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.