing its own leaders but not for electing Prime Ministers. An advocate of voting reform, Ed will know too well that the easy route - and one favoured by many within his party - would be to sabotage the poll in order to destabilise the coaltion. What Ed might also appreciate is that being seen by the public to be opportunistically obstructing a policy it backed in its manifesto will not reflect too well on his own party. There are also benefits to being preceived as above the politics of tribal beligerence. He might appreciate that working amicably alongside Liberal Democrats (and others) in the "Yes" campaign could lead to developing relationships of vital importance in the future, especially as an outright Labour victory in 2015 is far from assured.

The final word (unusually) goes to Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP: "Ed Miliband's first test will be next May's Scottish elections". Not perhaps his first test. But the Scottish elections will be a major test of Ed Miliband's leadership, and of whether he is seen as credible and in-touch. Again, given the unlikelihood of an outright Labour majority, Ed should tone down his language regarding the Lib Dems. He must forget the rhetoric of treachery and betrayal and reach instead for the language of common ground and shared progressive tendencies. Not only would it pay dividends for Ed's public image, a closer working relationship with the Lib Dems in the devolved asssemblies could actually have a greater impact on destabilising the Westminster coalition than cynical opposition.

In short, what Ed Miliband must do is resist easy options, challenge preconceptions, show himself as willing to transcend tribalist politics and project himself as authentic and principled. If he can do this, he may prove to be a Labour leader we can do business with.

The problem of language and distortion

Last Tuesday, at Conference, I met three UKIP members - complete with purple and yellow rosettes - outside the arena. I find that's one of the best things about conference: the activists from other parties who enjoy fruitlessly peddling their ideologies to those of a completely different inclination. And as I like political discussion, not to mention that I have a love for engaging with people with different ideas, I wasn't going to deprive these people of a little friendly conversation.

It's always good fun to engage with members of other parties. And I mean that in the best possible way. I enjoy the SWP and the socialist party particularly; their hearts are often in the right place in relation to social justice but their remedies are painfully short-sighted. And the vitriol that left wingers have for their own ilk in other irrelevant revolutionary parties is the stuff of comedy. I imagined three members of UKIP would be pretty soft by comparison.

I was soon proved wrong. Discussing the Tuesday morning vote on equality of marriage, a split soon developed among them. Two were blatantly homophobic, choosing to hide behind their "faith" in defence of their attitude while the other was more libertarian. The conversation inevitably turned onto Europe, and again division became apparent as the same two poured scorn on the three main parties while the third at least attempted to see reason in the position of the Liberal Democrats on the EU. These two middle-aged, anti-gay Little Englanders then proceeded to pour out their obvious hatred of all things European, turning on what they called a "Zionist" conspiracy.

I responded by stating that I was unaware that people still thought like that. It was the trigger for further anti-semitism and the immortal quote "well, it's easy for young people like yourself to move on". Whatever that means. By this point, the more reasonable of the trio had moved on. Probably to start up his own splinter party.

Why is this important? On one level it isn't, other than to show that UKIP members in Liverpool are hardly the champions of libertarianism they claim. However, it's the use of the word "Zionist" as a pejorative, derogatory term I wish to draw attention to. That kind of politics belongs to a different era, as I pointed out. But it also underlines the need for political activists of all persuasions to be more careful and sensitive in their use of language. It is so easy to overstate, exaggerate, use prejudicial terminology and unwittingly sow the seeds of distortion in the process.

Interestingly, on the same evening I attended a fringe event organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust. Sir Alan Beith, Shami Chakrabarti and Ed Fordham were debating how to tackle the problems of Nazi analogies, arguing that "when everything is about Auschwitz, you deny the Holocaust". They each expertly and eloquently argued that is is both easy and irresponsible to reach for the language of extremism and tribalism. They championed more careful and socially responsible political appraoches towards the problems of racial and religious tension. Sir Alan Beith particularly was forthright in contending that using the language of the holocaust to make either comparisons or political points is to do a disservice to survivors and in turn diminishes the historical reailties.

I do not disagree. However, the one thing I would take issue with is the notion that we should necessarily refrain from using Nazi analogies. I accept that they should not be used carelessly and irresponsibly, and that it is both insensitive (and historically inaccurate) to make unnecessary reference to the Holocaust. But there is the world of difference between the Holocaust - a historical event which witnessed the systematic extermination of a race of people - and Nazism, which is a political creed, ideology and worldview that is regrettably still very much alive. I would go so far as to suggest that "when everything is about the Holocaust, you deny Nazism". I certainly wouldn't have any real problem in identifying some of Nick Griffin's policies as Nazi, and won't apologise for it.

We have to be careful to avoid the rhetoric which distorts or divides. It happens more often than we think: we've all made value judgements on basis of words such as "left", "right", "socialist", "Fascist", "extremist", etc. but how useful are such labels in honest political debate, especially when we reduce them to terms of abuse lacking any real meaning?

