Tuesday, 8 December 2009

The Human Cost of Politics

I would highly recommend this Washington Post article which interviews Neel Kashkari, the man who was appointed as the 'Bailout Czar' by US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson during the depths of the economic crisis. He was responsible for handling $700 billion of federal funds, effectively leading the fight to save the US economy from complete financial meltdown.

What the story demonstrates is the sacrifice and human cost that is demanded of many public servants, and which is sadly lost in the maelstrom of disgust which many people feel for politicians and civil servants just now. One of his colleagues had a heart attack and Kashkari himself saw his weight balloon amidst the stress of the situation. Politicians who in private were understanding of what he was trying to do used public hearings to savage him, caring not a jot for the human involved in the situation while they tried to score points. His team worked through the night and he got to the stage where his wife felt they were dead to each other, so little and rare was their meaningful contact.

What is inspiring is that he did it, he succeeded. However the cost of his efforts, now starting to be lauded but the cause of brutal attack during his time working for the Government (a position which he had taken a massive pay cut to fulfil) were massive.

Has got me thinking about some of the implications of political life which act as barriers to people putting themselves forward, will blog more on it at a later date.

Monday, 30 November 2009

The language of politics

Report on the BBC website highlighting that MPs have criticised the overuse of jargon in governmental documents, particularly for forms. Indeed, they point out that this over complication may lead to people missing out on benefits that they are entitled to, which is an appalling situation.

I think that this discussion about jargon needs to go further and examine the language which is used in political debate. In my work life I have focused on democratic engagement in recent years and have been struck by the fact that there is a very common perception amongst the public that political activity requires a very specific technical language in order to participate.

It is a reflection of the idea that politics has become 'professionalised', one of the key factors I think which puts people off participating. It is seen as a job and one for which you require strange and arcane language, knowledge which requires university education to be deciphered. One of the strengths of the British political system has been that technically at least it is possible for anyone to become an elected representative, a situation which is definitely not the case in other democracies. For example, someone like John Prescott would never have become Vice President in the US, but was able to rise to the office of Deputy Prime Minister in the UK. However, we are losing the chance to engage wider elements of society as the field becomes more closed, accessible if you are a party worker and/or politics graduate but difficult otherwise.

There is a growing trend for politicians to follow a set path - politics degree, work for a party or politician, elected. The more 'out-there' ones maybe go spend some time at a think tank to break from the mould. However, where are the charity activists, the grassroots campaigners, the, well, normal folk? True politics is not exactly the most appealing arena at the best times, and of course I am overgeneralising, however in order to have a vibrant and representative democracy we require all elements to be involved in it. Representation is not the only means for participation, however it does demonstrate a very visible involvement for different communities.

Working in Shettleston in Glasgow, a predominantly white working class area, I was told that politics wasn't for folk there, it was for rich, old men who attended top universities. Working subsequently with ethnic minority communities, the comment is the same other than for the addition of the word 'white' as an additional barrier.

Billy Connolly joked that anyone who wanted to be a politician should by default be barred from standing for election, but there is an element of truth to his quip. There is nothing wrong with having elected representatives who have followed the path I outlined above; the problem lies when that becomes the norm for representative's history.

One of the ways to try and change this system is to try and improve the language that is used, to restore political discourse to the realities of life rather than the removed and rarefied secret code which is often used. I'm not calling for a dumbing down of discourse, but rather that politicians stop and think about how they present their discussions, about whether they are relevant to the people they represent. Because not only would accessible discussions encourage a greater range of people to put themselves forward for election, it would provide a better environment for the wider populace to participate and challenge the political system, renewing and reinvigorating our democracy.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Putting the Evolution into Devolution

The Queen's Speech outlined proposals by the UK Government to introduce a number of measures for devolving further powers to the Scottish Parliament and Government, largely in line with the recommendations of the Calman Commission. Whilst a commitment to strengthening devolution is to be welcomed, there are several problems with the measures which will hamper their effectiveness.

Firstly, these particular measures are reliant upon the Labour Party being returned to Government at Westminster which, whilst not impossible, is certainly an uphill task. The Conservatives have indicated that they would bring a Scotland Bill forward if they were in power, but obviously this could possess a different complexion. The questions raised by the SNP and Lib Dems about the need for a delay do therefore have a resonance - if Labour is commited to the changes why not implement them now?

Secondly, the changes themselves are tied into the Calman Commission's findings which, as I have blogged before, were not necessarily the most earth-shattering in human history. The devolution of further taxation control, principally in regards to Scotland's role in tax raising, is not likely to see much in the way of change - I would imagine that we will see either the Scottish portion remaining identical to the rest of the UK or, if the SNP are feeling mischevous, the Scottish section lowered in the hope that funding will still be available through the Barnett calculations. This would raise resentment across the rest of the UK against Scotland without necessarily actually having a beneficial impact on the country.

Other measures such as the control of drink-driving limits and airgun legislation are welcome but again are hardly major steps. It is not that the devolution settlement necessarily needs massive re-evaluation - personally I am of the opinion that we are still very early in the Parliament's life to be making these decisions - but if we are taking the opportunity after a decade then we should be using it to the full, to avoid the need to repeat the process every few years.

If anything the biggest changes Scotland needs are probably in regards to Westminster's role in the country. The Scottish Government and Parliament have responsibility for the issues which impact upon day-to-day life far more than Westminster does. In particular Scottish MPs are now seen as being less relevant to people in Scotland, impacting more on decisions south of the border than north.

The UK Government needs to examine the Scottish MPs' role to ensure that they can demonstrate their role in shaping and influencing Governmental decisions which do impact upon Scotland, such as UK foreign policy, national taxation and immigration. They need to be seen as complimentary equals to MSPs - the day of them trying to be considered a step above is certainly long gone.

So probably a case of watch this space overall. With decisions left until after the next election, everything will be up in the air as we wait to see who will form the Government. But as the Scottish Government prepare to release their White Paper on Independence we can guarantee that the debate still has a course to run.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The challenge of the public sector

Very interesting report published by Sir John Arbuthnott investigating how money could be best spent across the Clyde Valley area. Currently the eight councils spend about £6.5 billion each year and are facing, like every other council in Scotland, severe pressures upon their budgetary commitments. He has suggested that there are many areas where it would be possible to combine services which are currently duplicated, saving money and providing best value for public expenditure.

Needless to say there has been quite a response already to his suggestions. Although he has not suggested that the eight councils should be combined politically, the dread spectre of 'Strathclyde' has been raised above the parapets, frightening all with talk of the mega-body to end all mega-bodies. There is also the inevitable worries about the impact combination would have upon jobs - afterall if jobs are currently being duplicated then any changes is likely to see redundencies.

The threat of job loss, particularly in the current economic climate, is a worrying one and everything must be done to make the process as smooth as possible. However, the reality is that we do currently have a bloated public sector in Scotland which sees public money wasted, reducing public confidence in local authorities and the work that they do.

The left of course have traditionally been the defenders of the public sector, and this is a crucial role that they must continue to fill as the possibility of a Conservative Government, largely inimical to the sector, looms on the horizon. However, defence of the public sector cannot just be a blind kneejerk reaction of refusal to countenance any change. All sectors must adapt and evolve, and the fact that there is so much money pumped into departments replicating work fails the electorate.

Combining services would allow costs for equipment and maintenence, particularly in areas which require large outlays in materials such as road repair. Furthermore joint work would help to standardise facilities across the area, which is especially relevant considering the fluid and constant interaction for work and leisure between Glasgow and its surrounding environs.

If the councils remained politically independent they would retain the ability to make the key decisions about the delivery of services in their area as they currently do - what would change would be a demonstration to the public that they are seeking to maximise the impact of every pound spent. In addition they would see benefits to their budgets due to the savings achieved, allowing them to save key local services from cuts, an outcome which is inevitable if things continue as they are.

There is much still to be explored about the proposals and it will be interesting to see the responses that come from the councils concerned. There will be some opposition to the measures, particularly in light of potential job cuts, so it is important that Trade Unions are involved in the process to allow discussion and debate. However, change is needed to keep local authorities working, and in bringing together the work that they do they will be able to save money and best serve the public.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Well done Willie Bain MP

Well Willie Bain has been elected as MP, which is a fantastic result, especially the size of his victory. Reassured as well that the BNP were pushed back to 4th, albeit it only just. Still, a worrying situation and the parties must not be complacent.

Planning to be back to blogging now, so will put up my thoughts about the results when I'm less tired.

Glasgow NE result

Waiting for the final result but looking like it's been a successful night for Labour in my own constituency of Glasgow NE, with indications that the seat has been held convincingly.

However, the sad reality is that the main story of the night is likely to be the fact of the BNP coming third, if predictions are accurate. Whilst the turn-out is appallingly low and therefore the result shouldn't be extrapolated too far, it is the case that this result would be a historic change to the Scottish political scene.

