Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Asking for it?

Ken Clarke's comments on rape at Westminster today have prompted mass outrage and calls for him to resign or be sacked. But following on as they do from comments about child abuse made by Nadine Dorries on The Vanessa Show, are they indicative or a deeper level of misunderstanding or misogyny within the Conservative party?

This has been another extraordinary week. Among other things it has seen the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the IMF, on seven counts of sexually-motivated assault against a hotel cleaner. This case stands out for two reasons. Firstly, because the accused is such an influential figure; and secondly, because (despite that) it ever got this far. A brutalised women feeling brave enough to report what happened to her; an employer offering instant sympathy and support, doing all the right things; police officers taking the complaint seriously and taking immediate action; a judge taking the complaint seriously enough to refuse Strauss-Kahn bail. This shouldn't be an unusual story, but it is. And that in itself is a story we should be paying more attention to.

Of course, Strauss-Kahn may yet turn out to be innocent, and any change in rape laws must always take account of the possibility of the accused being innocent, but this is precisely why rape should be a subject for civilised discussion in parliamentary committee, not for point scoring arguments on the floor of the House and not for television chat shows. Discussions of the latter sort are bound to lead to the issues being confused and distorted. They are distressing for victims of sexual violence to observe (let's not forget that, statistically, that's likely to have included a number of people sitting in the House for Prime Minister's Questions) and they can easily lead to politicians saying things they later regret.

Witness Kenneth Clarke. Nobody seems more surprised than he does by the position he finds himself in today. He did, after all, start out by trying to make a reasonable point: that the issues covered by rape laws are various and that a nuanced approach to sentencing is the most effective way to respond to this. But his attempts to defend himself upon receiving criticism led to him digging himself a deeper and deeper hole, especially in his use of the term 'serious rape' (perhaps akin to the Whoopi Goldberg concept of 'rape rape'), which by default implies that there are types of rape he thinks of as not serious (probably not the case) or, at best, as less serious. Following that up by accusing the Labour Party of whipping up 'false outrage' was his crowning error. The outrage was real and palpable; it behoves a minister to acknowledge such a response even in circumstances where he does not consider it appropriate.

There is background to this. In 2006 the then government commissioned an extensive consultation on sexual offences and how they should be treated in law. After lengthy consideration by committee, some of the resulting recommendations were adopted into law. Others were notably excluded. These included the suggestion that the age of consent should be staggered so that, from the age of fourteen, it is legal for a young person to have sex provided that their partner is not themselves below that age or more than two years older. This would have brought Britain more closely into line with European law and would have tackled an important problem with age of consent laws - that, whilst they are intended to protect children from exploitation by adults, they too often end up criminalising young people who are experimenting together, where there is an equal power relationship and no need to panic about predation.

It's easy to understand why the Labour government ignored this proposal; it would have been a political hot potato. Yet it is precisely in this sort of area that the public is dissatisfied with laws describing rape. As long as somebody is considered old enough to be capable of giving informed consent, and is not under pressure, should sex automatically be classified as rape on equal terms with some of the other cases we could discuss here? This is the sort of issue Mr Clarke appears to have been referring to in his initial statements.

It is all the more regrettable, then, that in attempting to clarify his remarks Mr Clarke starting producing much more problematic examples, for instance claiming that rape committed by a stranger "jumping out of the bushes" should be considered a more serious crime than rape committed by a partner (in fact, victim support organisations generally report that the latter is more damaging because of the breach of trust involved and the fact victims may have no safe space to retreat to). This illustrates muddled thinking on the issue, as does his suggestion that rape is more serious if it involves violence. Rape must be treated equally seriously in cases where victims avoid violence through compliance because otherwise justice is biased toward those who place themselves at increased risk. If prosecutors are unwilling to bring multiple charges (such as, where relevant, GBH alongside rape) then this can be tackled by adding an extra element to the principle charge, as with hate crimes law. In fact, British law already allows for something like this, hence the charge of 'aggravated rape'.

Mr Clarke has spoken out on rape issues before, making equally problematic comments; the fact that he seems to have learned nothing in the interim suggests that this is an area which he is failing to approach with the thoroughness one would hope for in a Justice Secretary. One must also wonder why his party did not nip this in the bud before he spoke out in the House, but then, Clarke's opinions, ill-informed though they are, may not be all that rare within his party (they are sadly not rare in the country as a whole though we must always look to politicians to set a better example and make more effort to educate themselves about the jobs they are required to do). The Conservatives have had several embarrassing episodes over the past few years with prominent members who had to be removed after making unacceptably misogynistic comments, and let's not forget Bill Aitken MSP's inconsiderate suggestion that a woman raped in Glasgow may have been a sex worker (as if, indeed, it would have made the crime any less serious had that been true).

This week the Conservatives have had a double helping of embarrassment in this area. Fortunately for them, fewer people were watching The Vanessa Show, so there has been less of an outcry over Nadine Dorries suggestion that teaching young girls to say no to sex would decrease rates of child abuse - but those comments are, when you think about it, much more serious. Clarke's problem is that he's clumsy and he doesn't understand how rape victims are affected by the experience. Dorries' is that she expects girls to take responsibility for assaults upon them initiated by other people. She is, in effect, blaming children for failing to prevent themselves from being sexually abused.

I'll leave you to imagine the kind of damage that can do. Plenty of people have written eloquently on the subject already, detailing the agony of self-blame they lived with for years before finally realising that they weren't the ones who did something wrong - and, indeed, the struggle to break those habits of self-hatred even after that revelation. What matters here is that children who are suffering now should not be placed in that position by somebody whose job it is to help create the laws which are there to give them recourse.

I suspect Ms Dorries genuinely doesn't understand the full import of what she has said. She has, after all, a history of hurling herself into debates without properly thinking things through first. But this isn't enough to excuse her actions. She, like Clarke, needs to acknowledge her mistakes and make a real effort to understand where she has gone wrong. Only when these two politicians are able to deliver informed apologies should they be considered fit to do their jobs.

Of course, many in the Conservative Party would be delighted if Mr Clarke lost his job and Ed Miliband may have dug a hole for himself by calling for Clarke's resignation. The current minister would almost certainly be replaced by someone further to the right - quite possibly someone with more recidivist views on rape. But this aside, it is time that the Conservatives got their act together in this area and showed willingness, as a party, to do something about it. Proper training for MPs, PPCs and researchers would be a start - if they cannot be trusted to handle themselves sensibly around such sensitive issues, teach them. But please, if you want to avoid regaining that Nasty Party title for reasons you couldn't justify even to yourselves - please, dear Conservatives, do it soon. Hundreds of thousands of people you represent have been victims of rape of sexual assault. They deserve better. We all deserve better. And nobody should be in parliament unless they are willing to make that effort.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

The Liberal Beef

Should the Scottish Liberal Democrats split from their Westminster counterparts? Some party activists have suggested it, but Willie Rennie, currently the only candidate to take over the leadership as Tavish Scott steps down, has said that it won't be his choice. He wants, instead, to work closely with Nick Clegg in an effort to restore the party's fortunes. Meanwhile, Clegg is attempting to assert himself at Downing Street, vocally objecting to proposed restructuring of the NHS and making obscure statements about muscular liberalism. What does this mean? Could it be enough? Just how should the party turn things around after massive losses in Scotland and in the English and Welsh local elections?

The Liberals, of course – to go back to their roots – have been here before, and for similar reasons. Although their 1999 Holyrood coalition with Labour was widely considered a success, the 1977 Lib Lab pact left them reeling, with voters fleeing en masse as it was concluded that a vote for the Liberals was a vote for Labour. Left to carry the can for the failures of the Callaghan-led government, they found it much harder to recover than Labour did, though of course both parties suffered a long period with little power thanks to the success of Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives. Now Clegg's LibDems have found themselves in the same position. Has their attempt to compromise and shore up Cameron for a share of power doomed them to another two decades of unelectability? With the Greens on the rise might they, in fact, find themselves shunted aside permanently?

