No mean feat at Eastleigh
Against a background of sustained hostile headlines – including innuendo and unsubstantiated allegations against the party leader, Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrats won Eastleigh while the Conservative coalition partner was pushed into third place. It is no mean achievement for a party of Government implementing difficult and often unpopular decisions, to win a by–election.
Only two weeks previously Scottish Liberal Democrats achieved a 4.35% swing from Labour in a by- election in South Lanarkshire.
I will not claim Liberal Democrats are storming back as a result of these two recent signs, but it does clearly give the lie to those who claim the party is heading to oblivion.
I did not attend the Liberal Democrats federal spring conference in Brighton last weekend but will preside at the Scottish conference in Dundee this weekend. As a democratic party we witness vigorous and critical debates rather than a leadership love in – but there is no doubt resilience among core supporters and a reassuring level of support among young people.
It is easy for people to respond to the soft focus blandishments of Labour and the SNP (who also lost another council by-election last week) but I detect a growing recognition that Liberal Democrats have retained their identity and grown up as a party of Government.
Ethiopia starts to deliver for women and girls
My committee recently visited Ethiopia to look at aspects of the UK’s aid programme – specifically preventing violence against women and girls, and food security.
We were particularly interested in what was being done to end child marriage, female genital mutilation and domestic violence. We saw real progress in a programme to end child marriage. Children have been promised in marriage even before they are born and often actually married as young as seven and most by 14 – even although the legal age of marriage is 18.
The reasoning is that this gives girls security by protecting their virginity and placing them in another family. However, we met many young girls and boys and their parents and community leaders who recognised that the negative consequences were too severe.
Death or disability arising from pregnancy in underdeveloped girls is extremely high and abandonment of education leads to future poverty.
There are issues in Ethiopia about political space and resettlement of communities which need to be addressed – but there is no doubt that in terms of reducing poverty, achieving the MDGs, delivering improved health care and education, Ethiopia gives a better return on the UK’s development assistance than almost anywhere else.
Union puts politics before members’ jobs
I was intrigued by the decision of a branch of the Communication Workers Union in Scotland to commit to support independence – firstly, because it seemed to be mostly in the belief that it was the only chance they had of building a socialist republic and secondly, because the resolution made no reference to the implications of leaving the UK for postal workers.
The main implication of being outside the UK is that the universal service obligation for a flat rate charge for mail anywhere in the UK would no longer apply. Mail users in Scotland would be in the same situation as users in other countries such as Ireland or France with higher postage rates and next day delivery only available at a premium.
For businesses sending mail out of Scotland or receiving volume from elsewhere in the UK the costs could increase substantially.
When I tweeted about this I received dozens of hostile responses from nationalists which demonstrated a combination of dismissive indifference or a failure to grasp the point. Some argued that with Skype, Twitter, Facebook and e-mail, postage would not be needed. Others raised the fact that there were already North of Scotland surcharges by some carriers. Some said it was a silly point to consider against the big issue of independence.
My point, of course, was that this was just one of many changes that people of Scotland would have to adjust to if we chose to leave the United Kingdom – along with the bigger ones of the future of the currency and economic policy management.
PM’s spat with OBR doesn’t change fundamentals
The Prime Minister found himself rebuked by the independent Office of Budget Responsibility for claiming that the Government’s spending deficit reduction strategy had not contributed to the economy’s lack of growth.
This, of course, was seized on by the opposition who ignored the fact that the OBR acknowledged that the major factor in our lack of growth was to do with the slow growth outside the UK and the crisis affecting banks limiting lending.
The OBR did not argue that the deficit reduction strategy could or should be abandoned. If it were, as Labour and the SNP argue, it is likely that the UK’s credit rating would be further downgraded and bond and interest rates would rise sharply hitting businesses and homeowners hard.
The Government has set in motion a number of measures designed to stimulate growth such as quantitative easing, allowing pension funds to invest in infrastructure, city deals across England, tax breaks for oil and gas investment and prioritising a number of construction projects.
These measures and others under consideration will need to bear fruit in the coming year if we are to make progress in restoring growth and boosting revenues to help bring down the deficit. It would help Scotland if the Scottish Government acknowledged this and looked to bring forward more imaginative ideas of its own.