Monday, 22 January 2018

Davy, The RAH And Their Part In The SNP Jumping The Shark

Given the poor 2017 that the SNP had, with criticism mounting of their performance in government, accusations of putting the constitutional question ahead of everything else and being the only major party to lose seats and votes in the June Westminster election, you can understand why they’d want to retake the political narrative they lost in the aftermath of the EU Referendum. To do it in such a self satisfied and inaccurate way though shows an SNP in some trouble.

Health Secretary, Shona Robison, meets RAH campaigners (and local
MSP Neil Bibby) at a meeting, 19 May 2017
The part that captured the headline’s of the SNP’s PBB is the ‘Davy’ character. ‘Davy’ is the caricature every ‘SNPBad’ pro-Yoon person of every SNP staffer’s dreams/nightmares. That he has a passing resemblance to the Scottish Commentariat’s ‘only Tory in the village’ David Torrance, is purely incidental. Of course the SNP wouldn’t, in spite of the delight of the ‘Yes’ fundamentalists, be so crass and stupid to attack a high profile critic of the SNP. True, he comes across as bumptious and self important on the media. But for the governing party to parody a critic in such a vicious fashion is disturbing.

Of the glaring inaccuracies in this video, that ‘Davy’ does not have anyone agreeing with him is one that seems to be missed. In any gathering I’ve attended, attitudes towards the SNP government are divided and supporters are not quite as vocal as they are here. I’m sure that this scenario is much more representative than the universal love in displayed there, though probably not in the mind’s eye of the ad’s creators.

While there are big inaccuracies in the film (Schools were rebuilt under the Labour/Lib Dem executives, financed by PFI, Fracking isn’t banned but subject to an indefinite moratorium and given the mess of Police Scotland, would you trust their crime statistics?) and some of the other ‘achievements’ are things we would want a government to be doing anyway (Free prescriptions), the PBB itself is the most cack handed and ugly piece of virtue signalling since Matt Damon. Three days down the line though, the part that stands out is the part about NHS funding, about the 12,000 extra people working in the NHS and protecting public services.

That bit now sounds just a tad hollow now, given the Health Secretary’s decision on Friday.

I had previously written about the closure of the children’s ward at the local Royal Alexandria Hospital last year in the context of Scottish Labour’s inability to make cogent arguments on this issue. At the time, this was a decision made by Greater Glasgow Health Board and theirs alone, the final say was still to be made by the Health Secretary, Shona Robison. Therefore at that point it was untrue for Scottish Labour to say that the SNP planned to close the ward. As it happens, I still don’t think that’s true. However the Health Secretary’s decision, announced on Friday, to rubber stamp GGHB’s decision to close the ward and move those services to a hospital 7 miles away means two things.

For one thing it destroys a key plank of the SNP’s armoury that they will protect public services, as this claim is now a self evident lie. Robison’s decision is potentially this SNP government’s ‘jump the shark’ moment, their “Black Wednesday” if you will. I say potentially because, of course, it rests on the ability of the opposition to win over the voters and make this self inflicted wound into something terminal for the SNP. After all, “Westland’s” in 1986 did not see the end of Thatcher in no small thanks to Kinnocks inadequacies. But it’s possible that given the right response, in other words not unthinking “SNPBad”, that this issue could bring the SNP down at the next election.

Paul Sinclair, yesterday...
The second thing is that I think this is a direct consequence of the SNP’s conservatism. Like ‘Scottish’ Labour before them, the SNP are now content to manage our public services and argue for more money to be thrown at them, but not to argue for improvements or changes to those public services. As a result, they do not see the issues arising from our public services not working as they should. The relevant evidence here being the performance of Greater Glasgow Health Board and their mismanagement of the RAH.

For years the RAH was not a well run hospital. It was not well run under the Labour/Lib Dem executive and it is still not well run by the SNP government. Since the new Southern General hospital was opened though, there has been a gradual downgrading of services by the GGHB. Services have been side lined in favour of the new hospital about 40 odd minutes travelling time away on public transport. Or if you’re an Yes fundamentalist, 5 minutes away. So for the “Cybernats” to say that the RAH is not fit for purpose, then whose fault is that then? The SNP government that have been in post for 10 plus years, and have had every opportunity to reform the NHS, or GGHB, who have mismanaged the hospital in Scotland’s largest town without a peep of protest from either this government or the McConnell led Labour/Lib Dem administration.

If GGHB are to blame, then who then has been guilty of providing them with the autonomy to fail? I don’t think Robison or the SNP Government planned to close this ward at all, however I think that’s been GGHB’s intention all along. Robison & the SNP’s failing is in their lack of backbone and leadership on this issue, though there is an argument there that perhaps the SNP’s mitts could be placed on the designs given that the new Southern General is in the First Ministers constituency. But no, given Robison’s intransigence in the past to the treatment of the RAH by GGHB then this act of sheer spinelessness fits in perfectly with Robison’s behaviour. Do not challenge, accept the ‘experts’ view and move on, arguing that anyone who disagrees has an agenda or is a full card carrying yoon. And these people expect to win a referendum behaving like this....

