Review of Scottish Social Liberal Forum 2013

Allan Heron and Norman Fraser
The Scottish Social Liberal Forum held its annual conference at the Partick Burgh Hall on Saturday 29th June 2013.  The agenda was reasonably adventurous and the debate, while perhaps not reaching the combative levels once played out on the sporting field across the road (Hamilton Crescent being the home of the first ever Scotland v England internationals), was certainly lively.

Skivers or Strivers?

Discussion commenced with a debate on the causes of poverty. Robin Tennant, representing the Poverty Alliance, gave a presentation on poverty in Scotland in which he sought to destroy some myths and challenge the current direction of government policy.  He began by highlighting some fact about unemployment in Scotland: unemployment among under-25s doubled to 90,000 between 2008 and 2012; there has been an increase in low income working families and a similar increase in part-time employment during the same period – from 70,000 in 2008 and 120,000 in 2012. AT the same time, the number of people employed in full-time work fell by 120,000. Youth unemployment continues to rise, although Robin also observed that even in the “good times” it never fell below the 12% mark.  Most significantly, he demonstrated that life expectancy in the most deprived 10% of Scottish communities is a mere 68 years – 14 years below the highest 10%. His assertion that the government’s welfare cuts will hit the poorest hardest has also been backed by the SNP in today’s Sunday Herald.
Robin Tennant destroys some myths

He went on to look at the nature and effect of welfare cuts, citing evidence from the Fraser Allander Trust to argue the, of the £20bn cuts, £2bn relates directly to Scottish claimants. Inequalities will continue to increase and children and families will be disproportionately hit. He was particularly critical of the fact that all benefits (with the exception of Pension Credit) have been uprated by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rather than the Retail Price Index (RPI) – something he regards as the single biggest cut of all the government’s measures.  The 1% cap, locked by legislation, actually impacts many in work and would therefore have the opposite of the intended effect of “making work pay”. He also voiced concerns about the new Universal Credit, not least on account of the stringent conditionality that could see benefit being stopped for up to three years.

Robin seemed keen to shatter some pervasive myths and, with an impressive armoury of data and statistics, proceeded to show that both current and previous welfare reforms were based on a series of myths.  Among these myths were the dependency culture, the notion of generations on welfare, that benefits are too generous, and the idea of benefit fraud being rife. He was particularly concerned with the language being used to currently frame the debate – most obviously George Osborne’s simplistic and divisive differentiation between “skivers and strivers”. It is at best stigmatising and at worst blatantly untrue. He accused Osborne, and others, of using “a new language to reinforce old myths”.

Terms such as “benefits lifestyle”, “cultures of worklessness”, “a lost sense of responsibility” etc. suggest a moral dimension to living in poverty and that the mere existence of welfare encourages certain types of unethical behaviour.  It is also intellectually dishonest to make the “dependency” arguments, he claimed, when all of us are to some degree dependent on the state – e.g. for healthcare, for maintaining the roads, for providing policing services. As for the claim of “generations” on benefits, Robin quoted evidence from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that confirmed that no cases of three generational worklessness have been found and that households with two generations who are both workless amount to a mere 0.04%. (Even this statistic inflates the level of the problem as it only takes into account permanent employment).

The real problem is the lack of jobs. Less that 10% of people in receipt of JSA have been claiming for more than 1 year – and the majority claim for less than three months –but that the proportion of repeat claims is high. 46% of new JSA claimants have had a previous claim within the previous 6 months. There are far more JSA claimants than there are job vacancies and conditionality, while it reduces claims, has not been evidences as having any positive effect on increasing employment. Similarly moving people from other benefits onto JSA does not actually increase employment and serves principally to increase the claimant to vacancy ratio.

Without job creation the problem cannot be alleviated. In fact, there is also a very real problem with the growth of in-work poverty that the government is failing to address with its punitive measures.  We have a government short on ideas of how to tackle poverty and its associated problems, whose actions are exacerbating them.

On the question of benefit fraud, Robin compared the DWP’s own statistics (showing £1.6bn lost, including overpayments) with those suggesting that tax evasion, avoidance and non-payment in combination costs the state £120bn, in doing so asking questions of the government’s priorities. Poverty, said Robin, is “complex, dynamic and multi-dimensional”, caused by “structural rather than individual failings” – such as low pay, inflation or lack of childcare. It is these failings the government is failing to get to grips with, impacting negatively on health and education.

