Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Malcolm Bruce's letter exposes nature of Lib Dem-Tory relationship

Sir Malcolm Bruce
The Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Sir Malcolm Bruce, has written an open letter to Conservative MPs following accusations that Lib Dem MPs have blocked Bob Neill's EU Referendum Bill.

I'll let the letter speak for itself, but it underlines the nature of the current relationship between the coalition parties, in addition to exposing the degree to which the fear of UKIP features in Conservative thinking.

Here is the letter in full:

Dear Colleague,

I am writing to correct the misinformation contained in Michael Gove’s recent letter to parliamentarians, which accused the Liberal Democrats of ‘killing’ Bob Neill’s European Union (Referendum) Bill.

The claim is utterly false. The Liberal Democrats have never had any intention of preventing this Bill from being debated in the House of Commons. We do not support it – in Government we have already legislated for an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. However, we are more than happy to allow the appropriate passage of Bob Neill’s Private Members Bill, in line with standard Parliamentary procedure.

On that basis, the Liberal Democrats were happy to grant the required money resolution for Bob Neill’s Bill in return for agreement to a money resolution for Andrew George’s Affordable Homes Bill, as is normal practice.

What we could not accept, however, was the demand by the Conservative leadership that - in return for a money resolution for Andrew George’s Bill - both a money resolution and government time were provided for the EU (referendum) Bill. This would have been highly unusual and would not have been a like-for-like arrangement.

The only logical conclusion, therefore, is that the real block to Bob Neill’s Private Member’s Bill is the Conservative leadership, who – by creating an impossible hurdle for the Bill’s advancement through the Commons – have scuppered it and sought to lay the blame at the Liberal Democrats’ door, while distorting the potential costs of Andrew George’s bill in the process.

I can only assume that the reason they do not wish Bob Neill’s Bill to move ahead is that it’s success would be a serious electoral inconvenience to the Prime Minister and his team next May – because it removes what they believe is their best offer to disaffected Conservative voters who may otherwise be tempted to vote UKIP. One can only infer from their recent behaviour that the Prime Minister actively wants his 2017 referendum to hang in the balance come the General Election, in order to enhance his own appeal.

The risks of such short-term political tactics are an internal matter for the Conservative party. However, the Liberal Democrats will not be used as a shield between a Conservative leadership determined to avoid providing a statutory guarantee for a 2017 referendum and a Conservative backbench determined to deliver it. From our perspective, Bob Neill’s Bill remains entirely within reach – all that is required is for the Conservative Party to follow precedent: providing a money resolution for Andrew George’s Affordable Housing Bill in return for a money resolution for Bob Neill’s Bill.

You will know from your time in the Commons that this fair, equitable arrangement is always the way Private Members Bills are advanced.

Put simply, the message from the Liberal Democrats to the Conservative party is: know a fair offer when you see it, play by the rules and you will get your Bill.  

This will remain our position for as long as it is possible for both Bills to proceed.

Yours,

Malcolm Bruce MP
Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Who will be Scottish Labour's next leader?



Following Johann Lamont’s resignation, which served to underline the self-created difficulties in which Scottish Labour finds itself, there has been much talk regarding her successor.

The Mirror has reported that Jim Murphy is the frontrunner. The Spectator disagrees, stating that Anas Sarwar is the favourite to succeed Lamont. Gordon Brown has been touted by many as a potential Scottish leader. What is quite obvious about those being touted is, while they undoubtedly possess leadership ability, their potential appointments would also create significant further problems for Labour and would be ignoring the reasons behind the party’s current problems.

As Caron Lindsay wrote for Lib Dem Voice yesterday, “the problems faced by the Labour Party are primarily to do with their sense of entitlement to power and their predilection towards factionalism, personality cults and in-fighting...the failure to understand devolution in its own ranks is mirrored by its failure to get why the Scottish Parliament needs more powers.” Johann Lamont was consistently undermined by Labour’s inability to devolve any kind of power to their leader in Holyrood – if Labour cannot be trusted to treat the Scottish leader as..well, a leader, why should they be trusted in facilitating any significant devolution for Scotland?

