Sunday, 31 July 2011

On Pride...and prejudice

Yesterday I was in York, for that wonderful city’s annual Pride. I like Pride probably for the same reasons that I love Lib Dem conference – the diverse and interesting people, the lively personalities and the way the event unifies and inspires. York Pride has been running for five years now and attracted about 1,000 people but while I have been to larger Pride events (i.e. Glasgow) I’ve not been to a better one than York’s. There was a tangible sense of it belonging to the local community and the friendly, fun atmosphere would be hard to replicate anywhere. It was a real carnival.

Actually, this is what was so striking. I remember going to these kinds of things in the past and they have often been protests rather than parties. In the context of the times, this was both understandable and necessary. Anyone who lived through the 1980s and 90s, or who experienced the poisonous and hate-filled “Keep the Clause” campaign knows what it means to actively fight against homophobia. But, in most cases now, such protest takes a back seat to cultivating a celebration of diversity and tolerance. This shows just how far social attitudes have progressed as well as the degree to which Pride has helped shape attitudes towards LGBT people.

I found it incredibly reassuring to see young gay and lesbian people in their late teens being able to simply be themselves so openly. To be honest it made me quite emotional. 15 years ago, in the wake of vicious “queerbashing” in Glasgow, it simply wasn’t safe for gay people to be open about their sexuality. Yesterday, not only were York’s LGBT community celebrating their own identity – many non-LGBT people were there too, venerating with them the values of inclusiveness and tolerance. Many people brought their children to what they knew would be a fun day out. It was great to see.

It is touching to know that young gay people today do not have to fight the same battles as previous generations. That is no bad thing – in fact, I’d rather people have the liberty to simply get on with their lives than to have to fight against injustice. One inevitable consequence though is that young LGBT people are less likely to be politicised: people like myself became politically active as a result of Brian Souter’s nasty and vindictive campaign of homophobia which thankfully is now firmly in the past. Consequently, political parties should do far more to engage with young LGBT people than ever before.

Which brings me to the one thing I found quite depressing about York Pride: the fact that there was no Liberal Democrat presence there. Other political parties set up their stalls, including Labour, the SWP, the Socialist party, the Tories and a local anti-cuts party. But the Lib Dems were nowhere to be seen. How can it be that the only party to commit to marriage equality doesn’t feel that Pride is an appropriate venue to sell its ideas and programme for creating a more liberal society? That said, few of the parties had anything to say about explicitly LGBT issues although Labour made some impact distributing stickers declaring “I’ve never kissed a Tory” and asking people to lobby the government to facilitate marriage equality. I had an interesting chat with the Labour activists who were (rightly) keen to remind me how much Labour did for LGBT rights under Tony Blair. But I felt disappointed that my own party - which should be the voice of liberalism, tolerance and cultural plurality - for whatever reason was not present. If we are to rebuild, we need to take opportunities to engage with people, listen to them and provide a distinctive voice on the issues that concern them. York Pride was one such opportunity.

I’ve mentioned that great strides have been taken in tackling homophobia, and that Pride has been at the forefront of challenging outdated and illiberal attitudes. All that is true and should be celebrated. But homophobia remains, even if it is less socially acceptable than it once was. Anyone looking at episodes of Queer Duck or videos of the Village People’s hits on YouTube can’t escape the unenlightened and vitriolic views of a minority who feel the need to post their views online. More seriously, the spectre of homophobia and the evil it causes was brought home in York yesterday, where a speech was made and hundreds of coloured balloons released as a tribute to Ugandan gay rights campaigner David Kato – a former student of York University who was beaten to death in his home country on account of his orientation. York Pride’s Chair Dan Sidley said "Despite the great progress in our own society, prejudice is still relatively commonplace and it is really important for us to get the backing of York's political and civic leaders."

On the same day, across the water in Belfast, over 20,000 people attended Belfast Pride, a quite considerable statistic and evidence of real progress. However, this happened against the predictable backdrop of bigotry and intolerance that has become increasingly associated with Northern Ireland’s political elite. Only last week Democratic Unionist Party MLA and health minister-in-waiting Jim Wells sent a text message to the secretary of Belfast Pride in which he stated “I find the behaviour of those who take part in this march totally repugnant”. The press predictably picked up on this and debate has since raged on whether he was describing LGBT people as “repugnant” or just their behaviour. To be honest, such discussions are academic and largely irrelevant – a supposedly intelligent and responsible person such as the future health minster surely recognises the likely impact such a text message would have. He knew how his comment could be interpreted. And, whatever he is referring to, he and his party have a less than progressive record on LGBT rights that has hardly been helped by this recent intervention.

