Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Scottish Manifesto Watch: the Green Party

Personally, I’m disappointed that Patrick Harvie has been excluded from the leaders’ debates. The Green Party have, over the last twelve years in Holyrood, made a significant contribution to political debate in Scotland. They bring something to our democracy. It’s only right – in my view – that Harvie should be given the same opportunity as the other leaders to get his message across, as well as to be tested and asked tough questions.

I could understand Salmond being excluded from the General Election leaders’ debates, because his party were standing in only a small number of the UK seats. Most people in Britain wouldn’t have been able to vote for him. But it’s different for Harvie because every voter in Scotland can vote Green on the regional list and I’m surprised that Alex Salmond, with his supposed concern for democracy and inclusion, hasn’t made more of a fuss about the Greens’ absence from the debates.

The Greens have managed, quite effectively, to put across their message via the media and their manifesto has been generally well-received. So what does it have to say? What solutions to the Greens have for Scotland’s problems?

As ever, the positives first. I really like to tone of this manifesto. There’s a lot in it that my liberal instincts sympathise with. There are some sound recommendations on areas such as the environment, tackling climate change, education and public services. It’s also very positive, depicting a Scotland that we might actually want to live in. Intrigued? Read on...

The Greens commit to “education that’s free for all, based on the ability to learn not the ability to pay, and funded from general taxation; to investment in cutting household energy bills in every community in Scotland; and the willingness to introduce fair, progressive taxation to pay for these policies and others.” I wholeheartedly agree with the thrust of this, although what the Greens mean by “progressive taxation” may not necessarily concur with my definition of “progressive”

The manifesto leads with “an alternative to public service cuts”. Unlike the far-left parties, the Greens aren’t deficit deniers. They are appreciative of the need to get to grips with Labour’s legacy of national debt. But they say that “the size of the deficit is no excuse for social vandalism.” The alternative to cuts? The Greens want to “invest in a low-carbon economy... introduce a Land Value Tax at just over 3p in the pound to replace Council Tax, and 8p in the pound to replace business rates. [They’ll also] combine income tax and LVT to make Scottish tax policy fairer...” They also believe that using the Scottish Variable Rate (SVR), in conjunction with other tax measures, will raise nearly £5billion which can be invested in Scotland’s public transport and universities.

I’m almost in agreement with them. I salute the Greens for proposing the land value tax. While it is not Lib Dem policy, many liberals have been promoting this for some time and there are definite advantages this has over the localised income tax. Much of this is positive and the ideas behind it are certainly to be welcomed. Here is a party that, unlike Labour who simply snipe from the sidelines, actually have a considered alternative to what the UK and Scottish governments have been doing. In calling for tax rises to fund increased public spending the Greens are being intellectually honest: lower taxation and increased public spending are mutually incompatible.

However, I’m not quite convinced by the argument that SVR would only affect the higher earners. The Lib Dems have promoted (and are delivering) tax fairness through gradually increasing the threshold at which income tax is paid to £10,000. SVR , however, would surely apply to those at the bottom of the income tax ladder and I’m not sure the sums actually add up: the Greens talk about higher rate earners paying £15 per month extra in tax – I’m not sure how many such people there are in Scotland but I can’t see them bringing in the required £5billion. I’m sure there’s been some serious number crunching but this doesn’t appear in the manifesto and £5billion simply looks like an arbitrary figure.

The Greens make the same mistake as the far left in asserting that modern governments should replicate the reforming Labour government of 1945-51: “the government of Clement Atlee [sic] was faced with a larger budget deficit than exists today, but instead of pursuing a short-term market-first agenda they made it their priority to tackle the ‘Giant Evils’ of their society. Want, squalor, idleness, ignorance and disease were targetted and the foundations of the modern welfare state were laid.” There remain giant evils of inequality, social deprivation, child poverty and unemployment, which urgently require solutions. But what the Greens fail to realise is that the Labour government of 1945-51 funded its ambitious programme by taking out a loan from the USA. The terms of the Anglo-American Loan were so harsh that it was not fully paid off until December 2006. Following a world war, it was necessary to go down this route to rebuild our country. However, in the aftermath of a recession I’m not sure we should really be looking at mortgaging the futures of our grandchildren, which was the only way Attlee managed to deal with the “larger budget deficit”. And, lest we forget, the 1945-51 years represented a period of real austerity, not a golden era of plenty.

Moving on and the Greens make some welcome noises on empowering local communities: they want to decentralise and devolve democratic control to the most local level possible. The Greens aim to introduce a Common Good Act which would “transfer assets to community control, hold at least 10% of land in regeneration areas [and] support investment in community-owned revenue generating activity such as renewable energy, recycling and community work hubs.” This is a useful suggestion that sits well with my liberal inclinations. It has real merit and should be considered by any incoming government.

They want to back local businesses and observe that “empty office space in our town centres can be transformed into the seeds of a nationwide network of community work hubs. Having more people working locally would relieve pressures on our transport infrastructure, have a positive impact on carbon emissions and bring life back to our local communities.” In pledging to “protect” the Post Office, the Greens promise to “turning them into viable businesses with ‘one-stop’ access to a wider range of public services and agencies.” I have no objection to these proposals, although there are no simple solutions to ensuring the future of the Post Office network. The Greens should also have enough understanding to be able to distinguish between Royal Mail and Post Office Limited when proposing remedies.

There is some positive substance on creating a more sustainable economy. The Greens promise “an end to property speculation”. As someone who has grave concerns about an economy based on speculation rather than production, and who doesn’t feel ever-increasing house prices are good for Scotland’s economy, I like this idea. The LVT could have a positive effect, but there’s a painful lack of detail about how the evil of speculation can be eradicated altogether. They also promise to reform financial services, moving on from “the failed financial model of the past” and onto an approach that “supports young people to see their creative ideas for small businesses turned into reality.”

The Greens’ manifesto is good in the areas you’d expect it to be good – they aim to increase public and community ownership of green energy projects, while pressing for 100% of Scotland's domestic electricity to be renewable by 2020. They want to export clean energy to our neighbours. They oppose new coal and nuclear power stations. They advocate action on climate change. And they promote increased investment in public transport and, in particular, new electric transport. All sound, sensible ideas I wouldn’t possibly disagree with.

They’re also one of the few parties to say something positive about animal welfare, advocating a complete ban of snares and a new Animal Welfare Unit.

The Greens have the right views on education, arguing that free Further and Higher Education is necessary for the good of society. Unfortunately, however, the Greens don’t say enough about improving access to Further Education. The debate about delivering a fit-for-purpose education system has to be wider than how tuition is paid for. The sentiment from the Greens is fine, but there’s not a lot of detail in how they would actually improve Scottish education.

What else have they to say? They’ll oppose the market-driven agenda of the NHS. Good. They want a free and locally based NHS. Who doesn’t, apart from the Tories? Unlike Labour, who are supporting the merging of health and social care services, the Greens simply say that “we’ll only support change if it benefits the quality of the service.” Which is the sensible approach. There may be some merit in this idea and the gap certainly needs bridging, but I personally haven’t yet seen enough evidence to make my mind up either way. The Greens want to improve the quality of food in hospitals and do more in providing advocacy, something I passionately believe in. There are some excellent proposals on changing the alcohol culture and a welcome emphasis on societal health. But nothing on mental health? Or cancer? Or on improving staffing levels? Or dentistry? Or more effective use of pharmacists? Neither is there anything explicit on moving towards a more preventative system of care.

The Greens talk a lot of sense when it comes to crime prevention. I applaud their zero tolerance policy towards “crimes based on prejudice like sectarianism, racism, homophobia, and misogyny”. Like the Lib Dems, they emphasise the importance of preventing crime and are opposed to a single Scottish police force. However, in some respects they go further, “putting mediation and restorative justice at the heart of the system” and promoting environmental justice.

Some other details I found interesting: the commitment to Fair Trade and an internationalist Scotland. I am delighted the Greens do not feel the same need for small-minded nationalism as the SNP or the far-left parties. Like myself, they are internationalist rather than inward-looking and want an EU that works effectively rather than in the interests of elites and bureaucrats. I am also pleased that they are keen to promote the rights of asylum seekers.

This is a manifesto I really like. There is clearly a lot of common ground between the Greens and my own political views. The main difference is that the Greens are evidently keen for people to take on board their opposition to spending cuts – any spending cuts. I find it regrettable they’re playing the unrealistic “no cuts to jobs and services” card because there is a need to tackle the budget deficit – my only concern is that we do it responsibly, being mindful of the potential human consequences. At least the Greens are saying there’s a need to increase taxation to pay for improved public services (whether that is positive during a recession is another matter) but in doing so they make themselves look like yet another tax-and-spend party. And I’m not convinced the sums add up, although I’m happy to change this view if someone from the Green Party can provide some detailed statistical analysis.

On health and NHS reform I feel there’s some positive rhetoric but insufficient detail. They could have put forward a more positive agenda for delivering better health. The omission of any pledge for action on mental health is regrettable and I can not take seriously a strategy for improving our nation’s well-being which does not even refer to the challenges of tackling mental ill-health.

Overall though, I like the positivity as well as some of the forward looking, creative and localist ideas contained within it. For me, there is a huge question mark about whether such an ambitious programme can be afforded, but the Greens are at least being innovative and have a manifesto that clearly defines their ideology and vision.

Lies, Damned Lies and Alex Salmond

Sometimes, it's good to remember that there's a lot to like about some of our political opponents. Participating in local hustings, I've noticed there are many areas of shared policy with other parties, most notably the SNP. There is much in the SNP manifesto that I can relate to as a liberal; there are also figures within the SNP who I have a great deal of respect for, even if I don't always see eye to eye with them.

