Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Johann picks the right team

A very brief post to welcome the election of Johann Lamont and Anas Sarwar as the first leadership team of the newly devolved Scottish Labour Party, and to congratulate Johann on picking a Holyrood shadow team which is genuinely a cause for optimism as we unite to champion Labour values in devolved Scotland.

Of particular interest to me are the appointments of Kezia Dugdale as Shadow Minister for Youth Employment, Drew Smith as Shadow Minister for Social Justice and Jenny Marra as Shadow Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs. Among the best and brightest of the 2011 intake, they will now be at the heart of some of the key portfolios in Labour's shadow team, and they represent a new generation of Labour ideas.

They are also all active on Twitter and other social media, and are flying the flag for the open, inclusive politics to which our party and our country should aspire. The combination of experience and new thinking which makes up our new shadow cabinet genuinely does make me excited for the future of Scottish Labour.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Who I'll be supporting and why

This is a blog of two halves. The first half I wrote before I attended a Scottish Labour leadership hustings, and the second half I wrote after.

Before

I have letters, emails, leaflets and a pledge card strewn in front of me as I type, and the faces of the three hopefuls for the Scottish Labour leadership smile and reach out to me in carefully selected photographs. And I'm torn, not just between each option, but between bothering and not bothering.

In truth I will vote - I consider it a responsibility of membership - but the curious supporting nominations process that goes along with a Labour leadership election leaves me unsure of my vote's worth. The blocs are already aligned but, more worryingly, the blocs were aligned even before any of the candidates stood up and said what they planned to do. These allegiances are more feudal than democratic, and all they let me know is which way the wind is blowing; which is to say they do not help me at all.

Johann Lamont looks to have sewn up the lion's share of affiliate and constituency nominations, and has a decent showing of councillors so far. She's also clearly the front-runner, because she is saying absolutely nothing to me about policy in her written materials. The pledge card (for it is hers) couldn't identify her more strongly as the continuity candidate if it had Iain Gray's photo on it instead of hers. It screams loudly in the voice of John Smith House, with six pledges which literally give nothing away. I don't know Johann, and I think I've heard her speak maybe twice, but she has the highest mountain to climb in the hustings if she's going to win my vote.

Ken Macintosh has an impressive set of nominations himself. More councillors than anyone else, but also a decent showing in constituencies and affiliates. His materials are more open than Johann's, presumably because he is coming from behind in this front-runners' race. His media savvy shines through in the shaping of his messages and, heavens be praised, he's actually setting out some differential policy positions on public transport and the economy, straying into reserved territory a little but as others have proven, that's okay. His website and social media presence looks like he's hired some people who are very good at those things, which is a deliberately backhanded compliment.

Tom Harris was always going to struggle for nominations, and so it has proved. MSPs don't want a King Over the Water, and CLPs and affiliates won't back an outsider. Tom clearly has less money to spend, and I have no leaflet, no pledge card with his smiling visog on it. But I do have an email which is bold, antagonistic and insightful, and if not littered with policy suggestions, is certainly clearer than either of the others on the direction he wants to take the party. Tom's pragmatic New Labour credentials, for which he is so often criticised, shine through in the message that what we need is to win, becuse unless we win we can't do anything else. It's a deeply imperfect but compelling argument. Tom also gets social media in a way that neither of the others do, which is why he is far less cautious online than the others. He also has little to lose. No-one expects him to win.

So as I await the opportunity to hear the three in person, which I'm really hoping will help me make a choice, I am genuinely torn. I want to see the sort of radical policy shifts that I don't think Johann can deliver; I want us to be led by a strong, confident, robust debater that I'm not sure Ken can be; and I want a united Labour party that I don't think Tom can create.

We shall see.

One quick aside: in the excitement of the Scottish Labour review and its talk of all-member constituency meetings and a new openness in party decision-making, I was disappointed if not surprised to find that my CLP was one of the first to lodge a supporting nomination, without having consulted me or, presumably, any of its wider membership. Although I understand that the delegates system is democratic, we need to starting walking this "new openness" walk, and all-member CLP meetings are a key requirement in my view.

After

So now I'm writing after having attended the Edinburgh hustings. It was surprisingly good; I had expected rather more rigidity and distance than there was, and I hadn't expected such interesting and thought-provoking questions to be asked.

I should do another aside, unfair though it is to put it in that way, and say that the warm-up act - the deputy leadership hustings - was deeply encouraging too. Ian Davidson was strong and impressive, and Lewis Macdonald said some terrifically well-considered things about how to move forward. He was the dark horse for me, and would make a cracking deputy. But Anas Sarwar really does have the whole package, and persuaded me that he would really do a power of reforming good in the deputy role. Anas has my vote for the deputy leadership, though I suspect he doesn't need it.

As for the main event, well it perhaps cemented some of my earlier views. The messages were markedly different. Johann and Ken couldn't help but reel off their main supporting nominations, but Tom's lack of them quite evidently freed him from the politics of patronage, and surprisingly it worked in his favour. He made the same virtue of being outside the Holyrood group - a position which everyone presumes to be a disadvantage - and though he didn't explicitly go as far as pointing out the culpability of the current MSPs in the disaster of the May election, he pointed the way.

I asked a question which was perhaps a little blunt, about the bizarre drawing up of a pledge card for the last election which contained unexplained u-turns and poorly thought-through policy, and what assurances I could get that that would never happen again.

Johann honestly explained how the leadership team had come to its decisions on the key pledges while defending the good parts of the last manifesto; she took responsibility for the mistakes, and she asserted how she had learned lessons from it. Ken said he was surprised at Johann's defence of the last manifesto which led to such a convincing loss and described a vision of a more fully devolved party dealing with manifesto creation in a more localised way. Tom weighed in with both barrels telling me if I thought we lost because of the pledge card or the manifesto I was wrong - we had lost the election years before either were printed.

In truth these are all good answers,and I was encouraged that our policy development will change whatever the result in December, but Tom alone had fire in his belly and conviction on his sleeve.

Other questions touched - inevitably - on independence and the referendum, and here again were clear differences. While Ken reinforced his devolutionist position, and Tom came into his own in his blunt unionism, Johann tried to steer a middle course, and didn't quite manage it. And despite it being clear that in the room and in the party it was Johann and Ken's messages that were gaining most support, Tom's admonishment that we need a leader to appeal to those outside the party not within it rang louder and louder in my mind.

I'm not alone in Scottish Labour when I say that quite a lot of the things Tom Harris believes, I disagree with. I am not of his "wing" of the party and judging by the room and the nominations many others aren't either. But the leader is not the policy-making arm of the party and Tom has been clear that his approach to policy construction will be consensual. On that key basis, I think he has traction.

Crucially for me, where I find I do agree with him more emphatically by the day is in his solid, pragmatic, independent-minded view of what we need to do as a party to win the next election. And winning the next election, when all is said and done, is what we need our leader to do.

Earlier this year, when I first started writing things that Tom categorically disagreed with for his LabourHame website, he asked me in an email whether I was on Twitter, and I had to admit that while I was, he probably wouldn't be able to see me because after several  particularly feisty exchanges in 2010 I was fairly sure he had blocked me. So it is with some surprise and a feeling of optimism based in fundamental change that I set out my support for his leadership bid now.

In the end, I am focused on three Ps: policy, principle and pragmatism. On policy alone, Ken is the man for me. His positions and his presentational skills would make him a terrific manager for team Scottish Labour. On the basis of principle alone, Johann has the strength, the history and the fight to be the sort of leader I could slog my guts out for. But for the pragmatism to know that neither policy nor principle are worth anything if we are not engaged with and electable by the Scottish people, and for his capacity to embody both the policy positions and the principles we need to succeed, Tom pips them both for me.