Mr Wells has refused to elaborate on what exactly is so repugnant about Belfast Pride. Perhaps it the kissing, same-sex holding hands or wearing of brightly coloured t-shirts he finds so offensive because as far as I know there is no history of any illegal behaviour at Belfast Pride. Maybe he’s simply an incurable bigot. Either way, it was unprofessional and his comments set the scene for this year’s Pride in the city with many people of all orientations and persuasions determined to prove that it is Wells’ attitudes that are “repugnant”. What seems to have passed a lot of people by is that whatever one thinks of Belfast Pride it is a lot less “repugnant” and socially divisive than several other parades which have occurred in Northern Ireland in recent years. Perhaps Mr Wells has a short memory. More likely, he simply doesn’t understand what Pride is actually about.

Homophobia is a crime against humanity and should not be accepted in a healthy, democratic and tolerant society. Whether that homophobia manifests itself in the unwise ramblings of a politician, in the ignorance of cultures that do not respect diversity, in campaigns of overt intolerance like Souter’s which masquerade as promoting religious or family values or simply in the mindless contributions of young teens on YouTube it must always be challenged head on.

I take a great pride in Pride, not least because it has a valuable role to play in countering prejudice. It is also impossible not to admire something powerful enough to create an environment like that in York yesterday in which people of all orientations and political and religious persuasions can come together for a peaceful celebration of diversity. To Dan and all the team – thank you!

More photographs of York Pride can be found on my facebook page: York Pride 2011

Thursday, 14 July 2011

SNP makes appeal to Lib Dem supporters

The 2011 Holyrood elections were hardly our finest moment. A number of factors combined (not least the perception of our role in government) to reduce our presence in the Scottish parliament to a mere 5 MSPs. This is a particularly bitter pill to swallow that requires an honest appraisal of both our current predicament and the way forward.

Our own troubles coincided with a surge in Alex Salmond’s personal popularity and the SNP gaining a historic majority in Holyrood. Again, there were numerous factors in play in determining the outcome of the election – not least the ineffectiveness of Labour’s leader, Iain Gray and the genius of the SNP’s campaign. What can not be disputed, however, is that the SNP were the chief beneficiaries of the collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats.

It has been clear over the last few years that the SNP has replaced our party as the repository for protest votes (as evidenced by the Glenrothes by-election, 2009) and now, following the recent electoral disaster, Alex Salmond senses the time is right to move in for the kill. A leaked e-mail from SNP chief executive Peter Murrell suggested that council group leaders sound out Lib Dem councillors about potential defections. I can understand the strategy and from an SNP point of view risks of this approach are minimal; Labour on the other hand seem to have finally realised that undermining the Liberal Democrats will only lead to key Tory and SNP gains at the next General Election.

Murrell drew attention to the fact that four Lib Dem councillors (two of whom are from Paisley) have defected to the SNP since May and hopes that more will do likewise. I don’t wish to criticise Mr Murrell or his party for making overtures towards experienced and capable councillors. What actually surprises me is that, given the scale of May’s disaster and with local elections scheduled for next year, there have only been four defections to date. Our councillors have been incredibly loyal given the circumstances.

Last Friday, Alex Salmond went further than the leaked e-mail did and sent out an unmistakable signal of his intention to offer Liberal Democrat members and supporters a new political home. At a party event in Aberdeen, where the SNP have recently made significant gains at the Lib Dems’ expense, Salmond noted that "many former Lib Dem voters across Scotland supported us for the first time in May, and many more did so in Inverclyde. They are far more in tune with the policies and aspirations of the Scottish National Party than with a Lib Dem leadership in Scotland that is increasingly indistinguishable from the Tories and has lost touch with mainstream Scotland.