I have enormous respect for Alex Salmond but I don't always take to him. I admit he is a highly capable leader and has had his successes during his time at First Minister. I think it's his personal style and presidential approach I find exasperating; even when I agree with him I can't help but find him arrogant. That in itself is a realtively small issue. I know Salmond can be a clever operator and adept and manipulating situations to his advantage. But I had more respect for him than to imagine he would resort to flagrant deception to further his electoral chances.

The antics of the Tories and the "No2AV" campaign have been bad enough. Their misinformation about AV could well result in legal action and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. By all means, champion the cause of the electoral system you prefer. Play up its merits. But resorting to fear, negativity and blatant untruth to undermine your opposition is not acceptable. It's not fair, it's not clever. And it shouldn't be right, although it seems that the Electoral Commission have never considered extending the laws governing election campaigning to referenda. So maybe the Tories can say whatever they like - such as AV would result in the England football team being regularly trounced by Andorra and Liechtenstein - and get away with it.

Now, back to Alex Salmond. This morning I was having a conversation with some Green activists and another friend who seems a little confused by the three seperate ballot forms. We were all angry about Salmond's suggesting - OK, insistence - that the second Holyrood vote (the Regional List) is a personal vote for First Minister. It was bad enough last time around when the SNP were allowed to stand using the description "Alex Salmond for First Minister". It was potentially confusing but it could have been argued that this is just evidence of the SNP's determination to fight the election in a presidential-style way.

This time round, Salmond has actually stated categorically that the second vote is for electing Scotland's First Minister. It isn't and he knows it isn't. This isn't being a little disingenuous or economical with the truth. It's a blatant lie.

The SNP are usually good at maximising the regional vote so why they have to resort to such dishonesty I don't know. But Salmond shouldn't be allowed to get away with peddling such blatant misinformation in a shamefully cynical attempt to manipulate the vote. The regional list gives voters a chance to vote for multiple regional MSPs via the Additional Member System, which being a roughly proportional system has in the past delivered several members from parties such as the Greens, the SSP and the Senior Citizens' Unity Party. And Margo Macdonald. Clearly Salmond is so terrified at the prospect of our democratic system resulting in the Greens gaining a respectable number of MSPs that he is happy to undermine democracy by intentionally misleading voters.

Professor John Curtice argues that the election will be won or lost via the regional list, which is not an unreasonable assumption. Many constituencies will not change hands, which is why “the SNP is trying to put it in layman’s terms by saying the regional vote is a vote for First Minister and the constituency vote is for your local MSP.” But such "layman's terms" are devious and deceptive.

I appreciate that for some people, like my friend who is not particularly political but values his democratic right, the Scottish electoral system is difficult to grasp. Having the First Minister confuse it further by indicating that one ballot form is for voting for the next FM is irresponsible and fraudulent. Someone who might want to vote Green or SSP but prefers Alex Salmond to Iain Gray will be likely to vote SNP in the regional list, while the minor parties are again squeezed. This isn't democracy.

An SNP activist told me that my concern shows that "London parties are panicking". No, it doesn't. The Greens and the SSP can not realistically be described as "London Parties". And my main concern is for Scottish democracy and for Scottish voters to be empowered to vote according to their consciences rather than manipulated into voting for a party they might not actually support.

Alex Salmond should apologise for attempting to mislead the public. Scottish people deserve better from someone who, after all, is the political leader of our country. This lie is every inch as bad as anything coming out of "No2AV" in recent weeks. The worst thing is that I really would have expected more from him.

Caron has commented on this in a rather amusing post: Oh, Alex, you're so vain, you probably think this blog is about you - but the Regional Ballot is not

Monday, 25 April 2011

Senior Lib Dems slam Tory “lies”

Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg have turned on the Conservatives and their dishonesty in respect to their claims about AV.

Firstly, Clegg rocked the coalition boat in an interview with The Independent in which he raged against the “death rattle of a right-wing elite, a right-wing clique who want to keep things the way they are”. Comparing the views of the respective party leaders towards electoral reform, he opined that one one side you’d have him, “Ed Miliband, Caroline Lucas, Nigel Farage, Alex Salmond and Ieuan Wyn Jones (Plaid Cymru leader). The other side, you'd have David Cameron, (BNP) Nick Griffin and whoever leads the Communist Party. Now that tells you volumes about the very reactionary interests that are defending the indefensible."

Clegg’s anger is understandable. Firstly, he’s been unfairly singled out by the “No” campaign, who have sought to turn the referendum question into a vote of confidence in Nick Clegg. Then we had the unnecessary campaign of fear and misinformation: the myth that AV is just too complicated for British voters; that a “No” vote would somehow fund new maternity units; that AV is undemocratic and would create instability; that a new voting system would require expensive counting equipment. SDLP councillor Niall Kelly today rubbished this last claim on Twitter with a link to a rather entertaining demonstration of the kind of equipment AV actually needs.

Huhne has also gone on the attack, going as far as to suggest the Tories could face “legal redress”. As today’s Guardian reports, Huhne “is concerned about two claims made by the Conservatives – that a move to AV will need new counting machines, and so cost as much as £250m, and that it will favour extremist parties. He said: ‘If they don’t come clean on this, I am sure the law courts will. Australia’s used [AV] for 80 years without ever using voting machines. If they can’t substantiate that, there’s simple legal redress. They had better come clean pretty fast.’”

It’s not surprising that senior Lib Dems have retaliated to the blatant mistruths being peddled by the Tories. The unwritten agreement that Cameron would not be involved in the “No” campaign seems to have been forgotten by the PM, which won’t have pleased his Lib Dem cabinet colleagues. But Cameron’s interference does not in itself account for the unusually aggressive responses from Clegg and Huhne. What is really surprising it’s the language Nick Clegg is using to describe those only months ago he claimed to be working exceptionally well with.

As Huhne explained to the BBC: “It is frankly worrying if you have colleagues, who you have respected and who you have worked well with, who are making claims which have no foundation in truth whatsoever. If they don’t come clean on this, I am sure the law courts will. It is going to undermine the credibility of colleague ministers – the prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer and the foreign secretary [William Hague] – if they use repeatedly allegations that have no foundation in truth whatsoever.” He’s right of course. I’m sick of right-wing Tories and their dishonesty over AV – just today Iain Dale was alleging hypocrisy on the part of a Lib Dem MP who had championed AV “to make MPs work harder”. Why? Because today the MP in question was at a football match. Ridiculous? Yes. But this comes from an intelligent and respected blogger who really should know better.

In the past few weeks, tensions and disagreements have become more obvious on a range of issues including the future of the NHS. Vince Cable and Simon Hughes have also been critical voices in recent days. Some may speculate that this is the beginning of the end and that the coalition will soon unravel. I don’t buy this, but I admit that it’s highly irregular to be threatening legal action against fellow cabinet colleagues. In fact, it's virtually unprecedented in modern politics. That Clegg and Huhne have been so forthright in their attacks indicates that the concern within the party is very real and not simply pre-election posturing.

That’s not to say that there is not some opportunism in play here; I don’t doubt for a moment that the pending elections and referendum have influenced the timing and nature of the criticisms. But the tensions are genuine and stem from real frustrations that will have a bearing on the working relationships in cabinet. Further comments from Clegg yesterday, this time on the injustice of internships and Cameron’s apparent relaxed attitude towards them, underlines this. This isn’t simply cynical electioneering.

Is this the death knell for the coalition? No. There is no irreparable schism. But relationships will have been damaged and trust will have been lost. And if “legal redress” is pursued, existing tensions will be heightened to such a level as to render co-operation on certain matters virtually impossible.

As for Clegg and Huhne, at least they’ve put paid to that other myth – that Lib Dem ministers lack backbone. In standing up to the Tories over internships, the NHS and the campaign of misinformation that is No2AV, the party leadership has shown the kind of courage demanded by party activists tired of Clegg’s apparent timidity. Whether this will have any significant effect on the Lib Dems’ poll ratings or the long-term success of the coalition remains to be seen. Neither seems likely but the latter is certainly more probable than the former.

Scottish Manifesto Watch: the Conservatives

Annabel Goldie’s party have launched their manifesto, entitled Common Sense for Scotland. In it, Ms Goldie looks to credit the Conservatives with significant achievements over the course of the last parliament and argues that her “credible and costed” manifesto will “support families, create jobs, provide opportunity, keep our communities safe and promote a greener Scotland.”

The manifesto leads positively with a focus on growing Scotland’s economy and creating jobs. The Tories feel that the only way of moving forward is to have a pro-business government in Holyrood. I am uncomfortable with this; not because I feel developing business is unimportant but because the solution is unimaginative and is too similar to the failed Conservative policies of the past. The remedy for unemployment and economic stagnation is the usual mix of private sector devotion and pro-business policy.

The chief points on which I would express criticism are the Tories’ commitment to “legislating to ensure that the main Business Rate poundage can be no higher than in England”, the pledge to establish a business-led review of the planning system (with all the inevitable conflicts of interest), the establishment of a private sector group to “deliver a wholesale rationalisation” in relation to Scottish tourism and the insistence on “leveraging additional private investment” as the means by which to improve Scotland’s rail services. I’m not convinced that the Tories’ dogmatic position of opposing re-regulation of bus services is necessarily in passengers’ interests: it depends on the level and type of regulation being proposed. It also seems inconsistent that a party is so keen to “continue the Edinburgh-Glasgow Rail Improvement Programme” while refusing further investment in Edinburgh’s tram project on the basis that it is “delayed [and] over budget.”

