Wednesday, 30 March 2011

What was the result of last night’s Scottish leaders’ TV debate?

STV last night hosted the debate we’ve all been waiting for - Alex Salmond, Iain Gray, Annabel Goldie and Tavish Scott going head-to-head to debate the issues at the heart of Scotland’s future.

On this showing, the one result that matters is that the public is unlikely to be as enthused by the political campaigns as they were during last year’s General Election. For the most part, it was uninspiring stuff. At times it was so bad I contemplated watching back episodes of Spitting Image, just to remind myself how good political debate used to be! It’s no wonder that the public are reported to back the Greens over exclusion from the TV debates: at least Patrick Harvie would have provided some colour.

As a Lib Dem, let’s start with Tavish Scott’s performance. He obviously thought it was best to play with a straight bat and concentrate on some key issues. There’s nothing wrong with that approach at all, and he was quite effective when it came to policing issues and speaking up for rural communities in regards fuel prices. He also said some positive and welcome things about small businesses and spoke openly about his daughter’s experience with tuition fees to underline his continued opposition to them. But in a debate in which he had very little to lose, I was concerned Scott didn’t go on the offensive more, be more positive and try to land a few punches – especially on Iain Gray who looked way out of his depth. Scott simply didn’t appear confident, and neither did he look prepared. He must have anticipated that the audience would be largely hostile to Lib Dem involvement in the Westminster coalition and although he dealt with criticism reasonably well he always looked on the back foot, when he really should have been looking to set the agenda.

The worst moment for Scott was when he said "if this a personality contest count me out". I know what he’s getting at. But it was frankly a terrible admission, especially during a presidential-style debate. I can’t have imagined Nick Clegg saying that during last year’s debates, or for that matter Gordon Brown. I think Scott needs to do a little more preparation before the next debate. I didn’t disagree with a word he said, but he really has to work on his presentation and target Gray more effectively.

I note that Christine Jardine, our candidate for Inverness, tweeted “I watched the debate. Tavish was excellent.” I’m not too sure the public would agree, and Scott needs to use these debates in a way he didn’t last night, to highlight differences between the Lib Dems and the two main parties and set his own agenda distinct from the Westminster coalition.

Annabel Goldie, my Conservative opponent in Renfrewshire North and West, looked quite positive and her debating experience showed. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say I was surprised at how good she was. Her performance was particularly impressive given recent controversies within her party and she was the one leader who looked as if they were enjoying themselves. I disagreed with her on many things, not least her stance to charge Scottish students tuition fees and her defense of Osborne’s Budget. But she stuck to her unpopular position, and deserves some credit for her attack on Iain Gray over his party’s voting against the Scottish Budget. She also played up what she considers Tory achievements in opposition. It was a solid if not spectacular position and her views are not likely to resonate with the public at large but at least she looked like...well...a leader.

Which is more than can be said for Iain Gray. I felt almost sorry for him at times, he was so out of his depth. It can be a lonely experience leading a party, not to mention a particularly tough one if you lack the basic skills. Gray has never been the most charismatic of people, but that doesn’t necessarily matter if you are an assured and confident debater with a grasp of the facts. Unfortunately Gray looked neither assured nor confident and his strategy appeared to be one of aggression towards Salmond and playing the populist card over the Megrahi release.

Whichever senior Labour figures advised this tactic should resign immediately. It not only didn’t work, Gray looked isolated and ridiculous. His performance was poor to put it bluntly.

The Labour Chronicle (sorry, the Daily Record) takes the rather strange view that Gray “put in a calm and confident performance”. Really? That must have been a different debate reporter Magnus Gardham was watching because I thought Gray looked gutless and dispirited, and that was even before the debate kicked off. The Record also gave credence to a Labour source explaining that “Alex Salmond and Annabel Goldie spent the evening cuddling up to each other. It showed how close their parties have become”. Is this what Scottish journalism has been reduced to? Promoting a desperate attempt by Labour to paint Salmond as a Tory?

It is a shame because Gray is more capable than many imagine, but he has to learn to counter the “Gray by name, grey by nature” image by selling himself as a serious, knowledgeable and experienced politician; a safe and competent pair of hands. He looked far from that last night. He couldn’t even manage a smile – even dour Gordon Brown could get in a joke now and then.

I also thoroughly dislike the way in which the Megrahi release has been turned into a political football. I say this only because I know one of the families and feel that somewhere along the lines their concerns for justice and their views on the matter are being forgotten or overlooked by those keen to make political mileage. Yes, it was a political decision made by a politician. And politicians can and should be accountable for the decisions they make. But cynically using this populist card to get one over the SNP is tiresome – as well as suggesting that Gray has few other weapons in his arsenal.

So I finally come to Alex Salmond. He’s a hard man to like, but an easy man to admire. He’s infuriating but inescapably self-confident. He loves the presidential style and was in his element here. He confidently and dismissively dealt with Gray’s snipes and while taking a bit of flak over student funding and Scotland’s debt he looked prepared throughout. The Record claimed he looked “subdued throughout” which is utter nonsense; in spite of hardly getting out of second gear – either in spite of or because of Iain Gray’s performance – he appeared confident while successfully managing not to look arrogant. It was hardly a vintage performance but in the circumstances was more than sufficient to demonstrate his superior quality to Labour’s leader.

While it pains me to say it, Scott and Goldie are of only peripheral interest to many voters. The key battleground is between Labour and the SNP. On this basis, there is no contest between their respective leaders. The real story of last night, as Alex Cole-Hamilton neatly summarised on twitter, was that Iain Gray “looks utterly unconvincing as a potential First Minister”. Nobody who watched the debate, other than the most partisan of Labour supporters (and Daily Record reporters), could possibly disagree.

I hope for the next debate the audience is a little less partisan and that Tavish Scott can truly find his voice. I also hope for some more interesting exchanges and a debate of real quality that inspires the electorate to get out and vote. On this showing, many will simply stay at home – and who could blame them?

I would rate the performers in the following order:

1) Salmond
2) Goldie
3) Scott
4) The audience
5) Gray
6) The Daily Record

Monday, 28 March 2011

Hugh O'Donnell quits Lib Dems

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Former Liberal Democrats MSP Hugh O’Donnell has today quit the party and announced he will instead be standing as an independent candidate on the Central Scotland regional list.

Mr O’Donnell expressed predictable concerns about the performance of the Westminster coalition, claiming that “the alliance formed in London between the Lib Dems and the Tories” is “the greatest betrayal of all”. However, he also savagely turned on Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott who he describes as “neither liberal nor democratic” and accuses of never having uttered “a word of criticism...even though the [coalition’s] contempt shown for Scotland and, indeed, the federal structure of the party, knows no bounds.” He added that Scott had abandoned his principles on such things as the independence referendum and claimed that “I can no longer be party to the control freakery, the ‘image is everything’ attitude, and the dictatorial style of doing things.”

I don’t agree with Mr O’Donnell. I’m not a big fan of the “image is everything” approach to politics. I dislike the triumph of spin over substance. But similarly, I have little time for the “loose cannons” and the “awkward squad” who claim to have disdain for superficial approaches to politics but who actually play up their image as populist but principled rebels to maximum effect. O'Donnell is far more interested in projecting a particular image than he'd have us believe.

I disagree with him on his assessment of Tavish Scott. Scott has many weaknesses as well as strengths but I wouldn’t accuse him of control-freakery. Similarly, I don’t count an openness to work with the SNP as abandonment of principle – it’s a pragmatic approach to politics. Presumably O’Donnell is of the view that the natural ally of Liberal Democracy is the Labour Party, but I don’t share that view and it’s clear many other members don’t.

On the coalition, I don’t see that Clegg had any viable alternative, especially faced with a Labour Party who were less than interested in co-operation. It’s obvious O’Donnell would have wanted the easy option of “principled” and opportunistic opposition, picking and choosing which policies to support from the safety of the backbenches. Wouldn’t we all have preferred the easy life? But that kind of approach doesn’t make for stable government and Clegg was right to pursue a full coalition.

O’Donnell has always been the populist type. He’s a man created for opposition. That doesn’t sound like a compliment but it’s designed to be. He could be a formidable opponent in Holyrood when on form, but I never thought for one minute that he would be the kind of person to be on the frontline when the going got tough. Flexibility and compromise don’t seem to feature at all in his vocabulary.

That’s fair enough. Actually, I support his decision to leave the party. He’s a loss to us, that is for sure. But if he feels so strongly, he’s better off standing as an independent. If he gets elected, then Scotland will have an additional liberally-minded, although somewhat maverick, MSP. That’s no bad thing. And if he’s struggling so much with the direction in which the party is moving to the point that he’s deeply unhappy within himself then perhaps the right thing is for him to resign on principle and go whichever way he feels best. It might have been better, however, if he'd chosen to talk through his difficulties with his colleagues and inform them in advance of his decision.

What concerns me is that this just doesn’t feel like a principled resignation. By the way O’Donnell talks, you would think that he’s had concerns for some time about a number of issues which have been largely unexpressed – publicly at least. So why the outburst now, just a day before nominations close?

No senior Lib Dems saw this coming. An MSP and a friend of O’Donnell’s told The Herald that “I had absolutely no idea this was coming. Leaving Holyrood last week we shook hands … and there was no hint of any of this.” The leadership were aware of O’Donnell’s tendency for awkwardness but did not expect such a sudden resignation.