Areas such as Glasgow NE possess many of the social and economic barriers and challenges which provide potentially fertile breeding grounds for the BNP. Up until now, however, the party has been held back by the historical reality that it had never had support in Scotland, being seen as an 'English' party. Retaining their deposit for the first time in their history in Scotland would have been a breakthrough in itself; taking third above the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats marks their arrival as a realistic and legitimate member of the Scottish environment.

One of the most depressing aspects of it all is that the argument is still trundled out that Scotland doesn't have a problem with racism, that somehow it is an English problem. This is completely false and doesn't just ignore the problem, it accentuates it.

It is crucial now that the mainstream parties take on the BNP and crush them utterly before they can create a irremovable presence. The oxygen of Question Time has fuelled their growth, but all of the mainstream parties also have to bear the responsibility for failing to stop the BNP in the past decade and in failing the electorate by not responding to their needs and fears. With this result, should the horror turn out to be true, the BNP have a massive opportunity to try and create the same possibilities for themselves that they have in certain areas of England. The parties have to engage with the public, to stop taking them for granted and to actually debate immigration, acknowledging peoples' concerns but also outlining the benefits it brings to the country. Moreover, we need to challenge the myths which surround the issue and which allow the BNP to play easy games.

I am proud that William Bain has been elected as MP for Glasgow NE (I will look stupid if that turns out wrong now!) and I know that he will be an excellent public servant for the constituency. But I am also embarrassed that we in this area will now be an entry in the history books for some of the worst reasons. We need to make sure that this becomes a one-off protest, rather than the start of a new politics in Scotland.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Labour's place in a devolved Scotland

As the (admittedly self-proclaimed) architects of devolution, one of the crucial repercussions of the decade since the Scottish Parliament was reconvened has been the difficulties which the Labour Party has faced in trying to find its place within the new political tapestry.

Ironically, part of the problem has arisen from the situation that out of the main Scottish political parties Labour is the only one which doesn't actually have a devolved political structure. Iain Gray is the leader of the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament - beyond that his jurisdiction is limited, with technically no role as leader of ordinary party activists like myself. Instead, the party remains run from London, albeit with a strong core of Scottish MPs at its heart.

This has left Labour wide open to its designation as "London Labour" by the SNP, arguably the single most effective attack that the Nats have put together in the past decade. Regardless of Labour's role in devolution, regardless of the strong Scottish history to Labour, regardless of Labour's work in the Scottish Parliament, Labour is billed as being a party of outsiders, of non-Scots whose priorities lie elsewhere.

The SNP have stuck to this line of reasoning so successfully that it has become a recurrent motif in political discourse in Scotland. Sadly however the SNP cannot claim all the credit for this situation - Labour must shoulder a large part of the blame through its own actions which have added very strong credence to the attack.

There has been a very visible hostility to the Scottish Parliament from many Labour MPs in Scotland, with outright warfare often seeming to bubble beneath the surface. Successive Scottish Labour leaders have been undermined and restricted by interference from down south, leaving Salmond and his party free to crow about the Englishness of the party - and let's not pretend that this isn't the allusion which the SNP are seeking to entrench in public opinion. The 2007 Holyrood campaign ended up with three different camps interfering in the running of the campaign, each appearing to mutually loathe the others. The internal politics of the party spilled over into the vital work of trying to return a Labour administration to the Scottish Parliament, and helped to contribute to the subsequent defeat. And ever since the party has appeared adrift in the Scottish political environment, shorn of its role as the presumed political leaders of the country and not sure how to function in opposition to a canny minority government. Coupled with an evermore unpopular and aimless government in Westminster and it is no wonder that Labour's opponents in Scotland have been walking around with broad smiles on their faces.

Labour needs to stop and determine what Scottish Labour means. I am not advocating divorce from the UK wide Labour Party, however I think it is becoming ever clearer that to be successful in the devolved environment Scottish Labour must be able to demonstrate and create a clear and engaging Scottish identity. Polling since the SNP came to power repeatedly demonstrates that Scots do not seem to want independence; however they very clearly do want a Scottish Government which will fight on their behalf and use the powers (of which they wish to see more) entrusted to them to put forward a distinct Scottish agenda.

The reality is that this agenda would best fit with the Scottish Labour Party, however the party is failing to respond to the public's demands. Scotland is a diverse country and the somewhat simplistic view that it is a solely left wing nation ignores the realities of the different communities and environments existing across the nation. However, the context of Scotland does ensure that there is scope for a progressive agenda which is not achievable at Westminster under the current voting system.

The SNP have tried to bill themselves as the leaders of this progressive agenda, however the reality is that this does not sit easily with their actual political agenda. Fundamentally the current SNP administration (and admittedly it could be very different if one of the other Nationalist factions in the party came to power) is a broadly centre-right party supportive of business and less motivated by the realities of combating inequalities than by the PR positives of talking about it. They are making some attempts to address some of Scotland's shocking problems, however as with much of their rhetoric the reality is rather sparse. And needless to say, the other Holyrood parties are not filling the gap - the Tories are Tories no matter what Osbourne tells the world; the Greens are currently too small to be much more than Jiminy Cricket type figures; and the Lib Dems are, well, quite frankly pointless in the current environment, scared to work with the SNP despite the obvious shared areas of interest and uncomfortable to work with the other parties.

This would appear to leave open a perfect space for Scottish Labour to take the political agenda by the scruff of its neck and rebuild its damaged fortunes, however it is thus far failing to do so. This is because there is a lack of direction and a lack of inspiration motivating the party in Scotland - rather a fatalistic approach appears to have sunk in at points with an approach of waiting and hoping that the SNP/Salmond screw up at some point. This is not good enough.

A properly devolved Scottish Labour Party would not need to entail constant fighting or bickering with Labour on the UK level - such a situation would be counter-productive and would alienate both members and the wider public. However, Labour introduced devolution because there was a recognition that Scotland is a different context and environment to the UK as a whole and therefore requires specific responses to its particular needs and priorities. By failing to follow this awareness through into the actual functioning of the party structure, Labour ignores its own findings and creates a burden for itself which is largely self-inflicted.

It is vitally important that Labour fights to ensure that Scottishness does not become a copyrighted property of the SNP - this would be damaging to both the party and the country as a whole. The Lib Dems and Tories are less worried about that situation - the Lib Dems being more firmly European/internationalist in billing whilst the Tories remain happy to fixate on their status as Unionists, albeit with a more Scottish tinge in recent years. However Labour has the potential to demonstrate that Scottishness is a broad spectrum of realities, rather than just the slightly Brigadoon-esque approach wrapped in sporting pride (although admittedly that is rather tarnished after last night's woeful performance) which the SNP have successfully peddled over recent years.

This potential is failing to be met because fundamentally the Labour Party as a whole is lost just now, stuck in a period of navel gazing and infighting which appears to be the natural status of all political parties, particularly those in power for a significant period of time. The party does not know what it wants to be, and therefore is lost and to a certain extent uninterested in working out how a devolved party should work.

The problem with this is that, to the general public, it appears like arrogance and complacency, an ignorance to the reality that Labour cannot rely upon any heartlands or safe seats. The SNP's growth is not inexorable and they will struggle as their own internal contradictions strive to become dominant, particularly in a situation where the government and/or the independence agenda runs into trouble; however the reality is that they are working very successfully to eat into the traditional heartland constituencies and supporters of the Labour Party, whilst at the same time possessing a much broader national support than the Labour Party does. The very contradictions which have caused in the past, and will do so again, so much trouble for the SNP are also the strength that allows it to be supported in rural communities and urban communities, in areas of affluence and destitution. There is always somewhere else for the SNP to regroup - Labour lacks this strength in regards to the distribution of its support, even if there is a strength in terms of the actual depth of the support itself.

Labour needs to motivate and captivate the Scottish public, draw them into a vision of Scotland's future which can challenge and defeat the tartan and lace vision which the SNP promulgate so successfully. The polling indicates that Scots want to be part of the Union, but are looking for strong voices to stand up for the fact that we do have different priorities in Scotland. The SNP provide one side of this desire, but there is a gap just now which should be filled by the Scottish Labour Party. The party needs to devolve the structures, to firmly establish the Leader of the Scottish Labour Party as leader of all members, elected or otherwise, in Scotland. They need to give this role the freedom to react to the Scottish agenda alongside working closely with the wider UK party. It needs to develop the inspiration that Scotland is looking - for the first two terms of the Parliament the Lab/Lib coalition 'managed' Scotland quite well, but the public are looking for so much more. They want successful management coupled with a belief, a conviction, that Scotland can and will be better. The SNP argue this very point, coming to the conclusion that this can only be achieved through independence - Labour has a responsibility to set out the alternative but equally compelling vision of improvement, achieved through the strength of union but within a Scottish context.

Within the Scottish Labour Party it is sometimes easy to become fixated upon the hatred, indeed utter vitriolic loathing which elements of the SNP have for the party. This hatred is hard to read, particularly as so much of it is spawned within the free-for-all of the internet where common decency is a long lost myth; however to fixate upon it misses the fact that the people of Scotland do not hate the Labour Party, rather they are bored and apathetic towards it. In many ways this is worse.