There are some positives, though. The Tories are right to promote Scottish tourism and to be looking at ways of developing it. The proposed “Year Round Tourism Strategy” could well be a useful initiative and the consideration of a new Scottish Tourism Investment Bank, based on an Austrian concept, may have a positive impact in helping tourism-based businesses raise finance. Expanding the scope of rural business rate reliefs could make a huge difference to rural communities, while extending the Business Gateway should help support Scottish enterprise more generally. It’s clear the Conservatives are trying to advocate workable solutions, but their problem is they’re ideologically trapped and lack the imagination to propose anything but aggressive pro-market and pro-business policies. They’re unable to make even a basic recommendation such as improving enterprise education without progressing towards the ham-fisted approach of “making it compulsory to offer [such] training at all colleges and universities” and while they identify many real issues, too many of their other “solutions” depend on giving disproportionate power to the business community.

Onto their proposals on reforming public services, and the Tories are championing “local, accountable leadership” by “giving people the chance to have a powerful, elected provost by holding referenda in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee.” Yes, that’s just what Scottish people are calling out for. Quite how that will empower communities living in Scotland’s major cities is a question the Tories don’t want to answer. They also have ideas for increasing the role of the voluntary sector in providing local services. I’m not necessarily opposed to this, especially as many charities have expert local knowledge and strong local connections. But I’m critical about the process being proposed, especially one so geared towards a payment by results system. I also have concerns about the quality of public services if any new “bidding system” simply gives contracts to the independent provider most able to offer services as cheaply as possible.

The pro-business agenda again comes to the fore with the Tories insisting that local authorities must subject road maintenance work to competitive tender. They also propose giving councils financial incentives to “share services” but don’t specify how this would work in practice.

Again there are some positives, such as allocating budgets to community councils, opening “council counters” at Post Offices and protecting the concessionary bus pass. However, there is too little creativity in the Tories’ thinking and on crucial issues they return to their Thatcherite philosophy.

On schools reform, the Tories actually begin to talk the “common sense” they are so keen to profess. They support the recommendations of the Donaldson Report which argued for career-long teacher education, and want fewer barriers to teacher recruitment. The Conservatives commit to supporting the principles of the Curriculum for Excellence while they also want to “encourage greater cooperation between different schools so that there is more opportunity for pupils to gain access to the Higher and the Advanced Higher courses.” They propose a flexible curriculum structure that allows for young people to gain an education appropriate to their particular skills and abilities. All this is positive and welcome. What is less so is the Tories’ blinkered view that Scottish pupils should decide at the age of 14 whether they want “an academically-focussed path from S2 onwards or a more vocationally-focused path”. Firstly, I found it moderately amusing that the genius suggesting that basic literacy sills are being lost doesn't know how to spell the past participle of the verb focus. More importantly, the proposal to allow 14-years olds to leave school to follow a vocational route might appear to have some merit, but it is short-sighted and will result in a two-tier education system along the lines of the discredited grammar school/secondary modern model. Any future education policy must accept that individuals learn in different styles at different paces and cannot simply be categorised into being either “academic” or “vocational”. I don’t want to see our young people placed into such arbitrary “boxes” or for those as young as 14 making such enormous decisions about their future professional development. Why the Tories are unable see the merits of simply increasing the provision of vocational education in schools I’m not sure – there are social as well as educational benefits to remaining in school beyond the age of 14.

As for their plans for Universities and Colleges, the Conservatives are committed to a graduate tax and “support greater private sector cooperation and investment in the university sector.” No surprises there. Unfortunately, they have absolutely nothing specific to say on the future of Further Education and the only part of their strategy on education I could agree with is the suggestion for increased co-operation between universities.

What do the Scottish Conservatives have to say about the NHS? They don’t have much to say on the matter of mental health, other than the observation that “mental health services have also been given insufficient attention by policymakers”. However, they don’t tell us what they would do to improve NHS mental health services. They pledge to protect health spending, reintroduce prescription charges and introduce a new Cancer Drugs Fund of up to £10million. There is the predictable emphasis on increased use of the private sector and the need to review the NHS structure, essentially promoting a more centralised NHS.

Most concerning is the assumption that “The ultimate responsibility for an individual’s good health rests with them personally. It is up to the individual to take an interest in their own healthcare and make appropriate lifestyle choices for their own wellbeing.” That is great in theory; in reality not everyone has either the understanding or the economic freedom to make good lifestyle choices. The choices available to some are far more limited than they are for others. Unfortunately the Tories express few ideas in respect to empowering people to make better health choices.

The Tories feel that the best way to improve faith in Scotland’s justice system is to re-introduce prison sentences of less than 3 months so that "custody can be used instead of community service where appropriate” They’re also supporting tougher community sentences and insist that offenders carrying out community roles should wear a high-visibility jacket at all times; a socially irresponsible sop to populism that can be interpreted as a sign of disgrace or a badge of honour depending on your perspective. Quite how this would lead to effective rehabilitation is anyone’s guess. Like Labour, the Tories also peddle the myth that the SNP have been inactive on knife crime, but this is completely untrue and the No Knives, Better Lives scheme is actually achieving results.

The Tories pledge to “end automatic early release so that more offenders are actually spending more of their sentence behind bars being rehabilitated and punished.” Of course, offenders can only be rehabilitated in our antiquated prisons where drugs are easily available...

Interestingly, the Conservatives promise to reform legal aid. I would like to comment further on this, but they don’t outline any of the detail of their plan.

Returning to the politics of the Thatcher era, Ms Goldie’s party aim to “help families get homes” by reinstating a modernised “right to buy”. Home ownership clearly remains the be-all-and-end-all for the Tories who still refuse to accept that the right to buy has been a disaster for some communities. At least they are advocating using right-to-buy receipts to built more social housing, but will sales of local authority houses in more rural communities be reinvested in that locality?

The Tories have some positive things to say about improving local environment and their idea for a Town Centre Regeneration Fund certainly has merit. The manifesto has some equally welcome sections on reducing energy consumption and a greener energy policy, but it is let down by being too nuclear-friendly.

All in all, this was an uninspiring, uninventive and entirely predictable contribution from the Scottish Conservatives. It was also a wasted opportunity for them to move on from the destructive Tory policies of the past. To give them credit where it is due, there is some effort to deal with the difficulties in which Scotland finds itself and the attempts to facilitate economic growth and improve secondary education show they recognise the key priorities of any incoming government. However, it is one thing to understand the question, quite another to have the answers. On the basis of Common Sense for Scotland, the Scottish Tories have fewer of the right answers than QI’s Alan Davies.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Scottish Manifesto Watch: The Lib Dems

Now that the Scottish parties have published their respective manifestos, I’ve decided to read through them and take a look at what each of them is actually promising – and how they plan to do it.

Let’s kick off with our own. The Scottish Liberal Democrats manifesto, originally entitled Scottish Liberal Democrats Manifesto 2011, places a welcome emphasis on jobs and economic growth, excellent in education and keeping services local. In his introduction, Tavish Scott states he wants to “cut red tape, invest in apprenticeships for young people, colleges and universities, and find new ways to get money to small businesses starved of finance.” He also wants to find ways in which teachers can be given “space and freedom to innovate, inspire and encourage Scotland's next generation.” He also speaks out against the proposed national police force, maintaining that “the Scottish Liberal Democrats will stop the centralising power grab that the other parties want”.

So far, so good. The focus on facilitating solutions is welcome, particularly in regards education. Some of the solutions being put forward are genuinely innovative, such as the Early Intervention Revolution aimed at ensuring the best start in education for every child. Similarly the Science Nation Action Plan has the potential to inspire our young people to pursue careers in science and equip them with the skills required in a competitive international jobs market. I am naturally pleased that the Scottish Lib Dems have committed themselves to “fair access [to Higher Education] with no tuition fees and no graduate contribution”. But even more pleasing is that the debate has moved on from the narrow emphasis on tuition fees and onto facilitating outstanding educational opportunities for all: the Lib Dems realise that “university is not the right route for everyone” and want investment in Further Education and apprenticeships. The Higher and Further Education Action Plan looks at ways to actually reform the system and create a fit for purpose education system while increasing “the number of poorer students who have access to higher education”. There is little I can disagree with in the plan, but there should be more initiatives to help people retrain, reskill and change careers – something that isn’t mentioned in the manifesto.

Onto the plans for job creation and the Lib Dems “have ambitious plans to bring new jobs and a new prosperity to Scotland, focusing every strand of government on boosting economic growth.” All very good and something I’d wholeheartedly agree with. But how do we do that? The manifesto outlines the jobs that could be created in renewable energy, with the scope for “over 28,000 jobs in offshore wind power, 5,000 in wave and tidal power and 10,000 from carbon capture and storage technology. Super-fast broadband can produce 20,000 jobs...” All in all the Lib Dems believe that 100,000 new jobs can be created in renewables and conservation, regional development banks, the creative and science industries and transport. The problem is, as the manifesto itself admits, that commercial banks are not offering sufficient support to business and so the party is promoting an ambitious Jobs and Growth Strategy.

The Lib Dems promise Regional Development Banks to replace the admittedly complicated existing enterprise networks. They advocate a Digital Economy Action Plan to ensure that Scotland’s technological industries move at the same rate as those from overseas. The Lib Dems seem to like their Action Plans, and also have formulated similar plans to stimulate investment in arts and culture (the Most Creative Country Action Plan) and one aimed at championing innovation in business and supporting local industry (the Better Procurement Action Plan). As if that wasn’t enough, they’re also promoting the self-explanatory Cutting Regulation Action Plan and the much more exciting-sounding Preventing a Lost Generation Action Plan, which aims to “make sure that young people are not left behind by the economic recovery simply because they finished school, college or university in the depths of economic recession”. I’m personally supportive of my party’s determination to declare war on unemployment and the short-term objectives are sensible and practical, but a little more detail about a longer-term approach would have been useful.

