Posts Tagged Scottish Parliament

Long road back for Scottish Lib Dems

Time for someone on this here blogspace to offer condolence and encouragement to the Scottish Lib Dems.  Enough of kicking a party when it’s down and at least, it has taken the first tiny steps on the long road back.

There are clearly benefits to be gained from moving quickly from one leader to another.  No power vacuum, no unseemly public scuffles, no washing of dirty linen in public.  But there are also downsides.  An anointment, which the last two leadership “elections” have been, means there is no breathing space in which ordinary party members will get the chance to have their say and shape their future.  The chosen one gets to consult and listen, or simply impose his or her will and view on the party.  Reality demands it be the former – there are few candidates to choose from after all.

Willie Rennie has today been declared the new Lib Dem leader.  He was, if truth be told, the only credible – or at least most credible – candidate in the tiny group of Lib Dem MSPs.  His experience as party CEO and also as Chief of Staff for the Parliamentary Group, and his time as an MP, give him a hinterland that should serve him well.  By all accounts, he is affable, media savvy, intelligent and should do well.  I can’t help thinking, though, that the Liberal Democrats have a bit of a conveyor belt on this style of politician, not just here in Scotland but across the UK.  It’s the 40 something male thing, of higher than average income background, creating an identikit of leaders in recent years.  No wonder Vince Cable comes across as a breath of fresh air.

But what kind of liberalism does Willie Rennie believe in?  Is he Orange Book or more socially democratic?  Does he belong to the seemingly more Scottish tradition of liberalism as portrayed by the likes of Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell or the more strident economically-focused one epitomised by Huhne, Laws and co?

It matters because it will determine how long the road back is for the Liberal Democrats here in Scotland.  They have some time to take a long hard look at themselves and work it out:  the next Parliamentary elections are some years away after all.  But there is the small matter of council elections next year:  these could represent the start of a revival or perhaps achieving stability by holding their own rather than making gains, or result in further electoral punishment.  If the Lib Dems lose their well established toehold in local government across the country one really does have to fear for their future.

There is space for a vibrant political force representing either half of the Liberal Democrat tradition, but it would be a brave man who would lead his party towards the Orange book style of policy and politics in Scotland.  This would appear to be what the Scottish people rejected so emphatically on 5 May.  There is a need for a right of centre, less interventionist economically-focused political party, yet, there is also a need for a party that makes thoughtful social policy its core purpose too.  Both the SNP and Labour have swept up tenets of both, crowding the centre in recent years.  So a nimble Liberal Democrat party could straddle them if it can get the policies, the strategy and the tactics right.

Willie Rennie needs to make his mark and somehow achieve coverage -  no mean feat when reduced to a parliamentary group of five.  One way of doing this would be to pick up on bits of the SNP manifesto that chime with sections of the Liberal Democrat one.  Take forward members’ bills where appropriate;  shame them on reducing the priority of other measures when needed.  But make it constructive opposition.  Underlying the seismic Scottish election result was a sentiment of dislike for the yah-boo politics that everyone – including the SNP – indulged in in the last four years.  The people have spoken, they want this SNP government to have a fair run at it, and it is incumbent on all parties to follow the will of the Scottish people, while still managing to hold the government to account.

It’s a tough job, without the much larger task of reinventing and rejuvenating a severely wounded party.  The burd wishes Willie Rennie well and will watch with interest to see if he is up to it.

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Progress, but at a snail’s pace

There is much to celebrate about the make up of our new Parliament.  Yes, we can lament the loss of experience but some of the gushing eulogies written about some of the departed stalwarts, particularly from the Labour ranks, need a reality check.  Such a sweeping clearout, whether the parties wanted it or not, brings in fresh blood which is, by itself, a very good thing.  Whether or not they will deserve the epithet *talent* remains to be seen…

But in certain key areas, the Parliament is making very slow progress indeed.

Dennis Robertson has found himself wheeled out at the forefront of the SNP group and the subject of much media interest because he is blind.  And even better, has a telegenic dog to guide him.  Dennis is canny so he knows what he’s doing and he deserves his election, not because of his visual impairment, but because he has a lot to offer.  He is clever and a great campaigner on issues that are often ignored or worse, patronised at Holyrood.  He has a careful decision to make – does he become a champion of disabled people simply because he is disabled or does he eschew such issues, as Anne Begg did in her early career, to avoid being defined simply as the blind MSP?  It’s a tough one.  And the bottom line is that it simply should not be remarkable that someone with a visual impairment can be elected:  it should be the norm.

But with Siobhan McMahon becoming the first woman born with a disability, joining Margo MacDonald whose disability has been caused by her long term condition, our Parliament is now more visibly, differently abled.  And hurrah for that.  They will bring a very different perspective and life experience to their work and that is what a more representative legislature is all about.

Readers will be pleased to note that progress was also made on the ethnic status and gender balance of Holyrood.  Women’s representation increased by a whole one, yes one MSP, taking us to nearly 35%. It’s nowhere near the nadir of 1999 but it is progress, if at a snail’s pace.

