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.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Murphy's Law

You know, perceived wisdom dictates that Scottish Labour’s election of the East Renfrewshire MP Jim Murphy as party leader is some sort of huge mistake.  That Murphy will somehow prove to be the final nail in the coffin of Scottish Labour and that this paves the way for the SNP to dominate Scottish politics.  I’m not entirely sure that this will be the case.

That’s not to say there are not bad points to Murphy.  He still occupies a position on the parties right wing, a leading member of the Progress group – the group looking to keep the Blairite flame alive within Labour.  Pro-Israel and pro-Trident,  I wouldn’t even be surprised if Murphy was a member of the British American Institute.  In his acceptance speech, he even reiterated his aims through the Blairite prism – “More entrepreneurs, not fewer. A growing middle class that more families are joining”.  I think that the voters within the Labour party have decided to put those policy positions aside.

Who Scottish Labour voted for was someone who is very much a political operator.  Someone who knows where the levers of power are and how to use them.  I’d bet that Murphy is also the sort of person that would know where the bodies are buried, so to speak.  Someone who, whatever your opinion on how Johann Lamont was treated, is a huge upgrade on both Lamont and Gray.

The SNP of course have welcomed Murphy’s win.  What is interesting is that the view from Westminster is that the SNP are somehow scared of Murphy.  I genuinely don’t think they are.  There’s not even a sense of apprehension there, which is not a good sign.  Had the SNP had a sense of apprehension at Gordon Brown’s legendary skills at talking to “Labour” people, then they would have reacted better to Brown’s single handed attempt at saving the UK and of course “The Vow”.

Had they not underestimated the enhanced standing Brown still has in parts of Scotland, maybe the referendum would not have been lost.  Judging by the reaction to Murphy’s election, this is a lesson that parts of the SNP seem unwilling to learn from.  Then again, do we expect anything less from a constituency that still refuses to acknowledge the bad policy decisions that lead to defeat, instead preferring to blame a biased media.  Oh and thick “No”voters.

Whether Murphy will be a success though depends on whether he can change up and not simply fall into Blairite tropes.  There are signs already that Murphy is willing to move left in the policy of a 50% tax rate.  Another facet Murphy will have to display will be his ability to make right wing policies sound left wing.  Brown was a pass master at this – maybe the best.  It’s not universally recognized that Salmond was also rather good at this too – judging by the popularity among pro-Indy supporters of the proposed policy to cut Corporation tax.

I don’t subscribe to the belief that this is automatically the final nail in the coffin of Scottish Labour.  Like so much in the British political landscape, so much is in flux.  Murphy’s demeanor and conduct could seal Scottish Labour’s fate.  On the other hand, the SNP could let their complacency take root and make it easier for Murphy to bring Scottish Labour back from the brink.  Whatever happens, I think we can safely say the scene is now set for the electoral battles next spring and in 2016.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Return Of The Eck

At the weekend, Alex Salmond won the annual worst kept secret of the year award for the open secret that he was returning to front line politics by standing for Westminster, a record three weeks after stepping down as Scotland’s First Minister.  The second worst secret being his candidacy for the Gordon seat, held by the retiring Malcolm Bruce and third on the list of target seats for the SNP.

The consensus among the Mac-commentariat is that Salmond will storm home and win this seat.  The consensus among SNP supporters is that the SNP will be key players after the next Westminster elections.  While I think it won’t be the cakewalk some of the commentariat describe, being the member at Holyrood does help as the fact that there will be no “incumbency factor” at play here.  I’m not entirely sure that the SNP’s influence post election will be anywhere near the (inflated) perception of hardline Yes supporters.

The main reason for this will be the unpopularity of the SNP among the main Westminster parties.  If you didn’t know already, the animosity between the Tories and Labour is a mere playground spat compared to the mutual loathing between Labour and the SNP.  Labour loves to bring up 1979 and sniggers at a party could have a word linking it to Hitler while the SNP loves a moral high ground more than any other British party (well, except pre-coalition Lib Dems – whose piousness riled John Major so much).  Had members of the Scottish Greens burned copies of the Smith Report, there would have been a bit of exposure but nothing compared to the (Labour orchestrated) media storm that the story became.  They just don’t like each other.

Not that the SNP are any more popular with the other parties, but truth be told the relationship between the two parties is easily the most poisonous in British politics.  You could maybe see a similar opinion of Tory “wets” towards UKIP develop if UKIP gain any more seats.  In this respect, the UKIP/Conservative relationship potentially could develop along similar lines to Labour’s relationship with the SNP.  The former relationship still has some way to go though.

Ironically enough, given their supposed delusions at the last party conference, the Lib Dems would still be the go to party for coalition.  Sure we don’t know what the background strains were like, but if Tory grandee’s like Major and Clarke can compliment the Lib Dems on their behaviour as “junior” partners, then the Tories could do worse. 