Well, that is true to a point. Many Lib Dem voters did desert us for the SNP is May. As I’ve written previously, it is going to be a tough battle to win such people back to us. The ease with which our support base eroded and transferred its sympathies to the SNP represents a huge challenge for our party and Willie Rennie in particular. But I think Alex Salmond is overplaying his hand more than a little, and it simply isn’t true that the Inverclyde by-election was evidence of Lib Dem supporters switching allegiance to the SNP.

Unlike Mr Salmond, I actually live in Inverclyde. There was, despite what the SNP wants to accept, evidence of tactical voting against the SNP. Despite almost taking the Greenock and Inverclyde seat in the May Holyrood elections (missing out by a mere 511 votes) the SNP failed dismally in their quest to send Anne McLaughlin to Westminster with Labour’s Iain McKenzie securing a majority close to 6,000 – in spite of the enlarged Westminster constituency containing more Lib Dem/SNP friendly areas such as Kilmacolm. Frankly, if Salmond’s hypothesis held true – that Lib Dems were continuing to haemorrhage supporters to the SNP – Ms McLaughlin would now be the MP for Inverclyde. While the Inverclyde result was not a good one from a Liberal Democrat perspective, the evidence suggests that while some Lib Dem support voted SNP, some (probably more) backed the Labour candidate. I know many liberal-leaning individuals in Kilmacolm who did just that; some because they felt Labour was closer to their views, others because they disliked Salmond’s “smugness”, Either way, I haven’t yet heard anything from the SNP explaining why the Inverclyde by-election halted their momentum or why they lost to a Labour Party in disarray when they fully expected to win.

It also isn’t true to suggest that Liberal Democrat supporters are “far more in tune with the policies and aspirations of the Scottish National Party than with a Lib Dem leadership in Scotland” or that Scottish Liberal Democrats are “indistinguishable from Tories”. If Salmond was referring to the coalition in Westminster I would understand his arguments. But the Scottish Lib Dem leadership has adopted a distinctive and in many respects quite different policy platform to that being pursued by the UK government – not least on Further Education, renewable energy, federalism and the economy.

I spoke to Willie Rennie earlier this week about the Inverclyde by-election and the challenges facing the party. Ultimately the SNP came into our conversations. It is true that in some respects, especially in regards key polices, there is common ground between our parties (so much so, in fact, that it’s hard to see why Salmond insists on saying silly things such as “[Willie Rennie] has become Conservative with a capital C”). Similarities in policy ideas mean that ultimately we’re going to have to work harder in regards pitching our unique identity as a Scottish party and while it’s right we should work with the SNP where our objectives overlap, the Liberal Democrats will now have to make clear their philosophical and practical differences. I agree that our party is suffering from something of an identity crisis currently but to dismiss us as a Tory Party Mark II is ridiculous. If anything, we’re suffering from having too much in common with Alex Salmond’s party, which is articulating broadly similar perspectives on social justice, Higher Education and increased powers for Holyrood.

I have to admit to being approached myself by the SNP. I will not join them, however much I may respect many of their MSPs and support many of their policy objectives. The reason is because the SNP is ideologically vacuous: where exactly does it stand on the political spectrum? Does it actually have a philosophy other than it’s raison d’etre – Scottish independence? As someone who refuses to describe themselves as either a unionist or a nationalist (while supporting increased powers to Holyrood and, potentially, independence) I see no reason to join a party whose political outlook is determined by an obsession with independence. Instead, I want to be a member of a party which is by nature instinctively liberal and suspicious of centralisation; the SNP are neither.

Alex Salmond is welcome to attempt to woo Lib Dem councillors and activists. However, if Willie Rennie can effectively use the Holyrood arena to highlight Salmond’s weaknesses and outline a bold federalist (as opposed to unionist) vision for Scotland’s future while reinforcing our philosophical liberalism I can’t see joining the SNP as a particularly attractive proposition. And if Rennie’s version of localism and empowerment can prove more attractive to the Scottish public than the obsession with independence then not only will he have gone some way to neutralising the SNP threat, it will be a positive step in our party’s revitalisation.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The phone-hacking scandal: responding to the challenges

It’s hard to believe that two weeks ago the News of the World was Britain’s best-selling newspaper. On Sunday it printed its final edition after 168 years of business.