So, what is the solution? Robin was keen to state that “eradicating poverty is everyone’s responsibility” and advocated a combination of adopting the JRF’s Minimum Income standard, a rise in the value of benefits and payments, the minimum wage being a living wage, a progressive tax regime, and a programme of affordable social housing.

The boring stuff

Next up was Allan Heron asking conference to approve changes to the draft constitution. It was not the high point of the day’s business.

The Case for Scottish Independence

Allan Heron in conversation with Blair Jenkins
Blair Jenkins, the CEO of Yes Scotland, was present for a discussion entitled “The debate we’re not having on Scottish independence”. Blair was what we might expect – sensible, reasonable and positive. He made a number of points, which are summarised as follows:

There is a need for an honest debate about the kind of society we want and the kind of people we want to be.
What is at stake is not identity but democracy, fairness and prosperity.
The nature of campaigning is important. When YES wins, he insisted, NO supporters will be equally committed to the success of an independent Scotland. Campaigning cannot afford to be polarising and divisive, and should be simply an expression of a temporary disagreement about the direction of travel.
The big question is about the kind of society we want Scotland to be. Blair noted that CND have asked their supporters to vote YES as it represents their best prospect of achieving their goals.
We need to move away from the simplistic “could Scotland be independent?”  - which he feels no-one on either side seriously doubts – to the more “grown-up” question: “should Scotland be independent?”
A significant advantage of independence would be our own constitution, and the guarantees and rights underpinned by it.
Blair Jenkins: what is at stake is not identity but democracy,
fairness and prosperity
Scotland has the lowest life expectancy in Europe and the greatest social disparities in terms of life expectancy. An independent Scotland can be better equipped to change this.
While data around the economy demonstrates that Scotland can be independent, it’s impossible to accurately predict what Scotland will do if it becomes independent...but it is impossible to facilitate greater economic equality and change our society for the better unless we control these levers.
Good economic outcomes produce good social outcomes, as evidenced by the Scandinavian nations – where both societal and economic outcomes score highly. There is compelling evidence that smaller countries do well in terms of these outcomes.
In apparent reference to the previous debate, it is harder for smaller nations to disassociate from poverty.  Scottish politics should not be understood in terms of right and left, but right and wrong. A feature of Scottish life is an acceptance of the need to respond to poverty, but we are unable to fulfil our responsibilities as policies are created in Westminster that are often destructive to this ethos.
The artistic community is behind the YES campaign. This is unsurprising as these people have the power of imagination to conceive a better society by voting YES.
The ability or integrity of those on the other side of the argument cannot be questioned. (Although he did suggest later, on questioning, that Ian Davidson is perhaps not a good ambassador for Better Together)
60% of Scots have not made up their minds how to vote.
The overriding need for independence stems from a need to control our own destiny and create a society more reflective of our values.

Elspeth Attwooll: a "liberal nationalist"?
After making his case, questions were invited from the floor. First up was Elspeth Attwooll, the former MEP.  Stating that she was often described as a “liberal nationalist” she expressed disappointment about there being no second question on the ballot form and that this represented something of a problem for her. What prevents her from saying with certainty she will vote YES is that a YES vote will commit Scotland to whatever settlement is decided consequently and that the detail of the final package cannot be known until after the referendum.

Blair agreed that successful outcomes of negotiations depend on various factors and that it’s not easy to see a final package. But Scotland is better prepared for independence than any other European country that has attained it in the last 100 years. Of course it is a risk to ask people to buy into a package whose details are far from certain. But polls will put pressure on Westminster government to consider what it will do and Blair was positive that it would adopt a pragmatic and self-interested approach to negotiations.

Another questioner asked about the risk of “a permanent Conservative government in England”. Blair pointed out in response that this is not necessarily true and that the north of England would derive benefits from a strong Scottish economy. He observed that independence would also facilitate many of the things that Lib Dems have consistently fought for. He stressed that Yes Scotland has no policy platform and seeks to be distinct from political parties, adding that it is a national movement in which he hopes political parties will gradually have a lesser profile. He expressed concern that the media frame the debate in party-political terms.