The difficulty for those who support Willie Rennie's strategy is that the LibDems at Holyrood and the LibDems at Westminster cannot rationally pursue the same things. At Westminster, for as long as the first past the post system is in use (I wouldn't count on it lasting forever; what nobody seems to be pointing out about the recent referendum is that one in three people being unhappy with the voting system is a serious problem) then they will remain the third party. Any chance they might have had to change that passed last year. This isn't all bad. A third party can still exert an influence – either by forming coalition type agreements or by raising a distinctive voice in opposition. It can contribute to committee work and, of course, local politics. But a good policy-based approach to this must be different from that of a party truly readying itself for government.

In Holyrood, by contrast, the situation is wide open. Despite the SNP's massive recent success nobody expects them to dominate in perpetuity. The voting system gives smaller parties advantages they simply don't have a Westminster and coalitions are the norm. The LibDems enjoyed considerably more influence in their previous Holyrood coalition than they now do at Westminster. If they can recover their core vote and make themselves electable again, there is no reason why they couldn't hold out hope of becoming the dominant party in a Scottish government of the future. It may take decades but it's on the cards in a way that is simply not the case down south.

What does this mean for the party as a whole? How can it gear itself up to fight both these battles at once? The key is to concentrate not on policy per se but on the real, underlying liberal agenda. This also has the advantage of clarifying what LibDems stand for and will continue to stand for even when they feel obliged to compromise their policies for political reasons.

So what does 'the liberal agenda' mean today? Does anyone care? Actually, I'd say there's quite a lot of demand for it. To see how this works it's necessary to look not at how the LibDems lost votes in this year's elections but at how Labour lost them in 2010. There were three principal reasons why Labour went under. One, sad to say, was Gordon Brown's personality, compounded by savage attacks from right wing newspapers which immediately saw the advantage in concentrating on people rather than politics. One was the economy, a situation which, to a large extent, they were unable to control. And one was their attitude to civil liberties. It was this which was responsible for the massive shift of Labour votes toward the LibDems; it even caused some to shift directly to the Conservatives. Those who had always prioritised social justice found themselves unable to tolerate any longer the erosion of those civil liberties essential to defending it in the longer term.

It is a sorry fact of British political life that socialism always seems to go hand in hand with authoritarianism; it really doesn't need to be that way. And to an extent, Labour were just tagging along with a shifting international mood, taking the cue from George Bush Jr with his Office of Homeland Security and continually expending police powers. But Britain is not a country that takes that kind of thing lying down. Our democracy hinges on certain principles: the right to freedom of speech; the right to freedom of assembly; the right to freedom of association. The LibDems need to show that they will stand up for those freedoms and that they will treat them not as minor issues, supplementary to big topics like health or education, but as principles that inform everything they do. These are the areas in which they must not compromise. By taking a lead on them, they can recover the respect they once enjoyed as an established political force, emphasising that they are defenders of respected traditions – the perfect way to counter critics who dismiss them as trivial in their concerns and overly focused on untested new ideas.

There is nothing woolly about traditional liberalism, nothing effete about defending the foundations of democracy. David Blunkett's recent characterisation of LibDems as being all about hugging trees is characteristic of where Labour lost the plot on liberal issues; it mistakes aggression for strength. Sure, a government can make itself look tough by setting aside liberal concerns in favour of increased security – the problem is that this does nothing to address the real problems underlying security risks (and there's not much real evidence that it works, either). It's macho nonsense substituted for a real political strategy. A genuinely strong political party doesn't hide behind authoritarian policies but takes the initiative and challenges threatening elements to participate in real discussion – meanwhile enabling ordinary people to enjoy the very freedoms which, by and large, terrorists would be happy to see them lose.

This coalition government, of course, is not strong, and that's undoubtedly one of the reasons why we've seen no meaningful relaxation of Labour's security obsession. But all the panic about anarchists, the attempts to smear organisations like UK Uncut and the massively OTT security attached to events like the royal wedding will only make the government look weaker in the long term. The LibDems are the ones who can lead the way out of this. In doing so, they can demonstrate that they are a party with a distinctive voice. There is a lot of work to be done to undo the damage caused by successive governments and rebuild a liberal society in Britain, but the trend that led to this should not be seen as a reason for despair; it's an opportunity. It's time for the LibDems to stop reacting and start showing moral leadership. This is an area where they can be strong, and informed, and confident, and offer the electorate a real alternative. It's an alternative they are crying out for. It's the substance that was missing from Cleggmania. It can be powerful in opposition just as it can be in government. So the question now is, are they up to the task?

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Holyrood Leadership Blues

In a very long week, even by political standards, Holyrood has witnessed the departure of no fewer than three party leaders. First to announce his resignation was Labour's Iain Gray, who will no doubt fade from political history as quickly as he faded from the minds of voters on election day, though it has to be said that his farewell speech showed a quiet dignity he would have done well to get across earlier. Next came Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott, making the best speech of his life and ready to carry the can so his party can reinvent itself, not just post- electoral losses but post-coalition. And finally, perhaps more surprising than the others, came the resignation of Conservative Annabel Goldie.

Those saying that Patrick Harvie should be nervous would do well to remember that the Greens have convenors instead of leaders, so he's probably safe. Outside Holyrood, efforts are ongoing to persuade George Galloway to resign from himself.

Labour, of course, has plenty of possible choices for Gray's replacement. The LibDems, despite having only five MSPs, are surprisingly well off (my advice would be that they go with Willie Rennie). For the Conservatives, however, things are rather more difficult. Goldie remains a highly respected politician (it's said she'll now stand for the job of presiding officer) and there's really nobody else in the party of that calibre. Top of the running list at present is Murdo Fraser, who has a lot of allies within the party but really doesn't go down well with SNP or LibDem supporters, the two groups from which the Conservatives will be trying to win back votes next time. He doesn't come across well on television and with the increasing use of social media campaigning, any awkward or embarrassing appearances will likely be seen again and again. Whilst he probably has a good chance of winning, he'd be a poor choice.

That leaves fifteen others. Ruth Davidson has suggested she might stand; she comes across as very capable but she has no parliamentary experience and would therefore represent a big risk, so she's probably out. This is a shame as parliament would benefit from more prominent women and most of the others in the Conservative party are worse choices. Mary Scanlon is tainted by her unscientific approach to vaccination issues, something which could easily become politically toxic. Elizabeth Smith showed poor judgement in her response to teenage survivors of the Dunblane shootings and would be too easily smeared. Nanette Milne has impeccable credentials but her political profile is low and, at sixty nine, she's probably too old to take on that level of commitment for what would probably be a minimum of five years.

At least they're better off than the party at Westminster, which has so few suitable elected women that it has had to resort to giving posts to a string of incompetent baronesses. The most recent of these is Angela Browning, who, when last in office, spent her time pushing for an enquiry into the Beast of Bodmin Moor.

Of the women at Holyrood, the best choice would undoubtedly be Margaret Mitchell, who is well established within the party and has considerable experience as an advisor; but she, like Davidson, lacks direct parliamentary experience. It may also be unhelpful that she worked for David McLetchie, the former leader disgraced by an expenses scandal who is, of course, also ruled out as a contender.

There are other Conservative MSPs who couldn't even get a look in. Electing a baronet like Jamie McGrigor as leader would be political suicide given the public's feelings about millionaires in the Tory cabinet down south, and Jackson Carlaw is also ruled out for occupational reasons – you can imagine the headlines that would be generated by his past as a used car salesman. He's also a known racist.

