Monday, 30 March 2015

Why anti-SNP tactical voting may not work

Recently, we have seen widespread appeals for non-SNP supporters to unite behind the party best placed to defeat them in the forthcoming General Election.

There are online campaigns, instructing people in various seats how best to use their vote to thwart the SNP. On twitter, there is a politically illiterate movement, using the hashtag #SNPout (quite odd, as they're not actually "in" government in Westminster), suggesting we vote for either the Lib Dems, Labour or the Conservatives to keep the dreadful nationalists out. I'm not sure I could countenance a tactical vote for the Tories simply to keep out a party whose policy standpoints have far more in common with my worldview than the Conservatives do, and I'd imagine many Scots feel similarly.

As a feature of the flawed First Past the Post electoral system, tactical voting is a phenomenon likely to stay with us for some time. However, we have to ask the question: will tactical voting keep the SNP from a significant role in UK government?

The latest opinion poll from The Guardian gives the Conservatives 277 seats, Labour 269, the SNP 53 and the Lib Dems 25. This would mean the Tories remain the largest party, but unable to secure a working majority with any single party other than the SNP. A Tory-SNP deal is hugely risky and difficult for either party to sell; a Tory-Lib Dem-UKIP-DUP alliance is impractical on so many levels. The combined total of 322 for the Labour and SNP combined is just short of a majority (326) but could be workable.

Let's take a look at the current state of play. Prior to the dissolution of Parliament this week, Labour had 257 seats, with the SNP 6. This gives them a combined total of 263, of which 46 are Scottish seats. Focusing on Scotland, let's say for the sake of argument that the SNP does as well as polling suggests and take 36 seats from Labour, leaving them with 4. That still gives a combined total of 46. The seat currently held by "independent" Eric Joyce will assuredly be won by either the SNP or Labour, taking the total to 47.

Admittedly, the SNP are also likely to make gains from the Lib Dems - even if they were to take all of our seats that gives a combined Labour-SNP total of 58. This could be telling. But would anti-SNP tactical voting really prevent the SNP holding the balance of power?

Let's take the 11 Lib Dem held seats out of the equation and focus on the 47 currently held by Labour or the SNP. Neither the Lib Dems nor the Conservatives are seriously targetting these. Voting Labour to keep the SNP out may well prevent the return of an SNP MP in that constituency, but it will do nothing to influence the overall combined total of Labour and SNP seats. It will not diminish the arithmetical probability of a Labour-SNP deal being the most liekly and workable option after the election.

From the pespective therefore of diminishing the potential of the SNP involvement in the next government, voting Labour to keep out Nicola Sturgeon's party is relatively futile. Even if Labour somehow managed to keep two-thirds of its seats in Scotland (about 26) the SNP still look set to reduce the Lib Dems' seats - even if they took only 6 of the 11 that would give them 26 seats - still possibly the third largest party at Westminster.

The seats currently held by the Lib Dems are of greater significance to the overall arithmetic. Any gain by Labour or the SNP will add to the core of 47 seats inevitably won by one or the other, making a deal between those parties more likely. In these seats I can therefore understand the principle of tactical voting to some degree, although I note at least one pro-tactical campaign is suggesting voters in Michael Moore's seat of Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk and Alan Reid's Argyll & Bute constituency vote Conservative - which could allow the SNP to come through the middle. I appreciate that Alex Salmond is clearly a love-hate figure and that Gordon will inevitably see a great deal of tactical voting, but in many other Lib Dem seats Labour will also fancy their chances of unseating our incumbents (e.g. East Dunbartonshire, Edinburgh West) which complicates the picture further.

What will actually determine whether an SNP-Labour deal is workable is not the strength of the SNP in Scotland but that of Labour in England and Wales. That is the key battleground. The Labour-Lib Dem and Labour-Conservative marginals will prove decisive. The SNP and Labour in Scotland will have a combined total of around 50 seats, but whether they will have a combined strength of anything near to 326 MPs across the UK depends on how well Labour performs - and whether they can persuade people to vote tactically for Ed Miliband.

The Conservatives realise this, hence their anti-SNP rhetoric looking to scare English voters into voting anything but Labour. The evidence is that, while an unintended by-product is the strengthening of the SNP in Scotland, that tactic is working with those it is aimed at. The majority of voters in England, apparently, find a Tory-Lib Dem coalition more palatable than a Labour-SNP one.

There does remain the tantalising possibility of Labour emerging as the largest party with something like 295 seats, and being possible to work with either the SNP or the Lib Dems to achieve either a majority or something very near to the required 326. This is less likely, as it requires both Labour and the Lib Dems to exceed expectations. Even in such circumstances, however, would Labour's instincts be towards the Lib Dems or an SNP whose policy positions are probably more closer to their own? Would they opt for a more formal coalition (as the Lib Dems would prefer) or a looser agreement (which would suit the SNP)? As many within Labour clearly dislike the notion of coalition, I'd put my money on the latter.

No doubt tactical voting will have a huge impact on the UK election - in Conservative-Lib Dem marginals especially - but the idea that any pro-union Lib Dem voters should seek to support either the Labour or Conservative parties (especially in seats where they have an incumbent MP) is an absurd one. There also needs to be a sense of proportion - amongst all the scaremongering about what the SNP, the Greens or UKIP might want to do - about what they can actually achieve. Minority parties cannot simply impose their will upon government - if that was true we'd have had a proportional voting system, an elected House of Lords and a mansion tax introduced in this parliament.

I'm not one for tactical voting, as I prefer to see the General Election in terms of 650 local contests. That said, we all vote with a view to the national picture, and I for one see many worse possibilities than the SNP working with the Labour Party to ensure workable government. But, even if you perceive that as the ultimate nightmare scenario, the real threat to that eventuality is Ed Miliband's inability to project himself as a real alternative to David Cameron.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

SNP and Labour remind me why I'm a Liberal Democrat

I'd be lying if I said there haven't been times when I've asked myself why I'm a Liberal Democrat.

