Saturday, 31 December 2016

2016 And All That...

So, this time last year. I’d made the point about economic crisis and the links to the fringes of politics gaining traction.  I’d listed examples, Daesh, Syrzia, Podemos & Corbyn.  Those people had decidedly mixed years but the two other examples had a huge year.  Farage and Trump.

If you could claim with depressing justification that Nigel Farage was the UK’s person of the year, then the undoubted loser of the year would be the man who started the year in Downing Street.  David Cameron (right) possibly thought that he could pull off the same trick Harold Wilson pulled in the mid 1970’s with an in-out EU referendum predicated on mildly superficial changes to our relationship with the EU.  That this was a calculation which was not the one which blew up in his face and, essentially, lost him the referendum and his job as Prime Minister tells you how badly the EU Referendum was handled.

The big reason the UK voted to leave, and that Cameron is now…  ah, what’s that phrase again… actively seeking employment… is entirely down to losing the economic argument.  When sundry Political commentators marvelled at Cameron’s devastating use of ‘Project Fear’ in the 2014 Independence Referendum and the following years Westminster Election, they failed to read the small print and to see that those results occurred in spite of ‘Project Fear’.  If Milliband & Co had successfully turned the tables on Cameron by planting the seeds about Cameron’s (possible) preferred coalition partners, then Cameron certainly wouldn’t have a majority.  As for the Indyref, the pro-Union Better Together conceded 25% to the pro-Independence Yes Scotland, thanks in no small part to ‘Project Fear’.  Given the poll lead conceded between Spring 2012 and Autumn 2014, you’d have thought that supposedly smart political operators like Cameron & Osborne would have used different, better, tactics. 

Which is precisely what didn’t happen…

We got Project Fear II…  and that was the problem.  Cameron, Osborne and Co may have bombarded us with statistics and figures which told a story.  On the ground and on what Obama dubbed Main Street, those arguments did not ring true.  Leaving the EU would apparently cost £4500.00 per person.  Fine, but most people don’t earn that in a month thanks to stagnating wages, thanks to our economy not shaking off fully the effects of recession.  This coupled with the perception that Freedom of Movement/Immigration was playing a part in suppressing living standards in this country deeply undermined the Osborne narrative.  This is why the pro-EU side lost the economic argument, therefore the referendum.

The UKIP argument of conflating Immigration with Freedom of Movement was the argument which won the day for the Brexiteers.  Yet had the pro-EU campaigners stood up to UKIP’s anti-immigration rhetoric or even set out to comprehensively dismantle their arguments… as they should have, things would have been a whole lot different.  As a result, even so called ‘progressives’, like the Progress Wing of Labour, now disown multi-cultural Britain.  If Farage is UK Politics person of the year, then his success is entirely down to the collective failure of supposedly middle ground politicians.  This is a pattern which repeated itself across the Atlantic as Trump defeated the flawed candidacy of Hilary Clinton.

The other thing which links both Trump & Farage is that both come from the rebranded revival in Fascist politics, given a Hollywood style PR rebrand as the Alt-Right in the US.  Given that the US is a country always suspicious of left wing values anyway, you can only see the likes of Briebart getting further traction and more influence…  not a good thing.

In amongst the wreckage and fall out from the events surrounding the 23 June, it’s easy to forget that other events happened.  Completely understandable in the case of May’s Holyrood election as an SNP campaign that never got out of second gear won a historic third term in office.  For someone previously thought of as a resolutely left wing character, Nicola Sturgeon’s campaign and subsequent time in Bute House has seen a slight shift to the right.

We have seen the dropping of the SNP’s flagship policy from 2007 pledging to replace the Council Tax, with a pledge to reform the Council Tax.  We have also seen Sturgeon rule out adopting a 50% tax rate when the Smith Commission proposals come into force.   Both policy changes arguably mark a shift towards a less progressive taxation regime.  That’s not to say that the SNP have completely abandoned a centre left perspective/world view.  The policy on Baby Boxes is a fine policy, and the SNP were the only party in the whole of the UK to stand up for Immigration during the EU Referendum.  However, with the controversy over the recent budget and the poor performance of Scotrail, there is the beginning of the sense that the curse of the third term is beginning to set in.  That’s before we mention the SNP’s response to the EU referendum result, using this as a ‘material change’ trigger to a second EU referendum.  I’d said before that I don’t think that this will be the issue that sparks the move towards Independence that the SNP are looking for, and polling shows that.  Theresa May’s rumoured policy regarding the UK’s leaving of the European Court of Human Rights will be another matter.