In the next few weeks, I suspect the media will resort to using outdated terminology to describe Ed Miliband's relationship with his own party and the unions. While inevitably there will be some truth in the thrust of the argument, as Liberal Democrats we need to be wary of using language that will overstate, mislead and have the potential to damage future relationships between ourselves and Labour. We must utilise the language of reason, purpose and considered, principled criticism rather than cliched insults and party tribalism.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Countering Labour criticisms

The Labour Party have looked to made a great deal of political capital from Liberal Democrat involvement in government.

Ed Miliband has been particularly keen to put the boot in, portraying the Lib Dems as a party of cuts and broken promises. He has suggested that disaffected Liberal Democrats should find a new home in the Labour Party, although his tone and rhetoric indicate he is more interested in creating headlines than winning people over.

At conference last week, we saw a rather pitiful attempt by the Liverpool Labour Party to lobby delegates - what Tim Farron referred to accurately as "pathetic...fourteen middle class kids yelling at you that you're a Tory". And we had the union-backed rally, which criticised the coalition for numerous, but unspecified, cuts to public services.

Labour has been opportunistic and tribalist in its supposed criticisms. Let's be honest, Labour is not interested in real debate about how to deal with the deficit effectively. It would rather resort to the politics of the lowest common denomoniator, writing off the Liberal Democrats as "sell outs" who have "betrayed" voters for their own narrow interests and are now "delivering cuts on a wide scale". Yawn!!!

For those of us who remember the aftermath of the Scottish elections and coalition talks in 1999, we will be familiar with these tired, pathetic and basically insulting arguments. We were accused of "selling out" then, only to be almost universally recognised now as having achieved - in coalition with some party called Labour - on tuition fees, elderly care, freedom of information, agricultural matters...

So, I decided to take a look at Labour's website. I was curious to know what they are actually saying about us. I found an interesting page, Liberal Democrats Broken Promises...the kind of place you'd expect to read some detailed and critical analysis of Lib Dem involvement in government, and perhaps even some ideas about alternative routes the Lib Dems could take.

I have to confess to being moderately disappointed. The only thing that Labour seem to have against us, in spite of all the talking up of "broken promises", "sell-outs" and "cuts" is the VAT increase announced in Osbourne's budget. Labour say that
"pensioners will be hardest hit by the VAT increase ...and have not been compensated for the extra costs with increases in tax allowances or benefits...No one voted for this unfair VAT increase. In the election, David Cameron said: 'We have absolutely no plans to raise VAT' [and] the Lib-Dems campaigned against a VAT increase...the unfair VAT increase to 20% is a broken promise that will hit the poorest hardest."

So that's it? Is that the best Labour have got? Some concerns about the VAT increase that may as well have been written by Simon Hughes? All the talk, finger-pointing and partisan vitriol from Labour - and the only argument of substance they have to back it up is a 2.5% rise in VAT. Admittedly it's something I found hard to accept as "fair", but to base an entire campaign to discredit the Lib Dem leadership on it seems a bit ambitious - not to mention disingenuous: what Labour don't explain anywhere is how they would have put together a responsible package of investment given the current state of the nation's economy.

What we're seeing from Labour is opportunism, pure and simple. It is a little unfortunate the Labour leadership appear to have short memories - at least in regards the success of the coalition in Scotland and the failure of the SNP, the Tories and sections of the media to discredit the Lib Dems as having sold out. They should know well enough that such short-term and personality focused tactics are counter-productive and tend to lead up dead-ends of tribalism and negativity.

And, if Labour really wish to press the point and paint our party as a bunch of opportunists who are willing to exchange principle for a share of power, can I remind them of the outcome of the 2007 Scottish elections? I vaguely remember Nicol Stephen refusing to enter coalition with the SNP due to a principled objection to Salmond's obsession with an independence referendum. Or don't Labour ever want the facts to get in the way of a good story?

Jo Swinson is new deputy leader of Scottish Liberal Democrats

Jo Swinson, MP for East Dunbartonshire, has been announced as the new deputy leader of the Scottish party after the resignation of Michael Moore. Michael stepped down after seven years in the role, citing his increased workload since taking over as Secretary of State for Scotland.

Jo took on the role unchallenged and is the first female deputy leader since Ray Michie.

Jo was a popular choice for deputy leader of the parliamentary party in the Commons, but decided not to put herself forward as a candidate. I am, however, absolutely delighted that she has taken over from Michael and I am sure her personal dynamism and straightforward honesty will help take the party forward in Scotland.

The future of child benefit?

At conference, the Daily Politics were asking MPs and party members whether they felt child benefits should be for some or for all in a period of austerity.

As you can see from watching the clip, I have - as a liberal - a fundamental problem with means-tested benefits. Fellow blogger Anna Raccoon makes the case against means testing here. I would be reluctant to go against the Lib Dems' historical position on the issue, but also on a practical level it's also difficult to know where to draw the line; inevitably we would end up making distinctions between the deserving and underserving. Plus, as my liberal instincts tell me, the thrust of our policies should be in tackling poverty rather than focusing on cutting costs.

Obviously Sir Menzies Campbell and Tim Farron disagree with me, but it is of course right that this discussion should be had openly. As Tim Farron rightly pointed out, this isn't an issue that "divides" the party - we simply have different perspectives on how best to alleviate poverty when the national deficit urgently needs to be reduced.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Kramer versus Farron for President

Ros Scott has announced that she will not be seeking re-election, which means that an election for the new president of our party will soon be upon us.

