Friday, 22 March 2013

Referendum date reaction

Well, the date has finally been announced and in a very short 18 months' time the referendum will be upon us.

Scottish voters will have their say on 18th September 2014.  This is, of course, excellent news and we can now look forward to a year and a half of intense debate about the constitutional future of Scotland.

For several years I believed that a referendum would be the best possible way of dealing with the issue and, at last, it is set to become a reality.  The Scottish public are to have the opportunity they deserve.  Well done all those who made it happen, from various parties and of none.

My initial reaction was relief that at least the question of the date has now been definitively answered.  I look forward to voting in that referendum, as I am sure do many others.

Admittedly, when the news initially broke it didn't represent to me the big story others have made it. At the time I was engrossed in attempting to make sense of the effect of Osborne's budget on the Scottish economy and determined that this was not, in fact, a Budget aimed at improving the economy but instead geared towards political considerations. Most of the positives actually stem from Nick Clegg's influence in government and, those aside, the Budget represented another missed opportunity as Osborne demonstrated his lack of imagination in addition to his more pressing political and financial constraints.

Against the backdrop of the Budget, this seemed like a pretty trivial piece of news. After all, it wasn't unexpected. But, following some reflection I came to appreciate that this is a far from trivial matter - 18th September 2014 will be a momentous day in Scottish political history, in UK constitutional history and for Scotland's people. Its ramifications will have enormous political, social, cultural and economic effects. People will remember this date for decades after Osborne's attempts at Chancellor impressions have long been forgotten.

So now we finally have a date, what chance of stepping up the quality of the debate?

I have been interested to read others responses - not least this one on Lib Dem Voice, which takes the view that Alex Salmond shouldn't have timed the referendum to coincide with Lib Dem Conference. I'll try to be polite in my response, but the best thing that can be said is that this is an unnecessary concern and the idea that Alex Salmond or anyone else in the SNP spends their time thinking about our conference is moderately amusing. I'm afraid even I, as a conference-loving liberal, recognise that the referendum is far more important to Scotland's future than a gathering of the party faithful in Liverpool.  I also don't see what all the fuss is about - surely there are such things as postal votes?

I was intrigued however by the choice of date, for another reason entirely.  I'm sure it's completely accidental but 18th September 2014 will be the 100th anniversary of the Irish Home Rule Bill receiving Royal Assent and the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the Congress of Vienna, which achieved a new "balance of power" in Europe.  It seems that, given the history this date has with redesigning boundaries and redefining nations, it is a more than fitting date for such a historic occasion.

I would hope that Scots of all political persuasions and on both sides of the independence argument can welcome this announcement and look forward to settling the question.  I for one look forward to 18th September next year with anticipation - and a sense of cautious optimism.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Lib Dems must learn to trust voters

"No entry to the general public": is this attitude the product of
political parties' inability to trust voters?
Whenever a political party finds itself in a self-created crisis, the common diagnosis is that its ills are a product of the public losing trust in that party.  This is true of the Conservatives in the 1990s, of Blair’s Labour Party in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion and the Scottish Liberal Democrats following their electoral annihilation in 2011.

The notion that parties suffer as a direct result of public losing trust in them is a compelling one, not least because it contains a great deal of truth.  But such an analysis is a superficial one that observes the symptom rather than the cause.

The loss of faith in political parties – and in politics itself – is simply a by-product of politicians losing faith in the people they represent.  Party structures are often archaic, products of old ways of thinking, inward-looking and relating only to an ever-decreasing number of party faithful.  If that is what political parties remain, then it is little wonder that people will lose faith in what they offer.

When parties become disconnected with voters, it is because the vital conversations are not happening.  And they don’t happen because, whether they realise it or not, parties don’t trust the public.  At our spring conference, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg suggested that even the party membership could not possibly understand something as complex as the Justice and Security Bill.  This condescending attitude, the assumption that mere voters can elect a government but cannot be trusted to grasp policy detail, is not an uncommon one.  It is further evidenced in Clegg’s dogged defence of coalition, which seems rooted in a fear that the public simply don’t understand what he’d trying to achieve.  He doesn’t trust the public, and so the public don’t trust us.

When politicians don’t trust the public, they become defensive. Very defensive. It’s not an attractive trait in someone elected to serve the public. Generally, it does little to win votes.  Clegg’s refusal to do anything more with the public verdict on his party reflected  in recent elections results other than to “take it on the chin” and stubbornly carry on is further evidence of an unwillingness to listen to and trust the voters’ expressed views, and again does very little to aid his or our party’s appeal.

Political parties must learn to trust, in order to be trusted.  How does this happen? Any political party aspiring to future success needs to think beyond innovative campaigning methods, however useful new approaches to political evangelism might be. Instead, parties need to root themselves in people’s experience, move beyond the tribal political landscape to engage and listen, become a focal point for a vibrant, open, national conversation and be able to bring people together to argue, collaborate and negotiate.

Politics is closed for many.  There is very little public participation.  But as the voluntary sector and pressure organisations such as 38 degrees and Unlock Democracy have shown, this isn’t for lack of interest. What these organisations recognise is the centrality of relationship to conversation.  Political parties, on the other hand, are too focused on delivery. Clegg is particular is keen to play up the role his party have played in “delivering” on various fronts.  All that matters for him is that something measurable occurs which can be claimed as an achievement. That, however, is not how the public work. The public cares little for management speak; nor do they want to be told how much is being done for them, if only they understood.  Instead they prefer approaches that suggest compassion, understanding and empathy. The managerial language itself is a product of a misguided attempt to convince those that don’t trust to do so, without ever showing a willingness to trust what the public are saying.