I’m far from a fan of Rupert Murdoch’s and I see very little reason to empathise with his current predicament. However, I was not thrilled to see the demise of the News of the World because this is a newspaper with history and, whatever I think of it personally, a popular appeal. The paper’s staff, most of whom are presumably innocent of wrongdoing, have been laid off as a result of Murdoch’s tactical manoeuvrings - while those who seem most implicated in misconduct, such as former editor Rebekah Brooks, are shown unmerited loyalty from the Murdochs. I personally find it a shame that in his quest to save both face and his expansionist ambitions Murdoch has shamelessly sold out his employees. Worse still is his arrogance in believing that he is bigger – and his personal interests more important – than one of the oldest newspapers in Britain.

If Murdoch’s aims in closing the News of the World were to deflect criticism and anger away from himself and News International ahead of the proposed takeover of BSkyB, then he has failed spectacularly. On an almost daily basis fresh revelations are demonstrating the levels to which The Sun, the News of the World and The Sunday Times have used what can be described diplomatically as ethically questionable means to gain information – including, it seems, the medical records of a disabled child. The outrage the conduct of the News of the World - in particular – has caused is right and justified, but sadly none of this is surprising.

The consequences of this scandal could be further reaching than the closure of one newspaper. They certainly should be. I have neither the time nor the appetite to explore the events of the previous week in detail; they have been effectively analysed and reported elsewhere in any case. But I think it is important to ask what this means for the future of the British media, especially in relation to how it operates. I also feel that Liberal Democrats, many of whom have been critical of the Murdoch empire and its dubious practices, not only speak out but promote a distinctive agenda for change within the media world.

Simon Hughes, Tim Farron and Don Foster have taken the initiative and have written to Rupert Murdoch urging him to respond to public opinion and withdraw the News Corporation bid for BSkyB. They state that “News International is simply no longer respected in this country. Given the history of the last six or more years, it should be of little surprise to you that many people in this country have no desire to have any more of our media fall into your hands, tainted as News International is by a history of completely unacceptable journalistic practices…we hope you will respect the widespread expressions of public opinion and change News Corporation’s commercial strategy in this country. We therefore ask, both on behalf of our party but also on behalf of a very large number of people in this country, that you now withdraw your News Corp bid for BSkyB and concentrate all of your efforts on cleaning up News International.”

I won’t argue with that. But there is a wider issue at stake here. While I am delighted that Murdoch has today withdrawn the bid for BSkyB, this sorry saga isn’t all about him or News International. Instead, it has exposed the brutal realities and viciousness of the culture at the heart of the news industry.

Yes, question should now be asked as to whether Rupert and James Murdoch are “fit and proper people” to be holding a broadcasting license. But we can’t allow the debate to become constricted around the Murdochs’ “fitness” and the emphasis should be firmly on examining ways of completely overhauling the industry and reconstructing media empires. With so many executives now completely discredited, more important questions must be answered about how news agencies are run: should they be run as personal fiefdoms or can we now address critical issues of governance that have for so long been neglected? I personally hold the view that independent representation on news bodies is an idea worthy of consideration, as would be any other proposals to bring a greater degree of transparency into media operations.

Particularly concerning has been what recent revelations have uncovered about relationships between the media and the police. Again, I don’t feel the need to enter into the detail – but at best the police come out of this looking weak, feeble and grossly incompetent. At worst they are corrupt, with officers being bought and sold. I don’t feel we’ve heard the last on this and I will reserve judgment until more is known about the motivations of key players, but it certainly seems as though the police service’s credibility with the public has been compromised to a greater degree than the Murdochs’. As Brian Paddick argues with conviction, the police investigation into phone hacking was “a complete mess”.

Also, perhaps it is also finally time to be taking a closer look at regulating private investigators?

There must now be more transparency at the heart of government. While the political response in the last week has been exceptionally good, it is undeniably true that relationships between politicians and the media have come under increased scrutiny. As Tim Farron made clear in yesterday’s Independent, “Labour and the Conservatives spent decades cosying up to Rupert Murdoch and his cronies in the hope of an endorsement or a favourable headline...what David Cameron, Tony Blair or Gordon Brown knew about the practices of the newspapers they sought to curry favour with, no one knows, but it appears they certainly didn't waste much energy finding out.” If Murdoch ruled, it was with the tacit approval of successive Conservative and Labour governments.

