Monday, 23 January 2017

Dispatches From Paisley At 10: The New Municipalism

In the second of the posts looking back at the Scottish Political scene since the inception of this blog 10 years ago, we look at the development of the SNP.

There have been, in my lifetime, three politicians who have had what music writers call ‘an Imperial phase’.  Thatcher might have been in office for 11 years but her ‘Imperial phase’ lasted from victory over the Argentinians in the Falklands war to her third election victory 5 years later.  Blair’s went from his election to the afternoon of September 11 2001.  Nicola Sturgeon’s probably the most fortunate of the three, as her Imperial phase was her inheritance from her predecessor as Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond.

Salmond congratulates Sturgeon on her election as
Scottish First Minister, 19 November 2014
If the SNP’s own Imperial phase had a starting point, it would be the crushing defeat of the Independence referendum.  Unlike the other two politicians, Sturgeon doesn’t show as much inclination to use the powers she currently has at her disposal, craving more powers (in the shape of Independence).  If anything, this version of the SNP bears only a passing resemblance to the SNP today.  Like seeing an old colleague from 10 years ago, it’s the same but different somehow.

The thing that sticks out about the SNP over their years in government is how much they’ve gone to the New Labour playbook.  In 2007, Scottish Labour attempted to win an election by appearing to be the responsible politicians making tough decisions that would benefit the voters…  err, well sometime.  Under Alex Salmond, the SNP triangulated by simply parking their tanks on the ground vacated by Scottish Labour in the name of ‘responsible policy making’.  They promised to scrap tuition fees, they promised to scrap prescription charges and they promised to keep hospitals at risk from closure open.  When the SNP got into government and enacted those changes, people took note – the thought occurring that this was what Labour was supposed to do.

Triangulation certainly was enough to get them through their first term in office with only one seat more to play with than Labour.  If anything, minority government suited the SNP as it seems like they ran the country better than they did under their second term.  What probably helped the SNP though was the conduct of Scottish Labour.  If Thatcher and Blair were lucky to have faced such poor opposition figures, then Salmond’s SNP government had the good fortune to be up against a Scottish Labour deep in a sulk without a roadmap back to power.  They still don’t judging by the unreconstructed criticism of the SNP which now has it’s own twitter hash tag - #SNPbad.

If the SNP did operate on autopilot during their second term, that’ll be because there was only one story in town – the Independence Referendum.  While the SNP didn’t make the progress the wanted to – only holding their six seats in the 2010 Westminster Election and winning seats but not the flagship Council’s in 2012 – failure to win 2014’s Referendum had the curious by-product of catapulting the SNP past Scottish Labour and into their current position as Scotland’s dominant political party.

Yet if one thing link’s both Blair & Thatcher it is that they both suffered during their third term in office.  The third term is where things fall apart.  The Tories also found this in the 1960’s when MacMillan lost it towards the end of his first full term and resigned during the 1963 Tory Party conference.  The only Prime Minister to survive their third term, Harold Wilson, only did so because both his first and third terms barely lasted 2 years combined.  Already we are seeing the SNP get into trouble over next year’s budget.

The SNP’s problems didn’t start there though.  You can argue that the SNP’s conservative manifesto for last years Holyrood election has put them on a defensive back foot.  Rather than advocate radical (and much needed) solutions for public services that are not exactly working as they should which you would have expected from an avowedly left wing leader like Sturgeon, the SNP went for another trick from the New Labour playbook - safety first.  Hence the reticence to talk about tax rises and the u-turn regarding the SNP’s flagship policy from 2007 – scrapping the Council tax.

The logical conclusion of the SNP’s similarities with New Labour is that they will campaign just to stay in power rather than advocate any real changes out of fear of losing votes.  For the SNP, this chasing of ‘middle ground’ voters just for the sake of it is done for just one reason – the means to an end to facilitate a second Independence referendum.  If the SNP are not in power, they cannot legislate for a second referendum.  The problem with that is two fold.  Independence has already blinkered the SNP to the job in hand of governing Scotland during the second term and looks likely to be the case during this term too.  The prize also appears to have clouded the SNP’s judgement regarding the best way forward.

There does not appear to have been any kind of post-mortem on how and why the SNP failed to carry the country two years ago.  Worse than that, the desire for Independence appears to have clouded the judgement of both the SNP and pro-Independence supporters.  The current ongoing example of this is the SNP’s obsession over the result of the EU referendum and their belief that Scotland is being ‘dragged out of Europe against its wishes’.  I’ve argued previously that Brexit is not the material change that the SNP would be hoping for, that the 62% pro-EU vote encompassed not just EU enthusiasts but Eurosceptics voting against the right wing Leave campaign.  Essentially, Sturgeon is on a sticky wicket if she thinks that the 62% will happily transfer to her position.  I think to have made ‘Material change’ stick, she needed a Scottish remain vote upwards of 65%.  Subsequent polling has only proved this synopsis correct.

