Thursday, 19 January 2017

We Are 10!

It's 10 years.. pretty much to the moment, since I started this blog. It's is strange to think that it's something I kind of fell into, something that I kinda had to be prompted into doing.  Yet I'd always liked writing and was a bit of a political geek.

Most of the time it has been enjoyable, there have been moments where I easily saw myself reaching this landmark. There have been other times where I really struggled, but that's generally been the during the time's where I struggled.  If you look at the archive, you'll probably guess when.  At the moment, I'm in an okay place which is probably why posts are fairly regular at the moment.

When I did my 5th anniversary post, I'd flagged up the nascent Scottish based blogs that acted as an inspiration, and probably not just to me as those bloggers are, to all intents and purposes, the digital fathers and grandfathers of Wings over Scotland, Briebart and the other Alt-News Websites.  Lord preserve us...

Thanks to them for inspiring me to do this and thanks to the more higher profile people who have read, liked and shared this blog on social media. 
But thank you for reading and raise your glasses to the... well is it too much to ask for the next 10 years?  After all, tomorrow sees a Scottish land-owner become the 45th President of the United States and the best thing to do with that is to take every day as it comes.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Dispatches From Paisley At 10: The Fall Of Labour

This week sees the 10th anniversary of the setting up of this blog.  Over the next couple of posts we will be looking at the two big political trends in Scottish & UK politics over the past 10 years, starting off with the decline of the Labour Party.

I had been looking back at my archives a couple of weeks ago, and about 5 years ago there was a piece on Ed Miliband’s relaunch and how it blew up any lingering chance of him being Prime Minister.  There must be something in the water because here we are, at a similar point in Westminster’s ‘electoral cycle’ watching Corbyn attempt to relaunch his leadership.  Corbyn’s problem (if he even wished to be the next occupant of 10 Downing Street) is that he is fighting not just his own inadequacies as party leader but problems caused by political events, exacerbated to various degrees by Corbyn’s predecessors.
Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell with PM Tony Blair
during Scottish Labour's Spring 2007 conference

If we look at the world of January 19th 2007 (and who the hell would post their first blog on a Friday night?), New Labour held power in Westminster and in the devolved administrations in Cardiff and Edinburgh.  Blair had let it be known that he was nearing the end of his time in Downing Street, but we wouldn’t know how long he would remain.  Rhodri Morgan was still holding the reigns of power in Cardiff, he would remain Welsh First Minister for another two years despite never being Blair’s first pick for the role.  It would be here in Scotland and the third Holyrood elections where Labour’s grip on Working Class votes would be loosened.

Jack McConnell had been Scottish First Minister since 2001, but had seen his share of seats fall to 51 seats in 2003’s election.  Scottish Labour were still favourites to win a historic third term, even if McConnel & Labour’s campaign did look tired and complacent.   If any moment could be said to be the starting point of Labour’s woes, then the moment when the SNP won enough list seats to creep past Labour’s final total and become the largest party would be it.  Since that teatime on May 4th 2007, Labour’s grip on Scotland and Scottish politics has been loosened and remains the case to this day.

Why Labour’s grip on Scotland and Scottish life has only loosened since that day is an easy question to answer.  Labour had always sort of taken Scotland for granted, New Labour in particular actively tailored policies to middle class and upper middle class families, somewhat sidelining less well off voters.  The calculation being that Labour voters with centre/left values wouldn’t vote for anyone else.  The SNP came along to promise to reverse Scottish Labour’s planned hospital closures, tuition fees and prescription charges – and promptly started to hoover up disaffected Labour voters miffed at Labour’s decade long march to the right.  This was compounded by Scottish Labour’s inability to reconcile itself to that loss.  This has manifested itself in two ways.

Since 2011, Scottish Labour’s tactic has been very negative tactics.  It might be only the past 18 months that the SNP have dubbed Scottish Labour’s rabid tactics as ‘SNPbad’, but this is essentially what they’ve been doing since Iain Gray became Scottish Labour’s leader in 2008.  Everything that the SNP do has been labelled as bad with little in the way of rational explanation as to why.  This line became more rabid in the aftermath of the 2011 ‘landslide’ defeat which saw an SNP majority government.  Scottish Labour’s response to this was to begin to obsess about a possible Independence Referendum.  For the next four or five weeks, Scottish Labour were constantly talking about the threat of Independence and the dastardly SNP’s plans to implement a manifesto pledge.  When the Independence Referendum became real, it covered up Scottish Labour’s big problem.  They had become something of a policy vaccum.

