Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Miliband Drift

I am currently reading Andrew Marr’s “History of Modern Britain” book.  During the most recent part there is several pages given over to a figure that most Scots will have forgotten, or have been completely unaware of. Yet had he not died of a massive heart attack on the morning of May 12 1994, it might well have been John Smith striding up Downing Street just under three years later rather than his (at the time) Shadow Home Secretary.
I mention Smith because I seem to recall that he had a horrific baptism of fire as Labour leader, with a series of underwhelming performances in the House of Commons.  I think that despite the unpopularity of the Major government, Smith did not really put behind him and the party the disappointment of the 1992 General Election defeat until he won the vote to adopt One Member One Vote at the Labour conference of 1993.  So we had a party leader struggling to make an impression despite the government enacting unpopular policies.  Sound familiar?

It’s not as if the Coalition government are particularly popular, its just that Milliband the younger (above) and his colleagues seem inept at changing people’s perceptions of what has happened.  As a result the perceived wisdom has been that the deficit has been caused by Labour overspending, and that this is the reason for Osborne’s Scorched Earth Policy, where nothing is immune from cuts.  This perception has resulted in public support for Osborne’s Scorched Earth policy.  Of course, the truth is slightly different in that there is the absence of the estimated £1.2 Trillion in spending on baling out the failing banking sector.  New Labour used to have a unit to combat this kind of spin, the rapid rebuttal unit.  It looks to have gone to seed if this kind of untruth has become perceived wisdom.

That’s not the only problem with the current positioning of Labour.  While I can understand their reasoning, their stance on the public service strikes taking place today is somewhat puzzling and a little worrying.  Yes, there is an element of picking the fights that will cause the coalition damage, and yes there is public disquiet about “Gold Plated” pensions (© Nick Clegg 2010).  However, there are a lot of people who will suffer because of the way these reforms have been structured.  New Labour’s tactic of sitting on their hands will not go down well, and shows an element of fear.  Fear of “Swing” voters and fear of what the New Labour/Blairite constituency will think of politicians siding with the troublesome Unions.

There are other examples of the Miliband drift as well, the one that is most deserving of exposure is the attitude of his shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, that “Light Touch Regulation” is an ideal to return to.  Balls, it seems has been making speeches intimating a return to the policies that led to the credit crunch/financial shocks of 2007-09, and the subsequent recession.  These speeches are mostly to city insiders, but it does seem that lessons have not been learned.

This is not a critique of Ed Miliband himself, more one of the Labour hierarchy and the schoolboy errors they have made since the election.  To go back to the comparison with John Smith, Milliband the younger is incredibly fortunate not to have someone as formidable in his team as Gordon Brown, Tony Blair or Robin Cook.  I suspect that if he had, then his position would be much more precarious than it currently is.  As it is, the next six months are crucial to Labour’s chances for 2015.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Never Again

In 1983 the United States of America went to war against the tiny Caribbean island of Greneda.  This, however, was a far more equal battle than the British General Election of the same year.  It was said that the Labour campaign started badly and then fell away, but this is being generous.  It was the worst campaign in electoral history, and it hurt to watch it.  There are various things that can lose a party votes in elections.  You might have a leader who does not look like prime ministerial material, you might have a manifesto that alienates many of the electorate, you might have a hostile media, you might appear hopelessly divided as a political party, or your campaign might be poorly organised and unfocused.  Or, like Labour in 1983, you might manage all of the above” – extract from “Things Can Only Get Better” by John O’Farrell  

Yep, the events leading up to June 9 1983 is something seared into the consciousness of every Labour supporter, so much so that they vowed never again.  So why did it happen again last month with the Holyrood elections?  Leader that didn’t look First Minister material – check, though Grey was a dab hand at jumping into sandwich shops.  Manifesto that alienates many of the electorate - well what manifesto apart from the pledges stolen from the SNP.  Hostile media - are you kidding!  Yoda that resides in my bookcase is more hostile than most of the political “interrogators” within the Scottish media (Isobel Fraser apart).  Hopelessly divided – I don’t think any of the shadow cabinet has the intelligence to voice a different point of view from their leader.  Poorly organised & unfocused campaign – check.  In spades.