As a growing number of popular causes demonstrate, the public are not shy about expressing their concerns, fears, aspirations and hopes. This is changing our politics, but perversely many of the newly politicised don’t see conventional party politics as their natural home. The reaction of parties to such groups, especially single issue campaigns, is often one of suspicion – thus reinforcing the mutual inability to trust.

Top-down approaches and obsession with “delivery” is born out of an inability to trust and breeds distrust. This should be the politics of the past, but seems to be very much a feature of coalition thinking.  Not only do parties have to start trusting people, but those people have to feel this to be true.

The instinct to direct, control and lead the conversation speaks of a mindset that cannot trust voters; an imperial mindset that, even in the 21st century, believes that a disconnected cabal knows best.  The desire to control and command does not lend itself to trust others, or indeed to being trusted.  Neither do such inclinations do much for furthering positive relationships, whose centrality and importance to fulfilled living is self-evident.

A political party that trusts the public will not only listen but be receptive.  It will seek to empower rather than control. Its identity will stem from experience of engaging with voters, rather than vice versa. It will promote relationship above delivery; working with people rather than for them.  Such relationships will inevitably be challenging but they will also be supportive.

In the 1980s, the SDP realised this.  The SDP trusted people, perhaps insufficiently – but they were quick to style themselves as an alternative to the politics based on mistrust of “ordinary” people. The SDP failed to break the allegorical mould either electorally or culturally, but a new approach was pioneered: trusting people to stand up for their own interests.  Perhaps the sad demise of the SDP is one reason why trusting voters didn’t catch on – it seemed there was little electoral advantage to be gained from it.

The SDP (and, for that matter, their Alliance partners) knew that voters respond more positively to discussion about the kind of society we want to create rather than precise policy details and programmes for government.  They dared to suggest that people were more important than manifestos and political institutions – something also identified by Alex Salmond’s SNP who were elected to majority government in 2011 in spite of, rather than because of, their key political objective.

Why should politicians trust voters?  Firstly, because they need to abandon the false belief that it is politicians, and political parties, that wield power – a belief that undermines plurality and democratic values. This notion is in any case faintly ridiculous today, not least in the aftermath of a global recession. Secondly, when all of today’s political parties all have a problem with diversity and rapidly shrinking memberships, trusting voters and daring to engage positively with them will bring much needed vitality and freshness into the political sphere.  And thirdly, because if parties refuse to change they will inevitably die.

Labour mistakenly placed its trust in PR consultants, managers and professional politicians.  For all the talk of “the Big Society”, the Conservatives show no willingness to do things very differently.  The Liberal Democrats (largely in order to play up our achievements in – and the benefits of – coalition government)  are focused on “delivery”, lacking the insight to recognise that the attitudes at the heart of this emphasis are entirely at odds with their claimed ethos of empowering society.

A parent or teacher hopes that they can, via their efforts, help a child to fulfil his or her potential.  They place trust in the child. It is through such relationships that the child in turn learns to trust.  This is a simple metaphor but it applies to modern politics.  A politics that is above this reality of human relationship and interaction does not deserve to survive. As the desire for love is everywhere, so is that for democracy – even those cynical about politics support democracy. That democracy must be deepened rather than demeaned, expanded rather than diminished as people are enabled to positively impact the world in which they live.

That is the reality, and it is one central to party development. People treated as strangers and outsiders are not trusted, and thus it is no surprise when they don’t trust in return. Learning to trust could be, for the Liberal Democrats, the key to a revival in electoral fortunes.  But electoral good fortune cannot be an end in itself.  Trevor Jones famously told Liberal Assembly “I love those votes!” but times have moved on and we must be far more focused on the voter than the vote. Real pluralism demands quality conversation between political parties and the public – with support groups, charities, trade unions, service users and non-partisan political groups.

Political conversation in recent decades has essentially been a matter of politicians presenting their pre-conceived schemes to the public and asking for their approval. That arrangement is no longer fit for purpose.  Our political parties must learn to lead democratic conversations, trusting the public to do what politicians themselves do: talk, debate, argue, negotiate, find solutions, work together, look forward, consider options and make plans.

We have to again learn to trust to the voting public rather than ourselves.  This is more than a listening exercise, and represents both the product and pre-requisite of strong democracy. This will be neither easy nor comfortable but the inescapable reality is that, whether we trust the verdict of the electorate or not, it will have its say in 2015.  If we can demonstrate that we trust them to make decisions, the understand what is best for them and their communities,to identify how we can do things better then there could be more reason for hope in the future than many commentators or political observers imagine.

Trusting is never easy but, if our democracy is not only to survive but be strengthened and revitalised, it is essential.  Are the Liberal Democrats up to the challenge?

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Are we a party that supports Northern Isles separatism?

Could the Orkney Isles form part of a new crown dependency?

Supposedly we are, after yesterday's vote at the Scottish Liberal Democrats' conference.

It's a conference I haven't been able to attend personally, due to work commitments. Unusually, the agenda was more daring, if not ambitious, than has generally been the case in recent years - with significant debates on secret courts (at which the government position was roundly defeated, again) and mental health issues (in which, even as an absentee member, I feel proud that our party had the courage to discuss this matter so openly and even prouder that we appear to understand many of the issues faced by people with mental ill-health). Unfortunately, what excites the membership doesn't necessarily excite the media and - rather than hailing our progressive attitudes on tackling Scotland's mental health problems - today's headlines are focused on what Scotland on Sunday calls a "Northern Isles devolution bid".

