Thursday, 27 February 2014

So, How Did Lamont Not Lose That Debate?

The saying goes that you campaign in poetry and govern in prose (can you tell I’m going through my box sets of The West Wing just now?).  Well no one bothered to tell the Scottish Labour Leader Johann Lamont or the Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon when they were involved in the fourth of STV’s Scotland Tonight’s debates about the Independence referendum.  Having shredded the reputations of Sarwar, Moore and Carmichael, Sturgeon was clear favourite to do likewise to Lamont.  Except that’s not quite how things turned out.

The first thing to make clear is that Lamont went into this debate with one aim – not to suffer the fate of the Scottish Secretary, his predecessor and Lamont’s own deputy.  It was a dirty, defensive display full of spoiling tactics which worked and ensured that Sturgeon did not land, metaphorically speaking, anything that can be construed as a killer punch.  To use a footballing metaphor, Lamont was essentially playing for penalties.

That’s not to say Lamont emerged unscathed, there were several foot into mouth moments.  When asked about the Bedroom tax, Lamont opined that “It could be introduced anywhere if people believed it was a good idea.  We are not genetically programmed in Scotland to make political decisions.  We choose the world we want to live in”.  In context it was a strange statement to make, but taken out of context (which the Pro Independence supporters have because there has been no context, period) it conforms to the narrative pro Independence supporters have built up about “Scottish” Labour ever willing to talk down Scotland.  And boy have they run with it…  Of course, what has been missed is that the Spare Room Subsidy itself is a New Labour invention, applied to privately rented properties by I think the Brown government.

On Trident Lamont expressed “Grave reservations” about Trident, but did not remove herself from that fence any further, twisting herself into all manner of contortions not to back Trident.

The second half of the debate was the 10 minutes questioning, where Lamont spoiled, obfuscated and generally did not answer any questions put to her, then talked over Sturgeon’s answers.  In amongst the white noise, there was an accusation Sturgeon was basing an argument about Scottish People dying at a younger age (this I think was about pension age going up to 67?!?), there was a revelation Sturgeon had joined CND at a time when Labour types were burning their membership forms, there was Lamont mixing up the Salmond plan of a Sterlingzone with Sillars alternative (and my preferred option) of a Scottish Pound & oh and Lamont tried to pin the redundancies at BAE Systems on the Independence debate.  I’m sure I saw a picture of Chorlton on twitter as well during the debate, so if I missed Lamont comparing Sturgeon to Fenella, sorry (it was the white noise, honest).

As someone with reservations about voting yes, this debate didn’t answer any questions.  I’ve covered the holes in the Salmond Plan ad nausium (and will continue to do so).  There are reservations about voting no as well, which are not going away.  Rather than answer the questions, Lamont chose to obscure Sturgeon’s answers.  Whether this was designed to keep the seed of doubt in many people’s head remains to be seen, and is a possible explanation of Lamont's performance.  What is clear though is that Lamont, in ensuring that Sturgeon did not produce the series of killer arguments that would have won the debate, destroyed the credibility of herself and of “Scottish” Labour and thus lost the argument.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Winton Paradox - Redux...

Ummm…  that Groundhog Day thing I was talking about in my last post.

If it’s not Sterlingzone, the issue that the pro-Unionists have the Indian sign over the pro-Independence supporters (or to put it another way, the other issue the SNP/Yes Scotland have made a royal bollocks of) is the European Union.  Specifically the claim that as existing members of the European Union, we would pick up the equivalent of the pass GO and collect £200 and become full members of the EU upon a vote for Independence.  Lets not let the fact that the membership forms have the United Kingdom’s name and signature’s over it get in the way of the SNP’s wheeze.

And a wheeze is what it is.  At the weekend, the BBC, for the benefit of people in England who haven’t been paying attention, once again wheeled out the president of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barrosso (above, with European Council President Van Pompuy) to state that an Independent Scotland would have to apply to become members of the European Union.  And not only that but that it would be difficult for them to be accepted as there would be countries who would veto their application (Spain, Germany and rUK would be the three main suspects).

Students of history would know this scenario well.  It took the UK the best part of a decade to be admitted to what was then the Common Market.  France (in the shape of De Gaulle) vetoed applications from MacMillan and Wilson before Edward Heath succeeded.

The bigger issue regarding the EU though is that this shows the disingenuous side of the SNP.  They are seeking for Scotland to exit a union with three other countries where we have limited influence and are looking to take Scotland into a bigger union where we would have even less of a say in the direction of travel of that union.  Previously, I’ve dubbed this the Winton Paradox after the Planet Politics blogger who initially spotted this flaw in the Salmond Plan.  If the furore over Sterling-zone has blinded Salmond to the fact that Carney’s speech didn’t torpedo Sterling-zone but his flagship 10% Corporation tax policy, then the furore over EU entry has obscured the fact that the EU ain’t the cuddly protector of workers rights it was when Jacques Dellors was its figurehead.