While I know that all three candidates would make good Scottish Labour leaders, I shall be voting for Tom Harris.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

A response to 'The Registration of Civil Partnerships and Same-Sex Marriage'

This morning I submitted my response to the Scottish Government's consultation on 'The Registration of Civil Partnerships and Same-Sex Marriage'.

You can submit your response via the simple, one-page form here http://www.equalmarriage.org.uk/ and your answers will be sent directly to the Scottish Government.

Here is what I said.

Do you agree that the law in Scotland should be changed to allow same-sex marriage?
Yes

The simple answer is that equal treatment should be the default state of the law.

But there is far more to it.

Prejudice against LGBT people in Scottish society results in lives blighted by low self-esteem, violence, victimhood, self-harm, murder and suicide. Changing social attitudes is a long process, but it is impossible to achieve until the law starts to treat everyone the same. Equality under the law is the first step towards ending unfair discrimination in society.

Marriage may just be a word, and the rights it affords may be exactly those of civil partnership, but while the law reinforces difference it excuses discrimination.

If we want a society free from anti-LGBT prejudice then marriage equality is a necessity.

Do you agree that same-sex couples should be able to get married through both civil ceremonies (conducted by a registrar) and religious ceremonies (conducted by those religious groups that want to)?
Yes

Religious groups hold an anachronistic position with regard to marriage.

The ability for a religious celebrant to confer a legal status on a couple blurs dangerously the line between church and state, and confuses the argument around marriage rights, giving, as it does, religious groups more say than others over how civil marriage is defined.

In my view, religious marriage and civil marriage should be entirely separate, as is the case in many European countries. Churches should be free to define their own rules over who they will and will not marry, and the state's definition of marriage should not be affected by that choice.

I would like to see that separation enshrined in legislation. If this is not possible under the proposed bill I would support as a fallback the right for same sex couples to be married in religious as well as civil ceremonies, by those churches who choose to define marriage on equal terms.

If Scotland should introduce same-sex marriage, do you consider that civil partnership should remain available?
Yes

Civil partnerships are distinct from marriage in several ways, but one of the key differences is that a CP is and always has been a partnership of equals.

Marriage, by contrast, has changed form dramatically over the centuries. For the vast proportion of its history, marriage constituted the ownership of a woman by a man, and had more to do with preservation of wealth and social order than mutually supportive relationships.

Marriage also remains an area of significant overlap between church and state, with lines of definition and control deliberately blurred in order to maintain an unsustainable dichotomy.

For all these reasons, some people do not wish to participate in the historical institution of marriage, and prefer the cleanly defined, secular partnership of equals represented by a civil partnership.

I believe this option should remain available, so I support the retention of civil partnerships should same-sex marriage be introduced.

Do you agree that legislation should be changed so that civil partnerships could be registered through religious ceremonies?
Yes

As discussed in my answer to question 2, I believe that civil and religious recognition of partnerships should be separate. This would render this question irrelevant.

However, while marriage can be registered through a religious ceremony, so should a civil partnership be able to be so registered.

Do you agree that religious bodies should not be required to conduct same-sex marriages or civil partnerships if it is against their wishes?
Yes

Just as some religious bodies refuse to marry divorcees, the freedom for religions to decide their own views on this is essential. This freedom does, however, underline the argument in my answer to question 2 that religious and civil registration of marriage should be separated. This would end any ambiguity on this issue once and for all.

Do you have any other comments? For example, do you have any comments on the potential implications of the proposals for transgender people?
I believe in freedom of religion. I find it ironic to the point of ridicule that certain religious organisations, in arguing against the state's recognition of gay marriage, are arguing against freedom of religion for others.

I am also greatly concerned by the prominence given to the offensive views of certain Catholic leaders in Scotland, when a majority of lay Catholics support marriage equality.

I trust the Scottish Government will not allow these voices to unduly influence Scotland's continuing path towards a fair and equal society.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Time for our constitutional

"Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."

It's not outwith the bounds of reason to suggest that Alex Salmond might have developed something of a Messiah complex. He has received the glowing adulation of his flock - and the approval of the electorate - and looks out on a sea of expectant faces waiting for deliverance. Those who favour independence for Scotland know that their very best hope is to put their trust in his political judgement, let him call the shots, and cross their fingers that his winning streak holds.

Understandably, Salmond is loathe to call any shots too soon. Hence the "promise" to hold the referendum toward the end of this parliament - a promise which only solidified after the election result. (Despite the many cries of "it was in the manifesto", it wasn't.)

But also understandably, Salmond is keeping a weather-eye on the opinion polls. Like the rest of us, he can see that Scots are keen on more autonomy, especially given the second coming of Thatcherism in Westminster born from the unholy alliance of wet Conservatism and orange Liberals. But he can also see that Scots are not keen to break the ties of this United Kingdom. It remains only a hard core minority who see the battles of hundreds of years ago as recent scars, and talk of freedom as if they understood tyranny.

These hard-liners want the question put to the Scottish people to be yes or no - independence or union. The question that was always assumed to be coming. The question that hard-liners on the opposite side want too. But inexorably, the SNP seems to be heading towards adding a third option to its referendum question, the so-called "devo max" - a maximally devolved Scottish administration still embedded in the union but with some level of fiscal autonomy and some level of greater devolution of the powers currently reserved to Westminster.

It is an idea that could gain significant support outside the SNP - Malcolm Chisholm has recently planted a Labour flag on it, and it suits the Lib Dem federalist wing nicely - and would likely be preferable to the status quo to those Scots who don't want to countenance full separation.

But while the SNP absolutely has an electoral mandate to bring forward a consultative referendum on independence, their mandate does not stretch to deciding the shape of Scotland's future governance within the UK. Both full independence (crown and parliament) and the retention of the status quo, are well-defined concepts on which the electorate can be reasonably asked to judge. But the third option of devo max is not clearly defined at all - just as devolution itself was not.

To define devolution, a constitutional convention was created, comprising all the major parties willing to take part, and representatives of civic society and the major churches. It was the Scottish Constitutional Convention which drew up the blueprints for today's Scottish Parliament and its relationship with Westminster; the Labour party implemented the convention's plans following a referendum in 1997.

If we are to have a 3 question referendum in the second half of this parliament, then it is beyond question that the definition of the middle option is key to its outcome. It would be utterly against our constitutional history - and political decency - for that definition to be drawn up by a single party whose policy is to oppose it. A third option must not be created as political leverage to push the vote in a particular direction. The question people are asked must be honest, and clear.

So I call upon Alex Salmond to come down from on high and declare now the shape of the referendum he proposes. And if it is to offer three options, then he should ask the major parties and civic society to reconvene the Scottish Constitutional Convention now, with a remit to agree the definition of devo max in good time to allow a proper debate to be held before the vote.

If there is to be a third option, then the delay in announcing the timetable and format of the referendum cannot go on. A convention could take two years or more to agree (the last one took nearly ten), and there must be time before the vote for a genuine public debate to be had on the question once it is established.

The SNP - as the sainted Alex himself said - do not have a monopoly on wisdom, and this applies just as much to the constitution as to anything else. It is time for them to stop using greater autonomy as a political football, and to declare their intentions to the Scottish people.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Recent writing

Update: following the sad demise of the Amansaman blog, the articles linked to below can now be found on this blog as well, under their original publication dates.
 
As I'm now contributing to a couple of other blogs I thought I'd do a quick round-up of things I've written elsewhere recently which you might have missed.

On LabourHame:
On A Man's A Man:

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Robin Hood: a tax to change the world?