Perceived wisdom within the SNP bubble is that this PBB has been a success. It has not. It has blown up in their faces, torpedoed by a supine Health Secretary who’s clearly out of her depth in the post rather than offended members of the Scottish commentariat. If the last four days have shown us anything, it is that the trajectory of the SNP since the EU referendum is continuing and that that the signs of political entropy are setting in at speed (Arrogance, poor policy development, lack of grip on government). In the meantime, while campaigners mourn their defeat, this acts as yet more evidence of the First Minister’s terrible political judgement and being an awful political strategist.

Monday, 15 January 2018

First Footing 2018 With The Best Of 2017

First of all, can I wish you a belated Happy New Year and hope that 2018 is a better year for you than 2017.

In 2017, we had 41 posts, the most posts in a year since 2011.  It was a year dominated by the fallout of last years EU Referendum, the SNP’s loss of control of the political narrative and May’s cut and run election which backfired spectacularly.  Yet with the exception of the number one on this list (and I suspect you all know what it is), every post in the top 10 was in the first half of the year.  Without further ado, lets get to that top 10.  Cue The Wizard...

At 10 is a post about the big losers from June’s General Election.  The SNP did win the Scottish ‘leg’ of the Westminster Election, but lost more seats net and more voters and dropped more % points than the Tories and “Slipping Through Fingers” explained why Sturgeon’s own ‘Imperial’ phase was over. At number 9 was one of a series of pieces burying the Labour Party (as was). "Dying Before Our Eyes" lamented the paucity of political intelligence among Labour circles, especially when it came to campaigning against closures of local hospital wards recommended by, essentially, QUANGO’s.

At 8 is one of a number of posts about Indyref 2 and why the clamour for an Autumn 2018 vote will lead to disaster.  Asking The Question” was also part inspired by Steve Richards “Leadership Reflections” talks about UK Prime Ministers that was shown on the BBC Parliament channel and was the place that pinpointed the concept of ‘Political space’.  Number seven in the list is about another of the SNP’s issues.  Mhari Black’s election address was an appealing address aimed at a left of centre audience, which blanked her own parties own rightwards move at Holyrood and “A Lesson in Talking Left and Acting Right” (incidentally a charge I used to level against Gordon Brown) discussed this dichotomy.

At six is a post where I say that the leader of the Labour Party is essentially a “Dead Man Walking”.  As it happens, a lot of the criticisms I make are still valid. He’s still not a great orator, he is still not as flexible enough at public speaking though he has improved at the dispatch box.  I’m still not sure he’s handled the fallout of the EU referendum well either, though i don’t think he should go down the route advocated by both the SNP and Blair and champion the ‘Remoaner’ cause.

Into the top five and at five is one of the two ‘guest’ posts that appeared in this 10th anniversary year of this blog.  Both the Scottish Labour activist Lauren Gilmour and SNP candidate in May’s council elections Brian McGuire wrote guest posts, with Brian’s take on his campaign, “Not To Be This Time” reaching the top five.  At four is a post that reads as a harbinger for the post that ends up as number one in this list as it highlight’s the “Yes movement’s” little man Trump problem.  Poisoning The Wells of Scottish Politics” was about the reaction to an article praising Sadiq Khan’s semi-controversial speech at Scottish Labour’s conference, but the (over)reaction among Indy fundamentalists overshadowed what Clare Heuchan actually said. 

Three to go, and at three is a post looking at “The Bad Politics of Indyref 2”, as executed by both parties.  Essentially the argument here is that if May had any political nous, she’d give Sturgeon exactly what she wants – Indyref 2 this autumn.  At 2 was a post looking at the Tories ‘out and proud’ pro-Union campaign and their target seats. “About That Mandate...” asks if what we saw in the Holyrood Elections would happen again, with the Tories and the Lib Dem’s winning seats by putting opposition to Indyref 2 front and centre of their respective campaigns.

This brings us to...  well the most read post of 2017. “The Suicide Note For The Yes Movement” was inspired by the reaction to Kat Boyd’s act of hard truth telling on a post election edition of The Sunday Politics in mid July: that left wing pro-Independence supporters were attracted to and voted for Corbyn’s Labour (over an SNP that, as has been said ad nausium here, drifted rightwards) should not have been news to Indy fundamentalists.  What was new was the casual throwing away of the ‘Yes Coalition’ by what we should describe as Indy fundamentalists, angry that voters could be ‘tempted’ to vote for a ‘yoon’ party.  While this post concerned itself with on-line figureheads of this ‘fundamentalist’ movement – Stuart “Wings” Campbell & James “Scot Goes Pop” Kelly, it also pre-explained why those on-line Indy Fundamentalists, and the SNP, have gone after Corbyn’s Labour with such venom.

