Monday, 11 July 2016

The Death Rattle of The Third Way

In the aftermath of the European Referendum two weeks ago, we have seen the shock and fallout permeate the wider economy.  The Pound has fallen against the Dollar to levels not seen since the mid 80’s while the stock exchange has also fallen.  Rather revealingly guilts have also fallen, which may spell more economic uncertainty in the future.  It’s not just economically where certain stocks have fallen.  If you were a commodities trader, you would be selling shares in George Osborne and Progress. Fast.

George Osborne has been self explanatory, but in truth Osborne’s chances of succeeding Cameron were on the wane well before the disastrous Conservative ‘In’ campaign.  However it is the fate of the Labour Party which is capturing the imagination of the media and press.  In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, the Progress wingers among Labour’s shadow cabinet blamed one man for the referendum defeat – their leader Jeremy Corbyn.  It was his fault apparently that huge swathes of the former Labour heartlands in the north turned their backs on the EU.  There is of course one small problem with that synopsis – that only (according to Michael Ashcroft’s polling) 37% of Labour voters voted against their party’s advice.  Well behind the 58% of Tory voters who rebelled (and interestingly enough, nip and tuck with the 36% of SNP supporters).   

That hasn’t stopped the Progress wingers orchestrating a situation where a right wing coup would be the least worst option for Labour.  It is true that there are serious issues surrounding Corbyn’s failure to display any leadership skills, whether it is with his own party or in holding a disintegrating government to account.  It is also true that Corbyn, over the last 12 months or so has shown that he really is the best of a seriously bad bunch of opposition politicians.  Say what you like about the SNP, but they have been so much more of an opposition than Labour.  While the Progress wingers have a point about Corbyn’s performances, their utterly cack handed attempts to facilitate a coup/split (whatever their plans really are) have put the future of their party at risk and have almost single handed put the Union at risk.

The Progress wingers would have a point if their values and beliefs of a better version of Social Democracy was a popular ideal with real currency.  However over the past 18 months to 2 years, events have seen those ideals undermined and tarnished to the extent that we can certainly say that the age of Blairite “Third Way-ism” is now over.  Scotland provided the first signs that the Third Way edifice was cracking with the marriage of convenience between Scottish Labour and the Conservatives to set up the Better Together campaign.  Left wingers like Owen Jones point to Better Together as the reason for the collapse in Scottish Labour’s vote but don’t go further than Labour simply sharing platforms with the Tories.  It was Labour politicians, Labour activists and Labour leaders appropriating Tory attack lines & arguments – and happy to do so - which caused the penny to drop among “traditional Labour voters” rather than just simply sharing a platform.  Had Scottish Labour just modulated the Better Together message , made a left of centre case for remaining within the union, Scottish Labour would not have collapsed as it did.  Instead Scottish Labour revelled in the prospect of spending Tory money to beat the hated 'Nats', even if it meant using attack lines that would, within 9 months be used against them.

In that General Election the previously Blairite double act of Cameron & Osborne renounced their political heroes and announced manifesto pledges that would rip up Blair & Brown’s only positive political legacies – the rebranding of the minimum wage and the wholesale scrapping of Tax Credits…  Yip you did read that right.  Cameron & Osborne, lets not forget, took their cues from the Blair/Brown dynamic, taking notes and learning the lessons.  Given Cameron’s time in Downing Street has been one long (third rate mind) Blair tribute act, his claim to be the “heir to Blair” looks more like an attempt to consolidate the Third Way as a going concern for the Tory right.  It could then be argued that the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition was really the logical conclusion of Third Way politics in this country.  The conclusion of that coalition then provided an ending as the Tories then took the right turn they’d heavily trailed during the second half of the coalition.  If Cameron & Osborne were the true heirs to Blair & Brown in the first half of Cameron’s premiership, then by the time of the General Election, they’d certainly renounced that shared ‘heritage’.  In the firing line now were key Blair & Brown policies – The minimum wage, Tax credits and there was to be a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.