For those who were not at Conference and escaped being approached by supporters of various candidates for nominations, the two main contenders are Susan Kramer, the former MP for Richmond Park, and Tim Farron, the MP for Westmorland & Lonsdale. Both clearly have something positive to offer and I have no doubt are equally capable of serving with distinction and bringing real dignity to the role of president.

I don't know Susan as well as I know Tim, and on this blog I backed Tim's bid for deputy leader. There is no doubt we would have been particularly suited to that role. However, the role of president is entirely different and I'm not convinced it's the kind of job that can be easily combined with the duties of a full-time parliamentarian.

Lib Dem Voice have, predictably, been examining the role of president and polling party members on not only their likely choice to succeed Ros Scott but also what we actually want from our president. According to LDV, 48% of us want the president to "tour the country visiting party constituencies, listening to members and activists, and representing their views to the parliamentary party", while 28% are looking for "a behind-the-scenes figure, balancing the wishes of the membership and leadership". The president also has key roles in relation to fundraising, dealing with the media and increasing the party's profile.

I have no doubt that Tim, who is a confident and amusing platform speaker and comfortable with the media, would be particularly adept in regards the fundraising and publicity responsibilities. However, as an MP, is there any practical way he could realistically combine serving his constituents both in Westmorland and Westminster while touring the country, listening to activists? If anyone can, it's Tim, but this has always been a strong argument against MPs taking on the presidency and broadly speaking it's one I accept.

Besides, I have no desire for Tim Farron to be relegated to "a behind the scenes figure". He is too capable for that. That might sound like I am belittling the role of presidency; I am not, but Tim has the potential to fulfil a much greater role within the parliamentary party over the coming years. I believe he can be more effective in that respect if free from the obligations of being party president.

Susan Kramer, on the other hand, is too capable not to be a senior figure within the party. Since losing her seat in the General Election, she has been - like Lembit Opik - "an ordinary member". This is a travesty that urgently need rectifying. She has the experience and benefit of having worked within the parliamentary party, but will not be compromised as she will now be working outwith it. Not being an MP, she is freer to take up the kind of role that may require a sometimes constructively critical attitude towards the leadership. Susan has the character, personality and profile to succeed. She's also focused on empowering and increasing the membership.

Furthermore, I support wholeheartedly the campaign for gender balance. I'm not going to cast my vote purely on this basis, but this gives our party an opportunity to actually practice what it preaches and do something positive to address the embarrassing disparity between men and women in the party.

I've given this a lot of thought and I have decided that Susan Kramer would be the better choice for party president. Tim Farron is, of course, more than welcome to convince me otherwise!

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Review of Conference 2010

Browne and Farron speak out on international human rights

The below videos were recorded at a fringe event hosted by Amnesty International:

JEREMY BROWNE: "It's not just about the records of governments. I hope we have a broader view about the rights and freedoms of the individual...we want to be resolute and vigilant in defence of freedoms...governments can be the protectors of people's rights."

TIM FARRON: "We are absolutely determined to stand shoulder to shoulder with Amnesty International...we are making parliament aware of how vital an issue this is...[the Conservatives] have generally speaking not bought into the language...but the [government is developing] a grown up, liberal approach to human rights."

Cable's Speech

Business secretary Dr Vince Cable today gave an extraordinary speech to Lib Dem Conference in Liverpool. Focusing on economic development, the banking industry and education funding, Cable frequently emphasised the need for "fairness".

This was classic Cable and his entertainiong if predictable attacks on banking practises won plaudits. "I make no apology for attacking spivs and gamblers", proclaimed Cable, "who did more harm to the British economy than Bob Crow could achieve in his wildest Trotskyite fantasies, while paying themselves outrageous bonuses underwritten by the taxpayer. There is much public anger about banks and it is well deserved." Few in the hall disagreed.

Cable answered few questions and his vague references to a "fairness" agenda asked far more, but this was not a time for criticism. Much policy has yet to be formulated, especially in relation to Higher Education. The chief purpose of this admittedly populist but realistic speech was to reassure the membership that Liberal Democrats in government are making a difference, and will continue to do so with a progressive vision for Britian's future - a vision based on fairness in which opportunity is open to all.

Read the full transcript of Cable's speech:

Monday, 20 September 2010

Clegg's speech




Lembit Opik adds some colour to Conference

It was fantastic to see Lembit Opik back at conference, even if he addressed us "as an ordinary member".

Always a colourful character, Lembit made a contribution in defence of nuclear power and the nuclear industry, arguing that nuclear power was now relatively safe, that UK energy needs were changing and therefore that the use of nuclear energy had to be part of the thinking of any government with a "credible energy strategy".

I personally agree with this analysis and recognise that nuclear energy must be part of any medium to long term strategy. Nuclear power will always be uncomfortable for many within our party, but the debate - and indeed the industry - has moved a long way forward since the 1980s.

