Thursday, 31 December 2015

2015: The Year of the Fringes & The End of The Third Way

You know, in times of impending war or economic crisis, the political fringes thrive.  The 1930’s of course saw the rise of Fascism and the German hard right in the shape of the National Socialists.  Looking at events in 2015, you can see the parallels as a host of figures from the fringes hogged the news.  Daesh, Trump, Syrzia, Podemos, UKIP and Corbyn – all figures from the fringes that were centre stage in this year.

The Tory Attack line that did for Milliband's chances of being PM
One name not on that list being our Prime Minister, David Cameron.  To the general amazement of quite a few of the political punditeriat, Cameron managed to lead his Conservatives to a first majority government since 1992.  The 12 seat majority might well have been the smallest Tory majority since Churchill’s comeback win in 1951, but after five years of the arranged marriage of the Lib Dems, it was heaven.  Cameron’s victory also spelled the end of an era too.  Coupled with the meltdown in the Lib Dem vote and the collapse in support for Labour in Scotland, the 2015 Westminster election saw the end of Blairite ‘Third Way’ politics.

Blairism of course has been a dirty word within Labour circles since…  well probably Brown became PM but Milliband certainly was more active in distancing himself from Blair’s legacy – even if he still kept a lot of policies that fall firmly into the New Labour camp.  Acceptance of Osborne-omics and TTIP being the biggies.  And yet there are people who think Milliband failed because he just wasn’t right wing enough.  Those people who must have looked enviously on at the Orange Bookers in the Lib Dems and thought, well how come they’ve managed to be kings of their party and we’ve been pushed to the sidelines.

Of course, those followers of the Progress Group never quite got how Labour failed to win. In much the same way that they still cling to the notion that you have to be on the centre ground to win.  That each of the Tories election wins since 1979 have been won from the right blows this theory out of the water.  Cameron’s Conservatives demonstrated – like Thatcher did in the 1980’s – that elections are not always won on the centre ground but in pulling as many voters with you as possible.  By whichever means necessary.

As Labour struggled to come to terms with the loss, their party embarked on another phase of navel gazing.  The Progress wingers immediately attempted to spin the election result as Milliband losing for not being New Labour enough.  Resistance to that idea eventually came in the shape of the left’s buggins turn candidate – Jeremy Corbyn.  His subsequent victory once and for all ends the New Labour years.  Yet for those Progress wingers contemplating defection, the odds on a rendezvous with their like minded Orange Book colleagues in the Lib Dems are slim.   The Lib Dem’s own election catastrophe left them with just 8 seats.

I had always thought that there was an informal tactical voting pact between Labour & Lib Dem supporters, a pact that had been intact since 1997.  Clegg’s decision to go into a coalition with the Conservatives can be seen as the starting point for the sheer collapse in support for the Lib Dems since 2010.  From the Holyrood elections in 2011 onwards it has been clear that the Lib Dems had lost the confidence of over half of their voters.

That haemorrhaging of support has consequences and in electoral terms this meant that the Tories benefited from the Lib Dems collapse, even when those supporters voted Labour.  The collapse in support for the Lib Dems made it easier for the Tories to capture those Lib Dem seats, with 26 seats being taken by the Conservatives.  This was enough to push them over the line and into winning a working majority.

With the Lib Dems reduced to the levels not seen since the Liberals in the 1970’s and Labour’s walk back to the left, it now looks as if we are now into a new age of British politics.  The landscape is further complicated by the bloodbath that engulfed ‘Scottish’ Labour.  Having lost last years referendum, supporters of Independence regrouped and resolved to take revenge on the pro-Union parties.  Given the poor performance of the SNP in 2010, this was not so much an uphill task but akin to hiking through the Himalayas.