Even with a well considered philosophical liberalism, frustrations with party messages, elements of coalition policy and strategic mistakes can be very testing. I know many good Liberals who have left the party in recent years, and I understand perfectly why they have made their respective decisions. I know how difficult it has been for some of them to leave a party they have served for decades, and naturally I have reflected more than once on my own future within the Liberal Democrats.

But the simple reason is that, in spite of some our parliamentarians acting (in my view) with poor judgement at key times, I am still a Liberal and a Democrat. I'm a member of the Lib Dem family and, like many families, relationships can sometimes be fraught and challenging. But there's a real respect for individuality within the Liberal Democrats - something I value highly.

There's much that I can commend my party for - especially in policy areas of huge personal significance such as mental health, drug law, LGBTI rights, and Europe. But it isn't merely distinctive policies that convince me to remain a member - sometimes other parties remind you why you're a Liberal Democrat.

This week Labour have proudly advertised the fact that they want to be tough on immigration. I'm not really sure what kind of pride it is that drives Labour to enter an absurd race to the bottom with UKIP and the Conservatives, each of them using divisive language while playing the populist anti-immigration card. You can even buy an anti-immigration mug from Labour's online shop - something that Diane Abbott has labelled "shameful". Taking to twitter to express her anger, Ms Abbott wrote: "This shameful mug is an embarrassment. But real problem is that immigration controls are one of our 5 pledges."

That today's Labour Party has taken such a stance is testament to its current predicament. No longer the champions of freedom of movement, Labour's policy of banning EU migrants from receiving benefits for the first two years of residence is the brainchild of shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves. Reeves is so keen to outflank the Tories (and even UKIP) on immigrant benefits and welfare more generally, that she has effectively become the Echo to Iain Duncan Smith's Narcissus.  Whatever she might have meant about reducing benefit dependency and tackling the vilification of claimants, the "not the party of people on benefits" and "working people" rhetoric is not accidental. It is part of Labour's psyche, pointing to its "us and them" mentality in setting different social groups against each other.

And that's just one reason of many. I haven't even taken a look at Labour's self-inflicted predicament in Scotland.

In the last four years, I have been asked many times to join the SNP. I can understand why, and I know that most of those doing the asking are decent, reasonable people who feel that I could be an asset to their movement. They are wrong, because I am not and never could be a nationalist, but I appreciate their motivations.

I do not deny the many positive policy positions of the SNP, but it's not so much policy perspectives that have proved the most powerful dissuasive factor but the culture of that particular party. Dissent is practically unheard of; individuality almost indiscernible. Recently, I was speaking to friend of mine who is an SNP supporter (and an "out" supporter of LGBTI equality) about various Lib Dem policies. He agreed with us on some key issues - most notably the danger of the SNP's super-database. But to him these were all a price worth paying. "The specific policy doesn't matter", he said. "The main thing is to get as many pro-independence MPs to Westminster." To which I quipped: "OK, so if the SNP promised to bring back the death penalty and make homosexuality criminal you'd still vote for them?" I wasn't sure what I expected him to say, but it wasn't "Yes, of course, we need to be free". It's clearly futile debating policy with such attitudes. What was even more obvious was his discomfort at being even asked to consider ideas that could appear critical of the SNP or its leadership - something that I believe is widespread among his party's supporters.

At the SNP's conference the party has passed a motion introducing new rules requiring strict loyalty from MPs. These rules are as tough on individuality and dissent as Labour's proposals are on immigrants' benefit entitlements.

I understand the need for collective responsibility and professionalism, especially in advance of a General Election that could yield significant opportunities for Nicola Sturgeon's party, but the motion strengthens party control to a degree that would, at aone time, have been unthinkable and allows for the introduction of disciplinary procedures to ensure all MPs toe the party line. Not only this, but "no member shall, within or outwith the parliament, publicly criticise a Group decision, policy or another member of the group".

You have to wonder why the SNP feels such a motion is necessary. I would ask if I could ever join a party that had conformity and authoritarianism written into the heart of its being. As a general rule, I accept that professional standards and respect for colleagues should debar negatively briefing against them, but there are also times when expressing disagreement is necessary and actually aids democracy.

Imagine if such a stance was formally adopted by Labour or the Lib Dems. No doubt Simon Danczuk would be up for expulsion from the party - as would, in all probability, Diane Abbott. Dennis Skinner would have gone years ago. Nye Bevan would have never been a minister. Severe punishments would no doubt have been handed out to the Lib Dem MPs who either voted against tuition fees or spoke out against the way the issue had been handled. As for this blog - it would surely have been suppressed at the moment I suggested a cartoon of Alex Salmond was, to put it midly, ill-advised.

This has also got me thinking about whether an SNP MP's first duty will be to their constituents or their party.  The interests of the party and those of the constituency are not necessarily aligned. The public appreciates those MPs who go against their party line either on issues of principle or to champion local issues - it is, in fact, not altogether uncommon. I can promise that, if ever elected to public office, I will be nobody's yes-man - I could never be a tribalistic politician adhering to an imposed rigid orthodoxy. As George Orwell observed, "orthodoxy is unconsciousness". That should not be taken as suggesting I would be reckless and dismissive in my relationship with colleagues, but I recognise that ultimately I am accountable to those who elected me. I also respect others' individuality and would hate the idea of curtailing their freedom to speak according to their consciences.

I am pleased I belong in a party in which individuality is not dangerous. For all our current difficulties, I am proud to carry a party membership card that reminds me that the Liberal Democrats exist to, amongst other things, ensure "no one shall be enslaved by...conformity." For all the merits of other parties, I have yet to find the Liberal Democrats' culture of openness, respect for diverse views and acceptance of everyone as an individual (as epitomised at our conferences) anywhere else.

