Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The internal conflicts of Ed Miliband

Ed Miliband is a conflicted and compromised man. That much was evident from his keynote speech to his party’s conference in Liverpool yesterday.

There is so much that can – and has – been said about the speech, not least its intellectual incoherence. But more importantly is what the speech says about the man. It reveals personal insecurities, inner turmoil, divided loyalties, a confused policy direction and a certain fear of powerful interest groups - whoever they might be.

So, what does the speech tell us about Ed Miliband that we perhaps didn’t know before?

1. He wants to be his own man, but he doesn’t know who he is. He knows he isn’t Tony Blair, and his insistence on proclaiming this to conference brought unexpected and embarrassing cheers from some quarters. But Ed Miliband’s problem is that he doesn’t know who Ed Miliband is. He announced that he intends to “be true to values” but it was difficult to establish what that meant in reality. He seemed particularly keen to distance himself from the previous Labour government of which he was part, effectively declaring war on the legacy he helped to create. Oddly for someone who is so keen to project his independence and individuality, there was more than a suggestion that he was playing to the gallery – notably one including trade unionists – in relation to his anti-business rhetoric, his populist statements on taxation and his views on the filthy rich (of whom John Hutton famously said he had no problem). For someone so keen to be “his own man” he failed to set a distinctive policy agenda or even a coherent set of personal ideas. Which begs the question: who is Ed Miliband other than a tribalistic oppositionalist?

2. He’s caught between two worlds. And two ways of thinking. He claims to be reaching out for “new values” but the indelible evidence points to a conviction that Miliband has rejected progressive social democracy and instead believes that Britain would welcome a government whose socialist agenda would undermine business and further damage the economy. As The Guardian’s Julian Glover points out, “not since 1974 has an election been won by a leader as leftwing as Miliband showed himself to be today. Or, to be cruel, Tony Benn’s got his party back”. Miliband essentially wishes to rebrand the same, tried left-wing remedies – a bit like New Labour but only less interesting. Martin Kettle, also writing in The Guardian, considered that the speech amounted to little more than “an eloquent restatement of the old-time religion”. Miliband desperately wants to make his party relevant to 21st century Britain and deliver a new, radical agenda. But, sadly, it was painfully obvious he has little idea how to do this without returning to the politics of the past. I have no doubt that he wants to bring fresh ideas to the political discourse but wasted the opportunity, being constrained by a retrograde philosophy from which he is unable or unwilling to detach himself.

3. He lacks humility and is either deluded about his personal record in government or determined to erase the memory of it. He was keen to distance himself from previous Labour leaders and, by implication, New Labour. As a tactic, this might make sense. As an intellectual stance it is unsustainable. More tellingly, while keen to play up the role of the innocent bystander swept along by events over which he had no control (this does not reflect positively in respect to his leadership capabilities) at no point did he acknowledge Labour’s culpability in creating the current crisis. How much more effective could his speech have been if he had admitted the more negative aspects of Labour’s legacy: the toxic economic inheritance, failure to reform the welfare system, insufficient delivery on the NHS and education, ill-conceived foreign policy, the attack on civil liberty or the excesses of big-business and the financial industry?

4. His rewriting of history in his own image speaks of personal insecurities. Deep insecurities. Is it simply the case that he can not face up to painful realities? Is he a cynical populist who is seeking to take advantage of his party’s disaffection with Blairism and its heritage? Or is he merely keen to move on from the past and look towards a new Labour future? The context and content of his speech suggests the last is unlikely. My own view is that he is, in some obsessive Orwellian-style way, attempting to recreate himself because not only is he uncomfortable with who he is but he is unable to accept himself and projects these feelings onto others. Whatever his reasoning, there can be no escape from the truth that Miliband is racked by fear of unions – unions whose support he both needs and dreads, whose power and influence he resents yet seeks to cultivate to secure his own political future. He knows he doesn't have the power to take the unions on - at least not yet - but realises he will have to if the party is to genuinely be reformed. I have sympathy with him – it’s enough to make you believe in conspiracy theories, jack it all in and take it easy in the Scilly Isles. It must be hard to formulate a political vision when you have limited control over and trust in those who pull the party strings. Miliband is racked by conflicting anxieties, which appear to have sapped his personal confidence and clarity of thought. Even his rather pitiful and juvenile attacks on Nick Clegg (imaginatively calling him a “Tory”) served no other purpose than a rather unconvincing mask for his own insecurity.

5. He’s an authoritarian to his core. How else can his determination to reinforce the division between the deserving and undeserving poor be interpreted? His announcement that social housing will be allocated on the basis of behaviour rather than need is electorally risky and socially irresponsible, not to mention discriminatory. The welfare system should favour the “responsible” he said. Aside from the obvious problems this approach will both cause and exacerbate, Miliband refused to announce how he intended to determine who was good and deserving and, conversely, who was bad and undeserving. What this announcement did demonstrate was Miliband’s inflexible thinking, his authoritarian worldview and the level to which he completely misunderstands the complex web of social problems at the heart of the matter – not least that making people homeless is not the best remedy for creating productive citizens.

6. His economic thinking is seriously deficient. He referred to the economy in terms of household budget analogies: “the Government believes Britain can address our problems of debt without addressing our problems of growth. They are wrong. Think of how you pay off the credit card bill. You need to make savings in the household budget. But if you lose your job and the money stops coming in, you can’t pay off the bill.” But as any A-level student knows, national economies are completely different from households so the comparison is a weak one. Miliband continued by suggesting that under New Labour, the “good times did not mean we had a good economic system. We changed the fabric of our country but we did not do enough to change the values of our economy.” Unfortunately this timely observation was not accompanied with any vision of a new economic structure but a succession of easy swipes at Sir Fred Goodwin, bankers more generally, energy companies and David Cameron. He clearly likes his pantomime villains far more than he does promoting a responsible economic alternative. Other than an unspecified commitment to change banks “so that they are part of the solution” he had very little to say.

As an apparent afterthought, he did mention the importance of low-carbon creative industries alongside a commitment to the environment and tackling climate change which required breaking the stranglehold of the large energy suppliers. You would have thought whoever was Labour’s Energy Secretary in the last government would have considered attending to that problem.

7. He is a mass of contradictions. Yes, the man who is favour of a graduate tax and opposed to any hike in university tuition fees simultaneously supports increasing fees to a level only double what the previous government had set. And this in spite of evidence suggesting the only beneficiaries to this back-of-an-envelope policy idea would be the highest earners. His speech was littered with other contradictions, most obviously his stance on Blairism which ranged from rejection to wholehearted approval and his confused perspectives on social issues which saw him berate the coalition government while advocating right-wing and authoritarian schemes for approving social housing tenants, utterly failing to appreciate that social housing is not in fact a handout but an integral and vital part of the housing economy as well as a key means of tackling a nyriad of social problems.

8. He craves approval, as the above contradictions make clear. Approval from within his own party (“look at me, I’m not Tony Blair!”), approval from the public (“see, those nasty rioters don’t deserve a council house”) and approval from the unions (“those evil bankers will be a thing of the past come the revolution!”). Perhaps this is because he is racked by self-doubt and lacks confidence in himself. It is, of course, not unusual for politicians to be populist. Ed Miliband’s problem is he’s trying to appeal to multiple groups at once – the inevitable result of what in the Labour Party passes for internal democracy.

9. He still doesn’t understand that attempting to score easy points by knocking the Liberal Democrats is counter-productive. Firstly, it makes him look like more of a tribalist than a statesman. But, more crucially, it shows he hasn’t learned the lessons from the Scottish experience, where Iain Gray’s obsession with the Liberal Democrats led to a transfer of Lib Dem the SNP. Admittedly Alex Salmond’s electoral influence should not transfer too far south of the border but Miliband should think carefully about wishing to contribute to Lib Dem woes (as both Kinnock and Thatcher did in the immediate aftermath of merger) given that for him to acquire a majority at the next election the Lib Dems will need to hold on to some key Lib-Con marginals. A Liberal Democrat meltdown would hardly aid the political ambitions of the Labour leader.

More tellingly, he has no appetite for working with the Liberal Democrats or even for establishing common ground between the two parties, despite the fact that this would represent a more serious attempt at undermining the coalition's prospects than painting the Lib Dems as "Tories". I can only wonder what Donald Dewar would make of this. Surely I am not the only Scot who valued the close working relationships in the past between Labour and the Lib Dems but clearly Miliband wants his party to move on from such pluralistic achievements and into a new era of tribalism.

10. He’s not an orator. In that sense he’s right that he isn’t Tony Blair. That may not necessarily be a bad thing: Clem Attlee, Edward Heath, John Major and Gordon Brown achieved the highest office while being neither inspirational nor charismatic. But while in the case of these the perceived decency of the men proved to be an asset (at least during the early part of their respective tenures) Miliband lacks such appeal and can be more easily compared to Michael Foot, a predecessor who will forever be remembered for his delusional conviction that Britain wanted to move radically leftwards. Miliband's oratory was the most nervous and least convincing party conference speech from a leader since Iain Duncan Smith decided it was a good idea to declare himself “the quiet man of politics” and a few more efforts like this could see calls for him to take a similar exit.