In 2011, Scottish Labour wanted to stand up to Tory Spending Cuts, only to run away from Austerity protestors.  If memory serves this was all they really stood on, non of their policies were really that memorable.  As a result, and over the course of the past ten years, they’ve fallen into a knee jerk type of left wing policymaking which goes like this.  Spending money is good and tax rises are good therefore we must indiscriminately raise taxes to throw money at public services.  As a socialist, I’m offended that people think of this as socialism (it’s not) and goes a long way to explaining Labour’s policy failures.  By the time Labour repeated that mistake in 2016’s Holyrood elections by promising Tax hikes for all and (an illegal) rebate (which fell apart under scrutiny), they had already made the mistake that finished them in the eyes of many Scottish voters.

It’s not surprising, or that controversial, that Scottish Labour should argue for Scotland to remain within the United Kingdom.  It was the way they argued that case which alienated many Scottish voters.  Scottish Labour helped to set up the pro-Union Better Together campaign group and shared a platform with the Lib Dems and the Conservatives.  However it was the continued use of Tory attack lines and the cosy comfortableness that Scottish Labour hierarchy used those attack lines which resulted in the scales falling from many a Labour voter’s eyes.  That the referendum was ‘won’ had more to do with the SNP’s lack of economic arguments and Sterlingzone than anything Scottish Labour did as voters concluded that Independence at that point under that White Paper was too much of a risk.  Voters also concluded that Scottish Labour were also finished.   How different history would have been had Wendy Alexander remained Scottish Labour’s leader in Holyrood and the SNP gathered enough votes to hold their referendum in the first term.

644 days later and another Referendum arrived.  If the Independence Referendum split (and continues to split) Scottish votes into pro-Independence and pro-Union voters, then the EU referendum did precisely the same thing to the rest of the country.  This time Labour found itself under a leader with Eurosceptic leanings press ganged into being an apologist for the European Union.  As a result, and still remembering how they ‘won’ the last referendum but lost the peace, Labour fell rather badly between two stools by striking a sober but resolutely non cheerleading defence of the EU.

This would normally not be the fatal mistake for Labour.  However this is a party at war with itself.  Ed Milliband was not supposed to win the Labour Leadership in 2010 (according to the script put forward by pro-Blairite Labour MP’s) while Corbyn was simply not supposed to win the Labour leadership in 2015 as he fought off three candidates from Labour’s Progress Group (the now official group of Labour members who believe in Blairite Third Way politics).  It took less than a second for the Progress Wingers (on their website, the motto “The party within a party” appears – predating Momentum) to make their displeasure known at the result as Jamie Reed ‘resigned’ from the shadow cabinet.  His was not the only person to, essentially, end their political careers by throwing their toys out of the pram.

The Labour war is really a proxy for something else.  The Progress Wingers believe that power must be won before good things can be done (even if those good things are watered down to become more palatable to so called ‘swing’ voters) so policies must be tailored to appeal to swing voters.  Corbyn and his supporters believe that arguments must be made and policies must be formulated to appeal to core supporters and that they can win through the power of their arguments rather than through compromise.  It is the question which Blair never answered, indeed his premiership has rather muddied the waters in this respect.  In the post Thatcher Britain, what exactly is Labour for?

From a position 10 years ago, where Labour held the reigns of power, we now see a Labour party being torn apart from the inside and on the outside by political opponents like the Tories, UKIP and the SNP.  This is a situation entirely of their own making through their own choices or their reactions to other people’s choices.  Labour needs to have a long hard look at itself and ask serious hard questions about what it stands for, why and how it can successfully regain power without compromising those answers.  While I’m not sure if this blog will be here in another 10 years, if Labour carries on with the current self destructive path it’s on then they certainly won’t be here.  Going the same way as the Dodo, the Dinosaurs and the Liberals on the extinct list.

Monday, 9 January 2017

First Footing 2017 With The Best of 2016

First of all can I wish you all a Happy New Year & let’s hope that 2017 will be a better one that 2016.

2016 saw 35 posts in a year which saw the Holyrood elections overshadowed by the events surrounding the EU Referendum on 23 June, though not in the best read posts list here.  So let’s get to that top 10 with an appropriate chart rundown music in your head.

At 10 is a post looking at the similarities of Blair’s New Labour project and the Salmond & Sturgeon led era of the SNP, the style of which and policy choices I had previously dubbed ‘Mac New Labour’ on more than one occasion before getting round to writing that post.  Given New Labour’s obsession with grip on their image, at 9 was a post about the pro-Independence movement’s own obsession with the media.  Namely the targeting of BBC Scotland’s news output in with bill posters designed to undermine the idea of BBC Scotland’s impartiality.  How to Lose Friends and to Alienate Key Voters attempted to tell the zealots that it’s not the BBC, it’s really your fault ‘we’ didn’t vote for Independence.