The Labour group by electoral accident rather than design has achieved almost complete balance with 17 out of 35 MSPs women.  The Conservatives have added to their tally too, with 40% of their group now women.  Margo, of course, achieves 100% while the Scottish Greens are perfectly poised with a woman and man MSP.  But it is the Lib Dems and the SNP who let the side down.

Reduced to a group of five, only one Lib Dem MSP is a woman, 20%.  And despite having a record number of MSPs – 69!  some of us still can’t quite believe it! – a shockingly low number are women.  Nineteen, but Tricia Marwick now doesn’t count as belonging to any group, so the figure is down to 18.  Would I have traded an extra woman MSP for the SNP Group instead of having a female Presiding Officer?  Of course not.  But even at 19, this equates to only 27%, slightly over one in four, SNP MSPs being women.  Disappointing doesn’t cover it.

Already the cry is that something must be done.  Shame no one made that cry before the election when candidates were being selected.  Severin Carrell of the Guardian deserves special mention for championing this issue and he is right:  we need “somebody” to sort this out.  And not just on gender balance but also on ethnic representation.  We have made some progress, going from 0 after the tragic, early death of Bashir Ahmad in the last Parliamentary session, to 2. But at 1.5%, the number of MSPs from the BEM community does not equate with the ethnic diversity of our population which is approaching 4%.

The issue of ethnic diversity is a controversial one – for everyone who comments that there are folk of Italian descent (Linda Fabiani and Marco Biagi being two) and many, many more of Irish descent, they are missing the point somewhat.  This is about melting pots, multi-culturalism and assimilation and ethnic and cultural diversity – far too complex for this post but perhaps worthy of a future one.  There is no one of Chinese or Polish descent, despite both being statistically significant commnities in our society.  Scots Asians yes, but no blacks either from African or Caribbean communities.  Our Parliament should be representative of all our people.  That should be a given.

So what to do, other than moan about it on blog spaces or in newspapers?  I agree with Sev.  Something has to be done and the parties seem incapable of doing it without support and guidance.  We don’t need a new body, there are a plethora of them, particularly on women’s issues:  Engender, the Fawcett Society, the Scottish Women’s Convention.  And now the Hansard Society has got involved.

It needs an all-encompassing organisation with a remit to promote democracy more generally, to address all the issues of under-representation of key groups and communities.  It needs to engage positively with the parties and the work has to start now, before candidate selections begin again.  There is a window open now in which to examine and explore possible solutions but the starting point has to be an acknowledgement by all the parties that there is a problem to be addressed.  And an agreement to work on a cross-party basis to achieve real progress.



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Holyrood newbies: ten to watch

Sworn in, berths claimed, security passes grinned for, offices allocated: there’s no going back.  If any of the 48 new boys and girls at Holyrood had any niggling doubts about what the next five years might hold, well it’s too late now.  You’re in and we’re stuck with you.

So, congratulations all and welcome.  The burd looks forward to making your acquaintance in the weeks and months to come.  The start of a new parliamentary session is always exciting watching the shiny new faces arrive and wondering who will be quick off the blocks to make their mark.

Over the years, far too many have allowed the size, scale and scope of the place and the role to simply swallow them up.  There is an artform to keeping and looking busy which many have perfected, but it would be good if we can break that mould.

For all the hullabaloo about a lack of powers, the issues which Holyrood controls or touches upon is of a huge range.  Yet, week in, week out, we hear about the same narrow faultlines.  Many important matters are kept hidden under a bushel, or rather out of the limelight, by accident or design.  If the burd could be so bold as to offer the new MSPs one piece of advice, it would be this:  find an issue, make it your own, shine a light into dark corners, generate public and media interest, make change happen.

Aside from settling in – please don’t settle down – there’s plenty to keep the newbies busy.  Who might shine and soar?  Here’s the burdz ten to watch:

  1. Margaret Burgess, SNP MSP for Cunninghame South. Margaret managed to get herself elected as a councillor way back in the mists of time when the height of the SNP’s ambition was the odd seat at Westminster and saving deposits was all the rage.  She’s been a party stalwart for years but has a rich and varied social justice hinterland in her working and personal life to call on.  A Citizens Advice Bureau manager for many years, she has seen what deprivation does first hand.  Holyrood needs more MSPs to articulate the impact of this recession and the difficulties that will result for many vulnerable families and groups in our society from cuts to public services.  She won’t want to make waves or trouble for her leadership but is canny enough to know that there are ways and means to making herself – and the voiceless – heard.  The burd for one is glad she has a berth deserving of her talents.
  2. Mike MacKenzie, SNP MSP for Highlands and Islands region.  Made it into Holyrood by the skin of his teeth, here is someone we could all grow to like:  a businessman with a social conscience.  He has been a successful entrepreneur, providing much needed employment and infrastructure in the Oban area, has supported modern apprenticeships and set up a successful community social enterprise.  Expect someone who thinks and sees issues differently, who is task oriented and solution focused.  He may find himself frustrated by the semantics and boundaries of politics or he may find the way to cut through the crap.  I hope it’s the latter.  We need MSPs to offer something different.
  3. Jenny Marra, Labour MSP for North East Scotland region.  Intelligent, talented, bright, vivacious.  Yep, the girl has it all.  Oh, and a USP as the niece of folk legend and Dundonian, Michael Marra.  This is one wee star who will soar.  Media friendly, with an intellect and the education to back it up, she may be a bit wet behind the ears and spent much of her life in the political bubble, but that’s not a detraction from her undoubted skills.  Expect lots of salivating journos beating a path to her door for feature pieces.  If she chooses her moments and issues carefully, she will go far.
  4. Marco Biagi, SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central.  Gonnae say that oath in Italian again, please Marco?!  Another with a ferocious intellect and the graduation certificates to back it up, Salmond referred to Marco as the party’s resident psephologist but the boy’s talents are much greater than this.  A policy wonk who will have to learn fast how to transfer these skills into people ones in order to turn a surprise win into a safe hold, Marco should do very well.  Here’s hoping he can orate as well as he thinks and liven up debates.  Or at least just bamboozle them with knowledge.  Preferably in Italian.
  5. Joan McAlpine, SNP MSP for South of Scotland region A high achiever by anyone’s standards.  One of the few women journalists ever to edit one of Scotland’s foremost blatts, Joan also formed one half of the SNP’s most glamorous couple, when married to musician and writer, Pat Kane.  Played a key role in the media team during this election campaign, she could be a contender for an early Ministerial role, something culture oriented perhaps, as Salmond is quite fond of pigeon holing folk.  She should be a super soaraway star but… there is a teensy risk that the transition from journalist to parliamentarian could prove an ultimately frustrating one.
  6. Graeme Pearson, Labour MSP for South of Scotland region.  One of the few MSPs breaking the traditional Labour mould, Pearson is a former high ranking police officer.  He was the first Director-General of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency and as an Assistant Divisional Commander at Strathclyde, introduced the controversial youth curfew pilot in Hamilton and also the first CCTV cameras to Airdrie town centre.  Yep, he’s to blame, and probably had a hand in Labour’s mandatory knife crime sentencing policy too.  Expect a strident but informed voice on crime issues.  If he wants a long career, he might want to think about how he can make a more thoughtful contribution to reforming our criminal justice system.
  7. Ruth Davidson, Conservative MSP for Glasgow. Ah, you’ve got to like a girl with boundless ambition.  Two minutes in the door as an MSP and already touting herself – or at least her supporters are – as a possible leadership contender in the autumn.  Whatever the rank and file think, the Tories need bright young things with a different background – TA volunteer and lesbian, no less – to start the process of detoxifying the brand.  With the lamented demise of Derek Brownlee, expect Ruth to slip seamlessly into his role as media commentator.  But she needs to prove there is substance to match the sizzle.
  8. Paul Wheelhouse, SNP MSP for South of Scotland. I’ll declare an interest – he’s a pal and few results made me happier than this one.  Hardworking, loyal, quiet, thoughtful and intelligent.  And that’s on a bad day.  By his own efforts, he’s turned a safe Conservative constituency into one that’s on a shoogly peg, recruiting a willing team to support him in the process.  These are real politician’s skills.  And he’s another policy wonk:  an economist with a keen understanding of further and higher education issues and if anyone was your man to lay bare the impact of PPP capital projects on the public purse, Paul is.  I don’t have to hope that he will do well:  I know he will.
  9. Alison Johnstone, Green MSP for Lothians.  Well, at least Patrick got a buddy back and how nice that the Scottish Greens are perfectly gender balanced.  On the surface, she seems a bit of ying to Patrick’s yang and that is another good thing. Alison’s bright, feisty, committed, telegenic, but if she wanted to ease herself into the role, she’s in for a shock.  With only two players, both Greens need to be operating at full tilt from the outset.  She’s definitely got something to offer and there is a niche with her name on it.  She just needs to find it fast and hold to it too.  Ditching the cooncil ward in 2012 will help.
  10. Humza Yousaf, SNP MSP for Glasgow.  Well, he’s already stolen the show with that wonderful bagpipes and bhangra outfit at the sweary-in ceremony.  He’s intelligent, articulate, a poster boy for new Scots, but with a refreshing honesty and confidence, as well as a good heart.  His track record in community activism would shame many politicians twice his age.  Humza represents all that the SNP is trying to promote to Scotland and expect him to be promoted lang and weary as a spokesperson.  There’s a risk he could become ubiquitous and he’d do well to sit back for a moment and choose his course, if he doesn’t want to burn out.  And not to lose his tendency to be ever so slightly off message on occasion.  It’s all about standing out from that very big crowd of 69 when the moment is right.  I’ll go so far as to punt him as the next but one SNP leader.

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