There were hints that something was happening in polling last winter, however the first proper indications came with Michael Ashcroft’s polls in February that hinted at the bloodbath ahead.  Polls that proved to be correct as the SNP took every Scottish seat bar three.  That the SNP retain their high poll ratings says more about the piss-poor political manoeuvrings of the other parties than it does about the SNP’s competence – which has at least taken a dent.  This far out, the most certain thing to happen in 2016 will be Nicola Sturgeon winning a first full term as Scottish First Minister.

It could of course be argued that the success of the SNP is the exception that proves the rule here.  They have successfully reinvented New Labour for the Scottish electorate – MacNewLabour if you will.  And like New Labour, the SNP have kept their focus on retaining power without any thought of their legacy or of any big picture style policy.  New Labour’s legacy is one they blundered into in the fevered atmosphere post September 2001 – Iraq.  The SNP’s legacy so far is the referendum – something that has split Scottish public opinion in two with both camps steadily becoming more acrimonious towards each other.  “Scottish” Labour’s own hysterical opposition without really providing any alternative roadmap plays its own part in the landscape though.

The true state of British politics at the end of 2015 is division and acrimony, which fits in with the developing situation around the world.  Daesh’s twin attacks on France have rattled western politicians to the extent that one of the candidates to be American President has called for Muslims to be (temporarily?) banned from entering his country.  Yet the West remains on good terms with the country – Saudi Arabia – which is the seat of Wahabism.  The sect of Islam whose values Daesh have appropriated.

The backdrop of division and an inability to find concensus looks set to dominate 2016.  The US of course will be picking Obama’s successor.  In normal times Hillary Clinton would be the favourite, but these are not normal times.  Here there are big elections for Holyrood, Stormont, Cardiff and for London’s City Hall – including the London Mayoralty.  There is also the distinct possibility that the long trailed EU referendum will take place this year, an event that is already causing waves but will have, like the Independence referendum, far reaching consequences.  All in all, it remains to be seen where the new political landscape will take us.

In the mean time, may I wish you all a happy new year and see you in 2016.

Monday, 23 November 2015

The Stretch Armstrong Of British Politics

So we’ve now had two months of the so called “new politics” and, well what do you think of it kids?

Corbyn & Cameron recreate the Frost Report's Class sketch
The most obvious thing to say about the new politics is how unelectable Labour have now become.  The upcoming Oldham by-election presents a negotiable test for Corbyn & co, though the acid test will be next years London Mayoral elections & the Welsh Assembly elections.  Not the Holyrood elections because frankly the SNP could do all manner of daft and stupid things and Sturgeon would still be in pole position to become First Minister.  Kezia Dugdale’s task is to put Labour in striking position for a full blown tilt in 2021 (why not 2019?).  In reality, Corbyn’s scorecard should be marked with those elections for London & Cardiff and not with the current polling ratings.

That Labour’s polling ratings are tanking is really not a surprise.  Between the open warfare on Corbyn from Progress wingers and sundry other Blairites who have done everything in their power to undermine their own leader to an incredibly hostile press determined to spin and smear every small nugget and titbit to make Corbyn look like the second coming of Stalin, there’s not very many people who would be capable of surviving that.  Indeed Corbyn possibly could and should be able to get out and get some traction within his own party.  The reason that he isn’t, and why so many left wingers (not unlike myself) should be hitting their heads against the nearest wall is because Corbyn actually isn’t very good.

In my piece about how Labour lost, I’d recycled a gag from the The West Wing to highlight Labour electing leaders who were cerebral thinkers but with not very good leadership skills.  In Corbyn, they have elected someone else in that vein.  Except that at least Brown had the gravitas of a big hitter and Miliband at least could deliver good thought provoking speeches.  So far Corbyn has allowed himself to be pushed about and bullied by a furious Progress wing who feel that they were entitled to the keys to the Labour Party.  His handling of his shadow cabinet is a prime example of his lack of political nous.  His cabinet has the feel of a cobbled together list and hints at Corbyn not expecting the wave of people ruling themselves out of serving under him so therefore feels as if zero planning went into this key moment.  Someone with political nous would have turned this to their own advantage and blood the next generation of Labour front bench spokespeople. Corbyn did not do this.