That leaves five possible contenders. John Scott and Gavin Brown are both wholesome enough but are not natural leaders, and with only a small Conservative team in parliament, personality will matter. A relatively safe bet might be former whip Alex Johnstone, whose past involvement with farmers' movements could be useful in helping the party to win back its traditional rural vote; but though he's a good organiser and apparently good at maintaining discipline, he's not the most charismatic prospect for a front line role.

Those remaining – and the only two seen as serious potential competitors for Fraser – are John Lamont and Alex Fergusson. Lamont is young for the role at thirty five but he's bright and energetic. He'd need to lose his nervous smile and stop dressing like an accountant (he's actually a lawyer by trade), but his slight quirkiness could be an advantage, especially in terms of the contrast it presents to the slick dynamism of the Westminster leadership team. A Conservative leader in Scotland needs to be capable of endearing himself personally to a public tense with inherited hostility, and Lamont might just be the man for the job.

Fergusson, meanwhile, certainly doesn't want for authority, having previously served as presiding officer. He too is in a good position to attract the rural vote. His apparently genuine love of curling and country dancing could give the Nationalists a run for their money and he enjoys respect right across the political spectrum. His weakness, in the context of the leadership race, is that he's very much a free thinker – he has ignored the party whip on several occasions and the prospect of him leading the Scottish party may well make his Westminster colleagues nervous.

Which of these two men would be best for the Scottish Conservatives depends on two things: the direction they want to take, and the direction Scotland takes. If they want to push for renewed support in urban areas and reshape their image, they'd be better to go with the youthful Lamont. If they want to build up that old rural loyalty again and create a firm base from which to expand more slowly, Lamont is okay but Fergusson is probably the better choice. If Scotland remains in the United Kingdom, Lamont is likely to maintain a better relationship with Westminster. If it leaves, Fergusson could be well equipped to take the party back to its traditional roots in Scotland, restoring the respect it enjoyed in pre-Thatcher days.

Either way, the choice is a tricky one, and it's likely to impact the tone of Scottish politics beyond the Conservative party itself. But at least the winner will have five years of peace to enjoy before facing off against the SNP in another Scottish election.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

First They Came For The Homosexuals

David Bahati's Anti-Gay Bill has been kicked around the back benches of the Ugandan parliament for two years now. Despite widespread condemnation and campaigns against it, it has remained viable; and by the time you read this, it may already have become law. But why now? The answer is one that should remind us all, regardless of sexuality or personal moral beliefs, why lgbt equality is a cornerstone of wider human rights.

To understand the development of this bill it's important to understand a few factors about Ugandan history and culture. Chief among this is the poor access to education faced by many Ugandan people and the prevaling awareness, despite this, that the country has been screwed over economically by Western interests (though several other problems contribute to its financial difficulties today). This means that people are largely unaware of historic attitudes to homosexuality in the area (a fact also true of British people if we go back more than a few hundred years). Whereas same sex relationships existed in the past in various socially accepted forms, it is widely believed that traditional Ugandan society was intolerant of homosexuality, and that it is a form of behaviour that was imported from the West. This means it is associated with decadence and exploitation.

Where Ugandan children from poor families do have access to education, it is generally through the Church. Missionary groups from America provide many schools and their importance in improving children's prospects cannot be underestimated. A considerable number of them, however, perpetuate existing ideas about homosexuality and describe it as an abomination. It has been suggested that this is a political strategy, a means whereby the West can play out its culture wars at a distance. In this case, the word 'war' threatens to lose its metaphorical status.

The Anti-Gay Bill emerged from a context in which homosexuality was stigmatised but ordinary Ugandans were not yet ready to consider taking aggressive action against it. What changed this was a religiously-inspired crusade by Martin Ssempa, a pastor whose tactics have since been widely discredited within the country but whose influence remains. His strategy involved positioning gay people as a threat to children (this, of course, worked for many decades in Britain). He also showed graphic videos of certain types of gay activity and focused on presenting anal sex as damaging and disease-spreading. This created an apparent emergency which an ambitious politician like Bahati could easily recognise as an opportunity.

That was two years ago. An international outcry at the time – hard won, because much of the mainstream media chose to ignore what was happening – eventually persuaded President Yoweri Museveni to withdraw his support and the bill was quietly sidelined 'into committee', as civil servants put it. This didn't stop a vicious newspaper campaign against lgbt people (though Uganda's rather more effective version of the PCC reined it in to an extent); and it didn't stop riots, occasional murders, or the exhumation of the bodies of gay people so that they could be dumped outside relatives' houses – but it did mean that the state itself stood apart from the violence. Until now.

What has changed? The answer is, again, rather complicated, but it centres on an increasing shift toward the kind of contempt for human rights shown in the bill itself. If we look at the bill in more detail we can see that it was never intended simply as an instrument for criminalising lgbt people. Because it's very difficult to prove a person's sexual orientation – certainly if they haven't had anal sex (which supporters assume, incorrectly, isn't practised by straight people) – homosexuality is something that anybody can be accused of. This provides an easy way of framing and disposing of political opponents (or those who simply fall foul of corrupt officials). And there's more. Simply knowing that somebody else is lgbt and failing to report it can lead to a prison sentence. This would criminalise parents who fail to turn in their children, but it is also, again, an easy means whereby to frame people.

The Anti-Gay Bill was always an attractive political tool to corrupt factions within government. What has changed is that the Ugandan government has now reached a point where it has more need of such measures to control an unhappy populace, and where it also needs a distraction. Those opposing the bill around the world need to think carefully about what that means.Yes, it is important to challenge the bill, but how many other stories do you see about Uganda in the Western news? With the focus on this piece of legislation it is all the easier for Museveni's government to get away with the other human rights abuses it is perpetuating and to keep foreign eyes off the protests and riots. Because ultimately, the suffering of lgbt people is unlikely to lead to sanctions or other serious forms of intervention.

When you want to be free to deal with a population using violence, you start by dehumanising them. That was easy for the Ugandan government and its allies to do with gays. Once that happened, ordinary people became more comfortable with the idea of lynch mobs. Some will have joined in, perhaps thinking they had to do it to protect their children, and once one has been involved in something like that it is harder to convincingly express moral outrage when one sees the same tactics used against other groups. Dehumanisation spreads. Police officers, too, become more comfortable with using violence against the population they serve. Yes, lgbt people are at serious risk in Uganda, but not just because of their sexuality or gender identity (little distinction is made there between the two); they are at risk because all Ugandan citizens are at risk in a rapidly deteriorating situation.

Yoweri Museveni has been president since 1986, popular partly because of the role he played in taking down the tyrranical dictator Idi Amin. Yet things have deteriorated so badly now that Ugandan sources are beginning to compare the two. There's talk of serious financial corruption and despite the country's new-found oil wealth little money seems to be reaching the country's poor. It's a difficult situation which requires a hard line. The Anti-Gay Bill is a good tool for the job at hand. Its day has come.

So what can concerned people in the West do? Don't neglect the petitions and the writing to representatives, but remember that there's a lot more to express concern about than the fate of lgbt people alone. Ugandan lgbt activists are now standing side by side with others defending wider human rights issues.

Read the African press. Follow what is happening in Uganda. And write to the Ugandan government to let them know what you think.

