Monday, 8 February 2016

It's Just A Step To The Left

You know, just when you think that Scottish Labour are going to blunder through this election campaigning on the SNPBad tagline.  From nowhere Dugdale has pulled something that shockingly resembles a policy with the pledge for a 1% rise in taxes.

As a policy, it unlikable and unworkable.  Unlikable because of the across the board rise in taxes – thanks to the sack of bric a brac that was Calman coming into force at the start of the next parliament.  Hence this is not a targeted tax rise but an across the board rise.  Applicable to low wage earners as well as much as the Scottish based captains of industry.  The SNP, and in particular John Swinney are justified in saying his aim is to protect the poor and those on low wages from tax rises.  Less kind souls have flagged this up as Labour taxing the poor to pay for Tory austerity.

Unworkable due to the clawback facility Scottish Labour are talking up.  They plan to rebate £100.00 back to those earning under £20,000.  I’m not sure this is workable under the Calman inspired Scotland Act.  There is also the thought that this is yet another bit of admin that taxpayers are being asked to do, just to get ‘their own money’ back.  I’m sure that most voters remember how labyrinthine the tax credits process became, especially when HMRC recalculated and found that they’d overpaid, and are looking forward to this process returning should Dugdale become the next resident of Bute House.

As a policy then, this is an utter stinker.  Not something that will work at all.  And yet, as an act of politics, it’s actually quite a smart piece of thinking, if somewhat risky.

The attack line that Scottish Labour have been pursuing has been the line that they’re putting kids before cuts, which is somewhat disingenuous (given Scottish Labour’s own history with education finding, see those nice PFI built schools and the funding hole they created).  What this does signal though is a willingness, unseen since Donald Dewar, to pursue centre left policies from Scottish Labour.  The other thing this policy has done is put the SNP on the defensive.

Swinney’s performances this week, articulate as they have been, are nether the less performances in defence of their own stance on not using any of the ‘new’tax powers.  Indeed, for someone reputedly on the right of the SNP, Swinney’s performances have been leftish in tone and a reminder of how MacNew Labour-esque the SNP still are.  Indeed the impression that is being formed is that the SNP will put together another steady as she goes manifesto which will not contain the reforming or revolutionary policies that will give this administration a historical context. 

As I’ve said before, Dewar has the scrapping of Clause 28 (the wounds of which clearly haven’t healed hence Labours reticence to devolve Abortion Law to Holyrood).   McLeish has free care for the elderly while Jack McConnell, yes even Jack ‘do less better’ McConnell, has the Smocking Ban.  What does Salmond have and what does Sturgeon want to have?

However, back to Scottish Labour though.  In spite of this policy being something of a non starter, Scottish Labour should be commended for at least thinking of policies to run on and for kick starting a debate on what sort of fiscal policy we should be following.  Keeping tax rates as they were was never a good option for a country that values its public services, though the best way forward and how any new powers are used does provide scope for debate down the line.  This line of thinking holds true regardless of the outcome of the referendum. 

On a cautionary note however, one swallow does not make a spring.  In other words more policies like the tax rise are desirable before we can confirm a genuine return to Scottish Labour’s roots. Dugdale & Scottish Labour faces a long road back to power and the penny for education policy only represents the first step.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Get Corbyn

In her excellent column in yesterday’s Sunday Herald, Angela Haggerty highlighted the one eyed tweets of one G A Ponsonby whilst not being aware of his past.  If my own memory serves, he did/does do stuff for Newsnet Scotland but the online persona is a constant battle to aggressively plug his book on how biased the BBC was during the referendum.
"Is that a dagger I see before me..."

For a lot of the serious pro-Indy supporters, the coverage of the referendum from the BBC is still a serious touchstone issue.  For me though, I’d always thought that any bias, including the bias outlined in the UWS papers on the media’s output, could be attributed to an institutional bias rather than a deliberate premeditated bias.  Certainly, you couldn’t class the BBC’s coverage at the same level of bias as, say, an edition of The S*n from about 1983. Indeed the flashpoint of this – Nick Robinson’s performance at Alex Salmond’s final pre-vote press conference  - was described as by other people as deeply biased.  At the time though, I thought that it was “Unprofessional, yes.  Biased, no”.  As a result of this view, I always take Ponsonby’s views with a huge pinch of salt.  Someone who, rather like the website he provided pieces for, has promoted a staggeringly one eyed view of independence and those people opposing it and his worldview.

