Tuesday, 27 September 2016

There Used To Be A Political Party Across There

In the current fluid political climate where everything is up for grabs, the only certainty is conventional wisdom.  Usually delivered by sober political commentators in what used to be described as “the dead tree press”, by a blogger now working for the selfsame “dead tree press”.  These tablets of wisdom define political thinking.  That these self same commentators have got so much wrong seems to have no impact as another piece of conventional wisdom is brought from above.

The question that no one asks is what if one of those pearls of wisdom is proven to be utter hokum.  There are two pieces of wisdom which are not correct.  The first one is the wisdom which dictates that “Oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them”.  This may well have been true in the 1950’s or 1960’s, but has been proven to be not true since…  well the most unpopular politician in the country won a 144 seat majority in the morning of June 10th 1983.  However the pearl of conventional wisdom doing the most political damage, indeed the one which has effectively destroyed the Labour party, is the assertion that parties must pitch their tents on the centre ground to win elections. 

The belief in this has essentially led to a movement within the Labour party designed to keep Labour firmly on the centre ground of UK (or more accurately English) politics. The Progress group has been set up specifically with the aim of keeping Labour firmly to the old SDP model of a centre (not left) party.  The problem with Progress winger’s interpretation of centre ground politics is that it alienates left of centre voters and sidelines the left of centre view point, happy to write people with that viewpoint off as extremists and that old canard, “trots”.

The reason that I think this piece of conventional wisdom is utter hokum is a simple reason.  If General Elections were really won on the centre ground, then how do we explain the election victories of Attlee (won from the left) in 1945, Thatcher’s three election wins and Cameron’s win last year (all won from the right).  True, these are exceptions, but these exceptions show that it’s not centre ground politics that’s the important thing.  It is having ideas that will win over middle ground voters that is key.  This is why as a lefty I can’t forgive the Blairites for not even attempting to bring UK politics leftwards like Thatcher brought the country rightwards in the early 80’s to the political position it currently occupies.

Labour’s issues then are rooted to frustration with that centralist dogma, which refuses to realise that the country is not the same country that it was in 1997.  Indeed, as I’d pointed out in a previous post, the conditions which the kind of third-wayism would previously have thrived as an electoral force do not exist.  Thanks to 9 years of recession and austerity politics, the political landscape is now being cleaved between left and right.  The centre ground has simply disappeared into a hole firmly of the Lib Dem’s own Blairite tendencies making.  Indeed it is telling that the Progress wingers are looking to set up their own party from scratch, rather than outright defect to the Lib Dems and join up with their Orange Book kindred spirits.  Ironic then given that the Lib Dems themselves turned their backs on Orange Book-ism when they elected Dim Farron over the Orange Book candidate Norman Lamb last year.

This dogma seems to have clouded the Progress wing’s every thought, with the possibility that the next Westminster Election might be sooner than May 2020 concentrating that wing of the Labour Party to such an effect that they appear to have taken leave of their senses and utterly torpedoed any residual chance Labour had of winning the next UK election.  Indeed, the chances of… well any centre left politician taking the trip to Downing Street, via an engagement to kiss hands with Mrs Saxe-Gothe-Coburg, is significantly less than the chances of Kezia Dugdales chances of becoming Scotland’s next First Minister.  Partly that’s down to May being, I think, an upgrade, both in strategic and political terms, on Cameron. But mostly that’ll be down to Her Majesty’s official opposition being in more bits than a 100 piece jigsaw.

It’s not just Labour’s electoral chances that have disappeared down the plughole, it is the reputation of those leading lights that have gone down the tubes.  Both Burnham and Kendall are seriously damaged goods from last years leadership election defeat, while Cooper should have had the nous to win that election but didn’t.  Like Healy in 1980, Cooper should have run a better campaign and reached out leftwards – just enough to head Corbyn off at the pass and enough to retain her own centre/right base.  Instead her campaign stuttered and started and only really came to life when Corbyn’s own momentum was unstoppable.  Sunk though those reputations are, they have not suffered as much as the reputational damage to Hilary Benn and to Angela Eagle.  Benn’s reputation was already soiled goods, thanks to his wholehearted support of military action in Syria, but became irreparable due to the Observer story which precipitated his sacking.

Eagle’s however is maybe more tragic.  It is conceivable that she could have been Labour leader at some point, maybe succeeding Corbyn, had she not joined in with the Progress plot.  The first Labour politician to be any good at PMQ’s since Blair and showed a consistent ability to get under Cameron’s skin. Yet she’s shown the same lack of political nous as the rest of the Progress wing brigade.  Maybe, for once, Blair’s representative on Planet Earth, John Rentoul, has a point when he says that Eagle would have been a better candidate than the eventual candidate of the right, Owen Smith.  Smith’s campaign from the start has been one disaster after another.  The casual sexism, followed by the casual homophobia, followed by the gaffe over negotiating with Daesh all contributed to Smith’s long predicted defeat only confirmed in Saturday morning.