President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni
State House Nakasero

Prime Minister Apollo Nsibambi

Chair of the Uganda Human Rights Commission
Med Kaggwa

Remember, this is something you can do regardless of the passage of the Anti-Gay Bill. This is something we need to keep up. Because after they come for the homosexuals, they come for other people; and when this sort of process gets started, the human consequences can be catastrophic.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Minority Report

Two days on from Scotland's election, a fair bit has already been written about the gender imbalance in parliament. Only a third of MSPs now are women. Personally this doesn't worry me too much - below a third and I'd start to worry, but variation to that degree is, I think, something we can expect to see from time to time without any special cause. (Of course, only time will tell if it sometimes varies in the other direction.) Any concern I might have is further mitigated by the calibre of our female MSPs. With women like Nicola Sturgeon, Annabel Goldie and Margo MacDonald around, what women may lack in numbers they make up for in talent and force of personality.

What we should perhaps be more worried about is the shortage of representation of key minority groups in parliament. The new intake gives us only two non-white MSPs - 1.5% - whereas 11% of Scotland's population falls into this group. Of the two, one (Humza Yousaf) is only twenty five but already has some impressive achievements to his name and seems a promising new talent. The other is Hanzala Malik. Those familiar with him from his work on Glasgow City Council are not exactly expecting great things. Of course, they shouldn't be obliged to carry any extra burden beyond what we ordinarily expect of MSPs, but the fact remains that young people will look to them for an example if their first impression of parliament is that it's a white people's club they have little hope of joining.

The same issue applies to openly lgbt people. There were four in the last parliament and, so far as I can discern, five in this one (two have left). Patrick Harvie is, of course, a formidable (though very likeable) presence and punches well above his weight, being particularly good at courting media attention, whilst the SNP's Marco Biagi seems likely to achieve big things. Still, their numbers fall well short of the Westminster government's estimate that 6% of the population is lgbt, a figure considered by many lgbt groups and academics to be a considerable underestimate. Again, the impression is given that parliament is for a particular type of person and, among other things, that person is straight.

62% of MSPs are (or pretend to be) straight white men.

As far as age variation goes, the Scottish parliament is fairly impressive, with around 3% of MSPs in their twenties, 12% in their thirties, 30% in their forties, 33% in their fifties and the rest older. That there are no truly elderly MSPs probably reflects on the youth of the parliament itself; the oldest politicians in any such institution tend to be long-serving incumbents. At any rate, this matches up fairly well against positions in industry and academia with comparable levels of responsibility, suggesting that age discrimination isn't something we need to be concerned about.

With this balance in mind, however, it's all the more remarkable how few disabled MSPs there are. Holyrood just got its first blind MSP in Dennis Robertson and Margo MacDonald has spoken extensively about her experiences with Parkinson's disease; there are also a few MSPs with minor sensory and mobility impairments; but this is in stark contrast to the 14% of the general population identified as disabled in official statistics, especially allowing for the fact that people are more likely to be disabled from their forties onwards. Of course, not all disabled people are capable of working outside their own homes, or at all, but it's still evident that something is wrong here.

What can and should be done about this? "It ought to be about merit," many people protest, quite understandably. Of course there is absolutely nothing wrong with any individual MSP being straight, white, male and able-bodied, but when most of them are, that's a big problem. It means that parliament lacks the experience and expertise to be properly representative; it lacks the depth of perspective available to more balanced groups. Parliament is poorer for it - we are all poorer for it - and to make things worse, it's a self-reinforcing problem.

This applies for two reasons. Firstly, as mentioned earlier, young people considering careers in politics are often put off if they perceive people like themselves as being excluded. Secondly, those from minority groups who do want to give it a try are less likely to have useful social contacts who can help them along the way. It would be nice to think that, in modern Scotland, people would socialise across the boundaries or things like race, sexual orientation and disability/able-bodied status, but research demonstrates that this isn't the case; or that, at any rate, it is proportionally a much less successful form of networking than that conducted within such groups. This is something which, one hopes, will change in time, but it may need a few nudges to do so.

This brings us to the big question: what can be done to remedy the imbalances in parliament? Many people shrink in horror from the term positive discrimination, yet the example of Westminster demonstrates its success - numbers of women in the House of Commons have increased dramatically since it was introduced on certain party shortlists. The counter-argument to this is that rushing women through the system means many reach positions of power despite a shortage of experience or talent, and this is indeed a problem, but the short term difficulty (along with the short term unpleasantness of any form of discrimination) must be balanced against the long term gains - the generational difference that is made when newcomers are able to find the role models and make the connections that would otherwise have been unavailable to them. There is, after all, no reason why these newcomers should be lacking in ability.

If it is used, positive discrimination has to be a party thing - it is not something that parliament as an institution can do. This means that parties have to take responsibility for the imbalances among their own MSPs. The Greens have the best record for this (taking into account their candidates as well), but none of the other major parties in Scotland is significantly worse than its opponents. All seem to want to move forward and address the problem. It is a matter, for each one, of figuring out how best to do so within its own party structures.

One final point - it is a notable characteristic of parties which employ positive discrimination to advance women that their ambitious men complain about having to work harder to get to the top. From a party perspective, this means additional gains - not only a better gender balance but more capable, more accomplished male candidates. Any smart party will therefore ask not how can we make things easier for women? but how can we make things harder for men? A tough, competitive party environment that doesn't let anybody cruise by on traditional advantages will result in stronger politicians getting to the top and should improve a party's chances of electoral success.

Friday, 6 May 2011

O Labour, Where Art Thou?

After a landslide victory for the SNP, the loss of much of Labour's heartland and the near defeat of Labour leader Iain Gray, the red flag is at half mast in Scotland today. Where now for Scottish Labour? Can they ever really hope to recover from this? If so, over what timescale, and what will they have to accomplish in the meantime?

Labour's problem is a complex one, and the first thing they need to realise is that it is their problem. Their habit of putting the blame on other people has reached ridiculous proportions in the course of this election and the problems it causes are manifold. For one thing, it directly reduces people's sympathy for them – they are seen as bitchy rivals and sore losers. For another, it often puts them at odds with the popular perception of events to the extent that they seem deluded, which hardly inspires confidence in their policies (a shame as they have some good stuff there). Beyond this, it simply stops then from devising and implementing solutions.

Iain Gray's conciliatory speech the morning after went some way toward tackling this problem, albeit a little late. It suggests that there is room, even among senior Labour politicians, for a new line to be taken; but, of course, it has to be about more than talk. And the message has to be communicated throughout the party. Today there are still numerous labour activists insisting that the people of Scotland have made a terrible mistake and don't realise what they've done. They don't seem to realise that patronising the electorate like this played a significant part in costing them the election.

Alongside a shift in how they treat their opponents and the electorate, Labour need to change the way they treat themselves. Some of their people are complaining, now, about a press campaign against Iain Gray. Is that true? I'm not sure. When I wrote my own piece about Iain Gray it wasn't intended as an attack, it was intended as a warning. Seeing what was happening to the party I felt it necessary to speak out, like a small boy warning an emperor about the scantiness of his attire. It should have been obvious to Labour that Gray was a liability. Did they really fail to notice? Or is it simply that the pattern of cliques and alliances within the party made it impossible for them to do anything about it?

One of the difficulties for the Labour party is that its internal structure makes it easy for established cliques to dominate at both the local and national level. Despite the self-titled 'reformers' who have been at the helm over the past twenty five years, little has really been done about this. With the exception of those able to take advantage of positive discrimination lists, anybody wanting to move up in the party hierarchy has to win the support of a committee at every stage. It's at the grassroots stage that this is most problematic, because success in that context requires popularity within a small group of people; it requires being able to fit in socially in a very particular social context. This ensures that local parties keep on putting forward the same sorts of candidates generationally. A little further up in the hierarchy, where it's important to win wider approval, the party effectively selects for candidates skilled at flattery. Some of those who are merely talented inevitably fall by the wayside, but the bigger problem inherent in this system is that it breeds politicians who, for all their internal squabbles, are strongly inclined to flatter those in power and to root out dissent. There is a shortage of serious internal debate. It's too easy for those who can establish themselves socially to cling on even when they are obviously untalented or well past their sell by date.