We may be an anarchic lot with a rebellious and anti-authoritarian streak that has frustrated several party leaders, but I wouldn't change that for anything. It certainly beats the culture of conformity and control.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Clegg defends Prince Charles' privacy

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has said that Prince Charles' letter to government ministers should not be made public - less than half an hour after the Supreme Court ruled they should be.

Speaking to LBC this morning, Clegg said "Do I think that when Prince Charles sent those letters he's entitled to assume that they would remain private? I think he probably is. I think there's a perfectly legitimate role to say at a certain point that correspondence like that, since it was intended to be private, should remain private."

However, minutes prior to this, the Supreme Court decided that letters written by Prince Charles to MPs and ministers between 2004 and 2005 should be released in the public interest. The letters were requested by The Guardian newspaper in 2005, under the Freedom of Information Act, and a decade-long legal dispute followed.

The Supreme Court's decision follows the Attorney General's Office challenging a ruling by the Court of Appeal that it unlawfully stopped the release of the letters.

Nick Clegg's position is interesting because it assumes that anything intended to be private should stay so; however, quite clearly there are times when the public interest is best served by bringing what was intended to be secret into the open. In this case, allegations have been made that Prince Charles attempted to use his influence and privilege to lobby ministers - the principle of privacy should not trump the principle of democracy.

The Supreme Court ruling is actually an excellent constitutional judgement that underlines the fact that Royals should not be immune from transparency - the kind of transparency Nick Clegg so often insists is vital to open, accountable government.

Perhaps, instead of supporting Prince Charles' right to privacy, it might have been more fitting for a Liberal Democrat leader to instead congratulate The Guardian on its outstanding 10-year campaign and recognise the significance of this ruling from the perspective of both transparency in public life and Freedom of Information.

Councillor Mathew Hulbert, Co-Ordinator of Lib Dems For A Republic, says ''I'm really surprised to hear Nick Clegg defending Prince Charles's letters to Ministers remaining private. Charles isn't writing as a private person to his local MP, he's writing to Ministers in his capacity as second in line to the throne. We, therefore, should have a right to know what he's been saying and what his views are. If these letters display an obvious political bias, then all the more reason they should see the light of day, so people can see that their future Monarch is anything but an impartial figure floating above politics!''

My views on fracking

Julian Huppert: "Meeting our climate targets needs
to be at the forefront of our energy policy"
In recent days a number of would-be constituents have asked for my views on fracking.

My opinion on this, as with many other complex policy positions, is to follow the lead of the evidence.

For some time I've had an open mind on this - while being instinctively suspicious and harbouring serious concerns about the safety and environmental impacts of fracking, I've been eager to engage with the proponents of hydraulic fracturing. I'm always willing to listen to expertise.

I'm also willing to listen to our energy minister, Ed Davey. In 2013 he suggested that fracking "is not evil" and "would not endager UK climate targets", suggesting that the "fracking debate has been marred by exaggeration". That said, while Davey is in principle prepared to consent to it providing that stringent safety requirements can be met, he's also expressed criticism of the Conservative Party's belief that fracking has the power to transform the UK economy.

I understand the case for fracking, but after a great deal of consideration I am not convinced by it. Clearly the economic case seems to be a product of political wishful thinking. It is unlikely to be a fabulous route to cheap energy. Also, in relation to my concerns about the safety of fracking, these have actually increased after reading a report from Public Health England, which (while challenging some widely perpetuated myths) demonstrates a definite potential impact on public health.

As a member of the Green Liberal Democrats, I believe our focus should be on greener forms of energyrather than fossil fuel extraction. Julian Huppert MP, recently writing for Lib Dem Voice, argued that "as shown in Nature, a boom in shale gas extraction would likely squeeze out the development of the renewable energy sector. The government’s own report on ‘Potential Greenhouse Gas Emissions Associated with Shale Gas Extraction and Use’ says 'we believe it is credible that shale-gas use would increase both short-term and long-term emissions rates'...Meeting our climate targets needs to be at the forefront of our energy policy." Huppert adds: "future generations will never forgive us if we make a choice that increases carbon emissions and destroys our most important landscapes."

They are my concerns too, and for these reasons - as well as the potential safety risks - my considered view is that I am unable to support fracking.

Lib Dems remain somewhat divided on this, with many (including Tessa Munt MP, who resigned from the government on this issue) openly expressing criticisms of fracking while others are more supportive. In a liberal party, with research into impacts ongoing, that is not too surprising. However, on the basis of the evidence I have seen, I would personally not be seeking to introduce fracking - and I'd like to voters of Coatbridge, Chryston & Bellshill to be aware of that.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Jim Hume's Member's Bill wins government backing

Jim Hume MSP
The Scottish Government has backed a Member’s Bill by Liberal Democrat MSP Jim Hume to outlaw smoking in a car while children are present. 

Mr Hume's proposal, which have received cross-party backing and the support of a number of charities, would see violators charged with a £100 fine in the event of being caught smoking in their vehicle with an under-18 present.

Speaking to Holyrood magazine, Mr Hume said: "I am over the moon. This Bill is about guaranteeing that children in Scotland can have the freedom to go on and lead healthy lives if they choose to. I look forward to working with MSPs from all parties as the Bill progresses." He is optimistic the new legilation will be in place early next year.

Supporters of the bill include the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and ASH Scotland, the national anti-smoking charity, which aims for a "tobacco-free generation" within 20 years.

Mr Hume's bill will bring Scottish legislation in line with that in England and Wales, where smoking in a vehicle with children present will be illegal from October.

There have been the predictable criticisms of nanny-statism and of any law being impossible to enforce in practice (the latter is true, as are many other laws such as those governing the use of mobiles while driving, but that isn't in itself an argument to do nothing) - this represents one further step on the path to a healthier Scotland. The new legislation, when implemented, will not in itself provide the solution, but will undoubtedly lead to a change of culture and ultimately better self-regulation by motorists. It is not a question of an overbearing government chipping away at personal freedoms, but rather one of protecting the freedom and health of children. I fail to see why anyone would believe they should have a right to make children inhale their smoke.