At the heart of Smith’s campaign though, there is now a very real sense that the Progress wingers and their cheerleaders in the media still haven’t grasped the new political landscape in this country.  From the Independence Referendum two years ago to the EU referendum and the subsequent release of the Chilcott Report, there has been an earthquake that has altered the political landscape, destroying the conditions that enabled the third way to survive electorally.  Third Way politics is now a toxic brand in the UK…  or at least it is in England.  Third Way-ism still survives and thrives here in Scotland under the radically different curatorship of the SNP, but in England it is a political philosophy which is falling out of fashion.  Neither May nor Faron can be described as ‘Third wayers’.  Indeed, May’s inauguration speech smacked of being somewhat old school conservative in some ways, whilst also referencing Thatcherism.  Or at least the bits of Thatcherism that concerned itself with removing barriers to people getting on.

Of course, the charges levelled at the Progress wing of Labour are serious charges, their actions and behaviours have played a huge part in the troubles Labour finds itself in.  While their leaders have shown a lack of political nous and inability to change up which should worry any centre left voter.  Certainly, there is not one alternative Prime Minister among the massed ranks of the Progress hierarchy, such is the collective reputational damage those individuals have inflicted upon themselves.  There is, however, one figure who seems to be carrying on, in a quiet way, as if nothing’s his fault.  But then again, the only thing you can really pin on Jeremy Corbyn is that he is utterly abysmal at the actual act of leadership.

While it’s true that, politically, he’s a lot closer to my own views than Blair, Brown or even Milliband, that shouldn’t and doesn’t stop any critical faculties from operating, and there’s a hell of a lot to criticise about the vacuum that is the leader of her majesty’s opposition.  I’d previously mentioned that he’d not handled his first shadow cabinet appointments in the best, most astute, manner.  Whilst recognising that his party colleagues have went out of their way to make Corbyn’s job as hard as possible, Corbyn himself has not stepped up or shown any signs of leadership of his own. Maybe this election campaign has shaken him up and now takes the post seriously.  Certainly his acceptance speech on Saturday was a mark above any speech he has made in the past year or so.  For Corbyn though, the easy bit was Saturday.  The hard bit, that of rebuilding a shattered, lost, rudderless, divided, bitter and borderline poisonous party, is still to come.

Corbyn’s biggest challenge will be the resistance he will face, not from his opponents but from his so called party comrades.  The ‘Scottish’ Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale has already signalled her dissatisfaction with Corbyn whilst glossing over her (countless) own failures while former Labour figures from the Blairite past have begun their ritual sneering at Corbyn.  Of course, it is these figures which will garner media attention given the uncritical familiarity these figures have.  Already we have had fawning coverage from BBC, ITV and Sky news for public meetings behind pubs and in alleyways.

That the re-election of Corbyn is not seen for what it is – a vote of no confidence in the corporate sponsored world of the Progress Wing – shows precisely what little political talent these people have.  Labour’s disintegration, being pulled apart by the shuddering tectonic plates of UK politics, has brutally exposed Labour’s own split loyalties and aims.  In one sense, it doesn’t really matter which left wing candidate was chosen to run.  If they had won, they too would have suffered from the campaign designed to undermine and to show that the Blairites were the only people who could win. 

In the meantime, we still have Corbyn, and for the moment he is the face of the destruction of the UK’s so called centre/left party, even if there are a lot of people on Labour’s right who have done much more critical damage to Labour’s structures and reputation.  If anyone questions Corbyn’s rumoured plans to purge Labour, they should gently be pointed in the direction of the people who for completely selfish reasons are engaged in acts of sabotage on the party they profess to love.  There used to be a party of the working person to your left, and whether you are a Corbynista or a Progress Winger, the chase for middle class votes at the expense of the working classes and those adjacent to poor has done more to (fatally?) erode so called ‘Labour values’ than an old school left winger from North London.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Too Soon

Last week’s announcement by David Cameron that he is to step down as MP for Witney saw another bout of retrospection on Cameron’s time in Number 10.  Among the reminiscences was his part in the Scottish Independence referendum, now 2 years ago.  To say his part appears to have been built up is perhaps the diplomatic way to put it.

In truth, Cameron was a ghostly presence during that referendum.  His total output being not very many visits north in the run up to the referendum and no meet and greets – with engagements behind closed doors and in office blocks in Edinburgh’s financial district.  In truth, the claim of supporters of Cameron that he saved the Union is a completely hollow one.  Gordon Brown, the now notorious ‘The Vow’ and the SNP’s policy positions on currency and the EU all played their part in the no vote confirmed two years ago today.

Yet the defeated side, the SNP, are champing at the bit to put us through all of that again.  They have never come to terms with the result, let alone stopped to look in the mirror at their own failings.  Yet they are certainly ready to plunge us all into another referendum campaign.  A campaign that, I’d have serious reservations that they’d win with their current tactics and mindset.