So, that’s yer lot for 2017.  See you soon for the rest of 2018.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

2017: The End of The Third Way

At the start of May this year, many of the Anglo-centric punderati were lauding the rise of the French politician Emanuel Macron, and his election as French President. With very little to zero self awareness, the consensus was that what we needed here in the UK was the emergence of a similar ‘Centrist’ style party and politician. May also saw the twentieth anniversary of, well... the Macron thing happening here. If I’ve pointed out before that the political landscape is now turning against ‘Centraism’ (another new name), Neo-Liberalism or Third Way Politics, then this was the year that this became obvious to... well, even the dumbest of Progress winger.

While the year began as it ended, with Theresa May in Downing Street. That security of tenancy has become weaker with there now a real possibility of a Corbyn or Corbyn minded government entering Downing Street if this government falls apart. The Civil War within the Labour Party between the ‘moderate’ Progress and the ‘hard’ left Momentum is still ongoing, but is not getting the media exposure it was. The difference between then and now is that election.

Before the election was called, I’d felt that May would not go to the country. She had just sent the letter which triggered Article 50, she had a small but working majority. In short, her timetable would not have the time or space to fight an election. When she called the election, a lot of those pundits rushed to predict 100+ seat majorities for May. I didn’t, partly because it didn’t feel like a 100+ majority election, partly because cut and run elections have a history of not going to plan for the party which call them and partly because May was no Thatcher or MacMillan. Having said that, I still thought a comfortable majority for May would be the outcome. However that was before the most disastrous Conservative election campaign in living memory. The true turning point of the election and the year was the unveiling of the so called ‘Death Tax’, and the subsequent u-turn which drove a coach and horses through “Strong and Stable”. It was this which caused the Tories polling to fall.

The other thing which cost them the election was the much, much better than expected Labour campaign. The deliberately ambiguous but politically astute stance on single market membership, the policy on tuition fees and the promotion of workers’ rights all contributed to Labour’s biggest vote since 2001. For all of this though, Labour still lost. The infighting and the high media profile of Progress wing MP’s banging the anti-Corbyn drum is a part of that, but perhaps more exposure should be shone on Scottish Labour and their reticence to campaign on the Corbyn manifesto. That the Corbyn bounce came late to Scotland could explain why the SNP held off Scottish Labour in 7 seats by a margin of under 2%.

Yet, for all that May and the Conservatives have had a bad year, she is still there in Downing Street. Fear of a Corbyn government is only half of the reason, the other half being that there is not one candidate that looks even like a potential Prime Minister in waiting. Rudd looks the most capable, but is a risk thanks to potential questions about financial probity in her past and her majority in her Hastings & Rye seat being 346. Hammond has too many enemies, while Gove & Johnston should be damaged goods. I did think that had she a bad conference, she’d be gone by now. Well, she did... but the party still rallied around her, for the reasons outlined above. I now think that she’ll be safe for the foreseeable future, or at least until the divorce with the EU is finalised.

If there was a climate in this country for ‘Centraist’ politics, both Labour and the Tories would not have vacated the centre ground (and seen electoral dividends in doing so). We wouldn’t have seen the fall we have seen in support for the SNP (which we will come to in a minute). But most of all, we would not be seeing the Lib Dem’s essentially on life support. They may have gained four seats in June, with three of them gains from the SNP, but their vote share dropped again. This is in spite of their policy for a second referendum on the EU, this one on the divorce terms, gaining praise among pro-EU commentators. The problem with that is that the likes of the “Sage of Twickenham” and other pro-EU politicians use the comparison of buying a house rather than that of a divorce.

Cable’s installation as Lib Dem leader following their election disappointment (which saw their previous leader Nick Clegg lose his seat) hinted at Progress level desperation among the Orange Book wing of the Lib Dem’s. What was apparently needed was someone to steady the ship and not make gaffs about homosexuality as Faron did. The problem for the Lib Dem’s though is that people remember the coalition, who felt that a vote for the Lib Dems was not a vote for the Tories.

The SNP’s problem this year is rooted in their desire for a second Independence referendum and the lack of policy formation out with that target. Since the first Independence referendum, they had moved to the right on key issues, notably on taxation. The performance of Scottish public services began to cause concern among SNP ministers, with the Tory charge that the SNP were neglecting “the day job” hitting home. The SNP’s problem wasn’t that they were neglecting the day job as such, but there was not enough ‘grip’ on the day job, hence the issues with Police Scotland, education and the NHS.

The election campaign also highlighted that the First Minister is not actually that astute a political strategist; we saw this in several ways. Sturgeon’s high profile in the campaign, for a campaign where she wasn’t standing, invited questions on her government’s performance to be an election issue rather than highlighting her MP’s and their achievements. While the loss of seats, especially those in the North East, could be attributed to Sturgeon’s tying of Independence to EU membership. Scotland’s North East coast was the most eurosceptic part of Scotland in the EU referendum, with Moray seeing the closest vote with 22 votes in it. Remember, because the SNP seem not to have, that 36% of SNP voters in 2015 also voted to leave the EU.

