Thursday, 18 June 2015

Intruding At The Wake

Watching the initial skirmishes of the latest Labour Leadership campaign, you get the impression that both the politicians and the Labour ‘supporters’ in the media can’t quite get their heads around how and why they lost last months Westminster Election.  The media driven narrative, that Labour were too left wing and pointedly ignored aspirational voters, ignores the post referendum political landscape in Scotland.  Yet three of the leadership candidates come from that Blair/Brown New Labour ‘tradition’ and seem to be receiving luke warm coverage at best.  Only the brazenly socialist Jeremy Corbyn seems to be garnering more coverage, and none of it good.

It’s this background which sees Newsnight organise a leadership hustings event in this elections version of ‘Basildon’.  It became clear early on why Corbyn is seen as a dangerous figure among those driving that particular narrative.  He defended immigrants (before being cut off by moderator Laura Kuensberg, who did not have a great night), he said Labour had been cowed by big business and said that Labour leaders should subject themselves to the democratic will of the party every couple of years.  In the section on leadership, where the standard bearer for a successful Social Democratic leader was our own First Minister, Corbyn listed the platforms he’d shared with Sturgeon. Principally on Iraq and on anti austerity marches.  You get the impression that it was a long list.

Yip, I know.  Sturgeon has well and truly arrived in the national consciousness.  It is striking that Sturgeon is now seen as the standard bearer among left of centre votes as to what a left of centre leader should look like.  That’s clearly not the view of the candidates (Corbyn apart) who put clear policy water between themselves and Sturgeon.  Still, it was a passage to have Scottish Labour members & various Cyberbritnats shifting uncomfortably in their seats.

For all that Corbyn spoke more sense than the other candidates, he did not really strike me as being leadership material.  None of them did, truth be told.  The one campaign though that looks as if it might be in trouble early on though was Andy Burnham.  He looked nervous and didn’t look as if he controlled the debate.  The tone was set when his opening speech overran the allotted 45 seconds.  After that he looked a bit rattled and retreated into bland, beige answers.  A sure sign of the trouble Burnham was in was the reaching of the “common man” stylings last used to devastating effect by one Jim Murphy…  er.

Given that I’m not a big fan of Liz Kendall, I find her New Labour stylings truly awful, I was surprised at some of the sense that she spoke.  On benefits she spoke of the need that people need to contribute (tax revenues I’d think) before they can take claim benefits and she also pinpointed a key issue with this country – that we are too much of a low wage low skills economy.  Essentially the UK’s too wee and too poor.  She also caviated the proposed surplus law (not that there should be one mind, Kendall didn’t oppose this measure).

That’s not to say the perceived criticism of Kendall swallowing the Tory manifesto as whole is entirely untrue.  Her perception of the economic arguments are grounded on Osborneomics and are not really the viable alternative we were craving from Labour.

Coming out of this debate as the favorite is Yvette Cooper.  Her pitch was that this needs an experienced hand with new ideas and her arguments were aimed at a centre-left constituency, more so than Burnham or Kendall.  Like the others though, there’s not really an obvious sense that this is the next leader of Labour, far less someone who could remove Cameron or his successor from Downing Street in five years time.

While there are plus points to all of the candidates, there is one overriding question that none of the candidates looked like answering.  Could they formulate a potential alternative government that would win votes in the South of England as well as regain votes in the North of England and Scotland’s central belt?  While you can’t really tell anything about how ideas and campaigns will develop from a 60 minute hustings at the start of a campaign, you can tell that Kendall would be really dangerous if she had even an ounce of Blair’s fabled political nous.  You can tell that Corbyn is only there to keep the other candidates honest.  That the Burnham campaign is in difficulty already and that Cooper has emerged as the favorite to win.  

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The Other Victors...

Other than viewers in Scotland, there was only one winner out of last months General Election.  This much has been clear as Cameron unfurled the first full fat Tory Queen’s Speech since 1996 and the clock has felt as if it has wound right back to that period.  Channel 4 even put on an update of it’s most famous programme from that period, TFI Friday, at the weekend.  Thankfully the revival in Dad-Rock has not appeared… yet.  Lord preserve us from the Shed Seven, Kula Shaker or Sleeper revival.