The thing is though is that it’s not the issue of independence that has shaken my own view of the impartiality of Auntie, but their treatment of the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.  You would expect the London based dead tree press (as Guido used to call them, before he became a Murdoch Shill) to have gone hard against a figure so diametrically the opposite to anything they believe in.  The joker in the pack though has been the performance of the BBC, and in particular their new Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg and their flagship politics programmes – mostly hosted by fellow Glenburn boy Andrew Neil.

The moment where both Neil, Kuenssberg and the whole Daily Politics programme jumped, not so much the shark, but a row of them whilst farting the theme tune to Happy Days would be during Corbyns first attempt at a cabinet reshuffle. The on air resignation of Stephen Doughty proved to be a controversial moment for the BBC, given that according to the output editor of the Daily & Sunday Politics, Doughty was only ‘considering’ resigning three hours before the show.  Even more damning is Alexander’s description that Kuenssberg “sealed the deal” for Doughty to resign on their show.  Which makes you wonder what precisely was in their conversation?

Of course Doughty has backed the BBC, Kuenssberg & co.  His resignation had the desired effect in handing Cameron ammunition to attack Doughty’s leader.  Assuming that’s how the new politics works, no?  The issue isn’t though whether the BBC should be behaving like other news organisations but whether they have compromised their own impartiality with how they handled the story.  As I said at the time, should the BBC really be the people to hand shadow ministers the knife to use to stab their leader in the front?  In broadcasting this story, the BBC have undermined their credibility, as can be seen in two examples from yesterday, when both Corbyn and his shadow chancellor O’Donnell were doing the rounds.

O’Donnell had drawn the long straw by going on to John Piennar’s Radio 5 Live show.  Except that O’Donnell unexpectedly found he was rationed to describing Labour policy in 5 words before being interrupted.  The new shadow Defence secretary Emily Thornberry fared little better against Neil himself when trying to explain Labour’s review of defence policy.  Neil even brought up the supposed scandal involving Thornberry taking donations from a law firm involved in legal action against HM Army. When Thornberry explained that the law firm in question were only donating manpower, it did make me wonder why this was suddenly a scandal among the right wing press (and the BBC) and the accountancy firm PWC ‘donating’ employees to other Labour MP’s, namely Rachel Reeves, Tristram Hunt, Chukka Umuna and Iain Murray, was not a scandal. Standards are definitely slipping at Auntie Beeb.

Sky News has always had a slight but detectable right wing bias, even down to their choice of participants on the Sky Papers section (watching Kaye Adams on this, it’s clear that she has – in the words of Rob Gretton – ‘gone south’), with the Daily Mirror’s Political Editor Kevin McGuire the only ‘tolken’ leftie allowed on the slot.  On the other hand the BBC has always fought for it’s impartiality.  In the eighties they even had to contend with the Thatcher government sending the police to raid their offices (including the old Queen Margaret Drive HQ of BBC Scotland) over a documentary series, which I think was on spy satellites.

Since Iraq, the death of David Kelly & the fall out from Hutton, the BBC have not been the impartial force that they were and defiantly lost something.  The resignation of Greg Dyke with hindsight seems to have cowed the BBC as their news outlets seem to have allowed their presenters to wear their views a bit more subtly.  A harbinger of this change being the current JP Morgan strategist, Stephanie Flanders, when she was the BBC’s economics editor.  Whether Kuenssberg’s obsession over Corbyn’s 7 day reshuffle will be seen as the turning point, or whether the politics unit continues in it’s treatment of Labour remains to be seen. 

It will not be helpful to the corporation if it is caught in the crossfire of an increasingly bitter and acrimonious fallout.  Even more so since the BBC is showing no intention of learning the lessons of it’s poor coverage of the Independence referendum.  You would think that we were not on the eve of another referendum sometime soon.  Regardless of your political viewpoint, Corbyn deserves fair coverage of his attempts to lead the Labour party.  Whether he succeeds or fails to become PM in four years time should not be dependent on coverage which is, to date, unacceptably below the standards the BBC used to reach.