In the past few months though, the SNP seem to have shown signs of recognising the signs and formulated policies. They are talking about tax rises and investment and a publically owned energy company. They’ve also put talk of so called ‘Indyref 2’ on the back burner. This move is a smart move; however the policy announcements are not. The SNP might recover their political standing in 2018. However, in another example of Sturgeon’s poor political strategy, these policies should have been in the 2016 Holyrood manifesto when the SNP had the political space rather than when the SNP look behind the Corbyn led curve.

As 2018 looms into view then, the big questions then are thus; will May survive (I think she’ll still be in Downing Street this time next year)? Will we have a second Independence referendum (I don’t see that happening, and possibly not in 2019 either)? And will we have a satisfactory divorce from the European Union (Hmmmm)?

Before we find out, may I wish you a happy new year and see you in 2018.

Monday, 11 December 2017

The One About The UK City Of Culture

Thursday, 6:30pm, The Library Bar: It is the day that the next UK City of Culture is announced, with Paisley up against Coventry, Sunderland, Stoke-On-Trent and Swansea for the honour of succeeding Derry/Londonderry and Hull in hosting this event. The Library Bar is filling up with some of Paisley’s finest... well some of those that hadn’t been invited to the big shindig up the road at the UWS.

The past couple of days had seen some tension, but it is now palpable with moments away from the announcement. The announcement is live on television, but there is no speeches congratulating the final five or any ceremony. No the announcement is made on BBC One’s ‘The One Show’, a not very good attempt to recreate the BBC’s ‘magazine’ show from the 70’s and early 80’s, Nationwide. With that comes the feeling that this announcement isn’t exactly the centrepiece of the show... and so it proves.

When the announcement is made, it comes as such an anticlimax that you had to pinch yourself that they’d made it before asking yourself ‘did he just say Coventry’, or if you were out of earshot and caught by surprise (and let’s be honest, The One Show handled the thing like SPOTY handles Scottish Football) ‘what did he say?’. What that anti-climatic feeling did do though was act as a buffer, cushioning the disappointment. When that disappointment came, it was tempered with a sober realisation and didn’t come as crushing. I am of course speaking for myself, and probably quite a few people in that pub. At the UWS shindig and in Hull (where the announcement was made), feelings may have been sharper and the sense of disappointment more immediate and raw.

Of course, congratulations should be given to Coventry. Like Paisley, an area struggling to re-define itself in the age of Globalisation with a cultural heritage. The birthplace of Phillip Larkin, Lee Child and the home of Two Tone records – the first successful ‘Indie’ record label (even if distribution was, I think, done through Chrysalis) and conversely the first ‘Indie’ number ones (The Special’s “To Much Too Young” in February 1980, followed by the iconic “Ghost Town” 15 months later). It is a city which is as deserving of the award as we would have been.

Paisley 2021's Jean Cameron hands over the final City of Culture bid
document, 29 September 2017

Sunday, 9pm: On the Thursday night, I had put up a post on social media, congratulating Coventry but also paying tribute to the Paisley 2021 team and also saying that a lot of the things happening in Paisley (the plans for the “Baker Street” cultural quarter, the Spree, the Mod) were all things happening independently of the bid – these were not things contingent on the success of the bid. With 72 hours hindsight, there’s nothing which has changed that view. If anything, the mindset that is now showing is the mindset of it being a setback but not the end of the world. That mindset can only be commended.

The only thing which is bothering me is the question at the root of Thursday night. Why did we lose? In what way was Coventry’s bid superior to our bid? Did they have a better bid, or did we do something to lose it? Or were we the victim of outside forces? Like with UK cities now being expelled from bidding for the European Capital of Culture, did our bid fall foul of the power play between the governments in Westminster and Holyrood?

My own view, as someone with zero experience of bidding for arts & cultural events, is that this was a bid that was not lost by us. The bid team, led by the effervescent Jean Cameron, have created a buzz around a town that not that long ago was a backwater and a joke. I remember vividly my former partner bemoaning the fact that there was nothing in Paisley and that it was dying on its backside, so remembering Paisley at a low point is relatively recent history.

It may have been Derek MacKay who bid (successfully) to bring the MOD to Paisley and it may have been his (Labour) successor Mark McMillan who sanctioned the setting up of the inaugural Spree festival (which ran concurrently with that MOD in October 2013). It was certainly under McMillan that Renfrewshire Council decided to bid forthe City of Culture. Both figures are people who I have criticised on these pages in the past. But here, they deserve praise as both the MOD and the Spree can with some justification be seen as the starting point of Paisley’s comeback.

However, returning to the bid. To my untrained eye, I don’t think there’s very much else the bid could have done. From the art installation ‘Pride of lions’ to the dispatch of the final bid there has been a gently choreographed building of a buzz around the bid. Yet whilst the things happening in Paisley were independent of the bid and it’s success, they were stimulated by the bid. I am sure that in the fullness of time the DCMS team tasked with making this decision will explain their decision, I do hope they do.

