Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Aspiring politicians and controversial views

Towards the end of the House of Comments podcast that we recorded yesterday, we discussed aspiring politicians who have controversial views on issues and the potential consequences of them being completely open about this.

We all agreed it is true that some people who aspire to political office, whether it is local or national play their cards close to their chest on controversial issues. After all, it is easy for political opponents to put screaming headlines on a leaflet such as "SOFT ON DRUGS" or similar and this can cause real damage.

I must admit that towards the end of the discussion I did get a bit passionate on this subject. I did run for council office earlier this year and intend to again. I also at some point in the future may run for higher political office. My views on drugs policy (that I think they should all be legalised and that I have consistently backed up with what I feel is compelling evidence) are well recorded on this blog and elsewhere. So if/when those days come any opponents of mine will have access to my thoughts on this subject and may decide to try and use them against me.

One of the reasons I got involved with politics a few years back is because I want to make a difference and drugs policy is an area in which I am particularly passionate. I very much feel that we are going down the wrong road and that the evidence shows in order to reduce harm, crime and all sorts of other pernicious effects that we need to have a complete rethink. I could have taken a decision early on to not talk about this subject for fear of it damaging my future prospects but I chose to do so instead. My view is that the only way we are ever going to see change is if enough people step forward and air their views until eventually it becomes clear that far from being an extreme, minority view it is instead a widely held opinion. It will also help all the issues around the subject be aired.

Am I being naive in thinking that I can be as outspoken as I have been and still have a potential political career? Maybe. I guess I will find out. But from my perspective there is no point in embarking upon one if I cannot be honest about my views on something that is of critical importance to this country. I have been advised on occasion that it is a "fight that I cannot win" and I would better off focusing my energies on other issues. I completely disagree. People are dying every day as a direct result of current policies. There is untold illness and misery that could be eased and harm reduced if we took a different approach. I fervently believe that in 50 years time we will look back on our current "war on drugs" approach as pretty barbaric or at the very least totally ineffective. It will be viewed as the 1920s prohibition era in the USA is viewed now.

But to get there people have to step forward. If that means I damage my own political aspirations then so be it. But hopefully there will eventually be so many of us (and I know people from all parties who agree with me) that we will no longer be able to be dismissed as extreme.

Only time will tell.


firefly said...

I think it's good to be true to your own values as much as possible. It might well cause you trouble but if you can defend your viewpoints at the same time as accepting those of others, while still seeking to persuade them, then hopefully you will at least gain as much respect as you might lose in wider popularity. Good luck with your political career :-)

Iain said...

My hunch is politicians can be outspoken only when they're established and well known. If all people know about you is your views on drugs, it will probably harm your chances, but if they already know you as a good, hardworking councillor/MP it's easier.

(some years back I lost an election where my Labour opponent put out a leaflet referring to "Potty Lib Dems" - nothing I'd said personally but we'd passed some vaguely sensible policy on drugs at conference).

Sol said...

I think it will harm you among some and help you among others. Net, it will probably harm, but not terminally so. It is slightly different when something is your raison d'etre, I think. If someone comes out and says, "I think ecstasy should be legalised, the current rules arent working," they are going to provoke a response. The thing is, some people dont want to spend the next several days / months / years justifying that position, repeating it, qualifying it, substantiating it. Some people would rather be talking about, say, education, or health.

So politicians avoid saying anything controvercial because they fear getting bogged down in something and either a) having to spend lots of time defending it or b) appearing to "flip flop" by backing away from it or avoiding the subject when it inevitably comes up again.

I think your preoccupation on drugs policy is a fantastic thing, I welcome it entirely. I hope it is wrong to say you are fighting a losing battle. I think the odds are stacked against you but having people picking away at it is important. And who knows. We live in an age of radical politics, maybe we will end up getting reform of drugs policy for financial reasons. I could see us ending up with the right outcome for the "wrong" reasons, but the most important thing is the outcome.

Emma Burnell said...

I think The Druid is absolutely right about why people don't pursue it too much - less for fear of the controversy, more for fear of being bogged down.

Having said that, the more people who do espouse this position the less controversial it would become, and the less it becomes the only thing anyone would talk to you about. But some people have to be the outliers to make that happen.

For what it's worth, it will probably harm you less with the Lib Dems than with any other party, as your stance is closest to their (very good) policy position, and I suspect that an issue like this is more one that would cause problems at selection than at election.

Sol said...

Well you could make the case these kinds of policies do not hurt individuals in the Lib Dem party so much as the party itself. It is why some people (perhaps) bottle it when they are on the verge of voting LD in an election but then do not.

It is, in short, why people like Guido call the LDs "weirdie beardies".

Alistair said...

Thinking about the general case the tweet that I directed to you and one other yesterday kind of summed it up for me, but I acknowledge that I'm coming at these things from a different direction to the vast majority of the electorate.

I expect my representatives to have opinions, and to be able to stand up for those. There are some positions that an individual will take that I agree with, some less so, but I'd expect to be able to see them rationalised and explained. I'd also expect controversy on only a small subset of the issues, nobody can be passionate about everything. That translates into looking for someone who can stand up for themselves.

On the other hand there is the position that to succeed one must be pure, blameless and have no hooks for ones opposition to grasp onto in attack. Personally I see a number of issues with that, it's a risk averse position, and one ends up being a bland nonentity, it might as well be a coloured rosette on a monkey for all the value it is. Equally being a politician at any level exposes one to some pretty hostile treatment from opposition, constituents, other stakeholders and the media. If one is unwilling, or unable, to hold a contentious position, or be prepared to step out of line now and again then what hope does one have.

asquith said...

You are someone who has a great deal to contribute, definitely. The really funny thing is that people who are pioneers on any issue, as you are given that so few people agree on drugs (fwiw I do!) often do end up sacrificing their own careers, only for later generations to thank them.

Look at how the first self-professed atheists were vilified. We still have a hard time even here (see how mealy-mouthed Clegg was obliged to be) & much more so in other parts of the world, but because people like Bradlaugh rocked the boat there's less need to be a hypocrite about lack of faith.

I would find it galling to have to softpedal or not mention something I felt strongly about, I really can't offer any advice but I just think even if you get yourself into trouble it won't all be in vain.

Do you hold out any great hope for drugs policy? I don't, I find it possible that Camoron is quite liberal on the issue but he won't move when it's something few Lib Dems would see as a deal-breaker, & the hardcore right-whingers in his own party ae implacable about.

If there is to be any hope it will come from developing countries or, an outside chance, Obama, whom I have fairly solidly supported in general since his election.

Stephen said...

It always gets me wondering, how very different will politics be in 20 or 30 years, when many aspiring politicians have taken similar roads on blogging, or have somewhat embarrassing pictures on facebook. Technology is really going to change how much we know about a politician's past life, what they used to believe and so on. Surely at somepoint, everyone's going to have these contraversial things online that it in fact becomes the norm?

Sol said...

Stephen I think we are already part of the way there. Look at Obama and his well documented dabbling with illegal substances in the past - Clinton puffed but didnt inhale and Dubbya was known to be something of a party animal in his youth.

I think we are a little less open about it here, though Cameron has refused to say he didnt dabble at school I believe?

Admitting to youthful indiscretion is the first step. So maybe next will be coming out and saying the whole thing is a shambles and needs to be changed. We can but hope.