Monday, 11 January 2016

SNPBad And The Golden Rule Of Opposition

You may have noticed that the build up to the fifth Holyrood Elections has seriously started early with the First Minister making a speech last week and some policy kite-flying from Scottish Labour.  Despite the issues in the NHS and the recent controversy surrounding the Forth Road Bridge, it is Scottish Labour in the worse shape and the twitter handle #SNPbad is at the very heart of their problems.

If you’re not versed on social media, essentially the handle #SNPbad has been used by supporters of the SNP to essentially paint Scottish Labour as a party opposing anything and everything the SNP do and a party that would spin difficulties as huge disasters for Scotland.  Except that this has grown arms and legs and is now used on social media to stifle criticism of the SNP government.

This is the view of several members of the Mac-commentariat, both Scot Arthur on Labour Hame and the Common Space’s Angela Haggerty, in last week’s Sunday Herald. Both have penned pieces critical – to varying degrees – of its use on social media.  Indeed Haggarty’s own criticism of the Bath based one’s own one eyed support of the SNP government - “it doesn’t seem to occur to some of the noisiest tweeters that an alternative media source like Wings which, while often offering worthwhile analysis (sic), rarely tackles the party of government on anything…  a worrying culture of  intolerance within the independence movement for self reflection has emerged” – is something that has been there within certain pro-Independence supporters from the off.

It could be argued that had there been a debate over the SNP prospectus for independence that a more robust vision would have emerged.  One that wouldn’t have fallen apart as spectacularly as ‘Sterlingzone’ did during the first Salmond/Darling debate.  Instead, any criticism of the SNP prospectus was noisily dismissed as being pro-union propaganda.  Policy positions were suddenly not policy but what would happen in the event of us becoming independent.  Try telling that to pro-Indy supporters (like the Scottish Greens) who were not totally enamoured by the Salmond plan.

The parliamentary SNP might not be an unthinking cult but a lot of their supporters do have a tendency for the kneejerk.  For a party 8 years in government, where the strains and stresses of government are starting to show and with no legacy policy to point at, there is a danger that the SNP could fall into their own hype.  In this sense Haggerty’s piece is completely on the money.  Yet, for all that there is a grain of truth in it all.  For all of Scottish Labour’s hysterical shrieking about how badly the SNP government are doing, they’ve forgotten the key rule about opposition. 

There comes a point where you have to stop being an opposition and you have to start looking like a viable alternative government.

A bigger issue in our democracy is that Scottish Labour just simply do not look like the next Scottish Government, let alone an opposition.  Sure there is now a drip feed of policies coming from Kezia Dugdale, but they don’t feel like the break from the past that Labour need.  They still smell like Progress Group castoffs and the reminants of McConnell's "Do less better", when Scottish Labour need to revisit Donald Dewars speeches – “Scottish solutions to Scottish problems” and all that.  Like changing the 50% tax rate pledge to start at £100,000 (because we don’t have enough people earning £150,000 to make it work – hence Osborne’s fiddling the figures at UK level when he scrapped it).

The #SNPbad phenomenon really hits home though in those criticisms of the SNP government when the Labour response does feel like shrieking criticism for the sake of criticism, a scattergun riposte rather than the necessary clear and concise response.  Instead Scottish Labour should be more restrained, conciliatory and offer their own alternatives and views on the best way forward. It is here that the Scott Arthur piece falls down in not recognising that Scottish Labour, in a sense, invite the accusations with their own responses. Though in truth, that article falls down totally at the point where Gordon ‘Light touch regulation’ Brown is described as a Labour hero and when, without any irony, the SNP are described as pursuing an “ideology-free populist agenda”.  That’s the SNP that have, since 2004, followed the New Labour electioneering playbook to the letter and created a more popular version of New Labour in Scotland than New Labour could.  MacNewLabour if you will. 

If #SNPbad is the current Frankenstein’s monster of post referendum Scotland, then it’s really up to Scottish Labour to set up to the plate and debunk the thoroughly negative image of their party this propagates, rather than the SNP.  While the SNP have issues of their own, this is a useful and electorally profitable stick to beat Labour with so you can’t see them stopping using the meme.  #SNPbad highlights issues surrounding Scottish Labour so therefore they should take ownership of the problem and proactively attempt to solve it. Who knows, taking the initiative for once might be cathartic for them.