One of the more interesting campaign shifts has been Yes Scotland’s claim that a yes vote will mean no more Tory Governments.  This in itself is a hostage to fortune as sooner or later a centre-right successor party to the Conservatives will triumph in an independent Scotland one day.  More pertinently though is the bogus claim of no more Thatcherism that we didn't vote for.  Does that include the Thatcherism smuggled in by the European Union?

I’ve blogged before about Sturgeon’s sneering assault on Euroscepticism as “Little Englanders” by pointing out that Tony Benn and Peter Shore (prominent members of the Wilson & Callaghan governments) lead the No group in the European referendum in 1975 – as far back as 1963, Benn spoke about the Treaty of Rome as entrenching “laissez faire as its philosophy and chooses bureaucracy as its administrative method”.  There is also ignorance here as well.  The outsourcing of the Scottish ferry network was down to an EU directive, while there is a directive (91/440) that would make it unlawful for a future independent Scottish government to re-nationalise Scotrail.  While the Lisbon Treaty, yes that Lisbon Treaty hated by much of the modern Conservative Party, promotes the privatisation of Public Services. The old jibe about Europe being a club for business remains, it’s just that the institutions have had more names than Selafield. 

Yet the SNP/Yes Scotland mindset is still English Thatcherism = bad;  European Thatcherism = good.

As if we didn’t know it, the gloves are well and truly off in the fight for the union.  The irony is that as soon as there looks to be a momentum shift for the Yes camp, Better Together has targeted the SNP’s major weak spots.  As I’ve said before, unless Yes Scotland address the currency issue and the Winton Paradox, a no vote is a near certainty as these issues are the gifts that just keep giving.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Sterling Zone - Part 57

One pound (British coin)
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Groundhog day may well have been a couple of weeks ago, but every day in the run up to the Independence referendum resembles the day before…  or maybe last Tuesday.

The last couple of days has resembled the days after Mark Carney’s speech, when both sides went through their arguments about I-Scotland adopting the English Pound.  Since Gideon Osborne’s speech, ruling out r-UK from setting up a “Sterling zone” with an Independent Scotland though, leaked out via Nick Watt in the Guardian there is fresh ferocity.

Pro union supporters have been trumping Osborne’s intervention, alongside pledges from Ed Balls and Danny Alexander as torpedoing the Salmond plan for an Independent Scotland.  Pro Independence supporters have been bitterly complaining about the bully boy tactics of Westminster in refusing to let an Independent Scotland (which we have a share in) use Sterling.  Sturgeon’s appearance on BBC Scotland’s GMS was akin to a spoiled brat whinging about the big boy that took his ball away.

There is two points to be made about this intervention though.  Firstly, we will find out if the SNP truly put some thought behind the plan of adopting the English Pound.  Now that there is little (if any) likelihood of I-Scotland using the English Pound as part of a Sterling zone, I wonder if the SNP have looked at all of the available options.  Judging by Sturgeon’s reaction on GMS yesterday morning, probably not.

As I’ve pointed out, I’m not particularly sold on adopting the English Pound.  Entering into a currency union would entail giving up sovereignty and also some of those economic leavers that Swinney and the other members of the Scottish government talk about.  It’s pretty similar to the arguments against the UK entering the Euro, so it is quite strange to see members of “Scottish” Labour who presumably (because we have never heard a peep of dissent from the official line) were pro UK entry to the Euro but are now against the creation of a Sterling zone.

The second point is that pro-Independence supporters should now disabuse themselves of any notion that in the event of a yes vote, the separation negotiations will be all tea and cakes.  To paraphrase my local MP, Divorce will be an expensive business & that Westminster will do everything in their power to hinder an Independent Scotland.  This probably means that Salmond’s stated Independence Day of 24 March 2016 may be put back if everything is to be done and dusted by that point.

We can expect r-UK to try and put the spanner into Scotland’s attempts to join the EU, we can expect painful negotiations about the division of the national debt and also the division of assets.  This of course is something that I did bring up in March 2012.

A lot of the coverage has said this is a turning point.  In reality, it will be nothing of the sort.  Westminster will assert that they will not take part in a currency union, while the Yes campaigners will continue to say that we can and will, without really understanding that this option is not the best option or will fly anyway.  At this rate, it’ll be another couple of weeks until Sterling zone comes up again.
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Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The UKIP Effect

Last Friday saw the “Better Together” campaigners out in force in Paisley pushing their latest leaflet, which was disingenuous to say the least about Mark Carney’s speech.  Still, I did point out to them that I thought that it was Johann Lamont’s resignation statement, as it was headlined “Goodbye”.  Ah, the wee things…

Carney, the leafleting et all have happened with, for the first time during this campaign, growing momentum for the “Yes Scotland” camp.  As I said in my previous post, the much trumpeted White Paper has turned out to be not so much the game changer “Yes” needed, but more of a slow burn, hardly surprising given the size of the document.  However there are signs of a change of momentum. 