Dennis Skinner, speaking in the Commons today, complained of politicians of “all parties sucking up to Murdoch”. He is mistaken. I will address the Liberal Democrats’ relationship with Murdoch and his empire, but does Skinner seriously believe that Plaid Cymru, the SNP, the Scottish Socialist Party, Solidarity, the Democratic Unionists, the SDLP et al have really been as keen to jump into bed with Murdoch as the Tories and Skinner’s own party?

Tim Farron was at pains to point out that the Liberal Democrats avoided Murdoch. This is, of course, absolutely true. Vince Cable’s determination to “declare war on Murdoch” may have been inappropriately expressed to undercover Telegraph journalists, but it was evidence of a determination to stand up to the man and everything he represented. Similarly, it was Liberal Democrats who in 2003 supported a ban on newspapers and private investigators making payments to police officers and – when news of phone hacking first emerged – called for a judicial inquiry and questioned the role of Andy Coulson.

And, let’s be honest, Murdoch has never been too keen on the Liberal Democrats. Steve Richards, writing in The Independent, observed this: “Look also what happened to Nick Clegg during the last election. Clegg had never engaged in wooing. In response to his surging popularity, the Tory-supporting newspapers, including most of those at News International, turned on him, again working closely with Coulson.” Murdoch’s papers have hardly been kind in recent months.

I’m not saying this simply to demonstrate how “pure” we are as a party, untainted by association with the Murdochs. Instead, I’m arguing that Liberal Democrats have been at the forefront of efforts to reform the way the media operates and therefore are in a strong position to push for change in the light of current events. We have always been a party that is naturally suspicious of vested interests, unaccountable authority and excessive concentrations of power – all of which apply to Murdoch and his ilk.

I hope that a full and proper inquiry will provide the answers the public deserve, and that those guilty of wrongdoing will receive appropriate punishments. However, that is not the only necessary outcome; justice will not have been achieved until the culture of British journalism – which not only allowed for such abuses to go on for so long but led media executives to believe they were above the law – is radically overhauled.

The final word goes to Tim Farron, whose piece in The Independent perfectly encapsulates my own thinking. The phone hacking scandal affords us an opportunity to reform our media which must be taken. “We need a new order. Journalists must act ethically and obey the law. The police must never breach their bond of trust with the public and politicians must put people before the powerful.”

Great stuff, Tim. Now let's make it happen.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Sexist attitudes need challenging

I was at my brother's in Blackburn over the weekend. On Saturday evening a group of us sat down to watch a dramatic World Cup Quarter-Final football match between England and France. It was enthralling stuff. Two hours and a penalty shoot-out later I couldn't quite believe how absorbing it had been as a spectacle - after all, it was England who were playing!

What you might have realised by now is that the football match in question was a crunch match in the FIFA Women's World Cup. The fact that it was shown at all was quite a triumph for both the public and politicians. The BBC originally had no plans to show any live games, involving England or otherwise, until an unexpectedly large number of viewers tuned into the highlights programme (on at a time when all sane people are assumed to be in bed) and a number of MPs - including Andy Burnham - called on the BBC to support the national team and allow British viewers to get behind the girls.

I can't quite believe that Andy Burnham and others had to do this. The national team is in the quarter-finals of a major tournament. The BBC, rather than sensibly considering how they could help raise the profile of the women's national team at the same time as screening some welcome action before the new season starts, instead subscribed to the belief that no-one in England could possibly be interested. This is, after all, women's football. Nobody cares about that, even the thousands of fans who watched the Women's FA Cup Final only weeks ago.

This is institutional sexism, plain and simple. And if it's true that there isn't a huge amount of interest in women's football, I wonder whose fault that might be? Perhaps that of a media that continually marginalises and dismisses it?

As a Scotland fan, I'm not regularly witnessed cheering on an England team. On this occasion it was a bit different - not least because I felt English success at the World Cup might have had a significant impact not only on awareness and interest in the women's game, but could potentially have led to further investment into British women's football at grassroots level. This is obviously something else the BBC overlooked.