In the meantime, the SNP’s big selling point in 2011 – that they were the best people to run Scotland – is being eroded.  Standards in our Education system is falling, satisfaction with the way the NHS is being run is also falling (both are run indirectly by the Scottish Government) while flack is also heading the Scottish Government’s way over the performance of Scotrail.  While there is an argument that the SNP have put referendum’s over the running over Scotland, I would argue that as a by-product of running the Scottish Government on Autopilot since 2011 that the SNP have fallen into running Scotland in the Municipalist style of Labour under McConnell.

McConnell had, of course, used the phrase “Do Less, Better” as a motto, maybe to do the simple things well first.  Its clumsy phrasing became a millstone around his neck as the SNP used it to pinpoint McConnell, and Scottish Labour’s lack of ambition.  Yet the style of government favoured by Scottish Labour – short-termist policy making with no long view being taken with how public services evolve or are reformed – has been taken up by the SNP.  Maybe they genuinely think that it’s a matter of time before people see the error of their ways before coming to their senses and signing up to Sturgeon’s MacNewLabour vision of an Independent Scotland.  If they carry on governing Scotland in second gear, they’re going to be very much mistaken.  

The BBC version of House of Card’s, broadcast the Sunday before the fall of Thatcher, started with Urquart, ominously, telling us that “Nothing lasts forever” before taking a picture of that particular leaderene and putting it face down on his desk.  For the first time since they took power at Holyrood the SNP look vulnerable and not in control of events.  They’ve already lost votes at Holyrood, but the EU Referendum has forced decisions on Sturgeon that she possibly didn’t want to make, yet, regarding a second referendum.  I’d suspect that a second referendum won’t become winnable until after Brexit has taken place.  I’d also suspect that’s not a timetable that the more one eyed pro-EU Indy supporters will have the patience to go with. If Sturgeon fly’s in the face of all logic and calls the referendum for sometime in 2018, I think it’s likely to fail and usher the end of this era of Scottish Politics.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

We Are 10!

It's 10 years.. pretty much to the moment, since I started this blog. It's is strange to think that it's something I kind of fell into, something that I kinda had to be prompted into doing.  Yet I'd always liked writing and was a bit of a political geek.

Most of the time it has been enjoyable, there have been moments where I easily saw myself reaching this landmark. There have been other times where I really struggled, but that's generally been the during the time's where I struggled.  If you look at the archive, you'll probably guess when.  At the moment, I'm in an okay place which is probably why posts are fairly regular at the moment.

When I did my 5th anniversary post, I'd flagged up the nascent Scottish based blogs that acted as an inspiration, and probably not just to me as those bloggers are, to all intents and purposes, the digital fathers and grandfathers of Wings over Scotland, Briebart and the other Alt-News Websites.  Lord preserve us...

Thanks to them for inspiring me to do this and thanks to the more higher profile people who have read, liked and shared this blog on social media. 
But thank you for reading and raise your glasses to the... well is it too much to ask for the next 10 years?  After all, tomorrow sees a Scottish land-owner become the 45th President of the United States and the best thing to do with that is to take every day as it comes.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Dispatches From Paisley At 10: The Fall Of Labour

This week sees the 10th anniversary of the setting up of this blog.  Over the next couple of posts we will be looking at the two big political trends in Scottish & UK politics over the past 10 years, starting off with the decline of the Labour Party.

I had been looking back at my archives a couple of weeks ago, and about 5 years ago there was a piece on Ed Miliband’s relaunch and how it blew up any lingering chance of him being Prime Minister.  There must be something in the water because here we are, at a similar point in Westminster’s ‘electoral cycle’ watching Corbyn attempt to relaunch his leadership.  Corbyn’s problem (if he even wished to be the next occupant of 10 Downing Street) is that he is fighting not just his own inadequacies as party leader but problems caused by political events, exacerbated to various degrees by Corbyn’s predecessors.
Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell with PM Tony Blair
during Scottish Labour's Spring 2007 conference

If we look at the world of January 19th 2007 (and who the hell would post their first blog on a Friday night?), New Labour held power in Westminster and in the devolved administrations in Cardiff and Edinburgh.  Blair had let it be known that he was nearing the end of his time in Downing Street, but we wouldn’t know how long he would remain.  Rhodri Morgan was still holding the reigns of power in Cardiff, he would remain Welsh First Minister for another two years despite never being Blair’s first pick for the role.  It would be here in Scotland and the third Holyrood elections where Labour’s grip on Working Class votes would be loosened.