If the belief was that Britain was now a ‘centralist’ country, then that belief was swept away on the morning of the 24th June 2016.  The UK had voted to leave the EU, and the voters who had been left behind by the Third Way took their revenge on the political classes by spiking EU membership, wrongly blaming immigrants and freedom of movement for their many problems.  While you can blame Cameron & Osborne for failing to make a positive case to remain in the EU, the blame for the Northern heartlands voting en mass to leave lies squarely with the complacency of the Progress wingers.  Their calculation that left wing voters had nowhere else to go but Labour has now bit them in the backside twice in the course of 18 short months  Firstly during the Independence Referendum when scores of Scottish Labour voters plumped for Independence and have refused to vote for Scottish Labour again.  The exact same thing happened in England two weeks ago as Labour voters plumped for exit – though the right wing UKIP look like being the beneficiaries here.  Then again, what do you expect when the Progress wing’s idea of campaigning is to concede ground to UKIP by apologising for not listening to people’s concerns about immigration.  There is a reason why 3 out of 5 Scottish voters decided to vote for remain in the EU and it had more to do with the SNP’s own distinctive (separate and pro-immigration) campaign rather than the official Remain’s miserable excuse for a campaign.

We have seen voters turn against the values of the Progress wingers, but we have not seen why they turned against Progress values.  In the case of the last Westminster election, it was that Ed Balls signed up to Osborne-omics, hook, line and sinker very early on and deprived ordinary voters with no alternative.  In the case of Brexit, it is that living values – thanks to weak wages legislation and a minimum wage so far behind the living wage that you could, with considerable justification, describe the minimum wage as a slave wage – have crumbled since the start of the recession 9 years ago.  Elsewhere it is that Progress values are interested in only getting power, but not necessarily in standing up for people or raising living standards or any other choices that would put that power in jeopardy.   The release of the Chilcott report last week however provided the gravestone for the Progress Group.  Regardless of the other failures, there is one which towers over all other, slower burning, failures.  On that gravestone is the word Iraq.  

As Ian Hislop pointed out on Question Time on Thursday night, a lot of the things that cropped up in the Chilcott report were widely known at the time but not reported my the majority of the press.  The lack of evidence that Iraq had deliverable WMD, the lack of post occupation planning, the rush to war…  all deep failures that have completely and utterly destroyed the credibility of certainly Blair, Hoon, Straw, Goldsmith & Campbell, but also a lot of pro-war cheerleaders. Cheerleaders who are the main anti-Corbyn ringleaders.  These include both Hilary Benn & Corbyn’s leadership challenger Angela Eagle (above). Awkward.

Taken as a whole, the Independence Referendum, The Westminster Election, the EU Referendum and the Chilcott report represents the death rattle of Blairite Third-Way politics in this country. Given that Labour’s incumbent leader comes from the left of the Labour spectrum and the two candidates for the Conservative party leadership represent the right of the Tory spectrum it looks very like we are in for a period of old style left versus right politics with the middle squeezed out.  This is, of course, except for viewers in Scotland where we have our own working version of The Third Way, where the divide is between pro and anti Independence.  On a UK wide level though, the Progress wingers inability to see the big picture unfolding in front of their eyes is causing damage to their party.  For the second time in a generation, they are willing to sabotage their party’s prospects at the ballot box just to make a point.  Unlike in the early 80’s though the stakes are much much higher as us Scots now have an exit door if the prospect of Prime Minister May becomes something more than a temporary measure, with no small thanks to the short termist bad politics of the original Party within a Party.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Not The Heir To Blair Then.

One of the most striking things about David Cameron’s emergence as Conservative leader towards the end of 2005 was his willingness to mark himself against and to openly draw parallels between himself and the then Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair.  The apotheosis of this being his infamous desire to be the “heir to Blair”.  Looking at Cameron’s big political gambles, the one big conclusion you draw from Cameron’s time as both Tory leader and Prime Minister is that Blair would have been far to astute to have attempted those things.

Before the catastrophic European Referendum, there was Cameron - the first Conservative to enter Downing Street since John Major was swept away in the early hours of May 2nd 1997.  The Brown Labour government was deeply unpopular and rocked by division.  Yet Cameron’s inability to ‘seal the deal’, lead to his Conservative party falling 18 seats short of an overall majority. Conceivably, in the position that Cameron was in, Blair could have reached out to the Lib Dems and offered a coalition.  Conceivably as well though, Blair would not have given the Lib Dems as much leeway as Cameron did, most notably with the deal over the AV referendum.

The curious thing about Cameron’s time in Number 10 has been his relationship with his Chancellor, an even more overrated political operator than Cameron.  George Osborne’s preference for political point scoring, not seen since the days of Gordon Brown in Number 11,  has seen such great political choices as as the now notorious “Omnishambles” budget of 2012, the voluntary ban on increasing income tax, the notorious “Sermon on the pound”, the reckless spending of the money found last autumn before finding that the figures were not as good as they looked and the arrogant re-branding of the minimum wage.  It is an unwanted facial tick that sees the veneer of a smirk appear on Osborne’s face whenever he speaks.  It makes him look smug and untrustworthy.  The big surprise is that Osborne’s status as Cameron’s own heir apparent took so long to vaporise.