Ultimately, it was the normal hard-luck story for England. A promising performance, resistance against the odds and defeat in a penalty shoot-out. For all the disappointment, it was a dignified exit which is more than can be said for England's other team at the 2010 World Cup. In fact, the women on the pitch on Saturday night looked far more worthy of wearing their country's shirt than some of Fabio Capello's overpaid "stars".

That said, I was more than annoyed at one of my brother's friends who, following the game, said: "Well, at least it wasn't the real England team." The real England team? I see...for "real" read "male".

It's attitudes such as this that have to be eradicated if women's achievements in football (or in other sports, or even in certain professions) are to be taken seriously, let alone applauded. The institutional prejudices of the BBC and the assumptions that women are naturally inferior (or at the very least, less important) might be dismissed casually as an inevitable by-product of the male-centric nature of British sport. What they actively demonstrate is the need for the media to step up to the mark when it comes to promoting women's sport - or at least to adequately cover it. They have an opportunity - no, an obligation - to inform the public about British sporting achievements in a fair and objective way that erodes both prejudices and sporting stereotypes.

Then again, I don't expect any change of heart from the British media...they do, after all, have other problems pre-occupying them at the minute...

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Not brave, not a sufferer and definitely not a victim

In September 2008 I received a piece of news that no-one wants to get. My mother had cancer.

Breast cancer to be precise. It’s a difficult thing for anyone to see their parents ageing, but obviously the “c” word has a significant impact on both those who have it and their families. I’m sure you know what I mean – we all know people who are affected by cancer and the difficulties people can have adjusting to such a reality. Given the destruction and devastation cancer often leaves in its wake, it is little wonder that the mere mention of it often creates panic, fear and a sense of helplessness.

My mother has actually not been well for several years and it has been a sufficiently tough task, emotionally at least, to see her increasing incapacitation not only sap her physical strength but her appetite for life. The cancer diagnosis came at a difficult time, coinciding as it did with both myself and Mum losing close friends to cancer in the previous few months. Inevitably, added to her existing difficulties, the unwelcome infringement of malignant breast neoplasm into her life caused mental torture I can only imagine. What I know and felt acutely was how deep a depression she entered into – something that in many respects was far more debilitating than any of her physical problems.

Fortunately, she underwent an apparently successful operation within weeks of receiving the diagnosis and post-operative investigations suggested the best of outcomes had been realised. Obviously this was a relief to myself as well as the rest of my family.

What struck me at the time was how some of Mum’s friends (she knows many such well-meaning but ultimately misguided people) responded to the news she had cancer not by offering emotional support but instead with bullish fighting talk, telling her how she was going to “fight this thing” and “beat it”. I don’t doubt their sincerity or their desire to see Mum back to relative health. But they misjudged both Mum’s character and the nature of her struggle. Firstly, she’s never been a fighter and other than an egg she has never successfully beaten anything in her life. Secondly, her struggle was not against cancer itself but the emotional challenges that were an indirect but inevitable consequence. What she needed was a bit of support, even encouragement, to help her with her day to day life rather than people delivering sermons advocating determined resistance. I didn’t feel her “comforters” appreciated this at all.

I also found it rather amusing when people described Mum as “brave”. That really was absolute rubbish, based on the misconception that anyone with cancer must necessarily be filled with heroism and courage, enduring the various challenges cancer presents with stoicism and dignity. She was not at all brave, and I wouldn’t have expected her to be; after all, having worked with and personally known others afflicted with cancer I have yet to see anyone whose initial reaction to receiving terrible news is a demonstration of courage. No – instead the normal reaction is one that demonstrates more naturally human traits.

Mum wasn’t brave at any point. She was just Mum. The same Mum I’ve known for over 30 years. The cancer didn’t change her, and make her suddenly super-human or help her find reserves of courage she hadn’t known existed. Like me, she’s always been an emotional person and she responded to having cancer in the only way she knew how. I hope I was able to be the kind of empathetic sounding board for her feelings, frustrations and anger that she so obviously needed.

It wasn’t bravery that led her to inform her family and friends about her illness. Neither was it bravery that led her to accept medical intervention and undergo surgery. It was, if anything, a fear that paralysed her into allowing others to take the lead in making decisions for her well-being. But ultimately she was just doing what was necessary as she was swept along by events over which she had no control.