More Action Plans...have you got the general feel of this yet?... The Climate Change Action Plan correctly focuses on the urgency of the challenge facing Scotland. The manifesto states that the “first priority is to take substantial action on energy efficiency”, promising £250 million from the Investing in Scotland’s Future Fund to accelerate massively the insulation of homes and buildings in Scotland while “working with the Carbon Trust and the Energy Saving Trust to provide a single streamlined model for the delivery of energy efficiency in Scotland.” The Lib Dems predictably support an increase in the use of renewable energy, promise low-carbon investment and oppose the construction of new nuclear power plants. They also promise to reduce car dependency and argue this can be achieved though a Transport Action Plan to support public transport and improve social inclusion. Oh, and they’ll keep the Scottish Bus Pass as well.

The Lib Dems’ Crime Reduction Action Plan concentrates on keeping communities safe, keeping policing local and ensuring reforming prisons to prevent re-offending. In line with their commitment to creating a liberal society, they also have a rather fascinating Liberalism Action Plan. I like the emphasis on fairness. I dislike the prospect of payment-by-results in public services, which was tried in the NHS in England and has simply created competition between the NHS and the private sector – and in some cases between different NHS trusts. That's not the kind of approach we want in Scotland's publci services.

Finally, I’ll finish with the Lib Dems’ position on health improvement– which is formulated into, you’ve guessed it, the Better Health Action Plan. It pledges earlier detection for stroke, cancer and heart disease. It advocates preventative rather than reactive treatment. There is also a very welcome commitment to tackling mental ill-health with a pledge to “improve the provision of mental health services, increase access to psychological and emotional support and reduce waiting times for psychological treatments and talking therapies.” That would make a huge difference - and I'm talking as someone who works in mental health. The Lib Dems also plan to improve support to carers and have an ambitious and sound Drugs and Alcohol Action Plan, but I see that the party’s position in the General Election towards minimum pricing for alcohol has been softened - something I note with some regret.

On the whole, I like our party’s manifesto. It is distinctively Scottish, promotes polices diametrically opposed to some of what the Westminster coalition is doing, and emphasises the need to create jobs. Its mood is positive but realistic, is solutions-driven and promotes pragmatic alternatives to the other parties, especially on policing and crime prevention – key issues in any voter’s mind. I was speaking yesterday to a voter who claimed that Tavish Scott is “irrelevant”; I’m not sure they only party leader who is supporting Scotland’s police officers’ call to retain regional forces can be dismissed so flippantly.

There are some small points on which I would disagree and there is, unfortunately, a lack of detail on key issues – most obviously on the number of new jobs. For example, will the Regional Development Banks create 10,000 new jobs or simply redeploy many of the people already working in Scotland’s various enterprise agencies? The manifesto doesn’t say explicitly, but it’s an important distinction. It doesn’t in my view go far enough on “green” issues, but I will accept the plans to combat climate change as a positive starting point for a future strategy of sustainability and welcome the stated aim of working collaboratively with groups possessing expertise in this field.

All in all though, it’s a positive declaration of intent from a party committed to finding realistic solutions to the challenges facing Scotland. Of course I would say that, I already hear you say. In that case, read it yourself and make your own mind up – and feel free to post your comments, criticisms and observations!

Over the next few days I will be examining the manifestos of the SNP, Labour, the Conservatives, the SSP, Solidarity, the Scottish Greens and the best of the rest. There is a lot in many of them that I agree with, a bit that I don’t and some that I find simply fascinating!

Friday, 22 April 2011

The role of Trade Unions

The major influences in my political development have been a personal lack of opportunity, football, the church and trade unionism (not necessarily in that order).

Another key influence was Margaret Thatcher. I grew up in the 1980s and while political philosophies take some time to formulate I always knew I could never be a Tory. My political conscience was probably determined by issues such as the miners' strike and the destruction of industry. I owe Mrs Thatcher a great deal, although I have no wish to meet her to thank her personally. I'm sure I'm not the only Liberal Democrat whose political motivations were decided by the negative legacy of the Thatcher era.

It will therefore probably come as no surprise that I have been a believer in trade unionism for far longer than I've been a believer in partisan electoral politics. Some people have called me a communist - fortunately there's never been sufficient evidence to convict me on that score. No, I'm not a "leftie" but I'm a union member and I've been proud to have been active within UNISON and for several years served as a workplace representative. On one level, union work dictated my political views to a much greater degree than other influences. It meant that I developed an inclination towards collaborative and co-operative approaches, preferring conflict resolution and facilitating solutions for my members and service users to the narrow politics of tribalism.

I am a member of Unite and the Liberal Democrat Association of Trade Unionists. It was therefore with pleasure that I accepted an invitation to attend the Paisley TUC Hustings on Tuesday evening.

The event itself was perhaps of little interest to the wider public. It demonstrated that there remain those whose only interest in politics is to antagonise and abuse. It was also a reminder that tribalist attitudes die hard and that simplistic populism is often the easiest means of winning public support.

However, I decided not to put forward a policy pitch as other candidates did but instead focused on my personal vision for the role of trade unions. I explained I wanted a Scotland in which the unions would inform and direct the political conversation, and in which they would help shape the public services agenda of the incoming government. I don't want my union, or any other, to be simply an expression for angst and opportunistic oppositional protest. Instead, I want it to be a dynamic organism of progressive change, working closely (if not necessarily co-operatively) with the new government to put forward positive ideas for reforming services and social policy.

After all, who knows most about the needs of nurses - the RCN or politicians? Who can most authoritatively speak up for our public sector workers - UNISON or the government? It's obvious that unions can and should make a more significant contribution towards Scottish politics than offering blind, uncritical support to Labour.

I believe unions should have greater freedom to play this role. That might make me sound like a socialist, but it shouldn't. I actually think it's extremely liberal to propose that unnecessary limits on trade union expression should be eradicated. In a democratic and liberal society, freedom of expression is of paramount importance. I would like far more consultation between unions and government - and, for that matter, more dialogue between government and other pressure groups and voluntary organisations.

In the last few weeks I have received many "manifestos" from various organisations urging prospective MSPs to support their objectives on a range of issues. Many ideas within these manifestos are creative, imaginative, practical and well-researched. It is stimulating to engage with organisations who want a conversation about how best to facilitate change. I really like talking to such people and I'm genuinely interested in what they have to say. Unfortunately, it seems that none of the unions has seen fit to put together its own "manifesto" or to take the opportunity to advicate their own policy vision for Scotland and lobby would-be MSPs. I can only imagine why not...

I believe trade unions should be given increased opportunity to adopt a greater role in helping to set the political agenda, but I should add that with such opportunity comes responsibility - responsibility to serve both their members and the country. Like political parties, they have to identify with the public rather than allow themselves to be dominated by a small but vocal minority. And increased dialogue, which is obviously preferable to open hostility, means increased accountability.

As a union member, a political activist and someone who cares deeply for Scottish democracy I would like to see our unions more proactive in empowering the public, influencing policy and widening the appeal of politics. Unions can be a force for enabling Scots to make a stand rather than looking to politicians to do everything for them. I would like to see union laws relaxed to allow for new approaches where government can work with organisations, communities and workers rather than for them. It's about creating a new inclusive approach to government. That is, I believe, a genuinely liberal vision.

For this vision to become reality will require a willingness from Scotland's political parties to work more closely with unions, and for the unions to leave behind the arguments of the 1940s and the adversarial attitudes I witnessed on Tuesday. How likely is this? On the latter point at least, I would say that while the silent majority of union members would probably welcome this, the chances of convincing the more vocal union activists of the merits of a consensual appraoch are on a par with Tommy Sheridan's chances of becoming First Minister.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Lib Dems = Tories?

I've had a short but revealing chat on twitter with Stephen Noon, a post-graduate student who works for the SNP "on its message and manifesto".

In response to his tweet anouncing that The Sun in Scotland is supporting the SNP, I suggested this this is hardly a surprise. This is a paper owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose media empire generally supports the Tories in elections. It's a predictable tactic for The Sun to support the SNP in Scotland in order to damage Labour. Whether that is right or wrong is irrelevant - I just don't think even the SNP can feign surprise or deduce anything significant from this endorsement. (I am also uncomfortable with the election becoming a Sun v Daily Record battleground.)

Mr Noon then rapidly progressed to the usual hysteria: "the Lib Dems back the Tories in England too, so that makes them a Tory Party". So, we're Tories. The SNP say it, so it must be true.

What about the coalitions with Labour then, in 1999 and 2003. Could Labour be accused on "backing" the Lib Dems? Could the Lib Dems be accused of "backing" Labour? "You made a Tory PM, that's backing them" came the juvenile reply.

I like engaging with people on twitter. I don't have to agree with them, but it helps when they're rational. Frankly, I would have expected a bit more than glib simplicities from someone who is, after all, a postgraduate student.

Of course I then asked my SNP friend whether he would have preferred the Lib Dems to have instead backed Gordon Brown? "A strange answer" was all he could say. Strange? Not at all - especially as Alex Salmond at the time was promoting a rainbow coalition to keep Brown in power. If that isn't trying to "make" a PM against the wishes of the democratic verdict of the voters I don't know what is. And there were only two alternatives to propping up Brown - allowing the Tories to run a minority administration or entering into full coalition. Both would have resulted in Cameron being PM.

"I'm happy to leave this to the voters' judgement" came the response. Yes, of course. The voters were allowed to judge last year and gave Cameron the highest number of seats. The democratic voice of the people is a minor inconvenience to some, but when you're trying to negotiate a stable government it makes sense to talk to the party that's just won the most seats.

On this basis, the SNP don't seem to be interested in the more intellectually rigourous argument about the merits - or otherwise - of the coalition, preferring the easy option of claiming that Lib Dems are Tories. This really is perverse logic. What if, for example, after the election either the Lib Dems or the Greens go into coalition with the SNP? Would that make them Nationalists? Please!

