Monday, 15 December 2014

Murphy's Law

You know, perceived wisdom dictates that Scottish Labour’s election of the East Renfrewshire MP Jim Murphy as party leader is some sort of huge mistake.  That Murphy will somehow prove to be the final nail in the coffin of Scottish Labour and that this paves the way for the SNP to dominate Scottish politics.  I’m not entirely sure that this will be the case.

That’s not to say there are not bad points to Murphy.  He still occupies a position on the parties right wing, a leading member of the Progress group – the group looking to keep the Blairite flame alive within Labour.  Pro-Israel and pro-Trident,  I wouldn’t even be surprised if Murphy was a member of the British American Institute.  In his acceptance speech, he even reiterated his aims through the Blairite prism – “More entrepreneurs, not fewer. A growing middle class that more families are joining”.  I think that the voters within the Labour party have decided to put those policy positions aside.

Who Scottish Labour voted for was someone who is very much a political operator.  Someone who knows where the levers of power are and how to use them.  I’d bet that Murphy is also the sort of person that would know where the bodies are buried, so to speak.  Someone who, whatever your opinion on how Johann Lamont was treated, is a huge upgrade on both Lamont and Gray.

The SNP of course have welcomed Murphy’s win.  What is interesting is that the view from Westminster is that the SNP are somehow scared of Murphy.  I genuinely don’t think they are.  There’s not even a sense of apprehension there, which is not a good sign.  Had the SNP had a sense of apprehension at Gordon Brown’s legendary skills at talking to “Labour” people, then they would have reacted better to Brown’s single handed attempt at saving the UK and of course “The Vow”.

Had they not underestimated the enhanced standing Brown still has in parts of Scotland, maybe the referendum would not have been lost.  Judging by the reaction to Murphy’s election, this is a lesson that parts of the SNP seem unwilling to learn from.  Then again, do we expect anything less from a constituency that still refuses to acknowledge the bad policy decisions that lead to defeat, instead preferring to blame a biased media.  Oh and thick “No”voters.

Whether Murphy will be a success though depends on whether he can change up and not simply fall into Blairite tropes.  There are signs already that Murphy is willing to move left in the policy of a 50% tax rate.  Another facet Murphy will have to display will be his ability to make right wing policies sound left wing.  Brown was a pass master at this – maybe the best.  It’s not universally recognized that Salmond was also rather good at this too – judging by the popularity among pro-Indy supporters of the proposed policy to cut Corporation tax.

I don’t subscribe to the belief that this is automatically the final nail in the coffin of Scottish Labour.  Like so much in the British political landscape, so much is in flux.  Murphy’s demeanor and conduct could seal Scottish Labour’s fate.  On the other hand, the SNP could let their complacency take root and make it easier for Murphy to bring Scottish Labour back from the brink.  Whatever happens, I think we can safely say the scene is now set for the electoral battles next spring and in 2016.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Return Of The Eck

At the weekend, Alex Salmond won the annual worst kept secret of the year award for the open secret that he was returning to front line politics by standing for Westminster, a record three weeks after stepping down as Scotland’s First Minister.  The second worst secret being his candidacy for the Gordon seat, held by the retiring Malcolm Bruce and third on the list of target seats for the SNP.

The consensus among the Mac-commentariat is that Salmond will storm home and win this seat.  The consensus among SNP supporters is that the SNP will be key players after the next Westminster elections.  While I think it won’t be the cakewalk some of the commentariat describe, being the member at Holyrood does help as the fact that there will be no “incumbency factor” at play here.  I’m not entirely sure that the SNP’s influence post election will be anywhere near the (inflated) perception of hardline Yes supporters.

The main reason for this will be the unpopularity of the SNP among the main Westminster parties.  If you didn’t know already, the animosity between the Tories and Labour is a mere playground spat compared to the mutual loathing between Labour and the SNP.  Labour loves to bring up 1979 and sniggers at a party could have a word linking it to Hitler while the SNP loves a moral high ground more than any other British party (well, except pre-coalition Lib Dems – whose piousness riled John Major so much).  Had members of the Scottish Greens burned copies of the Smith Report, there would have been a bit of exposure but nothing compared to the (Labour orchestrated) media storm that the story became.  They just don’t like each other.

Not that the SNP are any more popular with the other parties, but truth be told the relationship between the two parties is easily the most poisonous in British politics.  You could maybe see a similar opinion of Tory “wets” towards UKIP develop if UKIP gain any more seats.  In this respect, the UKIP/Conservative relationship potentially could develop along similar lines to Labour’s relationship with the SNP.  The former relationship still has some way to go though.