Mr Hume deserves credit for championing this cause, and for highlighting the public health issues related to it.

Nursing Counts - and deserves recognition

In the run-up to this year's General Election, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is asking parliamentary candidates to support its manifesto, Nursing Counts, and to commit to supporting the following priorities:

1.    Improve patient care by ensuring safe staffing levels; giving nurses access to training and; listening to the concerns of staff.
2.    Value nursing by paying a fair wage; stopping the downbanding of nursing experience and; investing in nursing so that future generations aspire to become nurses.
3.    Invest in health and care by guaranteeing no more cuts in the nursing workforce; increasing resources for the community and; implementing workforce planning that reflects the needs of patients. 

It's not a difficult manifesto to sign up to, and the RCN's priorities effectively amount to a request for politicians to give the nursing profession the respect it so obviously deserves. Who does not want fair pay for nurses? Who would argue against creating a sustainable NHS, equipped to meet the needs of patients?

As someone who spent 16 years working in the NHS, some of it at Monklands Hospital, I am more than aware of the importance of the NHS, the efforts of those who work within it and the regrettable effect that government decisions can often have. I am a former UNISON representative (health sector) and have been involved in a number of health campaigns in recent years - crossing swords with Patricia Hewitt and Andy Burnham over their misguided pro-private sector agenda. I am a believer in empowering health professionals rather than in burdening them with centrally-driven political objectives (remember Labour's NHS targets, many of which were utterly ludicrous?).

It shouldn't surprise anyone who knows me that I'm happy to endorse the Nursing Counts priorities, but it might be useful to deal with each of them in turn:

1.    "Improve patient care by ensuring safe staffing levels; giving nurses access to training and; listening to the concerns of staff."

This is absolutely vital. it's so simple and so obvious - yet I know the reality to be very different.

Staffing levels are often unsafe - I say this on the basis of experience. I worked in acute mental health for many years and often situations arose which may have been preventable if staffing levels had been more adequate to the need. If we are to move towards a patient care system that is truly responsive to patient need then we need to have the staff in place - as well as the flexibility to adjust to changing clinical priorities.

Access to training is vital - but it needs to be access to the right training. Again, if we are to respond to patient need, clinical staff need to be able to access the kind of training that will allow them to be more effective at delivering the right care. Nurses have a set number of study days per year, and often this is self-directed study - there are obvious advantages to this. However, non-qualified staff are often overlooked in regards to personal training needs and this needs to be rectified.

Listening to the concerns of staff - as a former UNISON rep this is something I used to actively do. Some of this I would feed back through the relevant channels to hospital managers - who clearly had little interest in acting on those concerns. There need to be better processes for staff to express their concerns, and a more transparent system for them to see if and how their ideas are taken forward.

I'd personally add that far more has to be done to prioritise the concerns of nurses, whose views are so often relegated to being of secondary importance behind those of consultants and the medical profession as a whole. I'd like to find ways of ensuring that nurses have a louder voice; the NHS has given disporportionate significance to the BMA's agenda for too long. And not only nurses, but other allied professionals who are so often overlooked - when David Cameron talked up the benefits of having those with health expertise commissioning NHS services, he predictable was referring predomiantly to doctors (each Clinical Commissioning Group has one registered nurse on it, but the balance of power is clearly skewed towards GPs). Any culture that reinforces the patriarchy of a single profession needs to be radically changed.

2.    "Value nursing by paying a fair wage; stopping the downbanding of nursing experience and; investing in nursing so that future generations aspire to become nurses. "

It's a scandal, isn't it? There have been headlines comparing MPs pay to nurses' pay - but you don't need to go that far to see how little nurses are paid for what they do. Simple comparisons with jobs in the banking sector, the civil service, the police and the armed forces show that nurses are earning less - and these are often unqualified professions.

Unfortunately we live in a society where people are valued largely by how much money they're able to make - as reflected in the financial industries. The next government has to think seriously about how it values the work our nurses do, and I agree that asking for a "fair wage" - i.e. in line with police, armed forces and the civil service is not unreasonable. It's a question not of affordability but of justice. Can we afford not to pay nurses a fair wage?

A fair wage, to my mind, means taking into account the unsociable hours that nurses work - any proposal to cut the current unsocial payments for nurses would amount to a significant reduction in income and should be strongly resisted.

3.    "Invest in health and care by guaranteeing no more cuts in the nursing workforce; increasing resources for the community and; implementing workforce planning that reflects the needs of patients."

It is difficult for a constituency MP to guarantee no further cuts in the nursing workforce. What I can promise is that, if elected, I would not support any such cuts and that I would vote against it (whoever forms the government). We need to be actively finding ways to increase not only staffing numbers but ensuring the right skill mix - the South Staffordshire experience confirmed that some hospitals are not only poorly staffed but left junior staff in positions of responsibility they were ill-equipped to deal with.

I agree that we need to invest more heavily in community resources, as part of moving towards a health system that is preventative rather than reactive. This has to be part of a longer-term plan, which should be evidence-based and focused on addressing local health needs

The aim of every politicians with a genuine interest in health should be the facilitation of an NHS that reflects - and addresses - the needs of patients. Services should be as specialised as necessary and as local as possible. 

I applaud the RCN's initiative and am quite happy to support its manifesto aims, but it's reasonable to point out that health is a devolved matter in Scotland and that many of the decisions affecting how the Scottish NHS (which has always been seperate, founded under a different act of Parliament) works are taken in Holyrood. However, I would seek to work with MPs and MSPs of all parties to ensure that the next five years see advances in our NHS rather than cuts to service provision, and to facilitate a change in culture in which nurses are empowered rather than undermined.
Nurses deserve recognition, respect and a fair deal. That's common sense. 

