Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Why Scotland Will Vote No In 2014

Watching the edited highlights a couple of weeks ago and catching some of the pro-Independence blogs, there is an air of the first day at school to it all.  The SNP activists all exude the air of being eager to campaign for their cause, and also display some signs of being a bit too green around the gills.  More ominously, like some pupils on the first day of school there is already a sense of destiny, of things will not go to any plan.  Watching the pro-Independence party’s blog and pontificate about Scotland’s future, there is a sense that the die has already been cast and that whatever happens, in two years time Scotland will vote to stay in the Union.

The biggest miscalculation that the SNP have made is in not taking note of the polls.  You would think that a party calling a referendum in an area where they are consistently polling behind (save the odd outrider) the various options within staying within the Union, would have put in some effort in outlining its arguments to the general population.   You would have though that there would have been pre-prepared lines of defence and some though put into how to gain a yes vote.  Except that apart from the line that Scotland would be better off being governed by itself and not by Westminster, there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of thought put towards how exactly to overturn a polling deficit and win a referendum.  The fact that Independence for Scotland is just not a mass movement, unlike in Catalonia, has just not occurred to the SNP.

In 2009 I posted on how the SNP could blow apart the following year’s Westminster Election.  They were not going to get the Referendum Bill through the split 2007/11 parliament, so they should have stood (I argued) by putting their arguments to people during the General Election.  Of course, instead they ran on the awfulMore Nat’s, Less Cut’s” – a campaign that saw them, if nothing else, retain their six Westminster seats.  What would have been interesting though would have been to contemplate what would have happened had the SNP gone down the other route.

For starters, the campaign would have highlighted problem area’s to the SNP hierarchy.  As it is, any problems with the case for Independence will only really emerge…  er…  now.  Secondly, the campaign would have put the case for Independence out into the wider Scottish populace.  At the moment the case for Independence hasn’t really been put towards the Scottish people, which means that a lot of pro-Union voters have only heard one side of the argument.  In short, lessons would have been learned, lessons that the SNP would have used to effect with this referendum campaign.

That has not happened and as a result, much of the SNP campaign feels thought of on the hoof, or with the idea that day one of Independence will not be different to any other day.  Much thought should have gone into the launch of “Yes Scotland” – the campaign group formed to press for a “yes” vote in two years time.  The main aim should have been to get people talking, to put out a sort of “opening argument” in support of Scotland becoming independent and generally generate some recognition for “Yes Scotland”.  Instead, ex-pat Scot’s lined up to say that Scotland would be better off governed by itself, without actually explaining how or why while Salmond explained about some sort of petition.  Not the momentum generating lift that “Yes Scotland” needed.
The “Day one of Independence” argument however has seen several of the SNP’s arguments come apart under very little pressure from opponents.  The policy of a currency union with R-UK, which I suspect comes partially from this idea and partially from the acceptance that entry to the Euro would be unthinkable on so many levels at the moment.  This theory also drives the SNP’s argument about I-Scotland starting within the EU as a successor state.  There was two problems with this though.  

Firstly, legal opinion on this position seems to be split.  Some lawyers seem to believe that Scotland would be a member state of the EU on day one of independence and that the EU would have no problems with this.  Other lawyers seem to think that this would be very far from the truth.  That I-Scotland would have to apply to join the EU and would be outside the EU on day one of Independence.  This split in opinion should have set alarm bells ringing among pro-Independence supporters.  Yet the opposite has happened.  Pro-Independence supporters have stuck their heads in the sand claiming that I-Scotland would, in spite of the paucity of evidence, take its place in the EU.  The second flaw is that no-one seems to have asked the Scottish people whether they should be part of the EU on day one of I-Scotland.

Of course, there is now a third flaw.  The SNP government it seems have spent in the region of £100,000 trying to keep out of the public domain legal advice that does not actually exist. 

Where’s the Taxpayers Alliance when you need them?