The next leader of Scottish Labour has to be someone who can unite the Scottish party and once again give it purpose, a message, and credibility. A few policy ideas wouldn’t go amiss either – the obsession with Alex Salmond really hasn’t proved effective.  But, more significantly, in the current political climate, Scottish Labour’s leader should be someone who understands the difficulties Lamont experienced – of being sidelined by Westminster, of being unable to lead the London-based big-hitters such as Jim Murphy, of being unable to communicate any kind of message without Westminster interference, of having inept advisors who has a flawed grasp of Scottish politics – and who has the courage to at least attempt to deal with them. 

Attempting to rectify the awkward and skewed relationship between Labour’s Holyrood team and its Westminster MPs is unlikely to be remedied by appointing an MP to lead Scottish Labour. Electing an MP to lead would be tantamount to suggesting that Westminster is Labour’s priority, that they have abandoned any serious plans to regain their Holyrood supremacy and that they simply do not “get” devolution. Furthermore, some of the MPs being touted as potential leaders are far more divisive and aggressive than Labour’s MSPs – although admittedly Labour also has a problem with the lack of talent in Edinburgh (an inevitable product of at least a decade of sending its second string to serve in the Scottish Parliament and, when most of them lost their seats in 2011, their third team).

Jim Murphy, according to Labour List, is a figure whose “stock has never been higher”. This is questionable. Johann Lamont was a decent person who regrettably resorted to unnecessary aggression in FMQs, usually to little positive effect. Appointing Murphy as leader, who is by nature far more combative but also notably aggressive and adversarial, may not serve Labour’s cause well. As one of those who appeared to undermine Lamont with astonishing frequency, it would not appear he will have learned the necessary lessons – in spite of his being relative young at 47, he’s a typical old-school Labour MP and may struggle to provide the change of direction that Scottish Labour desperately needs. In spite of being unquestionably bright,  he will inevitably be perceived by his opposition, and Scottish voters, as part of the Westminster establishment. 

Anas Sarwar suffers from some of these difficulties – as will any MP seeking to lead Scottish Labour. He is not, however, the establishment figure Murphy is, and neither does he have the same aggressive character. Sarwar, a former dentist, is less intemperate than Jim Murphy and in spite of being a relative newcomer to parliament (he was first elected in 2010, at the age of 27) has served as the deputy leader of Scottish Labour since 2011 and later in the same year developed a four-point plan to eradicate factionalism within his party and reform it from within.  He also was responsible for co-ordinating Scottish Labour’s referendum campaign. While these latter two initiatives were far from resounding successes, Sarwar’s diagnosis of the problems Labour were facing in 2011 was broadly correct.

Next up for consideration in Gordon Brown – a man who knows how to lose elections. Michael Connarty, the MP for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, told Radio Scotland that “people are talking about Gordon Brown as leader. I think he should lead us into this next election...Gordon has shown he is a Scottish voice, he is a voice for Scotland. We should be talking about Gordon and Gordon alone.” Undoubtedly he showed what he can do in the final days of the referendum campaign, but what signals would be sent out by selecting a 63-year old former Prime Minister with a questionable legacy to lead Scottish Labour? At best, it would look rather desperate. I suspect when Connarty states that “people are talking about Gordon Brown as leader” he means those within the Westminster bubble, for whom Brown – due to his inspirational performances in those final days leading up to the 18th September poll – will forever be seen as the Saviour of the Union. His overall record is less impressive, and his appointment would be a retrograde step. 

Another MP being considered by some as leadership material is Douglas Alexander. Another typecast former minister, and media-declared “big hitter”, like Murphy probably is too establishment and in any case would be unlikely to surrender his role as elections co-ordinator immediately before a crucial General Election. I’m pretty confident he won’t stand – he’s too sensible for that.