This is surely a calculated and deliberate attempt to get one over the party leadership (against whom he holds grudges) and cast himself as the principled hero in the process. He’s estimated he’s got more to gain as an independent than a Lib Dem – again, fair enough – and announced his intention to stand alone at the right to time to gain maximum impact. It is this I have a problem with – not his resignation itself, or even his determination to stand as an independent, but the deliberate and opportunistic way he’s sought to undermine Tavish Scott.

O’Donnell’s reputation for dissent resulted in Mike Rumbles removing the whip from him last year. To infuriate Mike Rumbles – himself known for being notoriously independent and rebellious – really takes some effort. Since his suspension O’Donnell has been on a personal crusade against the Lib Dem leadership and what he considers a “dictatorial style”.

As far as I can see, O’Donnell’s resignation has as much to do with personal resentments as principle. I would have had far more respect for him if he had spoken up sooner and resigned earlier without rancour or prejudice. I would genuinely have wished him well in his future political adventures. But this cynical decision is aimed purely at damaging others, and I don’t salute it.

I also disagree with his judgement that all “true Liberals” should do similarly and follow him out of the party. “It is a party I no longer want to be part of and neither should other principled Liberals” he says. It is one thing to follow one’s conscience, quite another thing to make value judgements about those who think differently. It's patently wrong to suggest liberals who remain within the party are "unprincipled". There are many liberals within the Lib Dems who correctly see the party as the most effective vehicle for creating a more tolerant and liberal society – and more importantly won’t desert the ship as soon as the seas become a little choppy.

Tories in disarray ahead of Holyrood elections

It’s predictable, isn’t it?

A major election looms and the Scottish Tories implode. It’s actually a great shame because however much I disagree with their politics they do actually have some interesting things to say on some key issues. I’d much rather be criticising the Scottish Conservatives for their views on education, health, public services and the like than their inability to deal with internal difficulties.

But such is the state of Annabel Goldie’s party that there isn’t much chance of the electorate even being aware of their manifesto pledges, let alone having the chance to consider the Tories’ positions on a range of matters. Unfortunately, as ever, the media (and therefore public) focus is on the turmoil the Tories find themselves in.

Labour’s Charlie Gordon is quoted in The Herald as saying: “This Tory election campaign is fast becoming a joke. But in any case, the people of Glasgow know what the Conservative Party is like. They are going to be severely punished.” He’s not wrong. And this is a problem of the Tories’ own making, undermining Annabel Goldie’s attempts to reinvigorate and reinvent Scottish Conservatism and improve its public image.

In the last few days key Tory candidate Malcolm Macaskill dropped out of the race and Cllr David Meikle has withdrawn as a candidate in Glasgow’s regional list. This in itself hardly constitutes a crisis, however unfortunate – but the issues surrounding Cllr Meikle’s resignation certainly do.

It was bad enough when Macaskill, who was top of the Tories’ list for the Glasgow region and likely to replace Bill Aitken as an MSP, was effectively sacked following revelations over previous bankruptcies and unpaid income tax in the 1990s.

But, since then, the promotion of Ruth Davidson to the number one spot on the party’s list has led to claims of electoral manipulation, a stitch-up and cronyism. Knives have been drawn among rival sides. The conspiracy theorists claim her promotion owes a great deal to the fact that she was, until very recently, working as Annabel Goldie’s personal assistant.

Macaskill has helpfully further inflamed a difficult situation by labelling the party leadership “dysfunctional” and alleging that he had been denied a fair hearing. Some of Macaskill’s friends, who have contributed large sums of money to party funds, have now withdrawn their support.

According to The Herald, Meikle now claims that “the entire Glasgow list ranking was suspect” with “serious question marks over the ballot” and has indicated he wants the selection process re-run. Another candidate, Richard Sullivan, demanded an investigation into “electoral malpractice”. Whatever the truth about the way the Conservatives manage (or otherwise) their internal elections, it’s clearly impossibly late in the day for any repeat election which would – in all likelihood – only have created further controversy.

Convinced by the lack of democracy within the Tories’ selection procedures, Meikle felt he had no option other than to resign: “I recently called for an investigation into the list rankings in Glasgow but the party refused to look into serious allegations of electoral malpractice. I have therefore refused to sign the Regional List nomination forms and have resigned from the Glasgow List.”

The Herald also point out that the Tories have already lost candidates in Banffshire and Buchan Coast, East Kilbride, and Falkirk East.

The Tories have denied there is a need for an investigation, but clearly the party leadership must have been aware of the problem and the simmering discontent. It may be that the selection process was open and fair, but Annabel Goldie will not emerge from this with much credit given that she was evidently aware of the situation yet instigated no resolution. Whichever way this is looked at, it is very bad for the Tories.

Annabel Goldie has stated that David Cameron is pleased with the way things are going in Scotland. "The Tory hierarchy down south is delighted with the campaign we are running, David Cameron personally endorsed it when I met him earlier this year. He was very positive.” He’s either easily pleased or a very good liar.

She dismissed the turmoil in Glasgow as "issues which can arise” and pledged to move on from this to “highlight the very positive record of Scottish Conservative achievements in the Scottish Parliament over the last four years”. I suspect though that however hard she tries, voters will be far more interested in the Scottish Conservatives’ apparent appetite for self-destruction and ongoing allegations of conspiracy and corruption than they will be by any attempt to sell Tory achievements.

It’s not good for the Tories. It’s not good for the image of Scottish democracy. But the Tories can only blame themselves for once again sending out all the wrong messages.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Why we need to raise awareness of depression

Unusually for a Scot, I'm a big cricket fan.

I'm less of a fan of Geoff Boycott, who really should be retired from broadcasting in the same way that Andy Gray and Richard Keys were. A fine player he may have been, but when it comes to behaving in an appropriately sensitive matter when talking about someone who is depressed he clearly has a lot to learn.

England all-rounder Michael Yardy has returned from the Cricket World Cup suffering from depression. I like Yardy as a player, but have even more admiration for his courage and strength in being so open about his difficulties at what is obviously a tough time for him.

Not Boycott though, who views depression as a sign of weakness. Says the former England batsman:

"He must have been reading my comments about his bowling – it must have upset him.

"Obviously it was too much for him at this level. If any blame is attached it's partly to the selectors because I'm sorry, he's not good enough at this level."
This backward-looking approach is sadly not uncommon. Andy Goram suffered from the same attitudes when he withdrew from the Scotland squad, stating he was "not mentally attuned". Another England cricketer, Marcus Trescothick, retired prematurely from the international game - citing depression as the reason - and was subjected to the same lack of understanding from some quarters.

Boycott did express some sympathy for Yardy but clearly he struggles to identify depression as an illness and instead views it as a symptom of weakness. "I've been good enough … until you've had depression, I don't think you're qualified to talk about it." Right, Geoffrey. So why are you talking about it and making a value judgement on the basis of ill health?

Actually, you don't have to be a doctor to understand what depression does to people. It doesn't take an expert to recognise that it is an illness, and a pretty debilitating one at that. It leaves sufferers with feelings of hopelessness and despair. It drives some to suicide. What depressed people don't need, especially when they've had the courage to speak openly about their problems, is unfairly judgemental attitudes from people who really should know better.

It does raise the question of how sport deals with mental ill-health. Having played football at a half-decent level and known a lot of professionals, I am aware that if the perceived glamour of sport is stripped away you're often left with the uncomfortable truth that many sportspersons are young people, often away from home for the first time, struggling to forge a career in a hostile environment with a "survival of the fittest" mentality. Depression is far more common in sportsmen than many of us might think and yet there is not only limited support available, there remain unhelpful attitudes towards mental ill-health. Admittedly, the sporting world does not mean to be institutionally intolerant towards depression or any other illness, but there are misunderstandings that need to be corrected.

There is also a pressing need to develop a more effective network of support. For every Michael Yardy with the courage to speak out there are scores of others struggling alone. They deserve better than Boycott's ignorance. But they also need sporting authorities to take action to promote depression awareness with the same determination with which they have challenged attitudes towards homosexuality and race.

Get well soon, David

I was shocked tonight to hear that my local MP, Labour's David Cairns, is in intensive care in a London hospital being treated for acute pancreatitis.

This puts party differences into perspective, and I am sure other constituents would join me in wishing him a speedy recovery.

I know from experience that David works hard for our community and I have in the past had reason to be appreciative of his efforts on my behalf.

I am sure he is in good hands and wish him well, although obviously my thoughts are also with his friends and family. Hopefully he'll be back at work in the near future.

How do you stop yourself laughing at George Galloway?

Watch him trying to be funny.

In today's Herald, Galloway was playing up his extraordinary abilities, pledging to single-handedly "shake up Holyrood".

He also claimed that the government's spending cuts are "entirely unnecessary", based as they are on "a deliberately exaggerated picture that’s drawn of the country’s financial state". Of course. Galloway is deluded if he genuinely believes that any politician enjoys making unpalatable cuts so much they're prepared to stake their entire political future making them for the love of it. Obviously Galloway doesn't quite appreciate current reality - for example the unexaggerated fact that next year alone the country will be paying back £50billion of interest, dwarfing the £3million he resents the government using to protect the citizens of Libya from Gaddafi's brutality.

And some call Ed Balls a deficit denier?