The second part of Cameron’s premiership does contain the reckless risk taking and poor decision making which will probably be his hallmark. Prior to the European referendum, his biggest risk was the Scottish Independence referendum.  Given that polling indicated a strong vote for Scotland to remain within the union at the start of the campaign, the campaign prosecuted by the Better Together campaigners contrived to concede 26% to the pro-Independence Yes Scotland.  I’ve already touched on Osborne’s big mistake – “The Sermon on the Pound” – however Cameron made four big strategic errors.  The first error being the refusal to debate with Alex Salmond. 

The sight of the Prime Minister refusing to debate with the leader of the Scottish National Party did not diminish Salmond but showed Cameron up as someone who ducked and eveaded one on one television debates.  It is noteworthy that apart from the three ‘Leaders Debates’ in 2010, Cameron has only faced an opponent(s) in the television studios once since then – the seven way debate last April.  His second mistake being his refusal to fully engage in that referendum campaign.  Nothing shows this more than the week of the first poll lead for independence.  Where Milliband and Clegg had campaign engagements, Cameron made just the one speech, in an office in Edinburgh.

His third mistake was in pressing to keep the further devolution option known as Devo-max off the ballot paper.  Substantially more powers for Holyrood was previously the settled will of the Scottish People. Had that being on the ballot, then it’s possible that the SNP surge… indeed the clamour for a second Independence referendum by Independence supporters over the weekend… would not be happening.  Yes, the pro-Unionists clung on – securing a comfortable but not completely decisive victory – but it was closer than it needed to be.  Just after 7am on the morning of the 19th September, Cameron made his fourth tactical blunder when he made his victory speech.  The tying of further powers to the Scottish Parliament to English Votes for English Laws may have been done to placate his own backbenchers, but its effect was to galvanise the defeated SNP supporters and inspire them on to…  well the bloodbath of the following May’s Westminster election for Labour.  Even now 13 months down the line, this now looks like the staring point for the complete collapse of the Labour movement as a whole.

The mistake which cost Cameron his job is certainly his biggest, and is the worst show of political judgement since Blair decided to invade Iraq with the USA.  When Cameron announced the vote will be in his election manifesto for the next election, UKIP were finishing second in by-elections and sort of pushing for victory in them.  They weren’t winning these by-elections but the media were fixated on them.  Funnily enough, Cameron’s European troubles came after the referendum was announced as party policy – UKIP pushed the Tories into third in the European Elections of 20014 while both Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell defected from the Tories to become UKIP’s first MP’s.  There was no need for Cameron to pledge the referendum but as I pointed out at the time, maybe part of Cameron’s thinking was dominated by his poor relationship with the EU leaders at that time.  Maybe as well another calculation was that Cameron would likely fall short again in the election, so would be able to blame the Lib Dems if they blocked the referendum.

When Blair was forced out nearly 10 years ago, his long time adversary Gordon Brown took over.  No doubt helped by the relatively invisible public profile of his leadership opponent - one John McDonnell. Cameron’s own version of Brown is his old ‘friend’ from Oxford, Boris Johnson.  Unlike Labour, who seem to pick leaders on a buggins turn basis, the Tories have always snubbed the favourite.  While Boris is clearly the favourite, I suspect that there is someone else out there who can, and possibly will, stop Boris.  Who knows, maybe someone that can somehow manage to postpone activating the key Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

Friday, 24 June 2016

The End Of The Unions

European Union Referendum, 23rd June 2016 – Final Result
Leave the EU
Remain within the EU

About twenty to five this morning, the news networks in this country projected a win for the vote leave side in this referendum.  It is a vote, finally confirmed at 6am but was highly likely from the slight pro EU declaration of Newcastle at midnight followed quickly by the thumping Exit win in Sunderland that will have massive implications for the UK, for Scotland and for the EU with the Prime Minister already signalling his intention to resign. 

For the EU, this pulls the rug from under them.  They simply did not see this coming.  Both their standing and also their self importance will have taken a huge knock.  For the UK, the short to medium term shocks will be nothing compared to the less gently unravelling of the United Kingdom.  Sinn Fein have already called for a referendum on a united Ireland, while the SNP are looking out the rulebooks and slide charts to see if Indyref 2 will be more winnable than the first Indyref.  On a 62% pro EU vote in Scotland, convincing people that a second Independence referendum so soon after the first may not be the given deal that many pro independence supporters believe it to be.  Still, if the SNP think they can win from this current position, good luck.