I wish Lembit every success in his bid to become the next Mayor of London. I also hope that he fails to kick his "addictive habit" of speaking at conference; whatever can be said about Lembit Opik it is an inescapable truth that his colour, wit and personality need to be found a construtive outlet.

Kirsty Williams sets distinctive Liberal agenda for Wales

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Tim Farron on faith and politics

I attended a fringe meeting at Conference organised by the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum. The event was addressing the question "Christianity and the Lib Dems - a match made in heaven?"

Those who know me will already know my views on this. I am unashamedly suspicious of those who use their faith for political purposes. I have strong concerns about faith schools, am a passionate advocate of gay rights and the equality of marriage and - partly due to my experience in working in maternity - I have no truck with moralising on the abortion issue. I welcomed the abolition of the homophobic and discriminatory Section 28 and have campaigned for a more inclusive church. And from a scientific perspective, I refuse to be an apologist for creationism which in my view lacks genuine scientific basis and plays into the hands of the likes of Richard Dawkins. I believe, in one sense at least, that there has to be a separation between personal faith and a secular position. That doesn't mean that faith is incompatible with political conviction, but I have difficulty when some people's less than liberal religious ideas translate into an equally fundamentalist political position.

I have a genuine appreciation of the work of secular organisations, within and outwith the party, as they help to promote justice, equality, diversity, respect, social freedom and a faith in humanity. I don't disagree with that. I admire the work they are doing to help forge a more progressive and liberal society which can not, and should not, either discriminate or protect on the basis of religion. I am a strong believer in secular democracy.

But then, I also a Christian. I often say this is because I don't have enough faith to be an atheist. There is more to it than that, though, and I was brought up in the Hebrides where Christian expression is particularly important. I accept that you won't find too many ecumenists within the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, but I value my religious heritage, even if in some respects I have grown apart from it. While I am a convinced liberal, there is also no escaping the fact that I will always be - in part at least - motivated by a personal faith.

All the same, I'm the kind of Christian who, on social issues particularly, often finds myself siding with atheists and humanists and being criticised by Christians who are unable to grasp liberal concepts.

There have always been people who are similarly motivated - Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Elizabeth Fry, Thomas Barnardo and William Wilberforce are but a few whose religious convictions have prompted them to achieve real change. Tim Farron MP is another who accepts that, while his faith "is personal, it isn't private" because it shapes his personal motivations.

Tim - following on from the excellent Dr Stephen Backhouse who argued that the Christian concern for liberty, the individual and equality are reflected within the party's liberal tradition - argued that the history of the Liberal Party is rooted in "evangelical", "Bible believing" (I prefer non-conformist) Christianity. He showed how there have always been Christian influences running through the party, which has remained a "broad church" with a "peculiar attraction" towards both Christians and non-believers.

Tim expressed concern about promoting a "liberal perspective on faith" which "liberate[s] the church...from being compromised by being part of the furniture of the state" and rightly pointed out that imposing "a Christian Society" on a secular world is less than Christian. "You can't force people into a value system on the basis of a faith they don't subscribe to" explains Tim. Absolutely.

Tim went on to talk about his personal faith and defended it: "There's a value system at the heart of every one of might be as right or better than mine but it's no more bring your beliefs into your politics."

I would contend that this is true and while I might not agree with Tim Farron on every point it is an inescapable reality that we all have our own values - shaped by our unique experiences, circumstances and understandings - that heavily influence the way we relate to the world and hope to change it. Society, and parliament, would be poorer for being home to a less inclusive and broad range of value systems.

Clegg takes questions from party faithful

Sunday afternoon's highlight was Nick Clegg answering questions from party members. I was watching this surrounded by a group of journalists who seemed completely bemused by the generally positive attitude most Lib Dems had towards both their leader and the coalition government.

I was pleased that Nick took the trouble to answer questions, not least because it allowed the assembled media to witness how Lib Dem activists actually feel about the new politics. It's also vital in a democratic party like ours to have this kind of dialogue, and to be able to ask awkward questions of the leadership where necessary.

Unfortunately, I wasn't so impressed with the questions which (understandably) focused mainly on the coalition, Nick's leadership and reporting in the media. I would have preferred him to have tackled questions on health reform, addressing social inequality, education or human rights. But then, perhaps I should have submitted a question...!

Unfortunately, immediately after Clegg had finished the journalists decided that was the important business over with and trundled out. A bit of a shame our press doesn't appear concerned with human rights, the "War on Terror" or International Development, all of which were discussed in the afternoon. Perhaps in due course they'll recognise that we're a party of progressive principles and values...on second thoughts, that's being ridiculously optimistic.

Nick's question and answer session can be viewed below:

"Can I trust you with my party?"

Nick answers a question on the Lib Dems' influence in coalition

Nick takes on accusations of "betrayal" and tackles a question on how to maintain the independence and integrity of the Liberal Democrats in government.

Nick answers a question about an interview in The Independent in which he was reported as saying that "the Liberal Democrats have no future as a party of the left".

Simon Hughes turns on "Neanderthals"

The Independent was quick to discern "fresh tensions at the top of the coalition" which, according to the newspaper "erupted" after Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes "branded [his] Conservative coalition partners 'Neanderthals' who had not 'arrived in the 21st century'".