How anyone can consider Galloway to be a serious politician, let alone a heavyweight, is anyone's guess. According to The Herald, he is "selling himself as the Old Labour vote on a Labour ticket" and is supporting Iain Gray because "[he] can be pressured by the trade union movement. The SNP are not part of the Labour movement." Old tribalists die hard. So much for his professed political independence - or for that matter his supposed preference for strong politicians; his endorsement of Gray is also based on a perception that he's more likely than Salmond to give in to union pressure.

Galloway might masquerade as an independently-minded voice of the people but in truth he's little more than a bitter, resentful old Leftie; the kind that vainly believes the Labour Party has been stolen from them. This last assumption is disingenuous to say the least and doesn't stand up to scrutiny: "Old" Labour included such figures as Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, Tony Crosland, Roy Hattersley, James Callaghan and Denis Healey - it was never a party dominated by intolerant and egomaniacal demagogues, however much he and Militant tried to convince us otherwise. The only "old" thing that Galloway represents is a way of thinking on social issues that belongs firmly in the 1930s.

Galloway's inability to work with others (as evidenced by the fact he's had more parties than Paris Hilton) hardly suggests he is the kind of person who can deliver a substantive cultural change at Holyrood. Nevertheless, George believes it so it must be true. His latest fan club, the Coalition Against Cuts (aka The Monster Raving Ego Party), states that it will put forward an intellectual case "with credibility" that spending cuts are unnecessary. It's also discovered in the last few days that it is "anti-war" and is opposed to the NATO-led action in Libya on account of the expense to the taxpayer. Strangely, he sees no contradiction in holding a position whereby he supports inaction on ever-increasing and unsustainable spending while maintaining that a humanitarian mission to prevent the massacre of countless Libyans is unethical.

The again, he has a soft spot for oppressive Middle Eastern dictators.

Quite why The Herald's Robbie Dinwoodie dedicates so much space to Galloway's views on the leaders of Labour and the SNP escapes me. Why does this man merit so much media attention, while Patrick Harvie (and even Annabel Goldie and Tavish Scott) struggle to gain the recognition they deserve?

Any Herald reader can see that what little he has of a political philosophy other than unadulterated populism has little basis in reality. Unfortunately, there is a strong chance that a combination of his populist agenda, public discontent towards the main parties, his obvious charisma and a disproportionate volume of media coverage could conspire to return him to Holyrood via the regional list. Personally, I'd prefer Glasgow to return a second Green MSP.

If Galloway were not so serious he would be hilarious. He's like a pantomime caricature. I found the Herald piece incredibly funny until Galloway made a rare attempt at humour, suggesting there should have been Scottish tanks on the Chancellor's lawn ahead of the budget. Comedy clearly isn't his forte. It wasn't remotely amusing, but it's a curious metaphor - the use of tanks doesn't sit comfortably with his confessed pacifism. He claimed that "if [Scottish politicians] were pushing for any particular course of action that would benefit Scotland, I never heard it." Presumably he didn't see various Scottish MPs of all parties pressing Scotland's case in parliament in recent weeks or the attempts of the First Minister and Finance Secretary to promote their own vision for Scotland's economy.

Anyone whose stated prime political mission is to "rumble up" Holyrood can not be taken seriously. Not only does his philosophy lack any credible basis, he increasingly looks like a man who represents nobody's cause but his own.

My response to this week’s Budget

George Osborne is not exactly the most popular man in Britain. That won’t worry him. What might cause more concern is that his long-term strategy for economic growth will need him to be the luckiest man in Britain.

He made a huge gamble in cutting so soon and so quickly. His “shock and awe” approach to deficit reduction was never likely to be popular, but the risk Osborne took was dependent on his fiscal package facilitating economic growth. I have never been convinced of the need to cut so deeply, and felt that a wiser tactic would have been a longer-term vision to reduce the structural deficit. Not only did I feel this made more economic sense (excessive fiscal tightening can be counter-productive), there were also political reasons behind my thinking: as a Liberal Democrat I am deeply uncomfortable with being committed to Osborne’s gamble. He might be right, but only time will tell. Osborne, like the rest of us, is at the mercy of events. In that sense at least, we are very definitely all in this together.

Growth and inflation figures are not perhaps what Osborne would have predicted, so would he be tempted to consider a plan B? No, and he’s right not to do so. I don’t think his economic and fiscal strategies are the right ones but to change course now would be catastrophic. The government must stick to its course because to do otherwise now would create economic uncertainty and political stability. The coalition would not only look arbitrary and unserious, it would also look cruel: why would anyone announce unnecessary and savage cuts only to change tack when the pressure is on?

Osborne remains convinced his plan is right, so much so that he feels able to announce that the “rescue” of the UK economy is complete and that attention should be turned towards “recovery” and “reform”. He’s partially right: the economy has not yet been rescued. Some difficult months lie ahead.

So what did will this Budget do? According to the Chancellor, this is a Budget for growth. It’s part of a longer-term strategy to reduce public spending from 48 to 40 per cent of GDP, to grow faster than the rest of the EU and expand the private sector. Whether it will actually help to raise growth is questionable, but it is certainly pro-enterprise and the business community are behind it.

But there was a lot more in Osborne’s budget than simply assisting economic growth. He’s becoming a more sensitive to how his message is received. An emphasis on economic growth isn’t likely to be well-received by the public, and instead Osborne chose to focus much of his attention on areas of social concern and living standards. This may or may not be due to Lib Dem influence in government, but it is certainly a welcome change. The chancellor might get lucky with his gamble on deficit reduction, but whatever happens the government has to do everything in its power to protect the most vulnerable from the human and social costs of this strategy.

It’s difficult to offer much in a “fiscally neutral” package, but Osborne was able to make some welcome announcements. A “fair fuel stabiliser”, a delay in the rise in fuel duty and a 1p cut are positive measures which should have the effect of taming inflation and relieving the pressure on families and rural communities. Many of our own MPs and MSPs have been looking for such action, especially those who serve more rural constituencies.

Mary Ann Sieghart, writing in The independent, made the spurious claim that “there was little for the Lib Dems to cheer”. I’m not at all convinced by that, and neither is Gordon Birtwistle – who takes a different view and insists that “it was pleasing to see how many of our policies made an appearance in the budget.” There was a lot to be cheerful about from a Lib Dem perspective, not least the increase in the personal tax allowance which even Ms Sieghart admits “takes another 1.1million low-paid people out of tax while also benefitting the squeezed middle.” That was not the only announcement to carry hallmarks of Lib Dem influence: other achievements were the Green Investment Bank, which has been brought forward, an increase in the bankers’ levy to pay for the reduction in corporation tax and a move towards localism via enterprise zones, regional railways and science parks. To suggest that the Lib Dems got nothing from the Budget is plainly ridiculous.

I’m particularly pleased that here is a Tory chancellor (yes, a Tory chancellor) who has announced an overdue boost to the manufacturing sector. Let’s not forget, the dependence on an economy based on speculation rather than production may have carried on under the Blair-Brown years but it originated in the 1980s when Thatcher’s government destroyed British manufacturing. Osborne is now preaching about the benefits of a structurally balanced economy – not something likely to have been inspired by his apparent idol, Nigel Lawson.

Merging National Insurance and income tax operations may have its advantages. More significantly, Osborne’s attack on “tax avoidance and evasion” is well-timed and can hardly be objected to. In fact, the big losers from this budget are the oil companies (who will be forced to pay an additional £2billion to compensate for the proposals on fuel duty), the banks (who will not contribute a further £600million) and wealthy tax dodgers. Surely no-one can have too many complaints about that.

Given the economic and political circumstances, this was a useful Budget. Unfortunately, however, it missed an opportunity to do more on green issues – action is urgently required now and the Green Investment Bank, while welcome, doesn’t go far enough. While talking up job creation, the Budget didn’t spell out any new initiatives to tackle unemployment. Action to reduce unemployment is needed because, even if the economy recovers in the way Mr Osborne hopes it will, there will still remain the problem that many young people who are currently unemployed may continue to be out of work in the good times. I for one am very concerned about that. Similarly, there was nothing in the budget on education or pensioners - in my view is simply unforgiveable. Surely education should be at the centre of any programme for economic recovery and our elderly citizens are among the most likely to be adversely affected by spending cuts?

I’m not sure Osborne has all the answers. He’s got himself into a position where events may well conspire to undermine his entire strategy. The predictions are currently indicating moderate economic growth, but it’s yet to be seen whether the private sector will expand sufficiently. So this wasn’t a Budget for growth (as all media correspondents agree) but a Budget for short-term stability, aimed at pleasing the markets while simultaneously appeasing the British public (it was notable that Osborne did not mention spending cuts).

The Chancellor has at least shown that the coalition is more than a “cuts government”. There was a lot more than I would have liked from this Budget, even one understandably limited to being “fiscally neutral”. But there were some welcome announcements and the knowledge that Lib Dems in government are genuinely making a difference.

I would finally like to briefly examine Labour’s response to the Budget. Ed Miliband looked in his element while launching into an amusing and devastating onslaught in respect to the growth revision. He criticised “Del Boy economics” (referring to the increase in VAT, which increased fuel prices) and ridiculed “a budget for growth that downgrades the growth forecast”. All very entertaining. But is this all he has in his armoury? Broad attacks on the coalition and good soundbites look great on TV, but whatever happened to developing a coherent policy of his own? Until he has something to offer in terms of policy, he simply can't be taken seriously.