Take from the rich,
give to the poor,
shoot the odd arrow.
Sorted.
This article was originally published on Amansaman.

They do say the simpler an idea, the more likely it is to succeed. And the Robin Hood Tax is a pretty simple idea.

In 2001, the charity War on Want published a proposal for a tax on speculative trading on the international currency markets. The effect was to be twofold: to generate global revenues to be applied to fighting poverty across the world; and to reduce the risky trade in world currencies which had contributed to the East Asian financial crisis of the late 90s. A bona fide win-win. Charities and progressive groups applauded. The markets and the governments in their thrall shook their heads and carried on with business as usual.

We all know what happened next, of course. The banking crisis of 2008 which precipitated the global recession exposed our absolute reliance on the financial institutions which engage in speculative trading not just in currencies but in a range of other tradables of varying dubiety. But more significantly the period following the crisis, after banks had been bailed out with government debt to be paid off by taxpayers, showed that banks and traders were utterly unwilling to change their behaviour, and that the bailout had only cemented their attitude to risk. Public disquiet turned into anger.

At the behest of campaigners, political leaders started re-floating the idea of a Robin Hood tax. Gordon Brown proposed it at the G20 in 2009, other European leaders offered varying levels of support, but a common concern was that it needed to be a global system for it be successful. So in early 2010 a coalition of major charities, trades unions, politicians, economists and business leaders launched a concerted campaign for a Robin Hood tax.

The preferred model for this tax is a tiny (around 0.05%) financial transaction tax (FTT) to be applied across key trading areas such as stocks, bonds, foreign currency and derivatives. The group estimates this could raise £250 billion a year globally. Because transaction taxes already exist this approach is well-tested, cheap to implement and hard to avoid.

There are other models, not as effective but potentially more able to garner support from governments still cowed by the markets. A financial activities tax (FAT) – like VAT for bankers’ remuneration and excess profits – has the guarded support of the UK government, which is opposed to FTT. But it would raise less revenue and, crucially, have far less impact in reducing risky speculative behaviour in the financial sector.

So the news this week that the European Commission will press forward with a unilateral FTT from 2014 is very significant, in the week that Bill Gates, one of the world’s wealthiest and most successful businessmen, backed it too. It has pushed the UK government into accepting the concept, though they say they will only implement it if it is global. It has increased pressure on the US government, paralysed by the 2012 presidential election and huge legislative bias against tax. And it has legitimised FTT as a practical, effective way to curtail the damage the markets can do.

With London handling about 80% of Europe’s financial transactions, we’re getting close to crunch time. The UK’s decision on the Robin Hood Tax could help to redefine the relationship between government and the market. It could repair the damage done by the banking crisis while massively reducing the risk of it happening again.

In his speech to the Labour conference this week, Ed Miliband talked about opposing predators in the financial sector, and rewarding socially responsible business. The previous week, Vince Cable told the Lib Dem conference he wanted tough interventions in the banking sector to end profiteering at the expense of economic growth.

On Monday, George Osborne has his moment. Will he back Robin Hood? Will he move from the rhetoric of threat to the threat of action? Not yet, maybe. But the more people who call for it the more likely it is that he’ll have to.

So if you think the Robin Hood Tax is a simple idea whose time has come, you can add your voice to the call to make it happen. I have.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

No miracles for the Swansea Valley

Sky News' Kay Burley
This article was originally published on Amansaman.

Few of us can have failed to be moved by the tragedy which unfolded in the Gleision Colliery in South Wales on Thursday and Friday. We saw the gradual extinguishing of hope in the grim but determined faces on our screens, optimism giving way to stoicism and finally resignation. Mining disasters have happened many times in this country, and mining communities have endured this pain often in the past, but we tend to think of the UK as being in a post-industrial age, and the sudden reality was shocking and raw.

Some of us no doubt made the comparison with the Chilean miners’ story from last year, a disaster which turned into a joyful story as those trapped were freed. Sadly there was to be no happy ending this time.

And the Chilean comparison was not lost on the army of 24 hour news teams which converged on the site as the story developed. They had, of course, had a bonanza on the Chile story – a gripping, heroic event with endless shots of tension and elation and a happy ending to crown it off. It was difficult to escape the impression that they thought they might have a repeat performance here.

There is that tension at the heart of all news journalism, of course – the inescapable fact that tragedy sells, and the all too easy step from informing the public to exploiting the victims. Add in a highly competitive landscape in which ratings make successes, being first with the latest consumes all, and social media, unfettered by principle, gazumps all scoops, and the mix becomes positively dangerous.

Enter Kay Burley.

For those who do not know, Ms Burley is a presenter on Sky News. If Sky News is an experiment in turning The Sun into a television channel, then Kay Burley is the lovechild of Kelvin McKenzie and Anne Robinson. For the avoidance of doubt, that is not intended as a compliment.

She has a well deserved reputation for blatant prejudice, glib ignorance and the excusing of both on the basis that her role makes her some sort of devil’s advocate. These are qualities which, of course, make her the ideal person to send to the scene of an unfolding tragedy.

Her questioning of exhausted rescuers giving their time to help update the nation on progress was banal beyond belief. “Can you tell us what the colliery is typically used for?” elicited a weary “It’s a coal mine” (the “you moron” being silent). She went on to harangue local MP Peter Hain, who had gone largely without sleep to organise help for the families and be a bulwark between them and the media. She asked stupid, offensive questions and criticised the baffled, sometimes rightly irritable response.

To say that Ms Burley has form here would be an understatement. Her spat with Labour MP Chris Bryant as she tried to dismiss the seriousness of the phone hacking case is well worth looking up on YouTube. She asked the visibly distressed former wife of the Ipswich prostitute murderer whether he wouldn’t have done it if she’d given him a better sex life. She conducted an interview with David Babbs of 38 Degrees which ended with her screaming at him and refusing to allow him to talk. Her live coverage from the scene of the police standoff with killer Raoul Moat was littered with leaps to judgement and invasive, unhelpful interviews.

There is clearly a time and a place – and an audience – for this style of confrontational, opinion-up-front presenting. But the time is not during an unfolding tragedy, and frankly the place is not the news.

The vicious circle of competitive 24 hour news channels is starting to create our own version of Fox News, and that is something that anyone who favours honesty and facts should be terribly afraid of. The hackgate affair put an end to Murdoch’s plans of taking Sky News permanently down this path, but there are clearly still forces at work pushing for the same thing.

There’s a grave danger that we assume the media has been shaken into change for the better by the recent scandal, and it has not. We’ve seen false contrition and careful legal work, but we haven’t seen fundamental change.

We’ll know when that fundamental change has come when tragedy starts being treated with respect, and Kay Burley is no longer on our screens.

Monday, 19 September 2011

An appeal for reason and compassion in the gay marriage debate

With the publication at the beginning of this month of the Scottish Government's consultation, a starting gun of sorts was fired in a national debate about same sex marriage. I say "of sorts" because in reality folk have been campaigning on both sides of this issue for a long time. But we now have a rough timetable: the consultation period will end on 9 December, meaning we're likely to see committee evidence sessions in 2012, and completion of whatever legislation is decided upon by 2013. Naturally this has galvanised people into action.

The Daily Record chose to announce news of the government's plans in a half column story on page 17 of the next day's paper. When you consider the months of hysterical front pages with which they greeted the announcement of Section 28 repeal in 1999, it's clear they have come a long way. Most other newspapers gave the news similarly unsensational coverage.

In some ways this is unsurprising. We have seen a major shift in public opinion on gay rights, and specifically on gay marriage, in the last decade. The most recent results from the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey show that 61% of Scots agree that same sex couples should be allowed to marry. Newspapers are following their readerships.

