Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pluralism: Lib Dems get it right

I'm fast becoming a fan of the blog of Richard Osley, the editor of one of the best local papers in the country, (the Camden New Journal). It really is a must read for Camden gossip and takes an often scathing journos-eye-view of local politics.

Recently he wrote a piece taking a gentle dig at Camden's Lib Dem Parliamentary candidates (sorry, shadow MPs, snigger) for taking opposing views on a very serious issue, Israel. He points out that;

In the north of Camden, Ed Fordham has been said to be ‘courting’ Jewish voters in Hampstead. He’s actually just back from Israel, a trip which Labour unkindly called a “publicity tour” during last week’s council meeting.

And in the south, Jo Shaw has signed her name to leaflets demanding that Britain no longer helps to arm Israel and denouncing a ‘lacklustre’ response to last year’s air strikes in Gaza.

Well, it may be that Labour and Conservatives politicians find this discrepancy irritating but this pluralistic approach to politics is entirely appropriate. Richard does describe this as "fair enough, all very democratic" but I don't think it would be unfair to say that he dishes this up with a large spoonful of lovely cynicism. That's one of the reasons I'm enjoying his blog.

However, in this case I think he might be wrong.

The public are rightly tired of the tribalism of politics where a bunch of hacks subsume their own personal opinions into the hive mind of today's party policy. Politicians from the same party taking different positions on the same issue is a sign of a healthy internal democracy and we shouldn't be encouraging a culture where it's seen as some sort of problem.

There are lines, of course. There comes a point when someone might be better suited to a different party, but no party that seeks to represent a political movement rather than just a political current has to incorporate difference as a safeguard against doctrinaire tribalism.

I was struck by this when, at a selection meeting for Lewisham Green Party's council candidates, two hopefuls unashamedly announced that they were in favour of nuclear power. A delicious frisson went round the room as everyone there realised we were being asked to select candidates who disagreed with a core part of Green Party policy, and we did.

That could have gone very differently and I was really pleased with the open minded approach we took to these people who were clearly in a minority. It doesn't mean I wouldn't vigorously defend the Green Party's anti-nuclear stance if people tried to change our policy - but the fact that policy is not some sort of thought control also has to be defended, even when people are wrong, I mean disagree with me.

It's to the Lib Dem's credit here that they have two prominent members that have wildly different views on an important issue without coming down on their candidates for daring to have political opinions of their own.


James Mackenzie said...

Jim, you've gone soft in the head. Selecting radioactive candidates, being tolerant of Lib Dem scheming..

Someone told me a (probably apocryphal) story about a Lib Dem campaign. They canvassed a street asking about a local development: those in against got a "Lib Dems oppose.." leaflet, those for got something that implied they were against it.

Jim Jepps said...

I've made them commit that if they're elected they wont bring any plutonomium into the council chamber.

I'm not being soft on 'scheming'. This isn't about the Lib Dems being dishonest with the electorate it's the fact that they have candidates with different positions / independent minds.

In Camden (same borough) they were distributing leaflets to 'save' a local service that they're own councillors had voted to close down - I'm not tolerant of that because it's clearly trying to pull the wool over the electorates eyes. Having candidates that aren't just programmed by central office, especially when its inconvenient, is a source of strength to my mind.

Tom said...

Jim, I totally agree with your sentiment. It would be especially silly to - for example - not select a council candidate in inner London on the basis of their views on nuclear power, as though they'll get onto the planning committee and vote to plonk one in Deptford!

Another instance of this is when politicians all vote en bloc even though one or two of them vehemently disagree with the group position. I can see this being necessary at times, but always?

That said, it's important for the electorate to feel that they know what a party is basically about. Not many people know a great deal about the individuals, and if the Lib Dems had a central policy on Israel it would be a bit odd to have candidates disagreeing about it.

Not sure how you balance the two, exactly!

Jim Jepps said...

Tom, I think your last point is a crucial one to grapple with, even if there is no single right answer at the end of it there definitely are a series of wrong answers.

I think someone would jeopardize their selection if they had a number of disagreements with policy, even if the position they are running for has nothing to do with the issues concerned, because people are likely to start thinking – well, is this guy actually a green? Rather than a sound person who happens to take a different view on a particular subject.

That’s particularly true in the case of nuclear power when plenty of people in the green *movement* are essentially ‘open minded’ or pro-nuclear power. There’s more work to do convincing these people but I’m not in favour of excluding them while that discussion takes place.

However it is reasonable to expect candidates to agree with the key points of the election campaign and perhaps that’s where this question of the electorate knowing what they’ll get comes in.

If we’re promoting as key policies the living wage, public transport and free insulation – for example – it would be a bit rum to select someone who says they’d vote against them if elected.

I think it’s unrealistic to expect people to agree with the entire manifesto, but not our key election pledges.

ModernityBlog said...

Well spotted Jim, but I thought this quote was a strange counter balance:

"Syed may be impressed with Shaw’s angry words about Israel, even if they are telegraphed by her critics as a cynical call out to Muslim voters in the south of the borough. "

Jim Jepps said...

I think it's meant to counter balance the other candidate "courting Jewish voters" - obviously it's all a bit reductive and over simplistic.

Whether that's the fault of the political debate in Camden or Richard Osley it's difficult to tell.

ModernityBlog said...

my thoughts exactly Jim