Miliband is a leader of limited ability and, judging by yesterday’s performance, even more limited political vision. There were, inevitably, some positives in his speech and a number of potentially useful ideas that will hopefully be explored in more depth in the months and years ahead. Unfortunately, what the speech suffered from most was identified by Miliband himself: “You need to know that there is an alternative. You need to know that it is credible”, he stated. Indeed. But credibility comes from a credible policy platform and a credible leader and currently Labour have neither. Labour desperately needs a leader who can look beyond the politics of opposition and take the party, wandering confused in the wilderness of the post-Blair/Brown era, into a new place flowing with purpose and vision.

Ed Miliband's internal conflicts are undeniable and rapidly undermining his leadership. The biggest problem Labour faces is Miliband’s determination to “be his own man...going to do things [his] way.” Not only because that man is contradictory, insecure, undecided and paralysed through fear but due to his crippling lack of any kind of appeal. Letting Ed be Ed, argues Daniel Finkelstein in The Times, is “poor strategic advice”. Indeed; it verges on the suicidal. Several Labour delegates were happy to tell the BBC that they were delighted with their leader’s speech but my suspicion is that nobody will be happier than David Cameron.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

How can "social mobility" become more than a political soundbite?

Perhaps the most depressing feature of last week’s Liberal Democrat conference, at least from a personal perspective, was a fringe meeting I attended on social mobility. Hosted by CentreForum and the ACCA and supposedly debating “breaking down barriers to social mobility”, I was particularly attracted to the event because of the promised attendance of Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee.

Unfortunately Ms Toynbee’s invite must have got lost somewhere but there was still a distinguished panel of current and retired academics as well as Norman Lamb MP. What solutions did they have for “breaking down the barriers”?

Lamb started off positively, citing the now standard Liberal Democrat position that it is unacceptable for an individual’s life chances to be largely determined by their parentage. He gave a short presentation broadly supporting an agenda of “fairness” and then promptly disappeared to another meeting. Thereafter the meeting became an expression of CentreForum’s inward-looking intellectualism, its disconnection with reality and its patent lack of any idea that could actually make a meaningful contribution to tackling inequality.

In fact, the word “inequality” was seldom mentioned. Neither was “social injustice”. Instead, we were subjected to a lengthy and uninteresting debate about what “mobility” means, especially in relation to getting a more diverse range of people into Russell Group universities which seemed to be the only measure of “mobility” they were interested in. This in turn was followed by an even more unnecessary discussion on “climbing the mobility ladder”. Ah, but what type of ladder? And is it really an escalator? Or maybe even a spiral staircase? This went on for some time.

Fortunately a teacher interjected and angrily but correctly insisted that talk of “climbing” was missing the point. Surely what is needed is equality of opportunity for everyone, not reinforcement of a system that keeps an elite few on a “ladder”? No-one is served by extensive discussions about what “social mobility” might mean to different people, he protested; the chief objective must be to challenge unfairness? This took the CentreForum academics by surprise. To their credit, one of them referred to the aspiration deficit but then was dismissive of commonsense approaches to tackling it. “What are your views on the need to improve careers advice to young people?” asked a young woman from The Prince’s Trust. “Erm, careers advice makes no difference to outcomes” came the reply.

It was thoroughly depressing stuff. The hardest thing to accept was that CentreForum , a think tank associated with but not directly affiliated to the party, has influence in shaping Liberal Democrat policy. A few soundbites, pseudo-intellectual discussions about ladders and recommendations that there should be a few more paid internships hardly amounts to a cogent philosophy on “breaking down barriers”.

The problem with CentreForum’s well meaning but ultimately futile response to the problem is that it is a reaction to political dialogue rather than a genuine exercise in recommending pragmatic solutions. And, for all the debate about the nature of social mobility, there was one stark truth that sticks with me – none of these people knew anything about the crippling effects of social immobility. I asked the panel what they would recommend for someone in my own position and proposed that the “social mobility” they were discussing was a myth (as previously discussed here). The more human member of the panel listened before apologising and explaining that he couldn’t offer any encouragement. Well, at least he’s honest. Obviously in his view the barriers to my own social mobility are so severe thay can not be “broken down”.

The lack of ideas from a think tank disappointed me, but if I’m truthful the thing I found most objectionable was the inability of these people to talk like ordinary people about the things that ordinary people talk about. You know, about someone’s wife not having a job, someone not able to break free from the cycle of unemployment that keeps them down, someone who can’t afford to feed the children never mind think about sending them to university – Russell Group or otherwise. Basically, they were completely unable to relate to people who find themselves “socially immobile” or identify with their problems. Worse still, they had little obvious interest in exploring the complex web of social reality that lies beneath.

I also find it utterly incomprehensible that people can talk about “improving social mobility” without ever referring to the challenge of unemployment.

Is this also true of our party as a whole though? Nick Clegg’s speech was full of his familiar rhetoric: “I have a simple, unquenchable belief: That every child can do good things, great things if only we give them the opportunities they deserve... I have had all the advantages – good school, great parents. I was lucky. But it shouldn't be about luck... In terms of opportunity, we are a nation divided...Odds [are] stacked against too many of our children. A deep injustice, when birth is destiny. That's why I've been leading the charge for social mobility - for fairer chances, for real freedom.” So far, excellent. But what did Nick have to offer beyond platitudes? Not much new, other than a catch-up summer school for disadvantaged children (in my view probably not the best remedy for levelling the playing field). And the welcome emphasis on children is vital, but if the accepted truth that life chances are determined by parentage stands why isn’t more being done to improve opportunities for parents?

As I’ve argued previously, this was a conference of missed opportunities. This is certainly true as far as improving social mobility (and tackling the problems associated with social immobility) is concerned. Simon Hughes talked of a “redistribution of work” that merited further consideration but received none. More obvious economic solutions to relieve unemployment were intentionally avoided in Clegg’s speech. No attention was given to the possibility of enabling more people to reskill and retrain. The reality is that crisis management has replaced dynamic political vision and, as a result, action to alleviate social immobility and its related problems is minimal.

No-one likes impersonal politics or when discourse is dominated by hacks, geeks, party machines or out-of-touch intellectuals. People in Inverclyde and, I imagine, everywhere else are easily turned off by political rhetoric that fails to appreciate them as individuals or understand their concerns. As far as I know, no-one in Port Glasgow sits awake at night contemplating whether the route to finding a job is a theoretical ladder or an escalator. Neither do they think in terms of “social mobility”. They think that life isn’t fair, that maybe it would be different if they had better opportunities to work and train. And they think politicians are out of touch.

The only way for social mobility to become more than an a Liberal Democrat aspiration is for a coherent strategy that simultaneously facilitate economic growth, creates employment, develops an education system that is both life-long and genuinely open to all, improves quality of living in Britain’s more deprived areas, tackles the social injustice of widening income inequality and gives people new aspirations. It is quite a challenge but not one that can afford to be shirked. Bottom-up political approaches can also help – at the very least party policy will be informed by the realities experienced by ordinary people rather than the distant, uninformed and sometimes prejudiced views of the likes of CentreForum.

I despair of all the political talk about social mobility which is often well-intentioned but is doing little to practically improve the life chances of myself or the many others who are struggling to escape from the harsh consequences of social inequality. Certainly social justice requires more than some fighting talk from our leadership and a few short-term initiatives.

Forgive my impatience but time really isn’t on our side, especially with the threat of a double-dip recession and the insecurities it will bring. I know Nick Clegg recognises this. There is so much more to do – I am convinced our party is better placed than ever to deliver the fairness we all believe in, but we can only do it if fine sentiment is matched with bold action.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

A conference of missed opportunities

In my review of last week’s Liberal Democrat conference, I drew attention to the positivity of the party, the belief that Liberal Democrats can and are making a positive difference at the heart of government and the determination of minsters to distinguish themselves from their Conservative partners

All that is true as anyone attending conference could testify. But there was another key characteristic of conference that has not been sufficiently explored: this was a conference of missed opportunities.

Let’s start with Nick Clegg’s speech, which was well-delivered and equally well-received by most delegates in the hall. The big surprise was that there was no big surprise. While not disagreeing with most of the substance of his speech (there was, indeed, much praiseworthy within it), Clegg essentially said everything I thought he would: the predictable defence of the coalition and his party’s role within it, a reiteration of his commitment to “social mobility” and “fairness”, a few half-hearted asides at the Conservatives and some encouraging words for activists. “You've shown – immense strength” he told us. Well, that’s nice. But it lacked both the humility and conviction of Tim Farron’s address as the leader spurned the chance to demonstrate some overdue modesty or a real understanding of members’ concerns and fears. He also failed to move beyond the oft-repeated call to keep on keeping on: “it’s not easy but it is right” he explained. I don’t disagree with the truth of that, but I would have hoped Nick Clegg would have been able to adopt a more pragmatic attitude than “let’s take this on the chin, we know we’re right – just keep telling people how much we’re doing in government”. It’s a tired line and Clegg’s inability to say anything remotely new in regards appealing to the public was positively depressing.