The backdrop of division and acrimony continued throughout 2016, and thanks to the EU Referendum, deepened.  How this will play out in the key elections due in France & Germany remains to be seen, with the outcome of both having a direct influence on what kind of Brexit we will receive. Here there will be council elections, with all of the Scottish Councils up for grabs.  The big questions for 2017 will be: Will May go for an early election? Will Corbyn survive the year as Labour Leader? If Article 50 is triggered in the Spring, what is Sturgeon’s response? Will Labour split?  And what will happen to UKIP?

Before we find out, may I wish you all a Happy New Year and see you in 2017 for this blog’s tenth anniversary.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Overplaying Your Hand

In recent months, the SNP have apparently been engaging in a listening exercise.  There have apparently been events with members of the SNP listening and engaging with non SNP members in an attempt to argue the case for Independence.  There has also been an online survey as well, one where there has been speculation about the results ever seeing the light of day.  Both the survey and the concurrent listening exercise come to mind in a week where two poll’s were published showing that support for Independence has dropped to below the ‘hallowed’45% achieved in the September 2014 referendum. 

The First Minister with the EU's chief negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt
Whilst pro-Union supporters like Hague and company would like to think that this is the result of pro-Independence supporters coming to their senses and understanding that an Independent Scotland would be bankrupt thanks to the huge deficit (and for fans of that kind of fiction, there’s another piece of that ilk in the Spectator this week), I suspect that there’s something else going on.  I think that people have not taken kindly to the First Minister’s interpretation of ‘material change’ and application of that to a result where only 62% voted to remain.

Why pro-Unionist supporters are wrong in that it’s the economy at play here is two fold.  Firstly, anyone who believes in Independence will understand that the deficit will be there but that we Scot’s will decide in the maiden Scottish General Election how our economic affairs are to be managed, deficit or not.  Whilst Hague does us all a service in flagging up the state of the Scottish economy, the conclusion I take is not that we can’t but that we should and that radical surgery is required.  Surgery that some shirk from.  The second reason is that the pro-Union parties haven’t changed their tactics regarding the constitution.  Their tactics are to flag up the cons with Independence, relentlessly and in an utterly negative fashion.  ‘Project Fear’ is still alive and well and has kind of mutated into ‘SNP Bad’.  Of course, there are criticisms that you can make of the current SNP administration, most of them surrounding their timid and conservative policy prospectus. But to criticise for the sake of it, with no thought to any constructive form is politically dumb.  The sort of political dumbness that Scottish Labour have attempted to make into an art form, which explains why they’ve been eclipsed by the shameless bandwagon jumping Ruth Davidson Party.  If I could turn back time indeed…  The only set of tactics that have changed since the Holyrood elections have been those of the SNP.

While the SNP did have a good EU Referendum, and history has shown how wise it was for them not to take part in the official ‘Remain’ campaign, they have since June somewhat overplayed their hand.  As I’ve said before, when you consider how embarrassingly poor and offensive the official Leave campaign was, then 62% seems rather low.  At the time I thought that the pro-EU vote needed to be at the very least 65% for the SNP to have any credibility when it came to claiming a material change. I think that 62% is made up of genuine EU enthusiasts and also people who voted against both the Leave vision of ‘Brexit’ as well as the campaign itself.  Those people may be Eurosceptic but unable to vote for such a right wing campaign – hardly “being ripped out of the EU against our will”.  If anyone wonders why Eurosceptic’s would vote to remain, have a look at both Owen Jones and Paul Mason’s pieces this year – both are opposed to the European Union’s current direction of travel and both advocated hold your nose and vote remain.

While the SNP have continued to talk up the likely prospect of a second Independence referendum, the pretext for that shows that they have failed to learn their lessons from the first Independence referendum.  Up till Osborne gave us the infamous “Sermon on the Pound” (© Iain McWhirter), the SNP and Yes Scotland were being battered over those currency plans and their plans to ‘retain Scotland’s membership of the EU’.  Those two policy pronouncements from the SNP led to people like myself wondering what the point of Independence was then if we would be handing power back to the Bank of England and the EU.  The pro-Independence supporters that are vocal about wanting rid of Westminster rule appear ignorant of the by-product of Salmond & Swinney’s ‘back of a fag packet’ Sterlingzone proposals.  A Fiscal Pact would have ensued with the Bank of England having a degree of control over an Independent Scotland with the core aim ensuring the value of Sterling and making sure an Independent Scotland kept within spending and borrowing targets.