Onto our MSPs now...and I genuinely believe there is more talent within Labour’s ranks in Holyrood that even they seem to realise at times. Kezia Dugdale is written off by some for her relative youth (she’s 33) and her lack of experience (she was first elected in 2011) but the same arguments could also be applied to Anas Sarwar. But she is highly regarded and well respected by colleague and opponent alike, and has been one of Labour’s star performers in the Scottish Parliament in her role as Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning. She also has a weekly column in the Daily Record, which usually reads well and underlines her connectedness with the pertinent issues in addition to suggesting she possesses a popular touch Johann Lamont did not. The name recognition her column gives will help her hugely. For me she should be the obvious frontrunner, but whether she appears as such to Labour members is another question altogether. 

Another possible contender is Jenny Marra who, similarly to Dugdale, was also elected for the first time in 2011. She is currently the Shadow Minister for Youth Employment and Shadow Deputy Finance Minister – she has perhaps not caught the attention of the media and politicos in the same way as Dugdale, but she has been reasonably effective and understands how to take on the SNP – or, more honestly, how not to. 

Some people’s money is on Ken McIntosh. There can be no denying his experience – he’s been an MSP since the inception of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. McIntosh’s Holyrood seat covers much of the Jim Murphy’s East Renfrewshire constituency, and the two have had a long political relationship. McIntosh has seen off several strong Conservative challenges at successive elections and with his experience (previously Deputy Convenor of the Standards Committee) he should be popular among members and activists. While close to Murphy and others, he would not suffer from the same “establishment” identification – in fact, in 2011, even Ed Miliband was unable to recall Ken’s name. McIntosh is also not afraid to speak his mind – famously voting against the Labour-Lib Dem executive on the future of A&E units. However, McIntosh’s previous bid for the leadership in 2011 failed, in spite of being supported by Jim Murphy, Kezia Dugdale and Jenny Marra – i.e. individuals who should now fancy their chances of a successful bid themselves – and there would be a suspicion that McIntosh is “yesterday’s man”. His time has come and gone. He may have proved a better leader than either Iain Gray or Johann Lamont had he been given the opportunity, but it is difficult to see how a McIntosh leadership would revitalise the party. Extensive experience in itself does not necessarily make effective leaders. 

There are naturally other MSPs with potential such as Drew Smith and Neil Findlay who may fancy a run for the leadership. It is difficult to see them, however, as serious contenders.

As a Liberal Democrat and a pluralist, it gives me no great sense of satisfaction to see Labour in their present predicament. Scottish democracy requires a strong opposition. That said, Scottish Labour does not deserve to be that opposition if it is unable to put forward a radical plan to move itself forward. Anyone who believes that simply replacing Johann Lamont will result in a change of fortune is likely to be disappointed; Lamont was the symptom of a deep malaise within the Labour Party, not its cause. The real question is not who the next leader will be, but where that leader will take Scottish Labour. 

For me the “right” leadership candidate would be whoever advocates organisationally separating the Scottish party from Westminster, and whoever can explain how and why a Labour administration would be better than one which is SNP-led. For me, that person cannot be Westminster-based, and electing an MP would be tantamount to reinforcing the perception that, in Labour’s mind, Holyrood is simply a branch of Westminster. It would fail to resolve the key difficulties Labour is facing in Scotland, and may in fact reinforce them.

My vote would be for Kezia Dugdale. But I am not a Labour member. Scottish Labour has the chance to elect a leader who has the energy, vision and tactical awareness to create a modern, progressive, social-democratic force in Scottish politics. If that chance is squandered, Labour could spend the next few decades in the political wilderness, struggling for purpose and relevance.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Johann Lamont to resign as Scottish Labour leader

Alex Salmond shocked the political world when he announced his resignation as First Minister, following a campaign in which the Yes side were generally acknowledged as having exceeded the expectations of many commentators who had failed to foresee how close the result would be.

If the First Minister's resignation surprised observers and stunned many Scots, the departure of his Labour counterpart, Johann Lamont, will be greeted in many circles with a shrug of the shoulders and an acceptance of the inevitable.