It is one thing for the public to negatively perceive the Lib Dem - Conservative coalition deal. It is something else when supposedly responsible party workers indulge in simplistic and prejudiced rhetoric. The coalition in Westminster should be judged on its merits and what it achieves, not on the basis of intemperate and hysterical "anyone but the Tories" attitudes. The Liberal Democrats exist to do more than keep the Tories out of power - or to keep Labour in, for that matter.

It's a shame that people who are intelligent and informed prefer not to empower the electorate but to seek easy votes by reducing arguments to simplicities. The coalition no more makes the Lib Dems a Tory Party than buying shares in McDonalds would make me a hamburger.

Tavish Scott has already set a distinct agenda for the Lib Dems in Scotland and has effectively ruled out any alliance with the Conservatives. The policy platform we're standing on doesn't sound Tory and doesn't look Tory. That's because it isn't. As someone who's actually standing against the Scottish Conservatives' leader, I resent the completely false assumption that our parties are even similar: there's practically nothing (other than opposition to independence) that we have in common.

I believe in coalitions. I believe in working with people of all parties and of none to achieve results. And when I say "all parties", I mean that - with the probable exception of the BNP. And when the electorate gives most votes and seats to the Conservatives, it's only right that we should talk to them and try to work with them. In the event it was Labour's unwillingness to seriously negotiate that made a Tory PM inevitable, not Nick Clegg as Mr Noon would have the electorate believe.

I think entering the coalition was the right thing to do in the circumstances, even though I would have preferred a different option. That might make me pro-coalition because I believe in collaborative politics, but that doesn't make me pro-Tory. And it doesn't make my party pro-Tory. I'm not comfortable with many of the decisions the coalition has made and neither, it seems, is Tavish Scott. That's because we're liberals.

By all means, let's debate the record of the coalition. But please let's do so responsibly and without resorting to wildly inaccurate slurs.

The SNP v Labour: a choice or a dilemma for Scottish voters?

I recently hosted a poll asking who was the most effective Scottish political leader.

The results are as follows: Tavish Scott 50%, Alex Salmond 39%, Iain Gray 5%, Patrick Harvie 4%, Annabel Goldie 2%, Colin Fox 0%.

Given that this is a Lib Dem blog and that many of my visitors are likely to be Lib Dems it shouldn’t be surprising that Tavish Scott topped the poll. The regard much of the public has for Alex Salmond also seems to have been reflected in the result. Most surprisingly, however, was the low rating for Iain Gray – particularly as I know many Labour supporters take a passing look at my blog from time to time.

It isn’t just visitors to my blog who are less than impressed with Iain Gray though. Labour’s seemingly unassailable position in the opinion polls has evaporated following a terrible performance from Gray in a televised debate. One Herald journalist observed that the calibre of Scottish Labour’s leaders has been progressively worsening with each succession – from the inimitable Donald Dewar to Henry McLeish, to Jack McConnell, to Wendy Alexander and to what we shall diplomatically call Labour’s current predicament. The weaknesses of Labour’s current leader, who has neither style nor charisma nor ideas, simply play into the hands of the much cannier Alex Salmond.

That’s not a unique view. That kind of analysis has been arrived at by several journalists, as well as ordinary members of the public and – it seems – Labour supporters. Following the TV debate, several Labour supporters on twitter called for an urgent leadership election. It was all tongue-in-cheek, but the point had been made. They know Gray is a liability.

Ian Bell, writing in The Herald in 16th April, criticised Mr Gray for “purloining the opposition policies on an election’s eve”, describing him as a “political cross-dresser” and “donning clobber just denounced as the emperor’s new clothes”. It’s a fair accusation – Gray made an astonishing u-turn on a council tax freeze, tuition fees and A&E services just hours before the campaign kicked off. So much for Labour’s distinctive voice. So much for attacking Clegg for supposedly “betraying principle” – that charge looks rather hypocritical now.

It all seems rather strange that Gray had to do this, especially as at the time he appeared to be in a position of strength. Why allow Salmond (and Scott and Goldie) the chance to get in easy pot-shots about u-turns? In fact, why is a Labour leader allowing the SNP to dictate the agenda – especially on the back of a General Election in which the SNP did not fare particularly well?

Of course part of Iain Gray’s problem is that, to borrow a phrase from The Sun, he’s “as dead as a stuffed dodo”. He has as much personality as John Major. Gray by name, grey by nature. I have little time for this crude caricaturing, but the observations of the press stick and Gray just doesn’t seem capable of shrugging of the “no personality” jibes. If the polls are to be believed his party is sinking rapidly and the captain is helpless to avoid the inevitable electoral defeat.

Not only is Gray uninspiring, lacking in leadership quality and guilty of making poor judgements – he’s also leading a party that has lost its way. I have a great deal of respect for the Labour Party, even if I don’t see eye to eye with it. I value our shared social democratic heritage. I am grateful for quite a lot of what Labour achieved in government, both in Holyrood and Westminster. But what does Labour stand for now other than aspirational opportunism? It was bad enough that their principal flagship policy is imprisoning anyone in possession of a knife for a mandatory six months. It hardly inspires confidence when the same party, in a predictable knee-jerk response to headlines, pledged a “zero-tolerance approach to literacy”. To think this was once the uber-professional party of British politics, with a palpable social conscience.

Salmond is popular and a clever operator. What Gray lacks in leadership capability, Salmond possesses in abundance. But he can be infuriating and not everyone relates easily to his bluster – or his hot-headed approach. He has a talent for turning difficult situations to his advantage and in spite of serious criticism over the release of al-Megrahi, the Glasgow Airport Rail Link and the failure to deliver the promised independence referendum he has retained his personal popularity. Perhaps this is due to his force of personality and the way he seems to identify with the needs of Scottish voters. Perhaps. My personal view is that it also has a lot to do with a lack of an effective leader on the Labour benches.

In the last few weeks, I’ve had people asking me about which of the two leaders I prefer. I’ve also been asked who I’d prefer to work with in a coalition. Actually, I think Tavish Scott has it absolutely right when he says he is open to work with both the SNP and the Labour Party and, as I’ve mentioned before, speculating about likely coalitions ahead of the election when the result could be too close to call really isn’t helpful.

Historically, I have favoured closer collaboration with the Labour Party. Our parties worked together against the excesses of Conservatism in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We worked together on the Scottish Constitutional Convention. We collaborated on delivering the Scottish parliament, on constitutional reform and on gay rights. We worked together in a productive coalition from 1999 until 2007. Famously, relationships between our parties were generally good and characterised by close personal friendships – think Dewar and Wallace, Blair and Ashdown, Cook and Maclennan and even McConnell and Stephen.

But those times, and those individuals, have moved on. Labour wanted closer co-operation when it suited, but were not committed to cultivating a more permanent relationship – something I believe Gordon Brown came to regret. Gray has none of Dewar’s appetite for collaboration, but it should noted in any case that Labour’s position on issues such as crime and civil liberties are not what they once were. To say a Lib Dem-Labour coalition would be a marriage of principle in the same way that it was, broadly speaking, in 1999 is stretching the point more than a little. There is probably more in the SNP’s manifesto for Liberal Democrats to identify with than there is in Labour’s.

Having said that, the SNP’s manifesto is far from perfect, having been described as “fantastical” by The Scotsman and “a crude appeal to tribalism” by The Courier. The Daily Mail got it right for once, describing it as “a menu without prices”. However, it is clear to see that there is some common ground between the SNP and the Lib Dems especially on issues such as the environment.

It’s not simply about leaders and key policies though. Take a look at the calibre of the respective front bench teams. Who would you prefer as health minister: Nicola Sturgeon or Jackie Baillie? Who would be the better justice minister: Kenny MacAskill or Richard Baker? On finance: John Swinney or Andy Kerr? On education: Michael Russell or Des McNulty?

I value historical collaboration between Labour and the Lib Dems but our party can not be a slave to the past. We are not some kind of “Labour-lite” party, or merely in existence to prop up the Scottish Labour party as some obviously believe. We are a party with a distinctive liberal identity, not a vehicle to ensure Labour can never be democratically removed from power.

Personally, I’d prefer a Lib Dem – Green alliance. It isn’t going to happen because the electoral arithmetic will never stack up. But, given the choice, I’d personally opt for working with Patrick Harvie than either Alex Salmond or Iain Gray.

The forces of tribalism ensure that the main fight is between Salmond and Gray. Conservative leader Annabel Goldie explained recently that this was “not a choice” but “a dliemma”. She’s right. I’m not a nationalist and never could be, but the prospect of Iain Gray as first minister is actually quite frightening. What do we want: more bluster from Salmond or weak leadership and confused policies from Gray?

Monday, 18 April 2011

Which party reflects your attitudes?

Many of us vote for a particular party because we believe that party reflects our political views.

However, Scotland Votes believes that we would be surprised to learn that if we were to cast our votes according to our policy preferences we might end up voting for a different party altogether. To put this to the test, they have compiled a policy questionnaire to determine which party most closely matches your political outlook: Scotland Votes

As a Liberal Democrat (and a Green Liberal Democrat, no less) I was quite relieved that I had a strong identity with the Lib Dems and the Greens, a weaker identity with the SNP and negative identities with Labour and the Tories. My result: Lib Dem 50%, Green 40%, SNP 29%, Labour -9%, Tories -20%

Try the quiz yourself and check whether your views on policy actually matches your party allegiance!

Why responsible legislation is needed on animal welfare

Like other parliamentary candidates, in recent weeks I have been inundated with e-mails from charities, voluntary groups, lobbyists and constituents who all seek to either persuade me of the merits of their own visions for Scotland, prioritise their particular concerns or ask me to sign pledges pertaining to specific policy commitments.