As I’ve already indicated, having committed himself (and the coalition) to a four-year plan to eradicate the deficit, Osborne needs a bit of luck. Perhaps, however, he’s already got it in the shape of the Shadow Chancellor, who looks completely out of his depth and had to be informed by Charlie Stayt on BBC Breakfast that the government doesn’t control oil prices. In fact, Ed Balls has done a pretty good job in the last few days of assuring Gordon Brown he made the right decision in overlooking him in favour of Alistair Darling.

Overall, there is a fair amount in this budget we can be reasonably positive about. The fuel measures and the increase in personal tax allowance are moves that clearly evidence Lib Dem influence and will certainly relieve pressure on low-paid workers. However, with little on the environment and even less on education, pensioners or tackling unemployment, I can’t help thinking that – for all the positives – the Budget represents a missed opportunity.

You might also be interested in Mark Pack's analysis of Lib Dem influence in the Budget on Lib Dem Voice. Be warned, however, it does contain Nick Clegg's ill-conceived "Alarm Clock Britain" cliche!

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Ten things I want from the Scottish parliamentary campaign

The Scottish Parliament dissolved yesterday (following an interesting, amusing and admittedly tribal interchange between Iain Gray and Alex Salmond) and now campaigning begins in earnest. Already I have noticed various individuals predicting the outcome of the May elections, as if the six weeks of campaigning are something of an irrelevance.

Obviously, as a Liberal Democrat, I will be wishing for a good result for my party. I would also welcome a more representative parliament and would probably think it to be a good thing if the Greens were to make some gains. But aside from a favourable final verdict from Scotland’s voters, what else would I like to see in the coming weeks?

1) More focus on substance, less on personalities. The media focus on Jack McConnell and Alex Salmond in 2007, to the detriment of both the other parties and Scotland’s democracy, was little short of embarrassing. It could be worse this time, especially as Iain Gray’s attributes do not include personal charisma. However, it wasn’t just the media who were responsible for creating personality cults around the leaders – the parties were equally as bad, with the SNP’s “Alex Salmond for First Minister” slogan summarising effectively the party’s obsession with personality politics.

2) A media focus on the issues that matter, not on what the parties want to talk about. The coverage of the last election campaign was centred around a tedious argument between Labour and the SNP about the issue of independence. The SNP would love to fill up the pages of the daily papers with pro-independence propaganda, but this time the stakes are higher and there are more vital issues for candidates to tackle. Scotland deserves better – from its elected representatives but also from the media. Much as the media love a good story, they also have an important role to play in holding parties to account and asking tough questions.

3) More coverage of parties other than the SNP and Labour, and for the media to reflect the multi-party nature of Scottish democracy. This election isn’t about which of two parties emerges the stronger, however much it is painted that way. I would like to read and hear more about the Liberal Democrats’ distinct message for Scotland (obviously), the Tories’ campaign strategy, the Greens’ economic policies and so on. And surely some of the minor parties deserve a few inches dedicated to an analysis of their varied (and often interesting) positions?

4) More sensible, sober-minded debate and less tribal posturing. I’d like to see an exchange of ideas, not a popularity contest between polished but bland performers and effectively managed brands. I don’t think the public appreciate cynical opportunism or tribal attitudes, so is there a chance for sensible, rational debate on the key issues affecting Scotland’s future?

5) More honesty. From all of us, but especially from Labour on its economic and fiscal policy.

6) No endless speculation about coalitions. The media, especially The Herald, love to do this. Not only is the campaign an irrelevance to them, so also is the verdict of the voters. Some journalists just want to speculate about the likely prospective partnerships and coalitions, usually basing assumptions on unfounded gossip. To say this is an unhelpful distraction is understating the point. Let’s keep the main thing the main thing.

7) Realistic and intellectually credible manifestos. (Scottish Socialist Party excepted of course)

8) Politicians attempting to constructively engage and connect with voters.

9) Genuinely interesting TV debates. Last year, the debates for the general election captivated millions of people who had little interest in politics. I know Iain Gray is not likely to be the best debater in the world, and Salmond’s bluster isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I hope that our party leaders can contribute to a positive debate that will mesmerize Scottish voters and inspire them to exercise their democratic right!

So long as we don’t have to suffer the media hype of “Scott-mania”. Or “Goldie-mania” come to think of it.

10) A Lib Dem gain in Renfrewshire North and West. I can live in hope!

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

What does a feminist look like?

If I asked you to name a prominent feminist, I imagine that almost all of you would plum for Germaine Greer.

Greer has contributed to the collection of essays recently published as Making the Difference, in honour of Shirley Williams. Given conference’s decision just over a week ago to opt for a complex quota system for approved candidates in order to boost the number of female MPs, Greer’s insights and criticisms are not only typically articulate and convincing – they are also very timely.

In her essay, entitled “Woman in Parliament”, she examines the careers of Barbara Castle and Shirley Williams before turning to the matter of all women shortlists and what she considers counter-productive quota systems. I could provide a critical review of the essay, but I won’t: instead I’ll let Germaine Greer herself speak to you directly in her own words:

Some women candidates groan that we don’t have a Hillary Clinton. What the example of Hillary Clinton teaches us is that the best way to get ahead in US politics is to marry a man who gets himself elected president...

...Castle and Williams would have wanted to see more women among their colleagues, [but] it would never have occurred to them to demand all-women shortlists for pre-selection. Women who have fought their way up through the ranks, competing with equally driven men and worsting them by sheer ability, are unlikely to advocate the kind of affirmative action that would install an arbitrary number of women... Ann Widdecombe was characteristically forthright, dubbing them “an insult to women” Lynne Featherstone rejects all-women shortlist as a solution: “We believe local people should decide on their choice of candidates and intervention from the centre isn’t welcome. You can’t just drop people in.”

...Castle and Williams were aware exactly how much better a woman had to perform than a man if she was to be given a top job. They had both seen men of far less ability promoted to positions above them, but they also knew that if women were to survive in adversarial politics they had to have considerable skill, real hunger and extraordinary powers of endurance. Simply to give an arbitray number of women what other men and women had had to fight for could not produce a governing class that knew what it was doing, or how and why...

...The introduction by the Labour Party of all-women shortlists in 1995 was part of the process of “modernisation”...a particularly underhand way of disenfranchising the left. Cultivating a generation of neophytes would not only bring a “better class of totty” into the House, it would also sideline the party’s female left wing...Other parties talked of training more women in the techniques of electoral government, in organisation, canvassing, formulating policy, networking and so forth, so that they acquired the skills to work their way up from constituency party level. The women meanwhile went on stuffing envelopes and making tea...

...The plastering of the Commons with inexperienced and ill-prepared women was the worst kind of gesture politics, and the principal sufferers in the event were the women themselves... Pressure to include women and members of ethnic minorities in the Commons is usually justified by the perception of a need to make parliament “more representative” of Britain’s cultural diversity. The underlying assumption is that parliamentarians have all sprung up from the grassroots. They are more likely to have been drawn into parliamentary politics by what used to be called the “old boys’ network”... we should not be surprised that a fairly high proportion of the female intake was connected to the old intake in one way or another. Of the women selected from the shortlists, Maria Eagle is the twin sister of Angela Eagle MP, Ann Keen is married to Alan Keen MP, , Ann Cryer is the widow of one MP and the mother of another; Julie Morgan is the wife of the MP for Cardiff West; Dari Taylor is the daughter of a former MP for Burnley. And so on. Nothing about this is surprising. Women who are already familiar with the parliamentary regime have an advantage...

...The effect of all-women shortlists was not to encourage more women to enter the political fray, but to discourage them from seeking selection without them... They were far less effective than hoped. If the immediate effect of introducing an inexperienced group of women to an intensely competitive masculine environment was to cause them grief and embarrassment, then it can be seen actually to have retarded the emergence of women and women’s issues into mainstream politics. ..
...Great historical changes cannot be made in a hurry; papering a female face onto a mosogynistic House of Commons will be ultimately self-defeating. The process must start where it started for Barbara Castle, at school...only by starting at the beginning can we raise a generation of women who will have the skills, the motivation, the toughness and the stamina to reform an absurdly laddish House of Commons – and to enjoy doing it.

Greer is more concerned with changing the culture of British politics and the House of Commons in particular (you’ll have to buy the book to read the more detailed arguments in her essay). This emphasis, I think, is the right one. As she demonstrated aptly, the political elite remains firmly in place and AWSs simply allowed women with strong parliamentary connections the opportunity to move ahead of men with parliamentary connections. But nothing fundamental has changed.

Obviously, the Liberal Democrats are not proposing using the AWS. But, as I discussed last week, I find what is actually on the table to be almost as unhelpful in promoting women’s issues. There’s a great deal more to this than simply the raw statistics of female MPs, but all that has been forgotten in the rush for a quick fix. I can only imagine what Germaine Greer made of the motion presented to conference last week, but my view is that it was deeply flawed. It fails to get to grips with the real need to reform politics (if ever we needed a “new politics” it’s in relation to a more inclusive parliamentary culture) and essentially acts in a discriminatory way to create a new elite “brand” or “class” of candidate according to rigid quotas. Is that fair, or liberal? I think Lynne Featherstone got it right when she observed that “local people should decide on their choice of candidates and intervention from the centre isn’t welcome. You can’t just drop people in.” Unfortunately, that is exactly what was being proposed last week, with constituencies being forced to shortlist two candidates from the unfortunately named “Leadership Programme”.