This is not to pretend that power struggles within the party cannot be vicious, nor that there is a complete stifling of discussion (the Conservative party has far more problems of the latter sort), but it does mean that Labour tends to be slow to let go of poorly thought out policy. And policy development also suffers within this system, as it is formed through a series of committee decisions in which social priorities lead to overcooked, bland results.

Take the party's 2011 election manifesto. It promises a consultation on same sex marriage. On the face of it this may not seem like a big deal, but now let's put it in context. Any intent to consider same sex marriage is going to put off a certain set of voters. This needn't be a problem for a party if it wins over enough pro-lgbt voters to compensate. But by suggesting that equality should be up for debate, this stated policy puts off those voters too. It's a masterpiece of self-harm. Now consider that the actual plan behind the party is to consult not on whether or not same sex marriage should happen, but on how it should be structured, and the circle of fail is complete. The committee process has ensured that a potentially useful policy appeals to nobody.

This isn't to say that parties shouldn't operate internal democracy. Policies, however, need to be drawn up clearly by unbiased people who know what they're doing. They can then be submitted to a vote as finished products not to be compromised further. The same thing needs to happen with manifesto commitments and, more generally, with the party's image. Decisions need to be clear and they need to be informed. In other words, the party needs management. And that management must be free from the fear of dismissal for treading on people's toes.

In the immediate term, Labour can benefit from making stronger decisions about candidate selection that focus more on the preferences of the electorate and less on popularity within the party. But in the longer term, only structural changes will help it to produce the policy, the materials and the candidates necessary to ensure electoral success. And policy is an area where it needs to do still more. In this case it needs to understand that following the preferences of the electorate is not a solution. I met one Labour candidate, elected today, who told me “Sometimes we have to do things just because that's what the public want.” Um, no. That's never a good reason to do anything. Did your teacher never ask you at school, if your friends told you to jump out of a window, would you do it? (Many children's honest answer to this would be 'yes', but adults should know better.)

The policy that particular candidate was referring to was Labour's approach to knife crime, and it's another excellent example of how to do these things wrong. Knife crime in certain parts of Scotland is a really nasty problem, and it's understandable that Labour thought a) action was needed and b) action would be popular. Unfortunately, their hasty attempt to devise a solution was fraught with problems and was substantiated with really dodgy, misinterpreted statistics. As a consequence what ought to have been a vote winner became a liability.

Populism is by nature fickle and can easily lead an over-eager party into a trap. Pursuing it also makes the party look fickle. Yes, it is important to be seen to listen, but if you give the impression you'll do anything you're told, nobody will have any confidence in your ability to govern. You shouldn't be chasing other people's agendas – you should be setting your own. Take the initiative. Show strength, show confidence, frame the debate in your own terms. Just doing what you think other people want, like sniping at the policies of others, does nothing to substantiate your own identity. People will not vote for you if they can no longer believe in who you are.

As I write, John McTernan is on BBC Newsnight continuing to get it wrong. Labour needed to challenge the SNP on law and order, he says, missing the fact that a move in that direction inevitably placed Labour to the right of a party they were calling the Tartan Tories. His reasoning is that “The SNP will start to look weak” in this area. Um, sorry mate, but they've been in power for four years; if they were going to look weak on that, in the eyes of the electorate, they'd do so already. Ergo this was the wrong area in which to tackle them. Ought to be obvious...

So much about this mess ought to be obvious that it's really hard to figure out just how Labour managed to miss it. What matters now, though, is that the party's more clueful activists take control and get it sorted out. It's going to take a while to do the job and it won't be pleasant – 'cleansed with fire' is a phrase I've heard a lot from the activists themselves – but hard work and sacrifice now will be worth it in the long term. Labour still has some talented people. It still has a core identity worth fighting for. And it still has a connection with the people of Scotland that could, in time, see the red rose flower again.

The Morning After

The sun is now rapidly climbing in the sky. It's morning – a good twenty two hours since I last got any sleep – and it's been quite a night. If you've seen any news then you'll know by now that the SNP have made historic gains in the Scottish elections. Labour have struggled, with their leader coming very close to losing his seat, and the Liberal Democrats have suffered a crushing defeat, losing their deposits in at least thirty seats.

So what happened?

It's interesting to see all the speculation on this topic, much of it from outsiders with a poor understanding of how Scottish politics works. Scottish nationalism, in particular, is often misunderstood, and that hasn't been helped by Labour attempts to tarnish the Scottish National Party in the run-up to this election. Although right wing extremist parties do exist in Scotland, they have only a handful of supporters, and the SNP is something very different. Scottish politics tends toward the centre left and the SNP fits fairly comfortably into this position.

If there's one guaranteed set of bad guys as the Scottish electorate perceive things, it's the Conservatives (bear in mind that during Margaret Thatcher's rule, unemployment in some parts of Glasgow was as high as 85%). Labour have therefore endeavoured to brand the SNP as 'tartan Tories'. They've had a boost in this regard thanks to the Sun's support of Alex Salmond, but still the illusion has only really confused outsiders. Most Scottish voters see the SNP as occupying similar ground to Labour, or perhaps being slightly to the left. The Sun's support is simply about selling papers – and, perhaps, about delivering what has been one of several minor but notable kicks to the Tories, reminders of what they might have to lose if Jeremy Hunt doesn't give Sun owner Murdoch the deal he wants over BskyB.

There has been a long tradition in Scottish politics of holding the SNP at bay using scare tactics. The prospect of independence has been heralded as a threat, and simultaneously the SNP used to be accused of being so single-minded that they couldn't competently pursue any other policy. This illusion was shattered when they did manage to take power in the 2007 Scottish election, forming a minority administration. Although they didn't get everything right in the years that followed (what government does?), nothing exploded and the country's economy didn't fall to pieces – they were, in a word, competent. That was all they needed to be. They proved that people didn't need to be afraid to vote for them, that they were a real choice, and that was all that really mattered.

The reasons for that lie elsewhere. The legacy of Conservative action in Scotland, especially urban Scotland, when combined with the first past the post system, meant that most Scottish people felt for a very long time that voting Labour was their only option. This became a generational thing, an emotional thing. Loyalty to Labour was often intense. But as any relationship advisor will tell you, obsessive love can become unhealthy and can leave one vulnerable to abuse. Just as the Conservatives didn't show much care for Scotland because they knew they wouldn't get votes there anyway, Labour stopped caring because they knew they would. They took Scotland for granted. They got away with it – but only as long as people believed they had no choice.

What happened last night for the SNP is in many ways similar to what happened in 2010 for the LibDems across the UK – vast numbers of people seizing their chance for change. Unlike the LibDems, however, SNP voters didn't seriously have to worry that by taking that chance they would split the vote and let in a party they truly despised. This wasn't because of differences in the voting system – the Additional Member System which Scotland uses doesn't make much difference in that regard. Rather, it was because the Conservative vote was already too low to represent a danger. Those hoping for an SNP victory had nothing to lose.

It's worth noting that, independence aside, there isn't really a great deal of difference between the SNP and Labour at a policy level. They frequently steal policies from one another and bicker over who had them first. Even when independence is factored into the equation is doesn't make a lot of difference, in part because many in the Labour party favour extensive further devolution and in part because most Scottish voters don't believe a referendum – all a Scottish government could constitutionally do about the issue – would result in the choice of independence, regardless of the SNP's overall popularity.

