Wednesday, 30 November 2011

LibDems - be clear who you are or die!

Recently, in the days after party conference season, some LibDem bloggers asked who are we as a party.  For these are turbulent times.  The global economy is stagnating, Europe is in crisis and Scotland's place in the UK is being questioned.

There is no doubt the last 18 months have been a disaster for the LibDems.  But we are in government and in Scotland have a job to do in opposition but also have a job to define our place and our role in Scottish politics.

At this turbulent time we need to define who we are.  The electorate are confused and I think we are suffering an identity crisis at times.  Defining this is crucial in our journey back. 

It seems to me the LibDems established themselves as a non socialist alternative to the Conservative party over a period of 50-60 years. This places us slightly left of centre. The last couple of years, and Clegg’s leadership in particular, have driven a coach and horses through this positioning and the result is some confusion as to who we are – both internally and externally.

However, I think the detailed polling figures over the years highlight that the debate can move on. It is not sufficient to plough the same furrow of being Labour lite – penny on the pound of income tax for education and so on – indefinitely.

Indeed, under Charles Kennedy we positioned ourselves as in some ways to the left of Labour.

Then came the Orange Book.  As I understand it the Orange Book was all about trying to find a new way moving forward – it was never a credo of the ‘right wing’ of the party and economic liberals.  Styling it like that was to mis-understand the book.

The dangers of this period of coalition government are becoming clear.  On the one hand Cameron and the Conservatives love bombing the LibDems to oblivion, while on the other, the danger of burning our bridges with social democrats, and anyone with left of centre instincts.

What are the LibDems to do?  The need to win over one nation Conservatives for ourselves leaving the Tories to neo Cons and ‘Little Englanders’ has been highlighted. At the same time, there is also the need to win those on the left with our core appeal to the non socialist left of centre. And our appeal to liberals of course.

As I have argued in a number of posts, I think the starting point is to decide who we are. It has been highlighted that while many ‘feel’ they share our values there is real confusion as to who we are. If we decide who we are, from this work we can discern a range of broad and detailed policy themes, as well as a narrative and an analysis of our society and economy.

After this is clear we can work on the positioning and the political strategy.

However, what is clear is that we must be clear of who we are and what we are for – because right now there is some confusion and it has the potential to kill us.

We do so from being centre left or progressive

We don't think private enterprise is necessarily bad.

We are neither socialist nor neo-con nor nationalist

In fact we think a strong economy underpins everything, but we are not neo-cons or libertarians.  So we believe in intervention and public services free at the point of delivery to provide true equality of opportunity and to equalise the odds.

This is tough if you have to cut to rebuild the economy - as we do, now more than ever.

What we have been able to do is targetted interventions and increases in public spending to equalise the odds and to solve the problems that need solved.

  • The protection of the NHS
  • Working as a party to stand against the draconian work capability assessments for Employment and Support Allowance.
  • Increasing pensions by over £5 a week (Labour managed 75p), implementing automatic pension rights for workers - often for the first time in smaller companies and having in Steve Webb the best Pensions Minister in a generation.
  • A more targetted approach of the pupil premium making education more accessible to more disadvantaged kids
  • More pre school education - a vital stage
  • I would still dearly like us to find a way to reduce or eliminate tuition fees for tertiary education - and this remains our stance in Scotland where we originally delivered it.
  • More apprentices than under Labour
  • Income tax that helps the low paid 
  • Pushing back on removing employment rights in larger firms
  • Support and resourcing for developing renewable energy
  • Development of the Green Bank
Perhaps most of all, when faced with no clear winner after the last General Election we were prepared to take responsibility and form a government and do the difficult things that probably need to be done in a very changed world economy.  Indeed in Vince cable we had a minister who was prepared to understand the magnitude of the problem and tell the truth about the difficulties we face.

Above all we are an adult party prepared to do what is practical and seek evidence based solutions rather than retreat to tired tribal positions - or to lack courage to do what needs to be done.  It is not student politics!

    Friday, 11 November 2011

    Remembrance Day

    Today is Remembrance Day and this year it has stirred up a bit of controversy what with FIFA and international footballers’ shirts and some extremist British Islamists who want to promote ‘Hell for Heroes’.  At the same time fewer and fewer people seem to wear a poppy (unless you are a TV presenter!)

