Wednesday, 31 December 2014

In The Year Of Our Referendum, 2014

Buchanan Street, 13 September 2014 - the so called "ground war"
For Scottish people, 2014 means only one thing.  It was the year or our referendum, where we debated & discussed before voting on whether we should leave the union.  It dominated our news and currant affairs programmes, and since the vote has refused to bugger off.  That not only did the referendum only dominate the Scottish news cycles, and that there were other events shows either how much of a bubble we were in or that the divergence between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom is well underway

Outside of the referendum, the biggest story was the continued and inexplicable rise of UKIP.  In May they topped the poll in the UK part of the European Elections, forming part of a wider anti European Union narrative across the EU.  Yet UKIP’s campaign this time wasn’t targeted against the European Commission or other EU policies.  Like the French National Front, UKIP targeted freedom of movement – deliberately linking this with immigration.

By tapping into the supposed dissatisfaction with “unlimited immigration” (whilst not mentioning the amount of UK citizens who have themselves taken advantage of freedom of movement) UKIP topped the poll on 27.49% of the vote, taking 24 of the UK’s allocation of seats. 

The most controversial of those seats was the election of London resident David Coburn as one of Scotland’s 6 MEP’s.  The Westminster parties kinda took this in their stride while the SNP went into full toys out of the pram mode.  The SNP had, in the weeks leading up to the vote, been running a campaign to vote SNP to keep out UKIP without really explaining why.  As a result many Scots blew a raspberry at Salmond and co by voting UKIP.  Maybe it was the insipid campaign, or maybe it was the perceived careerism displayed by the SNP’s third candidate (and former Tory candidate in 1999), Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh.  Whatever was the case, the SNP rather than look like winners (which they were, they topped the share of vote) looked more like sore losers. This was a role reversal that provided to be a harbinger of things to come.

Coburn (3rd left) and Ahmed-Sheikh (left of Sturgeon) at the Euro declaration
Another facet of this rise that would play out during the referendum campaign would be accusations of bias towards UKIP.  During his parties toys out of the pram moment, Salmond said that Scot’s voted UKIP because English TV was being beamed into their homes.  What Scottish Labour representatives failed to realise was Salmond’s admonishment of David Dimbleby and the BBC’s coverage of the European elections actually played well with the Greens…  and Labour supporters in England.

Both the Greens and Labour had cause for complaint about the BBC’s coverage.  As a left of centre party that leaned towards euroscepticism, the Greens were annoyed at UKIP’s billing as the only eurosceptics in the village.  Labour were annoyed at the BBC’s reporting of better than expected council results.  All parties have voiced concerns at UKIP’s seeming residency on Question Time.  Indeed it did seem at times that the Anglocentric media were running a story that wasn’t there – the success of UKIP in by-elections.  That changed on 9 October when the Conservative defector Douglas Carswell “won” back the seat of Clacton for his new party UKIP, thus becoming UKIP’s first Westminster MP.  He was followed in November by another Tory defectee, Mark Reckless.

I can understand why people might get excited about UKIP.  However, lets not forget that they are no SDP.  Carswell might turn out to be a coup for UKIP, but neither he or Reckless are of the stature of Jenkins, Williams or Owen when they defected from Labour and set up the SDP in 1981, while it has taken a long time for UKIP to make their breakthrough.  In any case, I rather suspect that UKIP’s showing at next years General Election will be restricted to just siphoning votes from the Tories.  I suspect they’ll fall back to about 10% of the share of vote and maybe pick up at most 4 seats (Carswell will keep his seat, I think Farage will win a seat for sure). 

Nah, for me the story of the year is the story that refuses to bugger off.  That referendum.

So, what is left that hasn’t been said about the Independence Referendum.  Well, for starters that despite the rantings of other members of the Macblogosphere (Hello, Bella, Wings and Newsnat Scotland), you need look no further than Swinney Sturgeon and Salmond for reasons why Scots voted No.  Yes, the pro-Indy Yessers won on social issues, but as I’ve said previously the big elections battlegrounds are the economy, the economy and the economy.  Salmond, Swinney and Sturgeon did not win these battles, and in the case of currency badly lost that argument.  To the surprise of…  well hardcore Yessers… Scotland’s commuter belts voted No in their droves.