Of course, no other politician, however talented they are, has ever been able to survive the size of outright mutiny which is on the cards within the parliamentary Labour party.  Corbyn’s honeymoon lasted all of 0.08 seconds until Jamie Reed threw his toys out of the pram and put his own selfish interests before his party.  Within three hours of the result, six other politicians showed themselves up as clearly not understanding Labour values – Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper, Rachel Reeves, Tristram Hunt, Chuka Umuna and Emma Reynolds joined Reed in the toy throwing exercise.  It remains to be seen whether those individuals have thrown away their political careers (fellow lefies would claim that this is not a great loss in the case of Hunt, Reeves & Umuna while asking who’s Reynolds). 

Since then, Labour’s hard right have waged a campaign of their own to undermine their own leader.  The justification for this behaviour being Corbyn’s own record as a serial offender in rebelling against the leadership.  Which really begs the question that if they noticed that then why did they not take on board the valid opposition to, say, PFI, Iraq and Blair’s fixation on security to the detriment of personal freedoms to pick three issues out of the air.  All valid reasons as well why I’ve not voted Labour since the mid 1990’s.

Of course the splits and the drip drip of negative stories is manna from heaven to a hostile media opposed to a Corbyn premiership and determined to kill his leadership.  Shamefully included in this is the BBC, who either repeat, unchecked, the claims of the press verbatim, or in the case of their precocious new Political correspondent Laura Kunnesberg, turned small issues into matters of national significance.  Obviously because we’ve never had such a high ranking republican in such a prominent position before.  Sadly though you’d expect this behaviour from the more foaming at the mouth sections of the English based media.  This makes me wonder why several of the Progress wing still write columns for these papers.  Blunkett had a column last week in the Torygraph while the most persistent offender is the Rochdale MP and serial self promoter, Simon Danczuk.  In between complaining about a plot to deselect him from his seat, Danczuk writes columns for those Corbyn friendly organs The S*n and the Mail on Sunday.  No wonder the Labour activists in Oldham didn’t want to touch him with the preverbial shitty stick.

The media’s myopia even extends to their coverage of Corbyn’s own group – called Momentum.  They’ve been accused of attempting to initiate de-selection procedures against ‘unloyal’ MP’s up and down the country…  except that’s precisely the sort of tactics Progress have been pursuing for several years.  Indeed, the behaviour of Unite two or three years back were only mirroring Progress’ own tactics.  All of which is an evolution on the selection process prospective Labour MSP’s went through before selection by uber Blair sympathiser Rosemary McKenna in the run up to the first Scottish Parliamentary elections in 1999.  A process which damaged Labour in the long run as the selected candidates only came from a narrow right of the party section of Labour while alienating left wingers.  Dennis Canavan left Labour, stood on his own ticket and won becoming the Scottish Parliament’s equivalent to Rhodri Morgan.

With there now being two distinct groupings within Labour – the Blairite Progress Group (the original party within a party) and the Corbynistas under Momentum – it feels as if Labour is being pulled apart like a political Stretch Armstrong.  Pulling the legs are outside forces – the Conservitives and the SNP.  Their aim is to consolidate their new found dominance of Scottish politics by highlighting Labour’s right wing tendencies at every opportunity.  This week’s Westminster debate on Trident being the perfect example of the sort of traps the SNP will set and Labour in it’s split personality disorder will blunder into – thus haemorrhaging more votes come next May’s Holyrood Election. 

I had made the point in August that none of the candidates showed enough of a realisation that they needed to appeal and to play to the differing and diverging priorities and aspirations of Middle England and Central Belt Scotland.  Both Cooper and Kendall’s campaigns in particular suffered because they refused to build bridges with sections of the Labour party other than their own narrow supporter base.  Before Progress wing politicians snipe and blame Corbyn’s poor political skills, perhaps they should be looking in the mirror at their own very real failings first.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Something Must Be Done-ism

In our fast 24 hour society, if a problem appears we demand an immediate response and an action to sort the problem out.  The obvious problem is that being seen to do something is not the same as sorting the problem in the first place.