Unlike the party president, Clegg didn’t refer to Scotland or address directly the problem of regaining the faith of the electorate: another missed opportunity to gain credibility. On policy, Clegg also failed to promote any meaningful strategies for promoting social mobility (especially for those of us who are not children) while turning down the option of laying down an alternative economic vision (something that would have been timely given the IMF’s intervention days earlier and the increased likelihood of a double-dip recession). I’m not necessarily talking about a radical u-turn or a “plan B”, but a new liberal take on the current government strategy - an amendment if you like - that can reassure both markets and voters. A series of jokes at the Conservatives’ expense from Lib Dem ministers does not disguise the fact that, at least as far as economic policy is concerned, our leadership have simply acted as the front men for George Osborne. The economy is the issue that matters most, and the issue on which we are singularly failing to be distinctive.

Cable attempted to suggest a different approach in his speech, during which he drew parallels between the Social Democratic economic theories of Roy Jenkins and the route he has chartered. But even he failed to provide any detail or substantial alternative ideas and no-one else seemed willing or able to challenge the Osborne wisdom of cutting our way out of economic downturn as quickly as possible.

Charles Kennedy picked up on another missed opportunity: to identify key aims, run with them and win the necessary battles. We are fighting on too many fronts, Kennedy told The Independent; what we need to do is “pick a few important fights and win some of them”. Clegg’s chief weakness isn’t on policy, but his inability to define clearly achievable goals. Conference represented an opportunity to “pick our fights” and set our agenda, but the chance was never grasped.

What Clegg needs to do is identify what his and his party's chief priorities are in government for the next three and a half years - preferably priorities shared by the general public - and do everything he can to deliver on them. His conference speech made many references to Lib Dem successes, including ending child detention. The problem is that the average voter doesn't wake up in the morning and think "Yippee! Thank God for that Nick Clegg - without him we'd still have child detention". Of course it's important to deliver on this and other issues we passionately believe in, such as Lords reform, but if the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg are to regain their credibility in the eyes of the electorate they have to identify areas of public concern they can both act on and use as a basis for a distinctive new message. At the moment the leadership's core strategy consists of asking activists to remind the public how grateful they should be now we've safeguarded chequebooks and made wheel clamping illegal, while labouring under the false belief that voters will reward us when they finally understand the significance of our role in government.

Mark Pack has touched on something I have long been critical of: the party’s incapability to communicate what it is for. “The party was much better at saying what it was not and what it was against” he explains, and turns his attention to the many and often mixed messages sent out by the party during conference. There is little sense of cohesion and no clear theme or “common message” – and far too many inconsistencies, he claims.

Pack picks up on the party’s lack of economic ideas with a criticism of the party’s failure to promote its achievements on banking reform. Why are we so keen to promote lesser “achievements” over more radical and far-reaching successes?

The message is a simple one, says Pack: “there isn’t a message. That’s a problem.” It is, and it’s something I’ve been concerned about for some time. Identity is ultimately connected to the message. So why doesn’t the leadership grasp this reality; why have we allowed another conference to go by without seizing the opportunity to formulate a positive and truly distinctive characteristic that encapsulates who we are?

One thing we’re good at is telling the public what we’re not. There was a time it worked for us, especially during by-election campaigns in the 1990s. It’s now time to change tactics. Minister after minister taking to the platform and telling the converted that we’re not Tories isn’t a promising long-term strategy. Neither is the mysterious silence on economic issues.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats will be holding their conference in Dunfermline on 8th October. The agenda contains many opportunities for the party to express its distinctively liberal policy philosophies, but the key challenge for the party is to portray itself as politically relevant. This won’t come from a few unreported conference motions, but through Willie Rennie deciding what his message is, determining key priorities, picking his fights carefully (and winning them) and effectively communicating what we are for as a liberal party in Scotland. Hopefully he will be better equipped to seize the opportunities to forge the fresh, intellectually liberal “message” Mark Pack rightly identifies as so necessary to progress than Nick Clegg, who appears so convinced of his own “rightness” that he has closed his eyes to potential openings.

For further photographs from Conference, please see the Photographic Review of Conference on my facebook page:

Photographic Review of Conference (Part 1)
Photographic Review of Conference (Part 2)

Friday, 23 September 2011

Review of Liberal Democrat Conference

And so, that’s the end of conference for another year.

It was certainly interesting.

Prior to the start of conference, I was unsure how proceedings would pan out. Would conference see a stand-off between the rank-and-file and the leadership? Would discontent with the coalition, especially on tuition fees and the Health Bill, overshadow events? Would conference demand a change of direction from Nick Clegg, or would it embrace his determination to keep on keeping on?

Well, in spite of media speculation some things are now very clear. We may not like the Tories and we may not like every policy idea emanating from the coalition, but we’re in this for the long haul. There were no calls to abandon ship or to turn our back on the pluralistic approach to politics. This may well be due to the almost tangible feeling among party members that we’re actually becoming quite adept at influencing the government, especially with right-wing Tories lining up to convince the public of how effectively we’ve curbed their excesses. The mood among activists was far more positive than I would have imagined and, although tempered with a certain amount of realism, there was no call for any short-termist approaches to lift the party’s fortunes.

Certainly, Ed Miliband’s assumption that Liberal Democrat activists would warm towards Labour as relationships inevitably strained between the coalition partners has proved to be nothing other than wishful thinking. A survey of members by the Daily Politics found that almost as many Lib Dem members favoured working with our current partners rather than Labour in the event of another hung parliament (I refused to vote, as there was no option for the possibility of working with the Greens). Similarly, while many of us are concerned that the austerity programme is cutting too deeply and too quickly Lib Dems are not championing a plan B, realising that any such change in strategy would seriously undermine the markets and the wider economy. Basically, we might not like George Osborne, but we’re not thrilled with the performances of Ed Balls and his leader – or their lack of substantive policy ideas or economic strategy.

What was also apparent was the distinctiveness of Liberal Democrat policy. There is of course a distinction to be made between party policy and the policy of the coalition government. No-one could have sat through the debate on Education Credit, Social Care or Community Politics and seriously suggested we are a Tory-light party. Similarly, the motions passed in respect to drugs policy and nuclear power show a similarly distinctive and intellectually liberal policy direction that neither the Conservatives nor the Labour Party would have the courage to debate, let alone provide leadership on.

It was a good conference for Tim Farron, the party president. I’ve not always been impressed with his trademark mixture of populism and comedy routine. However, on this occasion he hit all the right notes. Charismatic and genuinely funny, Farron kept the conference entertained, but also took the opportunity to show some humility on the part of the leadership. Referring to Scotland, he said “Liberal Democrats who have served their communities and worked their backsides off for years, got their backsides kicked. I want to say this to you now, if you lost your seat, I stand with you; I am angry on your behalf; I take the responsibility and I absolutely will not insult you by claiming that this was collateral damage, or an understandable mid term blip. Frankly, as your President, I owe you an apology.” Excellent and honest – and the kind of thing I was hoping Nick Clegg would have said during his recent visits to Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Farron’s speech was seen by some in media circles as a bid for the leadership. It was of course nothing of the sort, but a direct appeal to party supporters to keep faith in Lib Dem ministers and the leader in particular. Praising the role of Lib Dems at the heart of government and in standing up to their Conservative opponents on issues that matter he said: “they are busy in their departments doing the right things. On those very, very rare occasions when Michael Gove says or does something stupid or wrong, Sarah Teather doesn’t come out and slag him off. Instead she fixes it...When the Tories showed hesitancy about committing to true and fair banking reforms, Vince Cable laid on the pressure and forced that commitment. And when George Osborne flew the kite of cutting income tax for the wealthy, Danny Alexander cut the string, and stopped him.”

He was also not afraid to criticise the Conservative Party or its more toxic policies, something that went down well with party loyalists. His belief that “we are a radical Liberal Party putting radical liberal politics into action and blocking Tory policies every day” reinforced his reputation as the party’s social conscience. That’s a matter of some debate, especially given Evan Harris’s interventions on a range of issues this week. But Tim’s certainly our foremost comedy talent.