I'm pleased I belong to a party which is supportive of feminism (with a small "f"). So what does a feminist look like? Like Germaine Greer? Like Jo Swinson? Like Lynne Featherstone? Like me? Maybe a bit like all of us? Perhaps, but surely at a basic level a feminist is someone who promotes the interests of women - someone who cares deeply about women's issues and creating a society where gender differences become irrelevant - not simply someone who backs a tokenistic approach to "inclusivity". I’ve yet to find a feminist of note who has lent her support to the (admittedly compromised) motion passed at conference last week. I don’t profess to have all the answers, but I know that arbitrary targets do women a huge disservice and that if as much attention was given over to creating a more inclusive parliament than it was to discussing targets and quotas some genuine progress might actually be made. The lesson we’ve learned from Labour’s experience is that positive discrimination doesn’t work and has unintended effect of actually reinforcing privilege rather than actually making parliament more genuinely diverse. This isn’t what we want, is it?

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

On protests and protesters

There were significant protests outside the recent party conferences at Perth and Sheffield.

I actually welcome protest. It’s what our democracy is built on, which is why I was so opposed to Labour’s shameful actions in making protest illegal within a specified radius of Westminster through the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. I also have a rather interesting history of protest myself, having been a director of a national pressure group and organised several sizeable demonstrations.

The freedom to protest is the sign of a healthy democracy, which is why I was actually very pleased to see protesters at Perth, although I was slightly embarrassed so few actually turned up given the police were expecting a four-figure number of attendees at the demo. Perhaps hurling abuse at Liberal Democrats is not as attractive a pre-occupation to as many Scots as the Communist Party would have us believe.

I wasn’t at Sheffield, but I’ve heard reports. I was quite shocked to find out that my 14 year old friend Alexandra White was sworn at and abused by protesters. I’ve carried out some radical activities in my past in the cause of political protest, but never have I felt the need to verbally abuse minors. It’s pathetic. More seriously, I also discovered that some of the protesters at Sheffield took it upon themselves to physically assault an “elderly delegate in her motorised scooter” who was, according to Cllr Jackie Pearcey, “punched several times and had to go to casualty”.

Now, I’ve absolutely no problem with the public making their displeasure known to politicians. I would fully expect ministers, MPs and (to a lesser extent) delegates to be on the receiving end of criticism. I mean, that’s what lobbying’s about. Tell us what you don’t like, and how you want us to do things differently. I’m happy to listen, as I did in Perth.

Like Tim Farron, I actually have sympathy with a lot of what people are protesting about. In Perth there were some whose primary motivation was clearly to protest at cuts to disability benefits. I understood where they were coming from, although I was less happy about how their cause was being hijacked by others with more obviously political motivations. But I fully appreciate why people aren’t happy with everything the coalition government is doing because I’m not necessarily happy with it either.

In his speech at Sheffield, Tim said:
“outside this conference centre there are people protesting. It’s not good enough to just label them as Trots. And even so, is it a crime to be angry at cut backs, to be fearful about austerity to resist the pain that is to come? The kind of people who shrug and say they rather like the cut backs are the kind of people whose families are not personally affected.

And you know what? I’m angry about the cuts. I am angry about the reason we are making these cuts.

Labour’s enduring legacy, far worse even than Iraq, is their decision in 1997 to deregulate the banks, to out-Thatcher Mrs Thatcher. To idolise the markets, to make greed a virtue, to stoke up a fake boom. Then they left office and changed their tune. Labour spent 13 years in power behaving like Tories and now 10 months in opposition behaving like trots. And they deserve to be derided and ridiculed for both.”

I’m always happy to listen to people, but it seems that some people aren’t interested in constructive dialogue. Some of the protesters at Perth (and, I imagine also at Sheffield) were there out of a near-pathological loathing of the Liberal Democrats. They appear to be anti-everything and view constructive dialogue as shouting through a loudhailer and refering to all those they disagree with as Tories. How unimagniative.

So while I will always support the right of people to protest, I struggle with the attitudes of those who feel it’s perfectly acceptable to verbally abuse children or attack pensioners. I also have a problem with attitudes which are closed to any kind of constructive dialogue, or those whose professed moral standpoints mask a distinctly anti-government agenda.

We can all be angry at everything, and yell abuse at people. But it takes more courage and imagination to sit down with those you disagree with, put forward your case and argue for change. Besides, protesters might find that many Lib Dems, like me and Tim, would be more than empathetic towards their understandable grievances. But that’s clearly not what some people want.

I’m a trade unionist, and actually very proud of it. I was for several years a UNISON representative and, during the Blair/Brown era, I attempted to persuade the health unions to call a national demonstration on the issue of NHS reform. Of course, they never obliged, even when local A&E units were being threatened across Scotland and Patricia Hewitt’s permanent revolution was undermining the basis of the NHS in England. They simply didn’t want to damage the Labour government and so refused to stand up for the interests of their members.

It’s different now, of course. The unions have all of a sudden geared up for a fight. On 26th March there will be a union-led march through central London, ostensibly in support of public services. I’ve been asked to go down, but I won’t because it’s clearly been organised with a view to attacking the coalition government. I have asked UNISON why there are no plans for local demonstrations, which would probably have a greater potential for pressuring councils - but the unions have no interest in the local dimension, only their own obsession with Clegg and Cameron. In all my political activity, I have never been one to adopt a distinctly anti-government position – I was always far more interested in resolving issues and campaigning for positive change than I was in the type of negative, unrealistic and overtly tribal posturing we are now seeing from the unions.

Dialogue is a two-way process. However, due to a shortage of robots, most Lib Dem members and activists are human and may not respond favourably when faced with open hostility or aggressive behaviour. So if you want to make a difference, indulging in routine verbal abuse or physical assault are not the best ways to get your voice heard.

As those who are sufficiently informed will know, delegates at the Sheffield and Perth conferences voted against government decisions – notably in reference to the NHS and the proposed closure of RAF bases in East Scotland. Maybe it’s because we’re still so used to being a party of protest but we’re usually pleased to exchange ideas in a rational way – and we’ve also got something of an independent streak about us, so we’re not the type to uncritically support the leadership. I think most of us are happy to talk – and be talked to. I know many of us at Perth went out to speak to protesters, which speaks volumes about the kind of party we are.

I’m with Tim – none of us are happy about making cuts. None of us like being protested against but, being liberals, we believe in the right to protest. I will always defend the rights of people who care enough to get out there and stand up for what they believe. It’s not the protests I’m uncomfortable with, or even the criticism of my party, but the unnecessary aggression and narrow-minded attitudes so evident in Sheffield, which should have no place in 21st century democracy.

Monday, 14 March 2011

How do we achieve diversity?

It’s a question that was asked at our spring conference.

It’s a timely debate to have. In spite of the positive rhetoric, as a party we haven’t developed any cogent strategies for increasing participation from minority groups.

However, while I welcome the question being put, I am less convinced that the answers being offered at conference actually constitute a sensible solution.

It might firstly help by looking at the motion being put forward for Saturday’s debate:

Improving the diversity of our MPs.

Conference notes with concern that at the General Election in 2010 the party did not improve the number of women MPs, and does not have any black or minority ethnic (BAME) MPs at present. Conference also notes that in June 2010 the President and Leader asked the Federal Executive to commission a Candidates Review, to be written by Sal Brinton, and following the Diversity Motion passed at Federal Conference in September 2010, the Federal Executive asked Sal Brinton to extend the scope of her review to address the issues covered in the motion, and to propose a course of action for the party to address the diversity deficit, and to improve it at the next general election.

Conference further notes that the party is clearly divided over the issue of compulsory short lists (all-women short lists, and a percentage of BAME candidates).
Conference therefore agrees:

1. That diversity champions should be mainstreamed throughout the party; the only way to improve the diversity of our MPs is to improve the diversity of our party itself:
a) Regions will set themselves targets for improving the diversity of approved candidates, Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs), Assessment Centre staff and Returning Officers.
b) Regions and local parties will actively encourage members and supporters from underrepresented groups to become more active in the party, including standing for election.

2. The creation of a Leadership Programme for outstanding candidates from under-represented groups, which will:
a) Have a maximum number of approved candidates, with a minimum of 30 by the end of 2011, and within that, 50% of the places will be reserved for women, and 20% for those from BAME backgrounds, and 10% for those with disabilities.
b) Provide advanced training and support, particularly in media, leadership and team building skills, and fundraising.
c) Provide mentoring and coaching from the moment they are approved as a candidate until after the election day.
d) Offer them opportunities to shadow a Parliamentarian.
e) Raise funds to provide practical support to PPCs from under-represented groups.

3. Selection for the Leadership Programme will be based on competencies, references and an interview with the Programme Panel, and membership of the Panel will be agreed and might include an MP, a Peer, a Federal Executive representative, a Campaigns Department representative and a member of the Diversity Engagement Group, with the process to be run by the Diversity Unit at Federal Party Headquarters.

4. Where candidates from the Leadership Programme apply to a priority seat at least two candidates from the Leadership Programme should be shortlisted on their short list.

5. Groups of Development Seats should get together to advertise and recruit PPCs in clusters, using the Region’s targets for shortlisting (eg 50% women candidates, and a relevant local ethnic minority percentage).

6. The Federal Executive should review progress of the Leadership Programme and the other arrangements in the Candidates Review in 2013, and consider more urgent action if not sufficient candidates from under-represented groups have been selected in our priority seats.

