Monday, 1 October 2012
I challenge Simon Hughes on our pluralist credentials
Well, I couldn't get to Brighton so I'm in Manchester instead. I'm addicted to party conferences!
Actually, I'm volunteering with a non-party organisation which means I'm missing most of the main event. However, on discovering that John Pugh and Simon Hughes, two Lib Dem MPs I have enormous regard for, were debating at a Fabian Society event, I wasn't going to be kept away. It was certainly more appealing than some of the other options.
The debate asked "Is the future plural?" It was a fascinating discussion (about which I will write later in the week), with John and Simon making the kinds of points you might expect from Liberal Democrats. They defended the coaltion, advocated coalition more generally and also argued for a broader pluralism that is both independent of electoral outcomes and goes beyond party politics. John seemed particularly keen on changing the culture of political conversation and the adversarial style that characterises British politics, both locally and nationally.
It was, for the most part, an excellent debate. It was difficult to disagree with the sensible arguments put forward not only by John and Simon, but also Katie Ghose from the Electoral Reform Society and Labour MP John Denham. There was at least broad consensus that pluralism was positive and should be a key objective, even if the reasoning and interpretations of what pluralism actually was differed slightly. Caroline Flint appeared to have been included as the token Labour tribalist, unhelpfully interpreting the Liberal Democrats' current difficulties as evidence that coalitions are bad, bad, bad.
I was somewhat uncomfortable, however. This was because, while I was in agreement with John and Simon, my experience in Scotland in recent years is that we are not a pluralist party. Their assertions and advancement of progressive pluralism simply did not sit well with the Scottish Lib Dems' behaviour in recent years. If evidence of belief is to be found in actions and attitudes, then we simply don't believe in pluralism. It was something I was keen to talk to Simon Hughes about afterwards.
Simon was happy to give me some of his time, perhaps only because I was a Lib Dem at Labour conference. I am very grateful he did, because we had an interesting discussion about the recent history of the party in Scotland, my concerns for the future and criticisms of the tribalist positions we have taken in recent years.
I explained to Simon that I don't believe that the catastrophe in 2011 was, as commonly believed, entirely due to associations with the Westminster coalition. We'd have faced a struggle in any case. He agreed. Many of our problems, I suggested, stemmed from our refusal to enter into coalition talks with the SNP in 2007. Whether we decided to go into coalition is another matter, but not to even consider talks simply because the SNP supported an independence referendum was plainly ill-advised. Simon had previously made some intellectual points about coalition which I felt this experience proved: a) that parties can be punished for not entering coalition as well as actually doing so and b) it is foolish of a minor party to align itself too closely with one particular partner - in our case the Labour Party. The consequences of this non-pluralistic approach is our appearing petty and tribal. It also led to a loss of political credibility in the eyes of many and compromised our democratic and pluralistic credentials. Worse still from the point of view of those opposed to a referendum, continued objections from the Liberal Democrats and others simply played into the hands of the SNP. That referendum will now happen.
We've lost some of our identity in the process, I told Simon. And since then, our actions continually defend this decision as shown in our antipathy towards the SNP. At leadership level, we still seem more willing to co-operate with Labour, as witnessed by Tavish Scott's recent comments in The Scotsman and Willie Rennie, at the bloggers' interview, saying positive things about Johann Lamont but nothing generous in respect to the First Minister. If any more evidence was needed, one only has to consider the misguided attempt by the Scottish leader to smear the SNP in his conference speech. Our attitude towards other parties is not governed by a pluralistic approach, but by resentments and past relationships. I put it to Simon that this decision made it harder to defend the Westminster coalition in Scotland: how could we refuse to talk to a potential coalition partner who shared many of our political beliefs over something as trivial as a referendum, while happily entering a coalition with a party both unloved in Scotland and whose policies are often diametrically opposed to our own and the views of Scottish voters?
Simon agreed with most of this. He explained that he disagreed with the decision made by the Scottish Lib Dems in 2007 and that he was surprised by it. He agreed it was not pluralism in action. He accepted the analysis that our identity, characterised by co-operation and respect for democratic outcomes, had suffered as a result. He also expressed criticisms and concerns that I'm sure he wouldn't want repeated on here - but it was quite clear that he understands the nature of Scottish politics and some of the problems we've created for ourselves by forgetting that being liberal and democratic means that we're also pluralists.
As for the future, Simon was cautiously optimistic. He sees opportunities for the Liberal Democrats in a post-referendum Scotland, as do I. But they're opportunities that will only be taken if we again embrace genuine pluralism.
I have always liked Simon, but I like him a little more after last night's conversation. There's no doubt he is a real pluralist committed to a politics of collaboration, for pragmatic as well as ideological reasons. The Scottish Liberal Democrats, if we are again to become a force, would do well to adopt a similar approach.