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Sunday, 1 July 2012

Could Jo Swinson be set to replace Michael Moore?

Such a tantilising prospect has been suggested in today's Scotland on Sunday.


Of course, this is little more than press speculation.  But what David Maddox, in his article, does raise is some serious questions about government thinking and, in particular, what Clegg and Cameron see as evidence of ministerial capability.


Maddox makes the predictable observation that Swinson could be promoted in an attempt by the Liberal Democrats to "end the embarrassment of having no women from their party in the cabinet".  In response to this I'll make three comments of my own: a) there are other, more obvious female candidates to consider such as Sarah Teather and Lynne Featherstone; the latter having done outstanding work as minister for equalities, b) there are a number of other reasons Swinson should be considered for a ministerial position, such as her leadership on key campaigns, and that "embarrassment" over lack of women in the cabinet is unlikely to be the only reason for promoting her and c) in the aftermath of Chloe Smith's dreadful TV performances this week, inevitably questions are being asked about the wisdom of apparently promoting individuals on the basis of gender.  I actually consider Swinson to be more capable, and indeed a better TV performer, than Smith; what the events of the previous few days have shown, however, is that women appointees will always be seen as tokenistic attempt to meet diversity targets irrespective of other factors at play.


If Swinson is indeed appointed as a cabinet minister then these perceptions will need to be recognised by Clegg and Cameron, who will have inadvertently helped to undermine her credibility.


I should add that I'm opposed to quotas and appointments driven by arbitrary targets.  I want a more diverse parliament but feel there are more effective and responsible means of achieving it.  The problem with admitting that the government is "embarrassed" by a lack of women at the cabinet table is that any subsequent appointment of a female minister will inevitably be interpreted as an attempt to right that wrong - the end result being of hostility or suspicion whenever such an appointment is made or even touted.  In this respect, well-intended initiatives fail and only serve to reinforce barriers.  Swinson herself has opposed positive discrimination in the past, famously wearing a T-shirt at 2002 conference sporting the slogan "I am not a token woman".  I suspect she wouldn't want to be treated as such now.


In my view, if you're good enough you're good enough.  Jo Swinson is certainly that - at least on the most basic level.  I was quite impressed with Jo Swinson's performance as an MP in her first term, between 2005 and 2010.  She was a diligent constituency MP as well as a strong communicator of liberal values.  She was a confident performer on Question Time and generally came over as in touch and positive. There have been times when a lack of experience has shown through but as time has progressed she is becoming increasingly seen as potential leadership material.


Indeed, Maddox makes the point that "some see [Swinson] as a possible future party leader".  I must say I'm not one of them, and feel that during the last two years she has become too much of an apologist for the party leadership.  But it is true that there are many within the party who like her brand, her drive and her personal charisma.


So, if Michael Moore is moved from the Scottish Office as Maddox suggests, it would make sense for Cameron and Clegg to consider replacing him with someone who is, after all, the deputy leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Criticisms of Moore are partially justified, including leading a sometimes toothless attack on Scottish nationalists, but in some respect his position has been undermined by the Prime Minister's misguided interference in Scottish affairs and he's done a reasonable job in the circumstances.  It is by no means certain he will be moved.  And, of course, there would be other candidates to consider, perhaps including Alistair Carmichael or possibly Alan Reid.


What is curious is that Maddox reports that number 10 dislikes Moore's "over-cautious" approach towards the SNP, and is becoming "frustrated" with it. Presumably Cameron (and Clegg) would prefer someone more confrontational and adversarial.  I don't doubt that Swinson could be that person, but in my view that would simply be a huge gift to the Yes campaign.


The most concerning aspect of this potential appointment is the rationale provided in the article, which is naturally speculative but is certainly in keeping with the leadership's recent thinking. Maddox claims that Swinson "has impressed the party leadership since the Tory- Lib Dem coalition came together in 2010. In particular, her decision not to rebel over the coalition decision to increase university tuition fees, despite building a political career on trying to get them scrapped, marked her out for promotion with the leadership of both parties."


And so, there lines the bottom line.  Her appointment, should it arrive, would be the product of loyalty to the coalition, subservience to a party line and an abandonment of a previously held position. Admitttedly, the tuition fees vote was difficult for Liberal Democrat MPs and, while my personal view is that those who voted against were broadly right, retained their integrity and gained the most credibility, I wouldn't necessarily hold MPs who voted differently in low regard. However, that voting in such a way (and, in Swinson's case, doing so in spite of having led opposition against increased fees) should be rewarded by promotions to the cabinet table is simply unbelievable. What message does that send out?


I hope, if offered the opportunity to replace Moore, that Swinson refuses.  She certainly has a bright political future - if she can keep her seat at the next election. The chances of that would diminish significantly if, as fellow Lib Dem activist Norman Fraser suggests, she simply turns into a Lib Dem Michael Forsyth. I fear that her manner and approach, while suitable for other ministries, would be ill-suited to the Scottish Office at a time when the nation considers separating from the UK.  She would struggle to escape from perceptions of being the token woman and, more damagingly, Clegg's poodle.


The lack of women in cabinet is the least of either the coalition's - or the Liberal Democrats' - problems. Of much greater concern is the Prime Minister's apparent willingness to surround himself with only the most loyal and unquestioning, as well as the ruthless way the current Secretary of State for Scotland appears to be being treated when he has generally been consistent with the cabinet line. With unquestioning, near robotic, loyalty being now the quality most required for progression within our party, it makes you wonder - how did we end up like this?

4 comments:

Graeme said...