It was sufficiently concerning that the motion was exclusively focused on the diversity of MPs. Yes, there is a vital discussion about diversity to be had, but the issue is far wider than simply increasing the numbers of specified minority groups at parliamentary level. Given this emphasis on parliamentarians, it should come as little surprise that what was actually being put forward was a “top-down” solution, and one that appears to view the parliamentary party as super-significant.

Firstly, the positives. Here is an attempt to get to grips with a genuine problem – i.e. the “diversity deficit”. The undemocratic and tokenistic all-women shortlists so beloved by the Labour Party are rejected, and there has been a useful attempt to concentrate on action rather than simply depending on “positive discrimination”. There is also a welcome emphasis on training for candidates.

However, the actions proposed in the motion (which was passed by a comfortable majority) are to my mind quite short-sighted. They haven’t been sufficiently considered – at least in regards their potential ramifications. As one contributor to Lib Dem Voice observed, “it’s a better idea in principle than clustering, zipping and all the other things which have been suggested before. It’s just that supporters of positive action can’t seem to find a way of doing it without adopting a completely ham-fisted approach that ignores our constitutional structure, and just provokes resentment among those who actually care about our internal democracy.” Agreed.

They’re also by nature discriminatory. Admittedly, they are not as "positively discriminatory" as all women shortlists, but AWS would be next to useless for a party with very few safe seats in any case. What these proposals will do in practice is to actively discriminate on the basis of race, gender or disability. That such discrimination has a “positive” aim is irrelevant as far as the principles of fairness and democracy are concerned. More significantly, these proposals have a wider potential to create a two-tier party than Labour’s ill-conceived AWSs and may actually create a parliamentary party that is in fact less socially diverse than currently.

Nick Clegg is particularly keen on the social mobility message. I’m sure he won’t mind me quoting him again and applying his wise words in the context of the “diversity deficit”. Clegg said on 1st March 2010: “the fortunes of someone’s life should not be decided at their birth. A person’s fate shouldn’t be settled by their sex, their colour, their postcode, or their parents’ bank balance. In a fair society no one can tell you to lower your sights because - no matter how hard you try - the things you dream of somehow aren’t for you... we are willing to tackle the unfairness that sends some along one path while others are left behind.”

Clegg is passionately against entrenched advantage and tokenism. So why instil such values into the party’s selection process?

One key problem is that these proposals have pre-determined which minorities should be given special treatment. Women, yes. Ethnic minorities, yes. Disabled people, yes. The much reduced approved candidates list will be made up of 50% women, 20% from ethnic minorities and 10% from BAME backgrounds. This over-prescriptive and illiberally top-down approach seems ridiculously arbitrary and not only fails to state how the remaining 20% will be made up, it completely overlooks other minorities such as gay people (something picked up on by DELGA) and the economically disadvantaged. It also doesn’t make clear in which category a disabled woman of Asian background would fall into…

Clearly some people are going to be more equal than others. I would never have thought the Liberal Democrats would have gone down this Orwellian route to facilitate diversity, advancing the interests of one select group over another. It’s isn’t democracy. And it isn’t liberal.

If I can come back to Nick Clegg’s war on social inequality, quite how do these proposals help create a more equal society? Surely that should be our primary objective, not simply a more diverse parliamentary party? Quite simply, the “leadership programme” will exacerbate the problem.

Firstly, I dislike the emphasis on “leadership”. Better training for candidates is very welcome – and overdue. But, while leadership is a key part of an MP’s role, it is in my view only a small element of the required characteristics for a good MP. Again, this is a misplaced emphasis. I would like future MPs who are empathetic, knowledgeable about their communities, people who are experienced in “real life” and deeply human. Not a product of what is essentially an elite internship.

And this is what the “leadership programme” will do. It will create an elite within the party. One of my principal concerns about modern politics is the advent of the professional politician and an emerging class of careerists who have only ever worked in politics. Politics is rapidly becoming the preserve of those who have the financial means and sufficient time on their hands to commit to internships or “leadership programmes” that clearly require candidates to have good personal contacts, the financial freedom to spend months working for nothing and the time to shadow an MP (who will presumably represent a different constituency). So much for meritocracy and fairness. What is being proposed is the emergence of a two-tier party in which candidates for “leadership” will be drawn from a narrow section of society. Is this really what we want?

The programme sounds very much like an internship to me (and I’ve criticised internships previously). We all know how they operate to in the interests of the few, not the many. The “leadership programme” will be exactly the same. In reality, it will do little to promote true diversity and inclusion. We might see more middle-class women rather than simply middle-class men, but politics is becoming a closed shop to the economically underprivileged and this motion does nothing to combat it.

Taking inspiration from the Conservatives’ A-list approach with the emphasis on the uber-candidate is hardly consistent with Liberal Democrat belief in the importance of communities and localism. Neither does it ring true to promote this deeply flawed “leadership programme” in a party supposedly committed to ensuring that “a person’s fate shouldn’t be settled by their sex, their colour... or their parents’ bank balance.”

It’s always going to be a bit contentious deciding exactly which groups constitute “minorities” which is why it was plainly unhelpful for the motion to be so prescriptive and inflexible. My own view is that the biggest single problem in relation to the diversity of parliament isn’t the raw statistic that the proportion of women is particularly low, however regrettable that is. No. It’s the emergence and perpetuation of the professional political class which is by nature exclusive. A “leadership programme” will simply compound the problem.

Yes, there is a “diversity deficit”. Do we need more women in parliament? Yes. Do we need more people from ethnic minorities represented in parliament? Again, yes. Disabled people? Yes. But we also need more gay people (although I would be loathe to suggest that gay people should feel pressured to “come out” simply to further their political opportunities; I for one don’t declare my sexuality). And we also need more people who are from that most under-represented group in parliament – the economically disadvantaged.

I don’t believe there are enough people like me in parliament. Neither are there many MPs like my brother, or with the life experience of my friend Stuart - both of whom are real, down to earth, practical people. That might sound an arrogant thing to say, but we all want our elected representatives to be able to relate to us as individuals. I'm sure many other people think the same way. When the public rightly complain that parliament isn't representative, they're not asking for quotas for women or ethnic minorities. I mean, how many of our current MPs have lived in a grim council estate? How many have known what it means to be unemployed and live on JSA? How many have been homeless? How many have ever worked for the minimum wage? How many have known grinding poverty? How many have, like me, seen a promising career escape from their grasp due to a lack of financial means? Or seen their family members suffer with addiction problems? In fact, how many nurses, health care assistants, porters, rail workers, caterers, manual workers, classroom assistants, drivers, shop workers, etc. are there currently serving their communities as MPs? Now, there’s a shameful statistic.

I’ve previously written about my own experiences in the context of social mobility. I am testament to the truth of what Nick Clegg says: “no matter how hard you try - the things you dream of somehow aren’t for you”. I’m not saying I necessarily would like a political career, but it should be an option for all of us. I personally find it quite insulting that I should have to apologise for who I am: it’s not my fault that I happen to be white and male. But of course I will be judged according to such insignificant criteria as my gender and skin colour, rather than what I might have to offer in relation to my life experience and practical skills. The fact that I might belong to another kind of overlooked minority (one which, in my view, urgently needs extra help) pales into insignificance next to my inheritance of a Y-chromosome. Very democratic.

What this motion didn’t seek to address is “aspiration deficit”; a poverty of hope that is almost tangible in some of our underprivileged communities. Now, where is the action to empower the really disadvantaged into political careers?

What the motion also failed to do was to examine other countries’ political systems and the processes used to increase female participation. It might have been useful to learn from the experience of Iceland, where almost 50% of parliamentarians are female and the Prime Minister is openly lesbian. In Sweden’s parliament, women’s representation is at 43.5% (some Swedish parties operate quota systems while some do not – the Social Democrats operate a “gender neutral" quota – although it appears that female representation across all parties is broadly similar) while in Finland (where no party uses quotas) female representation is at 37.5%. It might have been preferable to examine the processes in the Nordic countries before recommending a particular line, especially one so prescriptive and discriminatory.

A bit more attention given to what diversity actually means in practice wouldn't have gone amiss, either.

I did agree wholeheartedly with one line of the motion: “the only way to improve the diversity of our MPs is to improve the diversity of our party itself”. This is absolutely correct, and therefore it would perhaps have been more positive if the movers didn’t contradict themselves and then propose rigid measures to diversify the parliamentary party while not actually going on to suggest anything worthwhile to actively improve the diversity of the party as a whole, other than the obvious “local parties will actively encourage members and supporters from underrepresented groups to become more active in the party”. The federal party also has a role to play in increasing the diversity of councillors, party activists and the membership, although what ideas it has in this regard are something of a mystery.

Perhaps it would also have been better to examine how to more effectively facilitate an inclusive and representative parliament and to consider a range of other unrepresented groups including gay people, those not from the professions, the economically disadvantaged, single mums, single dads, Gaelic speakers and Morton fans (OK, the last two suggestions weren’t serious).

As it stands, this was a wasted opportunity to propose something genuinely radical and far-reaching. The problem of a lack of social diversity within the party remains unresolved.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Pension plans make unions "angry"

One of my least favourite of Labour's former ministers, the ex-Barrow and Furness MP John (now Lord) Hutton, has today revealed the contents of his report into public sector pension reform.

