Monday, November 07, 2011

Being awkward, wearing our hearts on our sleeves and not letting anyone put us in the corner - the way forward for the Liberal Democrats

What I'm about to say might seem to be most relevant to Scotland, but I guess that the same principles apply south of the border, so don't let the words SNP in the first sentence put you off.

I have heard it said in a few places in recent months that we're being a bit too hard on the SNP Government. Often that comes from SNP activists who have notoriously thin skins when it comes to their Great Leader being criticised, or even questioned, and so can be relatively easily dismissed by the Mandy Rice Davies Doctrine ("They would say that, wouldn't they?). However, when it comes from a few of your own people, you have to sit up and take notice.

Willie Rennie and Mike Moore have certainly had some strong words to say about the SNP's behaviour and plans. To be fair, they've had good reason.The SNP were reasonably competent in their first term, but they've lost their way a bit since they won again in May, making some very strange judgement calls.

Let's look at the themes that Willie has been seeking to develop since he became leader. He's been talking a lot about three values: opportunity, sustainability and community and he's wanted every thing he says and does to reflect those values. Now, these are long words, so he has a better way of relating them to everyday life. 

Opportunity is about helping people get up and get on in life - and that will also encompass that traditional Liberal desire to protect ordinary people from abuse by the state. It's hardly surprising, then, that we've been so critical of a Government who, when confronted with evidence that its not complying with the European Court on Human Rights, picks a fight with the UK Supreme Court. We tend to see the issue as making sure Scots get fair and proper treatment at the hands of our justice system. And then there's Cornton Vale - women in prison let down again and again by the Government. What bigger barrier to helping people get up and get on in life is a penal system that doesn't provide necessary medical treatment or even basic sanitation? It's Willie's commitment to this value that has made him passionate about dealing with alcohol abuse and which is why he has made it his business to persuade the party to back the SNP on minimum alcohol pricing. It's also why, in a remarkably grown up display from both sides the other day, he questioned Deputy First Minister on what can be done to tackle those rich, powerful companies which are effectively sticking up two fingers to the Government's alcohol discount laws.

Community is about trusting local people to know what services they need in their area. That's why Willie has set up the Home and Community Rule Commission chaired by Ming Campbell to look not just at the next stage of devolution from Westminster, but how we can give power away from Holyrood. That's what Liberal Democrats do. This value also explains why we're going to do what we can to fight the SNP's plans for a single police force, which is to me fundamentally wrong on so many levels, not least the power it gives to the Justice Secretary. 

Sustainability is all about avoiding quick fixes and looking for long term solutions. That's why we think that the Government's bill which aims to tackle sectarianism is just plain wrong. We don't want to see perfectly innocent people's freedoms restricted when the current law can deal with the people who are causing the trouble.

Much of what our members see in the press tends to be the stuff where we're questioning or criticising the Government. And it's right that we do so. Governments need to be kept honest and they will take even more liberties if they think their opposition is dozing.  And this one, now it has a majority and some exceptionally compliant backbenchers, thinks it can do what it likes without question. That's the wrong attitude for a Government to have.

The papers don't necessarily devote a lot of attention to the positive stuff they have been doing. Mike has devoted a whole load of time to changing the way the Crown Estate works, making sure local communities get some benefits as well as getting the Scotland Bill, which gives a huge anount of power to Holyrood, through. Okay, it's not as far as we would like to go, but it was developed through consensus and it's as far as we can go at the moment. He's always said it's part of a process that will continue way beyond this Bill getting Royal Assent.

It's clear that Willie has been leading the development of a more effective narrative, weaving everything we do round our core values. Nowhere was this clearer than during his Conference speech last month. Now, just between you and me, some people not known for wearing their hearts on their sleeve told me on the quiet that his words had put a tear in their eye. This is a speech I described, in a moment of gratuitous headline grabbing, as a failure, because it didn't conform to the "make a few cheap gags and kick lumps out of your opponents" school of political speechwriting.

What made the press was predominantly about what he said about the Catholic Church on equal marriage - again, standing up against the abuse of power to thwart freedom. There was much more to it than that, though. The recurrent theme was about us "being awkward" not putting up with bad decisions, ludicrous bureaucracy and bad government at whatever level, of how Scotland needed strong, liberal voices. Of how we were a party of passion, optimism and vision.

Every single word was delivered with authenticity and emotion. We actually need to get more emotion back into our communications because people will vote for us if they feel what we're saying in their hearts rather than just reading words on a page that they vaguely agree with. Thing is our vision and values are enduring. The SNP can paint a very romantic vision of independence, but if they get it, then what? And will the dream match up to the reality, or will it be one of those "be careful what you wish for, you might get it" scenarios? There will always be a place, a need, for liberalism, though.