This set of circumstances I think first appeared 25 years ago when a spate of dog attacks on small children led to the Dangerous Dogs Act – a byword for rushing into actions which did more harm than good.  It is this Something must be done-ism which came to mind in the aftermath of Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris.

I wasn’t aware of events until everything had happened.  I then made the cardinal error of checking twitter and saw several tweets calling for direct action against the organisation we will call Daesh.  One in particular asked Cameron to carpet-bomb Daesh beyond the point of surrender.  The voices calling for direct military action against Daesh looked vocal and intolerant to opposing views (like the tweet above).  Kinda like Daesh themselves.

What escaped all of the people advocating the bombing of Daesh areas is that bombing of the Middle East has been done on and off since September 11th 2001 with not a great deal of success.  Afghanistan has fallen back into the arms of the Taliban, Pakistan has essentially become a no go area for westerners, Iraq became the vacuum that firstly Al Quaida and then the Wahabists of Daesh desired to set up a sort of homeland.  Libya has descended into lawlessness.  It’s not a good record of intervention, is it?

What will make things worse and increase the likelihood of more Paris style attacks will be the apparent desire to make our retribution a highly visible one.  The Middle East and sub-continent are not pro-Western areas at the best of times.  At moments like now, they’d be suspicious of reprisals, which might lead to a rise in support for Daesh.  However you look at it, bombing Iraq & Syrian areas under the jackboot of Daesh is not an option.

That’s not to say there are not things that can be done.  For starters the west should really start to look at their own role here.  They allowed the spread of the Wahabist sect of Islam to spread unchecked throughout the Islamic world from it’s home in Saudi Arabia.  Indeed the seeds of this can be traced to the migration of ‘freedom fighters’ from Saudi Arabia, including one Osama Bin Laden, to take part in the Afghanistan War in the 1980’s.  Tackling Saudi’s Wahabist tendencies is a vital first step.

We should also try and help and assist Iraq, Syria and the Kurds in driving out Daesh but in a resolutely non visible way – unless officially asked to.  This means any available background or supporting roles we can do we should be doing.  Anything that does not act as a call to arms against the west.

This is an issue that cannot be solved by a golden bullet.  Although there are parallels with the Second World War – Daesh’s values are remarkably similar to the National Socialists values in terms of their vicious intolerance to any dissenters or anything not complying to their values – this cannot be seen as a direct comparison due to the West’s standing in the Middle East.  This situation calls for intelligence and smart tactics to defeat Daesh, not the blundering in advocated by right wingers the world over.  Something must be done, but not that.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Some Thoughts on Conference Season 2015

The last four weeks or so has seen the main parties gathering for the first time since the General Election.  There have been some noteworthy items that have come out of the conferences, those items confirming the new political landscape now facing us.

1)  The Lib Dems…  no, sorry, who are they again?
Five months ago, the Liberal Democrats were in coalition and their leader was deputy Prime Minister.  Not only was that all taken away in May’s election, but the party itself was set back 40 years when they lost all but 8 seats.  To top off the humiliation, they were supplanted as the third party by the SNP.  Since then they’ve disappeared from view.

On the one hand, maybe that’s not a bad thing.  There’s clearly a massive rebuilding job to be done on a party that has suffered in office.  Arguably however those wounds have been self inflicted with the Lib Dems getting a reputation for being the Tories personal doormats. That rebuilding job is perhaps best done out of the public view.  Even more so given their new leader, ‘dim’ Tim Farron, who doesn’t appear to be the brightest tool on the toolbox.  Especially when talking about Scottish politics.

On the other, if the Lib Dems are not to suffer the fate of the Liberals and ‘dissappear’ from the UK political landscape for the next 40 years, then they need to bring in new blood untainted with the “Orange Book” years.