Monday, 4 January 2016

First Footing 2016, With The Best of 2015

First of all can I wish you a Happy New Year?

I posted 37 blogs this year, and as you will see May’s Westminster election utterly dominated the blogging.  So without further ado, here’s the top ten best read posts out of those 37.  All brought to you by Thin Lizzy's 'Yellow Pearl', the song that was appropriated as the Top Of The Pops theme tune 35 years ago.

At 10 is a post about the bumbling oaf that somehow survived the cull of pro-Union MP’s.  Carmichael Must Stay pointed out that his lies were not the biggest whoppers told in British politics this century and that there’s just a little hypocrisy in the pursuit of someone clearly out of his depth. 

There are two posts at joint 8th place.  The first one being the General Election 2015: Tale Of The Tape post.  The other post at number 8  - The Other Victors - looks at where the SNP go from their biggest ever Westminster Election result.  At 7 is the post looking at the campaign as we were Entering The Final Lap.  That post also noted the new Scottish political landscape in microcosm being played out here in Paisley with New Labour loyalist ‘Wee’ Douglas Alexander poised to fall to ‘Yes’ campaigner Mhari Black.  Just outside the top five is a post from the other end of the campaign – The General Election Starts Here.  The one where I point out that Cameron would still be in Number 10 and that Ed Balls was in danger of losing his seat.  Take that Iain Dale!

Into the top five now, and the fifth best read blogpost of the year is the post about those so called allegations surrounding the then newly chosen SNP candidate for Paisley & Renfrewshire South – In Defence of Mhari Black.  At four is a post written in the aftermath of Jim Murphy & “Scottish” Labour being slapped down by Chukka Umuna and the other London based Blairites.  Why, Thank You Chukka Umuna was also inspired by the utter cluelessness of Renfrewshire councillor Terry “You’re a bigot” Kelly.  Nice to see him get the exposure for his utter cluelessness.

Top three time now.  The third best read post of 2015 looks at the possible policy options available to the SNP for this years Holyrood Elections while arguing against what was at the time The Referendum Shaped Elephant In The Room.  The First Minister has managed to successfully kick the issue of a second Independence referendum into the grass.  Whether that grass is long enough remains to be seen.  At number two is the post that at that point outlined exactly how many election leaflets I had received -  Labour 9, SSP3, Conservative 1, Lib Dem 1, SNP 0.

To no-one’s surprise, given how much it was tweeted at the time, the most read post of 2015 was my response to Chris Deerin’s own piece “Scotland Has Gone Mad”, which was titled “Yip, Scotland Has Gone Mad. But...”.  Unlike Iain McWhirter (and several other Cybernats), I wasn’t offended but surprisingly found things I agreed with.

So that’s that for 2015 then.  Apparently we’re all returning in 2016.  In the mean time, see you soon.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

2015: The Year of the Fringes & The End of The Third Way

You know, in times of impending war or economic crisis, the political fringes thrive.  The 1930’s of course saw the rise of Fascism and the German hard right in the shape of the National Socialists.  Looking at events in 2015, you can see the parallels as a host of figures from the fringes hogged the news.  Daesh, Trump, Syrzia, Podemos, UKIP and Corbyn – all figures from the fringes that were centre stage in this year.

The Tory Attack line that did for Milliband's chances of being PM
One name not on that list being our Prime Minister, David Cameron.  To the general amazement of quite a few of the political punditeriat, Cameron managed to lead his Conservatives to a first majority government since 1992.  The 12 seat majority might well have been the smallest Tory majority since Churchill’s comeback win in 1951, but after five years of the arranged marriage of the Lib Dems, it was heaven.  Cameron’s victory also spelled the end of an era too.  Coupled with the meltdown in the Lib Dem vote and the collapse in support for Labour in Scotland, the 2015 Westminster election saw the end of Blairite ‘Third Way’ politics.

Blairism of course has been a dirty word within Labour circles since…  well probably Brown became PM but Milliband certainly was more active in distancing himself from Blair’s legacy – even if he still kept a lot of policies that fall firmly into the New Labour camp.  Acceptance of Osborne-omics and TTIP being the biggies.  And yet there are people who think Milliband failed because he just wasn’t right wing enough.  Those people who must have looked enviously on at the Orange Bookers in the Lib Dems and thought, well how come they’ve managed to be kings of their party and we’ve been pushed to the sidelines.