Labours rank performance has returned to the public consciousness as a report has been published looking into the details of who voted for what party on May 5.  It showed that the SNP hovered up working class voters and voters from all religious groups, with more “Catholic” voters opting to vote SNP than Labour for the first time.  Working class voters & “Catholic” voters were previously seen as the bedrock of Labour support.  What this survey also showed was that the lie being peddled by Labour on election night, that the SNP were beneficiaries of a straight swing from the Lib Dems and that their vote held up, was that.  According to the report, half of that drop switched to the SNP, while the other half made its way to the other parties.  This means that the Labour vote dropped by more than the final figure of 17,766.  Presumably those votes went straight to the SNP.  All of which  brings us back to the analogy with 1983, which presented that Labour party with similar problems.

In 1983, the parties taking votes from Labour were Thatcher’s Conservatives and the fledgling Social Democratic Party that came within 650,000 votes of supplanting Labour from second place in the popular vote. In Labour’s way this time were the Scottish National Party, who alongside being a competent government gunning for their second term have developed a successful Scottish take on Clinton’s “TheThird Way” and New Labour – ironic considering that many of the influences for New Labour policies came from the old SDP – many of the advisors of New Labour were originally SDP people while Roy Jenkins was a friend and influence on Tony Blair.

This defeat has led some to call for Labour in Holyrood to go down the New Labour route.  In a post for the Labour Hame blog, New Labour loyalist John McTiernan outlines this route –

Where do they start? With tone – and Tone. From first to last, from “A new dawn has broken has it not” at the Royal Festival Hall to “This is the greatest nation in the world” in Trimdon…  Scottish Labour should start there. And for Blair, it was always about values. 

Start with education. This is core to our sense of self; we are known worldwide for the quality of our education. Except that’s just not true now…  Or take law and order. You can’t go far wrong with tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.  Labour’s knife crime policy was one of the most popular single policies of any party at the election. They should stick to it.  But they should brigade it with a prevention strategy. The restoration of the Future Jobs Fund was one leg of that, apprenticeships another. This is a key battleground…  And then there’s health. At the core of Nicola Sturgeon’s health strategy is an opposition to hospital reorganisation…  

The future not the past. The many not the few. Leadership not drift. There’s life in the old songs still  Who dares wins

The problem with that synopsis is twofold.  Firstly, currently parked on the New Labour part of the political spectrum are the SNP – a party currently advocating Corporation Tax cuts and investment in public services in the same breath.  A party not afraid to do business with the most famous capitalist raider on the planet and simultaneously not afraid to pledge to keep Scottish Water within public ownership.  In short, the SNP have read the New Labour handbook (itself adapted from the prototype SDP, Clinton’s “The Third Way”) and adapted it to Holyrood.  Scottish problems for Scottish solutions.

Allied to this is the second problem facing Labour, that they are a party bereft of any vote winning policies.  The SNP had their policy on freezing Council tax, the policy on retaining funding for the NHS, their policy on free education.  All policies that would have been advocated by a past version of the Labour party but were either derided by this version, with no alternatives put forward, or shamelessly stolen and re-packaged immediately before the election.  Because of this, the impression given at the election was that there was no alternative but a second SNP term, which is what we have.

So where next for Labour in Holyrood?  There won’t be any lurch to the left, as the current Labour group do not strike me as firebrand socialists in the best traditions of Jimmy Reid or…  er um…  nope can’t think of anyone else.  The problem may well be a lurch to the right, which would take Labour further away from the “Scottish Sensibility”, thus leaving the SNP with more space to pick their ideas from.

While Iain Gray remains as leader, Labour in Holyrood have time to assess where they want to go, and to try and work out viable positions to take over the next five years, and to mull over possible replacements.  With this in mind, their choice as next leader needs to be a viable candidate for First Minister come 2016.  Whoever it is must recognise that the bar for First Minister has been raised since the position was held by Dewar, McLeish and McConnell.  They must develop a vision, and yet be consistent enough not to come across as opportunistic.  It’s a tall order, and a task that in 1983 Labour did not totally get to grips with until one of the new intake took the reigns himself 11 years later.  To paraphrase another of Blair’s slogans, time for the Scottish party to reform or die.

Friday, 17 June 2011

More on Supremecourtgate

Not content with helping his justice secretary to dig a hole, Alex Salmond appears to have taken over full hole digging duties.