Not that the EU were showing signs of being interested in bringing us straight into the EU, with both Barroso and Rompuy both parroting the line that Scotland would have to wait in line to apply for EU membership and that being good little Europeans would not be sufficient. At the time I’d though that there would have been three countries that would have blocked I-Scotland’s application.  Had we voted for Independence, we would have left the EU, having just voted to split from a country with its name on the various treaties with the EU.  In this respect, the Better Together campaign were entirely correct in their synopsis of Yes Scotland’s arguments – it’s just that the form of works they choose has now become a hostage to fortune thanks to that EU referendum result.

There are some pro-Independence supporters though for whom exit from the EU was an attractive prospect.  If Independence could be though of as ‘Taking back control’, then doing so outside of the sphere of influence of the EU would be Independence Max – with full control over policy areas such as agriculture, fisheries, and the economy. Let’s not forget that the Michael Ashcroft post EU Referendum poll showed that 35% of SNP voters voted against their parties’ line by voting to leave the EU.  Maybe some of those voters did it tactically to sabotage the Union.  The voters that genuinely are Eurosceptic must be exasperated at the SNP’s constant cheerleading of a project increasingly pro-Thatcherite in it’s policymaking.  It was the EU (alongside the ECB) which forced Greece to sell off it’s publicly owned assets at knock down price.  Alternatively known as ‘making Greece TTIP compliant’.  It’s also the EU, through the Lisbon Treaty, which seeks liberalisation of markets previously closed off to publicly owned companies.  The SNP seem content to toe the party line when it comes to outsourcing, but go quiet when re-nationalisation comes up.  Like with the current hot topic, Scotland’s railways.

In looking at what has happened to both sides of the constitutional debate, it is only the post EU Referendum tactical change from the SNP which can account for the drop in support for Independence. Sturgeon’s misguided belief that only pro-Union Little Englanders back Brexit looks more and more like beliefs that have clouded her judgment at best, and at worst forced a tactical blunder that pleases only the pro-Unionists.  By tying the question of Independence to membership of the EU, the SNP have backed into a cul-de-sac on an issue that only the one eyed pro-Indy supporters back wholeheartedly.  The SNP hierarchy have unnecessarily caused a split in the ranks of pro-Independence supporters and with the use straight away of the threat to hold a second referendum, the SNP have unnecessarily played their only card too early and in the face of a democratic result that has gone against the SNP’s own wishes.  If a second Independence referendum is lost, Sturgeon’s reaction to the Brexit vote might be seen as the moment that kept Scotland in the Great British bosom.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The High Water Mark Of UKIP

Of all the things that are baffling and disturbing about UK politics at the moment, the root of that is the most baffling and disturbing thing of them all.  Just how the hell do UKIP get the press that they receive?  We see their elected representatives on television, they consistently appear on the radio.  By god they’re in the press too.  Yet for all the hype surrounding the Kippers, and the hyperbole spouted by their new leader Paul Nuttall, I suspect that we have reached peak Kipper.

The announcement of the shock remake of the 1990's comedy "Bottom"
Firstly, let us not forget, that UKIP’s only selling point is the UK’s departure from the European Union.  And that selling point has, very dramatically, become a poisonous point.  They have focused on immigration, much to the detriment of the failures you can genuinely pin on the European Union. That focus on Immigration is a deliberate conflation of the EU principle of “Freedom of Movement” (something which doesn’t work so well in the UK, thanks to a variety of reasons) and immigration.  Yet the massed ranks of the official Remain campaign during the referendum campaign chose not to lay a glove on UKIP’s deception.  We now have growing voices saying that “we must listen to the voters concerns over immigration” – not just Tory voices but nominally Labour voices too.

While the vote to Leave has left much of the UK’s political classes on the back foot and struggling to come to terms with the vote, UKIP themselves have been in celebration mood and making bullish noises about keeping the UK’s politicians feet to the fire.  The problem with that is that they have reached their target and there is nowhere else for UKIP to go.  They wanted Brexit before anyone else had heard of the phrase – remember they were one of two parties fighting the 1997 General Election on a platform to leave the EU (James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party being the other).