Which is more than can be said of Sarah Teather. She made some puerile and misguided jokes at the expense of George Osborne and Peter Hain. It might have helped if they were funny, and her speech never really recovered. Other ministers fared better in their asides: Chris Huhne’s speech promoted a responsible energy programme and a radical compensation system aimed at clipping the wings of the energy companies but was more notable for his criticism of the Tories’ actions during the AV referendum campaign, while Vince Cable, again hitting all the right notes, spoke passionately on the need for political pluralism, the roots of the economic crisis and his view on the detail of a stimulus package for British business. He even had the courage to turn against “irresponsible capitalism” and gave his vision of a Social Democratic economic future in which he saw himself leading in the footsteps of Stafford Cripps and Roy Jenkins (I wasn’t able to see David Laws’ facial expressions at this point, but I use my imagination). It was terrific. Unfortunately, he was unable to resist describing key Tories as “descendants of those who sent children up chimneys”. It didn’t fit in too well with his championing of coalition but the party didn’t seem to mind.

There were some real achievements this week, most notably in the motions to end the ban on gay men donating blood, on ensuring our party has a genuinely liberal policy on reducing the harm stemming from drug misuse, on reiterating that the 50p tax rate is going nowhere and reigniting environmental issues, advocating a “green stimulus for economic recovery”. The party reasserted its philosophical liberalism, perhaps most notably in the debates that the media paid little attention to, such as those on Lords reform and the unnecessarily robust security measures used for accrediting delegates to conference.

Admittedly, the agenda could have been more adventurous and the more cynical of us might have considered the “feel good” motions to have been intentionally designed to avoid any major conflict with the leadership. The refusal to allow a full debate on the progress of the NHS Bill proved counter-productive and both Evan Harris and Shirley Williams were expressing their commitment to further concessions and amendments to the Bill at every given opportunity.

At the fringe meetings the growing influence of the Social Liberal Forum was indicative of the mood within the party. I am not entirely sure whether this is altogether positive, with a greater proportion of members than ever apparently identifying themselves with either the “social” or “economic” wings of liberal philosophy; further polarisation is in no-one’s interests. But the SLF clearly has a role to play in reinvigorating the party and seems to have an almost unique opportunity to do so with a strong appeal to members and activists.

The media predicted anger and frustration among delegates; there was, but generally this was largely confined to discussions on education and the NHS. The overall mood was broadly positive and my abiding memories will be of delegates from across the country providing encouragement and support to each other. I am convinced Nadine Dorries is partially responsible: what better antidote to the Liberal Democrats’ collective depression could there have been than loud and very public outbursts from far-right Tories attributing anything remotely progressive to our influence? There was certainly a belief that we are doing many of the right things in government and that these successes are all the sweeter for frustrating the Tories in the process.

The most crucial characteristic of Conference as a whole was the party’s resilience and determination to make the most of our opportunities in government. The next few years will not be easy, as Nick Clegg and Tim Farron are keen to remind us. But we are a party that for the most part believes in itself, has adopted a more mature and pragmatic approach to political achievement, has a positive attitude towards its role in government than any in the media could have imagined and – at least for the time being – is backing its leader.

Lib Dem Conference: Caption Competition #10

Finally, what does Danny Alexander find to say to Miriam Gonzalez Durantez? Or what does she find so entertaining?

Lib Dem Conference: Caption Competition #9

Alistair Carmichael enjoys a glass of whisky...surely it's not hard to come up with some suitably entertaining captions for this one?

Lib Dem Conference: Caption Competition #8

Another caption competition, this time featuring Vince Cable and a BBC reporter.

What is Vince saying?

Lib Dem Conference: Caption Competition #7

Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander share a word during Lib Dem conference. But what are they saying?

Lib Dem Conference: Caption Competition #6

What is Chris Huhne thinking?

Lib Dem Conference: Caption Competition #5

What is going through John Thurso's mind as he listens to Michael Moore's speech?

Lib Dem Conference: Caption Competition #4

So what could Paul Burstow be suggesting here?

Please leave your ideas below, but surely you can do better than "I caught a fish that was this big!"

Lib Dem Conference: Caption Competition #3

Shirley Williams finds something hilarious - what has tickled her?

Please leave your caption ideas below - winner will be announced next Friday.

Lib Dem Conference: Caption Competition #2

Here's the second picture in the Lib Dem Conference caption competition - this time featuring Steve Webb MP.

What could he possibly be thinking?

Please leave your (hopefully) humourous ideas below - the winner will be announced next Friday.

Lib Dem Conference: Caption Competition #1

I took a lot of photographs at our annual conference in Birmingham. Some were quite good, others more "interesting".

Some were quite frankly hilarious. Some of these are deserving of fittingly amusing captions, which is why I'm putting them on my blog - in the hope that some witty and imaginiative individuals can provide a hilarious take on them.

In the truest of liberal traditions there is of course no prize other than the knowledge that you are the wittiest reader of A Scottish Liberal!

We'll start with this photograph of Nick Clegg answering members' questions. Allan Heron has already suggested this: "Nick sings 'I did it my way' but finds the note leaves a bad aftertaste". Well, that's pretty good. But I'm sure you can do better.

Please leave your ideas below - I'll announce the winner next Friday!

Thursday, 22 September 2011

My speech to Lib Dem conference

On Sunday I gave a speech at Lib Dem conference supporting the excellent motion "Protecting Individuals and Communities from Drug Harms".

The full motion can be found here, and essentially amounted to a call to decriminalise those affected by substance addiction while advocating a new drugs policy that was evidence-based and could more effectively tackle the damage drug misuse can do to individulas and wider society.

My speech is below:

I would appeal to Conference to support this motion which is well-written, carefully constructed and thoughtful in both its diagnosis and prescribed remedies for a problem that is responsible for reinforcing poverty and further marginalising already disadvantaged individuals and communities.

There is a welcome emphasis on the very real and serious consequences, both personal and societal, as well as a reiteration of the need for evidence-based policy. I particularly support the call to consider re-evaluating the law, being informed by the experiences of the Portuguese model, to increase investment in treatment and rehabilitation and all-round better provision for those affected by drug dependency.

In regards amendment 2 I am not convinced it is necessary and, as the motion proposes an overdue impact assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 it is probably unwise to be constrained by the terms of legislation whose fitness for purpose is actively being questioned. However, I am in support of amendment 1, with its emphasis on prevention and tackling some of the precipitating factors leading to substance dependency.

In 1997, I was homeless in Glasgow, and then for five months a resident in a rehabilitation centre for people with addiction problems. I don’t wish to discuss my personal history, but the rehab was not the most empowering place. While it had some positive results, it was unable to deal with some of the wider problems experienced by those affected by drug misuse. Most of the clients were homeless. Most had experienced various social problems. Most experienced mental ill-health. And all of us were unemployed. These factors created various problems once “rehabilitation”
was complete – this led to a revolving door syndrome with the same people returning to the same service time after time.

I moved on to a council flat in Sighthill, which Jo Swinson will know as a thoroughly depressed and disempowered council estate with poor housing and living standards and an unacceptably low life expectancy. Unfortunately, support for recoverers was limited and drugs were more easily available than anywhere outside of Barlinnie Prison. But what I recall most about the place was its poverty – not just material poverty, but a poverty of hope and ambition.

So we’re not dealing with one problem but a complex web, a cycle that enslaves. This is why I support the simple amendment, which promotes a shift in emphasis as well as a reappraisal of policy.

Finally, I would like to mention the Kerr Report, which applies only to Scotland but whose principles are transferrable. This is a document championing a new approach towards improving standards of health in Scotland. We are, after all, talking about a medical issue, a health issue; I currently work in adult mental health and there is an inescapable relationship between drug use and mental illness. The report recommended more preventative rather than reactive approaches, the need for evidence-based practice and for services to be “as local as possible and as specialised as necessary” to provide for the needs of service users.

This approach needs to be fully incorporated into the government’s drug policies. Support this motion and amendment 1, and hopefully it will be.

Immediately following the speech, I was intrigued to note that several people had opted to follow me on twitter. I also received the following tweets of support, including the following:

"Well done for speaking in the drug debate in the capacity of someone in
recovery. Taking away the stigma."

"Speech was great."

"FANTASTIC speech in favour of the drugs motion. Looks like only one
speaker against."

"Incredibly passionate, moving & personal 1st time speech on drug
policy by Andrew Page"

"Impressive debut. I look forward to seeing more of you up there."

Later I bumped into Chris Davies MEP who congratulated me, as well as my many friends who were keen to tell me "well done". I fully appreciate it - thanks to all of you.

It is in debates like this that I am most proud to be a Liberal Democrat: setting out a distinctively liberal stall and daring to be different. Of course what is now needed is for responsible, science-based government policy to tackle the scourge of drug dependency. This sensible but politically bold motion was passed and now the challenge has to be to ensure that our party policy is transformed into appropriate action with a programme that can actively reverse the dehumanising and socially destructive effects of drug misuse.

In other words, we've shown leadership as a party on this issue. The Conservatives must now do likewise.