The policy that started the Scottish Government’s “week in hell” was the reversal of the policy that I-Scotland would not join NATO.  Not really having an opinion either way, I don’t understand why such a divisive proposal was put forward and why it was proposed now.  It seems strange given that this was done on the back of a poll – one poll – that showed support for Independence would increase if I-Scotland was part of NATO.  Like I said, there are some aspects of the SNP’s campaigning that seems to be made on the hoof.

So what should Yes Scotland & the SNP be doing?  For starters they really should be getting on to the main battleground of this debate – The Economy.  While there is an acceptance in the Mac-blogosphere that Scotland can make it as an Independent country, Yes Scotland really need to take this argument out into the real world.  There is polling evidence to suggest that people believe that they would be worse off if Scotland became Independent and that this is the main reason that they will not vote for independence.  As I have said before, the SNP need to tackle this issue.  It does seem though that the SNP are already behind the curve here – Better Together have recently changed their argument from “Scotland can’t survive separated from the rest of the UK” to “We think that it is in Scotland’s best interest to stay a part of the UK”.

I think that unless there are changes in the tactics of Yes Scotland and the SNP, this referendum campaign will be done and dusted very quickly.  A lot of the damage has been self inflicted damage, which must be pleasing for the “Better Together” camp as they haven’t really put forward any arguments.  If all the current indications are correct, and Yes Scotland/the SNP carry on with their tactics (or there is an unknown element), Scotland will vote No in 2014.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Some Thoughts About The Conference Season

With the conference season now at a close (for non Scottish readers, the SNP conference finished yesterday), there are a few things that have emerged that are worthy of comment.
One nation under god...  ah, no... wait... wrong speech.

1)  Referendum…  What Referendum?

Last Monday saw the final agreement between the Westminster & Holyrood governments to hold a referendum on Scotland’s place in the Union.  You wouldn’t have thought that this referendum was happening judging by the political talk at the conferences of the three main Westminster parties.  Indeed, at most Cameron & Milliband the Younger probably devoted around 4 sentences each on how utterly committed they were to defending the Union, before ploughing on with their own self absorbed arguments.

The Better Together group are claiming to take no vote for granted, yet all the party leaders gave only a cursory mention to the dominant political issue in Scotland, as if Independence was some sort of irritant to the real issues (which, thanks to the descent into arguing about something as arcane as the question for months on end, does look very off putting).  One wonders whether as the campaign unfolds, the Westminster party leaders can afford to be so casual towards the views of part of the country.

2) Labour Have Signed Up to George’s “Scorched Earth Policy” – Fact

Anyone who saw some of Ed Balls speeches in 2011 and 2012 will not be surprised by that statement, especially as Labour have done anything but publicise this part to the wider electorate who will have missed this in the edited highlights of both speeches.  Balls reiterated this point in this years speech to conference, that cuts will have to be made – “we cannot make any commitments now that the next Labour government will be able to reverse particular tax rises or spending cuts…  as I said to the TUC, we must be upfront with the British people that under Labour there would have been cuts and that – on spending, pay and pensions – there will be difficult decisions in the future from which we will not flinch.” 

The difference this year is that the “Scottish” Labour leader Johanne Lamont has now made two speeches, the second her Scottish leader’s speech at the Labour conference, calling into question the affordability of certain “universal benefits”.  As I have pointed out in the previous post, her attempt to start a debate into public services has seen her party lurch to the right because of the badly chosen arguments and frankly awful politics at play here. 

Yet, rather tellingly, rather than spin their way out of the hole they find themselves in, Labour have played this with a straight bat and honestly believe that there is mileage in means testing, targeted benefits, Tuition Fees and higher local taxes rather than a more viable alternative of cuts to middle management, pay freezes to heads of service, pay freezes to vice Chancellors and targeted tax rises.