To recap, a couple of weeks ago, the Supreme Court – the successor body to the Law Lords – asked the Scottish courts to look again at the conviction of Nat Fraser for the alleged murder of his wife.  Alleged because Fraser was convicted without the presence of Arlene Fraser’s body, though that wasn’t the issue.  The Issue was that the prosecution held evidence that may have influenced the trial against the prosecution.  This practice might be ingrained into the fabric of Scots law, but there is no place for this in a post-human rights country. 

The trial of Nat Fraser is not the only prosecution where the withholding of evidence by the prosecution teams is not the first case – this practice is one of the many issues surrounding the conviction of Abdelbasset Al Medgrahi.  However, it is the first case to be taken to the Supreme Court, which quashed his conviction on this technicality.

However, rather than accept the verdict and look at ways to modernise Scots Law, Salmond has decided to lash out at the Supreme Court, arguing that “Scotland's distinct legal system, including our criminal law, has served our country well for centuries, ensuring justice for victims while also protecting the rights of those accused of a crime.  We believe the UK Supreme Court should have no role in matters of Scots criminal law - a view supported by Scotland's leading legal figures.”  Except, Scots Law has not served our country well, and as we have established above it does not protect innocent people accused of a crime.  In the race to criminalise many parts of society, the proof threshold has fallen to dangerous levels, only two witnesses are required for a successful prosecution.

Salmond’s plan though has nothing to do with human rights or modernising Scots Law.  His pledge to hold an Independence referendum will not be fulfilled if the polls continue to show that a majority of people are still against Independence.  Rather than combat the drip feed of pro-union stories (the New Labour term for it was “rapid rebuttal” – except the SNP despite reading most of the New Labour handbook look to have ignored the chapter on media relations.), Salmond has decided to go on the attack on Independence related subjects.  Hence his new found enthusiasm for the findings of the Calman Commission – which is currently going through Westminster, and his two footed tackle on the Supreme Court.

Salmond’s latest bout of digging coincided with the publication of an interview with the Holyrood magazine were Salmond said

All I would say to Lord Hope is that I probably know a wee bit about the legal system and he probably knows a wee bit about politics.  But politics and the law intertwine, and the political consequences of Lord Hope's judgements are extreme and when the citizens of Scotland understandably vent their fury about the prospect of some of the vilest people on the planet getting lots of money off the public purse, they don't go chapping at Lord Hope's door, they ask their parliament what they are doing about it.”

Which completely ignores the issue at stake here, that of modernisation of the Scottish Law System.  Salmond was again unrepentant today at First Ministers questions, continuing with the line that the Supreme Court was undermining Scot’s Law and that he “think(s) it's a real issue. The integrity of the criminal law of Scotland is a matter of public concern.”.  Again, the Supreme Court would not quash this case if fundamental technicalities were followed.  As a result of these practices, the criminal law of Scotland is already compromised.

How Salmond gets out of this hole is anyone’s guess.  I would suggest a tactical retreat would be the best option.  I don’t think that this will happen though, which is why I think that this will rumble on until some sort of stalemate emerges.  However, why the Pro-Independence camp see this as being beneficial to their cause is anyone’s guess as I think that more harm than good will come of it.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

An SNP Voter Writes...

Last year, I posted about Labour’s ability to read the mind’s of people who voted Lib Dem at the Westminster Election.  In particular, their assumption that Lib Dem voter’s were disappointed about their jumping into bed with the Tories.  This year’s post election Mystic Meg award winner is Alex Salmond who seems to think that he has a new mandate to contribute to the current Scotland Bill and to propose extended powers for Holyrood.

The SNP won on a ticket of freezing Council Tax for the next five years, free education and protecting investment in the NHS.  All laudable policies, which were more than the other main parties were offering (though I did like the look of the Green’s property tax – which is why they got my “list” vote).  The SNP were proposing to hold a referendum on Independence, something the other parties were fearful of, and the SNP had a decent in the circumstances kind of a record in government.  Grey, Goldie and …  um…  you know the other one really failed to make themselves look remotely First Minister material.  Yet since the election, the SNP’s judgement has been questionable to say the least.