Before dealing with the response from the Scottish media, it might be useful to actually take a look at what was being proposed and what was actually said.  The motion, which I think is rather self-explanatory, is reproduced below:

Shetland and Orkney – the constitutional debate
(Orkney local party)

Mover: Tavish Scott MSP

Summator: Liam McArthur MSP

Conference notes:

A. The strong feelings in Shetland and Orkney against the recent centralisation of public services towards the central belt, for example on policing, fire services, colleges, economic development, public sector construction contracts and civil engineering;
B. The distinct needs of the islands on many matters, not least the seafood industries, the Scottish Government's cuts to the Air Discount Scheme and the failure to prioritise ferry services;
C. The recent conference motion passed in support of the report of the Home Rule and Community Rule Commission which recommended radical action to reverse centralisation and empower communities;
D. The belief amongst many in the northern isles that the legal, constitutional positions of Shetland and Orkney are not clear and that the impact of the 1707 Act of Union is open to interpretation.

Conference resolves:

1. That Shetland and Orkney should develop a preferred position on their future relationship with the United Kingdom and Scotland;
2. That the world-leading exploitations of oil and gas and renewable energy in the waters around the islands gives Shetland and Orkney strength in any negotiations they may wish to have;
3. That the Scottish Government should accept that Shetland and Orkney should have a separate right to self-determination, to secure the best future for themselves, whatever the constitutional future of Scotland.

And that's that, although I'm surprised the Tory Earl of Caithness didn't receive a credit.

If I had been in attendance I would have liked to have spoken against parts of this motion, which I consider ill-conceived, for reasons that will become obvious.

Tavish Scott, moving, delivered a speech (reproduced here) in which he made his case for what essentially amounts to separatism for the Northern Isles.  From all accounts it was a well-received speech, if somewhat lacking in intellectual rigour, and he made the following points:

* "The Northern Isles are vibrant, distinctive with our own dialect, language and Norse festivals. Orkney and Shetland both fly their own flags. Our history looks east more than south."
* "Shetland and Orkney want to use this period of intense constitutional navel gazing to decide what we want for our future. We are not going to be told what to do by the SNP. Nor by any other government. "
* "Those who care most about the future of the Northern Isles are those who live there, and they should decide their future."
* "Ming Campbell's Home Rule proposals open up a new constitutional route for our Islands."
* "Look at the Nationalist record - a record of removing powers and responsibilities from Islanders."
* "Shetland can run its own administration. The Northern Isles can be their own government. Shetland is comfortable working out local solutions to Island needs"
* "It's not your oil Alex, its wirs."
* "The Manx Parliament is a good model for Shetland. Speaker Roden is a Scot. He's a former young liberal. He lit the liberal flame in Moray in the 1979 General Election. "
* "Shetland and Orkney may never have a stronger opportunity to negotiate a future for the Islands."
* "Is the Northern Isles future as a crown dependency?"

In response to this, I think it's fair to note the following:

* The Northern Isles are not the only part of the UK that is vibrant, with a strong sense of cultural and regional identity, or with historical justification for perceiving itself as distinct.  We could also take the examples of the Western Isles (the independence of Lordship of the Isles ended in 1493, 25 years after Orkney and Shetland became part of Scotland), Strathclyde, Fife and Berwick and make special cases for them.  No doubt such logic could also be applied to Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex, East Anglia and Kent.  I guess some Cornish MPs should be looking at yesterday's conference vote with interest.
* The people of the Northern Isles will have a say in their future, a say that was consistently denied during Mr Scott's time as party leader.  The fear is, of course, that there is a possibility (as in the 1979 and 1997 referendums) that the views of the Northern Isles' inhabitants might not correspond with those of the Scottish people more generally.
* I have no doubt Shetland could run it's own administration.  By the same logic, so could Scotland.  Just thought I'd mention it. Perhaps the real question isn't one of capability but desirability?  Just as an independent Scotland could run it's own administration (unless it is less competent than the Shetland Isles, which seems questionable) that's not what concerns many voters ahead of next years referendum: they want to know whether an independent Scotland can deliver on certain fronts, how strong it will be economically and what it will actually mean in practice for Scottish people.  That same approach should be adopted in this case - it's too glib simply to state that "we can, therefore we should".
* I'm not of the view that the Tynwald is as good a template for self-government as Scott suggests, and the only evidence he provides in support of this is an example of a Scottish Liberal rising to the top.  I'm not so sure that is a sufficiently good reason to argue for the model to be adopted elsewhere; in any case, the came could be said for Holyrood where a Liberal was elected as the Speaker.
* As for "strong opportunities to negotiate" doubt the Liberal Democrats will never have a better opportunity to negotiate for a genuine federalist settlement. Whether they will take such opportunities, or if they even know how, is presently uncertain.  We will know more shortly when the Conservative and Labour parties detail their own proposals and the Liberal Democrats are forced to respond.  However, Scott isn't really advocating negotiation but is instead attempting to score a victory over the SNP and Yes Scotland.  He's using arguments, including some highly pertinent ones, to score some political points - and ask some questions.

The media have responded to this in typical fashion, in the process missing some of the key points.  Scotland on Sunday reports that "Alex Salmond’s plans for ­independence have suffered a unexpected setback", which is a considerable exaggeration.  The Sunday Herald concentrated on the oil question, playing up the possibilities of the islands "breaking away".  The Sunday Mail, no doubt accurately, suggested that at least one parliamentarian's motivations were revealed by his "conceding [that] it felt good simply to annoy SNP leader Mr Salmond."

Of course there is some truth in all of these, but the situation needs to be looked at soberly.  The Scottish Liberal Democrats have opened up a tantalising possibility and it's vital to understand the wider context of the debate.