Typical of the media mood currently, The Independent took Hughes' criticisms as evidence of "splits" and "tensions" but, as usual, the press are overreaching themselves. What Hughes actually said, in an interview with The Independent in which he referred to the Campaign for Fair Votes, which was launched on the opening evening of Conference, was this: "I think it is an entirely winnable campaign but only if we are really clear that people defending first past the post are Neanderthal...they may be our colleagues in government, but it's an indefensible, unfair, illogical minority activity to defend first-past-the-post. We have got to go in really hard ... If you can't support the idea that preferential voting and getting a majority of support in your area is progress, then really you haven't arrived in the 21st century."

I honestly wish Simon Hughes would not use words like "neanderthal" to describe either individuals or their mentality. Someone with his experience and intelligence should surely be able to put across his arguments without resorting to such unhelpful vocabulary. Unfortunately the valuable contribution he could have made to the debate for a more democratic electoral system was overshadowed by his unnecessarily controversial choice of words.

There are some who will argue that there are plenty of ways to describe the Conservatives without insulting ancient man in the process. But Hughes did not specifically mention the Tories - he merely turned on those who "defended" the current electoral system while admitting some such people could be "colleagues". This was hardly the global criticism The Independent suggested.

I wouldn't dream of labelling someone a "neanderthal", but I would share Simon Hughes' criticisms of those who cling to first-past-the-post because of a vested interest in the status quo. And in that respect, there are elements with the Labour Party who are equally as regressive as the Conservatives.

However, there is no escaping that his remarks were inexcusable. What disappoints me most about Hughes' statement is that, following the electric rally in support of the Fair Votes campaign, our deputy leader has chosen to resort to negative campaigning tactics. What we need is for enthusiastic people to take the arguments for electoral reform to the country, not merely slate those who think differently.

Union protests at Conference

I noticed that there was something resembling a demonstration outside conference today. A group of trade unionists, Labour Party workers, socialists and some liberals (!) marched through Liverpool to Salthouse Dock where there appeared to be a brief rally in the pouring rain.

I do have sympathy with public sector workers. I spoke to some of the protesters - some there, from the NUT particuarly, were hardly your normal lefty militant but came across as primarily concerned about the human and social costs of potential cuts to education. "And we're really not wanting these free schools..." piped up one of them. Fair point.

But they've chosen the wrong target. Coming to protest outside the Lib Dem conference, telling delegates who are liberal to their core that they're nothing but Tories, doesn't seem a terribly effective way of standing up for public sector workers. And their unrealistic mantra, "no cuts to jobs and services", simply demonstrates how both the unions and the left are completely devoid of any constructive or imaginative thinking on the subject.

It's easy, and I should add that it's becoming a little tedious, to point fingers and make accusations of "selling out". It's equally as easy to criticise the government for spending cuts without actively promoting an alternative plan or at the very least responsibly considering the consequences of inaction. Maybe the unions could also accept that even the Labour Party would have been forced to commit itself to significant and unpopular cuts, and that the mess the country is in is largely due to the ineffectiveness of Labour to curb the recklessness of the financial industry.

I'm not suggesting that we should get into a blame game. In one sense, while it in undeniable that the coalition has inherited a difficult position, the only thing that matters is the government's responsibility for tackling the problem. Those with creative and positive ideas for addressing the various ramifications of the nation's financial and economic situation are a welcome part of the solution. Others, who prefer to merely stand outside, make accusations, generate fear and complain about unspecified "cuts", are part of the problem.

There should be a debate on how best to reduce the deficit and how to budget for the coming five years. In this context, it is of course vital to ensure that the social and human dimension is not ignored or overlooked. It is imperative that serious and constructive thought is given to how to effectively manage public services in a socailly responsible (and liberal) way, without making cuts likely to hurt communities.

We are having such a debate within the Liberal Democrats. My own conviction is, as someone with a genuine regard for Keynesian principles, that the coalition is cutting too much, too soon. I know other party activists agree with me and are contributing to the "conversation"; in fact I don't know a Lib Dem who isn't concerned about the future of public services. But mortgaging our children's future for short-term gain is short-sighted and irresponsible. If the unions want to do what is in their members' best interests, I would suggest that sharing platforms with the Socialist Workers' Party, unnecessarily stoking public fear, peddling myths and reverting to party tribalism based on uncritical support for a failed Labour government isn't the best way to do things.

Electrifying Fair Votes Rally sets mood for Conference

Yesterday was an interesting first day at Party Conference. The highlight was of course the evening "Fair Votes" Rally, conducted in partnership with the Electoral Reform Society.

There were contributions from our own Jo Swinson, Tim Farron (stepping in for Charles Kennedy, who was stuck on a train), Nick Clegg and former broadcaster and MP Martin Bell.

The message was loud and clear: change needs to happen. And the Liberal Democrats, alongside the ERS, are going to be key players in campaigning for change. Bell's contribution was particularly welcome and demonstrated the appetite for electoral reform among progressives from other parties and of none. It was also intertesting to see Labour MP Stephen Twigg campaigning for fairer votes in Liverpool City centre - an indication that party tribalism may be put aside on this crucial issue and a cross party "Yes" campaign, supported but not led by the Lib Dems, can successfully take the argument for reform to voters.