Scotland has been billed as a Labour country for decades, even when this ignored the realities of what was happening on the ground. There is no doubt that the election of May 2007 was traumatic for the party and it is still struggling to find its feet - after all, two years is no time at all in the grand scheme of things. However, the struggle appears to many people to be stagnating into inertia and this is where the danger lies for Labour. A vision, a motivation, heck a sign of coming out fighting - these can start to counter an SNP government which at the end of the day only has one more MSP than Labour. After all, we are technically only a resignation away from a change in administration. However, inertia and stagnation can turn an electoral defeat into long-term isolation from power and a disconnection from the Scottish public. There is constant talk of the fightback, however we are yet to see evidence of it arriving - in the meantime the SNP attack London Labour as a way to avoid discussion of their own paltry efforts in government.

So an end to London Labour and a new start to the Scottish Labour Party, a centre-left party rooted in the experiences and dreams of Scotland and endlessly driven to improve the lives of our fellow citizens. A party of ideas, a party of limitless dreams which are not mired in politics of identity but which liberate the citizens of this country to be all that they can be. Scottishness is not a simplistic concept, not matter how hard the SNP try to boil it down to a single common denominator, and the Scottish Labour Party should be at the heart of this debate. To sit on the sidelines is to concede the debate and to lose the country - the Scottish Labour Party has a responsibility to the people of Scotland which requires it to fight and to win.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Blogging Hiatus

Apologies for my absence but I am afraid it will have to continue for a while - I am very busy finishing a report I am writing on barriers to participation for EM people in Scotland, and then taking a week off, so will be a couple of weeks before I return I think.

I am of course choosing a busy time to hide, what with Obama's polling showing that maybe he isn't the Messiah afterall, but just a very naughty boy; the hysterical coverage of swine flu sadly demonstrating once again that the cause of appropriate and effective public health in the UK has been wounded, perhaps fatally, by the inane media who care more for apocalyptic headlines selling papers than any sense of public responsibility - but hey, that's showbiz; the impending nightmare of the Norwich result - the question is who will it be a nightmare for? Interestingly Cameron has more to lose with the result. Oh, and the no-show of the Glasgow North East (i.e. my own constituency) by-election, with the added fun of Richard Baker's ludicrous comments thrown in.

So yeah, nothing going on, perfect time for a break! =)

See y'all soon.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Palin on the Pressure

The US Presidential election of 2008 was a massive blow to the Republican Party, leaving the Democratic Party in control of all three strands of government for the first time since the 90s. In addition they saw losses across the country in local government as well, leaving the party shattered and rudderless.

For the main figures, it has been a period of quiet recovery. John McCain has returned to being a respected Senator, Mitt Romney is working the country trying to establish himself as the frontrunner for the GOP nomination in 2012, and Mike Huckabee has a TV show as the poster boy of the religious right. These figures are doing pretty well for themselves in the post-election period, but none of them is filling the void in leadership that the GOP is suffering from.

This void is where Sarah Palin should have fulfilled her destiny. Her selection as the VP candidate alongside John McCain was, and I still stand by my analysis, a stroke of genius in a dying campaign. McCain, despite the respect and affection that many people felt for him, was never going to win the swing voters - indeed he was never going to win the election, and neither was any other Republican. Numerous factors had guaranteed a Democrat win such as Bush fatigue etc, but the simple fact was that Obama's suave and slick presentation, unprecedented media management and sheer historical significance had created a juggernaut which swept all before - Hillary never had a chance once the mythical momentum had been achieved, and neither did the GOP. Heck, Jesus would have been beaten by the greater light of Obama's media induced messianic status. In light of this, the left field introduction of Palin prevented an absolute massacre on polling day, by shoring up a conservative vote suspicious of McCain's credentials. Lieberman or another VP candidate more in line with McCain's personal stance would have potentially lost him some core Republican states - Palin kept them red and saved a tiny modicum of pride for the party.

Post-election she had the chance to become the defacto leader of the Republican Party and its frontrunner for 2012. Yeah, people had rather massive reservations (to be polite about it!) about the idea of her sitting in the White House running the Free World, however four years would have presented the potential to shore up her Republican base and to reinvent herself on the national stage as a legitimate candidate.

However, if a week is a long time in politics, then the months since the election have been more than enough time for her to destroy her career.

Her star has well and truly fallen, most painfully demonstrated in the rambling speech she gave to announce her resignation as Governor of Alaska. This decision was a huge shock to political commentators, her party and indeed at points during her speech it seemed as if it was a shock to her too. Her comments that she was leaving because she was term-limited instantly destroyed her Presidential aspirations by guaranteeing that she could only ever stand for one term - by her own admission anything more would be a betrayal of the electorate. Her positive ratings in Alaska had plummeted from the stratospheric height of the mid-80s to their current status in the mid-50s, sitting alongside a virtually non-existent legislative programme. Ironically before her selection as VP candidate she had created her success on the basis of her willingness to work with political opponents and to stand up to her own party. Now, she escapes from her role in Alaska by leading pro-life talks in other parts of the US, leaving her in the position whereby neither party will work with her now in her home state.

The decision to escape from Alaska makes a certain sense on the basis that, to be brutally honest, the state does not matter in the slightest when it comes to national US politics. Indeed, it is so detached from the rest of the nation that it counts as a negative for politicians with aspirations of national office. However, her manner of doing so has undercut her position. Not only has she fatally damaged her own chances of the Presidency, but she has also destroyed her opportunity to at least become the Republican kingmaker and leader. Her handling of her resignation has infuriated and embarrassed her own party, building on top of the damage she did by comments she made about McCain and his campaign. She has built up a popularity amongst elements of the right, however others such as Huckabee remain more convincing at holding that position.

It didn't need to be this way. Following the election she had the potential to guarantee a very decent run for the nomination in 2012. She should have been blitzing the media with a positive message, making fun of the ridicule she was subjected to and ensuring that she remained the best known Republican in the country. She should have been scrutinising every single utterance from Obama's lips and building up a network of advisors who could have helped to build a consistent message and line of attack. And she should have been building up her network across the country amongst Republican activists, not just of the religious right but of the wider conservative movement, creating a groundswell of activism to counter-act the Obama factor which is already slightly dulled by the realities of government.

Instead, she has alternatively shunned and attacked the media, reinforcing the negative perception of her. She has been absent from serious policy debate, leaving others in her increasingly fragmented party to fight the GOP corner with no demonstrations of leadership qualities. And she has attacked her own party, stoking discord at a time when they required unity and foolishly picking targets like McCain to attack.

She is not completely finished, after all America is the land of second chances. However the period since the election has been wasted and has left her barely clinging on to political significance. While Romney has slickly played the conservative field, working hard to overcome the concerns about his personal religious faith, she has slowly destroyed her chances, leaving her with nothing but bridges to nowhere.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Labour's Role in Rural Politics

I have been thinking about the role, or currently lack of, for the Labour Party in the rural areas of the UK.

The fact is that as a party, we seem to be virtually non-existent in many rural constituencies. Of course, there are historical reasons behind this situation. We are a party who came in to existence fighting for the causes and needs of the urban working class, and our fortunes have remained closely tied to that cause. However, there are equal concerns about solidarity and poverty amongst rural constituencies as in urban, and yet we as a party are not seen as fighting these causes. Instead the Tories, Lib Dems and SNP are seen as being concerned with rural issues, pushing us out of the way.

Of course, specific policies have increased this feeling of neglect in the rural seats. The ban on fox hunting was seen as an attack by urban dwellers on rural inhabitants, underpinned by a snobbery on behalf of those in the cities. Now, I don't want to dwell on the issue of fox hunting itself, but the perception of the policy was very important, and very negative to the party. Added to feelings that we do not do enough for the Farming and Fishing industries, we are dismissed as irrelevant, and indeed hostile, to rural communities.

However, there are a variety of crucial issues challenging these communities which we should be championing as issues of social justice. I would like to explore some of these, and propose some policies which may help to demonstrate that we are a party for all, not just those in the industrialised centres.

The lack of affordable housing is a key issue affecting rural communities, particularly in areas where holiday homes have become prevalent and have forced prices unnaturally high. Some approaches are being tried out, but I would suggest:
  • Implementing maximum numbers for holiday home purchases
  • Ringfencing money for councils in rural areas to use for building affordable social housing
  • Subsidies for young people purchasing homes in rural communities
  • Suspension of right to buy

Loss of Young People
This is one of the most damaging challenges facing rural communities. For example, Dumfries and Galloway region is facing 28% drop in school leavers, and a 38% drop in working-age residents by 2013. This poses massive economic and social implications for the regions. I know, growing up in the Highlands of Scotland, that having left I would not return. I know that there are some attempts being made to encourage young people to either stay in the areas, or at least to return, but more must be done to ensure that opportunities exist that will encourage young people to decide to make their homes in the rural areas. This issue of course ties closely into the issue of housing outlined above, and the job creation issues that I will turn to next.