I like to hear from these groups, and they are adding something to the democratic process by seeking views from candidates which can be used to both inform their members/supporters and hold elected representatives to account. Often these organisations have their own well-considered and informed manifestos which contain ideas and concerns that should be translated into government priority but rarely find it into the pages of party manifestos or the politics pages of our daily newspapers.

I’m usually happy to offer my support to groups and individual lobbyists who have taken such time and care to prepare an argument and present their case to our aspiring politicians. There are some notable exceptions, but most of the e-mails and manifestos I’ve received have been highly responsible – the fact that they’re politically non-partisan also makes them a little more refreshing and intellectually honest than those issued by political parties.

The vast majority of communications have been about either health issues, the environment or animal welfare. As a health campaigner and a Green Liberal Democrat, it perhaps isn’t surprising that I should easily relate to requests to pledge support for health improvement or action to protect the environment and combat climate change. Animal welfare, however, is an issue I don’t generally give a lot of thought to but when I gave some of the complex issues some serious consideration I became more convinced that this is an area that any incoming government must take a lead.

Organisations such as the BUAV (there are others) are concerned with ending the use of animals in experiments. Ah yes, that old chestnut. Other groups have asked for my views on protecting Scotland’s seal population and sentencing for those who abuse animals.

I’m generally not one for speaking out on this issue. While like every reasonable person I’m opposed to animal cruelty there are people with a great deal more expertise than I have and, to be frank, I’d rather leave the scientific arguments to them. However, having seen evidence suggesting that laboratory testing on animals remains unacceptably high and that certain types of animal cruelty are actually increasing, I’m going to speak out.

As a former medical student I simply don’t accept that the scientific community today has much need to conduct experimentation on animals. There are usually alternative - in fact superior - media for such experiments. There are already in existence several humane alternative technologies and although these do need to be further developed, I am confident they will be.

I would actively advocate outlawing any animal experimentation other than on those rare occasions where there is clear, clinically-based evidence that the more humane technologies are inadequate. There is clearly no need to be using animals in experiments involving cosmetic products. Such use of animals is not only unnecessary but unspeakably cruel. There should also be increased transparency and accountability as far as academic research bodies are concerned; however, ultimately we need to be moving away from animal experimentation altogether.

That is not the moralistic view of an “animal rights activist” but the considered perspective of someone who cares deeply about improving clinical research. I simply don’t see why science has to be so inhumane.

Why is there a need for groups like BUAV to exist in the 21st century? Probably because the Scottish government has shied away from legislating on animal welfare issues, favouring instead subtle encouragements and financial incentives (which have their uses as well as limitations) over more direct intervention.

More concerning was the headline in Saturday’s Herald: “Law sanctions slaughter of 1300 animals”. It appears, if The Herald is to be believed, that the government has sanctioned the slaughter of 1300 seals under a law designed to protect fish stocks. The Seal Protection Action Group argues that the law, which permits killing as a last resort, is being abused by an industry more concerned with profits than responsible methods of controlling predators.

I am surprised by neither the actions of fish farmers or the SPAG. Having lived in the Hebrides, I am more than familiar with how seals are perceived by those with fishing interests! What surprises me is the ease by which is has been possible to gain a licence to slaughter seals – 66 applications have been granted including a fish farm that hasn’t even been completed yet. In spite of this, the government – which issues the licences – is on record as stating that non-lethal methods of control are being by-passed by some trigger-happy fish farmers.

It seems the provisions of Marine (Scotland) Act, which stipulates that a number of alternative measures should be tried before use of lethal force against seals, are being ignored by some. Others appear to be going through the motions simply to “evidence” that such measures have proved unsatisfactory. One marine biologist is quoted as saying that seals are being shot “not as a last resort but simply because killing is the easiest solution” while outraged Green Party co-convenor Eleanor Scott suggested that an “outdated and brutal regime” should be banned. “The scale of the killing spree is a surprise even to us”, she explained.

I don’t always agree with Ms Scott but on this issue I do. Not only does this “killing spree” suggest that fish farmers are unimaginative when it comes to pest control it also highlights how ineffective the Scottish government’s attempts at promoting the welfare of seals have been. Legislation designed to protect seals while satisfying the concerns of supermarkets and the fishing industry has had unintended consequences about which we should all be concerned.

I am pleased that Labour and the Lib Dems are critical of the government's handling of the matter. The two parties are, according to The Herald, opposed to the killing of seals “except as a last resort [and] only if [the seals] posed a serious threat.” A serious threat? What exactly does that mean? We’re talking seals, not al-Qaeda...

How do you start to legally define the levels of “seriousness” posed by seal threats?

Any incoming government has an opportunity to make real steps forward as far as animal welfare is concerned. I have no doubt that none of our politicians believe unnecessary animal suffering is acceptable, but change must be driven in a more considered and responsible way with a little more thought given to unintended ramifications. In the meantime, I wish groups like BUAV and SPAG every success with their respective campaigns.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Cable turns on Cameron over immigration

Tensions between the coalition partners – or at least between two key members of the respective parties – were dramatically exposed as business secretary Vince Cable turned on Prime Minister David Cameron over the issue of immigration.

Referring to a speech given by Cameron in which he talked about the problem of “mass immigration” and pledged to cut it to “tens of thousands”, Dr Cable responded by accusing the Prime Minister of electioneering and “inflaming extremism”.

Cameron claimed that his speech was “measured” and “sensible”. It was nothing of the sort. Cable is right – it is populist electioneering of the worst type; the politics of the lowest common denominator. Cameron was not announcing any new plans or a new policy – so why else did he feel it was necessary to make the speech in the first instance?

According to the BBC website, Cameron explained that during “discussions between the coalition partners on how to reduce immigration without damaging the economy, the issue had been ‘settled’...we have a very good and robust policy and this is the policy of the whole government.”

But it isn’t. The coalition agreement actually had very little to say on the issue of immigration, but in essence there was agreement for an annual cap on the number of non-EU workers admitted to live and work, with the mechanism to be decided later. That is far from a “settled issue” in anyone’s estimation.

I’m a believer in collective responsibility in coalition. Generally I’d prefer if ministers kept their differences behind closed doors. However, when no less a senior figure than the Prime Minister publicly states a position that promotes his party’s policy over that agreed by the coalition it is not only right that Liberal Democrats should respond appropriately and decisively - it is necessary. Cameron was risking government unity for the sake of party political opportunism and some populist headlines – not the kind of behaviour expected of the Prime Minister.

As Cable argues, Cameron’s stance is “very unwise”. It’s bad enough that this was flagrant electioneering. It’s regrettable that he’s promoted Conservative Party policy over coalition policy. What is worse is the inflammatory language Cameron used: phrases such as “mass immigration” and references to immigrants “who fail to speak English” are unhelpful to put it moderately. Already BBC News has been interviewing residents in BNP target wards asking them to what degree they agree with the Prime Minister’s diagnosis, while BNP MEP Andrew Brons has been given a platform for his repugnant views.

It appears that there was an unwritten agreement within the cabinet that a “truce” should be maintained for the time being – a sensible enough approach given that the Conservatives wanted a tougher line on immigration while the Lib Dems took a more relaxed, pragmatic approach. If this is the case, then Cameron has overstepped the mark and Cable is well within his rights to challenge him. It appears Cable was not informed in advance of the Prime Minister’s speech and the first he heard of it was in today’s newspapers. Whatever the central issue, excluding Cabinet colleagues from such announcements is hardly responsible leadership. How can Cameron actually deliver on a promise when the policy hasn't actually been decided by cabinet?

Cameron patently fails to recognise the value of immigration. He also sees no apparent contradiction in promoting a free market while seeking to close the drawbridges. He believes in the free movement of capital, but not in the free movement of people.

Yes, there are problems associated with immigration (not least UK citizens buying up properties in eastern European countries, thus artificially inflating the local housing market and causing “economic migrants” from those countries to look here for work). Some of these are social; others economic. What they require is a multi-lateral approach with other EU nations rather than glib, short-sighted and ill-advised comments aimed at securing a few votes. Perhaps work could also be done on tackling social deprivation in the UK, creating new employment opportunities and eradicating the culture of low pay and cheap labour. As long as the government remains inactive on this, there will be little incentive for people to move from benefits and into work that is currently attractive only to migrant workers.

I used to live in Sighthill, in Glasgow – an area which has seen its fair share of immigration-associated problems. Many of these problems were created by misinformed prejudices on the part of the “indigenous” population and pent-up frustrations caused by social deprivation and a lack of economic opportunity. I’ve witnessed how difficult it can be to discuss this issue responsibly and openly without creating disproportionate and hysterical responses. But let’s be honest; it’s not so much immigration that people are primarily concerned about but perceived injustice, poor living standards and the indifference of government to their plight.

The “learn English” approach favoured by Cameron might carry more weight if the government was actively providing opportunities to learn the language. As it is, he looks like a little-Englander defending “his country“ against the evils of cultural diversity. Interestingly, he doesn’t seem quite so concerned about British ex-pats living abroad without ever taking the trouble to learn the local language. I should add that most of the immigrants I’ve personally known speak excellent English – in fact, far better than many of my Scottish friends.

Immigration should not be a taboo subject. There is an urgent need to discuss it – and its by-products and associated problems – in a socially responsible, mature and informed fashion. David Cameron’s decision to raise this issue now, in the context of an election campaign, while not informing his Cabinet is inexcusable. Ed Miliband today suggested that the Prime Minister should “get a grip...get an agreed policy” before speaking out. I agree entirely.

The problems associated with immigration are not only about numbers - as even David Cameron accepts. There are several aspects to this difficult and complex issue. A simple cap on immigration and the establishment of arbitrary targets can not in themselves represent a practical solution.