There remains a solid bloc of opposition to gay marriage, and it is naturally finding ways to get its message across. Of course we should have no objection to this. All honest opinions should be heard, and it is only by engaging in debate that we will all be able to hone our own views.

But dishonesty, deliberate misrepresentation, distortion and vilification are things we should all object to, whichever side of the argument we are on. Because we know from the traumatic experience of the Section 28 battle how harmful they can be. 12 years ago the lies and hounding of the Keep the Clause campaign did serious harm to LGBT people across Scotland, as I wrote about earlier this year. Much of that harm was the result of the currency of pernicious lies about gay people, their relationships and their lives which was used to try to persuade MSPs to oppose a small step towards fair and equitable treatment.

There is a grave danger that that same currency of lies and hurt will resurface in the coming debate, and could have the same hugely damaging effect on vulnerable Scots.

Already Philip Tartaglia, the Catholic Bishop of Paisley, has claimed that the government has no right to define marriage - a simple falsehood, as evidenced by the many times governments have redefined marriage in the past.

Worse, Cardinal Keith O'Brien has claimed that gay relationship are "harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved". This is an old lie sometimes justified by fake pseudo-scientific papers produced by the US religious right. He went on to claim that gay marriage is only supported by "a small minority of activists". In truth, not only do the majority of Scots support equal marriage, the majority of Catholics do too.

And this week we have seen the intervention of Brian Souter, the fundamentalist Christian who funded that homophobic campaign to the tune of £1m 12 years ago, echoing some of these same lines.

I think there is a real and grave danger that this debate will descend into the sort of hate speech and misinformation campaign that Keep the Clause embodied. I think that right now, as we see the first warning signs, we need to try, together, to stop it happening again.

I therefore call on all sides in the gay marriage debate in to agree to a set of basic decency principles, to try to ensure that statements which misrepresent, vilify or do harm to others are not the currency of our discourse, to thereby prevent a repetition of the harmful, painful promulgation of anti-gay sentiment we saw in the Section 28 debate, and to permit reasoned, fair debate on a polarising subject.

I hereby declare:
  1. I will not lie or make false generalisations about the lives or behaviour of any group in our society.
  2. I will not knowingly lie about, distort or misrepresent any material fact.
  3. If something I believe to be fact is shown to be unreliable, I will immediately stop saying it, publicly retract previous statements, and make every effort to stop others repeating it too.
  4. I will recognise the right of our democratically elected government to enact legislation according to our constitutional law.
I call upon church leaders, politicians of all parties, media organisations, campaign groups and all other participants in the coming debate to make the same declaration. Please let us discuss this issue without condemnation or vilification, but with respect, with honesty, and with compassion.

Thank you.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Put a cork in it, West Lothian

This is not Susan Boyle
This article was originally published on Amansaman.

This week an old, thorny question was in the news again. Harriett Baldwin, a Tory MP for nowhere near West Lothian, brought forward a private member’s bill in the House of Commons to try to settle the issue of MPs from non-English constituencies voting on English-only matters.

Private members bills are an important part of Westminster democracy. They allow any backbench MP to propose legislation to a largely empty parliament chamber, hold an entirely meaningless vote among a handful of MPs, and then barter with the government to try to get a small sliver of their argument into law.

Calling things obscure names because of events many years ago is also a strong Westminster tradition, which explains why the issue of MPs voting outside their geographic competence is known as the “West Lothian Question”.

In 1977, when “home rule” for Scotland seemed just around the corner, the then MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell, was a vocal opponent of devolution. He pointed out that if Scotland had a parliament which was in charge of things like health and education, and English MPs therefore had no say in those areas in Scotland, then the fact that Scottish MPs would continue to have a say in those areas in England was a bit tricksy.

People nodded sagely, some muttering under their breath about the state of his hair, and agreed that at some point, something would have to be done. Enoch Powell, the fun-loving member for South Down, christened this the “West Lothian Question”, possibly because he couldn’t spell Dalyell’s name, and the moniker stuck. Happily for Tam, the mooted home rule never materialised, the Tories took over, and his question was shelved until 1997, when Labour got back into power and immediately embarked on devolution.

Remarkably, Tam Dalyell was still an MP, though by this point after boundary changes, for Linlithgow. (Disappointingly the question was never re-christened as the Linlithgow Question.) Once again the point was made about this clear problem, once again people nodded sagely, but in those heady early days of the Blair years all problems seemed minor, the sun glinted off Tony’s teeth, and it was decided to deal with it in due course, at some point, but really not worry about it too much.

Okay, perhaps a more honest version of the story would be that, with a large number of Scottish MPs being Labour, and the Blair government pushing through difficult reforms to English public services, having Scots voting on English-only matters was really quite handy for ensuring bills got passed, actually.

Fast forward to today, and with a Conservative-led government now pushing through their own disastrous challenging legislation, the existence of a phalanx of Scottish MPs, all but one of whom isn’t a Tory, brings the question to life properly. Tam himself is, sadly, no longer an MP so is unable to take part in the parliamentary discussions. But despite the government’s polite dismissal of Mrs Baldwin’s bill, it seems something may actually be about to be done.

A commission – of experts, no less – has just been set up to look into the issue. They will no doubt report on the usual glacial parliamentary timelines, but it is possible that before the end of this parliament, restrictions will be placed on non-English MPs to stop them voting on English-only laws.

But as Pete Wishart, the SNP MP, said in Friday’s debate, there is an elegant solution to this problem. It isn’t, as he suggested, Scottish independence, because that would leave people in Wales and Northern Ireland still voting on England’s business. No, it is even more obvious than that. It’s devolution for England to match the devolution in every other UK nation.

A federal United Kingdom. It’s the perfect answer. It has just one tiny flaw: the English don’t want an English parliament. They’re happy with the one they’ve got because they’ve never really noticed that it is anything more than an English parliament.

So, we shall see. Constitutional change of one sort or another is definitely coming. Scotland may vote for independence before Westminster hears back from the experts. English-only bills might end up getting special treatment in the Commons. Or the English people might rise up and demand their own, slightly different, parliament for some of the things that trouble them. But the main thing is, West Lothian will have its question answered. And I managed to get through this entire article without mentioning Susan Boyle. Ach, dammit.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Sectarianism: message received?

This article was originally published on Amansaman.

Sectarianism has rarely been out of the news since a spate of high-profile threats at the start of the year spurred the Scottish Government into action. A “summit” (as in “we have to do summit aboot this”) was held in the run up to the Scottish election, and football clubs, police and politicians promised action. When, after the election, Celtic manager Neil Lennon was assaulted on live television, the rhetoric hardened and the newly anointed SNP majority government pledged new laws to solve the problem.

Fast forward a few months and, while the passage of new legislation has been slowed to allow for proper consultation, the Lennon case has been prosecuted, and this week the jury reached a verdict, sensationally acquitting John Wilson of the assault charge, convicting him instead of a breach of the peace. But more interestingly as far as I’m concerned, the jury chose to remove the statutory aggravation of “motivated by religious prejudice” from the charge, meaning that Wilson was not convicted of a hate crime.

Under Scots law, any charge can have an aggravation attached to it by the Procurator Fiscal to identify additional factors in a crime, but different approaches in different areas mean that they are used haphazardly. Statutory aggravations are a relatively new concept designed to standardise aggravations to identify hate crimes. The first was introduced in 1998, covering racially motivated crimes; in 2003 a statutory aggravation for religiously motivated crimes was brought in; and last year more, covering homophobic and transphobic crimes, were created.