    What does Remembrance Day mean for me?

    The Remembrance Days I attended at school in Edinburgh in the 1970s left a big impression on me.

    First it was some of the teachers.  Several had seen action. One, a French teacher who was hopeless at keeping order, had been at Arnhem and was a bone fide war hero.  Another had been at Monte Cassino.  One of the primary teachers had been imprisoned by the Japanese and bore the mental scars as a result.  Another French teacher had taken a shrapnel wound.  And Bill Knox, the legendary and ubiquitous janny (janitor or care-taker if that term means nothing to you) had been evacuated from Dunkirk after a close shave.  Bill proudly wore his medal ribbons on his janitor’s uniform every day. 

    It was obvious that Remembrance meant something to these men.  Sometimes a former pupil would attend the ceremony and they would stand in solemn thought considering their fallen classmates.  Once I saw the Deputy Head – a tough Aberdonian – escort one of these veterans who he had fought with to the memorial with his wreath.  I saw their faces – a stern stoicism masking deep emotion – as they walked out in the cold.

    The second thing that affected me was the war memorial at the school with its names covering all four sides of a rather fine stone needle.  I stood and studied them more than once during my school days.  These were young men just like me – just like me!  They came from exactly the same place, from exactly the same background, with exactly the same life experience as me – just a couple of generations earlier.  But for the Grace of God...

    These had been wars of national survival with a total mobilisation of the country.  If I had been alive I would have been there and so would my friends.  Something struck me that these boys deserved to be remembered.
    Finally, as a young man I read a lot of history – I even went on to study it at university.  I read a lot about what these men went through, what they faced, what conditions were like.  I read the horrific combat statistics.  I read the accounts of battle.  I read the soldiers’ stories.  Many deaths were heroic but often they were just sad or tragic!

    My Granny also left an impression on me.  Her husband (my Grandfather who I never knew) Hugh Young had been on the Somme (in one of the earliest tanks in fact).  He came back, but many of their friends and family did not.  Remembrance Day meant a lot to my Granny – or the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month as she called it.

    My Granny and the teachers at my school left and indelible impression on me.  Remembrance Day was about remembering the people who had died and it was about raising money to support those who had been scarred by war.

    I heard a guy on the radio form the White Poppy movement.  Now pacifism is a laudable and absolutely legitimate position to hold and to campaign for.  But this man was ungenerous, mean spirited, ill informed and talked complete and utter guff.

    In a funny way I have never understood those who say Remembrance Day is militaristic.  Because the day focuses on remembering the people who have died I have always thought pacifists and those who are uncomfortable about our foreign adventures should be amongst the most passionate exponents and participants in Remembrance Day.  It is after all a day we focus on the true cost of war and the pity of war!

    It is about remembrance whether we approve or disapprove of any given war.

    Kate Higgins told the story of the origins of Remembrance Day and the Poppy in her blog 'Poppy Cock' earlier this week.  I think she is spot on in what she says.  The one big difference is that the meaning of symbols and ceremonies do evolve, like language, over time.  

    So, I always wear the poppy because I believe:
    1. We should never forget what happened in two world wars in the 20th century and try to learn the lessons from them.
    2. In remembrance of those who died in those wars – even if not known personally.
    This means thinking of the 2nd war which was a war of national survival for us – a war which pulled us and so many other countries into a conflict with tyranny.  This means thinking of the 1st war where the slaughter was on an almost industrial scale – a much more complex conflict to understand but still a war of national survival although with a real sense of millions dying in the war games of a ruling elite.  This means thinking of the young who had their lives torn up to face fear and for many of them sacrifice.

    Today wars are not of national survival and sometimes appear morally ambiguous. Iraq was wrong! Afghanistan was probably the right thing to do but has become less clear cut as time has gone on.

    Nevertheless, these are security actions and it is important that they are undertaken and more to the point that we have men and women who are ready and willing to go into combat if called on.  And we should remember those people who die and we should look after those who are maimed or suffer mental torment afterwards.

    Remembrance Day – lest we forget!

    I’ll leave you with this rather poignant clip...