I disliked people referring to Mum as “brave”, a “fighter” or “a winner” – not merely because they were wrong but because they were dehumanising her. Such people had pre-determined what the acceptable response to cancer should be, and they recreated Mum in their image. They wanted to admire someone who stood up to and won the victory over this terrible illness, not support someone to cope with its day to day realities – and so insisted Mum conformed to their idealised view of the “cancer victim”.

And that’s something else I hated, although it came less from people close to Mum: that of believing those with cancer are necessarily “sufferers”. It is true to say Mum had breast cancer; I’m not sure she suffered from it. And, while she was not particularly “brave”, she was never, ever a victim and wouldn’t describe herself as such. If it’s dehumanising to attribute false strengths to an ordinary person simply trying to cope with life, it’s a far worse thing to paint someone as a victim. After all the role of the victim is a particularly disempowered and stultifying one and definitely not in keeping with Mum’s personality and outlook.

People with cancer are not victims any more than they are necessarily brave. And while cancer, or any illness, can have a profound effect upon people’s lives, rarely does it fundamentally change people. Mum refused to define herself by her illnesses, so why should anyone else?

Why am I discussing this? Because, more recently, the supposedly-treated cancer has reappeared and reasserted itself. Fortunately, Mum has been able to undergo further surgery and – hopefully – the treatment will this time prove more successful in the long-term. But we can’t possibly know that for sure and obviously the recurrence is something that naturally will remain at the back of our minds.

Whatever happens in the next few months and years – and anything might – Mum will always be Mum. And she will always be a full human being – incapable of playing either the role of hero or that of the downtrodden victim.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Disaster in Inverclyde: what next for the Scottish Lib Dems?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

As you may have noticed, although I live in Inverclyde I have not written much about the recent by-election. This is partly because I’ve been away for long periods and not directly involved in the campaign – for reasons which may become obvious in the next few days as I return to blogging in earnest. It’s also due to the fact that not only was the final result predictable from the outset, it almost entirely failed to enthuse the local electorate. To be blunt, I wasn’t overly excited about our prospects either.

After standing as the Liberal Democrat candidate for Renfrewshire North and West in the Holyrood elections, I was asked if I would consider putting myself forward as a potential candidate. Normally, I’d be up for this. But the timing was not good personally and I wouldn’t have been able to run the kind of campaign I would have liked. Also, while I’m not afraid of a fight I am the kind of person who chooses my fights carefully.

But I was very pleased that someone of Sophie Bridger’s obvious potential was chosen as the candidate for the by-election. Not because of the meaningless cliché that she’s “a breath of fresh air” but because she is very much tomorrow’s person. She’s not some party hack representing our past but someone who genuinely looks to the future. A lot has been made by fellow party members of Sophie’s intellectual capabilities and ease in dealing with the media, but as a constituent of Inverclyde I was more concerned with her evident humanity, warmth and obvious concern for local people. It wasn’t simply political opportunism and expediency that caused her to focus her campaigning energies on the local problems of unemployment and low wages: as someone who has worked for the minimum wage she can relate to people’s frustrations easily. She worked extremely hard during the last few weeks and she was a real credit to herself and the party. All in all, I don’t think we could have found a better candidate.

And this makes the result all the more tragic. For those who haven’t seen it, I’m afraid it doesn’t make pleasant reading from a Liberal Democrat perspective:

Iain McKenzie (Labour) 15118
Anne McLaughlin (SNP) 9280
David Wilson (Con) 2784
Sophie Bridger (Lib Dem) 647
Mitch Sorbie (UKIP) 288

This represents a fall from 13.3% to 2.2% on last year’s General Election performance where we finished a respectable third place (admittedly at a time when the SNP were struggling in the polls):

David Cairns (Labour) 20933
Innes Nelson (SNP) 6577
Simon Hutton (Lib Dem) 5007
David Wilson (Con) 4502
Peter Campbell (UKIP) 433

Which leads me to ask whether the 4,360 Liberal Democrat voters who have gone missing since last year can please report to Kelly Street on Monday morning?