Lamont has struggled to provide Scottish Labour with the vision and purpose it so desperately needs, and has come under particular fire for her role in the Better Together campaign. Recently, Labour's heartlands have shown indications of switching their allegiances, with areas such as North Lanarkshire and Glasgow voting Yes on 18th September and the media reporting on growing public disaffection in these areas towards the Labour Party. It seemed unthinkable only five years ago that many of Labour's safest seats in Scotland could ever be seriously threatened - now both the SNP and UKIP fancy their chances in North Lanarkshire.

Lamont has found it impossible to stamp her own authority on Scottish Labour, and if sections of the media are to be believed it would appear that she has been the victim of a "whispering campaign" from some Scottish MPs. Of that I cannot be sure, but her tactics in FMQs (she was much too adversarial) and her inability to demonstrate that she has the common touch - or at least the ability to come across as a little more human in TV interviews - did her few favours. Her poll ratings have been consistently low for some time, and in recent weeks she has been unable to effectively position Labour on the issue of further Scottish devolution.

Johann Lamont has been a largely ineffective leader for Scottish Labour, aside from a brief revival in the local elections of 2012, but in fairness many of her problems were not self-created. The lack of personal charisma and vision aside, her difficulties are largely historical. She inherited the leadership after Labour's worst election result in modern political history, with many of the more talented and experienced MSPs swept away in the SNP landslide. Labour's lack of credibility pre-dates Lamont's tenure and at least, unlike her predecessor, she was able to identify the problem even if she failed to provide a remedy. No previous Labour leader has faced such a challenging task - and never against the backdrop of a referendum on the nation's constitutional future. The reality is that Scottish Labour now finds itself in the position Manchester City were in during the mid 1990s - everyone can see its potential but no-one wants to take the reins.

In recent weeks, it's been painful to see how hamstrung Scottish Labour has been on the matter of devolution - paralysed by indecision stemming from the Conservatives' cynical manipulation of their position and the prominence given to Ed Miliband. Lamont's voice has, regrettably, been obscured by the Westminster infighting and the focus on the key players of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband. Whether she has a coherent, comprehensive and practical plan for Scotland's future is open to question, but as Scottish Labour leader she should have been afforded a more prominent role rather than being exiled to the sidelines.

Lamont will announce her resignation formally today, but The Herald reports that she has already issued a statement in which she says ""I am standing down so that the debate our country demands can take place. I firmly believe that Scotland's place is in the UK and I do not believe in powers for power's sake. For example, I think power should be devolved from Holyrood to communities. But colleagues need to realise that the focus of Scottish politics is now Holyrood, not Westminster." These few sentences neatly define the source of her problems: that Scottish politics is about Westminster and not Holyrood, and that she failed to realise this.

I am not convinced that her departure will restore the fortunes of Scottish Labour. Scottish Labour's biggest problem is with itself rather than its leader. Johann Lamont undeniably hoped to do so much more, and she was at least the first Scottish Labour leader since Donald Dewar to be an improvement on her predecessor, but her leadership was undermined by a combination of personal failings, tough circumstances and historic difficulties that even now Labour can neither face up to nor remedy.

There will now undoubtedly be speculation as to who will succeed her - there are no shortage of potential candidates. Talk of meltdown is premature and there is sufficient talent within Labour's ranks to re-create them as a force in Scottish politics if only they can learn the necessary - and often painful - lessons. What is certain is that, with the two largest parties having lost their leaders within weeks of each other, Scottish politics is entering a new chapter. Whether that is for better for worse only time will tell.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Why should the anti-scientific sit on science committees?

Michael Mullaney: "strains on the NHS budget cannot be
resolved by treating serious illnesses with herbal remedies."
It seems rather absurd that I should have to make this obvious statement.

However, there appear to be those who take a different line.

Conservative health committee member David Tredinnick MP has this week suggested that the NHS should treat patients with herbal remedies, astrology and homeopathy in a quest to drive down costs.

He explained to Channel 4 News that "in some cultures astrology is part of healthcare because they need to have a voice and I've got up and said that...but I also think we can reduce the bill by using a whole range of alternative medicine including herbal medicine, acupuncture, homeopathy.
 
