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!


neil craig said...

All of these would depend on their being some real significant disagreement on policy between the 5 parties. What would that be then?

Andrew said...

Hi Neil. Well, on one level you're correct - in order to have the kind of debate I advocate there have to be some key disagreements. These exist of course - take for example the future of the police service, which should be given a lot more in the way of column inches than the tired debate on independence. We could also consider the NHS, justice, the environment, local taxation and the economy as issues in which there is broad agreement in some respects but sharp division in others.

Ironically, what is also needed apart from significant disagreement is a consensus - not so much on policy as on action. So on the economy, it would be useful if instead of certain parties playing gesture politics and being anti-everything, arguing unrealistically against any "cuts to services" there would be a broad acceptance of the need for radical action and the emphasis could be on advocating practical solutions rather than simply apportioning blame to gain short-term political advantage.

I detest both tribal and personality-focused politics, being the kind of person more naturally interested in collaborative approaches to resolving difficulties (my background in mental health showing perhaps a bit too much). A shift towards more co-operative politics doesn't require sharp policy differences but a change of culture, among both politicians and the media. Why should Scottish politics be so tribal and adversarial?

Finally, in regards the media more accurately reflecting the political system, why is it so hard for the media to accept that Scotland is not a two-party system? It's not even a four party system and in the last few years we've seen groups as diverse as the SSP, Greens, SCUP and various independents entering Holyrood. Giving Patrick Harvie overdue respect is welcome, but doesn't detract from the reality that, for voters dependent on the Daily Record and the like for their information, this election is simply about Salmond and Gray.

neil craig said...

Well if the geographical lines of police adminstrative units, nothing about them on the ground, is the BIG issue I think my point is proven.

I would very much like some real debate on practical solutions to achieving growth. Ironically I was expelled from the LDs for suggesting precisely such traditional liberal policies (free markets & that ideology should not prevent us having an electricity supply). Such things are officially "too right wing" to even be discussed within the pseudoliberals. I pointed out that since devolution the Scot "Lib Dems" had never even discussed economic policy at conference, despite having had the "Enterprise" ministry. Since then the opinions of party members have been even more suppressed.

Which leaves only tribalism and what passes for personality.

I agree with you about media control. I would like to see UKIP getting asked onn air (at the election they got 4 times as many votes as the Greens but Patrick Harvie is on the BBC almost daily. That would certainly mean some real issues got aired - which is why we won't see it.

Andrew said...

Well, the big question about the future of the police service isn't about geographical lines. The Lib Dem position is fundamentally about maintaining a local dimension, attacking centralisation of public services and ensuring that the police remain as politically independent as possible.

I didn't know you were expelled from the Lib Dems, and not knowing the situation I can't possibly discuss it. I think the economy is one issue in which the party membership will generally take a centre-left "social" view rather than the classical liberal persepctive, but there should be a place in the party for people who think differently. I think the controversy surrounding the "Orange Bookers" and the playing up of divisions between "economic" and "social" liberals means that the leadership are likely to be sensitive wherever the economy is concerned. But I'm not sure it amounts to suppression of members' opinions.

"Triablism and what passes for personality" should have a minimum role in Scottish politics but to a great degree the media are responsible for this. Take George Galloway for example - he has a hugely disporportionate amount of coverage in contrast to, say, Margo Macdonald because he is supposedly a "character".

The more parties given coverage the better. It dismays me that at every election there are so many parties in the regional list that get not even a mention. How is this good for democracy? Obviosuly the leaders' debates need to be limited to five or six at the most but the likes of UKIP and a host of "minor parties" should have the opportunity to promote themselves and be challenged by the national media in any functioning democracy.

neil craig said...

If you think that is big enough to be the "big question" of the election we will have to agree to disagree.

My point was that "tribalism and personality" get covered precisely because there are no bigger issues in dispute between the official parties & the media are not directly responsible for that.

However I do entirely agree that the media, or rather their controlers, are responsible for "small" parties, apart from the ever publicised Greens (& arguably George) being kept invisible.

I have argued that the refusal of the media to broadcast formal debates on subjects of real interest cannot be explained as anything but deliberate censorship to prevent democracy rearing its head. The fact that nobody in the media is able to dispute it tends to confirm it.

Andrew said...

Hi again Neil,

I didn't suggest the future of the police service was THE "big issue", just an example of an area where there is significant disagreement between the parties (OK, between the Lib Dems/Greens and the others). It is A big issue though, especially in rural communities, but I wouldn't suggest it is the main one. There are other differences between party positions of course although strangely Iain Gray seems to have decided to back some of the SNP's more popular policies very late in the day.

I broadly agree with your views on the media and its role in promoting democracy. The Greens get a fair bit of coverage although I think it is important to include them in TV debates. The likes of Jean Turner and John Swinbourne never received the level of attention they merited and when the coverage Tommy Sheridan receives is compared with the invisibility of the SCUP, UKIP, the Socialist Labour Party and various other parties whose only chance to get their message out is at election time it demonstrates a significant dereliction of duty on the part of the press.

I was never convinced about formal debates (thinking them too "American" and likely to play up the importance of personality politics) until the TV leaders' debates before the GE last year. For all their shortcomings, the public were captivated and were openly and actively discussing policy issues on twitter, facebook and...well, everywhere really. The focus on Clegg was unhelpful but it did help to define clearly where parties stood on the "subjects of real interest".

Then came the coalition agreement to muddy the waters...

Given the terrible start to campaigning here (with the Tories' problems over alleged selection malpractice and the Lib Dems losing Hugh O'Donnell) there seems little chance to discuss these areas of "real interest". It's not simply the fault of the media, that would be too glib a thing to say. But the press isn't likely to report on the differences in e.g. taxation policy when there are "juicier" stories about vote-rigging and back-stabbing. Democracy is the poorer for it.