If we compare last night's result with that of May 2011 for Greenock & Inverclyde (which does not include more traditionally Lib Dem friendly areas such as Kilmacolm) we can see more completely the scale of the disaster:

Duncan McNeil (Labour) 12387
Stuart McMillan (SNP) 11876
Graeme Brooks (Con) 2011
Ross Finnie (Lib Dem) 1934

Fellow blogger Caron Lindsay argues that “our performance has been consistent with other Westminster by-election results in central and western Scotland in the last few years.” That is true to a point, but it doesn't accurately reflect the wider picture: that this is the worst by-election performance for us since 1989 (The Guardian thus informed me, so it must be true), coming as it does on the back of the worst national election results in living memory. Our performance was not even consistent with our efforts here less than two months ago – and that is in spite of senior Lib Dems visiting Inverclyde and a large number of party activists working the constituency far harder than we were able to for the Scottish parliamentary elections. And let’s not forget – whatever might have been said in recent weeks as parties looked to blame each other for Inverclyde’s problems – that the Liberal Democrats have been a majority force on the council until reasonably recently and have a strong tradition in the area. This annihilation is on a stunning scale, and far worse than I expected. Our party, which for decades has been a strong political force locally, has been reduced to an electoral irrelevance.

What are the implications? Quite simply, it looks as if we are on the verge of extinction.
I'm not naturally given to intemperate overreaction, and I genuinely don’t think I am overstating the gravity of the situation because this is exactly what many will make of the result. The Liberal Democrats have history in Greenock. We’ve been successful here in the very recent past. This result sends out a clear signal that we’re finished in Scotland. It’s not a particularly pleasant reality to be facing.

None of this is Sophie Bridger’s fault. Very little of it is the fault of Inverclyde Liberal Democrats. But if the party is to become something more than an irrelevance, it has not so much to reinvent itself as to recreate itself. The party is suffering something of an identity crisis, both among voters (with catastrophic consequences) and its own membership. Identity with the UK coalition has helped set the cause of Scottish liberalism back half a century, while new leader Willie Rennie has his work cut out if he is to reinvigorate the party in Scotland. Given the size of his task, simply being able to forge a strong, distinctive liberal voice in Holyrood will be something of a triumph.

Following the announcement of the result, Rennie said: “We are listening to what the voters are saying and we will feed this into our plans for the party’s future and development in Scotland. I believe that we will restore Scotland's confidence in the Liberal Democrats and continue to be a strong liberal voice, holding the Scottish Government to account.” That is what is needed. But at the moment, clearly Inverclyde’s voters do not feel Liberal Democrats are listening and they have no confidence in our party or our ability to hold the Scottish – or any other – government to account.

There can be no escaping that this result is a disastrous one. No amount of spin or massaging the statistics can escape the truth. Unlike in May, we can not even blame a further surge in the SNP vote for the spectacular collapse. The outcome is due as much, if not more, to our own weaknesses, failings and public perception of us than to the genius of other parties’ campaigning tactics.

I must admit to being angered by the attitude of a London-based Lib Dem spokesman who explained to The Guardian that "when you're in government, by-elections don't matter as much as when you're in opposition". Firstly, they do matter on so many levels even if expectations should be different for a party in government. Secondly, this language is insulting to the voters of Inverclyde, the Scottish Liberal Democrats, the local party and our candidate. It also betrays a startling ignorance of local dimensions and ramifications, not least the challenges Liberal Democrats in Inverclyde now face if they are to move forward. But I don't suppose the unnamed spokesman really cares too much for the future of liberalism in Inverclyde.

I mentioned the need to “recreate” ourselves. I stand by my observations in a previous post, in which I expressed the need for a “liberal renaissance”. It is not simply a change of image that is needed, but a rebirth - a rebirth based on values and liberal principles. I hope Willie Rennie accepts this, because purely cosmetic changes and using Holyrood as a propaganda forum will do nothing to rebuild the Scottish Liberal Democrats. The party in Scotland, and its leadership, have to carefully consider the direction we now move in - whether towards transformation and recovery or further losses and political irrelevance.

I should congratulate my new MP, Iain McKenzie. In fact, I will be writing to him with that express purpose. His predecessor David Cairns is in many respects a tough act to follow, and I can only hope that Iain will adopt a similarly liberal approach on social and ethical issues.