The sea change started at the start of December, IPSOS-Mori had “Yes” up 3% to 34% while You-Gov saw Yes up 1% to 33% (re-calculated to 39% with Don’t Knows removed).  That trend though has been confirmed in the past week.  ICM’s poll for the SOS saw polling for Yes up 5% to 37% since their last poll in September, while TNS-BMRB’s poll at the weekend has seen Yes climb up 2% to 29%. Maybe it is the White Paper effect.  However there is another factor at play here.  “Yes” Scotland have managed to put the focus back on to “Better Together” to provide answers… and they have so far failed.  Indeed, they appear to have pulled of the trick perpetuated daily and often by Newsnet Scotland of falling into self parody.

Imagine that it was revealed that the codeword for the Tories election campaign next year was Operation Dolescrounger… well the lack of self awareness or irony somehow does not come close to the deficit in those areas displayed by the Better Together staffer that came up with the codeword for their pro-Union campaign…  Project Fear.  Not only has that revelation given “Yes” supporters a handle with which to attack Better Together, but it seems as if Better Together have fallen into the trap of believing that Project Fear is the only way to win.

What has clearly sown the seeds of doubt within people’s heads that maybe we are not Better Together is the political climate at Westminster. With the outcome of the next Westminster Election looking likely to be on a knife edge, the apparent popularity of UKIP is a headache that the Tories (an average of 7 points behind Labour) can do without. 

Apparent?  Well, if you look through the hype of UKIP you will see that they seem to be the masters of garnering headlines & publicity, even if lately they have resembled the barking wing of the Tea Party.  They have come close to taking a Westminster seat in several by-elections, but have not taken a single seat.  The SDP, and latterly the Lib Dems won a string of by-elections by tapping into disaffection with the government and the opposition.  Yet UKIP just simply have not made the same impact.  Meanwhile up here their showing is pitiful to say the least. 

If we were to compare and contrast - in the last three Westminster by-elections, UKIP gathered 24.2% (South Shields), 27.8% (Eastleigh) and 5.7%, 11.8% & 8.4%(Croydon North, Middlesborough & Rotherham – all held on the same day in November 2012).  In sharp contrast, the last three Holyrood by-elections saw UKIP gather 3.04% (Cowdenbeath) 3.75% (Dunfermline) & 4.8% (Aberdeen Donside).

UKIP have not been successful in capturing a seat, either at Holyrood or Westminster.  Yet what they have been successful in doing is putting the frighteners on the Westminster political classes.  Since the Eastleigh by-Election last February, UKIP had been campaigning against economic migrants.  Not to be outdone on the controversial issue of British politics, the Conservatives have been actively looking to sound and look tougher on immigration.  This has prompted the Conservatives to act and sound tougher on other issues as well, Benefits chiefly – though the Conservatives need no prompting here.

Not even Cameron’s shredding of his “hug a husky” image is as shameless as Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum on the UK’s place in the EU, not this parliament mind but in 2017 if he is re-elected.  It was calculated to appeal to UKIP supporters, and in grand Cameron style has blown up in his face as Euro-sceptic Tory MP’s have lined up to promote a bill binding the Government whatever the victor to the referendum.  There have even been calls from those Tory Taliban for the referendum to be held this year.

Labour have not been immune from trying to UKIP-proof themselves.  The Shadow Work & Pension’s secretary Rachel Reeves announced that a future Labour government would scrap benefits for under 25’s, while Ed Balls has fully signed up to Gideon Osborne’s Scorched Earth policy.  Bearing in mind as well how long it took for Labour to announce that they were against the Bedroom Tax & that they would scrap it, there is a sense that Labour are just as worried about UKIP.  The sense is also there that the Westminster village en mass has taken a rightward turn, diverging sharply with conventional wisdom here in Scotland.

Nowhere has the change in political climate more obvious than in the utterances of “Scottish” Labour’s current leader Johann Lamont.  Her second speech to the Labour conference was the infamous “Something for nothing” speech which, lets be honest, would have played well to the Midland’s marginal’s and the other marginal seats Labour needs to win to win in 2015.  Here in Scotland, the perception is that the speech has fatally wounded her chances of unseating Salmond in 2016, at best. 

Her unwittingly diminished stature in Scottish politics has also seen her attack the constitutional debate as “wee things” – again quite probably conventional wisdom down south but bordering on blasphemous here in Scotland.  In the six days since Lamont uttered that phrase, “Wee things” has become a by-word for how out of touch “Scottish” Labour have become.

Westminster’s right turn has essentially opened up a front for “Yes Scotland” to exploit.  The Referendum could turn into a vote of confidence in the Westminster parties.  With uninspiring leadership at the helm of the three main Westminster parties, it looks as if a position of strength has been surrendered in the chase for votes in 2015.  Whether the disillusion with Westminster converts to a “Yes” vote remains to be seen.  It is clear however that thanks to a (maybe misplaced) fear of UKIP, Project Fear has been neutralised as a campaigning tool.