In the meantime, plans are rightly continuing within Paisley with new events and plans being announced on Twitter alongside the hash-tag #ourjourneycontinues. For all that Thursday was a disappointment, that Paisley, City of Culture has a ring to it and that the Paisley 2021 bid team deserve every bit of credit going their way. It only represents the end of the first chapter in Paisley’s revitalisation, nothing more.

Monday, 13 November 2017

The Day Today

When someone becomes an ex-leader, there are normally two ways things can go. There is the back seat driver route, favoured by Thatcher and Blair. Most leaders though tend to follow the line unwittingly defined by John Major when he left Downing Street for the last time as PM in May 1997. “When the curtain falls it is best to leave the stage”.

There is, of course, now the third way, the way which Alex Salmond is now pioneering which rejects the concept of the ‘elder statesman’.

We have seen Mr Salmond again in the news this week, having signed up to produce and front a political chat show for the notorious (in UK media circles anyway) news ‘organisation’ Russia Today. For some people this has not gone down very well. By all accounts, the First Minister herself is not said to be happy about this. The critics do have a point.

Of sorts.

For someone who professes to be a democrat and to wish to uphold democratic values, it is not a good look to be providing content for a news organisation whose reputation is of essentially a 21st century Pravda. The charge against Russia Today is that they are essentially the mouthpiece of Putin and his government. While it is true that Salmond’s moves are disdainful, the phrase about glasshouses and stones comes to mind. Various Westminster MP’s have appeared on Russia Today as talking heads, most recently the ‘Sage of Twickenham’ Vince Cable. If Russia Today was that bad, shouldn’t they have declined their invites? Similarly there is little mention of Jeremy Corbyn’s appearances on various middle eastern news channels (he apparently has a slot on Iranian news).

Any mention of news channels dressing up fake news brings to mind another news channel, one rarely mentioned either by critics of Russia Today or by supporters of Salmond (who see this as another excuse to indulge in the tiresome sport of BBC bashing). Fox News before it was pulled from our screens by its parent company was recently charged with two counts of biased reporting. With this in mind, and the fact that Fox was the network that claimed that Birmingham was ‘a no go area for non-Muslims’, then you do wonder where the (equally deserved) brickbats are for regular UK based Fox contributors and general Trump/TEA Party sympathisers like the MEP’s Daniel Hannan and, err... Nigel Farage.

The thing that most people commenting on Salmond’s career turn have missed is that Alex Salmond doesn’t really care what people think. I’m not sure he wants to be that kind of elder statesman like (god preserve us) Paddy Ashdown or John Major. Certainly Salmond’s ego would never ever allow him to all but disappear from public view like his predecessors in Bute House, Jack McConnell and Henry McLeish, have done (save from the occasional appearance). Salmond, for better or for worse, still thinks he has an active part to play in the discourse of this country. It explains his behaviour relating to accepting the offer to provide content to Russia Today (an outlet substantially more ‘favourable’ to the concept of Scottish Independence than any UK based broadcaster) and it explains his bid to be put onto the board of Johnston Press, the owners of the Edinburgh newspaper ‘The Scotsman’.

If Salmond genuinely wanted to be a grandee in the style of Winnie Ewing, then his reputation as a serious figure in that mould would have been damaged long before this episode with Russia Today. Granted, he became an MP again after sparking a feud with Nick Robinson at the end of the Independence Referendum campaign and by continuing to play the BBC Bias card (whereas in truth, the real instance of BBC bias has been against Corbyn and his Momentum acolytes, it is a lot more blatant than any perceived ‘anti-SNP’ bias).

I think that the moment that guaranteed that Salmond’s career as a serious political figure was over was the series of shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. Serious political figures do not diminish themselves and turn themselves into vaudevillian entertainers. And serious political figures do not make bad, vaguely sexist, jokes that even Bruce Forsyth would have baulked at making. Yet Salmond seems not to have learned the lessons of history by pressing ahead with his no holds barred show. The only other leader to have tried a career in television after leaving office was Harold Wilson, who had a very short stint hosting “Friday Night, Saturday Morning” in the autumn of 1979. From the clips I’d seen (I think when BBC 2 did it’s TV Hell night in the mid 90’s) it wasn’t that great and also showed us the first visible sign of Wilson’s Alzheimer’s.

Wilson’s reputation took a knock, but partly due to us better understanding Alzheimer’s now, and partly because of a general reappraisal of Wilson’s time in Downing Street (if you’ve seen Steve Richard’s “Leadership Reflections” monologues – which I reference when talking about the political space to hold Indyref 2 – then the Wilson programme is fascinating in that respect) his reputation is recovering. Unlike Wilson, Salmond commands respect across his party. His issue is that he is seen as a divisive figure across the political spectrum. His deft handling of the first administration is all but forgotten.