At eight, a blogpost on the First Minister’s first adventures into the EU Referendum campaign, and in particular the Curious Position of the SNP given their dislike of one political union but their love of another political union.  At seven, There Used To Be A Political Party Across There.  Yeah, there…  where Corbyn, O’Donnell, Smith and Benn are scrapping away over the body of something that used to be called The Labour Party.  Just outside the top five is a post, titled “We Need To Talk About Regrexit…” where I explain why I don’t regret voting for Brexit.

Into the top five now and the fifth best read post of the year was the results post looking at the Holyrood 2016: The Tale of the Tape.  Not fantastic reading for advocates of the #BothVotesSNP campaign.  Gosh, remember that.  We’ll come back to that in a minute, because the fourth best read post of the year looks at the changing political landscape and concludes that over the past two years we have seen The Death Rattle of TheThird Way.  Watching supposedly progressive politicians show us their lack of political nous and general political skills has been the most frustrating aspect of 2016.  Progress wingers subsequent toy throwing exercise is a constant reminder of why those people are not qualified to run a shop, never mind the country.

Into the top three and at three is a calm, reasoned post explaining why I voted for the UK to leave the European Union.  Of course being a post about the EU, then Immigration must get mentioned, and it does.  In the 14th paragraph.

The second best read post of 2016 was a post reviewing the SNP’s election literature for May’s Holyrood elections.  The Conservative Party also critiqued the SNP’s lacklustre election campaign and the rather conservative policy positions they took.  Certainly the conclusion was that there was not a great deal to justify both votes being given to the SNP for the genuinely centre left voter.

This years best read post is something of a surprise to me.  There’s a number of posts that I’d thought would top the list.  However, like 2015’s best read post, last years best read post got there through journalistic patronage.  Partly inspired by that week’s column in the Sunday Herald by the Common Space editor Angela Haggerty, SNPBad and the Golden Rule of Opposition was a comment on both SNP supporters ridiculing of Scottish Labour through the twitter hashtag #SNPBad and Scottish Labour’s relentlessly negative campaign which at that point refused to proffer Labour solutions to SNP problems.

So, that’s that for 2016, and a good thing too.  See you soon for 2017.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

2016 And All That...

So, this time last year. I’d made the point about economic crisis and the links to the fringes of politics gaining traction.  I’d listed examples, Daesh, Syrzia, Podemos & Corbyn.  Those people had decidedly mixed years but the two other examples had a huge year.  Farage and Trump.

If you could claim with depressing justification that Nigel Farage was the UK’s person of the year, then the undoubted loser of the year would be the man who started the year in Downing Street.  David Cameron (right) possibly thought that he could pull off the same trick Harold Wilson pulled in the mid 1970’s with an in-out EU referendum predicated on mildly superficial changes to our relationship with the EU.  That this was a calculation which was not the one which blew up in his face and, essentially, lost him the referendum and his job as Prime Minister tells you how badly the EU Referendum was handled.

The big reason the UK voted to leave, and that Cameron is now…  ah, what’s that phrase again… actively seeking employment… is entirely down to losing the economic argument.  When sundry Political commentators marvelled at Cameron’s devastating use of ‘Project Fear’ in the 2014 Independence Referendum and the following years Westminster Election, they failed to read the small print and to see that those results occurred in spite of ‘Project Fear’.  If Milliband & Co had successfully turned the tables on Cameron by planting the seeds about Cameron’s (possible) preferred coalition partners, then Cameron certainly wouldn’t have a majority.  As for the Indyref, the pro-Union Better Together conceded 25% to the pro-Independence Yes Scotland, thanks in no small part to ‘Project Fear’.  Given the poll lead conceded between Spring 2012 and Autumn 2014, you’d have thought that supposedly smart political operators like Cameron & Osborne would have used different, better, tactics. 

Which is precisely what didn’t happen…

We got Project Fear II…  and that was the problem.  Cameron, Osborne and Co may have bombarded us with statistics and figures which told a story.  On the ground and on what Obama dubbed Main Street, those arguments did not ring true.  Leaving the EU would apparently cost £4500.00 per person.  Fine, but most people don’t earn that in a month thanks to stagnating wages, thanks to our economy not shaking off fully the effects of recession.  This coupled with the perception that Freedom of Movement/Immigration was playing a part in suppressing living standards in this country deeply undermined the Osborne narrative.  This is why the pro-EU side lost the economic argument, therefore the referendum.