I think that Willie has done pretty much the right thing since he was elected leader. He's listened to the membership, he's travelled up and down the country supporting campaigning and he's not going to let up in the run up to the Council Elections. He's had numerous plaudits in the press for the work he's doing.  Over the next six months, I think there are a number of ways we can develop the themes he's been talking about.

Highlight the achievements of Liberal Democrat Councillors until we are sick of hearing them. What better way of showing what we're about than showcasing what we've achieved in office. From getting Glasgow Council to back equal marriage to the spectacular improvements in social care and reductions in homelessness Paul Edie's brought about in Edinburgh, from the work that's been done on improving community safety in the capital, to the amazing improvements in recycling rates in Fife as well as Tim Brett's expert and people centred improvements to social care. In Dunfermline, people can see the new, desperately needed, rebuild of the High School going on right in front of them - something Liberal Democrats have been banging on about forever. There are many more and we need to be shouting them from the rooftops. Across Scotland, Liberal Democrats have delivered people-centred services which give more power back to the user, to the local communities.

We should be talking about Councillors' plans for the next four (actually most likely five, as a friend reminded me on Facebook when she read this) years, too. We need to show how everything we does relates to our values.

We also have to remember that most of the good things our councillors achieved have been done despite inheriting a financial bourach from the previous administration. For the non Scots among you, bourach means a right mess. Cowp is a word that would do just as well.

These things will help us win back the trust we've lost - our people, in positions of power - doing what they said they'd do.

Continue to provide constructive opposition to the SNP - be awkward when necessary
Where they do good stuff, support them. I have been slightly confused by those who say we should be doing more constructive stuff and then when Willie persuades the party to back minimum alcohol pricing, those very same people have a go at him for that. He and Nicola Sturgeon had a very grown up exchange at First Minster's Questions last week.

When a Government gets a thumping endorsement in an election, it's a dangerous time for that Government. There's a temptation to get a bit big for its boots, to take liberties. The SNP are doing that in spades, talking up disputes with Westminster when it should be working together. This UK Government is a darned sight more respectful of the Scottish Government than the last one was, but the SNP aren't for returning the compliment.

The Tories and Labour have thus far had their heads so far up their own navels so it's fallen to Willie to ask the crucial questions - the other week scoring a big hit over the SNP's two question referendum plans. The SNP still doesn't get why a 99% vote for devo max  should not be trumped by a 51% vote for independence despite their own expert saying it was "untenable".

My assessment is that people within the party are generally happy that Willie is holding the SNP to account in the way that he is and want to see more of the same in conjunction with advancing our own values. The people who mostly don't like what he's doing is the SNP. And they would say that, wouldn't they?

Be proud of our achievements in the Coalition - don't let anybody put us in the corner
There isn't a Liberal Democrat who is entirely comfortable with everything that the Coalition is doing. I've talked about my misgivings on immigration and on some aspects of the welfare reforms as they affect disabled claimants. However, there's enough good that we are doing that we really should be shouting about, that we can talk about with confidence on the doorsteps. These include:

Extra help for childcare for the lowest paid parents;
Raising the tax threshold, taking 91000 Scots out of income tax altogether;
Restoring the pensions/earnings link;
Steve Webb's "triple lock" to make sure people get realistic pension increases;
Lynne Featherstone's Campaign for Body Confidence;
Ending child detention at Dungavel;
Stopping the Tories scrapping the Human Rights Act, giving tax breaks to married couples, cutting the top rate of tax for the rich and cutting Inheritance Tax;
Getting rid of ID cards and the identity database;
The Green Investment Bank;
The Scotland Bill - the biggest devolution of power to Scotland since the Act of Union.

There are many more examples - we'll all have our favourites. What are yours? And just because a measure doesn't go as far as we would like, doesn't mean that it doesn't do some good.

We have sat by and let people put us in the corner a bit over the last year. We may even have slunk in there ourselves. We'll never get out if we don't fight back, though. A lot of what people have said about the Coalition simply isn't true.

The party needs to be much smarter at rebuttal and communicating our achievements. It's getting better, but it's not there yet. I'd also like to see our people in the Government calling out Tories when they say silly things about benefit claimants and the like. There are times when they do have to keep quiet, but there are battles they should fight.

It would be fabulous if we could be in Government at a time when there was stacks of cash - we experienced that in the first 8 years of Holyrood and we did loads with it. Now, we're teetering on the edge of a global economic abyss. We might not have chosen this time, but we have to roll up our sleeves and get on with the situation we've been given. Despite the circumstances, we are implementing a lot of good liberal things and we need to tell people about it. If we don't, nobody else will.

Continue to find ways of putting our values into practice
Our manifestos at past elections have been very worthy lists of policies which in some ways have become disconnected from our values. Don't get me wrong - they've been good policies, but they stand in a bit of a vacuum. We need to make our policy development much tighter and more closely associated with our core themes of opportunity, sustainability and community.

