Monday, 27 October 2014

The Political Suicide of Johann Lamont

A couple of years ago I wrote a post where I argued that if Labour wanted to win, they needed to dump their leader Johann Lamont.  Now that the referendum campaign is… well we’ll maybe comeback to that one…  Now the vote has passed, Labour has come to that conclusion. 
Except that Lamont has jumped before she was pushed.  Ah, you can never find a man in a grey suit when you need them...

Lamont’s departure has put into focus the current post referendum narrative, that having been a “key” player in the pro-Union Better Together campaign, Scottish Labour have contrived to lose the peace.  What’s worse for them is that with Westminster followed very quickly by Holyrood elections, the bitter recriminations look highly likely to spill into both campaigns.  This makes the SNP’s task that bit easier in bringing that group of Labour held seats that currently need a swing of over 12% within their range.  It also means a first full term for Nicola Sturgeon at Holyrood.

And boy are there recriminations.  Lamont described Labour MP’s as dinosaurs (“colleagues who think that nothing has changed”) and accused “London Labour” of treating “Scottish” Labour like a branch office.  There’s the allegation that she was sidelined.  There’s the allegation that the General Secretary (of the Scottish party) was removed without Lamont being consulted.  There’s an allegation of some sort of “network” of Scottish Labour MP’s intent on doing down Lamont.  It sort of points to the fact that Lamont was not trusted to do the job she was elected to do – in essence she was in office but not in power.

That version of events only works if you ignore Lamont’s failings as leader.  She did make speeches that positioned her party to the right of the SNP – the infamous “Something for nothing” speech being the obvious example of this.  I’m not sure I have any sympathy for her.  For one thing, she was in the shadow cabinet when Iain Gray was leader, so she must have had an idea of the poison chalice that awaited.  Especially with a party run by “Anglos” on the Blairite Compass group wing of the party.  For another, it was those strange decisions.  Either she was tactically inept not to spot an opportunity on the left of the SNP, in which case she was not leadership material.  If she was told to go down a right wing line – echoes of which could be seen in the allegation that Lamont & co told to not oppose the Spare Room Subsidy until Miliband had made his mind up – she should have shown some spine and resigned.

One of the thing’s I speculated about in that post was who would be the candidates to succeed Lamont.  The conclusion being that there was no outstanding candidate.  This is even more true now.  The favorite to succeed is the current Eastwood MP Jim Murphy.  Labour MP’s are already trying to sound Murphy out about running for the job.  Should he decide to go for it, Murphy would be the big hitter Labour have needed… pretty much since they engineered Alexander’s removal as Holyrood group leader in 2008.

There are two big problems to Labour adopting this particular plan – pioneered by Salmond 10 years ago.  Firstly, they probably would prefer Murphy to be in Holyrood in the run up to the 2016 election and not leave the Holyrood group in the hands of a deputy/caretaker for too long.  The bigger problem is that Murphy, being from the Compass Group wing of Labour, would take the same policy positions as Lamont did.  In a country that did not take to New Labour with the same zeal as the rest of the country, this will be a problem.  Especially given that Sturgeon is likely to take the SNP slightly leftwards.

The other Westminster name being touted is someone by the name of Gordon Brown.  Yes, he did save the union with his speeches & by laying out that timetable so carefully crafted to include touchstone Scottish dates…  but really, the guy that failed as Prime Minister…

That the frontrunners are two Westminster MP’s really illustrates Scottish Labour's problem in that there’s no one really at Holyrood that can be seen as viable candidates.  That one of Lamont’s rivals three years ago (Ken McIntosh) seems to have vanished from front line politics illustrates the paucity of talent on the Labour benches.  That’s not to say that there’s not talent on the Labour benches.  You do sense however that there’s just not enough experience between Dugdale, Marra or Findlay for any of them to make a decent fist of the job. They may have potential down the line, but those three are still only just over half way through their first term at Holyrood.  If anyone doubts the need for experience, just look at the current line up of leaders at Westminster where Cameron is the most experienced party leader, having been elected to parliament in 2001.  It shows.

I wonder if the best strategy available to Scottish Labour is not the Salmond strategy from 2004, but the strategy employed by the Conservatives when they ditched Iain Duncan Smith in 2003.  They rallied around an experienced figure, one that was essentially an elongated caretaker figure, this gave possible future leadership contenders time to gather experience & to formulate campaigns & ideas.  Yes they possibly did write off 2005, but then again it’s unlikely whoever wins will be in a position to be First Minister come May 2016.  An elongated caretaker figure also gives Scottish Labour time to sort their internal structures, look at ideas & just generally just to stop and think about where they are going.