The UKIP argument of conflating Immigration with Freedom of Movement was the argument which won the day for the Brexiteers.  Yet had the pro-EU campaigners stood up to UKIP’s anti-immigration rhetoric or even set out to comprehensively dismantle their arguments… as they should have, things would have been a whole lot different.  As a result, even so called ‘progressives’, like the Progress Wing of Labour, now disown multi-cultural Britain.  If Farage is UK Politics person of the year, then his success is entirely down to the collective failure of supposedly middle ground politicians.  This is a pattern which repeated itself across the Atlantic as Trump defeated the flawed candidacy of Hilary Clinton.

The other thing which links both Trump & Farage is that both come from the rebranded revival in Fascist politics, given a Hollywood style PR rebrand as the Alt-Right in the US.  Given that the US is a country always suspicious of left wing values anyway, you can only see the likes of Briebart getting further traction and more influence…  not a good thing.

In amongst the wreckage and fall out from the events surrounding the 23 June, it’s easy to forget that other events happened.  Completely understandable in the case of May’s Holyrood election as an SNP campaign that never got out of second gear won a historic third term in office.  For someone previously thought of as a resolutely left wing character, Nicola Sturgeon’s campaign and subsequent time in Bute House has seen a slight shift to the right.

We have seen the dropping of the SNP’s flagship policy from 2007 pledging to replace the Council Tax, with a pledge to reform the Council Tax.  We have also seen Sturgeon rule out adopting a 50% tax rate when the Smith Commission proposals come into force.   Both policy changes arguably mark a shift towards a less progressive taxation regime.  That’s not to say that the SNP have completely abandoned a centre left perspective/world view.  The policy on Baby Boxes is a fine policy, and the SNP were the only party in the whole of the UK to stand up for Immigration during the EU Referendum.  However, with the controversy over the recent budget and the poor performance of Scotrail, there is the beginning of the sense that the curse of the third term is beginning to set in.  That’s before we mention the SNP’s response to the EU referendum result, using this as a ‘material change’ trigger to a second EU referendum.  I’d said before that I don’t think that this will be the issue that sparks the move towards Independence that the SNP are looking for, and polling shows that.  Theresa May’s rumoured policy regarding the UK’s leaving of the European Court of Human Rights will be another matter.

The backdrop of division and acrimony continued throughout 2016, and thanks to the EU Referendum, deepened.  How this will play out in the key elections due in France & Germany remains to be seen, with the outcome of both having a direct influence on what kind of Brexit we will receive. Here there will be council elections, with all of the Scottish Councils up for grabs.  The big questions for 2017 will be: Will May go for an early election? Will Corbyn survive the year as Labour Leader? If Article 50 is triggered in the Spring, what is Sturgeon’s response? Will Labour split?  And what will happen to UKIP?

Before we find out, may I wish you all a Happy New Year and see you in 2017 for this blog’s tenth anniversary.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Overplaying Your Hand

In recent months, the SNP have apparently been engaging in a listening exercise.  There have apparently been events with members of the SNP listening and engaging with non SNP members in an attempt to argue the case for Independence.  There has also been an online survey as well, one where there has been speculation about the results ever seeing the light of day.  Both the survey and the concurrent listening exercise come to mind in a week where two poll’s were published showing that support for Independence has dropped to below the ‘hallowed’45% achieved in the September 2014 referendum. 

The First Minister with the EU's chief negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt
Whilst pro-Union supporters like Hague and company would like to think that this is the result of pro-Independence supporters coming to their senses and understanding that an Independent Scotland would be bankrupt thanks to the huge deficit (and for fans of that kind of fiction, there’s another piece of that ilk in the Spectator this week), I suspect that there’s something else going on.  I think that people have not taken kindly to the First Minister’s interpretation of ‘material change’ and application of that to a result where only 62% voted to remain.

Why pro-Unionist supporters are wrong in that it’s the economy at play here is two fold.  Firstly, anyone who believes in Independence will understand that the deficit will be there but that we Scot’s will decide in the maiden Scottish General Election how our economic affairs are to be managed, deficit or not.  Whilst Hague does us all a service in flagging up the state of the Scottish economy, the conclusion I take is not that we can’t but that we should and that radical surgery is required.  Surgery that some shirk from.  The second reason is that the pro-Union parties haven’t changed their tactics regarding the constitution.  Their tactics are to flag up the cons with Independence, relentlessly and in an utterly negative fashion.  ‘Project Fear’ is still alive and well and has kind of mutated into ‘SNP Bad’.  Of course, there are criticisms that you can make of the current SNP administration, most of them surrounding their timid and conservative policy prospectus. But to criticise for the sake of it, with no thought to any constructive form is politically dumb.  The sort of political dumbness that Scottish Labour have attempted to make into an art form, which explains why they’ve been eclipsed by the shameless bandwagon jumping Ruth Davidson Party.  If I could turn back time indeed…  The only set of tactics that have changed since the Holyrood elections have been those of the SNP.