Labour on the other hand are probably still smarting from Clegg’s ramrod refusal to deal with Brown in 2010, so any deal would have a Clegg (or Alexander… or for that matter any of the other Orange Bookers at the top of the party) sized stumbling block.  What won’t help matters would be Clegg’s astonishing performance at PMQ’s yesterday.  Astonishing being one word I could use, given his claims about Labour’s treatment of pensioners.  Mind you seeing as the Orange Bookers are much easier bedfellows with the Tories than with Labour, they would prefer a second coalition with the Conservatives.  On the other hand, whether the grass roots would tolerate a second snubbing of Labour would be another matter entirely. Perhaps after Clegg’s rank awful showing at Prime Ministers Questions, the Lib Dem rank and file might take that decision out of his hands…

All of this is, of course, pure speculation.  Next years Westminster election is still very much up for grabs, UKPR’s polling is still showing Labour ahead…  just.  There is still a lot of water to come under the bridge before we find out whether any party will get a majority.  In the meantime, do not be surprised that, even if the nationalist bloc get 20-40 seats, they still find themselves on the outside and frozen out while power is divvied up.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Rebirth of Gordon Brown

Tuesday night saw social media ablaze with the antics of four SNP Councillors who, probably royally annoyed at the poor Smith Commission recommendations, decided to demonstrate their displeasure by burning copies of the Smith Report.  As the condemnation rained down on them from Labour supporters, one thought popped into my head.  At a time of austerity, of torched earth, of their own party agreeing pretty much with a lot of the Conservative’s policies and of rising stars of their party feeling the need to take freebies from corporate accountants…  is four councillors demonstrating against a not very good set of devolution proposals really more offensive than those things I’ve listed?

The sight of Labour supporters fulminating and creating showed how far Scottish Labour had fallen, as if they needed any more reminding the week their one time bright star Gordon Brown announced his intention to retire from the Westminster parliament.  In among all of the pre-death obituaries a strange thing occurred to me.  Gordon Brown’s stock has actually risen since the events of 2010.

In the run up to the 2010 Westminster election, Brown was seen as pretty much the villain of the last years of the Labour government.  Being made to be the scapegoat for all of the UK’s economic woes was the root cause of the opprobrium poured at Brown.  That Labour was, not so much at fault but created the conditions for the credit crunch to take place seems to have bypassed people.  When Kaye Adams asked, on BBC Radio Scotland’s Morning Call Kaye thingy, for the three words that sum up Brown how many people used the three words that cursed Brown’s time in number 10 – Light Touch Regulation?

It’s difficult to describe how disliked Brown was among the blogosphere, perhaps Milliband knows how he feels as he has lower polling ratings than Brown.  The UK’s top political blogger, Guido Fawkes, even has two monikers for Brown.  “The one eyed son of the manse” and Jonah Brown.  So how did the person that sowed the seeds of the crash end up with his stock rising.

I think the first pointer was that the current government have quite obviously set themselves up along the very same lines as the Blair/Brown government.  Cameron let slip early on that he thought of himself as the “heir to Blair” and absolutely everything he has done has followed the Blair playbook…  badly.  This extends to Osborne, who delivers his Budgets and Autumn statements as a homage to Broon.  Announcing pre-announced spending priorities, check.  Double accounting, check.  The statement that falls apart within days, check.  Yup Osborne is the new Brown.  Yet, for all of Brown’s supposed unpopularity, Cameron could not seal the deal and win an outright majority.

Yet Brown’s darkest political moment gave a sighter of his rehabilitation.  In among all the stats about 2010 two things stick out.  Obviously I’ve mentioned that Cameron could not win a majority.  It’s a theory of mine that Brown lost the election – in spite of economic competence – on the streets of Rochdale.  From Rochdale onwards it looked more and more likely that Cameron was pulling ahead – though a look at the polling shows this came from the Lib dems and not Labour.  The other thing was that the Scottish results under Brown bucked the trend of Labour’s eroding vote.  As I’ve said before, Brown put on 2.5% points in 2010 from Blairs performance in 2005.  It’s this reason that the SNP’s task in taking seats off of Scottish Labour is difficult.  The simple reason for that is that Brown is still a trusted figure among the solid Labour voting community.  Come the referendum Brown would be a key weapon.

Except that Better Together stuck with their flawed arguments.  It was only when the polls seriously narrowed that Brown began to move to the centre stage.  In truth, while Scottish Labour has been accident prone and frankly not fit for purpose, Brown was the one Labour politician that was Salmond proof and able to hotline directly to those solid Labour voting people.  Pro-Independence supporters are in the process of developing a complex about the vow, but a look at the Ashcroft polling shows that Brown and “The Vow” had little effect as a decisive factor.  Where I think Brown and “The Vow” was a factor was in stopping people from changing their mind and voting “Yes” – in other words “soft” No voters stayed in the “no” camp come voting day.

So Brown came, made some speeches, was key to the vow and generally saved the Union, adding to the perception that he had saved the banks.  Except that like the banks – who have gone back to behaving as they did before – the Union has gone back to the way it was before.  Labour politicians desperate to have a go at “the enemy” (the Conservatives) but being unable to because of the upstart SNP.  All of which brings us back to Smith and the act in haste proposals which some SNP people wish was turned to ashes (there may be time for that yet).

In spite of all the sneering, it’s beginning to look like Gordon Brown might emerge with something approaching a legacy.  Partly this is helped by his successor’s performances in office and also his predecessor being unable to remove the Iraq shaped millstone.  Certain left wing commentators were keen to make the case that it’s Brown and not Blair who will emerge as the heavyweight figure of the New Labour years.  However those commentators gloss over Brown’s own version of Iraq – Light Touch Regulation.