So what are we to make of the other winners from last months elections, the Angus Robertson led SNP group swelled to encompass all but three of the Scottish Westminster contingent.  For all that Sturgeon is the SNP’s leader & co-ordinator & chief, it will be the Corporal Jones styling’s of Angus Robertson that will be the public face of the SNP at Westminster.

So far the SNP have attempted to install themselves as the unofficial opposition to the government, with something of a temporary vacancy for that position thanks to Labour’s navalgazing about how much of the Tory manifesto they can agree with before the rank and file revolt.  So far any chance to oppose has only come with the Government’s two big constitutional questions – on the conversation of the Smith Commission into law and the EU referendum.  Both have produced mixed results.

With the Smith Commission proposals the SNP clearly relished the opportunity to flex their knowledge of the Scottish psyche and to outline just why more powers are the settled will of the Scottish people.  The SNP also seem to be not recognising/ignoring the warnings of a deficit and of a black hole in Scotland’s finances should they succeed in gaining full Fiscal Autonomy for Scotland.  This is an issue that the SNP contingent can wrap their chops around…  er… (commons votes prohibiting).

With the EU referendum, the SNP have shown their one eyed love of the EU.  They are correct to press for suffrage for 16year old's and for EU nationals for this plebiscite, but to vote against the referendum simply because of the exclusion of EU nationals seems like pedantry gone mad.  I’ve previously argued that the SNP seem quite content to accept Thatcherism smuggled into Scotland by the EU and their argument against the EU referendum seems to confirm this view.  Even though it would fall on deaf ears, it would be nice for the SNP to show a vaguely Eurosceptic streak in arguing against some of the privatisation agenda forced on to Scotland.

Other than FFA, talk continues about the possibility of a second independence referendum, possibly during Sturgeon’s first full term as FM (given the shattered state of something called Labour in Scotland – an SNP victory next May is highly likely).  Stuart Winton has argued that the government should go for an early second referendum to try and settle the issue for an generation, while pro-Indy supporters think one should happen if Scotland votes to stay in the EU while the rest of the UK votes to exit the EU.  I disagree with Stuart because I think – if you’re looking at this from a pro-unionist point of view – if they push for the early referendum it will backfire on them.  I think the SNP realise this which is why they think the EU referendum will provide the next set of events that will lead to the second Independence referendum.  I also think that the pro-Union parties haven’t covered themselves in glory with the Smith proposals

As for the EU referendum scenario, I don’t think that will play out.  For starters, polls still suggest an advantage for staying in the EU.  That may change if the pro-EU teams employ Blair ‘Jonah’ McDougall or some other unknown unknown surfaces.  And I also think that this is an issue where Scot’s are not that far out of kilter with the rest of the UK.  I think the trigger point for Indyref 2 will be more to do with Westminster’s intransigence towards Scotland and their inability to stop themselves inserting their collective foot into their mouth.  Last night’s series of votes on the SNP’s amendments to the new Scotland Act being a possible starting point.

With the next Holyrood elections a dot on the horizon, the SNP could conceivably sit back and watch Labour fall apart while the votes roll in.  They’d be wrong to do so as I’d think Scottish voters would quite like to see the SNP come up with policies non-Independence related.  A successor to the Council Tax would be good.  Action on sliding education standards and in tackling the failing Health Boards & NHS management would be very welcome.  Some sort of easily accessible standards body for local authorities would be good as well, because our local authorities are just not transparent enough.  This will also be the first Holyrood elections where tax and the economy will be policy based issues, so outflanking Labour in the progressive taxation stakes should be a priority for the SNP.  In short, there’s scope there for the SNP to change up and not coast through the next parliament as they have done during this parliament – referendum aside.