A cursory glance at the Michael Ashcroft poll released in the aftermath of the referendum bears this out.  When asked what the two or three deciding issues were, 57% of no voters replied the pound, 37% pensions and 32% tax and public spending.  In contrast, the driving force for pro-Independence supporters was dissatisfaction with Westminster politics (74%) and the NHS (54%). No mention of “the Vow” or Brown’s set of speeches in the week before the referendum.  Though to be honest the impact of “The Vow” was more in keeping wavering “No’s” as no voters and in stopping the steady stream of voters moving from No to Yes.

As the campaigns came to a close, the referendum felt not unlike the 1992 Westminster Election.  There was our own “Double Whammy” with the unilateral scuppering of Sterlingzone.  There was our equivalent to April Fools day (when three polls gave Labour leads of 7%, 6% and 5% - the Indyref equivalent being the poll 10 days before polling putting Yes ahead).  Referendum day itself felt, certainly in weather terms, like 9 April 1992.  Warm but overcast.

Where the Yes side were successful was in tapping into lapsed voters and engaging in that old fashioned campaigning tool of the old style public meeting.  I went to two, one was a “Yes Scotland” run event which was interesting if one sided (though to be fair there were complaints that Better Together refused to engage with the voters at hustings level).  There were no complaints with the first hustings event I attended, which was on the same night as the second of the Salmond/Darling television debates.

The Paisley referendum hustings also highlighted a facet of the campaign that hasn’t really been picked up – the number of females who made small cameo’s that made a lasting impression.  PCS Union’s Fiona McDonald was the most impressive person at the Paisley hustings, I was also struck by how open and warm Christine McKelvie at the Yes meeting I went to.  Unfortunately, I don’t know the name of the Green activist I spoke to on Buchannan Street that put the debate in more acceptable terms.  Looking at the Scottish Green prospectus for Independence, this was a much more realistic and attractive set of arguments and policies than the prospectus being prosecuted by the SNP.

Salmond announces his resignation on 19 September
A couple of years ago, I wrote that after the referendum, things would not be the same again whatever happened.  Yet, only the Anglocentric media seems to have thought that after the referendum things would revert to the way things were.  If anything, the referendum seems to have triggered a dramatic moving of the political tectonic plates.  That the prospectus for Independence managed to garner just shy of 45% of the electorate seems to have galvanised the Independence movement.  Now all the affiliated fringe organizations to Yes Scotland – Women for Independence and Radical Independence – are creeping further and further away from the fringes and towards the mainstream of Scottish politics.

If the old Scottish staple of glorious defeat has galvanised the pro-Independence side, the victory from the jaws of victory for the pro-Union side has weighed down the pro-Union parties.  Labour’s poll rating began to fall in the weeks after the referendum, possibly as a result of Labour’s continued acceptance of Osborne-nomics or even dissatisfaction with Milliband.  The resignation of Johann Lamont as “Scottish” Labour leader made matters worse for Labour – especially as Lamont confirmed that Milliband blocked “Scottish” Labour’s opposition to the Bedroom Tax and that she felt that her party was essentially a “branch office” of London Labour.  Thus confirming every single criticism of “Scottish” Labour made by the SNP as true.

When I wrote about where now for the so called “45”, I highlighted the difficulty of the SNP’s task in taking Labour held seats.  The first of those polls highlighting the shift in opinion against Labour had just been published and looked like it might have been an outlier.  Since then a number of polls have been published confirming this trend.  Most polls show that the SNP (were the election held now) would achieve a swing upwards of 19% - enough to capture the cluster of 20 odd Labour seats around the 12-18% swing mark.  Crucially this has not changed since the election of the Blairite Jim Murphy.  The most forgotten aspect of Blair was that when he became Labour leader, and then Prime Minister, he was the most astutely pragmatic politician in the country.  For Labour to step back from the abyss that they are maybe standing on, Murphy will have to be tactically pragmatic and not automatically fall into Blairite tropes.

2014 was the year of our Referendum and it looks like 2015 will be the year of the fallout from our Referendum.  There is the small matter of a Westminster Election as well.  All the indications there is that it will be the Tories that will be utilising the lessons from “Project Fear”, that the relationship between UKIP and the Tories is developing into the most fractious relationship in British politics outside of that between “Scottish” Labour and the SNP and that it will be the rejuvenated SNP that will be going into that Westminster Election in better health than Labour.  Other than that, the election picture will not become clear until the campaign proper begins in April.  Even then, the spectre of the referendum will loom large.

In the mean time, may I wish you a happy new year to you all and see you in 2015.

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