The Pound Shop Mosley claims victory at 4am this morning
All of that is yet to come, all following the inevitable financial meltdown.  What has already begun is the post mortem.  Labour types in London have already started by laying the blame firmly at the door of the SNP.  True, I’ve not seen a piece of election literature – the official government booklet excepted – and I did not see the same level of street engagement as there was either during the General Election or the Holyrood Election.  However you cannot blame the SNP for this.  It was a more positive, if heavily spun & gradually more pious, case for the EU than the case that was being prosecuted by our southern cousins.  They were the only party to make the case for immigration/freedom of movement.  That in itself is a big big reason for the vote to exit.

I had always said that the key to elections is the economic debate.  In this case, the Anglocentric-Remainers completely and utterly lost the argument.  Cameron & Osborne pursued Project Fear redux in terms of the economic argument putting out figures which may or may not be accurate and publishing forecasts and not caveating them.  As I’d pointed out earlier, Project Fear conceded 26% over the course of the 2 and a half years of the Independence referendum, why would anyone think that it would work again for this referendum.  For people who voted for Brexit, immigration was always a symptom of a bigger malase, that the Thatcher and Blair years had left them behind and that immigration became the handiest stick to beat the Westminster establishment with.  Sure we can all be disgusted at the campaign that UKIP & Farage ran (and the official Leave campaign switched to about the time purdah began) but to blame those voters misses the point.  The failure lies with the main parties at Westminster, the same ones who shrugged off 1.6 million people voting to leave the United Kingdom 20 odd months ago and failed to build bridges with pro Independence voters.

The big irony here of course is that the Prime Minister was a much more visible presence during this campaign than he was during the Independence Referendum.  His appearances on debates though were generally considered to be poor and he mostly came second best to his ‘Leave’ opponents.  Is it any wonder then that Cameron has decided to resign.  Next up for public scrutiny will be the chancellor George Osborne.  The currency of Osborne was already crashing in current Sterling fashion, it will be more through the floor as the perceived wisdom that Osborne was the heir apparent to Cameron now looks dead in the water.  In truth, Cameron had led a charmed life.  Unable to secure a commons majority against the party that caused the UK leg of the recession/credit crunch in 2010, secured the immediate future of the UK in 2014 in spite of his… minimum campaigning style and secured a small working majority last year in no small thanks to the heavy legged style of Labour.  Cameron’s luck has simply run out and he knew it.

While I had my own reasons for voting for Brexit, reasons to do with democratic accountability and transparency, the UK as a whole voted for exit for reasons that could and should have been easily rebutted and comprehensively dismantled.  Immigration/Freedom of movement should have been taken out as an argument straight away.  The economy should have been a much more concise argument and the pro-EU argument should have been clearer on what we should have been voting for.  And, yes, the EU should have seen the warning signs from the 2014 European Elections and looked at ways of making the EU more democratic and transparent. But then again, the EU’s way has always been to fudge & fix their way out of trouble.  When Maastricht was in trouble, both Denmark and France were told to replay their referendums, similarly with Ireland when they voted against the Amsterdam and Lisbon treaties.  And that’s before we get to the extremely secretive TTIP negotiations.  The official Leave campaign, in short, did not conduct a smart, astute campaign and relied on negative campaigning.

If Cameron’s luck has run out, what do we make of the state of Labour.  Their previous heartlands in England & Wales voted en masse for Brexit.  I’m not sure you can blame Corbyn for this, as a lot of this looks like dissatisfaction with and a hangover from Labour party policy from…  oh… when they were in power. Where you can maybe blame Corbyn is his lack of communication skills, but you can certainly blame the Labour right for their inability to connect to the former blue collar constituency.

The worst campaign in political history has given us a result that is resolutely not the best of both worlds.  The plummeting value of Sterling appears to be the start of a political earthquake that has already claimed the Prime Minister.  The shockwaves from this decision will travel far and wide. Once the dust settles, I do not expect Cameron to be the only political casualty of this vote and I expect the political landscape to be dramatically altered for all parties.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

The Worst Political Campaign In Living Memory

For all that there were an awful lot of references and call-backs to the Independence Referendum a couple of years ago, this European Referendum campaign was no Indyref.  Sure we had encores for the old favourites – “Project Fear”, “Pooling & Sharing”, “Best of Both Worlds”, “Talking Down Britain/Scotland”, “Scaremongering as well as a reprise of the Winton Paradox.  However, all of the EU campaign has been a fourth rate attempt at a copy of the Independence Referendum.  As the title of this blog suggests, this campaign has been the worst campaign in living memory.
Cameron with EU President Jean Claude Junker, 18 February 2016

