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.


pictishbeastie said...

"Dissent is practically unheard of; individuality almost indiscernible." As a lifelong SNP member I have to say that that statement is frankly guff!

Joseph Tierney said...

In brief, two SNP MSPs left the party over the policy change to join NATO in the event of securing independence, that was a hard fought debate and another left to join the Green Party hardly the Stepford Wives is it? That your party is now riven by infighting, and I use that phrase appropriately, as opposed to healthy internal debate, is due the fact you are facing a wipe out in May and the fight for the lifeboat is becoming increasingly nasty. The one thing that really does separate a Lib Dem from a Labour or SNP member is your smugness. But your collective 'holier than thou' moral superiority has been thoroughly trashed and your feet of clay made visible for the world to see. You don't tell us why you're not a Tory? Is the reason that after five years joined at the hip that you can longer tell the difference? As for the SNP supporter you quote, if that was a serious answer to a stupid question then they are deluded and you've demonstrated appalling judgement in your choice of friends.

Jane Ann Liston said...

Well said, Andrew. In NE Fife the SNP MSP actually voted to close Cupar Sheriff Court, saying he couldn't simply stick up for his constituents. Contrast this with the previous LibDem incumbent who, when the Cupar court faced a similar threat of closure a few years earlier, wrote to the minister objecting and as a result the court was saved.

Andrew said...

It is one thing to insist on a code of conduct for candidates and MPs.

But to go to the lengths of passing this kind of motion at conference is quite extraordinary.

I'm just trying to imagine imposing such thinking onto someone like Donald Gorrie, who spoke out against the coalition with Labour in 1999.

@pictishbeastie - I'd have said that too, until quite recently.

@Joseph - I'll respond to your various points.

The NATO issue is hardly the context - the context is a General Election in which the SNP hope to do exceptionally well and after which they aspire to have significant influence on the government. The NATO incident does appear, however, very much in the background - it's as if the party are saying "never again".

Don't see much inflighting within the party as a whole - I do see that there is some among MPs (especially in regards potential leadership battles) and that's not helpful - but I'd still defend Tim Farron's right to give the coalition "2 out of 10" as well as Vince Cable's right to hit back. Much more authentic than insisting that "everything's OK" while animosity rules in private.

There will be no Lib Dem wipeout. There will be a significant reduction in our seats - I'm on record as predicting 23-26 with 1-3 in Scotland. That's not good, and it's a huge step back, but returning to 1992 levels is a setback rather than a wipeout.

"Holier than thou" - in the last few months I've found it excruciating to hear one particular "side" feel that they have some kind of moral superiority and it's not the Lib Dems - we need to move away from this. I voted yes as well, but I don't diminish those who voted otherwise. "Smugness" - again, there are others who could more adequately bear that description than the Lib Dems. Sure, we pride ourselves on qualities other parties' members might find absurd - but I don't think you'll find too many smug Lib Dems around (a couple of notable MPs aside).

Why am I not a Tory? I knew that barb would appear in there somewhere? Quite plainly, because I could not possibly share their values. On the other hand, the SNP and Labour (and the Greens) have a number of policies that I could support. I have much more respect for them that I do the Conservative Party. I value the contributions they make. But could I join them? I really don't think so. I wouldn't feel I could be myself in those parties.

The SNP supporter in question - it wasn't a "stupid" question; it was an exasperated one. There is only so much of the uncritical support one can take before asking what it would take to retract that support. Again, context is important and I used two issues I know that person cares about. But policy doesn't matter to him. All that matters is that pro-independence MPS are returned (I didn't confuse him further by pointing out thaere are pro-independence voices in other parties).

I acceptthat we have a stuggle to differentiate, but if you can't tell the difference between the Lib Dems and the Tories, then you're not listening. Which I can understand to a point, but all you have to do is hear Conservative ministers complaining about how their ideas have been frustrated and you'll have some idea.

As for my choice of friends - when he's not talking about politics in a naive way, he's sensible, rational and immensely committed.

david2 said...

A very well written piece. Thanks for reminding me why I am a liberal democrat. Indeed you have just inspired me to rejoin the party.

Joseph Tierney said...

