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.


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.


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 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?

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)?

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?

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?

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?

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.