3) The Conservatives have Lurched To The Right

Anyone remember the 1993 Tory Conference?  It was the one where Peter Lilley first blamed single mothers for all of the ills in society, the one where Michael Howard declared that “Prison works” and the one, I think, where the Prime Minister John Major concluded his speech to conference with a call to return to the values of the 1950’s.  In short, Major’s “Back to basics” speech concluded a conference that saw the Tories lurch (disastorously) to the right in short shrift.  There were sighters that the Tories were preparing for a shift rightwards (that reshuffle anyone?), but Cameron’s Tories have now performed a similar manoeuvre to the one performed by John Major’s government.

Those sighters were the promotions of climate change deniers (Patterson) and supporters of a third runway at Heathrow (McLoughlan).  Confirmation of the sharp turn right came with Osborne’s piss poor speech to conference, where he gave us a paper thin defence of his “Scorched Earth" policy of cuts and offered workers shares to give up centuries long hard fought rights. 

Lemmings.  Jumping.  Cliff.

In among the above, Osborne was channelling the spirit of Lilley by promising more benefit cuts, £10 billion of them, while elsewhere there was an announcement relaxing the rules regarding householders confronted by burgulars.  All of which signs that the Tories are moving right regardless of their coalition partners.  Speaking of which…

4)  The Race to Succede Nick Clegg has begun.

While Clegg did enough to see off the immediate threat to his position as Lib Dem leader, the discontent about his position has not gone away.  Indeed it could be argued that the Lib Dem’s performed the reverse manoeuvre to their coalition partners in that they began to move away from “Orange Book-ism” during this conference.

The Lib Dem’s announced some sort of new business bank.  However it is the Lib Dem’s kite flying on various “Wealth” taxes, alongside various announcements about tax avoidance, which has seen the Lib Dems move slightly to the left.  These last measures play into the preferred standpoints of the Business Secretary, “St” Vince Cable, who many believe to be the favourite to succeed Clegg.  Personally, I would urge caution on that front.  Firstly because by the time Clegg goes, Cable may not be so unscathed by life in government, and secondly because Tim Farron (the Lib Dem president) has been quietly and effectively doing his job and also defending the Lib Dem line on certain programmes & media outlets.

5)  That Referendum Campaign Has Now Started

Conference season ended with the SNP conference, which came days after the signing of “The Edinburgh Agreement” (© Alex Salmond, 2012) which commits the UK & Holyrood parliaments to a single question referendum on Scotland’s continued position in the United Kingdom.  Not surprisingly this dominated proceedings at Perth, with the SNP only now starting to make their pitch for independence.

What was intriguing though was that because it seems that the SNP are only now thinking about their arguments, that we now have the proposal (now passed) to end the SNP’s opposition to NATO.  I wonder if, firstly, that this proposal would have been better put last year when Salmond was still (metaphorically speaking) walking on water and, secondly, if there will be a hangover from this vote.  After all, it is a hallmark of left of centre politics in this country that grudges are carried all too easily.

6)  Conferences Should Be More Voter Friendly.

Lastly, this is something that occurred to me on the day of Ed Milliband’s “One Nation” speech.  Most of the the main key-note speeches take place in mid afternoon (when most people are at work).  Surely it would make more sense to schedule keynote speeches to a point in the day when you can get the optimum audience.  I suppose the SNP should probably take note of this too, after all a Saturday afternoon is not really the optimum time to get you message out.  Especially as “Yes Scotland” camp start very far behind the status quo.  Something we should be looking at that happens with the American “Convention’s”.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Yes, Whatever Happened To Labour?

The current poll of polls shows that Labour are an average of 10 points ahead of the Conservatives. Yet a cursory glance of their policies and thinking shows that they are still desperately out of touch.  Indeed Owen Jones asks the above question in his Independent column on Monday.