Is this belief correct? That's less clear. Certainly, most Scots reject the idea of independence when it's proposed outright. Issue by issue, however, they are likely to agree that Scottish control is needed. This suggests that the success or failure of a referendum would depend on exactly what the question was and how it was promoted. The SNP's decision to hold off a referendum until the second half of this parliament is an interesting one, suggesting that they believe support for it will grow. This may very well be the case if the current coalition government, with its policy of cuts, remains in power at Westminster; but the situation there is volatile to say the least (Ed Miliband says his party is now on an election footing), and it's hard to say how things might develop if the coalition collapsed.

Given a situation in which the SNP were starting to gain ground in the polls, in the run-up to this election, Labour, confused, panicked. They didn't know quite what was happening so they did the only thing they could think of and resorted to the scare tactics that had always worked for them. The problem is that people no longer believed in the danger they were being cautioned against, so instead of reacting with trepidation, they reacted with anger. As Labour's campaign grew more negative (and increasingly seemed to parody itself), more voters were put off them. They read that reliance on old tactics as symptomatic of arrogance. Labour didn't know that they were really on the verge of being dumped, so they became more possessive, which only made the voters want to get further away from them.

In this context, and given the collapse of the LibDem vote caused by resentment of the Westminster coalition, the only real surprise is that the scale of the SNP's impending landslide didn't become apparent sooner. In simple terms, the Scottish people have had enough. They want out of the old politics. That doesn't mean they're wedded to the SNP now, and in future there will be everything to play for. It does mean that they will not vote for a party which they don't believe treats them with respect. No more loyalty. No more love. Scotland has grown up, and whatever direction it ultimately chooses, it is ready to decide its own future.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Electoral Underdogs

A lot has been written about the big five parties in the Scottish elections: Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and the Greens. But what about the minority parties and the independents? There are a considerable number of them standing across Scotland. Some of the candidates are well known names; a few might even get elected. Others will be lucky if their own families vote for them. Who are they, why do they do it, and what does their presence have to say about Scottish politics?

There are some names here that will be familiar to you no matter where you live. UKIP have a presence in Scotland, as do the BNP, though, ironically, both are frequently subject to aggressive suggestions that they should "go back to England" when on the campaign trail. Scotland has a Pirate Party which will be campaigning in the western part of the country, looking to secure support for a civil liberties agenda - it's unlikely that the marvellously named Finlay Archibald will actually be elected but a large Pirate vote could have an impact on decisions taken in the next Parliament by way of showing where public sympathies lie. In northern areas where voting Pirate is not an option, there's a Liberal Party (distinct from the LibDems) which offers traditional liberal policies together with a left-of-centre social agenda.

There is also a Scottish Communist Party, apparently enjoying a minor resurgence in support after the election of a right wing government at Westminster, but its focus in this election is primarily on campaigning against public service cuts - a practical way to use a minority voice in parliament, perhaps, but not distinctive enough as an agenda to give it much chance of getting one. Suffering from a similar problem are the Scottish Socialist Party and Socialist Party Scotland, the remnants of a group which enjoyed brief success in the early years of the Scottish parliament but has since fallen prey to infighting with sympathisers left unsure who to vote for. The iconic figure of Tommy Sheridan is, of course, absent from the fray this time, being detained at Her Majesty's pleasure following a high-profile perjury trial, but his Solidarity Party will be led by his wife Gail. Whatever you think of Tommy, he was always a fantastic orator; the missus may have the tan but she's shown little evidence of having the talent.

One thing that unites many of those on the left is George Galloway; there is massive opposition to voting for him. Galloway, who ousted Oona King in London with his Respect party and who will be standing on an anti-cuts, anti-war ticket, is widely regarded as a publicity-seeking opportunist more interested in satisfying his own ego than helping his constituents, and there are rumours of dodgy connections to the Iranian government. Galloway is, however, a colourful figure (the image of him wearing a leotard and pretending to be a cat is, once seen, distressingly difficult to erase from one's brain), and he's bound to attract sympathy from some.

In the other corner, with candidates standing across all eight Scottish regions, the Scottish Christian Party is presenting itself as a serious player, though polling figures do little to support this. Its slogan is 'Proclaiming Christ's Lordship', which you would think it could do without the need for seats in parliament, and its manifesto makes a lot of rather vague promises about Biblically-inspired policy (ignoring the fact that the Bible is frequently interpreted, by Christians, in very different ways). Its policies are a curious mixture of apparent concern about civil liberties with an aggressively punitive approach to tackling crime and passionate commitments to keeping the GMT time zone and protecting us all from the dangers of overgrown hedges. Meanwhile, the smaller Christian People's Alliance, which struggled to find candidates for the two regions it is contesting, wishes primarily to challenge the perceived creeping secularisation of Scotland, which it compares to the actions of the Taliban. It is also concerned about social justice issues, especially in relation to housing.

As you might expect, the issue of Scottish nationalism also attracts political forces from outside the mainstream, but you may wish to approach them with caution. Intensely pro-Scottish but anti-SNP, the Scottish Homeland Party seems to want to take advantage of desire for independence without directly addressing it. Its social policies may seem appealing to many and it explicitly bills itself as non-racist (perhaps a warning sign) but there are some unpleasant implications made about Muslims on its website - this would seem to be the non-inclusive form of nationalism with which outsiders sometimes inaccurately associate the SNP. Meanwhile, the Scottish Unionist Party is not only anti-independence but actively campaigns for the dissolution of the Scottish parliament, arguing that power should instead be distributed on a regional basis; it is standing in the central belt.

This leaves the one-candidate Land Party, whose main argument is for a Land Value Tax (also proposed by the Greens and increasing attracting support from economists); and the independents. Of these, Margo MacDonald, formerly of the SNP, looks likely to win her seat. Much-loved locally, she has been a strong advocate on feminist and disability issues, and though much of her work has been controversial she enjoys widespread respect even among her opponents. She's standing on the Lothian list alongside Merv Brown, a former soldier who has dedicated much of his life to working with homeless people and is standing an (another) anti-cuts agenda. Ken O'Neill, also on this list, says he's standing on a distinctly different ticket, but it seems to be much the same thing; what distinguishes him is his determination to promote the Lothians, which would presumably mean more centralisation in Edinburgh.

On the Central list, Hugh O'Donnell combines a pro-business agenda with a strong commitment on access to education and an interest in disability issues; his manifesto is laid out in an unusually sober way for an independent and it's difficult to see why he isn't standing with a party, giving him some real chance of success, though perhaps his principles get in the way of that. Glaswegians have the option of voting for Caroline Johnstone, who shares Labour's concerns about knife crime but is considerable to the right when it comes to more general criminal justice issues. Her policies on business and education are determined but vague and she combines concern for the disabled, carers and the elderly with a populist commitment to tackling those nasty welfare scroungers (how she would identify them is not covered). Finally, on the West of Scotland list, there's Richard Vassie, who thinks education and employment and the NHS are important (hands up if you don't) but who doesn't seem to have any actual policies, laying out his website as if he's applying for an ordinary managerial job.

There are also several independent candidates standing in constituencies. I hesitate to name all of these because, whilst it's always entertaining to laugh at bizarre policies which have no chance of becoming law, I get the impression that some of them might actually be mentally ill. The system of deposits in elections was established to discourage people from standing on a trivial basis but, of course, it doesn't discourage obsessives whose commitment to their delusions is so intense that they are ready to dedicate all their resources to doing what they believe is the right thing.