2) Labour are in a huge hole of their own making
Long time readers of this blog will have known that I’d thought that Milliband would lose as far back as winter 2012.  Perhaps Miliband’s biggest achievement was the uneasy truce between the two wings of the Labour party.  A truce that has now irrevocably broken down when the Labour rank and file dared to elect Jeremy Corbyn as leader in September. Since then, the Blairite Progress group have been in full toys out of the pram mode and have shown scant consideration to Labour voters or non Tory voters with their childish and petulant behaviour.

What has raised the hackles of the Progress wingers is the poor poor performance of Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John O’Donnell.  We’ve had the double reverse ferret over the fiscal surplus act, we’ve got a staggering lack of any movement over Trident and we’ve got the consistent undermining of Corbyn’s authority with no push back.  Had Corbyn not made a complete and utter horlicks of his first foray into Scottish politics – blaming the SNP for privatising Scotrail (which was privatised by the Major Government) and for privatising Caledonian MacBrayne ferries (which they haven’t – ferry services are, thanks to the EU and without a peep from the SNP, being put out to competitive tender.  Calmac are in effect bidding to retain services they already provide) – his first weeks in the job would not have been the complete and utter disaster that they were.  That foray has, if not burned the bridges of the general populace then certainly made the die hard ’45-ers’ much more wary of Corbyn in terms of being someone they can do business with.

While Corbyn has not really made a great fist of his first weeks in charge, he has been given a very bad hand to play with his own side not giving him much wriggle room.  If only the left had picked someone who might have been a leader with a better political antenae rather than pick someone down to buggins turn.

3) The Seeds of Possible Defeat in 2020 Are Being Sown For The Conservatives
It may well seem at this point that the next election has been all but lost for Labour and that the Tories will win another working majority in May 2020.  However, in amongst the hubris of an unexpected victory and even more unexpected majority, there are policies that have been announced that could spell electoral disaster come 2020.

Cameron’s biggest hurdle in this parliament is the European Referendum, a policy which might have bought him seats in May but now looks exceptionally foolhardy and not unlike the desperate throwaway politics on display in the dying days of last years Independence referendum campaign.  Yip, the European Referendum has the same ‘defeat from the jaws of victory’ feel as the now notorious Vow – regardless of how much concessions he wins from the EU (and you know that it will be never enough).

It’s not just on the EU that Cameron could find his party in trouble.  The policy of sweeping away Gordon Brown’s labyrinthine maze of Tax Credits has exposed the truth about low wage Britain, as was witnessed on last week’s Question Time programme.  The series of in-work benefits has always been seen as something to be tackled by the Tories eager to get rid of this grey area benefit.  They genuinely believe that the scrapping of tax credits, coupled with a minimum wage going up to £9 by 2020 and a rebranding exercise by calling the Minimum wage the Working Wage, will see them attract the sort of blue collar voters that voted for Thatcher in the 1980’s.  It might but it’ll bring in soft Labour supporters who will vote Tory holding their noses.  Not couped with a bigger rise in the minimum wage, this is a political gamble that could backfire come poling day 2020.

4) They May Be Heading For A Historic Third term, But The SNP Are A Policy Free Zone
Lastly we come to the SNP, those ‘other’ victors from May’s election and odds on favourites to win next years elections to the Holyrood parliament.  Yet the big topic for discussion in Aberdeen last week was not policy but the failures of Labour, the Tories and the prospects for a second Independence referendum.  As I’ve already speculated, the ongoing issues with public services in Scotland present an opportunity for…  well the SNP really to reshape Scotland.

Maybe the SNP are keeping their powder dry, in which case fair enough.  I’d suspect though that like Scottish Labour, the SNP are small c conservatives in terms of keeping as much of the status quo as possible – outside their own cause celebre of independence.   As I’ve said previously though, for all that Salmond set the standard for being First Minister he did lack one policy that will be seen as a legacy.  Next year provides Sturgeon with an opportunity to provide that type of policy, but so far I’m not that hopeful of a radical policy programme.