The one positive from this is that Cable’s intervention demonstrates the distinct identity of the Liberal Democrats in coalition. Our commitment to responsible government does not mean we have lost the principles that define us. The last few days, in which the coalition partners’ respective positions on both NHS reform and immigration have been shown to be almost diametrically opposed, have sent a clear signal to voters that we may be in coalition but we’re no-one’s lackeys.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Tavish Scott's election webchat

Yesterday Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott took part in The Scotsman's series of webchats with party leaders.

The full transcript of this "chat" is worth reading and available through The Scotsman website.

Frontline police officers opposed to single force

Today's Herald has revealed that Scottish frontline police officers are not only opposed to proposals to merge Scotland's regional police forces into a centralised single service, but that they may actively resist them.

According to the Herald reporters, there is the risk of a "rank and file revolt by police officers" on the issue. They also quote Callum Steele, general secretary of the Scottish Police Federation, as saying “as a manifesto proposal it is understandable why the pledge is considered as attractive. Although unconvinced by the reality, only politicians will know if it’s truly affordable and deliverable in practice.” That is a diplomatic response and I really can't see why voters would find the plans appealing. A more forthright view came from Strathclyde branch secretary David Kennedy who claimed that the Federation "has always been against a national police force". He added that "the problem is it has never been properly discussed". I can easily believe that.

Alex Salmond, Iain Gray, Tavish Scott and Annabel Goldie will next week be addressing the SPF's annual confernce at which the following motion is being discussed: “One police force in Scotland will lose local autonomy, shall centralise power and will give any government the political control of its chief constable.” The Herald correctly states that Labour, the SNP and the Tories support the move towards a single police force while describing the Lib Dem stance as "sharing some of the [police force's] concerns". Why the reluctance to state publicly our party's vehement opposition to the plans? The above motion could easily read as a tidy summary of the Liberal Democrats' position, as determined at our Scottish Spring Conference.

The Liberal Democrats - and, in fairness, the Green Party - are providing the sober-minded voice on the future of Scotland's policing that the public want and need. Centralising power can have only negative consequences and removing local accountability would be a disaster for many communities. The public don't want this - but an unholy alliance of Labour, the SNP and the Conservatives is bent on imposing its will on the Scottish people.

Furthermore, apart from the Chief Constable of Strathclyde Police, it seems that police officers don't want these changes either. They should be listened to. They do, after all, know a great deal more about policing issues than our party leaders. If the powers that be are determined to press on with their ill-conceived strategy irrespective of the views of the police, I would certainly welcome industrial action on the part of rank-and-file officers.

That's one way of telling Salmond and Gray what to do with their plans. Another way is to vote for a party that actually opposes the creation of a single police force for Scotland.

Support the Liberal Democrats' campaign to keep police services local:

"Save our Police" Facebook group

Keep Police Local Campaign Page

Democracy v Populism

I’m not a huge fan of referenda.

I’ll be voting “Yes” in the AV referendum on 5th May – but I’d prefer if we didn’t have it at all. Let’s be honest – the only reasons the referendum is going ahead is because Labour promised it in their manifesto and Cameron was coerced into offering the same as the very minimum concession in a coalition agreement.

I have a democratic problem with referenda. Direct legislation by its very nature undermines the Parliamentary system. A referendum can sometimes be a good idea, as was the case in 1975 on Britain’s membership of the EEC: the will of the people answered a pertinent question on Britain’s future on which politicians of all parties were divided. But, speaking more generally, a referendum fails to empower the electorate while actively disempowering those who have been elected to represent us. If referenda are good for major questions, why not also for minor questions? Why not take it a step further and manage affairs by text messages from every elector and eradicate parliamentary democracy entirely?

As long as we have parliaments and councils, our representatives must be allowed to take their heads with them and left free to exercise some judgement. Of course, they should be fixed on certain fundamental points but the value of parliamentary democracy is accountability to the electorate. Referenda to a large extent remove this accountability.

Referenda are not usually a responsible way of fixing policy - or even necessarily determining the public will of the electorate. They are often merely an exercise in populism. Take Brian Souter’s “referendum” in 2000 – do you really believe over 80% of Scots were so homophobic? More pertinently, will the AV referendum tell us anything about the public view on electoral reform or will it simply confirm the low approval rating of the Deputy Prime Minister?

Iceland conducted a referendum last year on whether the small nation should refund its banking debt of 4billion euros. Predictably, the 320,000 inhabitants of Iceland voted “no”. And, in the event, probably rightly: the terms of the repayment could well have crippled Iceland. However, in the last year the Icelandic government has been in negotiations with Britain, the Netherlands and other EU nations to put together a plan more acceptable to its people.

Having done that the Icelandic president, Olafur Grimsson, decided to put the new package to a referendum. The result? The same again. If you ask people if they want to spend more money to pay back debts created by an irresponsible financial sector, what are they likely to say?

Iceland’s constitution allows for the use of referenda, but Grimsson is the first president to use them. In fact, he likes referenda so much that he’s called one on three separate occasions. Overruling a bill which actually had been approved by 70% of Iceland’s MPs, the determination of the president (whose role is largely ceremonial) to give the public a say in a referendum is being praised by some as ultra-democratic. In fact, it is nothing of the sort. It is an exercise in populism; an attempt to avoid the government taking unpopular but necessary decisions.

What really is the purpose of a government that does not have the power to make its own decisions? Grimsson deprived the Althingi (parliament) of its democratic functions, removing Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir’s mandate to govern in the process. How can this be described as democratic?

Grimsson’s action also undermines the efforts of the negotiators who have spent several months in conversation with various governments to put together a realistic and more acceptable package of repayments. He won’t be flavour of the month with them: it’s clear that however robust and favourable the new deal was, it was never going to be given the chance to work.

I wouldn’t fault the Icelandic people for voting the way they did. I suspect there is more than a little national pride at stake here: little Iceland standing up to the big boys of the EU (of which Iceland is not a member). Icelandic people understandably don’t feel a moral obligation to pay the debts of a private bank. But it also appears that “no” voters tended to be those opposed to Iceland’s proposed EU membership, while “yes” voters were more pro-European. And so this referendum is about far more than the economic issue on which the government should be able to make its own decision: it’s about Icelandic nationalism, independence and resistance to perceived EU interference.

This matters to Scotland, though. A number of Scottish councils are owed significant amounts of money from Iceland, which will now not be forthcoming. North Ayrshire alone is due £15million. A “yes” vote in Iceland’s referendum would have resulted in several Scottish councils being reimbursed but the outcome of that exercise in “democracy” now means the UK government is likely to pursue legal action to recoup the monies. In the meantime, Scottish councils will be deprived of vital funds at a crucial time – the predictable effect being cuts to budgets and services.

Iceland’s president, in his need to enhance his personal popularity, has overlooked the unintended consequences of his actions. He seems to have forgotten that what has an effect in one place actually has a different effect somewhere else – in this case on the public services Scotland’s councils provide.

Populism can never be an alternative to good government. Sometimes it is important to do what is right rather than what is easy. It is a great shame that Grimsson felt such a need to pander to populism – a shame for his country’s democratic credentials and a shame for Scotland’s cash-strapped councils.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Lansley's health reforms must be resisted

Finally, it seems, the Lib Dems are starting to give the Tories serious headaches on Andrew Lansley’s ill-conceived health reforms.

It’s about time. Quite why Lansley’s been allowed to take the government down this particular cul-de-sac only Cameron and Clegg know. My guess is that the level of public hostility to the proposals was completely unanticipated - and that ministers didn’t give the detail of Lansley’s plans sufficient consideration.

Whatever the truth, Lansley no finds himself under the cosh from the Liberal Democrats as well as one or two of his own backbenchers. And rightly, too. Not only are his NHS reforms unnecessarily controversial, they also are contrary to what was agreed in the coalition agreement.

A little reminder as to what was actually agreed:

• Top-down reorganisations of the NHS will be stopped

• Local communities will be given greater control over public health budgets with payment by the outcomes they achieve in improving the health of local residents. GPs will also be given greater incentives to tackle public health problems.

• Directly elected PCT board members

• GPs will commission care on patients’ behalf. PCTs will commission ‘residual services that are best undertaken at a wider level, rather than directly by GPs’. PCTs ‘will also take responsibility for improving public health for people in their area, working closely with the local authority and other local organisations’.

Now that is quite different to what Lansley has been proposing in recent months. The Lib Dems’ victory in ensuring directly elected PCT boards now seems a pretty hollow and futile one given that Lansley is now bent on scrapping PCTs. What also happened to the pledge to cease further top-down reorganisation, or to empower local communities?

I have for several years been an active health campaigner. The “permanent revolution” and control freakery which characterised Hewitt’s tenure as Health Secretary had a detrimental effect on local NHS services, and while record amounts of money were being poured into the NHS frontline services suffered. The consequences of giving a £75million budget to someone as incompetent as Hewitt included the closure of several A&E facilities and maternity units. The services offered at many district general hospitals were “slimmed down” with many closing altogether. It seems a long time ago now, but the future of the NHS became the big issue that seemed set to bring down the government – hardly a month went by without reports of major cuts to services. And all this occurred under the patronising pretence of facilitating “patient choice”.

A network of local campaigns sprang up in protest at the heavy-handed, top-down and bureaucratic reforms. Fortunately Gordon Brown intervened to remove Hewitt from office, but lessons should have been learned.

Lansley clearly hasn’t learned these lessons. Not only has he pressed on irrespective of the commitments outlined in the coalition agreement, he has ridden roughshod over it. He has shown such blatant disregard for the coalition government that it’s a surprise he hasn’t been challenged before now.