Some independents, however, may be worth considering, depending on your individual concerns. George Rice is standing in Dumbarton defend the Vale of Level hospital; he acknowledges that he doesn't have much experience but he is educated and seems to have thought about things. Marie Boulton in Aberdeen South & North Kincardine and Alan Haigh in Midlothian North and Musselburgh both have fairly well thought-out policies across a range of issues and are standing because they feel established politicians have been letting people down. And Billy Fox in the Shetland Islands has no manifesto as such but is standing on a locally-focused environmentalist ticket. All sound reasons or raising an independent voice, even if they're unlikely to be heard by many.

Their chances, however, are significantly better than they would be if they were standing at Westminster. Scotland's proportional electoral system makes it much easier for smaller parties, and even individuals, to influence politics, as the Scottish Greens have demonstrated. This has yet to lead to any of the tyranny-of-the-minority desperate deal-brokering that seems to feature prominently in the nightmare of those who dislike proportional representation, but it has broadened the dialogue that goes on across our nation, enriching the debate. The obviously delusional candidates don't tend to get very far. Unlike Westminster, our parliament has yet to include a member who believes that blood won't clot at the full moon.

Scottish politics, for all its disparate voices, is much more about cooperation and working together for the good of the country than Westminster tends to be. That may not be apparent during the current fury of electoral sparring, but things will settle down soon enough, and we're likely to see a minority government which, with the support of smaller parties, can still take our country forward. As a diverse country, we should celebrate the enthusiasm of the small parties and independents, even if some among them might inspire us to bang our heads off walls. They are, after all, illustrative of a level of interest in politics that is vital to a truly health democracy.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Democratic Alternatives

May people find themselves a bit lost when it comes to politics. Awareness of this is a good start, of course, especially if you're being bombarded with arguments that seem convincing but you can't be sure of the facts behind them. Most people in the UK vote once every five years and do nothing intentionally political otherwise, so it can be hard to get up to speed when the big moment comes, even if you're genuinely interested and committed to getting it right.

This means that ordinary elections can present enough of a puzzle. Along comes something like the AV referendum and you're understandably flummoxed. Outside of political and academic circles, few people have previously given AV much thought. How does it work? I'm not going to go into that here, but I recommend you check out this site, put together by a statistician who knows his stuff - it's one of the very few politically neutral ones out there.

What I'm interested in looking at is the way this issue has been distorted and manipulated - the way that political self-interest from various groups has interfered with your right to receive the clear information on which you might make a decision. Chris Huhne, an advocate of the Yes campaign, is so incensed about this that he brought it up in Cabinet today and apparently caused quite a fuss - everyone though cabinet ministers talking back to the prime Minister had gone out with John Major. But of course it's not only the No campaign who have been up to mischief.

Let's get some facts straight from the start:-

AV will not cost 250M. This figure has been calculated by including the cost of the referendum, which we're paying for anyway.

AV will not lead to losers winning. In most cases it won't make any difference to the result. Where it does, it will simply prioritise candidates most people think are fairly good over candidates some people think are excellent but others loathe.

Voting for AV will not make a horse cry.

It is not better to be gunned down on a beach in Normandy than to live in a country with an FPTP voting system.

Voting for AV will not let in the BNP.

Voting against AV will not let in the BNP.

You do not have to choose between AV and the lives of children.

Dinosaurs are cool. Lay off dinosaurs.

Right, that's that out of the way. The question is, how have these lies been allowed to propagate? Most of them have done so insidiously, through the use of hint, suggestions and images that give us a certain impression - sometimes subconsciously - without overtly stating anything that isn't true. Some have come straight out and declared themselves. They may yet be subject to legal challenges, but by then, of course, the vote will be over and they will have done their job. Any fines will be trivial to the campaigners. Because this isn't a battle between political parties it's difficult to punish anyone effectively over the longer term.

Not a battle between parties? But wait! I hear you say. Isn't the No campaign funded almost exclusively by Conservative Party donors? Aren't the LibDems entirely pro-AV? Well, that's largely true, but the Labour Party is divided pretty neatly down the middle, and there are outliers in both camps. These actually provide the most interesting case studies. They are, after all, putting their political careers on the line. This is a fairly good guarantee that they actually believe what they're saying and are not just trying to rip you off. David Owen, for instance, is against AV despite his longstanding support for electoral reform (he wants a proportional system, which AV is not, but which it could arguably lead to). Tory activist John Strafford is pro-AV and has accused his party of stifling internal debate on the issue. You'll note the difference between their arguments, based on political reasoning, and the arguments of the official campaigns, based on appealing to the emotions.

One unpleasant tactic used by both campaigns is stigma. Each posits its favoured system as so irrefutably superior that only a really stupid person would fail to support it, and you don't want to be stupid, do you? Of course, the best way to be stupid is to allow yourself to be blindsided by this kind of tactic. A smart person always asks questions, especially when things are presented as obvious. Given that, it's depressing how successful this campaigning tactic seems to have been. Notably, it's most useful to whichever side of an argument is in the lead - in this case the No campaign - because most people are more confident that they've picked the smart side to be on if it's also the most popular. A smaller proportion of people will go the other way and feel happier siding with the underdog in this kind of case because it gives them a sense of being part of an intellectual elite. Something to bear in mind during this kind of debate is that this, in the end, is just a voting system, and whichever way you make your choice it won't make you Einstein. Don't give way to flattery or threats of humiliation - they're insincere or bullying and you as a voter deserve to be treated with more respect.

Given the context in which there is so little to lose, each side has boiled down its campaigning to the sort of shock headlines and sensationalism one might expect from the shoddiest of red top newspaper stories. It's like a distilled form of what journalism and marketing perpetually threaten to become, and it should function as a cautionary example for anyone who thinks we don't need press regulation or more effective media funding models. Exaggeration has reached a point where the truth is at best distorted if not completely lost. The result is something almost anti-democratic in nature, the antithesis of what a referendum ought to be about.

There is no point in having one person one vote (which, incidentally, is what happens under AV too) unless people are adequately educated and able to make informed decisions. Providing this education is the duty of the state. In this case, however, the state seems to have absented itself entirely, giving the impression that the larger party in government (a different thing entirely) is somehow fulfilling its role by defending the status quo. Of course the Conservative Party has a right to take a position on AV but it is important for voters to realise that there is no 'official' position, no state sanctioned proper way to vote. Tradition doesn't come into it. There is simply one system, or another system. Forget about the horses and the dinosaurs and the sick children.

So how should you vote? I'm not going to tell you to choose yes or no - you need to make the decision that's right for you. Don't be ashamed of voting in a self-interested way. That's your democratic right. If you're a Conservative supporter, it's perfectly reasonable to support a system (FPTP) that favours them. Likewise if you're uncomfortable with multi-party politics or you like the idea of strong leadership within parties, with MPs who stick to the party line. Alternatively, if you want to be able to vote for the party of your choice without 'wasting' your vote in a constituency where it isn't very popular - for instance, if you live in a Labour/Conservative marginal and want to vote LibDem but don't want to risk letting the Conservatives in - then AV may be for you. And as far as short term ramifications go, you can look at it like this: a vote against AV will hurt Nick Clegg whilst a vote for AV will hurt David Cameron (the coalition takes a boot up the arse either way but of course both parties have vowed it will carry on regardless).

Vote for what is best from your perspective. But please don't vote against AV because it seems too complicated, or for AV because some famous people said you should. Give yourself more credit than that. This isn't really very complicated and those who claim it is are only doing so to pull the wool over your eyes. This is your vote, and your democracy, and your choice.

Monday, 2 May 2011

The Letter of the Lore

Just three days to go until the election here in Scotland. So far I've ignored the leaflets that have come through my door - I'd already read the party manifestos and interviewed several of the candidates, so they hardly seemed important - but today I decided it was time for me to take a look at them. I have, after all, been commenting on the various election broadcasts over on my Twitter account; and let me tell you, that's been a depressing process.