Tim Farron was in particularly good form and demonstrated why he has a potential career in comedy should he ever wish to leave politics.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Why we don't need Lib Dem spin

In recent weeks we've had sections of the media, the Labour Party, the Green Party and the continuing Liberal Party, suggesting that Lib Dem members are dissatisfied with the performance of their party in government. It's political gameplaying of course, and the dissatisfaction is sometimes more assumed than real, but it stems from a mistaken belief that the Lib Dems in government have become (in the words of Caroline Lucas) "apologists for brutal and savage cuts" and that ordinary party members would therefore be better advised to come over to their "natural home" (i.e. anywhere but the Lib Dems, it would seem).

We've seen the Lib Dem reaction to this, which largely consists of various MPs playing up our achievements in government, claiming "victories" on policy and making dubious claims about apparently huge increases in membership. Nick Clegg last week said that party conference will be a "celebration" of the Lib Dems' role in government (he obviously hasn't seen the agenda in that case) while Vince Cable has done his utmost to present Royal Mail privatisation as the fulfilment of long-standing Lib Dem policy. We've been told that Osborne's budget was "fair" when it was clearly anything but. Meanwhile, over on Lib Dem Voice, whose contributors I generally have a lot of respect for, we're seeing a large number of articles which are almost uncritically supportive of the coalition and defending it at all costs.

In fact, we're seeing more spin from our own party than I'm comfortable with. We're making the New Labour machine look positively amateurish. Not only is this spin dishonest and more than faintly embarrassing, it's also completely unnecessary.

We don't need to react to criticisms that we're supporting the Conservatives by being dishonest and claiming non-existent "victories". Neither do we need to defend the coalition - it's plainly ridiculous to claim that the government is doing what a Lib Dem majority government would do. People understand that a minority partner in coalition isn't likely to get things its own way, so it's both disingenuous and counter-productive for either our supporters or detractors to pretend otherwise.

The Scottish - and British - public are not going to be conned by spin, especially when it's pathetically dishonest, such as Cable's insistence that Royal Mail's sell-off represented a victory for liberal values. If we keep on "defending" our position in this way, inevitably we will play into the hands of our political opponents and ensure that voters will never trust us again. This tactic is incredibly naive and short-sighted.

I believe that collective responsibility in coalition government is vital for its continued success. I have no time for loose canons, such as Tim Farron and Simon Hughes, who respectively helped to undermine the government with careless talk of "toxic" Tories and proposals of a veto for Lib Dem MPs. There are advantages and disadvantages to being a minority partner in coalition and, as we saw in the early days of the Scottish Parliament, collective responsibility can be a huge disadvantage as it severely restricts the scope for the introduction of new ideas or criticism of the majority view. But this the political reality in which we find ourselves and we have to work it to our advantage.

So far, the party has not reacted well to the criticisms of the media and opposition parties. We have simply played into their hands by defending - time after time - the coalition and its policies. We do not need to do this, especially as there was no realistic opportunity for an alternative government. What the Lib Dems have to do instead is to make it transparent and obvious that, while we are bound by collective responsibility and support the coalition government, we realise that we are not able to achieve the things we want to while we are simply a minority party in coalition. Without undermining the notion of collective responsibility by publicly opposing government policy, we would be better advised to loudly advocate distinctive liberal principles and argue the case for changes and policies to be implemented in a more liberal way.

That might not make the same kind of headlines as implausible claims of policy victories, but it is far more likely to resonate with the public who realise that our influence in government - although significant - is limited by the reality that the system works in favour of the majority partner. An attitude that "this policy is a step in the right direction, it's taking us towards where we want to be" is far more honest (and believeable) than claiming "this is our policy; it always has been - what a great victory for us!"

The challenge for the Lib Dems is not how to defend the coalition. We can not allow ourselves to fall into that trap. The real challenge is in successfully maintaining distinctive principles - if not necessarily distinctive policies - within the limits of collective responsibility. When we do this, it will be far more difficult for opponents to falsely portray us as propping up a Tory government - whatever the coalition's policy positions.

We don't need spin, which only serves to make us appear disingenuous at best, but substance. We can't realistically be held to account for failing to deliver every manifesto commitment; it's plain for even Daily Mail readers to see that we're not in a position to implement much of the policy we have campaigned on. That is not a betrayal - that is the very nature of coaltion government, which requires policy compromises.

While coaliton demands compromising on policy, it does not demand compromising on principle. It is my distinctive principles that make me a liberal, not my party's most recent policy document. If the Lib Dems want to gain the trust of voters, they won't do so through spin but by communicating liberal principles and values.

Friday, 10 September 2010

What’s actually happening to Royal Mail

Today, I have read and heard a great deal about the privatisation of Royal Mail, much of it unfortunately from people who depend on the Daily Record – or, worse, the Daily Mail - for their political insights. Depending on their perspective, this is either symptomatic of a wider Lib Dem “betrayal” of its principles and the people of Scotland or evidence of weakness on our party’s part in simply backing old-fashioned Thatcherite principles of Cameron’s Conservatives.