The next questioner was Robert Brown, former MSP and one of the most articulate voices in support of the NO camp. The challenged what he considered contradictions in Blair’s speech, notably:
1) The identity v fairness rhetoric. The starting point must be identity, asserted Robert, as political structures must reflect this. Like Giuseppe Garibaldi, Robert stated that (as someone born in England) he did not wish to become a “foreigner in my own country”.
Robert Brown: Would an independent Scotland be able to
control its own destiny?
2) The assertion that independence would provide more powers and greater control of our own destiny does not sit comfortably with continued control of the pound and fiscal levers by powers outwith Scotland. This is a permanent decision and a Scandinavian outcome cannot be guaranteed.

In response Blair confirmed that identity is part of the debate but is not the central issue. In Catalonia language and culture are very much front and centre but this is not driving the case in Scotland. Ethnicity is not an issue; the SNP have always been civic rather than ethnic nationalists. As for the currency debate, would Scotland be able to pursue a non neo-liberal approach? There are correlations between fiscal policy (which can remain quite distinct from what the rest of the UK does) and social policy. The Euro, while faring badly in the disparate economies of Southern Europe, has actually done well in Northern Europe and has demonstrated that it is likely that countries in monetary unions with not altogether dissimilar economies can have very different social policies. He ended by quoting Alistair Darling as being supportive of the retention of the pound as “logical”.

All in all, it was a good natured and sober-minded discussion, with the respectful exchanges between Robert Brown and Blair Jenkins a welcome reminder that this debate can and should be rescued from the shrill negativity and entrenched tribalism that have characterised it to date. It was also surprising to see so many independence-sympathetic Liberal Democrats in attendance.

Assessing the impact of coalition politics

After a break for lunch, Robert Brown facilitated a group discussion on the successes of coalition – and its less positive effects. He was also keen to spend time suggesting ways of moving forward. While there was widespread recognition of what Liberal Democrats have achieved in coalition there was also wide concern about its legacy and in particular the electoral impact of a combination of poor decision making, a loss of trust, a leadership at federal level perceived to be out of touch, and the effect of welfare reform. There was a range of contributions from members present, although they can be generally characterised as combining negative perceptions of some elements of our performance in government with a cautious optimism that the party can be rebuilt.

Rebuilding the party

This led into a presentation by Craig Harrow, the convenor of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, who advocated ways of “building the party through to 2017”. He stared by quoting Nick Clegg on the dangers of “impotence, irrelevance and decline”, and by affirming that in Willie Rennie the Scottish party had a “great leader, a great campaigner and someone who will take on these issues surrounding the coalition.” He then made the following points:

The bedroom tax is “not good in any form”.
Clegg’s apology on tuition fees should have come sooner.
Inevitably the Scottish party is tainted by association with the Conservative Party.
Not only do we have fewer MSPs and councillors, we now also have fewer aspiring candidates.
We have suffered a 25% loss of membership since June 2010.

Having stated clearly our current predicament and briefly considered the reasons for it, Craig moved on to the elections ahead and what our targets are. In the European elections of 2014 it is vital to ensure George Lyon is re-elected. (I agree; losing our only MSP – and a very good one at that – would be as bad if not worse than the catastrophe of 2011). In 2015 we must aim to hold everything we currently have – there is no point is considering potential “sacrifices”. The aim for the Holyrood elections of 2016 should be to increase our representation into double figures while in respect to the local election of the following year we need to be looking at using them to increase our activist base.

Craig focused on the needs to increase membership, as well as revenues and resources. But how is this achieved?
Craig Harrow: bedroom tax "is not good in any form"

He said a priority for the party was to “win the [independence] referendum convincingly” – I suspect forgetting that the AV referendum proves that a heavy defeat for constitutional change sets back the cause of any further change significantly as it will be interpreted (by Labour and the Tories at least) as confirming overwhelming support for the status quo. He stated that being part of Better Together brings great benefits to the Liberal Democrats, not least in the form of data collection.

There is the need to develop liberal messages and deliver liberal values said Craig, for a moment reverting to Nick Clegg’s management speak. Fortunately he was soon back on track.  He spoke of the need to professionalise membership practices (something I’d discussed earlier in the day with a membership secretary). Craig was not afraid to admit we have done things badly – we are not sufficiently welcoming; when people leave the party, we don’t thank them for their contribution; we haven’t shown sufficiently that we’re distinctive and different. The way we treat people in a difficult place is vitally important.