Of course, those followers of the Progress Group never quite got how Labour failed to win. In much the same way that they still cling to the notion that you have to be on the centre ground to win.  That each of the Tories election wins since 1979 have been won from the right blows this theory out of the water.  Cameron’s Conservatives demonstrated – like Thatcher did in the 1980’s – that elections are not always won on the centre ground but in pulling as many voters with you as possible.  By whichever means necessary.

As Labour struggled to come to terms with the loss, their party embarked on another phase of navel gazing.  The Progress wingers immediately attempted to spin the election result as Milliband losing for not being New Labour enough.  Resistance to that idea eventually came in the shape of the left’s buggins turn candidate – Jeremy Corbyn.  His subsequent victory once and for all ends the New Labour years.  Yet for those Progress wingers contemplating defection, the odds on a rendezvous with their like minded Orange Book colleagues in the Lib Dems are slim.   The Lib Dem’s own election catastrophe left them with just 8 seats.

I had always thought that there was an informal tactical voting pact between Labour & Lib Dem supporters, a pact that had been intact since 1997.  Clegg’s decision to go into a coalition with the Conservatives can be seen as the starting point for the sheer collapse in support for the Lib Dems since 2010.  From the Holyrood elections in 2011 onwards it has been clear that the Lib Dems had lost the confidence of over half of their voters.

That haemorrhaging of support has consequences and in electoral terms this meant that the Tories benefited from the Lib Dems collapse, even when those supporters voted Labour.  The collapse in support for the Lib Dems made it easier for the Tories to capture those Lib Dem seats, with 26 seats being taken by the Conservatives.  This was enough to push them over the line and into winning a working majority.

With the Lib Dems reduced to the levels not seen since the Liberals in the 1970’s and Labour’s walk back to the left, it now looks as if we are now into a new age of British politics.  The landscape is further complicated by the bloodbath that engulfed ‘Scottish’ Labour.  Having lost last years referendum, supporters of Independence regrouped and resolved to take revenge on the pro-Union parties.  Given the poor performance of the SNP in 2010, this was not so much an uphill task but akin to hiking through the Himalayas.

There were hints that something was happening in polling last winter, however the first proper indications came with Michael Ashcroft’s polls in February that hinted at the bloodbath ahead.  Polls that proved to be correct as the SNP took every Scottish seat bar three.  That the SNP retain their high poll ratings says more about the piss-poor political manoeuvrings of the other parties than it does about the SNP’s competence – which has at least taken a dent.  This far out, the most certain thing to happen in 2016 will be Nicola Sturgeon winning a first full term as Scottish First Minister.

It could of course be argued that the success of the SNP is the exception that proves the rule here.  They have successfully reinvented New Labour for the Scottish electorate – MacNewLabour if you will.  And like New Labour, the SNP have kept their focus on retaining power without any thought of their legacy or of any big picture style policy.  New Labour’s legacy is one they blundered into in the fevered atmosphere post September 2001 – Iraq.  The SNP’s legacy so far is the referendum – something that has split Scottish public opinion in two with both camps steadily becoming more acrimonious towards each other.  “Scottish” Labour’s own hysterical opposition without really providing any alternative roadmap plays its own part in the landscape though.

The true state of British politics at the end of 2015 is division and acrimony, which fits in with the developing situation around the world.  Daesh’s twin attacks on France have rattled western politicians to the extent that one of the candidates to be American President has called for Muslims to be (temporarily?) banned from entering his country.  Yet the West remains on good terms with the country – Saudi Arabia – which is the seat of Wahabism.  The sect of Islam whose values Daesh have appropriated.

The backdrop of division and an inability to find concensus looks set to dominate 2016.  The US of course will be picking Obama’s successor.  In normal times Hillary Clinton would be the favourite, but these are not normal times.  Here there are big elections for Holyrood, Stormont, Cardiff and for London’s City Hall – including the London Mayoralty.  There is also the distinct possibility that the long trailed EU referendum will take place this year, an event that is already causing waves but will have, like the Independence referendum, far reaching consequences.  All in all, it remains to be seen where the new political landscape will take us.

In the mean time, may I wish you all a happy new year and see you in 2016.