I’m getting quite used to this line of attack and criticism. It’s predictable and unimaginative. It’s also fundamentally untrue. While being in coalition will not in itself deliver everything we want as a party (and I think people are beginning to recognise this), it is neither true that our leadership have either sold out or simply capitulate in the face of Tory pressure.

Before I explain what is and isn’t going to happen to Royal Mail, let’s take a look at our election manifesto:
“[We will give] both Royal Mail and post offices a long-term future, by separating Post Office Ltd from the Royal Mail and retaining Post Office Ltd in full public ownership. 49 per cent of Royal Mail will be sold to create funds for investment. The ownership of the other 51 per cent will be divided between an employee trust and the government.”

This is a policy I made clear my support for in a previous post: Cable plans to "privatise Royal Mail"

That is what the Liberal Democrats campaigned on, and we had sound reasons for doing so. The status quo is unsustainable and, in any case, is undesirable. Royal Mail can not survive on nostalgia and the Lib Dems have recognised this for some time, which is why the party has promoted an alternative vision for Royal Mail and the Post Office which involves certain sections being sold to private operators.

I’m not a huge supporter of privatisation as an end in itself. I lived through the 1980s and have sufficient memory of the social consequences of Thatcherism to believe that privatisation will necessarily lead to more productive and efficient services. However, it has to be realised that, in the current economic climate, there can be no scope for sentimentality and Royal Mail must become more productive and efficient to survive. This will require significant investment, new equipment and moving towards new working practices – all of which can not come from a cash-strapped public sector or Royal Mail itself whose financial position is worsening.

Labour, in its commitment to retaining Royal Mail and the Post Office network as state-run entities (or, more accurately, in lacking the nerve and courage to offend the CWU and implement the real change needed), nonetheless presided over the closure of a large percentage of Post Offices, often in rural communities. Their record is hardly unblemished and it is more than hypocritical for Labour or their supporters to criticise the coalition for taking overdue action.

To those who fail to see the need for the action being taken, I would ask a simple question: where else will the money come from?

The longer the situation went on unresolved, the worse condition the business would be in. There are reasons why the letters service is in decline and what Royal Mail should be doing is looking at imaginative means of evolving its services and maintaining its relevance, rather than hoping it will struggle on through servings of public sentiment and union militancy (a particularly nasty combination).

And, of course, there is the not insignificant issue of the £8 billion pensions deficit to deal with: something else that Labour refused to get to grips with during its thirteen years in power.

So what is actually happening to Royal Mail? Well, it’s early days yet, but the essential plan is as follows. Royal Mail (the letters delivery service) will be separated from the Post Office Ltd. The government will retain control of the Post Office Ltd, as per the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto commitment. In addition to this, the government will effectively nationalise the Royal Mail’s pension scheme. Royal Mail will be, according to Vince Cable, given over to “majority private ownership [with] a share for workers who will have a stake in the business”.

This is where Cable’s plan parts company with the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto: the commitment to retain a 51 per cent government stake in Royal Mail has disappeared. Royal Mail is to be sold off in its entirety. That is disappointing in itself, but what is more concerning is that the Grimondite notion of an employee trust appears to have been abandoned in exchange for employees receiving shares in the new company. Employee ownership is not only a good idea, but a good Liberal idea and would represent a progressive move forward.

Obviously, while I believe the plans announced by Vince Cable today are a positive step forward and are certainly preferable to the status quo, I am disappointed that our party’s well considered position on the issue has been so severely compromised. Cable has gone from advocating partial privatisation to championing 100 per cent privatisation. That’s not something I campaigned for and I have to confess to being uncomfortable about it.

However, let’s look at the positives: the Lib Dem commitment to separating the delivery part of the business from the Post Office network is now government policy. The party’s pledge to keep Post Office Ltd under state control is also official policy. The fear of involving the private sector, which paralysed previous governments into inactivity on the issue, has finally been dealt with thanks to Liberal Democrat involvement in government.

How do I feel as a Liberal Democrat? I am less than thrilled that our policy has been diluted to the point it has. Employee ownership, or partial ownership, is a key Liberal principle and must mean more than simply giving shares to employees. Total privatisation is also more than a little unpalatable. However, I’m a realist. And realists recognise that being the minority partner in a coalition government means that coalition policy will probably not bear 100 per cent resemblance to our ideas.

Instead of making claims about “betrayal” or “weakness”, critics of or colleagues in government should reflect on the political realities of coalition politics. Conservatives dislike some of our policies; we dislike many of theirs. The end result is compromise and the inevitable fusion of ideas, with neither partner winning out but a workable policy which both are willing to accept. I have no doubt that Vince Cable would have liked to have implemented the manifesto policy to the letter, but anyone who genuinely believes he could do so in the face of his Conservative counterparts in cabinet is utterly deluded.

This is not the complete victory we would have liked. But it is another example of how the government is better for Liberal Democrats being at the heart of it.