The process of developing these ideas is done separately from the reactive rough and tumble of everyday politics. It needs to be proactive, looking at areas where our ideas can make a difference. In the next few years, children's services are going to come under the spotlight. At the moment there's a consultation on the rights of the child from the Scottish Government and next year there will be a bigger one on children's services. To me it's an absolute abomination that children are living in poverty, who don't have enough to eat and are cold because their parents can't afford to put the heating on. It's not right that the background you're born into can affect your life chances. We need to look at things like the pupil premium but that doesn't have the effect it needs to have if the child can't do their homework because they're sharing a bedroom in an overcrowded flat with three other siblings, or if they suffer from Asthma because of damp in their council flat. The Scottish Parliament has plenty of powers at its disposal to help tackle some of these problems.

I think the high pay in the public sector issue that we talked about in the run up to this year's election was something we should continue to explore - but I think that the management culture within the public sector is often very unhealthy and has a detrimental effect on the quality of the services provided. We need to look at ways of supporting people who do difficult jobs better, but also give ordinary workers within the public sector a feeling that they can have some power within their organisation and some autonomy and flexibility. A service delivered by demoralised, overworked, stressed staff is not likely to be the best it can be. I think we should come up with ideas to change things so that the staff delivering the service and the customers are happier.

These are my personal interests, and I'm sure you'll have your own ideas about how we should develop our policy and strategy.  There are loads of things you can do with those ideas. We are lucky that we have two very approachable people who want to hear from members - Willie Rennie as leader up here and Tim Farron as Federal President. Fill up their inboxes with your suggestions. Summarise what you want to get across to them in a couple of paragraph - it's a bit of a Lib Dem thing to use more words than necessary, so try to be succinct.. Get your local party to actively think up ideas and submit motions to our Conferences. I hear rumours that the Liberal Club and Nigel Lindsay's Liberal Vision (not the dark side) project are going to be doing some collaborations on policy issues - get involved in that if you can. Much as I love both organisations, they particularly need young people and women to contribute to their thinking.

Our recovery will happen - maybe not overnight, though I suspect that our Council elections won't be as bad as some commenters think and the opposition parties would like - and it'll take a lot of different tactics to do it. As long as we wear our hearts on our sleeves, showing off our core values and not hiding away in the corner licking our wounds, we'll win back people's support and trust.


Douglas McLellan said...

I may be one of those causing confusion being, as I am, critical of our response to the SNP but also critical of the minimum alcohol policy change.

With regard to the SNP I really do believe we should not actually bother to mention anything about the referendum/constitutional position. Yes they are annoying and spoiling for a fight. But we are giving them that fight and losing. Rather than merely attack their vision for Scotland we should just offer our own. Which means we need the home rule commission to be clear about what we offer Scotland.

We made a clear tactical error in not backing a referendum. In our constitution we state "We believe that sovereignty rests with the people and that authority in a democracy derives from the people. We therefore acknowledge their right to determine the form of government best suited to their needs". We also state that we believe that this can be delivered through a Federal structure but when was the last time we built a manifesto for Scotland on that idea?

At the last election we said to the Scottish people that they are not allowed to have their say for at least 9 years (2007-2016). This is my annoyance about constant demands to know when the referendum is - we didn't want the Scottish people to have it so what right do we have to demand it as soon as possible? In fact, what I'd like us to do is amend the current Scotland Bill to give the Scottish Parliament water-tight legal powers to actually hold the referendum rather than allowing the dark mutterings of Westminster carrying out the referendum. We will lose even more votes and respect if we allow that to happen.

With regards to minimum unit pricing for alcohol I think it is a illiberal policy that punishes those who don't drink to excess but still have very low incomes. Scotland's relationship with alcohol is cultural, not price based. If alcohol prices were the cause of problems then France, with its excellent €1 bottle of wine would be in a worse place than Scotland but its not. The cultural use of Buckfast, which will not actually change price(!!!), will continue and cause problems throughout Scotland.

Other than that, I stongly agree with a lot of what you have written.

cynicalHighlander said...

Since LbDems have supported Home Rule for over a century yet they are still confused on what it means they have set up yet another commission to look for that lost particle so they are in position to criticise anyone else on anything.

Your Scottish MPs and Labours cheered Cameron when he told investors not to invest in Scotland at last weeks PMQ's so Scotland is sick to death of these self serving people and their parties.

The Ladybird Book of devo max – suitable for unionists under 304 years old

cynicalHighlander said...

Scottish election: Talking nearly over for politicians

If victorious at the polls on Thursday, Mr Salmond will seek to bring the referendum plan back in the second half of the next parliament - saying Westminster's Scotland Bill on more powers for Holyrood needs to be dealt with first.

Pity no unionist politician or activist could show the same integrity.


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