I do think the appointment is being touted for poor reasons, but as I've said elsewhere, voting to make university education cheaper for teachers, nurses and the rest of the bottom 30% of graduate earners, as well as increasing up-front maintenance support for those from more economically disadvantaged backgrounds cannot be one of them.

I value what politicians actually vote to do rather than empty appeals to "it was in our manifesto". I still haven't seen a credible substantive objection to the student fees and funding system changes, which only serves to accentuate the idiocy of our politicking with "the pledge" in the first place.

Andrew said...

Well, I agree the pledge was a poor idea in the first place. Absolutely idiotic in fact. It was the worst type of populism and, strangely, probably had little or no impact on the outcome of an election - an election we know might be close enough to lead to a hung parliament. And in the context of the 2009 debate at Conference, in which the leadership's position on HE funding became obvious, it was also dishonest. No doubt many MPs signed it believing in it wholeheartedly, but all the pledge actually did was give these MPs a major crisis of conscience come the vote, and to make the party look hypocritical and unprincipled. Not the cleverest tactic, I'll agree.

What chance was there for a reasonable, rational, evidence-based debate on the future of HE funding after that? I'm the first to accept that what is now on the table is in some respects a great deal better than Labour's HE policy but it remains far from ideal and has had a detrimental effect on my own prospects (which I'm guessing you're aware of).

There was of course so much more in the proposals than the increase in tuition fees, but what still amazes me now is that the party leadership handled the situation so badly.

As for Jo Swinson, it's not her voting behaviour that troubles me so much as a complete u-turn for purposes of political loyalty. Not only did she sign a pledge, she effectively led a campaign to abolish HE fees altogether. That's quite an ideological jump. And, as I indicated, I won't judge MPs negatively who voted in a way other than I would have - but interpreting unbending loyalty as the prime quality for a minister really is a worrying sign that all is not well. It's a poor justification for promoting a relatively untried person to leading the Scottish Office.

tris said...

Firstly I'd say that Jo Swinson earned my respect for her performances on QT, but then kind of lost at least some of it for taking the line she did on student tuition.

I agree totally with the "token female" problem. This is not the way to fix it. It would be incredibly insulting to her to offer it, at the same time as being insulting to Moore to sack him for no apparent reason, other than that he is a man.

The SoS for Scotland is not usually a very important job. Given that Scotland is not a very important part of the union, and that it has its own government which deals with most internal matters.

It was said that the SoS and MoS spent their days moving their desks around at Dover House. Certainly Jim Murphy took the time out to have the place redecorated at the expense of the Scottish government, and no benefit to the Scottish people.

However, the SNP win in 2011 and the subsequent reality of a referendum suddenly ramped up the status of the job.

I have no idea if Michael Moore is doing a good job. Certainly I doubt very much if confrontation with Alex Salmond is the answer. Maybe they could try to find someone who is as clever a politician, with as good a research team, and his finger on the pulse. But from where?

I've always found it difficult to reconcile what I understood to be the LibDem long-held take on this, with what they are doing now they are in government.

What has happened to Federalism? They seem to have joined the Lab/Conservative NO campaign, when really they should be somewhere in the middle.

I'd like to see a proper Liberal SoS who didn't take Cameron's Tory view, which is , like most of what he does, cack-handed and bady thought-out, if thought out at all.

Better together because we can punch above our weight in wars isn't likely to impress Scots, and any notion that we pack a bigger punch in Europe, which was what he said in his Edinburgh speech, is, in the light of developments, simply laughable.

However, Cameron will not allow the appointment of anyone who doesn't agree with him, no matter what Clegg says, so we can look forward to a yes man, or woman.


Interesting read as always Andrew.

Andrew said...

I like Jo Swinson. I really do. To the point that, in 2010, I spent most of my time in the run-up to the election in East Dunbartonshire ensuring she was re-elected.

As you say, it would be insulting to appoint her simply on the basis of her gender. No self-respecting woman would want that, let alone one with Jo's record on women's issues. As for dismissing Moore simply for being male - well, I think there's a bit more to it than that; he's likely to be moved because he's seen as "safe" and "cautious". Like you I think that the apparent desire for a more confrontational approach with the First Minister is hardly what is required.

The SoS role is a bit more important in the current climate, not least because the SoS for Scotland will help define the Lib Dem attitude towards Scotland, Scottish issues, the referendum and independence. Essentially, their contributions will have a huge impact on how the party is therefore perceived by Scottish voters. Jo is perfectly capable, but I'm not convinced her manner and style would suit her to the role.

I should make clear I don't hold the way Jo voted on the tuition fees issue against her. I'd defend her right to vote in the way she saw fit, even if I would have voted differently. What I find unacceptable is that adherence to the party line (especially given that the option to abstain had been ensured in the coalition agreement) now appears to be the ultimate pre-requisite to be seen as suitable for a ministerial post. This culture of surrounding themselves with yes-men/women will do neither Clegg nor Cameron any good and will actually prove counter-productive, moving the respective leaderships further away from their parties.

What happened to federalism? The party never took on responsibility for delivering it. In the last 20 years, we have failed to formulate a coherent federalist policy. The inactivity on this front is particularly difficult to accept, and in my view we've missed more than a few opportunities.

Finally, Cameron's view that we are better together because of the European influence doesn't exactly sit well with suggestions that the Tories may well be reviewing our future relationship with Europe. It's an example of Orwellian doublethink; holding two contradictory views simultaneously. Basically, if you want Scotland to play a dynamic role at the heart of Europe then vote for independence, because the Tories are so confused on the issue that they have no idea what kind of future relationship with the EU they want.