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Qurban Hussain deserves our sympathy

Controversy has surrounded Lord Hussain in the last few weeks, since it was revealed that his "son" was smuggled into the UK 23 years ago.

The tabloid press has been keen to highlight the fact that the peer not only brought the Pakistani child not the UK illegally, but also lied about it. He told the British High Commission in Islamabad that the boy was his own and therefore eligible to be a British citizen.

Given the furore, and the predictable reaction from some quarters - including Labour calling for a resignation - a sense of balance and perspective is needed.

Lord Hussain has resigned from all party activity after speaking with party leaders on Saturday. This seems sensible and a proportionate response.

Some facts are usually helpful if we're to cut through the sensationalist headlines and challenge the outrage. In this case, it's clear the incident happened in 1992 - well before Hussain was either a member of the House of Lords or a Lib Dem. There is no question of him abusing his position. Furthermore, he was a member of the Labour party for several years prior to defecting to the Lib Dems in 2003 - so, if Labour really are so "outraged and appalled" perhaps they might wish to tell us what information they had rather than trying to score cheap political points?

There can also be no doubt that Hussain is not acting in the interests of terrorist networks or aiding international criminals - although you might not know that to read some of the headlines. Let the facts speak for themselves: Hussain's wife was asked to adopt a boy in 1990 by a poor family living in Kashmir and to take him to England when he was two years old. Mr and Mrs Hussain did this, and raised him as their own for 21 years. The boy is now 25, a successful graduate and happily married.

Hussain recently told the Daily Mirror: "I know now it is illegal. I realise it was legally wrong but morally it was the right thing to do. The child's mother begged my wife to take him. You have never seen levels of poverty like this family lived in"

Police are now investigating and it is only right that the party allows them to follow the lead of the evidence to reach their conclusions. Whatever the outcome, there can be no disputing Hussain's intentions and to those who have been quick to cast stones I would ask what they would have done if they thought they could have rescued one child from a life of grinding poverty in war-torn Kashmir of the 90s. I'd also ask whether they'd react the same way if Hussain wasn't a politician - are his actions so different from those of Donald Caskie, Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg - or the many others throughout history who have overstepped legal boundaries to save or improve human lives?

Clearly there are distinctions between what appears morally right and the law. While Hussain has acted outwith the parameters of the law, there may be grounds for accepting this as a common law adoption, or "private fostering". He was acting compassionately in the interests of someone else, someone who now has life opportunities that would otherwise have been denied.

Right or wrong? - it's not for me to make a judgement. That is precisely the point. No-one (and certainly not the Labour Party or the tabloid media) should make a moral judgement on Lord Hussain. He deserves our sympathy rather than our derision.

I for one am already tired of the denigrating of politicians by the (usually) London-based media - which is often far less honest than those it targets.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Lib Dems discuss Trident motion

Tim Farron, Kevin White and Kate Hudson

Lib Dems Against Trident, formed last year to advocate opposition to Trident and a like-for-like replacement, organised a fringe meeting at Spring Conference – at which the guest speakers were Kate Hudson (CND Chair) and Tim Farron MP.

Kevin White, the founder of Lib Dems Against Trident opened the meeting, which was well attended. He emphasised the group’s aim to ensure a motion on Trident is debated at federal conference in Bournemouth later this year and added that, while much will depend on the outcome of the General Election, two draft motions had been prepared for consideration.

Both of these would call for Trident to be scrapped and not replaced. 

Kate Hudson: "[Trident] is not a military weapon,
but a political weapon."
Kate followed up with a comment on the Liberal Democrats’ history on Trident. She argued that in 2010, we took the lead on the political conversation with Nick Clegg in particular gaining credibility forhis stance on the issue.  But those now daring to put Trident back on the agenda are the Greens and the Nationalists, who have managed to eclipse the Lib Dems in the public consciousness as anti-Trident advocates.

There is a challenge for the Lib Dems – and it’s one we have to be brave enough to accept. 

Kate also tackled some of the usual pro-Trident arguments, including the need to retain an ineffective nuclear arsenal to keep “Britain’s place at the table”. She was keen to discredit this, pointing to Germany’s influence in spite of not having its own nuclear weapons, and also asking what “status” is preserved by holding on to outdated weaponry. “What status does it give in the eyes of the vast majority of nations who have no desire for nuclear weapons?” she asked.

Kate also emphasised the level of military expertise that is in support of scrapping Trident. “It is not a military weapon, but a political weapon” she explained, before arguing that Trident does not meet the UK’s security needs. No-one present disagreed. 

She made the case for the non-replacement of Trident in a clear and categorical way, which I expected from the chair of CND. After that, Kevin opened up the floor to questions and discussion. Very quickly debate focussed on whether the unilateral approach was workable: would a unilateralist motion win support of the party as a whole? Could a gradualist approach be more likely to win over those who are opposed to Trident but are uncomfortable with unilateralism? 

Toby Fenwick proposed a "middle way"
Toby Fenwick, from Centre Forum, admitted that Trident is no deterrent at all. However, he championed an alternative motion that sought a “middle way” providing for alternatives and for eventual multilateral disarmament. Toby advocated a longer-term view, not only to keep on board those who were uneasy about “leaping down the nuclear ladder in a single step” but to “Stop Trident while allowing the party to stay united.” He proposed a commitment to scrapping Trident while referring the question of alternatives to a working group “to bring recommendations on future UK nuclear weapons policy no later than Autumn Conference 2016. ..and may propose any policy from unilateral nuclear disarmament and immediate UK military nuclear denuclearization to the lowest cost dual role nuclear force to meet the 1982 Duff-Mason minimum deterrence criteria. The working group may not recommend any submarine based nuclear options, foreclosing any return to Trident.”

