Sunday, May 01, 2011

Lazy Scotland on Sunday Leader's thoughtless dismissal of the Liberal Democrats #sp11

The Liberal Democrats are suffering, rightly so, for sacrifices they have made to power-share at a UK level. It seems we do care about broken promises, and, by all accounts, they will pay the price at the polls.
So says today's Scotland on Sunday leader column.  That's it. A casual dismissal in three lines, lazily adopting the narrative of the SNP and Labour that actually doesn't stand up to any sort of scrutiny. The same article later calls Labour out for treating the electorate with contempt with their negative campaign - and rightly so - without a trace of irony, because such an abrupt dismissal of the Liberal Democrats shows little regard for its own readers.

The use of the words "rightly so" betrays an anti Liberal Democrat stance to begin with. There's no look at the circumstances in which the party found itself after the election last May. We had three choices. Let's look at them.

We could have formed a Government with Labour, but we'd have needed Green, Welsh and Scottish Nationalist and Northern Irish parties on board as well. It wouldn't have had a majority in the House of Commons, though. If the Labour Party had been up for it, it might have had a chance but even as they were negotiating with our people, they sent people on to every available network to say that this was a very bad idea. It would have been easier to manage the smaller parties than it would have been to get the Parliamentary Labour Party to agree. A Government formed between us at that time would have fallen apart in acrimony within weeks - and you have to remember at the time that Spain and Portugal's economies were threatening to go the same way as Ireland's. We could have ended up in the same situation with consequences for jobs and livelihoods which are the stuff of nightmares. The ensuing second election of last year would, there is no doubt in my mind, have given the Tories a whacking overall majority and by now they would have abolished the Human Rights Act, given tax cuts to millionaires, wasted scarce funds on a tax break for married couples, and completely ignored the plight of those on the lowest incomes. Their health reforms in England could have been law by now, rather than being held back by the Liberal Democrats.

Then we could have decided to vote issue by issue in the House of Commons. We could have voted against the recommendations of the Browne Report on tuition fees which would have been implemented in full by a minority Conservative Government, and most likely with the support of the Labour Party who had commissioned it in the first place. I don't pretend that the ultimate solution on tuition fees is one I'm happy with, but at least we rolled our sleeves, got in there, engaged with Browne, and came up with a system which means that someone on £21,000 will pay £84 less a month than they do on the current system. Ah, but, I hear you Scots voters say, we've had a minority Government up here for four years and that's worked fine. It's had to, given the fixed term of our Parliament. Cameron could have called a second election at any time. Can you just imagine the second election following Parliament's blocking of his plans to scrap the Human Rights Act? It would have been a nasty scrap with the Tory campaign built on Daily Mail style headlines. And the Tories would have won.  And the Liberal Democrats would have been blamed by the Tories for failing to provide stable Government and by Labour for not going in with them to stop the Tories - even though that Government would have had no chance for the reasons I described above.

So that left us with the only option left - a coalition with the Tories. A risky strategy - noted by the Scotland on Sunday leader writer as a sacrifice. Well, we knew when we went into it that for all sorts of reasons it carried all sorts of risks for our party. Including the situation we now find ourselves in facing these elections. We took the view that a Coalition Government with Liberal Democrats in it was infinitely preferable than the Tories governing as a minority until they got their majority in a second election. A 5 year agreement, during which key elements of our manifesto would be implemented, would ultimately make things easier, better and fairer for ordinary people than they would  have been if the Tories had been governing alone. Look at the four key policies on the front of last year's manifesto - fairer taxes, a fair start for every child, investment to create jobs in the renewables sector and cleaning up politics. These are all being done in some measure or other. For a party which makes up 20% of the Government to get over 60% of its policies implemented is pretty good going.

And now let's look at broken promises. I can think of a fair few. Dumping student debt comes to mind. A key SNP pledge from 4 years ago. Yet when Scottish (and now UK) NUS President Liam Burns had praise to hand out, it was the Liberal Democrats who got it, not the SNP:

“This is great news and testament to the hard work of thousands of college students across Scotland and the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Students across colleges and universities have mobilised fantastically well, with over 32,000 letters and emails sent to MSPs on this issue. To win £15m college bursaries, and £8m for college places,in a budget which is being cut is a fantastic result.  We hope this will now end the yearly ritual of college bursaries running out and end the threat of cuts to 40,000 of our poorest students.”