The findings of the Hutton Report (not to be confused with the investigation into death of Dr David Kelly of the same name) include recommending linking pensions to average career earnings rather than the final salary in the case of the most generous schemes, ensuring public servants pay higher pension contributions and that the normal pension age should be linked to the state pension age.

None of these seems particularly unreasonable. In fact they have been welcomed by the likes of SAGA and the National Association of Pension Funds.

I have always believed that the earnings link is important, but linking pensions to average rather than final salaries is not necessarily unfair - so long as there is provision made to account for inflation. A link to average rather than final earnings would also benefit those public sector employees who wish to continue working as long as possible, but with reduced hours - something they'd be heavily penalised for under the current arrangements.

I'm not an expert in this field, although I have been a UNISON representative. What I do know is that the pensions deficit has not been created by the recent economic downturn: the inescapable truth is that contributions at current levels are insufficient to fund the relatively generous public sector pension schemes. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Hutton's proposals, he's assuredly correct on one point: the status quo is "not tenable in the long term".

Already the trade unions have fiercely attacked the proposals, with the FBU has contested that their members "being made to work until 60 is wrong". The same argument is being made in respect to the police service. "The public will not want an ageing frontline fire and rescue service" stated an FBU spokesperson. A fair point, but he didn't say which sections of the public he'd been consulting with in order to speak so authoritatively on their behalf or why employees should have to spend their entire careers on the frontline.

Unions are reportedly "angry" (according to The Guardian) and already seem set for industrial action even although the government has yet to respond to the proposals.

I accept (as a public sector worker) that the new arrangements would mean that public sector pensions would be less generous for many. That isn't something I want. I'm not exactly thrilled at this prospect, but the alternatives to reform could be far more devanstating in the long-term. Part of the problem is that public sector pensions have been unaffordable for so long. Something has to change. What Hutton's actually trying to do is protect the public sector - and its workers - from potential catastrophe. Whether he's going about it is the right way is another question. But the pensions deficit is already considerable and to shirk action would be irresponsible. It's also obviously unfair that public sector pensions are in general infinitely superior to those in the private sector.

I'm not going to pre-empt the government and comment in any real detail on Hutton's findings. There is a debate to be had about pensions reform and in the coming few months we will, finally, be having it. What Hutton has done is put a balanced and reasoned solution on the table (which thankfully rules out the defined contributions route) to remedy "a problem that will confront both Labour and Tory governments".

Hutton makes a point of his party affiliation, arguing that his plans represent "a decent solution. I think the values I've tried to bring to bear are good Labour values: fairness, looking after the low paid and trying to find a sensible deal for them." Maybe. But if that's true, I can only guess at the political motivations he had for not delivering such "fairness" while he was the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

The fact that Lord Hutton is a Labour peer will surely make the political fallout interesting, and will almost certainly be ignored by unions who wish to depict this as yet another example of "Con-Dem cuts".

Some final questions to the unions (and I ask as a fellow trade unionist): how do you propose to continue funding the status quo? Why do you feel public sector employees deserve a better deal those in the private sector? And, finally, why are you so keen to welcome independent (i.e. non-partisan) reviews yet become hostile whenever the outcome is something you don't want to hear?

Update (11th March 2011):

As a footnote, I would like to quote from Simon Jenkins, writing in today’s Guardian:

“Public sector conservatives may rush into the street and howl blue murder. They can dismiss everything that is happening as “Tory cuts”. But almost all these reforms have long been considered by governments of both parties and rejected out of political cowardice. ..

"...Gordon Brown’s debacle years at the Treasury rendered obsolete any more open-ended, undisciplined and ill-directed largesse. Critics can either join the debate or just weep into their beer for the old days...

"...12 million present and future earnings-related pensioners can not enjoy privileged treatment at the ever growing expense of the productive economy. A basic state pension is one thing, but an earnings-related one should see some equity between public and private sectors.

"[Hutton’s] report suggests that civil servants, teachers, nurses, police and others work into their late 60s and contribute more to a pension based on career average of earnings rather than final-year pay. State workers would continue getting a secure pension with an employer contribution, which is more than many people enjoy. Such reform is hardly outrageous...

"...Clearly there will be losers, but if the state cannot reform because of the fear of them, the public sector will decay into a protection racket for existing privileged groups. There is no case for hysterical reaction...

"...Ministers of all parties have known this for years...[but] no Home Secretary has dared touch it until now...what is clear is that it is impossible to calibrate reform as progressive or regressive, leftwing or rightwing, winners or losers. It is merely needed...British taxpayers are no longer prepared, even if they are able, to sustain a secure retirement lifestyle for 20-30% of the workforce which they themselves cannot hope to enjoy. They see it as simply unfair.

"Redistribution should concentrate on the poor. But pensions are just a beginning. Those who flunked [reform] for 40 years can hardly complain."

Interestingly, in relation to other European countries’ public sector pensions, Simon Jenkins observes that: “The UK pension is just 30% of average earnings, against 95% in Greece, 80% in Spain and 50% in France.”

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

It's time to talk sensibly about tackling drug misuse

It must be bash The Herald week.

I’ve mentioned the misleading headlines and questionable motivations of the Glasgow-based newspaper in the previous few posts. Listening to Callum Leslie interviewing Robin Harper MSP this morning on, I was intrigued that the discussion turned to the media depiction of Lib Dem policy as one of “giving out free heroin” – especially as it was Callum himself who introduced the motion at Conference.

Lest we forget, The Sunday Herald had proclaimed that "Lib Dems back move to give addicts NHS heroin". While slightly less hysterical than the Scottish Sunday Express (which incorrectly asserted that “Nick Clegg’s keynote conference speech was overshadowed yesterday after Scottish party members called for heroin to be made free on the NHS”), I really was quite surprised that a quality paper would indulge in such dangerous simplicities.

Robin Harper is an MSP I hugely respect, and his retirement from Holyrood will leave our parliament the poorer for it. Callum observed that the SNP, Labour and Conservative parties had all been quoted in the Express but that the Greens had been overlooked - so what did they make of it all? To which Robin replied that this kind of gross misrepresentation is typical of how the media have interpreted the Greens’ position on similar issues. No-one is calling for “free heroin”, just a strategy on substance abuse that actually works. Prison doesn’t work, especially as drugs are far more readily available in prisons than on the street. Robin pointed out that the best argument for a new strategy on drugs is the unpalatable truth that Scotland accounts for a large percentage of the Taleban’s heroin trade and therefore it is reasonable to assume that not only does the status quo fail to break the cycle of addiction, it actually allows money gained by criminal means to go directly to funding terrorism.

“So”, asked Callum, “we can deal with drugs and international terrorism at the same time?”

Yes, insisted Robin. The best thing would be for Afghanistan’s opium to be taken out of the Taleban’s hands and incentives provided to grow wheat. Depriving the Taleban of their funds (and, therefore, power) would be one objective; the other would be a tighter control of heroin. It is, after all, the lack of control that is the problem.

Of course, this isn’t what Callum Leslie’s considered motion was about. Having actually read it, I did not see anything particularly controversial about it. It was certainly not intended to overshadow Nick Clegg’s speech – and neither did it. So, let’s see: “conference believes that CSOs [Community Service Orders] and DTTOs [Drug Treatment and Testing Orders] are far more effective in dealing with the route causes of drug offences...conference believes that fines carry a risk that the offender may turn to further crime to pay the fine...conference calls on the Scottish Government to ask the new Scottish Sentencing Council to review sentencing in drug possession cases, with a view to ensuring the maximum effective use of DTTOs and CSOs.” There’s nothing in there about free heroin. Neither is there anything to even suggest that prison would no longer be an option. What Liberal Democrats actually want (and, it seems, the Greens too) is a system of sentencing that actually deal with the problem and is effective in ending the cycle of substance misuse.

It is true that an amendment called for “specialist diamorphine maintenance” but to construe that as tantamount to gifting heroin to those with addiction problems is disingenuous in the extreme. Besides, in his speech Callum made it very clear that such treatments would be used sparingly and would be “tightly controlled”. “This treatment would only be used for those addicts who have not responded to other treatments such as methadone treatment” he insisted.

I have an interest in this. In a former life (I know I have a few of them) I lived in a rehabilitation centre for people with addiction problems and later worked in adult mental health services with people affected by substance use. At 20 years old, I was offered some surprising and tough insights into the world of drug misuse. What was very clear to me was that prison didn’t work; apparently it was far easier to feed habits in Barlinnie than it was in our centre, something that some of our clients resented. I knew people who had been through the revolving door so many times, whose lives were rendered meaningless and futile by the justice system’s failure to actually facilitate solutions. What current arrangements do is create professional criminals. At the very best they are responsible for the creation of a (largely male) underclass, dependent on the state for financial sustenance and who lead disempowered lives.

Even the rehabilitation programme offered had severe limitations, dependent as it was on clients being sufficiently motivated to help themselves. When people lead hopeless lives, that kind of motivation is rare indeed. Very many of our clients went on to reoffend. The door kept on revolving. No-one seemed to care.

Methadone programmes, while having their uses, also have their limitations. Most obviously, methadone is more dangerous than prescription heroin and was itself responsible for 30 deaths in Scotland last year.

Another thing so often overlooked is the co-relation between substance abuse and mental ill-health. Admittedly this is something that the conference motion didn’t directly refer to, but it’s patently obvious to any mental health professional that prison is not the best environment for people who are mentally ill.