The assumption across the mac-commentariat was that Salmond would retire and become some sort of avuncular elder statesman figure. Think a Scottish Tony Benn. If that was the case, they’ve underestimated Salmond’s ego and its capacity to override any political pragmatism he may have by showing a liking for growing older disgracefully.  Alongside the shows, the chatshow is a vehicle for Salmond's ego in the face of unfinished business, nothing more.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Waiting For Momentum

Nothing perhaps tells us more about the reduced circumstances of ‘Scottish’ Labour than the fact that the current leadership election is firmly background noise to other, bigger issues which are dominating the news. With sex-pestery dominating the headlines (and please please, can we not call it sleaze even if it’s called that with more justification here than during the 1990’s) this is an election battle coming to a conclusion in the next week or so.

As I’d pinpointed when Dugdale resigned, the favourite is Labour’s current health spokesman Anas Sarwar. There was a point in September when his campaign looked terminally holed under the line when revelations surfaced about the family business he held shares in. In short, a millionaire owner of a business which did not pay its workers the minimum wage was not a good look for a prospective leader of a party committed to workers rights and a equalitarian agenda. Alongside the question of sending his children to a fee paying school – a question which dogged Blair in his early days as Labour leader and it also led to Harman leaving the shadow cabinet – this painted Sarwar’s campaign as a doomed campaign.

There is also the suspicion that there are also people who have signed up to become members to just vote for Sarwar, with the insinuation that these are Scots-Asians who are influenced by the Sarwar’s standing in their own community. It’s not as if there are people signing up just to vote for Leonard, are there... err...

As it happens Sarwar’s campaign has been far from doomed. In the television debates between the two men, Sarwar has bested Leonard in all of them. He has put his ideas across very well and in one of the debates went on the attack over Leonard’s (perceived) non-commitment to keep Scotland in the single market. In sharp contrast, the supposed ‘Corbynista’ candidate, Richard Leonard, has looked leaden footed and rather slow witted. The only really difference between the two candidates is essentially how both have performed, and that in itself is somewhat disappointing.

Part of the reason for the similarity in the two is Sarwar’s adoption of Corbyn style taxation policies – he promises to put taxes up for the wealthy whilst cutting it for low paid workers. There are parts of this which is appealing and worthy of debate. It has also provoked the response from the SNP that they are the true progressive party of Scotland (any response should make the point that they refused to be this radical when they had the opportunity to be so in 2016, therefore the SNP’s rediscovery of a revolutionary zeal should be seen with the timid & conservative 2016 manifesto in mind). The other SNP announcement is to... err... preannounce an intention to have a debate on taxation with the SNP minded to put taxes up.

The other reason is that I’d suspect, as I pointed out earlier when Dugdale resigned, that the timing of Dugdale’s departure unintentionally hindered the pro-Momentum branch of Scottish Labour. If there was a plot to oust Dugdale, I’d suspect that they were not ready or prepared for a leadership battle this autumn. If they were, we wouldn’t have seen so much focus on tax policy, which brings me to my point.

Given that both Sarwar and Leonard have focused so much on tax increases, there is shockingly little thought on why taxes need to go up. Two years ago, when I responded to Chris Deering’s “Scotland Has Gone Mad” piece, I made the point that both the SNP & Scottish Labour had retreated towards a lazy form of Social Democracy where indiscriminate tax rises are somehow seen as “Socialist”. As if to prove my point, Dugdale’s flagship policy at last years Holyrood election was a rise in taxes because “it was the progressive thing to do”. Sadly both Sarwar and Leonard have fallen straight into this trap.

That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be a debate about taxation, especially with those new taxation toys that are Holyrood bound. There is a gaping hole here though, public service reforms. The sort of reforms that it now looks like the SNP is not interested in making, eschewing that for the prize of Independence. It’s a pity as I suspect that their timidity quite possibly cost them votes in 2016. From Scottish Labour’s point of view, the reforms they should be thinking big about are schools and the NHS.

Schools, because the Curriculum for Excellence does not look like it is working. Michael Russell’s reforms is still proving cumbersome for teachers to facilitate properly while there have been several reports highlighting the falling standards of Scottish education. While with Health there are the failures to reach targets. Locally though there are concerns about the management at the arms length Greater Glasgow Health Board and their high profile decision to close the Children’s ward at Paisley’s Royal Alexandria Hospital. The truth is though that this proposal is the tip of the iceberg as far as GGHB’s management of the RAH has been concerned. There have been a number of services that have been downgraded at the RAH, some of them have been down to the new Southern General hospital in Glasgow’s south-side being given preferential treatment for services.

If the SNP have botched reform of Education, then this is ripe to be put right. Health is also ripe for reform. It is here where there should be a focus not in pouring resources indiscriminately in but on a SWOT analysis of what needs fixing and how it can be fixed. Given that any time I’ve been in the RAH the frontline staff have been nothing other than excellent, I’d start with management and Health Board structures. Democratise the health boards, cut back on representation from the ‘professional board member’ classes and in the ranks of NHS managers and go from there.