  • Financial and technical support for rural colleges and centres of learning
  • Widen access and support for distance learning in a variety of courses
  • Council Tax subsidies for young people choosing to stay and work/study in the area
  • School exchanges/link ups between schools in rural and urban locations
  • Increase support and resources for sports and leisure facilities
  • Create a youth forum for each rural area with support from Local Authorities and direct say in the provision of youth, leisure and other related issues

Employment and Enterprise
Job creation is key to vibrant rural communities, and to sustaining the policies implemented for the purposes of retaining young people and encouraging inward migration to our rural regions. We need to ensure support for the traditional industries such as farming and fishing in a sustainable fashion, whilst also rewarding businesses who create work in the rural regions.

  • Subsidies/tax breaks for companies investing in job creation in rural communities
  • Strong enterprise agencies with focus on rural communities, like the existing Highlands and Islands Enterprise
  • Start-up funds for local people to create businesses that meet needs and gaps in their communities
  • Support traditional industries, and work with them rather than against them in regards to modernisation and required changes to their structures.
  • Support and develop co-operatives as a sustainable means for meeting needs of communities - this also encourages ownership and localised solutions

Immigration is currently a hot topic, but it has an additional relevance and importance to rural communities. There is a real need for immigration to rural areas to counterbalance population loss, however, due to the smaller communities live in rural areas changes and challenges presented by immigrant populations are more noticeable. Support is needed to ensure that the benefits of immigration are demonstrated to the existing communities, but with resources to help these immigrant communities become part of the regions, contributing to their future.

  • Education
  • Money made available for easily accessible English classes and cultural classes
  • Money to make classes in immigrant languages (such as Polish) available for existing communities
  • Support for Community/Parish Councils to allow them to play role in helping immigrants to successfully integrate

Culture and Tourism
We need to start actively promoting the vital role that rural tourism plays in the local and national economy. Programmes such as the Year of Highland Culture emphasised the desirability of the Highlands as both tourist and business locations, and were successful in demonstrating that rural regions are positive contributors to the country. Furthermore, rural communities posses distinct and important cultures and histories, all of which contribute to our national identity. The UK is about more than just the cities, and more pride in our rural heritage would be economically and socially beneficial.

  • Follow-up concept of Highland Culture year to encourage further focus on rural communities
  • Change of language in national and political debates - the UK is about more than just London/the big cities!
  • Ensure that rural concerns are listened to in national debates - do not just dismiss them out of hand as being 'less sophisticated' than urban concerns and ideas
  • Encourage investment in tourism - main forms of economic investment in many rural communities

Finally, the infrastructure available in rural communities is vital. Localism is a popular political concept just now - but in rural communities there is really no alternative. There must be investment in transport links for both the local populace and business purposes, with growing environmental concerns not automatically ruling out support for issues such as rural airports, which can be crucial to development of those areas.

  • Commitment to local hospitals and health centres
  • Support for air ambulance facilities for outlying areas
  • Investment in road and rail links - i.e. expansion of A9 to Inverness into dual carriageway, as being proposed by the SNP
  • Investment in rural airports - explore options for ensuring flights remain at reasonable prices
  • Dialogue with transport firms who stop services to explore why - introduce support for companies who commit to sustaining links to rural communities

Well, I've rattled through a range of ideas and thoughts - I am keen to hear what others think. I believe that for Labour to be the progressive party that we aim to be, it is vital that we are not just a party for some, but rather for all. In regards to the areas that I have outlined above, I believe that we can introduce policies that sustain our progressive commitments, whilst encouraging vibrant rural communities. There is a danger that we view the rural constituencies in a similar way to how the Democrats view the 'Red States' (those voting Republican) in the South and Mid-West of the US - namely, un winnable and therefore not worth thinking about. If our aim is to create and sustain a country where every citizen is able to play as full a role as possible, then we must listen to rural concerns, and work to celebrate the contribution that these communities make.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

BBC poll on independence/devolution

Interesting findings published today from a BBC poll. Firstly, 58% of respondents (from a sample of 1,010) favoured holding a referendum next year on the constitutional question, which will be a finding warmly welcomed by the Scottish Government.

However, there was also a clear demonstration of support for the continuation of the Union in all forms of the question asked, although the levels did vary. The preferred wording of the Scottish Government (about negotiating a settlement with the UK Government) received the highest level of support for independence (42% support, 50% supporting the Union), however other versions of the question saw support for independence at 38% and 28% respectively, very low totals for nationalists to approach a referendum with.Where does this leave us?

Well, the first clear challenge is for the 'opposition' parties to either find a different way of justifying their opposition to a referendum; or to call the Government's bluff (as they would see it) by going for a referendum - this appears to be the approach that the public would like to see. Of course, the crucial aspect of a referendum will be in the wording of the questions asked - the SNP will be desperate to stick with their preferred wording whilst the opposition parties will, as Iain Gray says, want a straight yes/no question, which appears likely to lead to a rejection of independence. If the opposition parties look like they are opposing a referendum that the people want and which it looks like they will win then this could well make them look ridiculous - they will also be terrified of the consequences of a lost referendum, leaving them in quite a conundrum.

The second challenge is of course to the SNP. As John Curtice points out (and I heard him speaking about this at a conference recently) the SNP Government have done a good job of cementing their place in the public conscious as a competent party of government and they have also undoubtedly won the argument over whether more powers should be devolved to Scotland, with their opponents falling over themselves to join the race for further devolution. However, they appear to be failing to convince the public that independence is therefore the logical answer. Indeed, it could be argued that the SNP, despite their avowed aim of independence, are actually strengthening the devolution settlement, demonstrating that Scotland can have a Government of its own whilst still remaining within the Union. The SNP are also struck with a quandary - to have any chance (and even then it is an outside one) of winning the referendum they have to stick to their preferred wording; however to have any chance of getting a referendum in place they must be willing to compromise on the wording. All of these decisions are to be taken within a context of it looking likely that the referendum would be a loss for the independence cause, leaving them with the potentially tricky task of reinventing themselves in the absence of the independence question which they themselves have stated would have to occur for a generation.

This is where perhaps the logical answer to the situation presents itself, whereby the Government and opposition parties can find ways of agreeing on powers which should be further devolved to Scotland, enhancing the devolution settlement. The opposition cannot ignore the public's appetite for further devolution and indeed their own stated support for such measures; but likewise the SNP do not appear to be in a position yet whereby they can realistically expect to close the case for independence. Working together would allow both sides to claim victory (the SNP would see it as another step along the road, whilst the opposition parties would see it as proof that the settlement is the answer) although it would raise the potential for internal troubles, particularly for the SNP with some of their more intense pro-independence elements who have been relatively disciplined to date, but might react to more evidence of Salmond's gradualism.

It is likely that such agreement will not occur of course, certainly not before the next election - politically Salmond will want to avoid the troubles I suggested above and will also be aware of the political capital which he might be able to raise in an election campaign in 2011 whereby he derides the opposition parties for denying Scots their voice. Likewise there is an almost intractable refusal on the behalf of both the SNP and Labour to consider working together in a visible way, for fear of annoying their party faithful. In addition, the Scottish Lib Dems appear to have a surprising hatred of the concept of a referendum for anything, and therefore whilst appearing on paper the most likely to support the Government on introducing the Bill will fight it tooth and nail. The Conservatives could be an interesting element of the equation - they may decide to take the SNP on and agree to the referendum in order to defeat it, however this is probably still an outside chance.

I have to say, however, that the findings have challenged me to think about my own initial opposition to a referendum (of course, it's still the case that we shouldn't have a referendum just because the SNP demand one) and it will be interesting to see if other views are affected by the poll as well.

Also published on the Scots Voices blog

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Salmond's Riposte

So after the launch of the Calman Report on Monday, the FM has made his response by suggesting that the Calman suggestion could be included in the proposed independence referendum.

Hardly a shock, but a tactical masterstroke for Salmond nonetheless, which the opposition parties have only themselves to blame for. I don't believe that there is any real desire for constitutional wrangling in Scotland, however the public have a tendency to feel rather riled if they believe they are being denied their opportunity to have a say - look at public response to the lack of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, even though nobody actually understands the point of it. This response is further heightened by the current disgust with how politicians have been behaving - "not only do they sponge off the system, they don't let us have a say either!"

It's hard to see how the opposition deal with Calman other than by ignoring its recommendations. To push for the changes without a referendum would be very difficult (not impossible though); to hold a referendum on constitutional change without inclusion of the independence question unthinkable in the current political climate and suicide for the Union should it ever be attempted.