I’ve said previously that the SNP are currently in their imperial phase – where everything is possible.  That will not last, Labour you would think will stop digging their graves.  In the meantime, the SNP should learn one last lesson from New Labour, being effective managers of policy & public services is one thing but if you don’t have a big policy initiative/vision then you might not be in control of your legacy.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Your Cut Out And Keep Guide To Why Labour Lost

Labour lost because they tried to ape the Tories.  Why would the voters buy into Labour wearing the Tories clothes when the Tories (are) there?” – Natalie McGarry, MP for Glasgow East

Ed Milliband at the declaration for his Doncaster North seat
at about 6am on 8th May
You know, there are times where how much you repeat something, there’s still someone out there that just doesn’t get it.  This blog has countless times detailed how right wing Labour has become compared to the social democratic sensibility of most Scots.  It is something consistently rebutted by Labour supporters, yet Ms McGarry’s quote reveals a basic truth certainly about Scottish Labour and a key issue about Labour generally.

So for you Blairites, Right wing media types and people who thought that Jim Murphy simply wasn’t given a chance to sort out Scottish Labour, this post is for you.  In bullet point and baby language just so that you understand just why your party lost.

The Economy: The big lesson from both the referendum and the Westminster Election, as if it needed to be re-learned, is that the Economy is the battle to win.  Win on the economy and the keys to whichever electoral victory you are seeking are yours.  Lose and it’s very difficult to claw back that deficit.  Labour’s big mistake was twofold, they did not hit the ground running in opposing the coalition straight after Miliband’s elevation to the leadership and they did not formulate a viable alternative to Osbornes austerity.

In not opposing very early on the Government’s policies, Labour gave the Government time and space for the Government’s own narrative on the economy – that austerity is the only way to get the country back on it’s feet and that Labour’s overspending is to blame – to become conventional wisdom among voters within this country.  You saw the effect of this on the polling figures – that in spite of missing his economic targets and the Omnishambles budget that Osborne still was more trusted with the UK economy than Balls.  You also saw the effect this had on Labour in that they was pressure put on them to sign up to aspects of Osborne’s Scorched Earth while being unable (unwilling?) sell their own vision of austerity.

That Labour couldn’t formulate their own alternative to austerity meant that voters went with full fat Tory, no doubt prompted further by Liam Byrne’s note which Cameron carried with him throughout the campaign to remind voters of Labour’s perceived profligacy.  It also alienated many voters who decided to vote for anti-austerity parties, with the SNP and the Greens being the principal beneficiaries here.

Labour's cozy relationship with the other "Better Together" parties
certainly harmed them
Scotland: I’d always thought that there would have consequences on a General Election fought only months after a bruising Independence referendum.  And so it has proven, with disastrous consequences for a party always behind the eight ball in terms of their handling of the referendum.

With the campaign itself, Labour seemed to be perfectly happy to go into bed with the Conservatives and the Lib Dems…  all for the greater good and all that.  Except that the higher profile Labour figures seemed rather too chummy with a party many in Scotland consider to be the enemy to the ordinary Scots-person.  That’s the headline reason, the straw that broke the camels back, but there are other examples of Labour’s conduct during the referendum campaign.

Milliband himself was all too unthinking in his backing of Cameron’s pro-Union position, which in itself gave fuel to the “red Tory” fire.  Had Milliband slightly differentiated his pro-Union message, he may well have saved some votes.  Indeed, Milliband seems to have had a strange opinion of Scotland and Scottish politics.  His pitch during the Holyrood election of 2011 was not to install Iain Gray (who he?) as First Minister, but to send a message to the coalition in a first step back to Downing Street – essentially Vote Labour to protest against the Tories.  Still, at least Milliband’s not one for triumphalism clap trap like Ian Davidson, who uttered the phrase “bayoneting the wounded” in relation to the aftermath of the referendum.

The tipping point for Labour though appears to be the Smith Commission and their acceptance of government veto’s – especially over devolution of benefits.  The devolution of benefits would have torpedoed Ian Duncan Smith’s flagship Universal Credits scheme – which is why the Tories vetoed it.  Why Labour were happy to go along with this veto is possibly the biggest political foot shooting exercise in UK politics since Thatcher decided that something must be done about local authorities and their financing.

While the referendum & it’s aftermath did for Scottish Labour, the rise of the SNP and the dubbing of the First Minister as “The Most Dangerous Woman in Britain” by the newspaper that hates Britain had an effect on English voters.  The Tories were able to turn Labour & the SNP’s similar policy positions into a major issue among centre right voters in England.  Rather than question whether the Tories had an electoral pact with the Ulster Unionists or the Democratic Unionist Party, Labour spent unnecessary energy distancing themselves from the SNP – thus alienating further Scottish voters and also making themselves look shifty to English voters in the process.