Tredinnick has estimated that five per cent of the NHS budget could be saved in this way, although what precise calculations he has used were not disclosed. He has previously expressed interest in allowing astrology to replace more "conventional" NHS treatments, telling the House of Commons in July
that "I am absolutely convinced that those who look at the map of the sky for the day that they were born and receive some professional guidance will find out a lot about themselves and it will make their lives easier."

The MP is known to be a long-term advocate of alternative medicine, although oddly enough is also a member of the all-party Science and Technology Committee. Fortunately Tredinnick's rather eccentric beliefs say more about himself than they do the Conservative Party, but it does raise questions as to why someone with such anti-scientific views is sitting on scientific committees.

I don't doubt Tredinnick's sincerity when he insists that "in future we [should] stop looking just at increasing the supply of drugs and consider the way that complementary and alternative medicine can reduce the demand for drugs, reduce pressures on the health service, increase patient satisfaction, and make everyone in this country happier." He clearly believes this. The difficulty I have is that when a serving member of Commons committees on health and science makes such statements, it is more than embarrassing for parliament and for the cause of evidence-led treatment. And, in this case, he's simply wrong.

I spent most of my adult life working in the NHS, including mental health services. I will not deny that there is a need for delivering holistic approaches towards patient care that take into account their personal and spiritual beliefs. There is also a need to facilitate better availability of treatments other than medication, especially in the field of mental health. The answer is not always to dispense more drugs. However, this is not based on some oddball plan to deliver costs reductions, but to create an NHS that is more responsive to patient need. Moreover, it is evidence-based and follows the lead of academic research looking at providing more preventative, rather than reactive, treatments.

The scientific basis for homeopathy is virtually non-existent and for Tredinnick's projected savings to be realised it would require "alternative medicine" not only to be effective but in demand by patients. I suspect that David Tredinnick has not spent 17 years of his life working within the NHS, so I hope he will trust my experience when I suggest that patients would be far "happier" if they were treated more quickly - and with greater dignity and respect - than they would if they were to be given an appointment with an astrological therapist.

NHS treatments should naturally continue to evolve and adapt, following scientific advances, to deliver the best possible care for patients. It is not so much Tredinnick's ridiculous call for herbs, homeopathy and horoscopes that I find offensive, but the fact that someone who is a member of both the Commons Health Committee and the Science and Technology Committee sees fit to make pronouncements that undermine scientific rigour and evidence-based approaches in favour of a personally held dogmatic stance.

It is true that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt also has an unscientific belief in the powers of homeopathy, but his championing of alternative medicine stops there. Tredinnick's continuing missions to regulate Chinese herbalists (and in doing so give them professional recognition) and his often-quoted reference to the alleged fact that he knew of "a psychiatric hospital that doubled its staff at full-moon" (it is, of course, entirely untrue) suggest that perhaps it's time he was reigned in. Speeches in parliament referring to the "fact" that blood does not clot under a full moon hardly give him much credibility with which to speak on health issues.

As far as I know, Tredinnick has not yet given evidence of the role of werewolves in hypogycaemia or the connections between fairies and cerebro-vascular accidents, but there is as much evidence for these as there are his plethora of other health claims.

Rather odd and eccentric people are all good and well, and there is a place for them in public life, but for the Conservative Party to appoint someone with these views to committees of such responsibility seems either absurd or some kind of unfunny joke. Health and science are not laughing matters, and the aims of the respective committees should not be undermined by those sitting on them. It's like having the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints sitting on a committee promoting atheistic humanism.

This naturally raises questions about how MPs are selected to serve on committees. As someone who is naturally pro-science and supportive of evidence-based approaches - especially on health issues - I find it an affront to democracy that while MPs are accountable to the public, committees are less directly accountable. Some serious rethinking of the relationship between committees, parliament and the civil service - and the way in which appointments are made - is overdue and patently necessary.

If the Conservatives are serious about keeping Bosworth, they perhaps should consider having a word with Tredinnick about his tendency to undermine scientific approaches from within the Science and Technology Committee. His contributions are becoming more unpredictable and unreasonable, and his appointment to these committees has seen an increase in such proclamations. Tredinnick has been the Conservative MP for Bosworth since 1987, but faced a tough challenge from Liberal Democrat Michael Mullaney in 2010 and his growing reputation as a pro-quackery eccentric is unlikely to help him.