Firstly, it's right to dismiss what is unhelpful. Some of Scott's argument doesn't stand up to scrutiny, and amount to intellectual doublethink.  How, for example, can someone so vociferously propose an SNP argument in principle but adopt it for their own ends when thought appropriate? How can a liberal, opposed to the principles of colonialism, consider the creation of new crown dependencies?  How can we cite the examples of other crown dependencies - and make claims that Shetland and Orkney obtaining equal status would mean being given control of oilfields - when it is an undeniable state of fact that they control the sea only within 12 miles of their respective coastlines?  A claim for oil built on such misconceptions will not stand up to any kind of scrutiny. It's also difficult to criticise the SNP for risking European Union membership when crown dependencies are not eligible to be members of the EU.

The emphasis on the SNP, and our continuing tendency to define ourselves by hostility towards the nationalists and the first minister, achieves little other than to make us look petty-minded.  This attitude is underlined when Liam MacArthur comments that "annoying Alex Salmond is enough to commend any motion" or when Scott himself refers to wanting to "tweak the First Minister's tail", a determination not to "be told what to do by the SNP" or jokingly says that an "asteroid has only deflected from Scotland by the  gravitational effect of Alex Salmond's ego."  We remain motivated, in part at least, by an unhealthy antipathy towards the SNP.  That is not attractive, and if the Scottish Liberal Democrats hope to win back many of our former voters who have deserted us for Salmond's party we appear to be going the wrong way about it.

This has been presented in the media as some kind of imperialist plan for partition, with some justification. Menzies Campbell's Commission did not recommend this. Neither, until recently, has Tavish Scott - while either as a minister or party leader.  It's quite obvious that this is a response to the SNP's independence referendum and designed in no small way to create headaches for Yes Scotland.  "Annoying Alex Salmond" indeed.

A further difficulty appears to be the lack of thought so often applied to the nationalists - in respect to the practical consequences of Scottish independence on such matters as passports, border control, education, healthcare, etc. - also is evident here.  Such considerations have been overlooked, as well as the likely political ramifications.  How will passing this motion increase the party's appeal to Scottish voters, especially given how the media were inevitably going to respond?  Does it improve or further erode our credibility?  Might it look like we're simply creating a little mischief to make life awkward for Alex Salmond...and if so, won't we look petty and juvenile?  Isn't there a danger of this being seen as childish politics?

All this said, Scott does make some very timely points that deserve not to be obscured by the main issue.  This is not simply a matter relating to the Northern Isles, and there is more to this than mere SNP bashing.  Whatever Scott and MacArthur may think, Orkney and Shetland do not constitute a special case.  They are culturally different, but then so are the Highlands, the Hebrides, Argyll & Bute and the borders. What is true is that all of these regions mentioned suffer by way of being outside of the central belt, and that many sparsely populated areas of Scotland are ill-served by the SNP's tendency towards such.  The Northern Islands are probably no more disadvantaged than many other parts of Scotland, but that is not to say their inhabitants have no right to express a wish for decision-making to be devolved as locally as possible.

The desire for localism is something that Liberal Democrats can identify with, even if it is unusual for it to be presented in near-colonial terminology.  None of us want services to be centralised; it goes against the grain of any liberal's inclinations.  We want communities - especially the more remote of our communities - to feel connected and empowered, not dictated to.  Scott referred in his speech to "the remorseless pattern of centralisation" and to the possibility of The Islands Council being absorbed into Highland or Grampian - neither of which would be a welcome possibility.  The localist dimensions of the motion are therefore an assertion of good Liberal Democrat values and a key reason why it was passed unanimously.  Unfortunately the narrow focus on the Northern Isles did little to further localism more widely and therefore in some respects this motion represented a missed opportunity to examine the difficulties of many of Scotland's diverse rural communities.

In this sense, the principles contained within the motion apply elsewhere.  No doubt Scott is not looking to promote the possibility of Inverclyde or a host of other local authorities asserting their right to self-determination with potential crown dependency status, but our focus should certainly be on empowering our communities and especially our more disadvantaged communities.

Another positive thing, which has been largely ignored, is that there was nothing in either the motion or Scott's speech that sets out a commitment to separatism. What is does commit the party to is the Northern Isles' "separate right to self-determination".  I'm not convinced that they merit a separate right, but this is a far cry from adopting separation as official party policy, as has been suggested.  Even Scott, in referring to crown dependencies, was merely stating an option - perhaps his preferred option - but merely one possibility nonetheless.

I will not deny that some of the perception of this being anti-SNP mischief holds true. It is undeniable that people like Tavish Scott seem to view virtually every issue in terms of a battle with nationalists. But there is more that underpins this and, while I'm not convinced by the motion as a whole, it would be wrong not to understand precisely what else it is.  It is more than a reaction against the SNP: it is also a reaction against centralising government.

It's certainly not the most intelligent motion ever put forward to a Liberal Democrat conference and it raises more questions than it answers, but we need to look at it with sober judgement.  We are not a party committed to dividing Scotland, nor to separatism for Orkney, Shetland or indeed anywhere else.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Yes Scotland set up "virtual stall" for Lib Dem conference

Would you believe it?

Yes Scotland have again been refused a stall at the Scottish Liberal Democrats' conference in Dundee.  You've really got to admire their determination to get in, given that many of our members don't seem sufficiently interested or motivated to go.

Unsurprisingly, they were refused permission.  You may recall that they requested to attend our Autumn conference last year and were denied, a decision with which some of us disagreed (and which had unforeseen and regrettable ramifications).

And so, not being put off by the conference committee's decision, Yes Scotland have established this virtual stall to give delegates the opportunity to "ask questions" and read some leaflets. And perhaps to make some political points to their own followers?