The logic is pretty reasonable. If hate crimes are accurately identified and similarly prosecuted across the country, then sentences can be consistent and the authorities can gather statistics which help formulate policy to combat these type of offences.

So far so good. Juries are being asked to assess the motivations of actions, like those of John Wilson, to decide how harsh his sentence should be. They have to be sure beyond a reasonable doubt of those motivations. So it is right that, when they cannot establish that certainty, such aggravations are dropped from the conviction. Nonetheless, statutory aggravations give a solid and useful method for identifying and monitoring hate crime across Scotland.

So if we have an effective way of prosecuting hate crimes (even if not all prosecutions are effective, as the Lennon case shows) then why is the Scottish Parliament in the throes of constructing more law to tackle sectarianism?

The answer, unfortunately, is that it is trying to “send a message”. A dodgy form of politics and a dodgy form of law, because it is essentially a sleight of hand. “Send a message” politics tries to change behaviour by giving it a special status in criminal law, when in fact the behaviour is already against the law. It tries to set up a hierarchy of badness, making a particular crime worse than another simply because it is part of a social phenomenon which is of concern.

We saw an analogy in the aftermath of the recent London riots, when magistrates were instructed to hand down jail sentences for all offences committed during the unrest. So the smashing of a shop window which might have attracted a fine were it done the day before, attracted six months in prison because it was done as part of that dangerous few nights. By all rational assessment this is ludicrous, and it’s highly likely that a series of expensive appeals will overturn the worst excesses.

The danger with current proposals for anti-sectarian law is that they may do the same. It is one thing to use statutory aggravations to track and monitor hate crimes; it is quite another to enshrine in law that committing a crime on the day of a football match is worse than committing the same crime the day before. A famous political fallacy is in danger of being brought to bear again: “Something must be done; this is something; therefore it must be done.”

Sectarianism is a scourge in parts of Scotland, but so are racism, homophobia and Islamophobia. And if we’re honest, they all have the same root, and it’s nothing to do with religion, race or sexuality. Some people are violent and pig-ignorant. We’ve developed ways of dealing with such people over the centuries, none of which are perfect, but they are the best we have. We ought to think carefully before we send any more messages using the law. They might just get lost in translation.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Celebrity politics

This article was originally published on Amansaman.

It’s on Five, the word “celebrity” has been redefined so that it now includes anyone who’s been on a reality TV show, and the fee clearly means more to most inmates than the exposure – but Celebrity Big Brother is back, and we’re just going to have to accept it.


And following in the footsteps of everyone’s favourite demagogue George Galloway and the people’s day-glo champion Tommy Sheridan, this year sees another politico entering the house in the hope, one can only assume, of emerging with an enhanced reputation and offers of safe seats strewn at her feet. Sally Bercow is a Labour activist and a high profile Twitterer (@SallyBercow), but the reason she is famous is that she’s the wife of the former Tory MP, now Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow.

Now I like Sally. She’s smart, she’s witty and she will one day make a very good MP. She tries not to play on her husband’s position, though without it she would have a far lower profile, and she gives as good as she gets from the (many) folk who attack her for being who she is. But I wonder whether she’s made the right decision here.

One thing in her favour, which marks her out from Galloway and Sheridan, is that she is doing the celebrity bit first, and will then do the politician bit second. This is plausible. Celebs can turn political successfully. Ronald Reagan is a high-profile example – a former film actor turned advertising spokesmodel who was recruited by the Republicans as a saleable character and went on to become the wildly successful frontman for a set of free market ideologues. In the UK we have the likes of Seb Coe and Glenda Jackson, who forged serious, if not stellar political careers.

But the fundamental issue, for me , is that politics and celebrity aren’t just different, they’re effectively opposed to each other. The more elections become about name recognition, the less democratic and representative our politicians become. And the more politicians feel they need to expose their personal lives, the less likely it is we will end up with the sort of serious, diligent people in parliaments and councils that we need. Politics is, ultimately, about representation and leadership. Elections should be the selection of candidates we think can best represent and lead. The closer they come to being a personality contest, the less chance we have of decent government.

One of the saddest moments in the run up to the 2010 general election was seeing Gordon Brown appearing on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories. Not because he gave an emotional and upsetting account of his and Sarah’s loss of their child – affecting though that was – but because he had been put there in the first place. His PR people clearly thought that his personal life needed airing with the public to make him less aloof, more “celebrity” and thereby more electable. I think it was a dreadful mistake, and a horrible thing to do to a decent man. Gordon got where he was via politics, not celebrity, because he is clever and politically astute, not because he looks good on TV. I wish he’d told them where to stick the Morgan interview. He’d still have lost the election, but he’d have kept his dignity.

I wish Sally Bercow the best for her stint in the Big Brother house. I hope for her sake it’s a short one. I hope she can then go back to being a decent, principled politician electable for what she thinks and says rather than what she does on the telly.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Marriage is so gay

These puppets have no opinion on gay marriage
This article was originally published on Amansaman.

The release of the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey is an annual opportunity to be depressed at the number of morons who call Scotland home. The most recent results show that more people now dislike gypsies, foreigners and transgender people compared to the previous year. Oddly, self-loathing doesn’t appear to be measured, though I suspect it’s on the rise too.

One piece of good news for people who believe in not being a moron is that support for gay marriage has shot up. 61% of Scots now think marriage should be open to all, and only 19% were dead set against the idea of two people who love each other being able to legally call themselves husbands or wives. And with both the government and opposition parties making positive noises, it does seem that marriage equality for same sex couples might be delivered by the current Scottish Parliament.

We can expect the coming debate to be characterised by the following sentiments. On the one hand:
  • Marriage is a religious construct, and it’s not for the state to tell religious people what they should believe. That should be left to mistranslations of ancient texts and the people we pay to indoctrinate our children about them.
  • Marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman, and changing that definition will rend the very fabric of society, destroy the concept of family and turn the country into a morally relativistic wasteland.
  • Gay people already have civil partnerships, so they don’t need marriage, the greedy buggers.
On the other hand:
  • Marriage is a construct defined and regulated by the state, and the fact that religious groups have their own, separate interpretation of it shouldn’t impact on the state’s ability to redefine it whenever appropriate.
  • The definition of marriage has been changing constantly for centuries, in terms of recognising the rights of those of different races to marry, changing the age at which marriage is permissible, and most recently changing marriage from a contractual ownership of a woman by a man to the more equal contract it is today.
  • Civil partnership marks out same sex relationships as less significant than mixed-sex ones.
Detailed and honest assessments will be made of all of these claims and a fair and equitable settlement reached with an emphasis on our shared goal of social justice.

Ha.

Wouldn’t it be nice if that was how politics worked? Evidence-based decision-making, open and honest discussion, consensual conclusions? How lovely. No, in reality the items above will be largely invisible under an avalanche of slander, sensationalism and fear. Politicians will be terrified of invisible constituencies and their next election result. Pressure groups will promote myths about gay “lifestyles” and religion will be pilloried as a force for evil. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria, as Dr Venkman might say.

We’ve already seen the opening shots of this. A couple of MSPs have stuck their heads over the parapet to prop up and then shoot down some straw men about forcing churches to marry gay people. The heat generated in the responses has been greater than the light. Polarised ranks are already forming, positions being entrenched, demagoguery being polished. It’s pretty depressing to be honest. And we know it can be incredibly damaging, because we remember the Section 28 debate and the Keep The Clause campaign. Thank goodness Brian Souter, the man behind that hate, no longer has any sway in the politics of this country. (What’s that? He’s a major party funder and has just been nominated for a knighthood by the Scottish Government? How extraordinary.)

