Saturday, May 15, 2010

Some friendly advice for our Lib Dem Ministers

I do share His Lordship's and Paul's excitement at the plethora of Liberal Democrats in high office ready to do stuff, really I do. It's fabulous. However, my excitement is a little tempered by the fact that so far we only seem to have appointed 2 women to any sort of ministerial office. I know that the West Wing has given us all great entertainment and has no doubt coloured our aspirations over the last decade, and there weren't very many women in senior positions in that but there are times when life is allowed to be better than art. I am seriously dischuffed that the diversity of our representation in this Government is down to little more than a range of tie colours. I know we don't have so many women MPs but we have some extremely good women in the Lords. A missed opportunity and one which I fear will give out a very wrong impression of our party.

Having said that, that is nothing in comparison to the strop I would have thrown if Alistair Carmichael hadn't been given a job. While I reserve my right to laugh at his proper title, Comptroller of HM Household (is he going to have to tell Her Maj that the tupperware budget is going to be cut?), his appointment as Deputy Chief Whip for the Coalition is eminently sensible. In this new uncharted boldly going where no-one has gone before type arrangement, having someone with excellent people skills enticing people into voting lobbies they may not be entirely comfortable with is essential. Alistair is one of the wisest liberals I know and although I've never tried it, I would guess it's pretty much impossible to dislike him. His resignation in 2008 from the Shadow Cabinet when he voted against the party line on Europe will give him empathy within the Liberal Democrats and credibility with some parts of the Conservatives. His job is not going to be without its stresses, but Alistair is the best person I can think of to do it.

In Scotland we've been through what it's like to have Lib Dem ministers in a coalition government. Obviously I have no idea what that's like from a minister's point of view, but I do from a Party office bearer's point of view. The biggest and best piece of advice I could give to any of our new government people is keep talking to the party. Tell us what's happening, what the challenges are and let us support you. If you just go off and do stuff that seems a bit weird to the party without explanation, we are going to feel ignored and left out and will get grumpy. That will make you want to talk to us even less and the whole thing will descend into a cycle of grumpiness and suspicion that really isn't pleasant for anyone.

I've seen it happen before when, for example, a Lib Dem Council group is formed for the first time, or a Council administration. Sometimes the people who are holding the office at whatever level can really feel that their loyalties are torn. A friend of mine and I were talking yesterday and he called it almost like Stockholm Syndrome. Our ministers will be spending most of their time within the corridors of power and may feel that their first loyalty is to the Government rather than the party. In fact, there may be times on both sides of the coalition when the company of people outside their party is preferable. I think that this sort of thing is inevitable but both the ministers and the party need to be aware of it and do the old working at our relationship sort of thing. We in the party need to listen to the ministers and understand the pressures on them too. Just take it from experience that a bit of time cuddling up to the party will pay dividends in the long term and cause much less hassle.

Our party is not one that just blindly obeys its leaders. That will never change and nor should it. Part of being a liberal is understanding and relishing in diversity and debate. That's not always easy for leaders to deal with and it won't always be possible for them to find the energy to inspire. The party and the ministers will need to have a bit of give and take on both sides. I was glad to see that there has been proper thought to how to maintain the relationships within the coalition - similar thoght needs to be given in how to ensure that relationships between the ministers and the party stay as cordial and mutually supportive as possible.

I so wish I was able to go to Birmingham tomorrow for the Special Conference. Truth is I'm just not well enough and the journey alone would probably be too much. I hope to live through it vicariously via Twitter and the lovely Lib Dem blogosphere though.

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