Monday, 6 September 2010

SNP u-turn on independence vote

Alex Salmond's party has abandoned its plans to put its proposed Referendum Bill before MSPs, vowing instead to "appeal directly to the electorate to back the need for an independence vote" at next year's Scottish parliamentary elections. An SNP spokesperson claimed that "a new re-elected SNP government will be in a...position to secure passage of the referendum, having successfully mobilised the people over the blocking tactics of [opposition] parties."

This climbdown, which underlines both the SNP's disrespect of parliamentary democracy and its determination to fight the 2011 elections on the issue of independence, fails to appreciate the realities of the Scottish electoral system, which has in the past never provided any party with an overall majority and is unlikely to do so again. Whatever the result of next year's elections, it is almost certain that no party will have a working majority.

The SNP claim that this change of tactic was necessary: "We are discussing our strategy to make the referendum the transcending issue of the election, to demonstrate that financial independence is the only alternative to a decade or more of Westminster-dictated cuts." In treading out the same tired rhetoric, the SNP has been exposed as being devoid of imagination, desperate in its attempts to reverse Labour's high standing in opinion polls (SNP trail by ten percentage points) and completely out of touch with the public. What Salmond patently fails to understand is that the public have no appetite for the independence referendum to be "the transcending issue". They want the election to centre on the economy, on employment, on health services and on public spending... not a referendum asking Scots which constitutional arrangement they prefer to be unemployed under.

This latest setback for Salmond comes after other embarrassing climbdowns, such as the abolition of council tax. The SNP leader is on the rack and his very credibility is now at stake. His tactics seem both naive and desperate - not words normally associated with Alex Salmond. It is almost certainly mistaken to make the independence issue so prominent within the SNP's campaign at the forthcoming elections, rather than to focus on issues that resonate with the public and its own record in government, and suggests a recognition on the part of the SNP that it has lost significant ground to Labour. But it's even more of a mistake to describe those opposed to independence (as are 70 per cent of Scots) as "traitors" risks alienating voters who have little sympathy with the SNP's independence rhetoric but are inclined to support its social-democratic soft-left policies.

Opposition leaders have been quick to criticise Salmond's climbdown. Labour leader Iain Gray claimed that "Alex Salmond's bill has turned into a white flag rather than a flagship policy", while the Tories' Annabel Goldie accused the SNP leader of "abus[ing] public cash to run a four-year-long party political campaign". Jeremy Purvis, the Liberal Democrats' finance spokesperson, observed that "the SNP have dumped every major promise that they made in 2007 by jettisoning the referendum...[and] should be utterly ashamed of wasting millions of taxpayers money during a recession on a pointless 'national conversation' and preparation for a scrapped referendum."

Mr Purvis's comments have been echoed by the Taxpayer's Alliance. The cost of the referendum is likely to be around £9.5million.

There has been much criticism in the media of Salmond's inability to deliver the SNP's manifesto pledges. On one level, this demonstrates that even eleven years after the birth of the Scottish parliament the media struggle with the concept and reality of minority government. On another level, it highlights a very real SNP problem; being inflexible in the face of such reality. Salmond has steered his party into a corner from which it can neither retreat nor be rescued by means of trading or negotiation with other parties. There is no doubt that the SNP bill would have been defeated in parliament and this apparently populist tactic is a means of avoiding such a devastating defeat. Salmond is simply trying to keep the referendum alive, because he realises that without it the SNP lack any distinctive policy or ideas.

Salmond, it seems, has little to offer other than an expensive referendum and anti-Establishment rhetoric. Perhaps it is time for him to join Solidarity.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Liberal Democrats read: "We welcome the SNP fighting next year's election solely on the grounds of independence. Alex Salmond has said that he is now going to do this and this is very welcome territory for us." It's very hard to disagree. For once, the SNP's tactics have played into the hands of its opposition.

The Scottish electorate will have the opportunity next may to rid Scotland of this turbulent false prophet, or at least expel him and his party to the opposition benches. I am abosultely confident they will take this opportunity, as Alex Salmond seems particularly determined to evidence his lack of leadership, inability to compromise and willingness to ignore the crucial issues in favour of his inexplicable obsession with independence.

RIP Cyril Smith

The larger than life charismatic former MP for Rochdale, Cyril Smith, died on Friday at the age of 82.

There have been several tributes paid and obituaries written; the most interesting (and most revealing in respect to Smith's personality and character) but least warm is Michael Meadowcroft's in The Guardian.

Often a controversial figure, there is little question that by winning the Rochdale by-election Smith empowered the Liberal Party to realise its ability to win urban seats and to adapt its vision and tactics accordingly.

Never a huge supporter of parliament, finding the Commons stifling and restrictive, Smith described it as "the longest running farce in the West End". Much of his appeal, both within and outside the Liberal Party, stemmed from his anti-establishment attitudes, outspokenness and independence of thought.

He could be both forthright and contradictory; while famously arguing that the SDP should have been "strangled at birth" he had in the then recent past himself approached the Labour leadership with a view to forming a new "centre party".

He frequestly clashed with David Steel and was often the subject of media criticism but he retained his popularity and held his Rochdale seat until he retired from the Commons in 1992.

Whatever one's views on "Big Cyril", there is no doubt that he will not easily be replaced as the popular face of community politics.