I have previously written about the need for a practical approach on the issue: It's time to talk sensibly about drug misuse.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Off to conference...with history in the making

It's Conference time again, my favourite time of the year. This year I'm actually attending various fringe events at the Conservative and Labour conferences as well, which will hopefully give me a more rounded view of political developments as they occur.

Unlike last year, where I updated the world with conference news via my blog on a daily basis, I will not be doing so on this occasion. I don't think it's possible to get the most from conference, either socially or in terms of political revitalisation, if I'm chained to a laptop. However, I intend to indulge in some critical analysis of events upon my return, in addition to providing some witty banter and curious anecdotes.

The Liberal Democrat Conference in Birmingham will be many things. What it will surely be is one of the most crucial conferences in our party's history. The leadership faces key challenges which are well-documented, but so does the party as a whole: the Liberal Democrats have to ask themselves how to move forward, how to respond to the task of winning over an electorate while delivering in government and how to facilitate a liberal revival. Unfortunately what seems to have happened even before conference kicks off is that discontent over tuition fees, security measures and the NHS Bill have set many activists and members against the party leadership - understandable, but not the most promising nor positive of starts.

There is nothing that conference seems to like more than to get one over the leadership, as was famously the case in 1986 (on defence) but also last year on the issue of free schools. Nick Clegg, like Steel before him, seems to relish the opportunity of such conflict with the rank-and-file. None of this is helpful. As Matthew Green spells out on his Thinking Liberal blog, it's time for the Lib Dems to grow up. It's time to move beyond the oppositional role we are so used to and grasp the new political reality. As David Laws suggested in The Sun, "it would be a disaster if the Lib Dems were simply to evolve into an internal Opposition". If we are to be successful, both in government and in projecting our values to the country, we have to adapt to our new responsibilities. This also applies within the party: while we should be vocally critical where necessary, and while we will never fully embrace a lot of government policy, we must resist the temptation to allow the formation of a party within a party - which would result in a divided party and a core of sincere but oppositionally-minded individuals on a collision course with the leadership. The Tories' internal difficulties, especially on Europe, during the 1990s and early 2000s when they became virtually unleadable are testament to the consequences of such oppositionalism. That's the antithesis of the kind of grown-up politics Matthew Green is championing.

Conference has the opportunity to put the leadership under pressure, to ask serious questions about policy direction and promote the liberal values of its members. I am confident it will. But we can not allow ourselves to be caught up with internal matters and be seen as inward-looking or self-satisfied fighting for "principles" no-one else in the real world cares much about, however important they are to us as liberals. What I genuinely hope is that this Conference will serve as something of a reality check for all of us as well as providing a platform for facilitating the kinds of positive changes we all want and our country needs.

Will it be that kind of Conference? It's tough to tell. The media no doubt will play up the divisions between Clegg and the wider party and between parliamentarians and the rank-and-file. Some of those are very real, others less so. But I imagine the dozens of reporters present, weighing up every word of Nick Clegg's carefully constructed and polished speech, will overlook the passion and purpose of delegates or what actually brings the party together: the desire to create a more fair and liberal society. In fact, by focusing on Nick Clegg or even the actions of the coalition both the media and the oppositionalists do the party a disservice, effectively sidelining progressive policy motions and broader matters of what the party stands for and how it can project its values.

The Liberal Democrats have to think carefully about how to approach the future. The answers will not all be found at this year's Federal Conference but I hope that many of us who dislike what was falsely labelled the "new politics" by Ros Scott will at least see the value in the responsible "grown up politics" espoused by Matthew Green.

Total Politics Blog Awards - Top Lib Dem Blogs

Well, more results from the Total Politics Blog Awards - this time on the UK's best Lib Dem bloggers.

I am, astonishingly, placed 7th in the top 100 - alongside Liberal Vision and one place behind the inspiring and insightful Mark Pack. I am personally delighted for some of my friends, not least Caron (at 2nd place confirming her status as best individual blogger) , Stephen (5th), Lisa (14th), Gavin (23rd), Gordon (76th - a strong first showing) and Douglas (89th). It is also appropriate to see Andrew Reeves at 4th place - I can only imagine what he would make of it.

This is a great result for Scottish bloggers, who make up 5 of the top 10 (I'm counting Stephen as Scottish!) and demonstrates the health of the "MacBlogosphere". Other notable Scottish mentions are WiLD Women (49) and Nic Prigg (88).
1 (1) Lib Dem Voice
2 (3) Caron’s Musings
3 (6) Liberal England
4 (10) Andrew Reeves’ Running Blog
5 (7) Stephen’s Liberal Journal
6 (5) Mark Pack
=7 (4) Liberal Vision
=7 (-) A Scottish Liberal
9 (18) Cllr Fraser Macpherson
10 (2) Mark Reckons
=11 (17) Peter Black AM
=11 (-) The Potter Blogger
13 (-) Jack of Kent
14 (36) Spider Plant Land
15 (-) Living on Words Alone
16 (23) Birkdale Focus
17 (8) Jennie Rigg
18 (-) Nick Thornsby’s Blog
19 (11) Cicero’s Songs
20 (-) Olly Grender
21 (-) A View From Ham Common
22 (15) Millennium Dome , Elephant
23 (-) View From The Hills
24 (-) A Brief History of Liberty
=25 (-) Eric Avebury
=25 (14) Lynne Featherstone
27 (-) Liberal Burblings
28 (16) A Lanson Boy
29 (73) Jonathan Fryer
30 (26) Lib Dem Child
=31 (71) David May
=31 (-) The Rambles of Neil Monnery
33 (-) Too Liberal
34 (-) Ginger Liberal of Medway
35 (-) Solution Focused Politics
36 James Taylor
37 A Life Inside and Outside Politics - Mark Cole
38 Political Parry
39 Sanjay Samani
40 Craig Murray
41 Cllr Jeremy Rowe
42 (33) Liberal Bureaucracy
43 (46) Virtually Naked
44 Richard Kemp
45 Disgruntled Radical
46 Jock Coats
47 Eaten by Missionaries
48 Quaequam blog
49 Wild Women
50 Hannah's Liberal Journal
51 Liberal Landslide
52 Climbing Russell's Mountain
53 Gareth Epps
54 Keith Nevols
55 Keynsian Liberal
56 Meols Lib Dems
57 Paul Edie
58 The Yellow Bastard
59 Adrian Sanders
60 Decline of the Logos
61 Kingsholm Councillor
62 Nick Clegg
63 The Collected Stephen Tall
64 Aremay
65 David Boyle
66 Gyronny Herald
67 Lester Holloway
68 Lindylooz Muse
69 The World is Watching
70 Thinking Liberal
71 CentreForum Blog
72 Liberal Democrats in Northern Ireland
73 Meral Ece
74 RCT Lib Dems
75 Ron Beadle
76 Social Liberal in the Pursuit of Fairness
78 Bracknell Blog
79 Brian Robson
80 Cllr Steve Bradley
81 Lib Dems Pointing
82 Liberal Unionist
83 Neil Stockley
84 Political Valley
85 Southport Liberal Youth
86 Lib Dem Blogs
87 Liberal Ramblings from Petersfield
88 Nic Prigg's Blog
89 An Independence Minded Liberal
90 Anders Hanson
91 John Hemming
92 Liberal Youth Scotland
93 Social Liberal Forum
94 Strange Thoughts
95 Max Atkinson's Blog
96 The Will Patterson Notebook
97 Andrew Hickey
98 The People's Republic of Mortimer
99 Stephen Williams MP
100 Craig Murray

Well done to everyone in the top 100! I am, quite simply, more than surprised to feature so highly but am naturally appreciative of all those who voted for A Scottish Liberal - it's sometimes comforting to be recognised!

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Total Politics Blog Awards - Scottish Blogs

The Total Politics blog awards are being revealed over the next few days, culminating in the overall rankings for the best 100 political blogs in the UK.

Today though, Total Politics published the only real result that matters - the best 25 Scottish blogs. The result is as follows:

1 (-) Better Nation
2 (6) Bright Green Scotland
3 (2) Underdogs Bite Upwards
4 (15) Lallands Peat Worrier
5 (-) A Burdz Eye View
6 (-) Labour Hame
7 (-) Andrew Reeves' Running Blog
8 (9) Sub Rosa
9 (26) Bella Caledonia
10 (-) Dundee Westend
11 (23) Scot Goes POP!
12 (17) Go Lassie Go
13 (-) A Scottish Liberal
14 (-) Newsnet Scotland
15 (-) Suitably Despairing
16 (35) Moridura
17 (22) Kezia Dugdale
18 (47) Munguin's Republic
19 (-)
20 (24) Gerry Hassan
21 (-) View from the Hills
22 (27) Iain Macwhirter Now and Then
23 (-) Alba Matters
24 (-) The Shoogly Peg
25 (-) Universality of Cheese

last year's positions in brackets

A few observations:

* I am incredibly pleased that Better Nation emerged top of the pile - a thoroughly well-deserved achievement.
* Andrew Reeves' contribution to Scottish blogging is recognised with his appearance at number 7 - a fitting tribute to a fantastic man.
* I am pleasantly surprised to see A Scottish Liberal featured as highly as number 13, only one behind Joan McAlpine's Go Lassie Go and ahead of Newsnet Scotland,, Kezia Dugdale, Iain McWhirter and Gerry Hassan. Thank you to everyone who voted!
* Where is Caron's Musings? It's absence from the top 25 seems completely illogical.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Looking beyond 9/11

Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in human history. Like many, I remember watching the Twin towers collapse - I recollect being numbed by the shock, stunned by the scale of inhumanity towards innocents and positively terrified of the new world that had just been created. Nobody could have been left in any doubt that in an instant the world as we knew it had changed beyond recognition; an era of relative confidence, global stability and innocence can crashing down alongside the symbol of American economic supremacy.