Lansley’s reforms are not welcomed by health professionals. Both the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing are opposed to them. And rightly so. Putting GPs at the centre of commissioning NHS services (essentially allowing them to run key parts of the Health Service) might have seemed populist but it was deeply unwise. GPs don’t seem to want to become NHS financial managers. Neither do they want the NHS to be turned into a system of financing healthcare delivered by a range of private sector providers. It sappears the only supporters of his reforms are the private health providers likely to make billions from the NHS.

If Lansley’s proposals were to go ahead unchecked, the NHS would fragment while private outfits profited handsomely from the public purse. This is the vision of the future I have for years fought against and will continue to fight against. It’s no wonder GPs aren’t going along with the plans – they don’t want to be blamed for the inevitable cuts.

Lib Dem Spring conference expressed concern at the direction the government was taking on health reform, and this has led to Lib Dem MPs taking a stronger stand against Lansley’s ideologically motivated reforms. Strangely, not a single Lib Dem MP voted against the Health and Social Care Bill at its second reading. The mood of conference has changed this indifference and now the Lib Dems are looking to ensure detailed amendments to the bill before it reaches report stage. Evan Harris, Norman Lamb and Shirley Williams (a fierce critic of the reforms) are collaborating to ensure that any proposals are in line with the coalition agreement.

Lansley’s reforms have the potential to destroy the NHS. Senior Lib Dems are now waking up to this reality and are determined to make their objections heard. Norman Lamb, the party’s former health spokesman and now an advisor to Nick Clegg, yesterday spoke out arguing that the plans posed a “financial [and] political risk” and that he would quit his current role unless NHS professionals were brought “on board”. Given the RCN’s position, reiterated at their conference in Liverpool today, the clinical professions are unlikely to be won over easily.

According to the BBC website, Mr Lamb said: "My real concern is the financial risk of doing it too quickly, because then services and patient care suffers...I've said that if it's impossible for me to carry on in my position, I will step down. And I think that it's in the government's interest to get it right in the way that I suggest. Getting the NHS right is the most important thing. And indeed it would be incredibly destabilising politically if we get this reform wrong."

Mr Lamb’s position has already been backed by Dr Peter Carter of the RCN, who referred to him as "someone who knows the NHS". Liberal Democrat activists are also behind Lamb, with Liberal Vision not only heaping praise on his courage but tipping his as future leadership material.

Lansley has opened up a “listening exercise” in response to the criticism but all the evidence so far suggests that Lansley is using this simply as a means of trying to persuade health professionals to listen to him. This is not an approach I would advise the Health Secretary to take, especially as opposition not only comes from health professionals but also members of the Cabinet. Even Danny Alexander is promising “serious, substantive changes to this Bill as a consequence of this process” – something that Lansley simply can not take lightly.

The NHS must continue to evolve and adapt in relation to changing needs and priorities. It is welcome that the coalition government set out plans to empower both communities and health professionals, but there are more effective and less controversial ways of doing this than abolishing PCTs and delegating commissioning powers to one group of professionals – GPs. Similarly, it is useful that the rhetoric from the government is about reducing government interference in the NHS, but Lansley’s decidedly top-down way of doing things suggests he is more interested in enforcing his will onto the NHS than he is in facilitating genuine patient choice and improving health outcomes.

Contrary to what Lansley suggests, the NHS is not in crisis. But it will be if he fails to listen to the concerns of the health professionals he claims to be empowering – or if he is too obstinate to heed the warnings of his Liberal Democrat colleagues.

I am confident that the Liberal Democrats can ensure that the Health and Social Care Bill can be substantially improved on and that government health policy will now more accurately reflect the coalition agreement, as of course it always should have done.

While I am happy to commend Norman Lamb for his principled stance, the real plaudits should go to delegates at the party conference who ensured that Lansley’s bill would not continue to be unopposed by our own MPs. This episode demonstrates the extraordinary influence conference can wield. I am very proud that our party members and activists have played a significant part in questioning the wisdom of the government’s policy and – hopefully – in enforcing a significant climbdown from the Health Secretary.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

‘Should the LibDems change their name to the Bipolar Conliberals?’

This question was asked in yesterday's Sunday Herald.

Or, more accurately, was asked by Mr Leslie Strathearn of Glasgow and reported by The Sunday Herald. However, the paper obviously found his question to be of such monumental importance that it actually used it as a headline - in spite of the fact that it seems most readers' questions were concerned with more serious matters than making puerile jokes at the expense of the Liberal Democrats.

Obviously The Herald is no longer synonymous with responsible journalism, but it is a shame it plumbs to these depths and treats its readers with such disrespect: does it not feel that the average Herald reader's interest in political issues runs a little deeper?

The Herald stated that Mr Strathearn's question was one "to which there is not a lot the party in question could say in reply". I disagree and I'm going to reply to it.

Mr Strathearn asks: “Should the Liberal Democrats change their name to something more reflective of their current approach to politics? The LibDems would not consider a Holyrood coalition in 2007 because the SNP proposal of a referendum was a deal breaker. So much for Liberal, as in broad-minded and favouring reform.

“They have now thrown away their own UK manifesto, in a coalition helping Conservatives implement ideological cuts in the public sector.

“Bang goes the Democrat bit. At the moment their name is a misnomer akin to George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. How about the Bipolar Conliberals?”

I'm sure there were better questions submitted for the Lib Dems to respond to, but as The Herald saw fit to publish this one, it's got my full attention.

Now, Mr Strathearn, a "name change". Hmmm. This has been suggested several times in recent weeks. One group argued that our name should include the word "social"; this was countered by Lib Dems, harking back to 1988-9, who argued that the name Social and Liberal Democrats (or the abbreviation SLD) would lead to us being referred to as "the Salads", and LSD would be a non-starter for obvious reasons. To which I would respond that we're being called a great deal of things at the moment, most of which are less palatable than salad. Also, the Scottish Liberal Democrats have been referring to themselves as SLD for many years, without any unwanted reference to vegetables.

However, while most Lib Dems do have strong social consciences (the growing influence of the Social Liberal Forum makes this quite clear), I don't see the need for either a change in the party's name to reflect this or to go back to a difficult time in the party's past for inspiration.

What about "The Liberal Party"? someone else asked. Well, that might offend the small band that is the Liberal Party. "Democrats"? Do we really have to revisit 1988 so completely?

The Liberal Democrats is fine. It defines who we are and what we believe perfectly adequately - far more than "Labour" actually suits a party whose 13 years in power saw it move so far away from promoting the interests of ordinary working people.

But Mr Strathearn objects to our being "liberal" on the basis that "the LibDems would not consider a Holyrood coalition in 2007 because the SNP proposal of a referendum was a deal breaker". It's true that the referendum proposal was something many Lib Dems did not feel comfortable with, although I personally preferred Wendy Alexander's approach - an inevitable defeat for Salmond in his own referendum would have put the independence question to sleep for a few years. But it simply isn't true to state that was the sole reason the Lib Dems did not enter a coalition with the SNP.

As part of research for my writing, I met both Tavish Scott and Nicol Stephen to discuss the 2007 election and the potential for coalition. Interestingly, while the SNP's referendum proposals did feature in our conversations, two other things became clear. Firstly, the electoral arithmetic simply did not add up and the combined number of SNP and Lib Dem seats did not provide an overall majority. Secondly, there appeared to be a feeling that after eight years of government, it might be an opportune time for a spell in opposition. In any case, the fact that Scott has indicated he would be willing to work with the SNP means that such a charge of "illiberalism" can hardly apply to him on this basis.

What about the claim that the Liberal Democrats have "thrown away their UK manifesto". Really? I still have mine! And I've actually read it, which is more than most critics have. And I see so much of that manifesto being translated into policy, in spite of the fact that we're working in government with a party I personally have never taken to. I'm sure Mr Strathearn's a realist and if we had gone into coalition with the SNP, as surely he would have wanted us to, presumably he'd recognise that the manifestos of the respective parties would become a starting point for negotiations leading to a coalition government. Compromise would obviously have been as necessary in 2007 as it was in both 1999 and 2010. It's the nature of co-operative politics - to see compromise painted in such juvenile terms really is an insult to those of us who naturally prefer the more collaborative approaches to politics.

"At the moment their name is a misnomer akin to George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. How about the Bipolar Conliberals?" I think that firstly Mr Strathearn should cease using mental health related puns as a term of abuse. Secondly, if he really is so keen to combat Orwellian-style misinformation, perhaps he should direct his ire at The Herald's claim to be an unbiased and responsible reporter of Scotland's news?

Conliberals? Pleeeeaaaassseee. This is all getting a bit tiresome. Entering a coalition with the Conservatives (on the basis that it was the only realistic option the electorate left open to us) no more defines us as Conservatives than a deal with the SNP would have rendered us Nationalists. The charge that Tavish Scott is a Tory really does not stand up. The charge that I am a Tory is completely laughable.

I am proud to call myself a Liberal Democrat, because I believe in the importance of creating a more liberal Scotland while valuing the democratic process. If Mr Strathearn would delve a little deeper than his evident prejudices, he might even recognise the liberal values within our 2011 Scottish manifesto or the esteem in which we hold democracy.

Democracy underpins who we are. For Liberal Democrats the democratic process is important. Not for us the socialist way of riding roughshod over democratic principles in the misguided belief that the end justifies the means. This is why Nick Clegg negotiated with the Conservatives as the party with by far the largest number of seats: it was what democracy demanded. Those who now complain that the Lib Dems did not prop up an unpopular and largely discredited Labour administration are not only being unrealistic, they're not democrats. Many of us would naturally have preferred not working with the Conservatives, but it's what the outcome of the election demanded. Those who have such contempt for democracy that the only thing that matters in politics is keeping the Tories out of power are entitled to their negativity, but arguments that a willingness to work with whichever party wins the most public support is tantamount to "illiberalism" and disrespect for democracy are well short of the mark. As any Herald reader should know.