The obvious reason for this is the descent of the official Leave campaign into race politics.  Their campaign has been centred around the apparent concern about immigration, buying into and amplifying UKIP’s consistent conflation of immigration and freedom of movement.  The nadir of this part of the campaign came last Thursday when UKIP unveiled a poster which more than referenced Nazi 1930’s style propaganda, on the same day as the assassination of the Labour MP Jo Cox.  While the official Leave campaign made an effort to distance themselves from Farage & UKIP, Farage’s comments about the Cox assassination at the weekend should have prompted the Leave campaign to, metaphorically speaking, throw Farage under the bus.

As I’ve pointed out previously, there are better reasons than Immigration to vote to leave the EU.  It does seem that the official leave campaign have picked up on this on the latter stages of the campaign – hence the consistent repeating of the phrase “take back control”  from the ITV debate two weeks ago onwards.  However Immigration still dominates the Leave campaign and has contributed to the divisive climate.  That immigration is seen by the leave side as their trump card possibly says something about the official Remain side.

The pro-Brexit campaign has also contributed to the poor quality of the debate.  Their trump card of the economic case has not been played properly – with the government swamping the public with figures and statistics rather than picking out killer facts and using them on repeat.  The remainers have not responded very well either to the immigration card being played, with rather than a rebuttal of the Leave case with the case for freedom of movement, acknowledgement from the Westminster parties that ‘something must be done’ about rising immigration. 

The only voices on the remain side in favour of both immigration and freedom of movement have been the SNP, and even then they have been demonising the voices of anti immigration rather than understanding why anti immigration rhetoric has been playing well in the North of England and in former strong Labour supporting parts of the country.  Given my own history with the blog, it is surprising that the 'Labour Hame' blog has by far the best Scottish piece on the immigration debate – Cat Headley’s piece called for a smart campaign for immigration.  Certainly it is a contribution better than the complacent and increasingly pious campaign interventions from the SNP.

It’s not just on immigration that the pro-EU campaign has failed.  The positive case for the EU has been smothered in a blizzard of figures and statistics, some of which are highly subjective.  There is also Cameron’s reliance on negative campaigning, which some political observers claim has won him a referendum and an election already.  It remains to be seen whether with this campaign will be won with Cameron’s brand of ‘encouraging’ voters to hold onto nurse in fear of what’s worse.  However Cameron’s previous record is actually quite chequered once you get past the results.

True, part of the reason Cameron won last year was the constantly mentioned prospect of a possible coalition between Labour & the SNP.  But the reason it worked so spectacularly was Labour’s own botched rebuttal.  With the independence referendum however, negative campaigning most certainly did not win that referendum.  At the launches of Better Together and Yes Scotland in Summer 2012, support of remaining within the UK was at 68% in the polls.  The consensus was that this would be a cakewalk, particularly with the stumbling scratchy start by Yes Scotland.  The game changer that saw the polls dramatically narrow was not the much vaunted SNP White Paper, but Osborne’s notorious ‘Sermon on The Pound’ (© Iain McWhirter) speech, which attempted to torpedo the SNP’s terrible plan to adopt the English Pound as the currency for an Independent Scotland (as opposed to adopting the Scottish Pound, Sterlingization if you will – which is technically what we already have). 

From that moment, the polls narrowed until the moment which really saved the UK.  Not an act of negative campaigning, but the now notorious Daily Record front page – The Vow.  That kept enough soft ‘no’s’ from wavering and defecting to ‘Yes’ to win the day for the pro-Union Better Together.  But a winning vote of 55.3% revealed the ground that Project Fear had allowed to be conceded.  If conceding 26% to your opponents is a sign of success, then success itself has been redefined in the new politics.  In comparison to Cameron & Osborne’s bombastic style and scaremongering, Corbyn has been a quiet but dignified figure.

If the experience of 2014 is anything to go by, the fallout of this referendum will last long and be fractious.  That years referendum, which most people think of as a joyous celebration of politics saw a fractious and bitter conclusion followed by a more fractions and bitter fallout.  This doesn’t bode well for a campaign which has poisoned the wells of British (English?) politics from the start.  The only good news is that the campaign is now over.  The bad news is that the results are still to come, followed very swiftly by the fallout.