Here’s hoping we can rise above it this time. Here’s hoping no-one tries to buy off democracy with a chequebook this time. Here’s hoping religious disagreements can be dealt with without fear and anger this time. Because really, this is about love. And with all the shit going on around us – riots, economic meltdown, the Fringe – we need a bit of love.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Too many bananas will kill you

This article was originally published on Amansaman.

There’s a very good reason for government health warnings and TV campaigns: some people are too stupid to understand, and then act on, facts. But there’s another slightly more subtle reason, and it’s the same reason why packets of peanuts say “contains nuts” on the back. It’s an arse-covering exercise. If they’ve assumed you’re an idiot and told you about everything that might be dangerous, you can’t sue them or blame them on those rare occasions when something goes wrong.

Most of us will have grown up with one particular health warning very prominent in our lives: Drugs are bad. M’kay? And most of us will have eventually understood that that’s not true. Some drugs are lovely. Some drugs are really, really excellent. And we’ll have called out the hypocrisy and taken another step toward becoming the cynical, worldly wise souls that we are today.

Of course we know that drugs can do harm. Amy Winehouse is not the first, nor will she be the last person to destroy her or himself by taking too much, too fast. And for every Amy there are a thousand anonymous deaths that are no more than statistics to us. So we do need to understand and act on the facts around drugs.

There are a lot of ways to objectively assess the harm done by different drugs. A recent study in the Lancet classified drugs on the basis of what they do to the person taking them, plus their effect on others around that person. No prizes for guessing that heroin and crack were judged pretty bloody dangerous, while cannabis and ecstasy were comparatively much less harmful. Maybe some slight surprise to find that the ever-popular and legal drug alcohol was judged the number one most harmful, being both incredibly toxic and incredibly socially damaging. I’m sure we’ll come back to minimum pricing for alcohol in a future column, so let’s just leave that there just now.

But a measure which I’ve always thought just as critical as the harm done is whether it is physically possible to get enough of the stuff inside you to kill you. Because I think that tells you a lot about the danger you are putting yourself in when you indulge.

For example, if it takes you four pints to get drunk, then it’s estimated that it would take between five and ten times that amount of alcohol – 20 to 40 pints, or the equivalent in shorts – to kill you. The factor for heroin and crack is even lower. But the factor for cannabis is around 10,000. 10,000 times what it takes to get you stoned before it kills you. And there’s no way around that – you’re going to be asleep before you reach 3, no question.

So you can kill yourself very effectively with heroin, crack and other nasties. And you can kill yourself, given a swift enough swallowing before you pass out from the effects, with alcohol too. But you simply can’t kill yourself smoking or eating cannabis.*

And so, as you might expect, we come to the issue of bananas.

Bananas are a delicious source of vitamins, minerals and tasty goodness. But one of those minerals is potassium and an overdose of potassium can be fatal. For people with certain medical conditions, the risk is increased, but it is thought that for an average person a mere 250 bananas consumed in one sitting could kill you. This makes bananas several orders of magnitude more dangerous on the scale of getting-enough-in-to-kill-you than cannabis.

And yet bananas are sold freely across this great land. Even to children. They are even sold in our schools! And how long will it be before some resourceful mite stashes away a fatal stock and binges one day during playtime? It’s a sweet, convenient, pocket-sized tragedy waiting to happen.

Despite there being no reported deaths from banana overdose in humans, the fact remains that the banana is a couple of orders of magnitude more lethal than cannabis, a controlled substance the mere possession of which is a criminal offence.

I’m not going to end this with a rallying cry to decriminalise drugs like cannabis and ecstasy, removing a huge cost from the justice system, cutting the profits of criminals and opening up a potential new source of revenue for the Treasury. You’ll have your own views on that, and I respect them (as long as they are the same as mine).

No, my point here is this. Until we do have sensible, rational, fact-based drugs laws, I want a label on every banana in this country. I want a skull and crossbones and big scary lettering. And I want you to only be allowed to buy them from the special banana counter in the supermarket, next to the lottery machine and the PayPoint outlet.

Then we’ll be safe from the banana menace. Only then.


Find out more about drugs from Crew 2000 http://www.crew2000.org.uk/

The Lancet study mentioned in the article is at http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2810%2961462-6/abstract

* Unless you are a child below the age of three, in which case, frankly, you shouldn’t be reading this. And get that out of your mouth, whatever it is, you don’t know where it’s been.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Blindcraft: A victim of budgets, not cutbacks

It is to Edinburgh's shame that the doors of the Blindcraft factory in Craigmillar closed last week for the last time. A social enterprise founded in 1793 - yes, 218 years ago - which has provided disabled people in the capital with not just a living but an opportunity to be valued and productive, closed down in the name of "cutbacks".

But the great irony of this despicable decision is that closing Blindcraft, and making all those workers redundant, will cost the taxpayer more, not less, than keeping it open.

What this really is is a cynical manipulation of budgets by the SNP/Lib Dem council, the same misrepresentation that the SNP Scottish government does on a bigger scale on a regular basis.

Make no mistake, closing Blindcraft will save the council budget a substantial sum, which the SNP/Lib Dem council can now choose to spend on flags or propaganda. But the overall cost to the taxpayer will rise as a substantial majority of its 53 remaining employees are left without employment or prospects and are forced to rely entirely on state benefits.

The economic cost of the closure to the UK benefits budget is likely to be approximately twice the amount of the savings made by the council. But the benefits budget comes from central government funds, so neither the council nor the Scottish government care about it. It's still taxpayers' money, but it's someone else's responsibility.

Of course the real tragedy of the closure is the effect on the lives of the employees. For these folk, Blindcraft has been a unique opportunity to build a career in an environment which does not discriminate on the grounds of disability.

Blindcraft was the very definition of a successful social enterprise - both an economic and a social good. But because the SNP/Lib Dem council had the opportunity to offload the cost to someone else's budget, no matter the overall economic impact and no matter the opportunities destroyed in the process, it is now gone.

Edinburgh people shouldn't forget this in next year's council elections. But voters in the City Centre by-election in two weeks (18th August) have the opportunity to break this coalition now, and potentially give a new council the chance to right this wrong. Vote Karen Doran on 18th August to turf the SNP/Lib Dem rulers out of the City Chambers.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Sex crime

This is partly a response to The Burd's new Herald blog article, in which she argues that we need zero tolerance on child abuse; but it's also a worried sigh at the general outpouring of commentary on the recent Craig Thomson sex offence conviction.

Taking that conviction first, the simple fact is that none of those passing public comment on this case knows the whole details. I have seen Thomson described as a "pervert" and a "paedo", and seen messages calling for him to be maimed and killed, and none of those commenting knows the full facts. Neither do I. The one person we know does, the judge at his trial, has passed sentence. Why on earth do folk think they know better?

Let me set that aside for now and tackle the more substantive point. Zero tolerance for sexual offences against minors sounds like nothing more than common sense. After all, who could possibly want to tolerate such behaviour? It's for precisely that reason that decent debate on the subject is thin on the ground, because anyone who puts his/her head above the parapet to question such an initiative is likely to be shot down with the same ferocity as that described above.

So let me throw this out here. I have committed sex crimes involving an underage partner, though I was never caught; and I have been the victim of sex crimes when underage, though I never reported it. Come braying mob, descend on me.

We all grow up protected by the age of consent law, which says that under a certain age we are unable to give informed consent to sex, and anyone who has sex with us (or tries to) can be prosecuted. The age of consent is currently 16, and as laws go it's probably the least worst option, since while it unnecessarily inhibits some who are mature enough to give informed consent before 16, it protects and gives clarity to many more.