@Andrew, thank you fir the response, however I must come back to the original point made against the SNP. I am a member of the party and as free-minded, strong willed and vociferous as any LibDem minded peer. The NATO point isn't out of context when discussing discipline and dissent within the party over matters of policy and for two MSPs to leave over this when they know that any fracture or perceived fracture of a unified SNP is manna from heaven for political opponents an the Unionist media, so discipline had to strong because circumstances dictate it.
Of all the parties I have a sneaking admiration for the long history of dissent within the Tory party. It may stem from a deep sense of entitlement that a Tory MP with a few million in the bank feels they can say what they like and damn your eyes, but no leader is more likely to be skewered by their backbenchers than a Tory leader.
Smug, yup, can't get Nick Clegg's TV debate pitch from 2010, "We're not them" only to be shown to be exactly like them. Granted those of us on the Yes side were as guilty of delivering the sermon on the mount as we were delivering leaflets but a 'cause' isn't a policy manifesto. One gets rather more emotional about self-determination and the re-birth of a nation than how far HS2 goes.
What about SNP policy for Westminster? That is a reason to be a bit 'holier than thou'. An end to austerity, trying to stop 100 billion going on Trident, pushing for a federal UK? What's not to like and why not get preachy about it. There are far more establishment arms raised against the SNP left, right and centre desparate to bring them down, so a bit of steel in keeping the team together is no bad thing.

Andrew said...

Joseph - The best thing about blogging is the conversations I have - and not always with those who agree with me! I generally take the trouble to reply, especially when someone has obviously put some thought into a comment.

Party discipline is a real issue and I'm not diminishing that. I'd accept the charge that Lib Dems are not actually all that good at it! I also accept that the NATO question is very definitely in the background to this decision - the Liberal Party had a similar milestone in 1986, with the defence debate in which the leadership of both Alliance parties was defeated - hence my suggestions that the SNP leadership are saying "never again". The immediate context, however, is the General Election campaign and the need to present an utterly united front. I just wonder at the need to introduce a motion to enforce it, and what this says about the party's culture.

Even I'm not, as a Lib Dem candidate, likely to say anything damaging about Nick Clegg or any other MP/candidate in public. I may express dissatisfaction with a policy, however - and surely you'd think that is right and healthy?

You've added the context of the SNP versus "unionist" media, which I think may go some way towards explaining it. But, aagin, I'm not sure this needs conference to pass a motion allowing this position to become a fixed part of the party's make-up - if it's the circumstances that dictate it, those circumstances may very well change in the months ahead.

If the Labour Party adopted this position, no doubt both Simon Danczuk and Diane Abbott would at this moment be facing disciplinary proceedings. Now, while I certainly won't defend the first of these, what would that do to the public image of the party?

And yes, I do think there is a very important question of the primacy of the electorate over the party in regards an MP's accountability.

You're right about the Conservatives on both counts. There always have been strangely eccentric Tory backbenchers with views out-of-touch with the party as a whole. They too can be notoriously difficult to lead (remember Major's "bastards" remark?).

The truth is that all parties are coaltions, attracting people of various political philosophies and backgrounds - but this is particularly true of both the SNP and the Lib Dems. The SNP has within it those who are very much on the left, all the way through to those like Michael Fry who, without his belief in independence, would in all other respects be a Tory). How we deal with this is a tough question, but imposed confirmity (even for a short time for a specific purpose) seems an unnecessary step, as well as sending out the wrong signals.

I have always hated the "we're not them" mantra that both of our parties, and now UKIP, have used. The same goes for Yes campaigners - and I say that as one of them. I dislike the moral one-upmanship, and the "victim" mentality (again, something which both of our parties have used in relation to media representations) can be counter-productive.

I like a great deal of the SNP's policy agenda (esp. Trident - you will also be aware of my views on federalism) but a zero tolerance approach to any dissent seems to be an over-reaction to a virtually non-existent problem.

Andrew said...

David2 - pleased to hear it.

Joseph Tierney said...

Your parliamentary party does have a sense of humour though, nobody can deny that. You say that I am guilty of not listening and that is why I can't tell the difference between a Tory and a LibDem but I do listen. I listened as Osborne delivered the ConDem budget, flanked by Danny Boy on the Wednesday. Then listened again as Danny Boy stood up to deliver an alternative budget, on the Thursday.

I remember Geoffery Howe standing up to shoot Thatcher in the front, but this the first time I've seen a minister stand up to shoot himself in the foot.

You are bang on about the LubDems playing the wacky card :)