Before we come to Salmond’s mind reading act, we really should touch on Supremecourtgate.  Salmond’s criticism of the Supreme Court’s verdict on the Nat Fraser case was wrong, and was a rare sighting of the most unsightly thing in Scottish politics – Salmond the Smirk.  Instead of Salmond & MacAskill’s gracelessness, they should have pledged to look at the irregularity within Scot’s law that lead to this verdict.  Scots law is not fit for purpose, and this was an opportunity lost not to reform it.

Since the Election, the SNP have pushed for further extensions to the current Scotland Bill.  In pushing for control of the Crown estates, for control over alcohol duty and, controversially, control over Corporation Tax rates, the SNP have claimed that they now have a mandate to push for these measures.  Having looked again at the election literature received during the campaign, I can’t see why this claim is being made.  There is no mention of pushing for these powers.  There is mention of “Win new job creating powers for the Scottish Parliament”, which is pretty vague and at the bottom of the leaflet – not a huge priority then!

I don’t quite understand the claim of a new mandate, as I’m sure that a lot of people voted SNP for reasons other than constitutional issues.  That’s not to say that the SNP are wrong in pursuing changes to the Scotland Act, after all the Calman proposals are flawed and continue the disincentive to tax raising powers that the current powers have.  The SNP have exactly the same “mandate” to push for change as they had on May 4th.  They could have commented on Calman as it was being drawn up.  It’s just that they had no desire to contribute to the Calman Commission in the last parliament.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Meanwhile Back In The Real World

A Friend on Facebook posted the other day that Jools Holland striding towards his Piano was the most depressing thing about television.  I responded with a post intimating that there were lots of things depressing about British television (quoting the BBC’s love of Jane Austin).  After a bit of thought, last night it occurred that currently the most depressing thing on British television is BBC Scotland’s own Paxman-lite Gordon Brewer introducing yet another discussion on Independence on Newsnicht.  Nothing against Independence, but there won’t be very much of Scotland left after nearly 5 years of Gorge Osborne’s scorched earth policy.

While the Scottish media have been obsessing over Independence, the economic indicators just get worse and worse.  GDP has been bumping along at around the 0% mark since the election, with the last set of figures showing the economy growing by the huge amount of 0.5%.  The rate of inflation is currently at 4.5%, with the Retail Price Index at 5.2%.  The squeeze on peoples finances is well and truly on, and this is before the next set of cuts hit home.

One wonders then what planet the IMF are living on.  No really what planet are they living on.  Their…  um…  spokesperson John Lipsky gave Osborne the thumbs up  by saying that "The current slowdown in our view is temporary and the current policy mix is appropriate."  Osborne is of couse dining out on this little pat on the back, his response being "I welcome the IMF's continued strong support for our overall macroeconomic policy mix, including our deficit reduction strategy.  The IMF have publicly asked themselves the question 'whether it is time to adjust macroeconomic policies' - in other words, is it time to change course? And they have concluded definitively that 'the answer is no'."

The problem with this endorsement is that the IMF’s reputation is not entirely as bullet-proof as people would make out.  They failed to spot the credit crunch, and endorsed the Brown government’s stance.  They failed to spot Greece’s difficulties before they happened, and have been key drivers in pushing for bale outs in Ireland, Greece & Portugal.  None of the bale outs have worked, as reboots to their respective economies.  Also the IMF are not really a neutral arbiter of people’s economies.  They see things through a monetarists eyes, hence the countless caviats and conditions to any loans, mostly involving privatisation.  These conditions have to be applied to the IMF’s appraisal of the UK’s tanking economy.

Not that the IMF’s approval will have touched people’s lives the way that Scottish Power’s intention to put up Electricity & gas prices has done.  Scottish Power’s price rise is immoral and unjustifiable for a company that is posting profits in the region of £1.2 billion. Even more immoral when you consider that wholesale gas prices fell below break even price around September 2008, as this graph demonstrates…

While the media have been obsessing about Independence and the proposed roadmap, while the Macblogosphere has been indulging in collective navel-gazing, the world has moved on.  People are seriously struggling.  The economy is failing.  This may seem like heresy to some people but compared to the struggle to survive in tough economic conditions, and the real need to promote a viable alternative to torching public services, Independence is not a hot issue.  By next spring, there’ll be blood on the hands of the IMF, Scottish Power (and any other power company that raises its prices), and Osborne.