David Grace: has multilateralism failed?
This was supported by some present but many clearly were more enamoured with an unequivocal “No trident, no replacement” kind of motion. The Chair of Green Liberal Democrats felt that there would be few difficulties in the party adopting a unilateral approach; David Grace, Chair of Lib Dems for Peace and Security, asked whether multilateralism had failed in relation to (for example) Putin’s Russia.

Simon Foster, a politics lecturer and former Bournemouth councillor, pointed to the possible aftermath of the General Election. The Liberal Democrats need to be able to stand up and speak out against Trident renewal in the event of a Lab/SNP confidence and supply arrangement, he insisted. He also proposed that, should a leadership election be forthcoming after May, Lib Dems against Trident must ensure that Trident is made an issue that no candidate can ignore.

At this moment, by pure coincidence, Tim Farron entered the room. 

Simon Foster wants Trident to become a key issue
in the event of a leadership contest
Tim outlined his own opposition to Trident and indicated that he had, in the past, been a member of CND. He began his contribution by challenging the “Thatcherite lie” of multilateralism versus unilateralism. He praised Liberal Democrats for preventing the current government pushing ahead with a like-for-like renewal and suggested that even scaling back Trident would represent a huge step forward. 

Clearly there is a moral case for scrapping what is euphemistically referred to as a nuclear deterrent, but Tim argued that the substantive issue “is not just about doing what’s morally right...but making intelligent use of our budget.” He also sought to highlight the fact that the Liberal Democrats remain “the most pro-disarmament of the main parties”, which is certainly true but perhaps doesn’t help those of us directly challenging the SNP. Tim added that he favoured strengthening our military.

Tim Farron: "Lib Dems are the most
pro-disarmament of the main parties"
Tim will undoubtedly be a key asset in assuring any proposed anti-Trident motion is successful, but the fact that he seemed to broadly favour Toby’s approach provides some food for thought. 

In summary, it was a very positive meeting and clearly the group is determined to ensure that the party commits itself to an abolitionist position on Trident in the near future, with both like-for-like and submarine-based replacements being ruled out. Thanks to Kevin (and others) for facilitating the event, and to Kate and Tim for their thoughtful contributions.

Further information on Lib Dems Against Trident can be found on their facebook page.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Clegg rules out SNP deal

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg today used a speech at party conference in Liverpool to rule out the prospect of a formal coalition deal with the SNP.

"So let me be clear", said Clegg, "just like we would not put UKIP in charge of Europe, we are not going to put the SNP in charge of Britain - a country they want to rip apart. It's just not going to happen."

This statement of the obvious seems to be generating a curious debate on social media, receiving praise and vilification in equal measure. And yet it seems - to me - an unremarkable decision to make.

Of course Clegg is playing to the gallery to some degree and he should be careful not to come across as yet another unionist bashing the SNP, which ultimately (as we've seen) only plays into their hands. But the substance of the statement - that a formal partnership with the SNP is unattainable and undesirable - makes perfect sense.

This is not a repeat of the misguided decision, in 2007, not to enter into coalition talks with the SNP in Holyrood on the basis that the independence referendum was a red line issue. I've explained, elsewhere, why I think that was wrong - certainly the wisdom of that decision can be questioned given the fact that the referendum became reality. That was a refusal to even countenance the idea of collaboration with the SNP on the basis of their raison d'etre, foolishly sending out a message that we only deal with Labour. What Nick Clegg is saying here is quite different.

He may as well have said that after the General Election the law of gravity will continue to work, that Scotland will continue to experience its fair share of rainy weather or that the English cricket team will still be useless at the one-day game.

This, lest anyone should forget, is a Westminster General Election. The SNP - quite rightly in my view - as a matter of principle do not vote in Westminster on matters reserved to Holyrood. They have not involved themselves in issues pertaining only to England, Wales and/or Northern Ireland. It has been pointed out to me that recently Nicola Sturgeon has indicated that SNP MPs may vote more widely than this in the future as there are very few "English" issues that don't affect Scotland in some way, either directly or indirectly; there can be no escaping however that the SNP's focus is not on governing Britain. Why should the SNP wish to do so?

Equally, why would any leader of the Liberal Democrats be seeking a three-party coalition? It would be notoriously difficult to make work and has to be the least desirable outcome from his perspective.

I can't imagine the SNP, whatever the media may wish to speculate, is remotely interested in any coalition. I am sure they are considering the various opportunities that a hung parliament, in which they held the balance of power, may provide - including informal deals. But they have no aspirations of being part of the UK government in Westminster. Nicola Sturgeon will not be worried about this rejection from Nick Clegg - instead, she'll have her mind on winning as many seats in the election as possible. No doubt Clegg has similar objectives.

Possible supply and confidence deals involving the SNP may make for an intriguing prospect, but realistically speaking these would not involve the Liberal Democrats in any three-way arrangement.

It's the kind of story the media love - which is a pity because, after a positive three-day conference there is so much more that can, and should, be being said about the Lib Dems (our fantastic mental health policy being a prime example).

The odds of an SNP-Lib Dem alliance with either the Conservatives or Labour Parties were always remote on account of both the required electoral arithmetic and the practicalities of making it work. The truth is that the SNP have no such desire to undermine themselves by governing the UK, and anyone believing that they would either as an extremely limited grasp of political reality or works for the Daily Mail (which are, self-evidently, not mutually exclusive).

More interestingly, while he accused Nigel Farage's party of "offering...division and blame" Clegg didn't say whether he'd put UKIP in charge of Britain. Which frankly seems a scarier prospect...

38 degrees and TTIP

I'm sure other PPCs have been inundated with e-mails from 38 degrees in recent weeks, mainly on the issue of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

Today I received yet another:

Dear Andrew,

Would you vote for this?
  • More privatisation of our public services, including the NHS in Scotland
  • Dangerous additives and pesticides in our food
  • Secret courts that allow corporations to sue the government
That’s what’s on the table if the EU-US trade deal called TTIP goes ahead.  It’s being hashed out in secret by corporate lobbyists in Brussels, but it could be stopped if our politicians intervene. And right now, the people with the power to stop it are desperate for our votes in the election.