I'm not going to say very much this time around, other than that somehow I suspect our members will have other things to do this weekend rather than "downloading Declaration forms for collecting signatures [in support of Independence]".  And if it wasn't for the inconvenience of having to work today and on Sunday I would also be in Dundee, no doubt discussing some of the many important issues our party is getting to grips with at this moment (such as civil liberties and mental health) rather than worrying about what Yes Scotland are doing (or not, as the case may be).

Somehow, while I welcome a real, informed and sensible debate on independence, I imagine if Yes Scotland really want to reach out to Liberal Democrats there must be more effective vehicles than virtual stalls.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

What is the point of Liberal Democrat conference?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
Liberal Democrat members decide party policy,
but what happens when policy is wilfully ignored?

Whatever can be said of Nick Clegg, there can be no escaping that his handling of key situations isn't improving.

Nearly three years into the coalition, Clegg seems determined to demonstrate that he either doesn't understand his party or that he has not wish to listen to it.

That it the most simplistic of interpretations of his management of debate surrounding the Justice and Security Bill and, in particular, its provision for what have popularly become known as "secret courts".  But the fact that it is simplistic does not in itself mean such an assumption is wrong.  Clegg has contributed unnecessarily to increasing the pressure on himself and to widening divisions between the parliamentary party and the membership.

Liberal Democrats can be a pretty tolerant lot. We're also a very broad church. However, when it comes to civil liberties we are generally united.  Open justice is a key part of our identity.  Conference sets party policy and in no uncertain terms that party policy makes absolutely clear that we are opposed in principle and practice to secret justice.  Conference affirmed this last year, entirely unsurprisingly.  Our parliamentarians, however, no longer feel bound to treat party policy any more seriously than did Blair's Labour Party.  Predictably, this apparent disdain for the wishes of Conference has inflamed passions and many within the party have been angered to the point that they have returned their membership cards.

Civil liberties matter, and especially to Liberal Democrats.  Indeed, if we cannot exist as the party to actively champion civil liberty, then questions have to be asked about what our purpose is - or what indeed should be the point of any "liberal" party that refuses to come down on the side of liberty.

Clegg will have known of this anger among the party membership, and also the simmering resentments that have the potential to create deep divisions within the party that could prove hard to heal. And so, yesterday, at the now customary leader's Q&A session, he anticipated the issue would rear its head.  George W Potter asked the question: why didn't Lib Dem MPs vote against the Bill? His response, as reported by Alex Marsh, was revealing on a number of fronts:
It entailed quite a bit of blustering; attacking sundry strawmen; patronising the audience by suggesting it was all rather technical; arguing that even though the policy might appear illiberal that was, in fact, mistaken; and, finally, misconstruing the questions asked and answering a preferred version. So we saw pretty much every tool deployed from the box marked “evasion tactics for politicians who don’t wish to engage”
But of course that doesn't answer the question.  It doesn't deal with the concerns of Liberal Democrats Against Secret Courts. What it does do is smugly state that the leadership is right because it believes itself to be right.  It does not get to grips with why recently formulated party policy - agreed and endorsed by Conference - has been ignored and in the process undermined.

What Clegg has not done, and seems unwilling to even consider, is to explain why Liberal Democrat MPs can freely ignore the wishes of conference.  While I am very much of the view that "secret courts" should have no place in our justice system, that is no longer the main issue and that is almost entirely due to Nick Clegg. Not only has he shown how detached he and the parliamentary party have become from the membership, conference has been undermined and our internal democracy compromised.  The needs of coalition government now trump all other priorities.  Clegg has handled the situation badly and then, in attempting to communicate with the party, has only angered it further through his failure to fully appreciate its concerns.

The actions of MPs in ignoring party policy in this way raise huge questions: what is the point of a liberal party, if not the promotion of the civil liberties that are necessarily a pre-requisite for a liberal society? What is the purpose of conference when its expressed will is not only ignored but when it is powerless to hold parliamentarians to account?  What is the purpose of party policy when it is rendered meaningless in this way?  What of our claims to be the most democratic of the major parties?  Why should members feel they are listened to, or that their voices will make a difference, when their collective views are treated with apparent disregard?

There is a very real danger of our conference becoming not the policy-deciding forum it has traditionally been, but instead yet another philosophically vacuous political rally, in which the only purpose of delegates is to applaud speeches or to express gratitude that a leader takes his time to deliver condescending responses to pre-selected questions.

Today conference debated an emergency motion on "secret courts".  The result was never in doubt, although the scale was certainly a surprise.  Only ten members voted in support of the leadership's line.  Ten.  That raises its own questions, not least in respect to why parliamentarians are willing to vote against their party in the Commons but less eager to debate the matter with their supporters and activists at conference.  It is again suggestive of disdain and disrespect for conference.

Jo Shaw, who has spearheaded the campaign against secret courts, today announced that she is resigning from the party over this issue.  I suspect that is not entirely true; she will be leaving because of the way the leadership has handled the issue.  That is an important distinction. The Liberal Democrats' MPs could not have blocked the legislation, but they could have - and should have - stuck to their professed principles. All the same, in some respects Shaw's resignation is an odd decision: why resign now at the moment when your campaign seems to have momentum, when virtually the entire conference room has supported your stance and put significant pressure on the leadership?  Admittedly Clegg's response/statement yesterday gave absolutely zero reason for optimism but surely Shaw is able to make a greater contribution campaigning within the party than outside it.