Whatever you do for a living, I'm sure you can sympathise with that feeling of discomfort at watching somebody else do it badly. I'm a writer and my partner Stuart is a photographer, so election leaflets often instil in us a sense of professional dread. This is accompanied by a desire to take certain candidates under our wings and fix their problems for them because, damn it, nobody should be presented that badly... but of course, where that would involve helping out those whose policies we are also at odds with, it quickly becomes uncomfortable.

As is always the case in these situations, some parties have been trying harder than others, and some have had more advantages than others. I haven't seen a single Green Party leaflet despite having heard in painstaking detail about how they were made and distributed, a process designed to be as environmentally friendly as possible. Perhaps they biodegraded naturally before they got to me. Alternatively, recycled paper may simply have made them extra tasty to our house rabbit, Murphy. He eats quite a lot of unwanted mail. Last month he particularly enjoyed ripping up the BNP leaflet, with the result that I am not able to give it a proper review here. I recall it featuring one of those wide-eyed little girls ubiquitous in yoghurt adverts, fortifying my subconscious association of the BNP with yeast infections. I wondered offhand where they got the girl's photograph from, as they have in the past faced several legal challenges due to helping themselves to images of folk not in the least desirous of being associated with them. I suppose the upside of this is that one thing we don't have to worry about with the BNP is the encroachment of overstringent copyright law.

Also on what seems to be recycled paper, and therefore lucky to have survived are the SNP's leaflets. One features a smiling Nicola Sturgeon; the other, bigger one (naturally), Alex Salmond doing his serious face. The former is addressed to Donald, the latter to Karine (nobody knowingly submits ammunition like this to me). I wonder vaguely if they're intended to have sex appeal. I do hope not. I am amused to see how they emphasise that they are an experienced government, a gentle swipe at those who, last time around, said they could never be trusted with power because they'd never had power. Um...

Anyway, Nicola's leaflet presses a lot of key buttons - there's emphasis on words like 'fair', 'Scotland' and 'future'. Nice use of lists, rhythmic language, party colours balanced without looking too horrible. Nicola has, thankfully, lost her Lego-style haircut and both she and Alex benefit from reasonably good professional photos (far too many candidates still think they can get away with snaps their grannies took at Christmas). Alex's look is too dark and will feed those critics who try to present him as an evil schemer, an unfortunate approach which leads to the promotion of overt stupidity as if it were a political virtue. His leaflet has the whole of the SNP top team on the back trying to look cheerful but actually looking surprised and curious, as if they've just spotted a chance of winning in the distance. It also uses lists with tick marks next to them. They should watch that. It'll only encourage their dimmer voters to put ticks on the ballot papers where they should put crosses, and many returning officers regard such papers as spoiled.

Anyway, the SNP leaflets are not bad over all - considerably above average as pieces of low-budget propaganda go. Similarly impressive is the Conservative leaflet. In Scotland the Conservatives are definitely up against it but they're likely to win a few list seats and in Glasgow Kelvin they have the advantage of a photogenic candidate, Ruth Davidson. Nicely photographed - even the make-up looks professional - she smiles out of a leaflet so attractively laid out that one can almost (almost) forgive its cheesy 'eighties-style use of lateral lines and its failure to understand how capital letters go. Naturally they want to distance themselves from the unpopular Westminster party and the word 'Conservative' doesn't appear here without the word 'Scottish' preceding it. 'Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party' is highlighted on the reverse (good use of space) to stress what is, oddly, still seen as the party's unique selling point; although Labour spout a lot of anti-Nationalist rhetoric the Conservatives seem to be the ones who make real gains from it.

Every policy here is entirely Scotland-focused - fair enough, you might say, but a cautious piece of work all the same. Like the SNP they use the risky trick with ticks. Their achievements look pretty good listed like this - until one recalls, of course, that they didn't develop them alone, simply nudged others and voted along with them. Nothing wrong with that but they seem to expect a lot of credit for it. I'm also amused that they are one of three parties trying to claim credit for a Council Tax freeze they spent some time arguing against.

The only way to fight the Westminster Conservatives, another leaflet tells me, is to vote Labour. "The SNP don't have the clout." Oh dear. Stuart's immediate response was, "By 'the clout', do they mean Iain Gray?" They keep walking into these things. Anyway, this small shiny leaflet features a nice, simple design with boxing gloves (tacky) using primary colours (well done) to sell us the old image of two party left versus right politics. It'll appeal to many of the old faithful.

This is certainly much stronger than their other leaflet, dedicated to the re-election of Pauline McNeil. Pauline is a great constituency MSP but there's too little focus on that here. Plain ordinary paper would have looked better than this cut-price glossy stuff and, though Pauline is not an unattractive woman, the blurry cover photo does her no favours. It also situates her in Buchanan Street, putting the focus on the city centre where it should be on the constituency. In the cluttered interior we are told that jobs and schools are nice and cancer is bad, mmkay? It also makes sure to mention those naughty bankers. Parts of it read as if it's been search engine optimised. The internal pictures are all poor and, really, this is an object lesson in how to get it wrong. At least it respects capital letters.

Alongside this is a letter to Stuart from Iain Gray. Yes, that guy from Central Station. This letter mentions the Tories six times and also name drops David Cameron and Thatcher (in the iconic sense, without first name or title). To put this in context, it only mentions Labour eight times. There are a couple of unsubstantiated swipes at the SNP, curiously rendered in bold type. Policy commitments are mostly vague which does a disservice to the stronger ones, and they would have done better not to mention their knife crime policy, which is getting them into more and more trouble as time goes on. Should have stuck with that first leaflet, guys.

This brings us to the LibDems (I'm sure most of you won't have read this far, but then, most of you won't do more than glance at the leaflets anyway, so I'm assuming some degree of special interest). Natalie McKee is another photogenic candidate (this is starting to look suspicious; do other constituencies have exclusively ugly ones?) whose earnest look just about gets her away with the twee soft-focus image on her promo postcard. The images on the reverse side make it clear she's going for the youth vote. This doesn't excuse the use of a handwriting font, which is not only tacky but will make her policy commitments completely illegible to voters with vision or reading difficulties. It's a shame as one or two of these are strong but others mirror the Conservative leaflet in claiming too much credit for activities in which the LibDems were only one contributing party. None of them does anything to substantiate the claim that Natalie is 'experienced'. Hmm. A larger, glossier leaflet (surely not recycled, making its green pledge look dubious) tells us that, being local, she knows our lives are marred by crime. Um, what? I live at the dodgier end of it, but overall Glasgow Kelvin is one of the safest constituencies in the city. This is pandering to hysteria, not advocating useful local policy. At least this leaflet commits fewer font crimes and is, for the most part, actually legible.

Finally, there's a leaflet from the Respect Party, headlined simply 'How To Vote For George'. Anyone familiar with the redoubtable Mr Galloway will immediately smile at this. It's illustrative of that characteristic arrogance which means that, decades after he dated Donald's aunt, he is still the butt of family jokes at Christmas. The leaflet has been printed by Clydeside Press, a great little outfit who have really done their best but are hampered by, well, the content. Among other things is assures us that George will "defend your basic principles and interests". I suppose he must be telepathic as well as vague. Later it quotes him as saying "I will combat every injustice." Gosh, George, but how will you find time to sit in Parliament?

George "is leading a very strong list of candidates," we are told. None of them have recognisable names. Three of them are students. They may very well be secretly brilliant, but there's nothing here to confirm that.

All in all, it's a better collection of rabbit food than some other elections have provided, but it still leaves a lot to be desired. Will any of these leaflets win your vote? If so, don't forget to put big ticks beside the names of your preferred candidates.