There’s less than 60 days to go until we vote. Most MP candidates don’t have a strong stance against TTIP yet, but we have the chance to persuade them if we move fast. To make that happen, every candidate from every party needs to know two things: TTIP is a huge threat, and they have to oppose it.

If we build huge public petitions in every constituency in Scotland, they won’t be able to ignore the issue. Will you sign the petition for your constituency?

In Scotland, the reaction to TTIP has been huge. Tens of thousands of us have already taken action to stop this dodgy deal - and we’re making a difference. David Martin, a Labour MEP with a powerful position in Brussels, pushed his fellow European MEPs to take a stronger position on TTIP. It happened just days after 20,000 of us signed the petition asking him to take a stand. [3]

It’s a good start, but it’s not enough yet. Now, let’s pile the pressure on our Westminster MP candidates and make sure they know that TTIP must be scrapped. We have less than 60 days until the election: let’s go.

Will you join in? Add your name to the petition.

Thanks for being involved,

Jen, Bex, Blanche and the 38 Degrees team

This is followed by a few links: one to an Independent piece (What is TTIP and six reasons why the answer should scare you); the opinion of the director of War on Want as to why the NHS is at risk; Jamie Oliver writing in the Daily Mail about how TTIP will mean we'll all be eating rubbish food filled with pesticides and growth hormones and a tweet - yes, a tweet - from Nicola Sturgoen confirming she would oppose any parts of TTIP that would affect the NHS.

This is of course interesting. It's interesting because - of all the source material they could choose to empower the public to better understand TTIP - they opt to use two sensationalist newspaper articles, an opinion from a charity with its own political agenda and a non-commital tweet from the First Minister.

Of course, Ms Sturgeon would be right to oppose TTIP if in fact it would have a detrimental effect on public services. But what 38 degrees are not telling you, for reasons unknown, is that public services would be excepted from these provisions. Interestingly, 38 degrees do not refer their audince to any of the relevant working documents, especially in relation to public consultation to the ISDS provisions. Neither do they refer them to the letter from the EU Trade Commissioner to the UK government, which confirms that TTIP would not open the NHS up to privatisation.

Nick Clegg, answering questions at Liberal Democrat spring conference yesterday, sought to destroy some TTIP myths, especially in relation to the NHS.

To be honest, I've not made my mind up yet about TTIP. What I do resent, however, is attempts to either influence me or enlist my support for a stance without providing any kind of real evidence to confirm very serious suppositions. So I responded with a short e-mail of my own:

Dear friends,

You ask if I would "vote for this" - of course I wouldn't vote for this and neitehr would any sensible person.

However, this isn't what TTIP actually is.

Perhaps you should be supplying better information about the reality of what TTIP is and does so that people can be better informed. Petitions are good and well, and there is a place for them. But I would prioritise reason and considered analysis in place of sensationalist scaremongering. There is a reason that most candidates don't have a strong stance, and that is because understanding TTIP requires a great deal more information than what you're suggesting.

It also requires a seperatiion of fact from fiction, and perhaps accepting the truth that the EU actually excludes public services from many of the provisions of trade and investment agreements.

I haven't made up my own mind, but I will do so on the basis of factual research rather than flagrant misinformation.

Andrew Page

I retain concerns about TTIP and how it will work in practice (not in respect to the NHS issue, however) and am always interested in engaging with those with the relevant expertise who could perhaps better enable me to understand its complexities and its potential ramifications. However, I will not support campaigns based on scaremongering and which appear to withhold, rather than empower voters to connect to, sensible analysis and factual data.

Personally, I'm more inclined to listen to Vince Cable (who said "ISDS cannot force governments to open markets or privatise public services, nor will it give excessive rights to US investors") or even Nicola Sturgeon (who doesn't seem too concerned about the provisions of TTIP as a whole), than I am to accept at face value the views of Jamie Oliver as reported in, of all newspapers, the Daily Mail. It usually takes more than a Mail article to convince me of anything, and this is no exception.

Is 38 degrees actually interested in aiding the public to understand the issue? Or is it yet another example of a campaigning organisation seeking to adjust the facts to fit its own perception?

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Why I'm proud of Nick Clegg's stance on drug law

Nick Clegg: "treatment not punishment"
Back in 2011, I gave my first speech to Liberal Democrat Conference.

Unsurprisingly to those who know me, this was on the need to reform our approach to drugs

I spoke  of the need to abandon the "war on drugs" (which isn't working), to consider drug use more in terms of it being a health issue than a criminal matter, of taking an evidence-based approach and of the wisdom of considering the merits of the Portuguese mode.

I was one of many speakers that day, who helped to ensure a historic vote in favour of re-evaluating the law and decriminalising drug use. I was very proud of our party on that day - in spite of the predictable interpretations from the right-wing press we did the right - and, indeed, sensible - thing. The so-called "war on drugs" and successive government "crackdowns" on drug use have utterly failed - it's time to rethink our strategy, while listening to those who are experts in this field and looking at the examples of our European neighbours.

Today Nick Clegg, with Sir Richard Branson who is a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, has urged the UK government to begin decriminalising most drugs. Clegg and Branson assert, in a piece published in The Guardian, that “as an investment, the war on drugs has failed to deliver any returns. If it were a business, it would have been shut down a long time ago. This is not what success looks like.

“The idea of eradicating drugs from the world by waging a war on those who use them is fundamentally flawed for one simple reason: it doesn’t reduce drug taking. The Home Office’s own research, commissioned by Liberal Democrats in government and published a few months ago, found there is no apparent correlation between the ‘toughness’ of a country’s approach and the prevalence of adult drug use. This devastating conclusion means that we are wasting our scarce resources, and on a grand scale.”