What was clear in the immediate aftermath of the atrocity was that, at least in the case of the UK and US governments, logic would so easily give way to irrationality, and that many broadly progressive, considered foreign policy positions would be exchanged for a counter-productive "war on terror". What the 9/11 attacks actually called for was a sober-minded response from the international community, with an honest analysis of the factors leading to the hijackers' radicalisation and their determination to destroy what they perceived the US to represent in political, economic and religious terms. The understandable rage could have - and should have - been channelled into a constructive plan to reinforce the values under attack, while the effects of key foreign policy positions on the Middle East were honestly re-evaluated. Unfortunately, what actually followed was to play into the hands of al-Qaeda and create a destructive myth of an "Axis of Evil" that not only proved an effective recruitment sergeant for militant Islamists but polarised society with a prejudice-fuelled and ignorant rhetoric. Al-Qaeda dreamed of enticing the West into a religious conflict against the Islamic world and in this respect it succeeded: George W Bush was only too pleased to give al-Qaeda the "crusade" it badly wanted.

Like many others across the world, I have been indirectly affected by the 9/11 attacks and their legacy: no-one living in Tony' Blair's Britain could have failed to see the impact this had on UK race relations.. As Bush and Blair cynically and wrongly heightened fears, so a culture of suspicion developed towards Asians - and Muslims in particular. This, combined with the UK government's illiberal determination to cast aside even the most basic tenets of human rights in the name of "security", served to disenfranchise many British Muslims with fatal consequences. Meanwhile the US, equally oblivious to the counter-productive and naive nature of its response, established a string of torture centres including the infamous Guantanamo, while peddling the frankly laughable line that the secularist Saddam Hussein was in some way linked to Osama bin Laden.

Unfortunately, in political terms at least, the legacy of 9/11 has been almost entirely negative: two disastrous wars (one of dubious legality), a misguided attempt to "democratise" the Arab world, heightened tensions between increasingly polarised communities and worldviews, a growth in Islamic militancy, loss of Western political and economic credibility and tens of thousands of lost lives. (On a slightly more positive note, the flagrant disregard for human rights led me - and, I am sure, others like me - to join Liberty. And, later, the Liberal Democrats).

This dreadful legacy is largely the product of the Bush/Blair inability to provide the necessary leadership in a crisis: the kind of leadership that calms nerves and champions democracy in the face of a full-frontal assault on its fundamental principles. Fortunately, ten years later, it is clear that al-Qaeda have ultimately failed: recent events have confirmed that the Muslim consciousness it attempted to facilitate is virtually non-existent and that the supposed tendency of the Middle east towards theocracy is nothing more than an ignorant delusion. But the US and UK also failed for the same reasons as al-Qaeda: they did not understand the people of the Arab world. progress towards democracy has occurred in spite of, rather than because of, the Bush-Blair obsession of shaping the Middle East in their image. In addition, the costs of intervention has been high with lost economic opportunities and increased distrust of Western influence.

George W Bush told Time magazine: "I know that when you're leader of an organisation, you've got to be resolute, compassionate, and you've got to know what you need to do. And I knew what we needed to do. I knew we needed to use all resources of our government to defend the American people". Perhaps if he had used those resources more wisely rather than rushing headlong into foolish wars, the interests of the US and its people might have been more robustly defended.

Bush's actions were wrong, precisely because he misunderstood Islam and the nature of the Middle-Eastern psyche. If the optimistically named Arab Spring is testament to anything, it's how wrong Western political commentators have been. The Middle East is no hotbed of fundamentalist Islamic militancy. Its people have not only rejected the despotic dictatorships that have dominated the region's politics for a generation; they've also rejected jihad. No-one's calling for a holy war - just democracy.

The victims of 9/11 deserve a better legacy. So to, does the US, the UK and the Middle East. While the events of the previous ten years can be neither reversed nor forgotten it is vital to look beyond them, to learn the necessary lessons and build a more just future as an appropriate and lasting tribute to those who died on 9/11 and during the actions that followed. While the focus of the media in the last few days has understandably centred on reconstructing events and emotive reflections on personal stories - many of which are truly inspiring - the memory of the victims is not honoured through recollection and remembrance alone but through political action to ensure such a horrific and indiscriminate act of mass murder will never be repeated.

Firstly there must be a recognition that 9/11 was not simply a crime against the US, or even Western democracy. It was a crime against humanity. It was an international event, and therefore the response should be international. Bush's "war on terror" was in fact something of a misnomer; what he was actually promoting was a strategically flawed conflict with a single extremist organisation struggling to gain the respect and recognition of the very people it claimed to speak for. What Bush did was to give al-Qaeda a profile, gravitas and status it previously lacked and didn't deserve. But terrorism is not confined to al-Qaeda; neither did it originate on 11th September 2001 not conclude with the death of Osama bin Laden earlier this year. All parts of the world have experienced terrorism; what is needed is a cogent international strategy and a global anti-terror network, ideally one which refuses to be driven by the narrow interests or whims of any nation or individual, however powerful. The world must unite against inhumanity.

Of course, this requires a revitalised international community. The UN, already badly damaged in the Balkans, was rendered virtually impotent in the lead-up to the Iraq War by the arrogance of British and American determination to have their war at any cost and on the basis of any rationale, however questionable. The UN was essentially sidelined and has never truly recovered. The challenge now is to rebuild, re-energise and equip the UN to become a more effective player on the world stage, at least as far as global governance and peacekeeping are concerned, while ensuring it is protected from being forced into a subservient role by the world's superpowers.

An international political philosophy of hope and tolerance, rather than the fear and prejudice of Bush and Blair, based on understanding, collaboration and democratic empowerment would have marginalised al-Qaeda in 2001 and will prove equally as effective a weapon against terrorism in the future, as we have seen recently in Norway. The greatest enemy of the terrorist is optimism; the greatest enemy of the fundamentalist reason. The surest way to defeat terror, especially that of a fundamentalist nature, is through education and the promotion of hope in humankind. There could be no greater or more fitting memorial to those who perished at the hands of terrorists . Even in 2001, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, it was possible to discern a sense of unity of hearts and minds as people drew together in solidarity; the news stories were not of kamikaze suicide bombers or destruction but of the bravery and survival of individuals and communities refusing to cower or be crushed. Sadly, neither that sense of togetherness not the faith in the inherent goodness of humanity have been cultivated by our political leaders, and the world is the worse for it.

It is impossible to consider the challenge of creating a positive 9/11 legacy without reflecting on the future for the Middle East. Whether the Arab Spring will prove to be a turning point in world history or simply another false dawn remains to be seen. The politics of the Arab world are immensely complex and there is an uncomfortable tendency for Westerners to generalise and ignore the reality that the area is made up of multiple and diverse peoples and countries, each with its own unique cultural, social, political and religious heritage. What we can be assured of is the overwhelming, and for so long unexpressed, yearning for the advent of democracy. My own instinct suggests that the transition to democracy will be easier and quicker in some nations that in others; the obvious challenges for any fledgling democracy in establishing new structures of accountability, especially in areas where there remain elites with vested interests, can not be overstated. However, democracy will have a greater opportunity for success if the international community, and Western democracies in particular, can encourage and the facilitate the birth of Arab democracy without either attempting to move it at too fast a pace, shape the outcome towards its own ends or intervene in an unnecessarily ham-fisted way. The Arab peoples must simply be empowered to shape their own destinies, with international support and encouragement but not direct interference. Any attempt to impose a system of democratic rule will ultimately fail: strong, effective democracies are not be created but the product of evolution.

To use a biblical analogy, the challenge for Arab democracy is to prepare a wineskin to contain the new wine. If the west can actively, but not forcefully, act as a catalyst for change while allowing Arab pro-democracy movements the freedom to design their own "fit for purpose" systems, however imperfect, the long-term by-product could be the emergence of a new progressive political consciousness throughout the Muslim world that would marginalise the backward-looking philosophies of al-Qaeda and its ilk.