The second reason why I think that it will be downhill from here for UKIP is that, I suspect that UKIP people will begin to migrate towards the Conservative Party and, like a party within a party, take over that party.  We’ve already seen an exchange of ideas between Tories and UKIP – The official Leave campaign seriously gained traction within the polls at the Referendum when they fully adopted UKIP’s campaign.  I suspect that the template for what will happen between UKIP and the Tories will be the Tea Party in the USA.  If you go back further, a similar thing happened to the last (much more successful) upstart fourth party within the UK.  In the early 1980’s, the SDP won by-elections and looked as if it might have a say in who would form the next UK government – all a matter of months after it’s formation.  Then the Falklands War happened and the SDP/Liberal Alliance finished a strong third, just over 650,000 votes behind Labour.  Four years later and the SDP were debating whether to carry on or to merge with the Liberal party.  Though they did and the Liberal Democrats were successful, some of the SDP’s people went back to Labour and informed a lot of it’s thinking around the gestation of what became New Labour.

Assuming that the Tories will be ripe for UKIP-ification, then beyond just snaffling their policies and anti-immigration stylings, what will happen?  I’d suspect that both James and Stephen Wolfe will become Tory members, perhaps Suzanne Evans as well.  Those three represent the ‘brains’, they are the brightest of UKIP’s elected representatives.  What you will have left is the rabble rousing core, Nuttall, Banks and Kassam.  That might play in the Anglocentric media but does bugger all to shift their poll rating up here.  Last time I looked, it was about 4%, way below the 15% they poll ‘nationally’. Then again, I suppose we’ve got enough empty vessels of our own, and all that.

Looking at the rules of power, Farage appears to have taken on board the rule about “In victory, learn when to stop”.  Nuttall will need to disprove another rule of power, the one about “Avoiding stepping into a Great Man’s shoes” if he is to be a success.  In spite of his claim, and given the usual unquestioning coverage by the anglocentric media, that his party can replace Labour, the old political tectonic plates are already moving against his party.  Nuttall might think that UKIP should survive to keep politicians feet to the fire regarding the referendum, but I think that UKIP’s future isn’t as a standalone party but as an ideal within the Conservative Party, fulfilling it’s early comparisons as a UK version of the Tea Party.  Given that led to Trump, then heaven help us.

Monday, 14 November 2016

J'accuse Moderates

There is a figure who crops up time and time again in our media as a talking head.  We all know who he is, he was an advisor for Tony Blair during his final term as Prime Minister but other than that is a Labour person in name only.  Yet this person not only has a career as a fully paid up member of the Anglocentric commentariat but also a carer as a media and election strategist.  Quite why remains to be seen as he helped Julia Gillard to defeat in Australia, was Jim Murphy’s chief of Staff when Labour lost 40 seats to the SNP in the post-Independence Referendum Tsunami and was in America last month helping Hilary Clinton to defeat.

True, McTernan’s only electoral victory this decade is that he has had a hand in that Independence Referendum, but since then we have seen a shuddering earthquake which has dramatically altered the British political landscape.  I had previously argued that the Independence Referendum, the 2015 General Election, the EU Referendum and the Chilcott Report have destroyed the generation long political philosophy in this country of Third Way Politics.  You maybe know this as Neo-Liberal politics, or Blairism, but Third-Wayism is the term that I’ve gone for.  It was the philosophy of triangulation and of chasing middle ground/centre right voters (to the exclusion of centre-left voters) which won Bill Clinton the White House in 1992 and entranced two visiting British Politicians in the spring of 1993 – Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.  When Tony Blair became Labour leader in the aftermath of John Smith’s death over the summer of 1994, he shifted Labour rightwards adopting Clinton’s Third Way philosophies and adapting them with the values he & his advisors held, Blair surrounding himself with Lib Dem and previously SDP people – as a result creating New Labour.  It’s birth being traced to the scrapping of Clause IV.

If this brand of politics has now ended in the UK, then what do we make of it’s catastrophic defeat in last week’s US Presidential election?  Firstly, let us not make any mistake here, this is a defeat of Third Way Politics.  Bill might have been the President, but Hillary is reckoned to have been intellectually his equal at least.  For example Hillary had been a key proponent of the Democrats previous attempt to reform Healthcare, before collapsing in the face of a hostile legislature. Mostly though, the Clintons & the Democrats as a whole have been key supporters of globalisation.

