Monday, 8 October 2012

The SNP need quality opposition - the Lib Dems can provide it

The SNP government have had a reasonable eighteen months in which it has done many things that it, the country and in fact liberals can be proud of.

That said, there are times when its decisions really do need to be challenged.  It is at times like these that it becomes blatantly obvious that the SNP need quality opposition; the kind of opposition that might be expected from a Scottish Labour Party looking to forge a new identity and reconnect with voters.

Not that Labour are likely to be critical of the SNP's centralising instincts, but I would have imagined that Johann Lamont has had sufficient time to revitalise her party following its catastrophic defeat in 2011, and that she might have instilled in it a new sense of purpose and direction.  I might also have imagined that she'd have set out a distinctive policy platform - her speech last week suggested that she has grasped this realisation of the need for distinctiveness, but that there has been little imagination employed in creating this fresh new policy direction.

No doubt that Johann Lamont wanted to project a pragmatic and realistic alternative way forward.  What she has succeeded in doing is creating a confused, muddled mess.  Her conference speech, like many opposition attempts to outmanoeuvre the SNP, failed dramatically in its principal aim and serves only to underline how divided and lacking in direction Scottish Labour now are.  Opinion is divided on whether Lamont is, or is not, lurching to the right; whether this is pragmatic realpolitik or an abandonment of Labour principles.  And that's just among Labour members.

Last week also witnessed a rather ugly opposition day debate on "Scotland's future", in which Labour resorted to ugly and personal attacks.  If this partisan tribalism is "Scotland's future" then I for one don't want to be part of it.  This attitude, particularly on the part of Labour, is evident in all their dealings with the SNP.  On last week's FMQs, journalist Eddie Barnes observed that when "Salmond makes a defence of the principle of universal services...Lamont respond[ed] with a personal attack".  This tribalism neatly encapsulates everything we've come to expect of Scottish Labour.  

Lamont hopes to convince Scottish voters that her party is fit for government.  On recent evidence, Scottish Labour isn't even fit for opposition.

So, who else can provide the kind of opposition so necessary in a healthy democracy?  The Conservatives?  To a point they can.  There have been times when I've been impressed by Ruth Davidson.  Of course the Conservatives have their own internal difficulties, as well as suffering from inevitable identification with what happens in Westminster.  That said, Davidson is having a little more success that her Labour counterpart in articulating a policy direction and bringing her party with her.  The principal problem for her is that she isn't Annabel Goldie: she lacks that personal touch and struggles to resonate with the public.  When she does challenge Alex Salmond's party, especially on policy, her own ideas are often so out of touch with public sympathies that inevitably it hinders her effectiveness.  Davidson is finding a voice for her party, but it is still the toxic voice of Conservatism in the eyes of many Scots.

Partick Harvie is developing something of a reputation.  He has the advantage of being entertaining as well as  possessing a real knowledge of key policy issues. He is a natural pluralist but isn't afraid to hold the government to account. He also has the advantage of not having his politics determined by a defence of the Union - too often an impediment to reason in Scottish politics. Patrick's Green Party, with its two MSPs, clearly punches above its weight and provide the robust intellectual challenges to the SNP that really should be provided by Labour, but even this falls far short of the quality opposition Scottish democracy urgently needs.

Willie Rennie experiences many of the same difficulties as Patrick Harvie due to the Scottish Liberal Democrats' status as a minority party (with five MSPs).  Rennie has a different approach than Harvie, which works best when it is not personality driven and transcends the partisan divisions of Holyrood politics.  His FMQs performances have been somewhat mixed but an example of Rennie at his best can be seen in last week's FMQs when he asked a question about extending early intervention for two-year-olds, which he supported with expert opinion on the matter.  The First Minister was unable to answer the question satisfactorily, focusing instead on the government's existing commitment to three and four-year-olds.  Rennie's response?  To praise the progress made already but to add that "I want to join in the consensus...but we need a bit more commitment.  If a two-year-old misses out, they miss out forever. We need a radical change to do more.."  To which Salmond was left making comparisons between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

When Rennie's contributions are measured, considered and free from personal attacks he cuts a far more assured figure.  It also makes him more effective on a number of levels.  Firstly, in regards appearances, he is able to project himself as rational and above the pettiness of party politics.  Secondly, when he appeals to pluralism, as he did here, he shows a willingness to co-operate while placing the ball firmly in the SNP's court.  Thirdly, he is able to create more difficulties for the SNP and the First Minister via this approach than with the kinds of personality-centred methods that have persistently failed to deliver.