Branson, who usually dislikes taking a political position,believes that "the status quo is a colossal con perpetrated on the public by politicians who are too scared to break the taboo." He isn't wrong on that score.

In today's press conference, the Deputy Prime Minister said:

"We know that around one third of British adults have taken illegal drugs in their lifetime. For many, it's something you try when you're young then grow out of. In this country, if you're a young person – say, out at a club with friends – and you get arrested for possession of a small amount of drugs, it's likely you'll end up with a criminal record. That means this stupid youthful mistake could damage your whole future – possibly stopping you from getting the job you want, whether it's as a doctor, nurse, teacher or even a taxi driver."

Now that's patently sensible stuff. But this hasn't stopped the usual voices of unreason in the right-wing press from turning on Clegg. Equally as predictably, the euphemistically named Centre for Social Justice, has voiced its own opposition with chief executive Christian Guy taking to twitter to announce that "cannabis causes major problems in our poorest communities & ruins lives. The detached liberal elite doesn't get that."

What the detached CSJ doesn't "get" is that we are very aware of the potential risks of cannabis use, but that in itself is no reason to criminalise and ban things. No doubt people's lives are often ruined in other ways - such as people having affairs, through extreme religious indoctrination or taking part in dangerous sports. But none of these things are banned. I note that Guy doesn't apply his logic to either alcohol or gambling, so naturally find his argument somewhat thin. He does, however, make the implied charge that those advocating a more considered approach towards drug use are guilty of naivety and of seeking to worsen the situation of those in poverty.

Nothing could be further from the truth. What Nick Clegg, and others, are hoping to achieve is to free people from a system that enslaves and keeps them in prisons of their past. We don't want the opportunities of what Christian admits are often society's most vulnerable and disadvantaged people to be compromised by having a criminal record for possessing a bit of weed.

A number of charities have also added their names to the list of Clegg's critics - criticisms include the oft-debunked notion that cannabis use leads to "harder" drug use and that there are proven links between "skunk" use and first episode psychosis. However, what these voices fail to appreciate is that use of both harder drugs and stronger forms of cannabis are themselves a product of prohibition. So long as the black market exists it is logical that stronger, higher yielding versions of products are sought. Legalise cannabis, and it will be much easier to control the strength (and safety) of substance being used - reducing the health risks in the process.

This naturally applies to all other drugs, too.

The positive thing is that, with the Liberal Democrats making the right noises, opposition is tending to come from the same obvious outlets: the Conservative Party, the Daily Mail, and the CSJ. It is they who are refusing to follow the lead of the evidence on this matter, not Nick Clegg. Fortunately, the rest of the mainstream media are less overtly hostile and the very fact that such a well-known figure from the business world as Richard Branson is sharing a platform with the Deputy Prime Minister shows how far public opinion has shifted.

The Sun also turns on Nick Clegg, but has surprisingly little negative to say about the policy itself, preferring to ridicule on the basis of poll ratings instead. It seems that it, too, has given up on the "war on drugs".

While no other party has been quite as bold as the Liberal Democrats in advocating a fresh approach to drugs, the attitudes of the SNP and Labour are significantly more open to new possibilities. It is not the Liberal Democrats who are isolated on this front, but the reactionaries within the Conservative Party who vainly believe the "war on drugs" is somehow faring better than the "war on terror". The steadfast refusal to accept certain realities is tantamount not only to a national embarrassment but of a wilful determination to prevent some of our most vulnerable citizens suffering from the stigma, marginalisation and deprivation of opportunity that a criminal record represents.

The Liberal Democrats have today confirmed that our election manifesto will commit to ending the use of imprisonment for possession for personal use, allowing for cannabis to be prescribed for medicinal use, making the Department of Health rather than the Home Office responsible for drug policy, and adopting an approach similar to Portugal's to facilitate treatment rather than punishment. We have also committed to enforcing tough penalties for those who manufacture or deal in illegal drugs.

Nick Clegg today, in spite of the hostility from some quarters, made a speech in which he said:

“Drugs reform, like prison reform, is one of those issues that political parties always talk big about in opposition, only to fall silent and do nothing in Government. Not the Liberal Democrats...We believe the time for action on drugs reform is now.

“The 'War on Drugs' hasn't worked. Despite the decades of tough talking and billions spent in waging this war, the global drug problem and the criminal markets that underpin it remain all but untouched by our enforcement efforts.

“I’m incredibly frustrated that, after five years in Coalition, we cannot take our work to its logical conclusion – just because the Tories are scared of being branded soft on drugs. It’s time [for] the world has moved on; reform is no longer a taboo subject and voters expect politicians to deliver results based on solid evidence, not overblown rhetoric.

“If you’re anti-drugs, as I am, then you have a responsibility to look at the evidence of what actually works to reduce drug harm. We need to get a grip on this problem. So, if you’re anti-drugs, you should be pro-reform...politicians are letting down the victims of the drugs trade by failing to engage with the evidence.

“Talking tough while acting weak may be tempting, but it no longer fools anyone.  It is time to commit to a radically smarter approach to tackle this problem head-on.

“The first step is to recognise that drug use is primarily a health issue. [Secondly] handing out criminal records to users does nothing to reduce overall levels of drugs use. [Currently] a stupid youthful mistake could damage your whole future – possibly stopping you from getting the job you want, whether it’s as a doctor, nurse, teacher or even taxi-driver. We need to put an end to this ludicrous situation. Our focus should be on getting them the help they need, not punishment, so they can go on to realise their ambitions and make a positive contribution to society.

“The time for change has come. We need political leaders to let go of the same old, safe language, to end the war on drugs and, instead, use their power to implement evidence-based policies that work.

“That’s how we save lives. It’s how we punish the pushers, not the users and the victims of drugs. It’s how we stop the violence, reduce addiction and secure the fairer, more peaceful and prosperous world we want.”

I perhaps don't say it too often, but today I'm immensely proud to admit that I agree with Nick.