Ironically enough, given their supposed delusions at the last party conference, the Lib Dems would still be the go to party for coalition.  Sure we don’t know what the background strains were like, but if Tory grandee’s like Major and Clarke can compliment the Lib Dems on their behaviour as “junior” partners, then the Tories could do worse. 

Labour on the other hand are probably still smarting from Clegg’s ramrod refusal to deal with Brown in 2010, so any deal would have a Clegg (or Alexander… or for that matter any of the other Orange Bookers at the top of the party) sized stumbling block.  What won’t help matters would be Clegg’s astonishing performance at PMQ’s yesterday.  Astonishing being one word I could use, given his claims about Labour’s treatment of pensioners.  Mind you seeing as the Orange Bookers are much easier bedfellows with the Tories than with Labour, they would prefer a second coalition with the Conservatives.  On the other hand, whether the grass roots would tolerate a second snubbing of Labour would be another matter entirely. Perhaps after Clegg’s rank awful showing at Prime Ministers Questions, the Lib Dem rank and file might take that decision out of his hands…

All of this is, of course, pure speculation.  Next years Westminster election is still very much up for grabs, UKPR’s polling is still showing Labour ahead…  just.  There is still a lot of water to come under the bridge before we find out whether any party will get a majority.  In the meantime, do not be surprised that, even if the nationalist bloc get 20-40 seats, they still find themselves on the outside and frozen out while power is divvied up.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Rebirth of Gordon Brown

Tuesday night saw social media ablaze with the antics of four SNP Councillors who, probably royally annoyed at the poor Smith Commission recommendations, decided to demonstrate their displeasure by burning copies of the Smith Report.  As the condemnation rained down on them from Labour supporters, one thought popped into my head.  At a time of austerity, of torched earth, of their own party agreeing pretty much with a lot of the Conservative’s policies and of rising stars of their party feeling the need to take freebies from corporate accountants…  is four councillors demonstrating against a not very good set of devolution proposals really more offensive than those things I’ve listed?

The sight of Labour supporters fulminating and creating showed how far Scottish Labour had fallen, as if they needed any more reminding the week their one time bright star Gordon Brown announced his intention to retire from the Westminster parliament.  In among all of the pre-death obituaries a strange thing occurred to me.  Gordon Brown’s stock has actually risen since the events of 2010.

In the run up to the 2010 Westminster election, Brown was seen as pretty much the villain of the last years of the Labour government.  Being made to be the scapegoat for all of the UK’s economic woes was the root cause of the opprobrium poured at Brown.  That Labour was, not so much at fault but created the conditions for the credit crunch to take place seems to have bypassed people.  When Kaye Adams asked, on BBC Radio Scotland’s Morning Call Kaye thingy, for the three words that sum up Brown how many people used the three words that cursed Brown’s time in number 10 – Light Touch Regulation?

It’s difficult to describe how disliked Brown was among the blogosphere, perhaps Milliband knows how he feels as he has lower polling ratings than Brown.  The UK’s top political blogger, Guido Fawkes, even has two monikers for Brown.  “The one eyed son of the manse” and Jonah Brown.  So how did the person that sowed the seeds of the crash end up with his stock rising.

I think the first pointer was that the current government have quite obviously set themselves up along the very same lines as the Blair/Brown government.  Cameron let slip early on that he thought of himself as the “heir to Blair” and absolutely everything he has done has followed the Blair playbook…  badly.  This extends to Osborne, who delivers his Budgets and Autumn statements as a homage to Broon.  Announcing pre-announced spending priorities, check.  Double accounting, check.  The statement that falls apart within days, check.  Yup Osborne is the new Brown.  Yet, for all of Brown’s supposed unpopularity, Cameron could not seal the deal and win an outright majority.

Yet Brown’s darkest political moment gave a sighter of his rehabilitation.  In among all the stats about 2010 two things stick out.  Obviously I’ve mentioned that Cameron could not win a majority.  It’s a theory of mine that Brown lost the election – in spite of economic competence – on the streets of Rochdale.  From Rochdale onwards it looked more and more likely that Cameron was pulling ahead – though a look at the polling shows this came from the Lib dems and not Labour.  The other thing was that the Scottish results under Brown bucked the trend of Labour’s eroding vote.  As I’ve said before, Brown put on 2.5% points in 2010 from Blairs performance in 2005.  It’s this reason that the SNP’s task in taking seats off of Scottish Labour is difficult.  The simple reason for that is that Brown is still a trusted figure among the solid Labour voting community.  Come the referendum Brown would be a key weapon.