The SNP were also going to introduce a local income tax - which they quietly shelved after issues over the mechanics of implementing it that they failed to share with the Parliament.

And then there was the referendum on independence.

Of course, they didn't have a majority in the Parliament on these things - so you would think, wouldn't you, that they'd be a bit more sympathetic to our situation at Westminster, where we're implementing a huge chunk of our manifesto with just a tiny proportion of the MPs. We have 57 out of 650, and they haven't done so much better with 47 out of 129.

Labour don't have the best record on promises either - or have I somehow missed the elected House of Lords brought in after the 1997 elections? And of course, who brought in tuition fees in England despite promising not to and would have done so in Scotland if they hadn't been stopped by the Liberal Democrats?

Party President Malcolm Bruce told our Conference in March that the Scottish Liberal Democrats were the best friends students had - and he's right to do so, and our commitment to students' issues has been praised by NUS Scotland itself.

A fair approach from the Scotland on Sunday leader writer would give credit for promises kept, and not just condemn on the basis of one promise very publicly broken south of the border. If, as S of S avers, we do care about broken promises, I suggest there are richer pickings than just the issue of tuition fees.

We're not perfect, but when the chips are down, even when there's no money around, we'll shift what we have to make sure that the poorest suffer as little as possible.That's why, down south, Liberal Democrat councils have been protecting frontline services depended on by the most vulnerable people while Labour councils with similar settlements have closed them.

Labour might pretend that they would never have made cuts - when in fact they would have made broadly similar cuts to those being made by the Coalition. They just refuse to tell us what they would have done. The SNP might want to blame the bad boys in Westminster - but how would an independent Scotland have coped with the banks collapsed?

The issues around the Liberal Democrats deserve more than a dismissive 3 lines. There is no mention of our USP in this election - the fact that we are the only one of the big 4 to stand up against a single national police force and other power grabs to the centre. There's no mention of our plans to abolish the Council Tax for the poorest pensioners, which compare well with Tory plans to reintroduce a £5 prescription charge for people on low incomes while cutting taxes for the richest of pensioners. We're offering a programme which wears our heart on our sleeve - our long held commitments to fairness and decentralisation and freedom and fighting a positive campaign based on long held principles.

It annoys me that lazy journalists can't even attempt to be fair or balanced when talking about us.


Jeff said...

"A casual dismissal in three lines, lazily adopting the narrative of the SNP and Labour that actually doesn't stand up to any sort of scrutiny."

I really do worry that you don't get this Caron and you're not just being facetious. Dismissal of the Lib Dems does stand up to scrutiny, as the polls corroborate.

You say you had no choice but to go for option 3, I would argue that you had no choice but to go for option 2.

You could have entered into coalition discussions with clear red lines, red lines that you were unable to disentangle yourself based on the 'no more broken promises' campaign that the Lib Dems had just conducted. These would have been tuition fees remaining free and no VAT rise.

Of course this wouldn't have been workable with the Tories but they were your priorities in the election campaign so you would've been out of wiggle room.

Nick Clegg bet the lot on AV, it was a huge mistake and your party is, quite rightly, paying the price for it.

Don't believe me? Ask around...

cynicalHighlander said...

This seems to have been written in utter desperation rather than actualities, and that fox is getting closer.

Caron said...

Jeff, option 2 was worse than any other. We spend our whole lives arguing for a proportional system and then we get the chance to show that coalition can work, to put our liberal values into practice, and then pass it up? We'd never have been taken seriously again. The end result would have been the same as option 1, a majority Tory Government doing what it liked.

As for AV, it was all that was available.

If there had been around 140 of us, as the size of our vote would have merited, we'd have had a lot more leverage within the negotiations. We got the best deal it was possible to make - and the red lines we did have, on things like restoring the pensions earnings link, raising the tax threshold, clamping down on tax evasion by the wealthy, ending child detention, investing in the pupil premium, are all very worthwhile things.

And Alex Salmond is not being held to account by the media for failing to dump student debt - and much of the gains on that in the Parliament have come because of the Liberal Democrats.

There should surely be consistency in the standards applied to each party to the media?


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