It is not just in the promised radical policies that we are still waiting for Momentum, but in the kind of firebrand leadership needed to facilitate those policies and that kind of politics. Instead the candidate of the left in this election is not unlike Corbyn himself, okay at speeches but with question marks over his abilities as a leader. Sarwar might be continuity Dugdale – with all the baggage over Independence and a closeness to the pro-Blair Progress that these bring – but in spite of the disastrous start to his campaign he still looks like the marginal favourite to win. Just.

Monday, 2 October 2017

How Long Has May Got Left in Downing Street?

A couple of weeks ago, the Independent’s John Rentoul tweeted that he thought that of the two main Party leaders, May would last longer than Corbyn. Rather surprisingly, I can see circumstances where this could happen.

If this parliament lasts for the full term, I can see some sort of succession planning kick in, in around three years time. Labour would therefore be fighting the next election with a younger, more telegenic and nimble footed prospective prime minister that is also Corbyn minded (Rayner & Thornberry being the two most likely successors at this moment). On the other hand the Tories still have May, and that is their problem.

When Cameron resigned and May took over, my thought was that May would be an upgrade on Cameron. She was, I’d reasoned, someone who would not take unnecessary risks and would understand the need for a return to consensus politics.  In short, she was an upgrade on Cameron. Instead May’s reputation disappeared over the course of a badly run and badly argued election campaign. In any other times, May would have been forced to resign as PM and a successor would have been installed, someone able to command the confidence of the house. What last year’s leadership election showed was that the list of leadership hopefuls looked like a rather threadbare list, it is possibly for this reason that May has not been forced out.

Instead of forcing out May, the Tories are I think waiting for someone to emerge who they feel can adequately lead the party and appeal to the country. Some of those talked of are either back benchers (Rees-Mogg junior) or junior ministers (Raab), it is surprising how much of the so called big beasts are being ignored and that “jumping a generation” is now back in vogue, given the last time the Tories jumped a generation we got Cameron. The exception to looking at younger leaders being Boris ‘Boom Boom’ Johnston, but then again he has been somewhat on manoeuvres.

It would of course be all well and good if May recognised the new diminished position that she and her party find themselves in. Instead, May still believes the ‘Strong & Stable’ mantra which made her a figure of fun in the spring. She and her party still hanker after being the party to provide “the firm smack of government” as they did in the 80’s. When they had 100 odd seat majorities and had the political space to do so. Indeed the Thatcher that the Tories hanker after only emerged between the Falklands and the 1983 Election – the start of her imperial phase. She was a more cautious PM when she ‘only’ had a majority of 44, even if her radical monetarist policies were still being implemented.

Perceived wisdom in the aftermath of the election was that May would see out the EU divorce proceedings before stepping aside. However, against the spirit of her speech to her backbenchers the week after the election, May has since said repeatedly that she intends to serve a full term and fight the next election, much to the horror of the Tory party strategists and some in her party. This brings us to the question posed in the title and the importance of this week.

May’s position is that she is essentially living month to month as PM, she is as close to borrowed time as she can possibly get. If she has a good conference and gives a good speech on Wednesday then it gives her some space to carry on. Some. And certainly not a licence to act as if five years is a certainty (which it most certainly is not). However, politically, she needs to be contrite and show that she is adapting to the changed political landscape. She also needs to deal with Boris, but a politically smart operator would have dealt with him already and not given him carte blanche to do what he pleased as he pleased. Of course, it’s possible that Boris’ aim is to be sacked and therefore to avoid being blamed for bringing down May. “He who wields the knife never becomes leader” and all that. “Friends of Boris” (if he has any after his various affairs and is not some made up pseudonym for Boris) would be failing in their duty to let Boris know that maybe it’s too late for that and that any rugby balls that pop out of the scrum certainly won’t be falling at his feet.

If the week goes badly for May, she’ll be gone by Christmas. Simple as. This is the party which took 24 days to oust its most successful leader of the 20th Century and PM for 11 years. Once they turn against May, she won’t be around for long. If she is gone within the next couple of months, I’d expect David Davis to be the successful stop Boris candidate, and successful in stopping Boris. This is the new reality for the Tories, the fragility of May’s position. Her cold curtness surprisingly makes you pine for Cameron’s ‘sunlit upland’s’ guff.

The new reality for May is that she is the PM in the most precarious position since James Callaghan in the late 70’s. The big difference is that Callaghan only had to worry about Commons votes (his party only became bitterly divided after election defeat). May also has to navigate a party still angry at throwing away a 12 seat majority, unconvinced of her performance as leader but not convinced of the alternatives. It is remarkable that the party are still minded to leave May in her position. This week will be the first major test of that balance since the Election. By the end of this week we will be in a better position to answer the question posed in the title of this blog.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Most Dangerous Phrase in UK Politics

You know that there are phrases which reveal something about a persons thinking – a laziness even when some sort of conventional wisdom is dispensed by several commentators at the one time. However since the election, we’ve seen a response to that result which can be summed up in one phrase. It’s a phrase that can be justified as being the most dangerous phrase in UK politics at this moment.