Ed Milliband: There’s a line in the second series of the West Wing where Leo McGarry is trying to convince Josh Lyman to come to work on Bartlett’s campaign team.   Josh says something about the Democrats not wanting to make the mistake of nominating for president a liberal Governor from New England again.  Leo’s retort was that this was exactly the sort of mistake that the Democrats would make again.

Labour’s equivalent is to elect as leader an intellect, a deep thinker who’s good on policy but with very little in terms of any leadership skillset.  They did it with Gordon Brown and they did it with his successor Ed Milliband.  Brown was kinda able to defelct this for so long but got found out when he badly dithered over going to the country in the autumn of 2007.  Milliband didn’t have the experience so was found out quicker than that.  His performances at PMQ’s were patchy to say the least, he showed none of the light-footedness that marked Blair as a pastmaster while there was at times a lack of flexibility with some of his speeches.  And then there was the ‘Ed-Stone’…

Milliband’s biggest issue though was that he was never secure enough in his position to take on the Blairites & to truly make the party his own.  There were always reports of a whispering campaign against Milliband, while there were reports on Election night between the exit poll and the first results being announced that people were calling for Milliband to go.  We could speculate on the culprits but one suspects that the names of Murphy and Alexander (both supporters of David Milliband) would be top of the culprits list.   Funnily enough, the only member of Milliband’s team to come out with any credit has been the former member for Morley & Outhwood – one Ed Balls – who took his share of the blame for the defeat.  Every other member of the shadow cabinet who has voiced an opinion has not done themselves any credit by blaming just the leadership, by doing this they have made themselves less worthy of my vote.  Yet Milliband’s failure to have it out with the Blairites made him look weak – even if he looked to take on the Energy companies and the Dirty Digger.

The candidates to succeed Milliband (l to r) Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper
Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt (now not standing) and Liz Kendall
Not Left Wing Enough:  One of the running themes from the Blairites is Milliband’s failure to reach out to the centre ground, to attract the saps that think those awful mewing John Lewis adverts are lovely and life affirming (you know what they say about a fool and his cash), to essentially attract aspirational voters.  Essentially Labour were not right wing enough. Weapons grade Horse-manure.

In truth Milliband’s manifesto was too much of a mish mash – not left wing enough in places and not consistent with the few left wing policies that they did propose.  They clearly should have announced the full scrapping of Non-Doms and announced it when the manifesto was launched, while I’ve said before that the 50% tax rate should be set at £100,000 to provide the tax revenues that would make it difficult to scrap in future.  I’ve also said before that they should have formulated an alternative to austerity – one not unlike Sturgeon’s proposal for spending increases of 0.5% - still a real terms cut.  Mind you, I notice there’s not an awful lot of condemnation of one of Labour’s lesser promoted policies and one that’s rather right wing – their pledge to “support the principles behind the negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Treaty” – or TTIP.  This was something that the only Labour MP in Scotland, Ian Murray, spoke up in favour of during the last parliament.

Blair’s assertion that elections are won on the centre ground, that theory seems to have been thoroughly torpedoed by Cameron’s campaign being fairly right wing and based on scaring voters rightward.  The other assertion that Labour has stopped appealing to upwardly mobile voters sort of rings true, but beyond (unaffordable) tax cuts & policies that would lead to a (unsustainable) boom in housing prices there’s not really an awful lot of policies that Labour could offer that would appeal to those voters.  In any case, Labour should have really been concentrating on those several rungs below the John Lewis set.

Where Labour go from here has been the subject of heated debates…  well somewhere.  Sadly if the list of candidates to replace Milliband are anything to go by, including the truly awful Liz Kendall (though we should be thankful that Chukka Umuna or Trisram Hunt are not running),  then Labour have not learned their lesson.  Last time around Milliband came through an uninspiring field to win, this time the candidates list is similarly uninspiring and showing no signs of understanding why things went so badly for their party or that, as Natalie McGarry rather perceptively points out, triangulation no longer works.