Arab people must be allowed to carry the torch of democracy, unhindered by enforced orthodoxy or the constraints of Western designs. However, the flame should be kindled by all those who care for the triumph of democracy and the defeat of terrorism.

Closer to home, there is a more novel means of defeating jihadist values: reducing oil dependency. There are, of course, many other perfectly sound reasons to pursue this aim, but it is an inescapable statement of fact that it was this dependency that sustained the appeal of the al-Qaeda philosophy as well as Bush's neo-colonial aspirations in Iraq. Taking action towards implementing a responsible and sustainable new energy policy isn't merely environmentally sensible but also a vital contribution towards the ultimate death of al-Qaeda's creed.

Liberal Democrat Party president Tim Farron yesterday used twitter to declare:

Today we'll stop to remember the innocent victims of Sept 11. We'll never forget them. My thoughts and prayers are with their families today.

That is a sentiment that clearly most of us can identify with. But our thoughts at this time must move beyond simply remembering the past and onto forging a new post-9/11 era which is hopeful, respectful of new political realities and focused on the maintenance of peace. In a nutshell, the kind of legacy 9/11 victims deserve.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Are the Lib Dems liberal – or even democratic?

So asks Daily Telegraph reporter Graeme Archer, who concludes that “the junior Coalition partner’s policies have made a mockery of its historic name”. The title of his piece was so provocative – and so obviously aspiring to intellectual critique – that I felt compelled to read further. Mr Archer’s piece certainly touches on some of the key challenges facing a party experiencing something of an identity crisis and is definitely worthy of a critical and analytical response.

Archer begins by asking “if the Liberal Democrats didn’t exist, under what circumstances would you choose to create them?”; a pertinent question which he evades answering throughout his lengthy piece. Being pre-occupied with the name of our party to the point of obsession, Archer defines liberalism as “the autonomy of the individual over either stateist or corporatist collectivism” and proceeds to demonstrate why he feels that the Liberal Democrats’ policy platforms and actions fail to conform to this neat and tidy classification.

Curiously, Archer concedes – much as Nadine Dorries tacitly affirmed - that the Liberal Democrats have been “politically effective” in coalition. His argument is that such effectiveness has come about not because of the minor party’s inherently liberal guiding principles but from political opportunism; as a result coalition has been “a disaster for the Lib Dems”, who have been “anything but liberal” in government and whose tactics have “demonstrated that the 80 years without them [in government] were not a political loss for Britain”. That is a stinging criticism that requires some rebuttal, but also calls for some sober reflection from the party leadership in regards the public perception of our role in government: there is no point in being effective at the cabinet table if we are viewed as sacrificing the very principles that define us.

Archer’s political bias is made evident is his admission that his political hero is Margaret Thatcher. This does not render invalid his observation that our liberal identity should be valued higher than “success” in government, whatever the current view of the party leadership. However, Archer’s more detailed criticisms should be viewed through the prism of his Tory party loyalties and his intense dislike of the “social democratic clay from which the Lib Dems are formed”. The social democratic tail, he maintains, is wagging the liberal dog.

It’s an interesting idea, and one I’ve heard many times during the last twenty-three years. The Liberal Democrats are not liberal, so goes the logic, but social democrats who support big government and left-wing economics. Of course, it is both simplistic and false. But there was always a danger of being identified as a “Labour-lite party” and the consequences of this are only beginning to be felt. Archer makes further valid points in respect to the Liberal Democrat identity, insisting that claiming as liberal victories “policy which the larger party would implement anyway” (such as the identity cards issue) is counter-productive and, more convincingly, contends that “anyone can call themselves a 'liberal'. The trick is to convince voters that such an instinct requires a party to carry it.” And with that he hits the nail on the head: that, my fellow liberals, is the challenge for our party at all levels in the coming months and years. Can our instincts, as well as our principles, be trusted by an increasingly skeptical electorate? And can we resurrect our party not only as an effective electoral machine but as a rallying point for liberals and for those who believe in an open, tolerant and inclusive society?

Archer’s more specific identification of illiberal actions by the coalition’s junior partner unfortunately causes his wider arguments to lose some of their conviction if not collapse altogether. Not only are his Conservative prejudices revealed but his almost rigid, exclusive interpretation of liberalism is laid bare along with an intolerance to those who think differently. His “liberalism” is one which adheres to “the Right-wing view of taxation” and those who beg to differ are dismissed as illiberal. He regards the Liberal Democrats’ participation in government as “not even democratic, let alone liberal” largely on the basis of our stance on such great liberal ideal as free schools, Lansley’s confused vision for the NHS, sub-Thatcherite taxation proposals and the election of police commissioners.

I will take each of these in turn. Archer insists free schools are the epitome of liberalism in action. “Academic excellence through freedom of choice: what could be more liberal than that?” he asks. And if that was the only issue at stake I would be happy to concur: who doesn’t want to see a more liberal education system facilitating “excellence”? The devil, as ever, is in the detail and Nick Clegg has been right to express concern about the potential risks of applying market principles (as were delegates at last year’s Lib Dem conference) to state-funded education - such as unfair admission policies, a two-tier educational system, increased social inequality and worsening the life chances of our more disadvantaged children. There remain questions about how free schools work in practice and to date it would appear that the principal beneficiaries are those who, in the words of Liberal Youth’s Michael Atkins, possess “the social capital to take advantage of them”.

The top-down way in which the legislation has been passed and in which the schools appear to work hardly conforms to even Archer’s definition of “liberalism”. No-one could reasonably promote the evolution of a system that relegates local authority schools to second-rate status or the promotion of choice to a select view as fair, but this seems not to trouble Archer. “Fairness” and “liberalism” to him are diametrically opposed forces, which is why he reduces Clegg’s complex arguments to mere concern about profit motive. Archer simply can not appreciate that for liberalism and freedom to prevail the creation of a more level playing field is required – whether in regards educational opportunity, access to health services, taxation or human rights.

Archer is particularly furious about the way the Liberal Democrats have undermined Lansley’s Health Bill. As well he might be. Conveniently forgetting the influence of Spring Conference, he targets Shirley Williams and Evan Harris, citing the outspokenness of a Peer and a former MP (an “unelected peer and dis-elected ex MP” he terms them) as evidence of undemocratic practice. Only someone who believes that the parliamentary party in the Commons has a monopoly on democratic expression could peddle such an argument; I for one am grateful that I belong to a party in which unelected members are empowered to influence policy. That is clearly an expression of liberalism alien to Mr Archer. On the detail of the Bill itself, Archer mutters that the Liberal Democrats’ insistence that GP consortia should contain “hospital doctors and nurses” represents “a prioritisation of the producer over the patient”. Perhaps. But it’s certainly preferable to a prioritisation of the interests of an exclusive section of an exclusive profession over those of patients, carers and members of other health professions, which can not be considered “liberal” in even the loosest interpretations of the word. As for the implications of economically "liberating" the NHS by increasing the scope of private providers, Archer fails to even consider whether these aspects of the Bill would bring about the “autonomy of the individual” he claims to passionately believe in.

Archer denounces the 50p tax rate as “economically illiterate”, insists the case for the increase in personal allowances in unnecessary and criticises the Liberal Democrat view of taxation as an exercise in “social engineering”. I agree with him that the ultimate aim of any liberal taxation policy must be “free[ing] people from state dependency”. Most Liberal Democrats would agree with that sentiment, but where we would perhaps disagree is on the means being championed. Archer’s promotion of rampant classical liberalism as the one true liberal expression demonstrates his regrettable lack of intellectual dexterity. He clearly has little idea of the social dimension to liberal philosophy and in all likelihood sees David Laws as some kind of authoritarian Marxist.

“Lib Dems also want to delay the election of local police commissioners. Anti-democratic!” roars Archer. By a mere six months he fails to add - and this largely because of perceived operational difficulties. If Archer really knew anything about the potential ramifications of elected police commissioners, not least the consequences of politicising senior police officers (he should look no further than Jersey), he might begin to understand why rushing headlong into this may not be the wisest move. Besides, surely the Liberal Democrat policy of a directly elected oversight of the police is both more democratic...and liberal?

Archer’s arguments truly break down when he turns on the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to the Human Rights Act, reducing our promotion of a progressive, liberal-thinking emphasis on the rights of the individual to a glib “Votes for Prisoners” mock-slogan. Not only does Archer fail to see how the Human Rights Act is in keeping with this stated definition of liberalism, his right-wing instincts again evidence his complete lack of social conscience. “It’s not quite the heady fight of the People’s Budget of 1909, is it?” he asks. Well, no. But neither were the 2010 Conservative Party manifesto or Chancellor Osborne’s first two budgets. So let’s call it even.

I don’t believe I have a moral monopoly on the word liberalism. I am not sufficiently arrogant to suggest that Graeme Archer is not philosophically liberal, or that the Liberal Democrats are the only potential home for those of a liberal inclination. Unlike Mr Archer, I will not assert that I am a liberal and everyone else is not. What I will claim is that the liberalism of the Liberal Democrats is far broader in scope, far more pragmatic in its outworking and far more consistent in principle than the narrow interpretation being espoused by Archer.