But when I was growing up, the age of consent for the sex I wanted to have - with other men - was 21. At 19 years old, my first boyfriend and I were deemed underage. I have to confess now, however, that we did have sex. Quite a lot of it actually. And if we'd been reported and convicted, we could have gone to prison for it, never mind being fined.

Am I therefore a pervert? Twenty years ago my crime might well have met with such commentary, albeit not facilitated by the present medium. Twenty years before that and it would have been illegal at any age. Did the mobs bray in those days? You bet they did.

Sex crime is not a black and white issue. Even sex crime that involves a judgement that the victim is underage is not straightforward. There are degrees of seriousness, degrees of harm done, degrees of future threat posed. Had I been prosecuted and convicted I would today just be a sex offender, or even a child abuser - the nuances of the case, the similarity of ages, the fact that the law since changed, would not affect that.

Fast forward to the mid 1990s and we saw, in tandem with the age of consent reduction to 18, the introduction of the sex offenders register. A long accepted fact of life now, but did you know that when it was first introduced it would have seen people convicted of consenting acts, like S&M where both parties consented, forced to be registered alongside rapists and child molesters? It took long and difficult campaigning to cut through the tabloidese to change that.

Zero tolerance is an ethos which removes discretion from policing and from sentencing, which says if you do this sort of thing then you are this sort of person, without the possibility of mitigation, without differentiation of culpability. Even worse, it encourages and generates the sort of responses to crime that we have seen in the Craig Thomson case. It hides yet more of the fact from the public, leaving only the conviction. Good versus evil. Indeed it could be argued that this veiling of detail is part of its raison d'etre. We do not want to hear the details of the worst sorts of crimes. It suits us to say "bad man" and put every such case in a closed box.

All I know about the Thomson case is that a man was found guilty of a sexual offence and was fined and placed on the sex offenders' register. But it is desperately important to me to also know that the judge who sentenced him had the full facts at his disposal, could listen to the statements of the victims and take them into account, had the opportunity to adjust the punishment to fit the specifics of the crime, and could do so without any reference to the political or social winds blowing at the time.

Please let's keep that precious element of our justice system. Let our judges assess victim impact, future risk, mitigation and culpability. Let the punishment fit the crime, not the fear. Zero tolerance only empowers the braying mobs.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

A knighthood for Brian Souter

The human brain works in amazing ways. A smell can transport us into a vivid memory; a taste can envelop the mind in reverie. Sadly the same is true of traumatic recollections. Sometimes it take just one trigger to take us almost bodily back into the feelings and stresses of a time of pain.

It happened to me this morning.

I saw on Twitter the name "Brian Souter" and a reference to a knighthood. I thought it so unlikely that the Brian Souter I know of, the architect and funder of the Keep the Clause campaign, could possibly have been knighted, that I went in search of corroboration, flicking past a picture of Brucie and a list of celebrities to the full list of Birthday Honours recipients and searching for "Souter". There it was. For services to transport and to the voluntary sector.

I swore. My husband asked me what was wrong and I genuinely couldn't answer for a moment. My brain was rushing me back to a time of trauma and hurt and I could only express anger and pain.

I know that more than a few people reading this will be scoffing at this point. Just because I have a political disagreement with someone, they may be thinking, this reaction to him being given a gong is laughably over-baked. I need to explain. I was there, you see.

In late October 1999, in the first optimistic flush of the new Scottish Parliament, a fax (remember them?) arrived in my little spare bedroom study. It was from the office of Wendy Alexander, the Communities Minister in the Scottish Executive, and it contained a draft of a speech she was due to deliver the next day announcing plans to repeal section 28. The reason this potentially explosive document arrived in my spare bedroom was that of the small group of volunteers who constituted the Equality Network, a campaign group we had set up a few years earlier, I was the only one with a fax machine.

We knew the speech had gone to two newspapers too, and we quickly convened to discuss strategies, since though we had long demanded action on repeal, the speed of the Executive's action was a surprise. One of the newspapers was the Daily Record, and when the next day dawned its headline heralded the start of one of the most intense, challenging and damaging campaigns of our lives. "GAY SEX LESSONS FOR SCOTS SCHOOLS"

Gay rights groups and the government were on the back foot from the very start, as homophobic ex-tabloid hack Jack Irvine found common cause with evangelical fundamentalist millionaire Brian Souter and the leader of the Catholic church in Scotland Cardinal Tom Winning, with the Daily Record as the cheering section. The campaign they unleashed was of unimaginable ferocity, and backed with seemingly limitless funds. Billboards sprang up across the country deriding the moral worth of "homosexual relationships". Lies about what repeal would mean, and lies about the threat to marriage and children, became the common currency of debate.

All over the country, LGBT people felt the chill of homophobia permeating society. Instead of being able to welcome the shaking off of the shackles of section 28, we found ourselves hunkering down against an onslaught of negative images of our lives, and damning indictments of our hopes. On the front line this effect was oddly both magnified and deflected, because while the issues were all-consuming we were all in close contact as a team, and that team had broadened from just LGBT groups to a cross-section of society under the banner "Scrap the Section".

And then came the nationwide "ballot", in which every household in the country was sent homophobic propaganda and asked to vote to protect their children from the homosexual threat. Suddenly we could not even feel safe in our homes, as Souter's money gave him the opportunity to send his bile directly to every one of us. As a confident, out, well-supported gay man in Edinburgh, I felt threatened. Across the country those less fortunate were effectively under siege from this campaign of lies and vicious piety. We began to hear increased reports of gay bashings and, in some ways far worse, that support lines were swamped and suicide attempts and self-harm in the LGBT communities were on the increase too.

This went on for months.

In the end, of course, we won; and I'm still inspired by some of the political bravery shown in that victory. The predictions of Keep the Clause were shown up as the lies they were, and today you would find almost no-one who would argue that children are in need of "protection" from information about the existence of successful same sex relationships.

But the echo of that millionaire's homophobic campaign lasted long after it was defeated. LGBT people could not forget how exposed and threatened we had felt, and every further step towards equality was taken in the knowledge of the existence of a constituency of hate that would only need some more carefully constructed lies to be reawakened.

Such is the legacy of Brian Souter. That is why I, and I'm sure many others, reacted with such revulsion to this morning's news. He inflicted great pain on our lives. He caused us to be beaten, and took from us some of our most vulnerable. And our government just rewarded him with a knighthood.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Yet another post-election blog

Friday's election results brought crushing disappointment and, since then, several people much more clued in than me have written interesting and useful blogs and articles about what has happened and where we in the Scottish Labour Party go from here.

John McTernan remains, unsurprisingly, firmly of the view that any weakness in the opposition should be exploited, no matter the principle, and says we should have outflanked the SNP on the right on law and order - a favourite New Labour doctrine. Some senior Labour folk have laid into the party machine, and others have pointed out the apparently newly discovered sophistication of the Scottish electorate - all such criticisms pointing to significant weaknesses in the national campaign which were obvious to many for quite some time.

Yousuf Hamid makes a very broad set of observations, not least that we knew the Lib Dem vote would collapse but we made little effort to woo Lib Dem voters. Perhaps the most impressive review I have read is that of Jenny Kermode, who slays the obvious dragons but also points out the subtle "self harm" of policy compromises and lack of conviction, in particular pointing to the folly of our non-committal policy on gay marriage.

I would recommend a reading of each of the above, but I'd like also to add my own humble thoughts as a Labour volunteer.
  • It turns out that this wasn't a doorstep election. The SNP won on its national campaign, on the basis of its leader and its national policies, not on the basis of local connections or the personal attributes of its local candidates. This is a big contrast to the 2010 general election and the difference is significant. We could have had (and did in some constituencies) armies out on the doors and still lost.