While the SNP did have a good EU Referendum, and history has shown how wise it was for them not to take part in the official ‘Remain’ campaign, they have since June somewhat overplayed their hand.  As I’ve said before, when you consider how embarrassingly poor and offensive the official Leave campaign was, then 62% seems rather low.  At the time I thought that the pro-EU vote needed to be at the very least 65% for the SNP to have any credibility when it came to claiming a material change. I think that 62% is made up of genuine EU enthusiasts and also people who voted against both the Leave vision of ‘Brexit’ as well as the campaign itself.  Those people may be Eurosceptic but unable to vote for such a right wing campaign – hardly “being ripped out of the EU against our will”.  If anyone wonders why Eurosceptic’s would vote to remain, have a look at both Owen Jones and Paul Mason’s pieces this year – both are opposed to the European Union’s current direction of travel and both advocated hold your nose and vote remain.

While the SNP have continued to talk up the likely prospect of a second Independence referendum, the pretext for that shows that they have failed to learn their lessons from the first Independence referendum.  Up till Osborne gave us the infamous “Sermon on the Pound” (© Iain McWhirter), the SNP and Yes Scotland were being battered over those currency plans and their plans to ‘retain Scotland’s membership of the EU’.  Those two policy pronouncements from the SNP led to people like myself wondering what the point of Independence was then if we would be handing power back to the Bank of England and the EU.  The pro-Independence supporters that are vocal about wanting rid of Westminster rule appear ignorant of the by-product of Salmond & Swinney’s ‘back of a fag packet’ Sterlingzone proposals.  A Fiscal Pact would have ensued with the Bank of England having a degree of control over an Independent Scotland with the core aim ensuring the value of Sterling and making sure an Independent Scotland kept within spending and borrowing targets.

Not that the EU were showing signs of being interested in bringing us straight into the EU, with both Barroso and Rompuy both parroting the line that Scotland would have to wait in line to apply for EU membership and that being good little Europeans would not be sufficient. At the time I’d though that there would have been three countries that would have blocked I-Scotland’s application.  Had we voted for Independence, we would have left the EU, having just voted to split from a country with its name on the various treaties with the EU.  In this respect, the Better Together campaign were entirely correct in their synopsis of Yes Scotland’s arguments – it’s just that the form of works they choose has now become a hostage to fortune thanks to that EU referendum result.

There are some pro-Independence supporters though for whom exit from the EU was an attractive prospect.  If Independence could be though of as ‘Taking back control’, then doing so outside of the sphere of influence of the EU would be Independence Max – with full control over policy areas such as agriculture, fisheries, and the economy. Let’s not forget that the Michael Ashcroft post EU Referendum poll showed that 35% of SNP voters voted against their parties’ line by voting to leave the EU.  Maybe some of those voters did it tactically to sabotage the Union.  The voters that genuinely are Eurosceptic must be exasperated at the SNP’s constant cheerleading of a project increasingly pro-Thatcherite in it’s policymaking.  It was the EU (alongside the ECB) which forced Greece to sell off it’s publicly owned assets at knock down price.  Alternatively known as ‘making Greece TTIP compliant’.  It’s also the EU, through the Lisbon Treaty, which seeks liberalisation of markets previously closed off to publicly owned companies.  The SNP seem content to toe the party line when it comes to outsourcing, but go quiet when re-nationalisation comes up.  Like with the current hot topic, Scotland’s railways.

In looking at what has happened to both sides of the constitutional debate, it is only the post EU Referendum tactical change from the SNP which can account for the drop in support for Independence. Sturgeon’s misguided belief that only pro-Union Little Englanders back Brexit looks more and more like beliefs that have clouded her judgment at best, and at worst forced a tactical blunder that pleases only the pro-Unionists.  By tying the question of Independence to membership of the EU, the SNP have backed into a cul-de-sac on an issue that only the one eyed pro-Indy supporters back wholeheartedly.  The SNP hierarchy have unnecessarily caused a split in the ranks of pro-Independence supporters and with the use straight away of the threat to hold a second referendum, the SNP have unnecessarily played their only card too early and in the face of a democratic result that has gone against the SNP’s own wishes.  If a second Independence referendum is lost, Sturgeon’s reaction to the Brexit vote might be seen as the moment that kept Scotland in the Great British bosom.