Mullaney, who will again be conesting the seat in 2015, is understandably focused on his own constituency. ""People in Hinckley and Bosworth want an MP who will stand up for them on the important issues of jobs and services. Our current MP spends his time telling doctors not to operate on full moons, advising GPs to consult people's astrology charts when they come for treatments and suggests that scientists objecting to widespread use of Chinese Herbal medicines to cure serious illnesses are racially motivated."

Mullaney added: "At a time when the pressures facing the NHS are again under the spotlight, his answer to the strains on the NHS budget is to treat serious illness with herbal medicines and other ineffective and unproven methods. It's illogical.

 
"He has been MP for Bosworth for 27 years - this is far too long and it's about time he was thrown out by the voters next May!"

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Do Lord Freud's comments on disability highlight problem within Conservative Party?

Conservative welfare minister Lord Freud has apologised for suggesting that disabled people are "not worth" the national minimum wage and that some of them should be paid £2 per hour.

Such remarks show a staggering ignorance of disability, equality and economics.

Freud made the comments at a Conservative Party conference fringe meeting, but they only came to light today in a question at PMQs from Labour leader Ed Miliband.

Creating a multi-tier system of pay whereby people with disabilities are paid less would inevitably lead to exploitation and further discrimination.

In his apology, Freud insisted that he was responding to a questioner at the event, and that he "was foolish to accept the premise of the question. To be clear, all disabled people should be paid at least the minimum wage, without exception, and I accept that it is offensive to suggest anything else...I am profoundly sorry for any offence I have caused to any disabled people."

It is not merely disabled people he has offended, but all those who believe in a just society, and have a belief in fairness and equality of opportunity for those with disabilities. It is also offensive on an intellectual level, supposing that discriminating against some of the most vulnerable members of society can offer any positive economic solution. The use of words such as "the disabled" (suggesting a singular homogenous group) is a personal pet hate, but to follow this up with value judgments, using the language of "worth", is patently prejudicial and unbefitting of a government minister - let alone someone with responsibility for welfare.

In responding to Ed Miliband, David Cameron advised that "those are not the views of the Government. They are not the views of anyone in the Government." Sadly, until Freud either resigns or is sacked, he is entirely wrong.

I'm trying to imagine how such a thing could be said in a fringe meeting at any other party conference and escape howls of derision from attendees.  It's amazing that no-one questioned Freud at the time or took issue with his sentiments. Does this incident say more about Freud and his views, or the nature of the Conservative Party?

In spite of a supposed modernising agenda, prejudicial views towards some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of British society continue to be expressed - and even tolerated. If Ed Miliband hadn't questioned the Prime Minister today, we would - in all probability - have never known about Freud's misguided intervention. The Conservative Party appears to be caught in two minds, seeking to portray itself as progressive while failing to rid itself of destructive backward-looking social attitudes many of its members appear to be unwilling to surrender. This doesn't help those who want the party to move forward - and to be seen as more compassionate - and plays into the hands of opportunistic opponents.

It's not the first time he's courted controversy in this way either - in May 2013 he is reported as having suggested that people struggling with the "bedroom tax" could either find a job or buy a sofa-bed.

The problem is not simply Lord Freud - it is the Conservative Party. A party that is working so hard to outflank UKIP that a minister making such prejudicial comments at a conference fringe meeting makes absolutely zero impression on attendees. It's just part of the accepted narrative from a party that has delivered such discriminatory policies as the bedroom tax, introduced the near-criminal actions of Atos fitness tests and overseen cuts to the independent living fund. 

There was a time when the Conservative Party were anxious to rid themselves of the epithet "the nasty party". They're getting there...they now look like the "totally evil party".

Jeremy Browne MP resigns

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
Jeremy Browne - looking decidedly
uncomfortable at Glee Club
Lib Dem MP Jeremy Browne has announced that he will not be contesting next year's General Election.