That said, another depressing feature of the party's current malaise is the number of dedicated, capable Liberal Democrats who seem to leave whenever Nick Clegg makes an announcement.  Their complaints at first glance seem varied and relating to a range of issues, but essentially they amount to concerns that they are not understood or their respective positions valued.  Only last weekend, Zadok Day - co-chair of Liberal Reform - announced he was leaving the party and yesterday human rights barrister Dinah Rose followed suit.

It is more than regrettable that people of such calibre are leaving our party and in many cases turning their backs on politics altogether.  I will no longer attempt to dissuade anyone from doing so; while I am committed to the Liberal Democrats and will continue to fight within the party for the liberal society I wholeheartedly believe in, I recognise why others feel they are helpless to save the party from itself and fully respect their decisions.

Next week, the "secret courts" issue will be debated at Scottish Lib Dem Conference.  Bets are already taking place as to whether those opposing will outnumber the ten at federal conference. More seriously, Alistair Carmichael and Jim Wallace will be arguing the government's position and the analysis of their arguments will, in all likelihood, be of greater interest than the vote itself. Will they, like Nick Clegg, avoid the real issues and reinforce the members' anger?  Will it become increasingly obvious that a chasm is opening between grassroots activists and parliamentarians that is both destructive and unnecessary?  Or will they succeed in convincing the members that they are listening, respectful and receptive - even if they take a different view on the policy detail?

More significantly, what will Carmichael and Wallace do in the event that conference rejects their arguments in Dundee, just as happened today in Brighton?  Carrying on regardless could be as damaging to our party's  internal relationships as the ridiculous tuition fees pledge was to our relationship with many previously loyal voters.

There is little doubt that the Justice and Security Bill will become law. There never was, given the support of it from Labour.  What has been surprising is the willingness of the leadership to ride roughshod over the wishes of conference, under the misguided belief that commitment to policy no longer matters when in coalition government.

That is a very mistaken attitude, with enormous ramifications.

David Laws, interviewed today on TV, expressed his belief that the party was "in a very good state...very bouyant".  Clearly he hasn't been speaking to Jo Shaw.

And so, for me, the most significant question this throws us is: what is the point of conference?  I suspect when the leadership - after next weekend - chooses to ignore not one but three conference motions passed with huge majorities, we'll know the answer.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Vicky Pryce conviction: why this is not about politics

Today Chris Huhne's former wife, Vicky Pryce, was found guilty of perverting the course of justice by accepting his speeding points ten years ago.  Apart from the sentencing of both Huhne and Pryce, this verdict  brings to a close a saga that is both sad and embarrassing - but also immensely personal in nature rather than political.

That is not to say there have not been political ramifications - far from it.  The inescapable reality is that this pitifully unnecessary situation has provided a significant stepback for our party, culminating as it did in the loss of a cabinet minister and one of the most articulate advocates of environmentalism within the Liberal Democrats. Furthermore, it underlined the hard truth that - far from being a party above such dishonesty - we have rapidly become a party closely associated with it.  A narrow victory in a hard-fought by-election provided some relief, but doesn't obscure the fact that it was a close run thing and that a potentially devastating result (and all that it would mean for the party) would have been a by-product of some rather trivial matter, blown out of proportion by the status of the accused and the apparent determination of his former wife to destroy his career.

Proportion is not a word that has been used much in relation to this case.  Indeed, the potential punishments to me handed to Huhne and Pryce may be distinctly disproportionate to the initial offences.  Certainly, Huhne can have few excuses - and certainly not for the continued lying prior to his sudden and dramatic admission.  His reputation lies in tatters, and rightly so.  As for Pryce, her defence never quite sat comfortably with me.  It seemed too contrived, her actions and timing too deliberate, too calculating.  The claims of coercion didn't fit what I knew of her, although that itself doesn't render the claims untrue.  What did seem odd was the intellectual incompatibility of her argument: she failed to recognise that if she could ever honestly claim that she was being directed by others into taking courses of action that would prove destructive that time was now.  The e-mails, now public, between herself and Isobel Oakeshott, political editor of the Sunday Times, show a willingness to be heavily influenced by others without due consideration of the potential ramifications.

It has been commented on that Pryce did very little for the cause of equality by adopting such a defence.  That is an apt point, but it must also be recognised that in many relationships roles are far from equal. It may well be true that Pryce did feel coerced (whether someone feels such does not necessarily confirm that active coercion was being applied by another) or that Huhne was an emotional bully.  But what is also evident, especially in the aforementioned e-mails, is a determination on the part of Pryce to effect revenge on her ex-husband.  And revenge is never pretty, but always looks so much worse when it involves politics and the national press.

This is a particularly tragic case in which there are no winners.  While this matter has affected the way I, and many others, view Chris Huhne, I cannot help but feel that he has been the victim of not only his own stupidity and pride but the deliberate schemes of others, which may include Isabel Oakeshott herself. (Certainly, if Pryce is guilty of perverting the course of justice, there is a case for that to be extended to Oakeshott also).  Here are two enormously talented people whose professional and personal lives have been ruined due to their combined self-destructive behaviours.  It has been an undignfied affair, and particualrly galling to watch as two individuals for whom I previously had enormous respect played out their difficulties in the public eye. Not only have their actions destroyed themselves, and in Huhne's case damaged the Liberal Democrats (in the short-term at least), they have had significant effects on the couple's children.  That latter point is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all.

There is much in this that might, in its own way, be interesting.  Some feminists, for example, have been taking radically different views of Pryce's position and defence, sometimes changing their attitudes as events developed.  As a study in the psychology of deception or the effects of resentment on the human psyche, this must be something of a classic case study.  However, in other ways - as Jonathan Fryer observed on twitter - this is a Greek tragedy.

