Friday, 14 May 2010

Starting Off... Democracy and all that jazz!

OK to start with you need to understand where I come from... I live in Northern Ireland but have for a long time been fed up with politics here. For those unfamiliar with our particular brand of politics it basically has revolved for the past how many decades over "the border question"- should we be part of a united Ireland, or should we remain a part of the UK? Since these are mutually exclusive options this has created a real impasse that has stopped the real issues being properly dealt with.

My family was basically a pro Labour family who rejected this question as not helpful. I was encouraged to think for myself, and British politics was a regular part of conversation at the dinner table. My first real awareness of politics was about the time of the SDP, and I felt this was an exciting new party who would, with the help of the Liberals, break the mould and bring real political reform. As every one knows this did not happen. However now one issue had begun to dominate my own views. To me it was not just good enough to implement good left wing policies- the system was clearly broken and this needed to be fixed. While I was aware that there were groups in both Labour and the Tories who wanted voting reform etc, at this point it seemed to me that the SDP, and then the Liberal Democrats, best represented my opinion.

So when I went to University in Wales I joined the Liberal Democrats. Needless to say this just increased the conversations at home! My experiences of the Welsh Liberal Democrats left me realising how they were really a coalition of three types - (1) the old Liberals, (2) Labourites driven out by the actions of the hard left, and (3) some Tories who disliked Thatcher.
Since returning to Northern Ireland in the mid nineties I have essentially been an observer of politics instead of an active member of it. As Labour reformed itself under New Labour I got concerned. While New Labour had obvious strong roots in the Labour tradition, and had many good policies, they also gave off a strong reek of the Tory party mk.II. their policies in some areas ... for example in the area of civil liberties were not just worrying... but inconceivably opposed to the Labour ideal. Not Power to the People, but Power to the State!

Of course politics here have changed under New Labour as well. Devolution has made the parties here face up to the issues they had previously not had the chance to work with. It has to be said that they have not had a great record of success. For all the changes there have been , the voices of the extremes of Unionism and Nationalism have only grown stronger.

So last year I took a big decision. Having got involved in the Union at work- again following in a bit of a family tradition- I took a fresh look at Labour and realised that it HAD changed and that the time had come for me to join it...( I almost typed rejoin as that would be closer to the truth, but since I was never an actual member in the first place....). OK they still weren't quite so keen as I am on the reforms I think necessary, but they certainly were the best option. And as well as that after so many years in denying people here the right to join, we now have a real presence here.

So this election I have had to correct many friends etc when they thought I would be delighted at Clegg's performance. My initial reaction (given to friends but not posted online) that it was a flash in the pan that would not change things proved in the long term to be correct. However I was also wrong when I expected a '92 type situation in favour of Labour being the largest party. Some you win, some you lose.

And now what... we stand at a historic moment in the party. New Labour is over, but not forgotten. despite being a party deeply versed in democracy, we are viewed by many voters as the defenders of unelected patronage. We are entering , whether you like it or not, the era of New Politics. The Tories in 1997 failed to recognise the effect of New Labour and spent 13 years in the wilderness because of it. each time they moved quickly to put a leader in place and in each case failed to properly prepare for the forthcoming opposition and election.

We cannot allow ourselves to fall into the same trap. This is a time of flux and we will see many former Lib Dems joining us as they realise how betrayed they are by joining the coalition. We don't have to have a quick contest... we can take our time and get it right. This won't weaken the leader- on the contrary it will only make them stronger. As well as that we need a comprehensive review of policy and effective opposition to the coalition government. So much of what they are doing is a betrayal not just of their supporters but also of the basic democratic principles of our country. A clear example of this is the 55% rule- forget the difference between confidence motions and dissolution motions - this figure is a clear bid by the Tories to protect themselves.

So a plea to the national executive. think carefully and don't rush. Set a sensible timetable that will allow us to choose the right leader for the new decade, and to have a truly democratic debate about it.