Browne currently represents Taunton Deane, and would have been defending a majority of 3,993. He has served as Minister of State in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and , later, Minister of Crime Prevention in the Home Office.

Browne posted a statement on twitter this morning,which read: "After much deliberation I have decided not to contest Taunton Deane as the Liberal Democrat candidate at the 2015 General Election and to stand down as Member of Parliament at the end of this Parliament. By 2015 I will have been the Member of Parliament for Taunton Deane for ten years. That is generally long enough to do the same job. It is not my ambition to remain in Parliament until I retire. I have been very committed to the role and I have done it to the best of my ability. It is time to do something different. There is a world beyond politics full of opportunities and it will be exciting to explore it." He also added that he "will not be joining another political party and I have no intention to serve in any other capacity in politics."

Browne has been a controversial Liberal Democrat - principally on account of his reputation as the archetypal "Orange Booker". In April 2014, after being removed from his position as minister, he published "Race Plan", which he claimed was a call for “authentic, unadulterated liberalism” - "the coalition is on the right lines" he argued, "but it’s not going fast enough." He advocated rethinking how the NHS is funded, suggesting “there are issues about the ongoing affordability of the NHS...you could have core services or emergency services funded directly by the state and otherwise an insurance scheme.”
 
This was always likely to create tension and fuel anger, but there should always be a place in a liberal party for those who think outside the box, who are not afraid to be controversial and who are brave enough to speak their mind. Unfortunately, Browne went much further than merely suggesting a rethink of the party's policy direction, turning on many members who he dismissed as reactionary socialists. His approach became unhelpfully combative. Speaking to The Times, he explained “it’s become part of the make-up of quite a lot of Lib Dems to support a cautious, conservative statism which is the opposite of what I think a bold authentic liberalism should be....some argue that the Lib Dems should promote socialism plus civil liberties, but that isn’t liberalism." Browne spoke of the need for "a bold, ambitious liberal party", but his understandings of liberalism were either misunderstood or rejected by many of his colleagues.
     
For Browne, the Lib Dems have become "ill-defined moderating centrist party", critical of the party's tactic of "being a brake [on Conservative policy] rather than an accelerator".
      
For some Lib Dems, Browne was a misunderstood reformer, seeking to re-establish radical liberalism at the heart of the party. For others, he was a false prophet whose misguided attempts to redefine the Lib Dems as "a responsible party of government" demonstrated a misunderstanding of the nature of modern liberalism, the party's identity and - moreover - its recent history. Both of these views contain some truth, but his apparent belief that the cause of centre-right liberalism was thwarted by merger with the Social Democrats highlighted the degree to which his appreciations of history were governed by his personal philosophy. He was also seen as being weak on immigration and civil liberties and a champion of unbridled market economics - criticisms with genuine merit.
     
Nick Clegg said of Browne's resignation: "Jeremy Browne has decided that now is the right time to announce he will not stand at the next election and the Liberal Democrats wish him all the best for the future.The Deputy Prime Minister regrets that he has taken the decision to leave politics as Jeremy has always had strongly held views which he expressed with great skill and conviction. Jeremy has been a tireless constituency MP to the people of Taunton and served in two important ministerial roles in the early part of this government."
    
Whether intentionally or otherwise, the "regret" expressed is on the part of the leader only, not "the Liberal Democrats". No doubt there will be many Lib Dems who are more than relieved at news of Browne's departure, believing that having a new candidate in place for Taunton Deane will actually increase the party's chances of retaining the seat and communicate more "on message" values. The timing of the announcement is unhelpful and, only seven months before the General Election, will no doubt be subject to the same questioning as his motivations for making it.

Personally, I'd have preferred Browne to have contested the seat in 2015 as incumbency may well have made the difference against a strong Conservative opponent, but is appears he has decided he no longer has a home here. I have never been persuaded by his arguments (although he often makes valid points along the way) but I think it is regrettable when those who think differently come to feel unwelcome in our party.