While the SNP and the other parties in the “Yes” coalition have much to learn from the referendum, so do does the leading party in the “Better Together” coalition.  That lesson is not the frankly graceless “We won… (and) helped to deliver over 2 million people that kept us in the union” but more to do with there being an appetite for left of centre politics and that Scotland is fed up of being left behind by the cosy right wing Westminster consensus.  Lamont’s legacy may well be that in resignation she forces Scottish Labour to look at the changed landscape before the party becomes totally irrelevant.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

How To Torpedo "The Leaders Debates" In One Easy Step

You may remember that at the last Westminster Election, three of our television companies finally managed to put together a proposal to our leading politicians that satisfied our leading politicians and the regulators.  So what has gone wrong this time?

The first thing to recognize is that four years ago, the format was not perfect but was the best fitting compromise available.  Yes, the SNP and Plaid Cymru were excluded from the debates – and arguably their vote suffered as a result (though their undignified but justified winging probably did not help their cause).  However the biggest pan UK parties took part.  While it was a stretch to imagine Nick Clegg being asked to kiss hands come the day after the election, his Lib Dems were defending 62 seats and the polls were pointing to a tight election.

And I think the same format would have worked again…  just.  Three debates with Cameron, Milliband & Clegg, with maybe the only change being that the debates be a wee bit more spaced out rather than on consecutive Thursdays.  But the justification remains for excluding the pro-Nationalist parties from the main debates, even if there’s little justification for the half arsed 30 second soundbite handed to the “minor” parties as a sop to them and the regulators.  A proper right of reply is not the half assed 30 seconds they got last time around.  With those tweaks, the “Leaders Debates” could have run again.  So why the broadcasters risked the debates not happening at all by including the only party leader that wishes it was still 1957, Nigel Farage?

Lets not forget that in spite of the hype and hyperbole, UKIP only won their first by-election last week.  While the UKPR website puts UKIP’s average polling figure at 16% (double the Lib Dem’s current polling average), the don of Scottish psephology,  Professor John Curtis, sees their polling figures here in Scotland at a mighty…  4%.  All in all, it’s not exactly the performance that the SDP put in during the run up to the 1983 Westminster Election.

Indeed, what the broadcasters have done is put the series of debates at risk.  The Green Party, who will be defending Caroline Lucas’ Brighton seat next May, are already openly discussing legal action over their exclusion.  Not surprising given they will still be smarting at UKIP’s somewhat favourable exposure during the European Elections.  It also opens the door to the Nationalist alliance joining the Greens/Scottish Greens in the courts.  Given that the Scottish courts banned a Panorama interview with John Major in 1995 (broadcast the week of the inaugural single unitary council elections), certainly the SNP would have a chance of getting the debates banned here in Scotland.  And (this has somewhat eluded dear Doris here) this has added legitimacy to the SNP’s arguments to be included – give they have currently 6 times as many MP’s as UKIP.  Indeed, add Plaid to the mix and you would have 9 MP’s in that nationalist axis.  Much much more than UKIP hold, even if their 16% does translate into votes come next May.

The broadcasters clearly need to go back and rethink things.  Oh, and there should be a debate with Cameron, Milliband and the Westminster representatives of both of the nationalist parties.  In the meantime, good luck with putting the Farage genie back into the bottle…

Monday, 6 October 2014

The Lie Of The Land - Where Now For "The 45"

You know, one of the best things written about the so called “45” (crap name and technically incorrect, though the “44 point 7” is less catchy so…) was by the Scottish Green activist Sarah Beattie Smith.  So much so, I’ll not bother.

There still a lot of energy around the referendum two weeks on from it’s conclusion as various groups that sprung up around “Yes Scotland” starts to look for roles in the post referendum landscape.  The “yes” twibbons have gradually been replaced with “I voted yes” or “45” twibbons, while the “Women for Independence” group held a conference in Perth at the weekend that put the gathering Liberal Democrats in Glasgow in the shade – not that you could tell by the media coverage.  Soon though another set of choices will present themselves in front of the Scottish electorate as our politicians gird their loins for, and lets be honest here, what many Westminster politicians believe to be the main event.  You can have your pretendy referendum, but nothing will beat the battle of a Westminster election.

Many within the yes supporting constituency though believe that this is finally the opportunity to sever the Scottish electorate’s love affair with Labour.  Since the mid 1960’s and the name change from The Unionist Party to the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party, Labour have made inroads & have held on to their status as the national party of Scotland.  Buoyed by the surge in memberships of pro Independence parties and some polls showing that 37% of Labour voters voted for Independence, this has lead pro-independence supporters to predict the beginning of the downfall of Scottish Labour.  There’s just one small problem with this rational.