The FM will be delighted with the situation so far - many of the recommendations are his anyway and the others all march down the path that he would like Scotland to take. I still believe that he would rather not have the referendum next year - a loss would seriously damage the SNP's standing and identity and still seems the more likely outcome. He had been looking forward to passing the blame onto the opposition parties - the Calman outcome will also give him the opportunity to introduce some gradual change which will please members of his own party who might other be chafing at the bit slightly. He will go into the next election with the constitution front and centre and will then challenge his opponents to justify their refusal to grant the people a say (regardless of whether this is a actually a fair assessment).

In reality the opposition parties, particularly Labour, need to move beyond the constitutional issues and start outlining plans for government, primarily around the economy and job creation. However now that Calman has (as Wardog said in reply to my previous post) let the cat out of the bag, it will be impossible to ignore the issues. However, changes that are introduced will be claimed by the SNP Government as their success, leaving the Calman process with potentially very little to show for its efforts.

The real challenge now would be for the opposition parties to take Salmond up on his offer and introduce a referendum which included the Calman options alongside the question on independence. It would be a very high risk situation, however it may end up being the only way to shift the focus away from constitutional arguments and to remove the sting from the SNP - it would kill the question for at least a decade unless the SNP wanted to look ridiculous.

It's one I need to mull over for myself, will post again when cogent thoughts form (if indeed that ever happens).

Monday, 15 June 2009

Calman Launches

Just back from Edinburgh where I attended the launch of the Calman Commission's Final Report - a very hefty document which outlines the Commission on Scottish Devolution's findings from a year of investigation and debate on the future of devolution.

I have to say that it was a slightly underwhelming event. As has been covered in the media, the main proposals are devolution of aspects of taxation (a section of income tax, along with four other areas such as Stamp Duty), devolution of certain legislative areas such as air gun control and drink driving levels, and a certain level of reform of the intra-governmental workings of Holyrood and Westminster.

The key aspect of the launch was the fact that there is every chance that this will not go anywhere. The Commission was launched as reaction to the Scottish Government's National Conversation rather than necessarily from a belief that the time for re-evaluating devolution was upon us. As such, it lacks an immediate impetus to its recommendations, particularly since the SNP's referendum is essentially dead in the water. The Commission's findings were, to me at least, also reduced in impact by the repeated assertion that they were a) unanimous and b) had considered all options. The idea that a panel composed of members of the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems, trade unions, the CBI Scotland and other disparate opinions implies that they must have therefore made pretty weak recommendations in order to create unity. In addition, the Commission did not consider all options as they excluded discussion of independence - this is not in itself a problem, but they should be upfront about the agenda behind their work.

The idea of devolving the income tax powers to Scotland (building upon the Scottish Variable Tax powers which already exist but haven't ever been used) is certainly an interesting one. There is a problem just now as the Scottish Government (regardless of political colour) exists to spend money without accountability for raising their own funds. However the fact that the Government would be able to vary the actual amount of income tax without being able to increase or decrease the gaps between the tax bands (or indeed alter the tax bands themselves) limits the ability of the Scottish Government to use income tax to fully pursue ideological measures (i.e. tax cutting to a flat tax or raising the top band to fund spending). If taxation is going to be devolved enough to allow variation between Scotland and the rest of the UK, then it should surely be devolved enough to allow a distinct Scottish Government to pursue its own stated political aims as fully as possible.

The devolution of certain further powers to Holyrood will be supported across the board, as the SNP have already been arguing for many of them - indeed the SNP will probably be quite satisfied with the outcome of the Commission. Needless to say oil tax revenue was excluded from devolution - I don't think anyone expected anything else!

I think that the Commission has explored some interesting issues, but I think that the nature of the process (it was quite stuffy and formal, which excluded lots of 'normal' people from the debate) has somewhat limited the impact of its recommendations. I am sure that it will provoke continued debate on Scotland's constitutional future but I think that, like the National Conversation it set out to compete with, it has failed to answer the questions.

Monday, 8 June 2009

European Elections 2009 - My analysis of a painful night

It was a brutal, painful and embarrassing night last night, and trying to sleep off the bitter feeling didn't help (especially since a crying baby was meaning sleep was but a distantly remembered concept!). In an attempt at catharsis I will therefore throw my analysis of the election into the blogging mix, on a party-by-party/issue basis. At the risk of trivialising it, I will also give each party a grade for the election, to show my arbitrary assessment of how they have done - please feel free to agree or disagree with that.

What can be said about last night that doesn't just slip into hyperbole? The collapse of our vote to 15.3% is a disaster on an unprecedented scale, seeing us pick up our lowest national vote share in 100 years. Slipping behind UKIP into third place is also a situation that only a few years ago would have been unthinkable. We have criticised and derided UKIP as a party of the lunatic fringe (and with some justification) but in regards to European politics they can today legitimately claim to be the party of more British citizens than we are.

When looked at in more depth, the results are even more depressing as heartland areas fell. Labour failed to win in Wales, slipping behind the Tories, and was hammered by the SNP in Scotland, barely managing to keep the vote share in both countries above 20%. Luckily in Scotland we managed to return two MEPs (as far can be seen, as the Scottish results are not confirmed yet due to the Western Isles refusing to count on the Sabbath), which given the context and scale of the rout is a small positive. However, the results demonstrate that there are no safe areas for Labour now, and that in Scotland in particular we are clearly second place to the SNP who have cemented their position.

Now debate will be renewed about Gordon Brown's position, although I don't expect this to go anywhere - the reshuffle on Friday has bound the main political movers into his government, and there are no alternatives to replace him. There is also the news that the recession may be over (for now), leaving the bold and optimistic predictions for growth which the Government has based its policies on in with a shout of succeeding - indeed, the FT suggests that the Government's prediction may turn out to have been too pessimistic. This leaves open the possibility of an upturn in economic success for the Government, which Gordon Brown could use to reinvigorate our chances in the run up to an election next year. Only time will tell.

But for now, we are battered and bruised and embarrassed.

Mark - Fail

On the face of it this was a successful night for the Tories, as they remained the largest party for the European elections, slightly increasing their share of the vote. More importantly for them, they won the election in Wales for the first time since the 19th Century, beating Labour into second. Considering the initial speculation had been that Plaid would be the main beneficiaries of the Labour collapse, this is a spectacular result for them and exactly the kind of gains they need to see if they are going to be successful in winning the next General Election.

However, I don't think that it will be a night that the Conservatives will over-exaggerate, as in some ways they will have cause for disappointment, or at least reflection, on the results. Given that the Labour vote completely vanished, they will have been disappointed to have only seen their vote share rise by 1% and to have only gained one MEP (although this figure was affected by the reduction in the number of MEPs from the 2004 election). They failed to break the 30% mark, which reflects the facts that a) the public disenchanted with all of the major parties, and b) that they have not yet 'sealed the deal' with the electorate. It is hard to extrapolate from the European elections to a General Election (and of course the Local elections in England were a resounding success for the party) but the Tories need a 6.9% swing from Labour to win the next General Election - and that would only give them a hypothetical majority of 2. To put it in context, there has only been a swing of that size or greater at two elections since the Second World War (Labour in 1945 and in 1997), making it a historically difficult possibility. Definitely not impossible (and in the current climate still likely) but should ensure that the Conservatives take a win for granted at their peril.

Mark - B+

Liberal Democrats
The Lib Dems picked up one more MEP than last time, and obviously that is a cause for delight for them. They will also be relieved to have retained their MEP in Scotland, which for a while looked like an uphill task for them.

However, I think overall these elections are very disappointing for them. They lost 1.1% of the national share of the vote, failing to benefit at all (nationally at least) from the Labour collapse, and remained in a very distant 4th place. Coupled with Local elections which were slightly disappointing overall, the Lib Dems will not be able to go away from these elections with any great delight (although Clegg, bless him, is doing his best).

Obviously the implications for a General Election are very hard to assess - UKIP beat the Lib Dems at the 04 Euros but were subsequently beaten at the General Election the following year, so I wouldn't expect the Lib Dems to stop being the third party in Westminster any time soon. However, their bold predictions that they would somehow become the main Opposition does seem rather wide of the mark. It is also a reflection of the fact that they are, to a certain extent, starting to be seen as irrelevant for the European elections, which is a worrying sign for the pro-EU camp.

Mark - C-

Another strange situation when it comes to assessment. Effectively UKIP didn't change - their vote share was up slightly (0.5%) and they gained one more MEP. Impressive but not earth shattering. Rather the key issue for them was that due to Labour's collapse they moved up to become the second placed party for the UK. In addition, they picked up their first MEP in Wales, demonstrating a possibility that they can expand beyond their Anglo-centric power base.

The key issue to take from their showing is the fact that Britain has to be considered, electorally at least, a Euro sceptic country. Just taking the three main Euro sceptic parties (the Conservatives, UKIP and the BNP), over half the electorate expressed their support for their policies - this doesn't include other Euro sceptic parties who also picked up votes. Indeed, excluding the Northern Irish results, the Euro sceptic parties picked up 40 of the 69 seats on offer.