I last saw Jeremy Browne at Lib Dem conference last week, at the Glee Club - hanging around at the back, obviously detached from proceedings chatting with a couple of friends. This neatly encapsulated Browne's relationship with the party: present but disengaged; surrounded by passionate liberals whose hymnbooks he refused to share; looking decidedly uncomfortable and ill-at-ease among the party faithful. He looked as lonely a figure as he has often appeared of late - it was hard not to feel for him.

What Jeremy Browne's resignation does suggest is that he has given up on his self-appointed mission to "reset the political compass" of the Lib Dems. Perhaps we should be grateful that he at least tried, and that his brand of liberalism and distorted view of the party's identity has been unquestionably defeated - but I can't quite get myself to take any joy from this. Instead I think how much his talents could have been used to increase our party's appeal if they'd have been more effectively harnessed, or if he'd chosen to work to unite the party rather than write centre-right polemic and bowl bouncers at the Social Liberal Forum.

Monday, 13 October 2014

SNP v UKIP - which is likely to emerge on top?

Both the SNP and UKIP are poised to target the same seats in Scotland's central belt for the 2015 General Election.

UKIP's David Coburn has confirmed his party intends to challenge for "rust belt" seats in Scotland - traditional Labour heartlands where once-industrial towns are no longer home to industry, and where many of the most disaffected and disenfranchised members of society live.

Coburn is considering standing himself against Tom Clarke in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill where he hopes to overturn a Labour majority of over 20,000.  He believes he can be successful, and has stated that areas such as North Lanarkshire have been taken for granted by Labour for generations, with "Labour politicians seeing themselves as feudal lords."

Clearly UKIP believe they can tap into the working-class vote and indeed are intentionally developing a strategy to do so, as I suggested yesterday. Those who are disenfranchised, cynical towards politics generally and from lower socio-economic backgrounds are deemed to be likely to be attracted to UKIP's populist and uncompromising messages.

One problem for UKIP, however, is that their strategy also accords with that of the SNP. What was made clear in the recent independence referendum was not only that voters in areas such as North Lanarkshire, Glasgow, Inverclyde, North Ayrshire and Renfrewshire are unhappy with the Scottish Labour Party, but that they were far more likely to support independence than voters elsewhere across Scotland. This has informed the SNP's thinking going into the General Election.

It has been well documented that, in the aftermath of the independence referendum, the SNP's membership has increased from 25,500 to 80,000. Less well-known is the fact that, in Motherwell and Coatbridge - areas very definitely inside UKIP's "rust belt" - membership has increased six-fold. The SNP sense that they can make a significant breakthrough in areas of traditional Labour support in 2015, with Derek Mackay telling The Herald that "the Labour Party's position in Scotland is growing increasingly precarious. The referendum unleashed a new spirit of democratic engagement and participation among the people of Scotland, and these people simply won't accept the same old politics as usual from Westminster." Clearly UKIP agrees, at least in respect to the initial observation.

No doubt both UKIP interest and the SNP's apparent strategy of focusing on Labour weakness in West and Central Scotland will be of concern to Scottish Labour. The big question is which of the two would-be inheritors of Labour's historic fiefdoms is most likely to emerge victorious.

UKIP may be correct in their assertions that Labour is struggling in its one-time Scottish strongholds. However, they may well have over-estimated their chances by discounting the popularity and credibility of the SNP and its ministers. Who do voters in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill trust most - the SNP or UKIP? Alex Salmond or Nigel Farage? David Coburn or Nicola Sturgeon? Ultimately how people vote is based on who people trust, and who they find most credible.

I wouldn't be surprised if UKIP does make some impact on some of these key Scottish seats next year, and I also wouldn't be surprised at a few Labour losses. However, the SNP are far more adept and experienced than UKIP at tapping into public dissatisfaction and providing hope to disenfranchised voters. They know how to connect. They understand how to translate dissatisfaction into votes, as they did so successfully in 2011. They do what UKIP would like to do, exploiting discontent and resentment for electoral purposes...only more effectively. The SNP has the experience, the knowledge of these areas, dedicated party activists and established local campaigning networks that UKIP lacks.

SNP v UKIP? I'd predict a home win.