We also need to professionalise our campaigning, with an increased focus on the longer-term – “to keep going on and on in regards the key messages leads to association” – and on grassroots activism. We have to keep saying liberal things, which is precisely what Willie Rennie has been doing on such issues as Nigel Farage’s visit to Scotland and prisoner voting.  We’re going in the right direction, insisted Craig, recruiting new campaign staff, using data more effectively and selectively and learning from the Obama campaign. We have to get the simple things right, such as the way we treat people. We also have to get into the way of using volunteers to enthuse more volunteers: techniques are useful but the key is in involving people.

Craig was eager to provide reasons for optimism. He referred to the local government by-elections in Kirkintilloch and Rutherglen, as well as the recent Scottish parliamentary by-election in Donside. There is more reason for positivity than may be apparent in the case of Donside: due to limited resources, the Liberal Democrats only targeted the Gordon region of the constituency where the box count amounted to 18%. That sounds impressive, although I’d have liked to know how this compared with voting habits in this more Lib-Dem friendly area in 2011. It also confirms that if we’re winning voters back in areas where we work hard we’re also continuing to lose them in those where we don’t.  All the same, it suggests progress is being made.

Craig finished with a call to diversify and reach out, but was frustratingly short on detail. And so, when given the chance to ask questions, I invited some further information on how the party is developing its diversity strategy. Craig explained that Willie Rennie is far more in tune than previous leaders and that he is increasing engagement in minority ethnic communities. He intimated that Willie has been involved with the Friends of India, the Friends of Pakistan and attends various events, having cultivated a positive relationship with mosques. This has positive results: for example, after the leader recently gave a speech on Syria at an event organised by the Asian community, several people joined the Lib Dems. We’ve never really done this before.

That’s excellent and tells us something about Willie Rennie. The challenge of course is for local parties to follow his lead, and indeed to be better equipped to do so. We also need to take a wider view of diversity beyond gender and ethnicity, but it was positive and welcome information.

Another questioner asked about whether our communications should improve, not least in relation to the language we use (i.e. Nick Clegg referring to those who favour independence as “extremists”; Willie Rennie’s attempted association of the SNP with the English Democrats; the defense of Ian Taylor) which seems at times to be unnecessarily divisive. Craig admitted there was a need for better links between the executive and local parties and agreed that care must be taken about the language the party used in its messaging. He made some sensible suggestions for softening perceptions of Unionist/Nationalist division, although this was somewhat let down by a further defense of Ian Taylor (“he’s a nice a lot to charity”) and by accusing Taylor’s critics of conducting “a smear campaign”. There was, he agreed, a need to be more respectful of our audience – a positive note on which to end.

We're Scottish. We're Liberal. We're Democrats.
This was followed by a further short session on developing the SLF in Scotland, which included a number of useful suggestions such as more active recruitment away from the Glasgow area and raising our profile in innovative ways.

This was my first SLF conference. My impressions are broadly positive and clearly the Scottish section benefits from the experience and expertise Elspeth Attwooll and Robert Brown provide. It was also welcome to witness such intellectually honest debate, often wrestling with uncomfortable realities, and most obvious in the constructive and tolerant way in which members engaged with the question of Scottish independence.  The event also showed that representatives of Yes Scotland are as capable of listening as they are of championing their own cause.

All in all, the day was characterised not only by quality, open discussion but also a respect so often missing from political conversation. For this reason I hope that the SLF can cement itself as a positive force in Scotland not only as an advocate for progressive change but also as an example of a different way of doing politics.


Allan Heron said…
A small point - Elspeth's point wasn't about a second question on the ballot paper but on the fact that the referendum is on a take it or leave it basis without knowing what the details of the outcome are going to be. What she was suggesting was a post-deal referendum to endorse the detail, after the initial referendum on the question in principle.

I remain somewhat perturbed by the party's approach to Better Together. There seems to be no attempt to try and make any case for our policy. Indeed, BT is simply attempting to defend the status quo which is the major reason why it comes across as negative and unimaginative.

Just about every issue offers an opportunity for a Liberal Democrat to say that it would be better for (insert issue) to be handed in Scotland rather than Westminster but that independence is not the only means by which that might happen. But we don't take advantage of this, so we just get lumped in with the heavily centralised, Westminster-based rhetoric spewed out by BT.
GHmltn said…
Interesting Andrew. I did not know anything about this meeting. I might have come along if I had known.