The pro-European argument is not making any headway with the British electorate, which is not surprising considering how little effort is put into it. A presumption is made that people will take for granted that the EU is a force for good, with not explanation required. This is an arrogant and patronising approach, which is helping the Eurosceptic cause in attacking Britain's role in the EU.

It will be interesting to see where UKIP go from here, as they still effectively only remain a European Parliamentary force (albeit a substantial one). I don't think that their success last night translates into General Election success, and indeed I would expect a significant swathe of their support to turn to the Conservatives in a General Election, boosting their chances. However, for bragging rights alone last night has to be put down as a massive success for UKIP, and one which they will enjoy for a long time.

Mark - A

Last night was a resounding success for the SNP, and boy didn't Salmond love it! The fact of the matter is that they thrashed the Labour Party for the first time ever in Scotland (they won the 07 Scottish Parliamentary elections, but it was a far more close run event) but, more crucially, saw all three of their main opposition parties (who are also all Unionist parties) lose votes.

The SNP can rightly claim to be master of all they survey in Scotland just now. There may be a slight disappointment that they didn't break the 30% mark or that they didn't manage to grab a third seat (this was certainly one of the best chances they will ever have to do that) but these are minor points for a very successful evening. Two years into their Government they can be very pleased with where they stand and will be confident of increasing their support in the event of a Conservative victory at Westminster. For the Unionist parties it is a clear kick up the backside - if they don't want the SNP to run away with the political agenda in Scotland they need to sort their acts out now.

Mark - A

Yesterday was a dark day for British politics with the BNP picking up not only their first MEP, but a second buddy for him to play with. This is a national embarrassment. The reality is that the BNP actually didn't pick up huge amounts of support, indeed indications are that they received fewer votes. However, the reduced turnout led to them being able to secure a great share of the vote, which is the crucial factor used under the D'Hondt system.

The main political parties all have to take responsibility for this situation, but it is Labour in particular who must apologise. The majority of the BNP's support comes from traditional Labour communities, and it is this disenfranchised underclass who are registering support for the BNP. However, voters shouldn't be absolved of all responsibility in this matter - a vote for the BNP is not a protest vote, it is a vote in favour of their divisive and ludicrous agenda. Labour and the other parties must now reassess their approach to the BNP in order to determine the best way in which to combat and defeat them.

For the crucial aspect of this breakthrough is not that they will necessarily do anything at the European Parliament other than embarrass the country by their odious presence. Rather it is the legitimacy that electoral success gives them as a 'proper' political party. Whilst the transition from European success to Westminster is not automatic (as UKIP can testify to) it does make it more possible, particularly in the communities where the BNP are now the main opposition. These are dangerous times for British politics.

Mark - A (this is given with great grudging, however their breakthrough cannot be denied).

Other parties
This was a night for the smaller parties, with their votes going up. However, success was actually limited. The Greens ironically suffered from the voting system (normally they are beneficiaries of PR systems) as they failed to pick up any more MEPs despite increasing their vote share. Plaid had a disappointing night in Wales - they had been tipped to overtake Labour and win the popular vote, but remained in third place. For the other parties they saw an increase in their vote share, but were nowhere near electoral breakthrough.

Mark - C

So a brutal night for the Labour Party and really all of the other results have to be taken within this context. But the key issue is really that the British electorate are not connected to the European Parliament or its work, and have expressed their apathy with the political system by staying away from the polling booth. It is that apathy that we must all combat if we wish to avoid the BNP and their ilk increasing their electoral successes.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Euro Elections

I will blog in more detail about the results tomorrow, but I just had to stick up my initial thoughts. Devastating night for the Labour Party, shaping up to be the most embarrassing result in history. Scotland was a disaster, with the SNP clearly ahead. One small positive is that despite the collapse in the Labour vote it looks like we will hold on to our two MEPs - in the current climate that is a very big positive. Elsewhere in the UK, however, the Party will be facing another round of electoral annihilation.

The final point is of course the election of the first ever BNP MEP (only one at the time of writing but there could be at least one more). This is a massive embarrassment for the UK, a ringing indictment of all the major political parties (but particularly the Labour Party) and a real danger for British democracy. At this moment I feel sick to my stomach at the thought that the disgusting bunch of fascists that is the BNP can claim to be representing our country in the European Parliament.

More tomorrow.

Friday, 5 June 2009


So Alan Johnson is in as Home Secretary, Alasdair Darling will stay as Chancellor and David Milliband won't be resigning.

It appears at first glance that the Prime Minister may have just avoided the mortal blow aimed at him last night by James Purnell, with the Cabinet heavyweights appearing to back him against Purnell's attacks.

However, it would be ludicrous and quite frankly impossible to ignore the step that James Purnell has taken and the discussion must now be had as to where the Party is going. More on this later as developments occur.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

The die is cast, Purnell has quit

Devastating blow to the Prime Minister as Purnell has quit the Cabinet, picking up a lot of media plaudits in the process. If he is followed in the next few hours and days by more resignations, then the move will be complete and Gordon Brown's time will be finished.

The rumours are that Alasdair Darling is furious about his treatment and if he were to quit the blow would be completely fatal. With terrible electoral results likely to be in the offing, it is going to be a very brutal period ahead.

Where are the life jackets on this thing?

So "Nuts about Hazel" who managed to come sixth in the Labour Deputy Leadership contest has left the Cabinet, in an indignant huff that GB didn't support her over her 'mistaken' claims. Well, sorry to break it to you Hazel, but your behaviour was unacceptable, along with so many of your colleagues, and it leaves many of us who are activists for the Party ashamed and let down by the behaviour of our representatives.

The fact is that the Government, long under pressure by the storms of political and public opinion (combined with a disappointing amount of self-inflicted damage), is now shipping water at a horrendous rate, with even the Guardian now laying into Gordon Brown's record. Polling shows the Tories surging ahead, even though I still have the suspicion that the electorate are more cheesed off with the Labour Party as opposed to being completely in love with Cameron. And now a letter is being circulated amongst Labour MPs, trying to draw together a murky little coalition to bring down the PM.

Of course this is entirely understandable given the abject standing of the Party just now and the likely annihilation that we face at the elections today. However, have the rebels thought through the implications of their coup? If GB is disposed and a new Leader/PM installed (Alan Johnson or, even more scarily, Harriet Harman???) there is no way that an immediate General Election could not be called. We do not have a Presidential system and this is why the complaints after Tony Blair stood down about GB not having a mandate were wide of the mark. However, a third PM in place since the last election would be ludicrous.

Who in their right mind would want to lead Labour into a General Election just now? An utter wipe out would occur, leaving the Party shattered for years to come and the new incumbent's leadership career finished before it started. It takes a lot of optimism to think that the political context and environment could have improved for Labour by next year, but it's hard to see how it could get much worse.

The problem with the leadership challenge is that there are no clear alternatives who could bring anything exciting to the table. A decade in Government has led to stagnation amongst our body of MPs - there are no new and interesting names forcing their way through to demand attention, rather a reshuffle of an ever declining pack. Familiarity breeds contempt, and that does go a long way to explaining public views towards the Government.

Fundamentally, however, the rot is due to the lack of ideas behind how the Government is working. The greatest achievements of Labour's term in power - minimum wage, new deal etc - came from the heady early days of power, when the UK was being reshaped into an exciting new social democratic paradise, the two powers of Blair and Brown driving us forward into a future of prosperity for all. But then the egos and the rivalries kicked in - the Party was poisoned as soon as we had Blairites and Brownites, leaving the rest of us Labourites sitting on the sidelines as our leadership proceeded to kill itself.

A new dawn is needed for the Labour Party - a moment of stopping to say what is it we exist for? What are our priorities? I still believe that as a Party we have the opportunities and desires to make huge changes to our country, to correct the imbalances which exist and to create opportunities for all to achieve their potential. But this cannot be done through infighting and posturing.

Our pride as the Labour Party has always been that we have been the party of the people - all the people. The Tories have always been rooted in their support for the rich and the Lib Dems represent...well, they represent whoever they think will vote for them that day, but have certainly taken a rightward jump under Nick Clegg. The saddest thing about our time in Government is that we are no longer seen as the party of the people - rather we have tarnished this mantle so much that the BNP are doing their best to try and steal it for their own sickening ends.

How do we regain this role for ourselves? I don't think a rush back to the left extremes is required - the people are not there. But a desire to out-Tory the Tories leaves us looking shallow and meaningless - the people are not there either. What we need is to overhaul the candidates we have in place for the Party, to ensure that it reverts back to having members from all elements of society - not just career politicians and lawyers, but teachers, workers, academics, service professionals and health professionals too. We need young people and old people, people with families and single people. We need ethnic minority candidates and ethnic majority candidates. We need to bring together a massive coalition of all of the skills and experiences of the citizens of our country to ensure that Parliament and the Party never loses sight of who it works for again.