The most striking thing about the SNP and their group of strident supporters is that there does not seem to be any evidence that they’ve learned lessons from two years ago.  True, there’s now a discussion on an Independent Scotland’s currency options.  But this should really have been the first port of call for the SNP.  Instead the (false) narrative that it was all the fault of The Vow and the dastardly ‘Scottish based’ media has been allowed to grow and grow.  The Vow certainly didn’t win the referendum, it just stopped the haemorrhaging of soft ‘no’s defecting to ‘yes’.  As for the media, well if the SNP had a spin operation as ruthless as the fabled New Labour rapid rebuttal unit, we’d be Independent.  Salmond & (particularly) Sturgeon relied far far too much on attacking bad business news as “scaremongering” rather than a concise rebuttal.

So, sort out policy positions and the SNP’s spin operation and a pro-Independence vote is all but assured, yes.  Well…  no.  The issues over Sterlingzone masked the SNP’s inability to win the economic argument.  That the businessman and part time blogger Kevin Hague was able to undermine the economic case for Independence whilst showing up the bloated and grandiose Business For Scotland into the bargain shows that the SNP should have prioritised the winning of the economic argument much more.  It’s something that I may come back to, but even though I take different conclusions from Hague’s figures.  It is his delivery and presentation skills which showed up Business For Scotland’s leaps of logic from figures to conclusions without any workings.  Hague and his approach is something the SNP will possibly need to learn to love given the deteriorating deficit and the state (on figures built on the poor performance of the UK’s revenue service it has to be said) of Scotland’s finances.

The SNP’s biggest problem though is the concept of ‘material change’ and their own interpretation of it, versus the general population of Scotland’s interpretation.  You may have noticed that in June there was another referendum, this one on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union…

The United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, not Scotland, United Kingdom.  Got that, good!

Well, this referendum produced a victory for those people wanting to leave the EU, by a victory margin of 3.8%.  Both England & Wales voted to exit the EU while both Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain within the EU.  Indeed, Scotland produced the biggest pro-EU vote (in percentage terms) within the British Isles.  62% of Scots voted for the UK to remain within the EU.  And this appears to have given Nicola Sturgeon the green light to talk of material change and a second Independence referendum being “Highly likely”.  It’s just that 62% seems like a light figure to be talking about material change.

I’d previously speculated that Sturgeon might be surprised at how alike Scotland and the rest of the UK are in terms of attitude towards the EU.  I’d also though that if Sturgeon was to successfully prosecute the material change line, then about 65% would have been the minimum figure that they had to get.  Lets also factor into the equation the left leaning eurosceptic’s voting remain out of a desire to spike the prospect of a right wing hard Brexit and wholesale deregulation of working practices and human rights.  Add in the stat that, according to Michael Ashcroft’s polling, we think that as much as 36% of SNP voters (at the last Westminster election) voted leave.

Added together, this makes Sturgeon’s claims of a Scotland 100% behind the European project a flimsy one at best.  If you take into account the theory of the eurosceptics voting to remain because of the prospect of a right wing takeover, and this was a view advocated by Owen Jones, Paul Mason and Iain McWhirter, then 62% doesn’t look like that big an endorsement of the EU that Sturgeon has been making out.  This also undermines her claim for the EU referendum to be a trigger for a second referendum, and certainly explains some of the lukewarm polling that this question has been gathering.  Indeed the average polling for Independence has now settled on 48% - a gain of approximately 3% and far short of the 60% target set by the First Minister.

The only argument where the SNP’s actions make any sense whatsoever is the argument that says that Sturgeon is on manoeuvres simply to keep the hard-line Yes-ers onside.  That the hardline Yes-ers, agitating for a referendum re-run have been pressing for that since what they perceive as a material change.  That Better Together were correct in their claim that the only certain way for Scotland to exit the EU was to vote to exit the UK seems to have bypassed those hardline Yes-ers in much the same way that Scotland’s name appears nowhere on the various EU Treaties.  Otherwise, pressing for an early referendum re-run when the case is flimsy and lightweight makes no sense and would be a recipe for disaster.

If Sturgeon has the political chops that people believe that she has, she should wait.  Remarkable as it may seen, time is on the SNP’s side.  Given the state of the Westminster parties and the mess being made of the country, Scottish People could conceivably coalesce towards Independence as a viable alternative.  Of course, that’s entirely dependent on the SNP performing as a government like they did between 2007 & 2011.  If they do get their heads down and perform, if Labour continues to fall apart as a political party, if the Tories become the TINA party by default, if the EU referendum fallout continues to poison UK-EU relations and if there is no sign of the near federal solution promised in ‘The Vow’… then conditions could play into the SNP’s hands.

The SNP’s Indyref2 manoeuvrings do not look like a party confident and in control of events.  By aggressively attempting to re-write the post EU Referendum narrative, Sturgeon is displaying a lack of patience which will do nothing to attract the voters needed to bring the prize of independence. Scotland is already split down the middle between people who crave a second Independence referendum and those who think that it’s too soon for that question to be asked again.  Rather than pressing the issue so soon after the 2014 Independence referendum, the SNP should be looking at why they failed and how they should rectify the situation in the future.