  • Even more importantly, Labour lost on our national campaign, in which the only differentiator from the SNP was a poorly justified knife crime policy, which might have felt like a winner to the occupants of John Smith House in Glasgow but just didn't resonate across the country. And our media handling was fushionless, exemplified by the defence of said policy which was mathematically inept and embarrassing.

  • The party's system for targeting resources on specific seats was a finessed version of that which worked in the general election, and we should recognise that it worked again, so we must be careful not to toss out that baby with the bathwater. Council selections start this month and we have a fight on our hands.
I also have some suggestions about what I think should happen now.
  1. If we are going to reconstitute the Labour party, let's start by eliminating patronage from the system, however well intended it may be. Recent losses of major names and consequent lines of succession, though painful, could enable such a shift right now. Let's seize the opportunity. Open primaries for the upcoming council selections.

  2. We understand the power of the "#labourdoorstep" - let's use it for practical community help. We know how to identify, categorise and target people; lets do it in the context of capacity building instead of just vote winning. Let's make the new #labourdoorstep a community direct action movement which engages volunteers and helps vulnerable people gain access to services. Let's make it a long term output of the Labour movement, rather than an approach to winning votes.

  3. Labour values would be as relevant in an independent Scotland as they are across the UK, so the bold action on the upcoming referendum is to leave the SNP to it, and stick to our knitting. It's not our issue. Let them waste time on it, and let the people decide whenever the time comes. Labour is not an intrinsically unionist party, so let's make sure Scottish Labour can continue to fight for Scotland's best interests irrespective of a unionist or nationalist agenda. We say "bring it on", but we aren't for or against - we rise above.
DH, Edinburgh, 9th May 2011

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Save local policing? It's not under threat.

Given their disastrous polling, the Clegg effect, and the ever-present Lib Dem tendency to promise different things to different people, I can understand why they have sought out a simple campaign line for the Scottish election. "Save our police" they cry; "keep policing local" and even "Lib Dems stand up for local services".

So are our local police services under threat? The Lib Dems say:
"The fight against crime in Scotland is now under threat from plans by the SNP and Labour to centralise our police. Under their plans local police forces would be disbanded."

SLD website
Sounds pretty scary. No local police? No-one on the beat, no local knowledge aiding the fight against crime? How could Labour consider such a move? Ah, wait.
"Scottish Labour will guarantee that there will be no cuts to police on the beat and we will protect frontline police jobs and police numbers. We will also ensure that more police officers are out in communities, rather than stuck behind a desk."

Labour manifesto, p.48
So local police are staying after all, and in fact under Labour there will be more of them on the beat. So what about this national police force?
"To increase administrative efficiencies and free up resources for the frontline, Scottish Labour will legislate to deliver a single police force for Scotland, with delegated authority and local accountability mechanisms."

Labour manifesto, p.48
Right, so all that's being unified is the management. Makes sense really. At the moment there are 8 different sets of police managers across Scotland, with one of them - Strathclyde - responsible for policing 50% of the Scottish population, and the other 50% split between 7 different forces. That can't be efficient.

And local accountability will be maintained, and resources freed up to bolster front-line policing, putting the lie to the other half of the Lib Dem objections.

Save our local police? They are simply not under threat.

Monday, 11 April 2011

SNP deny voters an honest ballot paper

We all remember the problems with spoiled ballot papers in the 2007 Scottish election. So many voters were disenfranchised that an independent report was commissioned by the Electoral Commission to bring forward recommendations to ensure it never happened again. The Gould report described issues raised in its research, set out a number of options for improvement, and concluded with a set of specific recommendations for change.

Unique among the larger parties, the SNP chose to put "Alex Salmond for First Minister" on the regional ballot, rather than a version of the party's name. Here's what Gould had to say about that:
"The use of ‘naming strategies’ by political parties to seek an advantageous position on the regional side of the Scottish parliamentary ballot sheet was raised consistently as a problem by many electoral stakeholders and those who responded to the public consultation.

The ‘sloganisation’ of party names has already been offered as a potential reason for why so many voters (75% of the rejected ballot papers, accounting for 3% of all voters) left one Scottish parliamentary ballot paper unmarked, while marking the other correctly. It may have been, in this case, that voters were attracted by the use of high-profile candidates’ names in slogans on the regional list, such as Alex Salmond who was at the top of nearly all regional ballot papers."

Gould report 23/10/2007, p56
In reviewing options for solutions, Gould went on to say:
"on the regional ballot list, it would be in the interest of voters that legislation be amended to require that registered political party names always be listed first. A party description could then be printed below the party name, preferably without using individual names, if the continuation of such a practice was deemed necessary."

Gould report 23/10/2007, p60
And finally, Gould made a specific recommendation that this practice should end:
"It is our recommendation that related legislation is amended to require that registered names of political parties (rather than their descriptions) appear first on all regional ballot papers for the Scottish parliamentary elections. To provide equitable opportunity to all political parties and candidates to access favourable positions on the ballot paper, we also recommend that a public lottery be held following close of nominations to determine ballot paper positioning."

Gould report 23/10/2007, p116
It's pretty clear, then, that according to Gould the use of "Alex Salmond for First Minister" was part of the problem and should not happen again. In response, the (SNP) Scottish Government said:
"the Government plans to take forward the recommendations of the Gould report"

Scottish Government 19/3/2008
Yet we have now learned that the regional ballots for the 2011 Scottish elections will again carry the words "Alex Salmond for First Minister" instead of the party name. In spite of clear recommendations, and in spite of their own declared intention to follow them, the SNP will deliberately mislead the Scottish electorate again in this election.

[EDIT: This wording was taken from the SNP's own Party Election Broadcast (see 02.30). The SNP are now saying the wording will be 'Scottish National Party - Alex Salmond for First Minister'. I wonder which half will have the bigger font.]

Here's the bottom line: we don't have a presidential system in Scotland. You vote for constituency and regional representatives, and the resulting parliament is responsible for electing a First Minister from among its ranks. You cannot vote for "Alex Salmond for First Minister". And nobody should be telling you you can.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

What Scotland tells us about faith schools

In my experience the overwhelming argument used in favour of faith schools is that they manage to deliver better education than other schools. Yet this is demonstrably a logical fallacy; it is not the faith aspect of the schools that delivers better educational outcomes, it is the combination of parental engagement, teacher motivation, community involvement and spirit, and other quantifiable factors.

The reason we know this is that here in Scotland the distinction does not exist. All schools in Scotland are faith schools. The distinction here is instead between “non-denominational” and “denominational” schools. The first term refers to schools which deliver faith education according to the teachings of the Church of Scotland, the second those which deliver to other faiths (mostly Catholic, but a very small number of Islamic and Jewish).

Yet despite all schools in Scotland being faith schools, the perceived distinctions remain in the eyes of parents and policy-makers. Denominational schools generally have good reputations, non-denominational schools have poorer ones.

So let’s stop pretending that this has anything to do with religion. The benefits we ascribe to faith schooling are really the benefits of increased parental and teacher engagement in a community-led environment. We can do this without religion. The real question is, why don’t we?

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

That Limerick in full

Earlier today I was stymied by Twitter's 140 character limit when posting my limerick about the Conservative Culture Secretary. Here's what I had to post:
A Tory called Jeremy Hunt
Got new powers from a Telegraph stunt
He hid his cards well
But you always could tell
He was going to act like a c
140 chars - no opportunity to finish.

So with the luxurious extra legroom of the blog, here it is in full:
A Tory called Jeremy Hunt
Got new powers from a Telegraph stunt
He hid his cards well
But you always could tell
He was going to act like a comrade of Rupert Murdoch.