If the Independence Referendum was a harbinger that the end of Third Way politics was on it’s way, then what has caused this sea change?  One of the drivers of both referendums and Trump’s victory has been the perception of key voter groups that they have been left behind and that living standards have not kept pace and that this has fuelled a desire for change.  That squeeze in living standards leads us directly to the economic event that began with the Credit Crunch and encompassed the global Banking Crisis.  That global recession has not been fully reconciled by the political classes.  There have been no changes in government macro-economic policy either here or in the US, there has been no lessons learned and there has been very little in the way of repercussions. If anything Moderates on both sides of the Atlantic have been the keenest defenders of low regulation within the financial sector.  They have, as well, been the keenest advocates for the new style of multinational treaty/trade deal.  The types that have the capacity to undermine public services and to dramatically slash the reach of elected governments around the world.  The EU’s own Lisbon Treaty being the first of this kind, being the treaty which brings the outsourcing and privatisation of public services into EU thinking and regulations.  Since then we have seen the evolution of both TTIP and CETA, both trade deals that gives corporate interests a means to undermine democratically elected governments. And deals wholeheartedly promoted and defended by the Third Wayers.

That the political landscape has changed only tells half of the story though.  If the third wayers were flexible in their beliefs to modulate their policies and negotiate the bumps in the road, we would not have seen what has happened to the Labour Party here in the UK or saw the rise of Trump.  In some cases the problem is the smug, sneering attitudes of those supposed moderates. We saw it during the Independence Referendum when the so called moderates sneered at pro-Independence supporters.  Granted, the SNP did make it easy to be sneered at with their White Paper which had more holes in it than a block of Swiss cheese, particularly the areas concerning currency & relations with the EU.  But that referendum was (or at least should have been) about who should govern Scotland, not about the SNP’s own policy preferences. The sneering continued even though it became clear that the so called Vow had been stiffed by Cameron during his 7am Downing Street speech, just minutes after the Referendum result became official.

The smug, self satisfaction continued throughout last years Westminster election.  Complacent within their own bubble, the so called Moderates comforted themselves over Labour’s election defeat with the thought that Ed Milliband wasn’t really one of us anyway.  He was dangerously left wing and didn’t follow the true New Labour doctrine, so that’s why he lost.  Well that was the attempted whitewashing of the election anyway when the likes of Peter “Dripping Poison” Mandleson, Chukka Umuna, Tristram Hunt and Liz Kendal swamped the television studios. It is also here that we see the start of a pattern that has been repeated since – that of a rotten, right wing candidate – unsuited to public office – winning election in no small thanks to the deficiencies of the opposition – partly adhering to neo-Liberal/Third Way policies.  The biggest deficiency in 2015 being Ed Ball’s signing up to Osborneomics.  Hook, Line and Sinker.

In the US, these mistakes were magnified 10 fold.  We had a populist left candidate (Sanders) who was manoeuvred out of Hilary’s way by a combination of Democrat party managers and by a misguided belief that Hilary was the best candidate to take on the Republican candidate.  Even when the Republican candidate emerged as the mouthy egomaniac property developer, Donald Trump.  He had made claims and policy pronouncements which are deeply worrying and will have deep repercussions on the United States and the world at large.  And yet during three debates Clinton could not deliver the knockout punch.  Clinton did not deliver the comprehensive defeat that she needed to put away Trump.  Trump was able to counter jab with accusations over Clinton’s judgement, over the signing of the NAFTA trade deal and the e-mail controversy. 

Clinton should have went hard on Trump’s non disclosure of Tax receipts.  Hilary already had a dubious image within sections of the population, with allegations that she was involved in illegal activities going back to the Whitewater accusations in the mid 90’s.  The e-mails controversy was only ever a smokescreen to bring Hillary’s dubious image back into the front of people’s minds – so when the director of the FBI re-opened the investigations into the e-mails it was essentially game over for Hilary.

When Moderates pontificate on the media about Corbyn or Brexit or Trump we should remind them of their part in that.  If they were prepared to listen to the soft left and not denigrate those people, then Labour wouldn’t have Corbyn.  The same lack of respect also contributes to the collapse in Scottish Labour and the probability of another Independence Referendum within the next 3 or 4 years. If the Neo-Liberals stood their ground and stood up for immigration and multi-culturalism and not appeased UKIP, then we would have had a proper debate on the merits or otherwise of a rotten & corrupt European Union. If the Democrats had read the runes better and seen the collapse of Third Way politics better, they would have not aided and abetted a poor continuity candidate but would maybe have let the Democratic Primary process run it’s course and pick a candidate that would have offered the change desired.  Neo-Liberals, Blairites or Third Wayers – whatever you want to call them  - have been almost complicit in the rise of the new Right and we should not tire in reminding them of the consequences of their actions.