Archer’s criticisms of the Liberal Democrats’ role in government are understandable in the same way that Nadine Dorries’ increasingly hostile attacks have been. They represent the predictable frustrations of arch-Tories whose reactionary right-wing ideals have been marginalised by the politics of coalition. However, whereas Dorries’ incessant ranting and conspiracy theories are rapidly becoming the political joke of the decade, Archer at least presents his arguments in a sober-minded and considered way. There is a danger that many will accept his accusations of Lib Dem “illiberalism” simply because they want to.

Such criticisms can be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt they thoroughly deserve. What Archer does do effectively is to question the Liberal Democrats’ identity as a party, the commitment to liberal principle and the ability to remain a focal point for the promotion of liberalism. These are all challenges that must be risen to and met.

More importantly, Archer raises the issue of mistaken strategy and on this point I wholeheartedly concur with him. The challenge for Nick Clegg is not securing victories around the cabinet table or scoring points at the expense of his political partners, but to forge a fresh and liberal identity for his party. A failure to do this adequately could lead to a further eighty years in the political wilderness and the cause of liberalism set back irrecoverably.

And so, to conclude, I will answer the question Graeme Archer posed but refused to answer: “if the Liberal Democrats didn’t exist, under what circumstances would you choose to create them?” Perhaps when the main two parties are either redundant of responsible policy ideas or expressing dangerously right-wing ideology; when neither has a coherent view on Europe; when one or the other’s response to social unrest is either knee-jerk authoritarianism or political opportunism and when the Prime Minister’s response is shameless moralising; when there is a need for a liberalism that is inclusive and fair; when a firm stance has to be taken on human rights; when communities need to be empowered and revitalised to take control of their destinies...

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Don’t you just love Nadine Dorries?

I hate to admit it, but I’m beginning to really value her contribution to politics: as fellow Lib Dem activist A C McGregor observes, she’s rapidly becoming the best advert for the coalition since Norman Tebbit and also far more adept at highlighting Liberal Democrat influence at the heart of government than most of our own ministers.

It really is hard to dislike someone who is so effectively, if inadvertently, fighting our corner. At yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Dorries cut a pathetic figure as she unwisely attempted to undermine Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Dorries asked David Cameron “"The Liberal Democrats make up 8.7% of this parliament and yet they seem to be influencing our free school policy, health, many issues, immigration and abortion. Does the prime minister think it's about time he told the deputy prime minister who is the boss?"

It was a question that stemmed from desperation and the false logic of political ignorance. Even the fundamental basis of her argument was unsound: how can she justify a party securing 38% of the popular vote wielding 100% of parliamentary influence? It was interesting that she chose to focus on the Liberal Democrats’ role in shaping policy on free schools, immigration and abortion – on which I appreciate the current policy direction may be anathema to Tory hard-line right wingers such as Dorries. But, while suffering the self-delusion that she is articulating the “true” voice of her party, she is actually proving how out of step she is with the vast majority of Conservatives who find her behaviour embarrassing. Dorries stormed out of PMQs amid howls of laughter from her colleagues after the Prime Minister suggested she was “extremely frustrated”.

I have never believed it would be possible for the Liberal Democrats to achieve all of their key objectives in government. In some areas, the best that can realistically be hoped for is for the excesses of the Conservative Party, and their right wingers in particular, to be curbed – especially in regards moral issues, health reform and immigration - and that is what is clearly happening. Little wonder that Dorries and her ilk will inevitably feel frustrated as their outdated and reactionary worldview is challenged. Not for them the politics of collaboration. Not for them the monstrous suggestion that a coalition government’s direction could be imbued with liberal policy provided by competent ministers provided by the junior partner. We are "influencing" policy precisely because that is our duty as a partner in government; why is that so hard for a supposedly intelligent person to comprehend?

Anyone wishing to see the impact that the Liberal Democrats have made in government need look no further than the frustrated – and vociferously critical - Conservative right-wingers. They've had their wings clippied and they don't much care for it. It is tempting to argue that the foolish outbursts of the Tory right remind us of what Cameron’s party would be like if they were governing on their own, unfettered and unrestrained by Liberal Democrat influence. I’m not convinced that is actually the case, but there can be no doubt that Liberal Democrats are frustrating their Conservative cabinet colleagues, as even Tim Montgomerie, editor of Conservative Home, agrees with some regret: Liberal Democrats are dragging the coalition away from Conservative manifesto.

I find it interesting that Cameron seems quite happy to create the appearance of using the Liberal Democrats as an excuse for not acting as the Tory right would like him to. What is even more surprising is that both the Tory right and many Liberal Democrats actually believe him. My own perception is that the Prime Minister, far from being an enemy of the principle of coalition, is experiencing and enjoying the rare luxury of freedom from reactionaries within his own party – something not common to his predecessors who were catastrophically rendered impotent through being enslaved to the Conservative right wing. Cameron does not have to pander to Dorries or any of the “vociferous few”, secure with the support of his more moderate coalition partners and the knowledge that it is the Liberal Democrats, not the Conservatives, who are bearing the brunt of public anger.

Of course Dorries’ intervention in Prime Minister’s Questions was a mere prelude to her ridiculous abortion amendment which was debated in the Commons yesterday afternoon. What her amendment would have achieved would be to remove the right of those providing abortions (including the NHS and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service) to provide counselling to women with unwanted pregnancies. Under Dorries’ scheme, which lacks any kind of scientific evidence base, counselling would become the preserve of “independent” counsellors, including pro-life groups and faith groups obviously lacking in “independent” perspective.

Not content with her intemperate remarks during PMQs, Dorries proceeded during the debate to suggest that Dr Evan Harris “is blackmailing our Prime Minister and our Government.” She blamed a former MP, who is not even a sitting member, for Cameron’s “climbdown” and argued that Harris has caused the Health Bill to be “held to ransom”. I am not entirely sure why Dorries feels the need to bring her serious delusions to the attention of the world’s media, or why she wishes to reinforce her public image as a bigoted relic of Tory reaction with all the political understanding of a stuffed racoon. However, what I am quite sure of is that this woman has very little grip on reality: after seeing her amendment defeated by 368 votes to 118 Dorries announced that she had “won the war” and the vote represented a “tremendous result”. Clearly she uses a different dictionary to the rest of us.

I was disappointed, but not entirely surprised, to observe that Iain Duncan Smith and Liam Fox supported Dorries’ amendment, as did every Northern Ireland MP (including Naomi Long). I was also appalled to discover that three of our own MPs – Alan Beith, Greg Mulholland and Gordon Birtwistle did likewise. While I would not wish to impose a party line on abortion (our party is, and should be, a broad church and abortion is a complex moral issue) this disjointed and ill-conceived amendment was clearly not aiming to deal with either abortion itself or the pastoral needs of those seeking abortion counselling and should have been rejected. I have no idea why the trio of Lib Dem MPs could even consider supporting Dorries’ illogical proposals.

Newsnight, which should have been focusing its energies on reporting the Health Bill passing its third reading instead decided to give this publicity-hungry woman further opportunity to bring her party, her amendment and her office into disrepute by inexplicably allowing her air time to give vent to her prejudices. She didn’t disappoint. She spoke of an evil “abortion industry” while hailing the inevitable defeat of her amendment as a “great result” and peddling more of her conspiracy theories about Liberal Democrats indulging in “blackmailing the government”. I really should have pity on someone who is so deluded and evidently thought disordered, but I’m afraid I found her frankly hilarious, like David Icke on acid.

I think that Dorries’ futile and rather pitiful attempts at undermining the Liberal Democrats are actually working to our advantage, helping to demonstrate our influence in government while simultaneously showing up the Tory right for what it is: self-serving, intolerant, unreasonable and hardline. Given our own ministers’ inability to play up their own role successfully, I think we owe Ms Dorries a debt of gratitude.

David Cameron’s putdown yesterday might have caused hilarity, but in the longer term he must reign in intemperate right-wingers like Dorries if he is to retain his credibility, especially in the light of the BBC’s willingness to create a minor celebrity out of a political nonentity. So far, he has played the game well, giving the impression of respecting his party’s right wingers while using the politics of coalition as justification for his failure to deliver what they want. But this tactic will not work indefinitely and may even prove counter-productive: more decisive intervention from the Conservatives’ leadership will be required to prevent Dorries becoming recognised by the public as some kind of “authentic" - but ultimately unacceptable - voice of British Conservatism. It is not outwith the realms of possibility that the Tories will become more damaged by identification with Dorries than they were by association with the equally dreadful Ann Widdecombe.

Not that, as a Liberal Democrat, I am complaining. Currently Nadine Dorries is one of the greatest assets we have. Long may it continue.