Except that Better Together stuck with their flawed arguments.  It was only when the polls seriously narrowed that Brown began to move to the centre stage.  In truth, while Scottish Labour has been accident prone and frankly not fit for purpose, Brown was the one Labour politician that was Salmond proof and able to hotline directly to those solid Labour voting people.  Pro-Independence supporters are in the process of developing a complex about the vow, but a look at the Ashcroft polling shows that Brown and “The Vow” had little effect as a decisive factor.  Where I think Brown and “The Vow” was a factor was in stopping people from changing their mind and voting “Yes” – in other words “soft” No voters stayed in the “no” camp come voting day.

So Brown came, made some speeches, was key to the vow and generally saved the Union, adding to the perception that he had saved the banks.  Except that like the banks – who have gone back to behaving as they did before – the Union has gone back to the way it was before.  Labour politicians desperate to have a go at “the enemy” (the Conservatives) but being unable to because of the upstart SNP.  All of which brings us back to Smith and the act in haste proposals which some SNP people wish was turned to ashes (there may be time for that yet).

In spite of all the sneering, it’s beginning to look like Gordon Brown might emerge with something approaching a legacy.  Partly this is helped by his successor’s performances in office and also his predecessor being unable to remove the Iraq shaped millstone.  Certain left wing commentators were keen to make the case that it’s Brown and not Blair who will emerge as the heavyweight figure of the New Labour years.  However those commentators gloss over Brown’s own version of Iraq – Light Touch Regulation.

Monday, 1 December 2014

A Muddle And A Fiddle

So, the morning after the night before.  I’d been woken up by a text from my sister after…  well an hour’s dozing.  Turned on the radio, caught Darling’s victory speech, then Cameron’s pronouncements on the referendum result and instantly thought that the setting up of The Smith Commission was doomed to failure.

And so that has come to pass.

It’s not just the ridiculously tight timescale which put the shackles on any meaningful debate on what powers should be repatriated to Holyrood.  For that we can blame Brown and his speech that name checked every significant date in Scottish history between the referendum and polling day next May.  St Andrew’s day, check.  Burn’s Night, check (doubly significant given the events of Burns Night 1978…).  Nope, we can also blame the Westminster parties for putting their own electoral prospects before the people of Scotland.  As a result we have a report that pleases nobody.

Sure the representatives of the cosy right wing consensus at Westminster are pleased.  There are some powers that will be coming northwards.  However for the most part, it feels like a mess and a disaster waiting to happen.  Devo-Max it ain't, which lets not forget is the settled will of the Scottish people.

An example of where compromise has got in the way of a thoughtful process is in the area of taxation.  The logical conclusion of this process should have been fiscal autonomy, or a process with that as it’s destination.  Instead, Income tax only is to bee devolved.  Except it hasn’t, as control of the bands remain with Westminster though Holyrood does have control over the rates.

I say compromise.  I can’t think of any other word to describe what happened to the proposal to devolve the Universal credit.  A proposal that was torpedoed by Duncan-Smith at Wednesday’s cabinet meeting.   Labour were quite happy to see this remain at Westminster as is evidenced by their reaction to the report which further undermines their claim to be the protectors of the poor.


For the benefit of hard-line no’s, disappointment at the result of the Smith report is not confined to hard-line yes people.  The Unions have voiced disappointment at the torpedoing of proposals for a separate “Scottish” Health and Safety executive.  The Third sector voiced disappointment at missed opportunities and the general lack of a radical streak.  The most interesting contribution came from the BBC’s Gordon Brewer who noted that the proposals for Scottish involvement in UK Treasury matters had holes through it and drove a coach & horses through EVEL.  In short, most Scottish people can see through the mess that is the Smith Report, and recognise that it falls short of expectations.

For all that the pro-Union parties claim that substantial powers will be brought north, the truth is that the proposals do fall short.  My first reaction to Cameron’s announcement was that the PM had just sown the seeds of the next Independence Referendum (above).  Nothing coming out of the Smith Commission has changed my mind.  Where the final argument that will result in that referendum and Scotland leaving the UK will come from is still in the fog of the future.  What is certain is that Westminster have misjudged the mood of the Scottish nation.  We might have voted to stay in the union, but rather than the settled will of the Scottish people we have put the union on probation.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Just What Has Alex Salmond Ever Done For Us?

I must admit to being amused by “Scottish” Labour’s very own pussycat in a cardigan Simon Pia.  He does have this shtick of being laid back and yet does catch people out.  His (and Scottish Labour’s) bone of contention is that the SNP aren’t really as left of centre as they make out.  This is all rather pertinent given the air of nostalgia enveloping the, not quite out the door yet, former First Minister Alex Salmond.

And just to show I don't have the power to point and tax things like glasses of water...
The tributes have flowed, and that’s before we get to Saturday’s conference appearance where he (unintentionally) nearly upstaged his successor Nicola Sturgeon and the gathering outside the conference venue to give thanks.  All of which has left me rather underwhelmed.