The Guardian has been quick to make political points, asking questions of what Nick Clegg and Vince Cable knew and suggesting that other Lib Dems - notably Lord Oakeshott (Isabel's third cousin) - were somehow involved.  That people close to Huhne and his family were sources of support should not be unsurprising, just as it should be equally unsurprising that they should allow justice to run its course without political interference.  There is no question of any senior Liberal Democrats being aware of this prior to Pryce's decision to make the information public.

As for accusations of a "cover up" on the part of senior Liberal Democrats - that accusation is plainly ludicrous.  Michael Fabricant, MP for Lichfield and a prolific (and admittedly entertaining) tweeter, decided to make his views known. While he admitted to "feel[ing] sorry for Vicky Pryce and Chris Huhne facing a likely prison sentence" he also asked "if there was a conspiracy of silence at top of the Lib-Dem Party re Huhne, will the CPS regard THAT as perverting the course of justice?"  This is a quite ridiculous question based on an equally absurd idea there was a cover-up at all.  I asked Fabricant "So when Huhne's aggrieved ex made them aware of it, what should they have done?", to which he responded "Fair question. Not easy, I know......"  In that case, why suggest there has been some deliberate concealment of truth?

If Pryce had spoken to Clegg, Cable, Oakeshott and others, what does that prove - other than they presumably knew nothing beforehand?  And what should anyone do when the aggrieved ex-partner of a respected colleagues makes sudden accusations about incidents that happened a decade previously? Take them at face value and sack/suspend the colleague? Go directly to the police? Or listen carefully, provide support where necessary and allow the truth to come out, even if that meant a potentially fateful prosecution case against a Cabinet minister?  The problem for Clegg, in the aftermath of the Rennard accusations, is that there are those who want to believe him as responsible for a "cover-up", and this gives the lie unmerited power.

In any case, this is not about politics.  It is a family tragedy, played out against a very public backdrop, but one in which the disintegration of a once intimate family unit becomes plain to see - along with the even greater human costs of resentment and vengeance. It is all terribly sad, and regrettably nothing positive comes out of it.

I don't see any reason for people to make political points about Vicky Pryce's conviction. All I see is lives ruined unnecessarily - something perhaps the media could consider when the sentences are announced.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Lessons from the Eastleigh by-election

It was a by-election not like any other in recent history.  When the result came, it provided not the kind of joy for Liberal Democrats as another result here in 1994 famously did, but rather immense relief.

Here was evidence that we can win by-elections in government – or at least hold our seat against the disjointed and admittedly nasty campaigning of a Conservative party in conflict with itself.  It may have been a far cry from the early 1990s when the Liberal Democrat campaigning machine appeared unstoppable, securing famous wins in Eastbourne, Ribble Valley, and Newbury.  But there were parallels – and not merely in the figure of Chris Rennard who had a huge bearing on the outcomes, both then and now, if for entirely different reasons.

If nothing else, it should be remarkably clear that effective local campaigning has a significant effect in these kinds of situations.  Faced with choosing a candidate, the local party must have had a range of talent to choose from and – unsurprisingly – played safe, opting for Mike Thornton.  No doubt there were potential candidates with more flair and greater experience, but Thornton was local and a councillor – a combination that usually works for Liberal Democrats.  What he could do effectively was point to an impressive record in local government, something that evidently made a contribution to the outcome.

In terms of how we campaign, it’s obvious that the methods that proved so effective in the 1980s and early 1990s continue to work.  Clearly there are limitations, with the ability of UKIP to poll well meaning we must think a little more carefully about how we sell our horse races, and it would be both complacent and mistaken to view the Eastleigh success as proof of a slick, thoroughly professional campaigning strategy.  The party’s communications and campaigning methods at the very least need re-examining and there is a need to develop new approaches in reaching out to voters.  However, in areas like Eastleigh – where we have a strong local base, where we have held the parliamentary seat for 19 years, where we are fortunate in our Conservative opponent and, crucially, where we are seen as the principal or at least most viable option to a Tory MP – the traditional methods of throwing everything we have into the by-election, an emphasis on localism, intensive telephone canvassing and publicly identifying ourselves as being the only alternative to the Conservatives seem to work.

I will take nothing away from the gargantuan effort that secured a much needed by-election success, nor from our party's considerable resilience.  I will, however, mention that we won in spite of a significant loss of support: our vote was down considerably on 2010 – falling from 46.5% to 32% - which tells its own story.  These are not good times for the Liberal Democrats and this was actually reflected in the Eastleigh poll.  This being so, that we are able to hold Eastleigh in the face of these current difficulties, with accusations of sexual harassment on the part of Lord Rennard dominating headlines, suggests that talk of crisis is premature.

It was a close thing and if as few as 1500 Lib Dem voters had decided to support the Conservatives instead not only would Eastleigh have returned an MP who makes Peter Bone look like Mahatma Gandhi by comparison, there would have been real pressure on Nick Clegg’s leadership.  It could be argued that there is in any case: his handling of the Rennard situation has been shambolic and confused at best.  However, this result gives him some breathing space – not to mention reason to look forward positively.  This was a by-election that the party, and Clegg personally, had to win.  Lose, and talk in the press would be of pending electoral meltdown, apportioning blame for the defeat and asking serious questions about our role in coalition.  Furthermore, it would have sent out signals to the public that we are finished electorally.  Clegg knows this, and will be rightly relieved at the pressure and criticism instead being directed towards the Prime Minister.