We need to explore the Big Tent approach, to work with others where appropriate to achieve the best and most successful consensus for progress. We need to reform democracy - introduce proportional representation to eliminate the unhealthy and unjust huge majorities which have contributed to the disconnection of the Government from the electorate; strict term limits for Parliament with elections set in stone; introduce term limits for the Speaker so that constituencies are not hampered by their MP ceasing to have the time to serve them. I will return to these in their own separate post, but they can contribute to revitalising our democratic structures.

If the Government manages to hold on for another year before losing in the next General Election, then GB should take this opportunity to go for broke. Presume the election lost and therefore damn the repercussions - he should allow his Presbyterian sensibilities which have been so offended recently to push the agenda, putting reform of politics and the elimination of inequalities at the fore front of his work. The initial achievements of the Labour Government which TB introduced are now pretty safe - the Tories are unlikely to rescind the minimum wage for example even if they would like to. However, they will try and push back anything else that they can. The Prime Minister needs to go for broke and try and leave the country closer to the vision of what he would like it to be.

The Labour Party will not die from this mess, just as the Conservatives did not die from the rout of 97. However, it is vital that it does more than just survive. There must be open and frank discussion of the future direction of the Party, with all sections of the internal spectrum, right and left, free to air their views and contribute to a rebirth. Anything else, however, will be a devastating abdication of our responsibilities to the people we represent and who depend upon us to raise their issues.

Monday, 1 June 2009

The pain of politics

It's a tough time to be a democrat in the UK, particularly one who is also a member of the Labour Party. Public disgust with the political process is at an all time high; the Labour Party appears to be on the verge of electoral extinction; the SNP are supremely confident of winning the by-election in my own seat; the BNP stand poised to pick up at least one MEP; and the lack of ideas for where to go forward is terrifying, lost in the stampede of politicians trying to defend the indefensible.

At a time like this I start to wonder whether someone like me has a place in politics. See, I'm unashamedly naive and optimistic when it comes to democracy. I believe that to serve as an elected representative is the greatest honour that you can receive from your fellow citizens. They are, through the means of the democratic process, choosing you to work on their behalf, make decisions in their interests and represent them in the local and/or national discussion. What an honour! Representatives stand on behalf of the public and therefore should never think themselves above those they serve.

Sadly, this seems a very misplaced view in the current climate, where we are being forced to witness the greed and arrogance which has polluted our political system. Our democracy is corrupt, the representatives having ceased to represent anyone other than themselves, lost in the 'job' that they have and in maximising their own gains. To me political representation is not a job, it is a vocation, a role which you are called to and which exists to allow us to better serve our communities. It is about serving not commanding; about being one of the people rather than a class above them.

My Papa was a councillor, and later Provost, in Dumbarton for years and during the majority of this time the role was unpaid. He worked during the day and then attended meetings in the evening, somehow managing to fit his family and other commitments in around this. This involved sacrifice, but he did it because he believed in the difference he was able to make, and because he believed in the honour of the role that he had been entrusted with.

The current mess disappoints me and in many ways puts me off involvement in the whole sordid process. However, a bigger part of me reacts with anger to the mess and makes me more determined to play a part. I believe my naive, simplistic and idealistic view of politics is a good one, and I'll be damned if I'll have it ruined for me by those who misuse the system. I believe that political engagement can and should be a massive force for positive change and that all of us, even me, have a role to play.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

21st June

Michael Martin will stand down on 21st June.

It is imperative that MPs do not think that his removal will be the end to the debacle which is destroying public confidence in the House of Commons. This must only be one measure amongst a host of others, so that voters can start to believe in the integrity of Parliament and its members.

Speaker to Step Down...

The BBC are reporting that the Speaker is to announce that he will be stepping down later this afternoon. Details have not been confirmed yet as to when, more as it happens.

Monday, 18 May 2009

The Manure Parliament

Has the tipping point been reached?

The crisis in confidence which is evident in regards to the public's view of Westminster is a direct threat to the stability of our democracy. It is a long standing tradition in the UK to have mistrust for our politicians and to consider them liars, but the expenses debacle has taken this to a new depth. Unlike problems of sleaze in Government ministers (cash for questions etc), the current situation has demonstrated a systematic abuse of expenses which effects every political party and tarnishes the entire political sphere.

It is evidence of a disconnection between our elected officials and the people they represent. At a time of economic hardship, it is impossible for the public to have confidence in the ability of any of the main parties to respond to challenges if their representatives are seen to be making small fortunes for themselves, at the tax payer's expense. MPs complain of not being paid enough and it is true that they are paid less than many other public servants. However, a starting salary of roughly £65k p.a. cannot be described as small by any standards, particularly when the average salary in the country is in the mid 20s and unemployment is rising.

Likewise, the absurdity of many of the expenses claims is an insult to the public. I, as with any one else working in the voluntary, public or private sectors, must submit detailed receipts for all expenses I claim, and can only claim those expenses necessary for the delivery of my role. The rules for MPs agrees with this position, but the reality has been completely different. Expenses have been treated as an entitlement and part of the pay for representatives, and a huge percentage of them have been inappropriate if not downright appalling. When the Government and Opposition are both continually going on about 'efficiency savings' and when the Government refused pay rises for the Police and other services, it is the height of hypocrisy for MPs to be claiming money to pay for moats and manure, and to be indeed profiting from their expenses claims.

I am fundamentally an optimist and without a doubt I am a democrat, however I have been left scunnered by this entire situation. In my work I spend my time convincing people why it is crucial that they vote - my job has certainly been made a lot more difficult with these revelations. We also now run the very real risk that it will be groups like the BNP that will benefit from the debacle - the reality that we could have one or more BNP MEPs after the European Elections this year if terrifying and would be a national embarrassment. Yet they are in a position to argue that they are not contaminated by this scandal, billing themselves as a realistic alternative or protest vote.

The main parties have to take immediate and drastic action, and it is disappointing that Cameron has managed to take the initiative on the issue so far. Candidates should pay back claims that are indefensible, and those who seem to have been deliberately manipulating the system should be investigated and disciplined by their parties, up to and including expulsion. All Constituency Labour Parties should also have the option re-open selection contests for MPs who have let down their constituents - the General Election could throw up some very interesting and surprising results across the country as incumbents are punished, and it is imperative that CLPs have the opportunity to remove MPs who have let them down and who represent a liability to holding the seat.

The system itself must be firmly policed, with allowable expenses made completely transparent and regularly published. Punishments for breaking the rules must be clearly laid out so that the electorate can be reassured that those milking the system will not be allowed to get away with it. And ultimately it will probably require a General Election where the public are given the opportunity to dispose of some of the offenders before any trust can start to be restored.

In regards to the Speaker's position, I think that Nick Clegg's decision to go after him was grandstanding and counter productive - the mess goes well beyond his position and is largely related to individual MPs. I think it is clear that the Speaker is drawing to the end of his time in office, however forcing him out now would not help or change the situation, other than by temporarily providing a blood sacrifice to the indignant public - his resignation would not be enough to sate their anger. However, he does need to start actively taking a lead on reform - defending the status quo is utterly indefensible now.

This mess will go on and on, with the end result being a deterioration of democracy in the UK. It is imperative that all of the parties work to resolve this situation, to remove all cause for concern and to demonstrate that the culture of Westminster has changed, otherwise we may find ourselves with some very unwanted and unsavoury characters claiming to represent our country.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

My Son - Benjamin Peter Cooke

Just wanted to let everyone know that my son, Benjamin Peter Cooke, was born on April 29th, weighing a very healthy 8lb 13. We are ecstatically happy about his arrival, and the sleepless nights are definitely worth it on his behalf!

Off work on paternity leave just now so enjoying getting to spend time with Ben and my wife Cat as we get our little family settled into some sort of routine.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Disease in a connected world

The threat of the spread of swine flu is understandably grabbing news headlines just now. Building on previous threats (bird flu and SARS) which have arisen in recent years, the media can be guilty of sometimes inflating the threat to apocalyptic proportions. The fact that people have already died in Mexico from the strain, and the fact that it has already popped up in so many different countries across the world heightens this situation.

Regardless of whether this particular strain of influenza turns out to present a large scale threat to the world or not, the situation highlights the threat that disease poses to us in the interconnected world we live in. The outbreak of flu in 1918 led to a pandemic which killed more than double the number that had been killed in the First World War. This was before the explosion in globalisation which has led to interconnectedness on a scale previously inconceivable.

At the risk of sounding alarmist, imagine the deadly possibilities of an outbreak of flu (or another disease) of the severity of 1918. The swine flu currently being observed seems to have an incubation period 0f 24-48 hours - other diseases can be even longer. This is more than enough time, particularly in the case of a disease with aerosol transmission, for an infected person to have travelled by plane from the country of infection to any where else on the globe, potentially infecting others on the plane with them so that by the time they land, possibly in a major population hub such as New York or London, there are already a number of infections.