Of course, effective opposition goes beyond leaders' performances in FMQs. That really is Labour's problem: Lamont's conference speech has highlighted the divisions within the Labour Party and its ongoing identity crisis. The inability of Labour and the Conservatives to provide the level of opposition democracy demands means that Willie Rennie (and Patrick Harvie) must raise their games. If they are able to provide strong voices, critical where necessary but collaborative where possible, they could forge significant opportunities for their respective parties.

I wrote over a year ago of the need for a liberal renaissance.  If that renaissance is to become a reality, then the Scottish Liberal Democrats, and Willie Rennie in particular, have to make opposition work.  This is a tough challenge given the limited parliamentary numbers and public identification with the Westminster coalition, but if the quality of Rennie's performance as last week's FMQs is evidence of a new approach to opposition there is every reason to be optimistic.

Certainly, if the attitudes, reason, attention to detail, pragmatism and desire to achieve progressive change that so characterised Rennie's contribution can become hallmarks of the public perception of what our party is, we can be confident that our wider messages will be received more positively.  No-one wants to take lectures from arrogant tribalists, no matter how much truth those lectures may contain.

So, in a nutshell, with the principal opposition parties in Holyrood being either in disarray or ineffective, Willie Rennie has to master the art of opposition.  It shouldn't be too difficult - after all, isn't opposition what we're supposed to be good at?


Anonymous said...

For this to work, Willie will need to change where he is getting his political advice from. It may not be in the natural character of the man but his leadership so far has been characterised by making wild personal attacks and unsubstantiated allegations rather than a positive and pluralist contribution.

Andrew said...

Anonymous - I agree. Too often Willie Rennie has allowed himself too often to be drawn into making personal attacks. It doesn't befit him, and almost always doesn't work. At last week's FMQs he was impressive however; whether this is a sign of things to come I can't say, but it's certainly positive and it's where we need to go as a party. We need to actively embrace pluralist politics - in practice as well as in theory.

"Willie will need to change where he is getting his political advice from". I think he's made some important realisations in recent months that will hopefully inform his direction. Not too sure he's likely to change his advisors in the foreseeable future though.

Barney Thomson said...

Yes, Rennie has the most potential of all the minority party leaders to provide an effective opposition voice. Let's face it, he has little competition.

He did appear to come over well on last week's FMQs but Anonymous and Andrew have highlighted his inconsistency and his tendency to adhere slavishly to advice from advisers.

Indeed, his contribution to last week's FMQs may be a case in point. The value of early (non-physical) intervention before 36 months is hotly debated amongst those who provided Willie's "expert opinion".
and their peers. Children develop in different ways and can fail to meet some guidance signs whilst overtaking others. Dangers lie on both sides of the debate in that genuine developmental problems can be missed if parental care is inadequate. Conversely, interference with the natural development of a child can cause problems too. If Willie Rennie is serious about pushing the improvement of early intervention procedures in Scotland, I'd encourage him to take it further, not necessarily limiting his interest to age groups.

Anonymous said...


Excellent blog and very informative. However I don't agree with your opinion on Willie Rennie. I can only assume you know him personally or have met him. From an outside view I find he comes across as very small against the others like Davidson and Lament. It feels like he is afraid to have a distinctive policy from that of your party down south and is therefor infected by a toxic brand the equal of the Conservatives at the moment. His performances in the main are poor and he has allowed himself to be swallowed by the NO campaign which means that the liberal message of federalism is seen to be hollow.

I will admit that I support via the ballot box the SNP as a means to an end. I consider myself to by very Liberal in nature and was close to finding a home in your party when Charles kennedy was leader and the party was or appeared to be moving centre left. What happened to CK and how it played out disgusted myself and meant that I could never support the party. The other part is I believe in Independence as the best way forward for Scotland so therefor will not vote for a party that supports the Union.

Longer term I hope that the Liberals in an independent Scotland is a party I can join and be a part of but representatives like Willie Rennie have a lot of work to do and in Nick Clegg and Swinton you have people who are not in any way likeable to someone like myself.

I will continue to follow your blog though and hope that possibly we can learn from each other with an honest exchange of views.

cynicalHighlander said...

Willie Rennie has to master the art of opposition.

Personally he has to become a leader first but as he lacks that quality which is self evident in how he conducts himself he will not be effective in either task.