The SNP’s election campaign 4 years ago wasn’t quite a disaster, but wasn’t exactly a roaring success either.  Salmond’s slogan of “More Nat’s, Less Cut’s” sank without trace while the abiding memory of that campaign was Salmond & Sturgeon’s whinging at being excluded from the “Leaders Debates”.  Their share of the vote (20% of the Scottish electorate) translated into them keeping the 6 seats won in 2005, with the failure to retain their by-election win in Glasgow East the first loss for the SNP since Scotland’s MP’s were cut from 71 to 59.

The impact of this on next years Westminster elections is that it will be more difficult for the SNP to make inroads in Labour’s block of MP’s.  Of Scottish Labour’s MP’s, a swing of 10% will only bring the grand total of three Labour seats.  Most vulnerable will be Gordon Bank’s Ochil & South Perthshire seat, a swing of 5.2% will see this seat change hands.  To put that into context, nationwide there has only been three elections where there has been a swing of over 5% between parties (Thatcher’s win in 1979 was based on a swing of 5.29%, Blair in 1997 achieved a swing of over 10% while Cameron’s win was based on a swing of 5.17% from Labour).  Mind you, the SNP’s win at Holyrood three and a half years ago was built on a swing from the Lib Dem’s of 4.1% and a total swing to the SNP of 6.25%.

So, as a yardstick, what would that swing get the SNP were it to be replicated.  Well, they’d certainly unseat Mr Bank’s and…  well that’s it really.  Among the Lib Dem seats, Malcolm Bruce’s (soon to be) old seat of Gordon and the Argyll & Bute constituency are the most vulnerable, but the SNP would be projected to fall short (by 0.25% in the case of Gordon) of taking these seats.  What the SNP need would be a sea change, something like the energy harnessed by the unsuccessful “Yes” campaign.  Something like that hinted at with the latest Panelbase poll.

SNP – 5 Target Labour Seats

Labour Vote
Labour Share (%)
SNP Vote
SNP Share (%)
SNP Swing required (%)
Ochil & South Perthshire
Dundee West
Ayrshire North & Arran
Aberdeen North
Vote & share as at Westminster Election – 6 May 2010

Panelbase’s poll puts the SNP at 34% in terms of Westminster voting intentions with a swing of 12%.  That would see the SNP make real inroads into Labour’s seats, taking 6 Labour seats.  Not only would Bank’s Ochil seat fall, but also the controversial seat of Falkirk – Eric Joyce’s seat and Dundee West.  With that swing though, the SNP would fall 0.2% short of taking Michael Connarty’s Linlithgow & Falkirk East seat.

Not that this sort of swing would only damage Scottish Labour – though the loss of 6 seats would not help Milliband’s push for Number 10.  On this sort of swing, the SNP would take half of the Lib Dem’s Scottish representation.  Of the six Lib Dem seats, obviously I’ve mentioned Malcolm Bruce’s Gordon seat as a faller, but third on the list would be the seat of  Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey.  That of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander.  A swing of 11.0% would see his removal as MP.  On top of the 6 existing MP’s – on this swing SNP representation would go up to a record 18 seats.

A swing like that would also bring into play future SNP targets – many of them in Labour central belt.  There are currently 20 Labour seats that would require a swing between 12-18% for them to change hands.  If the SNP managed the swing hinted at by Panelbase, these seats would become Labour marginal’s & would shake up Scottish politics.

SNP – 5 Target Lib Dem seats

Lib Dem Vote
Lib Dem Share (%)
SNP Vote
SNP Share (%)
Argyll & Bute
Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey
Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross
Aberdeenshire West & Kinkardine
Vote & share as at Westminster Election – 6 May 2010

Of course all of this is subjective.  For one thing, as I’ve said previously, the SNP have never really gotten to grips with how to play Westminster Elections in the devolution era.  Hence while they’ve formed a successful government at Holyrood, they only polled 20% in the Westminster election half way through their first term.  Secondly, they’ve never really come close to replicating their result from the General Election 40 years ago this Sunday – when the SNP upped their representation to 11 MP’s from the 7 elected in the February election.

The third reason is, of course that those area’s that voted for Independence are safe Labour areas.  While Glasgow got a lot of the headlines for voting for Independence lets not forget that 2 of the 10 safest Labour seats in Glasgow are Labour seats (Iain Davidson’s Glasgow South West seat Willie Bain’s and Glasgow North East).  Indeed the “easiest” seat for the SNP would be Tom Harris’ Glasgow South seat – “winnable” on a swing of 15.8%.

If the energy amassed is not to be for nought for the SNP, the hard work and the planning starts here for next May for the ousting of those “Red Tories”.  The SNP’s performance in 2010 has given them a mountain to climb if they wish to target serious amounts of Labour seats.  Whether the predicted meltdown in the Lib Dem vote will help the SNP remains to be seen, though that in itself won’t be enough to make the advances desired by elements within “the 45”.  What is certain is that this referendum will impact on next years Westminster election, we just don’t know how.