One more push.

It’s a phrase that Labour leftists and Corbynistas have used in their conversations about what to do next. That is that all that Labour need to do is to make one more push and Corbyn will be the next (or next but one if the Tories change leader before the next Election) occupant of Downing Street. It is tempting to see UK politics through that particular prism, as notably Rebecca Long-Bailey (pictured left, with Corbyn & McDonnell) did at the weekend. It would also be an incorrect and potentially damaging prospectus.

Here in Scotland, we have seen the damage that such a complacent view can do. I barely need to remind you of the outcome of the Independence referendum of September 2014. Rather than see the outcome of a loss by 10.6% as simply a defeat, supporters of Independence... indeed the SNP hierarchy as a whole saw the result and the gains made as a reason to carry on with their arguments. The logic here is that if the arguments stacked up for 44 odd % of the country then all that’s needed is to keep with those arguments.

Of course things haven’t quite worked out that way. The SNP’s refusal to look at the defeat in 2014 to see what lessons can be learned smacks of arrogance. The thing that looks to have done for Independence though (at least in the short to medium term anyway) has been the SNP’s continued bad handling of EU relations. In rushing to put Independence on to a virtual table in the aftermath of the EU referendum, the SNP hierarchy may have been listening to what their supporters within the social media bubble had been saying, but out in the real world it was a move which looks with each passing day like a catastrophic tactical blunder.

Labour, on the other hand, are in a slightly different place from the SNP and Yes Scotland. For one thing, their loss could not be attributed to issues with policy, the performance of their leader or the economy. The thing that very likely cost them votes in June would be the 18 month civil war within Labour between the party’s left wing and it’s pro-Blair Progress group. At a Progress fringe meeting, the right wing Scottish Labour spokesperson Jackie Baillie made the point that “We lost the general election against the most shambolic Tory campaign I’ve ever seen – we can’t get away from that” without acknowledging the role that Progress minded MP’s played in undermining the public perception of their leader. Or for that matter the shambolic Scottish Labour election campaign which completely ignored Corbyn’s policies in favour of promoting, to borrow a phrase, ‘local champions’ and for trying to out Tory the Tories on the constitution. It is therefore somewhat dispiriting to see both candidates for Scottish Labour leader make this mistake. Again.

If the momentum (ho ho!) is with Labour, then that does not make them automatic shoo-ins at the next election. For one thing there are policy area’s that need tightened up. I’m not certain that O’Donnell’s grasp of the economy is as tight as it needs to be. I think Labour’s Brexit strategy has the look of being cobbled together by committee and should be a much sturdier compromise between retaining trade links, protecting freedom of movement and ensuring we leave the EU and it’s centralising undemocratic tendencies. I also think Diane Abbott needs to step up to the plate a bit more and show us all that she is a capable Home Secretary in waiting.

There is one policy area where there is a lot of work needing to be done – Scotland. It was Labour politicians (Progress wingers mind, but still...) who thwarted attempts by the SNP to fully devolve Benefits to Holyrood during the Smith Commission negotiations and it was Progress wing Labour MP’s who voted down SNP amendments during the resulting Scotland Act’s passage through the HOC. For Corbyn to say that Holyrood has all the powers that the SNP asked for is an out and out lie.

There are criticisms that can be made of the SNP government, their timid policymaking, their lack of grip in the act of government and their fiscal conservatism – Sturgeon may talk the talk but so far she’s not walking the walk. Instead the criticisms that Scottish Labour and Corbyn are making are as the SNP as facilitators of Tory austerity. This is an argument that does not stand up to scrutiny.

Why Labour are attacking the SNP lies with the results of June’s election and the SNP’s own collapse, which itself handed Scottish Labour a way back. Of the 64 seats Labour need to win, 18 are SNP held. Seven of those seats are highly vulnerable, with swings needed of under 1% to take those super marginal’s. My own MP, Mhari Black, is vulnerable at a swing of just over 3% while the winning line, the seat that would (if Labour take all the other 63 seats) put Corbyn into Downing Street would be Lisa Cameron’s East Kilbride, Strathaven & Lesmahagow seat. The swing needed for that to happen is the entirely achievable 3.5% (in sharp contrast, the Tories need 8 seats, and a swing of 0.25% to regain a working majority). It is why Labour need to frankly get better arguments and why the right candidate in the current leadership election for Scottish Labour needs to emerge and why it is now time for Scottish Labour to stop obsessing about an event (Indyref 2) that will not be happening any time soon. Scottish Labour’s leadership election is subject I will be returning to.

Momentum & Corbynism is a by-product of the collapse of The Third Way. However as the example of the last “mass movement” of UK politics showed, a failure is still a failure and issues will need to be re-examined and adjustments made. If the Tories are not to get away with their mismanagement then Labour simply cannot afford to make the same mistake that the “Yes” movement and the SNP made and carry on in the mistaken belief that ‘one more push’ will see ‘us’ over the line.