Jones contention is that Miliband’s Labour are targeting the wrong constituency in their attempt to unseat Cameron in May 2015.  Instead of targeting “Middle England”, Jones argument is that they should be targeting skilled workers where there was a 21% drop in support between the 1997 & 2010 Westminster Elections (as opposed to a 5% drop in “Middle England”).  While Jones correctly chides Ed Balls for fully signing up to George’s Scorched Earth policy, one must wonder what he makes of the mess that the leader of “Scottish” Labour, Johanne Lamont, has got herself into.

In short, last week Lamont turned an attempt to kick start a debate into what are our priorities into a race to bag some votes from Daily Mail readers, and you wouldn’t want votes from the only rag to be firmly in the appeasement camp pre-World War II.  This tone can be encapsulated in three little words – “something for nothing”.

To be fair to Ms Lamont, there is a debate to be had about public spending and the priorities for the Scottish Government.  The problem is that the debate was botched in 2010 when the only discernible difference between Brown & Cameron was in the application of an increase to NI rates.  More pertinently, in 2011 any attempt to debate things was rejected by all parties.  The problem is that the targets that Lamont picked were sacred cows for a centre left constituency, while the first target she picked completely missed the target.

As I have advocated in previous posts, in tough economic times a freeze in council taxes is good for hard pressed parties and people on low incomes.  A council tax freeze also helps the well off too, but that is a symptom of a taxation system based on property values from 1991.  If Lamont was genuinely looking at things from a left of centre perspective, she would have been actively kite flying about replacing the Council Tax, perhaps pushing the SNP into looking again at the much fairer LIT, or advocating the SSP’s own Service Tax.  Instead, she seems to be looking to continue “Scottish” Labour policy in keeping the Council Tax.

Interestingly enough, some of the squeezes on public spending identified by Lamont; “Class size pledges, kinship care allowances, free school meals, all promised by Alex Salmond, but without the money to pay for it” could actually be identified as victims of a “Scottish” Labour policy from the McConnell years – the PFI upgrades to our schools.  This policy has seen millions taken out of the education budget (£400 million in 2010/11) before a single penny is spent on…  er… education.  

One of the sacred cows Lamont attempted to shot was that of Universal benefits – “What is progressive about a chief executive on more than 100,000 a year not paying for his prescriptions, while a pensioner needing care has their care help cut?”. True, but firstly a chief executive is unlikely to be getting free prescriptions anyway and secondly surely it costs money to add a means testing element to benefits, not to mention that means testing will put the poorest off claiming the benefits they would be entitled to.

The one part that Lamont did get right was her assertion that “we can change Scotland now. We have the powers in the Scottish Parliament now, to change radically education, health, public services.” But even here she messed up by claiming that radical ideas were being crowded out by the referendum debate.  Firstly, there are many things missing from any debate.  Good solid radical ideas being the main element missing, however in the second year of the second SNP administration, and six months into the referendum campaign, why has Lamont complained about the crowding out of ideas when “Scottish” Labour had five years to… er… think the unthinkable.

In truth, the problems identified by Lamont are symptoms of the chronic lack of liquidity in the UK economy which is exacerbated by George’s not so marvellous medicine.  Even today, being interviewed on GMS and speaking at the Labour conference, Lamont refuses to recognise how badly she had got things wrong in her speech last week.  In attempting to start an honest debate, she came out with arguments that came straight from the mind of either Karl Rove or Lynton Crosby.  While the MacNew Labour-esque SNP Government will be laughing away at Lamont’s display of foot shooting, there is one party that should really be taking note.

The SSP, who have been in a mess since the whole Sheridan thing, have been presented with an opportunity to make political hay at “Scottish” Labour’s expense.  If they play their cards right, there are votes to be had, both in 2015 and in 2016.  Lamont’s decision to attack the SNP from the right could come back to haunt “Scottish” Labour as it leaves a vacuum in the SNP’s left flank – the natural home to many Scottish voters.  All of which puts Miliband the Younger’s “One Nation” speech in a different perspective.