For the Conservatives, defeat doesn’t spell the catastrophe it would have done for the Liberal Democrats.  But coming third, behind UKIP, in a target seat after the disgraced incumbent MP was forced to step down is a poor result in anyone’s book.  It is true that it was a hard fight and that they came close, but I suspect neither Nigel Farage nor Conservative right-wingers will fail to remind Cameron of the ignominy of third place.  This was an undeniable humiliation at a time when the Prime Minister urgently needed a morale-boosting electoral success.  For the Tories, the by-election also demonstrated the folly in selecting Maria Hutchings as a candidate: her absence from hustings (clearly she was above such public scrutiny) and rather unwise comments on state education reinforced the Tories’ credentials as the party of elite privilege.  It shouldn’t have been too hard to have selected a moderate, sensible, politically astute candidate with broad appeal and their inability to do so is suggestive of an identity struggle within the Conservative Party.  Perhaps more significant than the propensity to select unelectable right-wingers as candidates is the Tories’ inability to use Cameron’s promise of an EU referendum to electoral advantage.  This was a strategy aimed at outflanking and even disarming UKIP but, if the evidence at Eastleigh is to be believed, has failed spectacularly.  Far from hurting UKIP, it seems to be damaging his own party. Tougher lines on immigration and human rights similarly don’t seem to be making his party any more electable in constituencies they held until reasonably recently.

The lesson for the Conservatives is that posturing as a kind of soft version of UKIP will not help them, and only serve to help Nigel Farage’s party.  For the party to succeed, public notions of what the essential values of Conservatism are much be confronted, challenged and radically changed.  A reinforcement of Conservatism as the epitome of romantic English nationalism with its Euroskepticism, suspicion of human rights law and plain dislike of equality will yield little benefit for Cameron and his party.

Undoubtedly this result will have some effect on coalition dynamics and should provide Clegg with useful opportunities to press his case in cabinet.  Whether he has the courage to take them, or indeed fully realises how to press home his advantage, remains to be seen.

While it was, all in all, a good night for us and a poor one for the Tories, it was a very good night for UKIP.  They didn’t win the seat but came incredibly close, pushing the Conservatives into third place. UKIP have proved that Tory attempts to marginalise them have fallen flat and that they certainly cannot be ignored.  Moreover, they have demonstrated that – contrary to popular opinion – they don’t simply take votes from the Conservative Party.  They can also take them from the Liberal Democrats.

It would be churlish not to admit that UKIP's performance was impressive.  They were positive, outgoing, selected a strong candidate and focused their energies on demonstrating that not only did they have ideas but had a real chance of winning the seat.  Not altogether dissimilar to the Liberal Democrats in bygone years.

All week, while Nick Clegg was insisting this was a two-horse race, Nigel Farage was saying there were very definitely three horses in this race and that UKIP would finish ahead of the Conservatives.  This may have seemed like a familiar attempt to persuade Conservative voters to back his candidate as the best way to defeat the Lib Dem, but in the final analysis Farage was correct and Clegg wrong.  He was also right when he suggested that he expected support for his party to come from former Tory and Lib Dem voters equally.  A comparison with the 2010 result suggest this is highly probable and creates some difficulties for those of us who complacently believe the net product of UKIP activity will be to split to Tory vote.  People vote UKIP for a variety of reasons – not all of them directly related to policy. Essentially, UKIP have become the new Lib Dems, capitalising (as we did for several years) on an anti-establishment theme and taking advantage of their identity as a “none of the above” option, claiming (disingenuously) to be above the low moral standards and political tribalism of mainstream party politics.

In this election, UKIP may have made the difference and aided the Liberal Democrats but, given that the Lib Dems and Tories both lost about 11,000 voters each in three years, this cannot be simply assumed.  UKIP have a broader appeal than many have given them credit for, and will prove a threat not only to the Tories but also our own party.

Labour, not entirely unsurprisingly in a seat they had zero prospects of winning, had a quiet night but will be concerned that their share of the vote barely increased and will also have one eye on UKIP.  Their talk of One Nationism seems to have fallen on deaf ears and dissatisfaction with the government appeared to benefit them little.  Privately Ed Miliband will be concerned at Labour’s performance but will be happy to see David Cameron under all kinds of pressure.

Other notable performances were from Independent Danny Stupple who earned a creditable fifth place, no doubt by ensuring that his 768 friends turned out to vote. I was surprised to see Iain Maclennan from the National Health Action Party taking only 394 votes – an indication perhaps that, however much the public identify with an issue, there is little appetite for single issue parties.  Finally it’s worth pointing out that the Monster Raving Loony Party and the Elvis Loves Pets Party finished ahead of the English Democrats, which points to another effect of UKIP’s increasing popularity – the demise of the right wing “patriotic” vote.

Eastleigh was a by-election victory for the Liberal Democrats and it is one that we should rightly enjoy, congratulate ourselves for and learn the lessons from.  Fortunately the shadows cast by Huhne and Rennard, while ultimately having some effect, far from derailed our campaign.  From reports I’ve heard from activists in Eastleigh, it seems that (for Lib Dems at least) the by-election was a return to the old days: a positive campaign, a determination to win against the odds, an opportunity to sell ourselves on the national level by our performances locally and, by no means least, campaigners coming together from across the UK to work together.  If Eastleigh can give Liberal Democrats reason to feel good about themselves, then that is surely no bad thing.

However, there are wider lessons we must learn from the by-election .  Victory cannot be allowed to disguise the fact that our share of the vote fell dramatically, that UKIP pose is very real dangers and that, away from the relatively friendly environs of Eastleigh, the challenge of reconnecting with voters is both immense and urgent.  Now the by-election is over, we as activists must turn our attentions to that challenge with renewed vigour.

Finally, I would like to wish our new MP Mike Thornton every success in his new role.  I trust he will bring something positive and fresh to the parliamentary party and that he will serve his constituents well beyond 2015.