Sunday, 29 March 2015
SNP and Labour remind me 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."
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.