There are many reasons why CSOs and DTTOs should be utilised, in the words of the carefully phrased motion, to “maximum effect”. That does not mean these are the only solutions, or that there are easy answers to a complex problem. But they are certainly a very significant step in the right direction – and are currently permissible under law, so it’s not even a legal change that Callum Leslie was calling for but a change in the culture of sentencing.

Finally, I’ll come to what the other main political parties reportedly told the Express about their position on drug sentencing (although if they were misadvised that the Lib Dem position was one of giving away free heroin to addicts, I’m not surprised by their reactions). Annabel Goldie stated that ““I have never been convinced that state-funded heroin is the answer. There is already an over-reliance on another opiate, methadone, as a treatment...we need radically improving access to recovery programmes, which lead to abstinence.” No surprises there, but as I stated earlier, "recovery programmes" have their limitations and can only be a part of a wider solution. Labour’s Richard Baker MSP explained helpfully that “what society wants most is to get junkies off drugs, not keep them on” (it's hardly encouraging to know that an elected representative refers to those with addiction problems as "junkies" for the benefit of the press) while an anonymous spokesperson for the SNP added: “they should stick to proven methods to get users off drugs.”

And what are proven methods? Diamorphine maintenance treatment has a particularly strong evidence base. Clinical evidence also suggests that CSOs and DTTOs would be far more useful in reducing drug use (and its associated secondary effects) than the limited range of options generally used in Scotland. As Callum pointed out, it will also save money. Where’s the controversy in that?

We need to talk sensibly when it comes to tackling drug misuse. It's a great shame The Herald prefers sensational and misleading headlines to responsible discussion.

Church of Scotland set for "schism" over gays - who cares?

Apparently, the Church of Scotland is “on course for schism”, according to The Herald.

Why should we care? A friend of mine, who happens to be both gay and a regular churchgoer, read this piece in the newspaper and rejected its assertions out of hand. It was exaggeration, he claimed. A product of the imaginations of journalists. And if he doesn’t seem to take much interest in this, why should anyone else?

I’m more than familiar with the imaginations of journalists. But there is an important issue at the heart of the matter. The reason the Kirk is allegedly set for a “schism” is that its Special Commission on Same Sex Relationships has exposed some rather traditionalist (i.e. primitive) attitudes on the part of some of its clergy.

At least the Kirk is finally getting to grips with the matter, rather than constantly dodging it. The appointment of Rev Scott Rennie in Aberdeen sparked controversy and essentially was the trigger for the commission. It seems that over 80% of ministers balloted by the commission are sufficiently liberal-minded and tolerant as to welcome gay and lesbian people as colleagues. So far, so good.

But The Herald fails to give much attention to the tolerant, reasonable minority and instead turns its attention to the 10% who believe that “homosexual orientation is a disorder and homosexual behaviour is sinful. Gay and lesbian people should avoid same-sex relationships and, ideally, seek to be rid of homosexual desires.” It also finds as significant the 19.4% of respondents who “would consider it obligatory to leave the church” if same-sex relationships are given the church’s blessing.

Only 866 people were “commissioned” to take part, which means the number who adhere to the illiberal and intolerant “Christian” interpretation of homosexuality as “a disorder” are a mere 87. I must thank Iris Robinson for agreeing to be surveyed 87 times. The Herald applies this 1:10 ratio to the wider church membership and from this deduces that “at least 100,000 members would leave” the Kirk, presumably to form an anti-Kirk whose raison d’etre is institutional homophobia.

This really is absolute rubbish. Firstly, it's based on the unreasonable and unevidenced logic that the attitudes of 10% of the Kirk's clergy would be shared by an equal proportion of the membership. Secondly, I can’t see the Church of Scotland making a radical shift in its position; it’s more likely to take very small steps on the road to ordination of gay people and would probably allow for local churches to retain some degree of “moral independence” in determining their ministers. The truth is that the Kirk is paralysed by fear of division, hence the reason why a vocal minority have been able to have a disproportionate influence on its decision-making. Thirdly, even if the Kirk was sufficiently courageous to stand up to the traditionalists it is very unlikely that even 5% of members would follow them out. The vast majority of Christians, like the rest of us, have more important things to concern themselves with than the degree of sinfulness in which the church holds homosexuality - or the sexuality of their clergy.

The Herald is clearly suggesting that the Kirk is on course for “the greatest schism in the 451 years since the Reformation”. Even greater than 1843, when the Free Church broke away? Does The Herald really think that many people are motivated by religious matters in the same way they were then? It also suggests, implicitly, that a new breakaway Church of Scottish Homophobes will be established imminently. On which I have to suggest it is highly unlikely, but it isn’t outwith the realms of possibility that a small number of intolerant puritans might establish their own small and insignificant church through which they can continue to peddle their discriminatory doctrines.

Why should the public be concerned? There are two reasons. Firstly is the potential for the creation of a new church, small yet vocal, in which institutional intolerance is not only accepted but is actively cultivated. Such a church would spread seeds of social division not entirely in keeping with my understanding of the Christian ethos. The second is that sections of the Scottish media appear to have an appetite for playing up dissention and giving a disproportionately loud voice to the less progressive wing of the Church – and by doing so are further paralysing an already impotent Kirk, unable to translate its broadly liberal attitudes and good intentions into progressive action.

The Church of Scotland will be making a decision at its General Assembly in May on same-sex relationships. Its actions will have ramifications for gay people both within and outside the Kirk, religious and irreligious. It can make a decision to tackle rampant homophobia or it can opt to succumb to the pressure of traditionalists (with the inevitable media reaction). But either way, it must finally take up a position.

Meanwhile, perhaps The Herald should give less attention to the spin and rhetoric of the traditionalists, and be a little more responsible in its use of statistics.

The life of a blogger

I’ve been blogging for a little over a year now, although I’ve only been doing so in earnest from around the time of the General Election.

In many respects, it’s been a truly liberating experience. Blogging represents an opportunity for self-expression, to release frustrations and also serves as an outlet for

As you may have noticed, my posts have become more regular over the last three months or so. The reason for this is simple: when I started blogging I wasn’t sure how good an idea it was, whether anyone would actually take the time to read it and whether it would in fact serve any positive purpose other than its therapeutic benefits on my part. Blogging started off as an occasional indulgence, which has since grown on me as time progressed.

It's not that I necessarily want to be noticed. I'm not that narcissistic. I don't imagine for a minute that there are many people out there who care one way or the other what I think. But I would like to contribute something to political discussion and promote liberalism - something which is not altogether easy when you live in a safe Labour constituency.

I enjoy writing. In fact, I love writing. I don’t envy people who write to live – I live to write. Looking at other Scottish blogs I was particularly impressed by some of the political blogs – notably Caron’s Musings, Cllr Fraser Macpherson, Lalland’s Peat Worrier and Go Lassie Go. These bloggers are so diverse and clearly write for different audiences, but they can be far more insightful than many political commentators and clearly offer perspectives the national media can not. I did not set out to emulate them, but felt that I could contribute something to Scotland’s expanding blogosphere and decided to create a blog in my own image.

I hope A Scottish Liberal not only addresses pertinent issues in Scottish, UK and world politics, but also communicates something of my own character and personality. I might not be as creative or as prolific as Caron. I am not as entertaining as Lalland’s Peat Worrier. And I genuinely envy the extraordinary journalistic ability of Joan McAlpine, even if I don’t always share her perspectives. But I trust that I am able to provide a slightly different take on matters – particularly on those (admittedly rare) occasions when I focus on local issues in Inverclyde – and allow readers to “eat at my table”, figuratively speaking of course.

My own view is that bloggers are online journalists and should be considered as such. Evidently, the quality of such journalism varies widely – but that isn’t the point. I can imagine that over the coming years the role of the political blog will broaden and become more socially significant as the public come to regard bloggers more seriously. I hope to be a part of this network of “new media”, and would invite others to come with me.

Perhaps the best part of blogging has been the way in which it has allowed me to connect with people in ways I wouldn’t have imagined. People I regard now as friends I have met through A Scottish Liberal. More significantly in recent weeks I have been humbled and delighted in equal measure by the number of people from Libya, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Egypt, the UAE, Jordan and Bahrain who have been reading my posts on events in North Africa. Whether these people take inspiration from my writing, I don’t know. What I do know is that literally a few weeks ago it would have been impossible for people in Egypt and Tunisia to have read anything online that was remotely critical of the regime – and yet now there are Egyptians and other North Africans and Arabs taking time to read my own thoughts on their struggle. It is sobering to say the least.

There’s a negative side to blogging of course. There’s only so much of being blamed for Nick Clegg’s supposed duplicity that I can really take! And it causes marital tensions too. Seriously! Apparently, I spend too long in front of a computer screen. Not to mention that my wife gets very angry at some of the websites I look at as part of my research, which she tells me are a corrupting influence. You know the kind of websites I mean. I tell her that it’s important to get a broader perspective and that I have to read Conservative Home and John Redwood’s Diary, but she doesn’t seem to understand.

It’s also nice to get a bit of encouragement now and again. Quite honestly, it can be quite depressing when you put a fair amount of energy and thought into a piece that no-one seems to be sufficiently appreciative to leave so much as a comment. A bit more feedback would be welcome.

There is a lot more to life than blogging. There’s also a lot more to life than politics. But just as I came to realise in my late teens that my political identity was a key part of my personal make-up, so too blogging is now an integral part of my life. And I wouldn’t change that for the world.