Disease has always possessed the means to spread globally - the Black Death was an example of using rodents as a vector - and travel methods are often key to this spread. However, the nature of the world today makes this even easier. Indeed this is why health departments around the world are open about the fact that infections are inevitable - it is not a matter of stopping the spread but rather minimising its impact and health implications.

The monitoring of infectious disease is a key area where more work is required in order to ensure that information is shared to reduce the impact. One of the key issues with the spread of SARS was that there was a delay in alerting the world to its existence, by which it had moved outwith China's borders. It is very difficult to bring together different nations, particularly those whose political contexts make them wary of or hostile to other nations, however it is crucial in this context in order to allow for co-ordinated responses led by the WHO.

Disease is an issue which does not respect national sovereignty, and therefore a globalised response is essential in order to meet the challenges of global infection. Once this particular outbreak is responded to (going on the hopeful basis that its impact can be restricted - certainly the fact that it can be treated by certain drugs gives hope) it is important that the WHO is given more support in developing methods of reporting across the world. As we link up ever more closely we open doors to infectious diseases to spread across the world - it is vital that we respond to this challenge before we are met with a pandemic which could indeed be of apocalyptic size.

For more reading on this matter I would strongly recommend Promed Mail and the Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett. Promed in particular is an absolutely vital resource bringing together front line practitioners from across the globe, and has been at the forefront of responding to emerging situations in the manner that I have suggested we need more of above.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

A Place for Paedophiles?

I watched Louis Theroux's documentary A Place for Paedophiles which was on BBC 2 the other day and would recommend everyone to check it out on BBC i-Player. Overall it was surprisingly not as involving as some of his other documentaries (possibly because he himself struggled with the subject matter and the men involved) but the subject itself is a very important one.

The place in question is the Coalinga State Hospital in the State of California. This is an institution built to house convicted sex offenders considered too dangerous to be released back into the community, particularly paedophiles, due to the high risk of them re-offending. There is a programme on offer which potentially offers the 'patients' a chance of release back into the community, however this is not a common occurrence, particularly since the majority of the patients (c.70%) refuse to participate in the programme - these men, barring successful legal appeals, are therefore contained in the Hospital for the remainder of their lives.

Louis identified a great deal of resentment amongst the patients who felt that their civil liberties and constitutional rights were being withheld from them. All of the patients had been convicted of sexual offences and had served prison sentences. Their move to the hospital came at the end of their sentences, when they would have expected that they would be released back into society, having 'served their time'. As their current holding (Louis referred to the hospital as a warehouse) is to prevent potential future crimes which they therefore have not yet committed, they feel that they are being doubly and unfairly punished - as one patient declared "If you are going to lock people up for crimes they haven't yet committed, you'll need to lock everyone up". And this seemed to be a view point shared by some of the therapeutic staff working with the patients.

At first glance it is certainly possible to identify the 'slippery slope' argument which is contained within their protestations. If the state starts to lock up people for crimes they have not yet committed, where will this end? Could it indeed be used to justify locking up anybody and everybody on the basis of some potential future crime?

This is an important point to bear in mind, however it also ignores the reality of the issue which is behind the holding of these men. Their hospitalisation is due to the deep-rooted psychological traits which underpinned the actions which led to their incarceration. The patients in Coalinga are men responsible for systematic and calculated abuse, the full extent of which in many cases has not yet come to light. These are not criminals who committed a crime of acquisition or opportunity, these are fundamentally psychologically deviant men with whom it is impossible (certainly prior to participation in the five phase programme Coalinga uses, and probably even after) to give even a vague assurance that they will not re-offend. For these men there is something 'wrong' with them which serving their time does not solve and which remains, essentially, a way of life which many of them do not consider to be wrong.

The issue draws back to what our prison service and penal code is for. There are three core reasons for imprisonment - rehabilitation, punishment and protection. Imprisoning a paedophile for his (or her) crimes demonstrates the punishment for the crime, society's way of saying we caught you so you must be punished for this. However, the punishment is invariably a short-term pointless term in prison which serves no purpose other than to act as a slap on the wrist. Certainly there is no chance for even a stab at rehabilitation. And this is fundamentally the crux of the matter for me - if there is no rehabilitation possible in the time available then more than just punishment is required. In this case the third purpose, protection, must come into force.

This protection is for society as a whole, as without a long term period of rehabilitation and therapeutic support systematic paedophiles present a very real and ongoing threat to the communities they live in. This sort of sexual dysfunction is therefore a continuing motivation and cause of danger - certainly with the pathetically inappropriate prison sentences, lack of rehabilitation in prison and scarcity of support outwith prison, it is naive in the extreme to believe that paedophiles will be able to self-regulate their behaviour completely on their own.

It is therefore wrong to see institutions such as Coalinga as punishments for crimes which are yet to be committed; rather they are institutions designed to protect both the patient and society from the urges and dysfunction which is beyond their control. This lack of control is not an excuse or justification for their actions - regardless of the dysfunctional psychological state they may possess, they are still responsible for making choices to offend. However, the lack of control is the basis for continuing to hold them away from society until a time when it can be demonstrated that their urges have been brought to a regulated level.

I don't agree with the logic behind laws such as Megan's Law or Sarah's Law where the presence of convicted paedophiles in the community must be made available (to the point, in the US, of addresses being available online). This leads to two dangers - vigilante behaviour and also, ironically, false sense of security which can create conditions for abuse. The majority of sex offenders are known to the person concerned, with many being parents or guardians - 'Stranger Danger' ignores this reality. In addition, many sex offenders are unknown to authorities due to not having been caught - they will therefore not appear on any registers or lists. However, the demand behind measures such as these do reflect a public perception that the current response to sex offenders is not working. The pointless and inappropriate prison terms coupled with the recognised lack of rehabilitation and support demonstrate to the public that this is an issue which is not be handled effectively by the state, with the danger being left for their communities and families - a situation which is always guaranteed to cause anger and reaction.

The existence of Coalinga is not a cheap one (it costs roughly $200,000 p.a. to house each patient) and it does raise controversy about civil liberties. However, it also serves to protect society from individuals who present a clear and lasting threat - in this case prevention may well be better than reaction. Certainly in the UK we need an in-depth review of all sentencing and support for sex offenders to ensure that imprisonment and monitoring following release meets all three of the reasons behind imprisonment. It is not enough to merely impose a short term sentence and then wash our hands of these offenders - our society and its vulnerable members deserve more from us. Maybe the UK has need of an institution like Coalinga in order to protect society from those whose dysfunction prevents a threat to it. We wouldn't release a sociopathic serial killer back into the community, whose psychological dysfunctions present a continuing risk to society - is it not time to realise that sexual offenders represent a similar threat?

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Let Battle Commence...

The lines have been drawn, the election is in full swing and Labour is coming out all guns blazing - if we're gonna lose, it's gonna be a glorious last stand.

OK, that's a bit of an overstatement of the Budget I admit, but the raising of the top rate of tax, whilst its economic impact may or may not be negligible, is a clear fire fight with the Tories. The next election will be between the Labour Party, looking to claw back some of the money that the rich have accrued during the times of plenty; and a Tory Party reverting to their traditional stance of protecting the interests of the rich above the rest of society.

It won't get to this level of clear distinction, however, for several reasons. Firstly, the public blame the Government of the day for economic travails which the country suffers, and that Government is a Labour one - therefore there is a desire to punish the administration. Secondly, the public perception of the Tories which was rooted in the right wing excesses of the Thatcher years is not as prominent as it once was meaning the public do not necessarily associate them with the rich to a greater degree than they do the Labour Party (plus, of course, it has to be remembered that many people in England were very pleased with Thatcher's approach to government). Finally, Cameron is too shrewd an operator to slip into the trap of expressly defending the interests of the rich above all others, regardless of what his real intentions may be. The move does present an interesting conundrum for him though - does he support it, potentially picking up public support but possibly alienating the City and other core Tory support? Or does he oppose it and run the risk of appearing elitist and out of touch? I think it'll be the latter, but he'll base his opposition on the belief that the move won't be effective rather than outright support for entrepreneurialism/defending the wealthy.

Overall there are some interesting aspects to the Budget, with the rise in child tax credits and the provision of work or training for under-25s beneficial moves. However they may be lost amidst the levels of public borrowing and the optimistic forecast which the Chancellor has based his figures on.

If his forecast turns out to be right, or at least closer to the mark, then this Budget may turn out to be a very successful one, however, if the consensus is closer to the mark then we could have a very difficult period ahead of us. What is needed is a fundamental review of how we approach government and what we want for the country - a greater focus on social housing, support for the unemployed, job creation and fairness in taxation and wealth distribution rather than fire fighting is needed if a fourth term is to be even remotely possible.

The tax rise may succeed in grabbing the headlines and may even revitalise some Labour activists, but the Budget must only be the start. It now requires a period of bold and innovative government to demonstrate that Labour can continue to be in power and to focus the minds of the electorate on the possibilities of the future rather than the challenges of the present and past. This is an uphill task for any administration - it is up the Prime Minister and his team to prove that they can do it.