Yes, under Salmond there is free prescriptions, a council tax freeze, no tuition fees, a stop to the hospital closures proposed by the McConnell administration and an investment in renewable energy.  All of which delivered in the teeth of a rapidly contracting funding settlement from Westminster.  At the end of Salmond’s first term, I made the point that Salmond has been the effective “steady hand on the tiller” rather than a reforming character. 

However, Salmond has relied on this in his second term as this period has become all about the referendum.  Maybe it is unfair, after all there’s been the amalgamation of all of Scotland’s constabularies into the single “Police Scotland” (though to be honest, this did appear in the Labour & Tory Holyrood manifestos too in 2011, with the Lib Dems the only party to voice legitimate concerns).  It does feel as if the decks have been cleared for the referendum.  In the light of the no vote, does this leave Salmond without a legacy?

Certainly there have been opportunities among Salmond’s list of achievements to fashion a lasting legacy.  From the council tax freeze, we were supposed to be getting Local Income Tax.  When the sums were shown not to add up, there should really have been a debate on how to replace the Council Tax.  Instead the freeze continued.  Instead of upping the money flowing into the NHS, the Salmond administration could look at reforms (particularly in the field of middle management) to the NHS.  Maybe, the move from Standard Grades to CFE will be seen as a legacy in years to come – a successful attempt to bring the standard of education up – but at the moment there are still many teething problems to be ironed out.

Whatever else Salmond does though, front & centre of his time in Bute House will be that referendum.  Maybe that’s the thing though.  Salmond’s legacy might not be a policy initiative but more the comparative radicalisation of the Scottish electorate.  Not in terms of a shift to the left (it remains to be seen if this is the case, though we will know next May) but in the increased politicization of the Scottish electorate.  It’s this increased political awareness that spells bad news for a Labour party desperate to make up some red water on the Tories.  That dawning realization that the Tories spending plans will be aped by Labour will not go down well among the Scottish electorate, that realization can be attributed to the referendum effect.

If Salmond’s achievements are not as much as they could have been, his supposed black marks are not the ones you might think.  For me, the biggest disappointment was that the scandal surrounding the continuing of the First Scotrail franchise was swept under the carpet by all and sundry.  Mind you, maybe this did play a part in the recent award to Abellio of the Scotrail contract.  There was also his government’s part in Trump-town.  Then again, like with Salmond’s cheerleading regarding RBS takeover of the Dutch bank ABN Amro, politicians of all parties were all too keen on showing that Scotland was a good place for business.  It just makes Salmond’s involvement in Trump’s development more of a harbinger that things hadn’t really changed. 

The much higher profile black marks don’t really stack up.  The release of “the biggest mass murderer in Scottish legal history” on compassionate grounds doesn’t stack up because, as I’ve always argued, Megrahi rather than the biggest murderer is more the victim of the biggest miscarriage of justice in Scottish legal history.  Meanwhile Scottish Labour’s favourite stick was that the SNP was anti-Glasgow, the ammunition for this was the cancellation of the proposed Glasgow Airport Rail Link.  While there is a case for some sort of rail link between Glasgow and it’s Airport, the cack handed way it was put together was nothing more than a vanity project for Glasgow Labour. 

Even more distasteful was the bandwagon jumping of Renfrewshire Labour politicians claiming that the GARL was a good thing, that the construction of a link destroying football pitches was a good thing, that a rail link that took visitors away from Paisley was a good thing.  Salmond & Swinney were right to scrap the project, though maybe should have looked as cost effective alternatives.  That Renfrewshire Labour activists still cling to GARL as all that is wrong with the SNP shows that they’re not learning.

In some respects, Salmond has been fortunate that his opponents in Scottish Labour were still in a sulk about 2007 and all that to be a truly effective opposition.  It’s possible that Wendy Alexander would have been much more effective at bringing Salmond to account than Gray and Lamont.  On the other hand, an effective Labour opposition may well have pushed the SNP to go further with regard to legislating through Holyrood.  If there’s that sense that Salmond’s second term was all about the referendum, well it’s because they could afford to.  A poor opposition at Holyrood meant that Salmond’s government has essentially been in cruse control since May 2011.

With the Salmond years now over, only the Inverdale question remains.  To paraphrase.  In the pantheon of great first ministers, where does he stand?  I’ve long said that he has set the standard for Scottish First Minister and nothing has really changed my mind.  Singularly the most accomplished & effective occupant of Bute House, Salmond has been the one man advertisement for the big jobs being filled by experienced people that have served their apprentice.  Especially pertinent given the inexperience at the top of the Westminster parties (Cameron has been an MP for only 13 years, Milliband & Clegg for 9).  Them’s big shoes to fill for Sturgeon, and as I’ve already said that brings it’s own pressures.