Jack McConnell had been Scottish First Minister since 2001, but had seen his share of seats fall to 51 seats in 2003’s election.  Scottish Labour were still favourites to win a historic third term, even if McConnel & Labour’s campaign did look tired and complacent.   If any moment could be said to be the starting point of Labour’s woes, then the moment when the SNP won enough list seats to creep past Labour’s final total and become the largest party would be it.  Since that teatime on May 4th 2007, Labour’s grip on Scotland and Scottish politics has been loosened and remains the case to this day.

Why Labour’s grip on Scotland and Scottish life has only loosened since that day is an easy question to answer.  Labour had always sort of taken Scotland for granted, New Labour in particular actively tailored policies to middle class and upper middle class families, somewhat sidelining less well off voters.  The calculation being that Labour voters with centre/left values wouldn’t vote for anyone else.  The SNP came along to promise to reverse Scottish Labour’s planned hospital closures, tuition fees and prescription charges – and promptly started to hoover up disaffected Labour voters miffed at Labour’s decade long march to the right.  This was compounded by Scottish Labour’s inability to reconcile itself to that loss.  This has manifested itself in two ways.

Since 2011, Scottish Labour’s tactic has been very negative tactics.  It might be only the past 18 months that the SNP have dubbed Scottish Labour’s rabid tactics as ‘SNPbad’, but this is essentially what they’ve been doing since Iain Gray became Scottish Labour’s leader in 2008.  Everything that the SNP do has been labelled as bad with little in the way of rational explanation as to why.  This line became more rabid in the aftermath of the 2011 ‘landslide’ defeat which saw an SNP majority government.  Scottish Labour’s response to this was to begin to obsess about a possible Independence Referendum.  For the next four or five weeks, Scottish Labour were constantly talking about the threat of Independence and the dastardly SNP’s plans to implement a manifesto pledge.  When the Independence Referendum became real, it covered up Scottish Labour’s big problem.  They had become something of a policy vaccum.

In 2011, Scottish Labour wanted to stand up to Tory Spending Cuts, only to run away from Austerity protestors.  If memory serves this was all they really stood on, non of their policies were really that memorable.  As a result, and over the course of the past ten years, they’ve fallen into a knee jerk type of left wing policymaking which goes like this.  Spending money is good and tax rises are good therefore we must indiscriminately raise taxes to throw money at public services.  As a socialist, I’m offended that people think of this as socialism (it’s not) and goes a long way to explaining Labour’s policy failures.  By the time Labour repeated that mistake in 2016’s Holyrood elections by promising Tax hikes for all and (an illegal) rebate (which fell apart under scrutiny), they had already made the mistake that finished them in the eyes of many Scottish voters.

It’s not surprising, or that controversial, that Scottish Labour should argue for Scotland to remain within the United Kingdom.  It was the way they argued that case which alienated many Scottish voters.  Scottish Labour helped to set up the pro-Union Better Together campaign group and shared a platform with the Lib Dems and the Conservatives.  However it was the continued use of Tory attack lines and the cosy comfortableness that Scottish Labour hierarchy used those attack lines which resulted in the scales falling from many a Labour voter’s eyes.  That the referendum was ‘won’ had more to do with the SNP’s lack of economic arguments and Sterlingzone than anything Scottish Labour did as voters concluded that Independence at that point under that White Paper was too much of a risk.  Voters also concluded that Scottish Labour were also finished.   How different history would have been had Wendy Alexander remained Scottish Labour’s leader in Holyrood and the SNP gathered enough votes to hold their referendum in the first term.

644 days later and another Referendum arrived.  If the Independence Referendum split (and continues to split) Scottish votes into pro-Independence and pro-Union voters, then the EU referendum did precisely the same thing to the rest of the country.  This time Labour found itself under a leader with Eurosceptic leanings press ganged into being an apologist for the European Union.  As a result, and still remembering how they ‘won’ the last referendum but lost the peace, Labour fell rather badly between two stools by striking a sober but resolutely non cheerleading defence of the EU.

This would normally not be the fatal mistake for Labour.  However this is a party at war with itself.  Ed Milliband was not supposed to win the Labour Leadership in 2010 (according to the script put forward by pro-Blairite Labour MP’s) while Corbyn was simply not supposed to win the Labour leadership in 2015 as he fought off three candidates from Labour’s Progress Group (the now official group of Labour members who believe in Blairite Third Way politics).  It took less than a second for the Progress Wingers (on their website, the motto “The party within a party” appears – predating Momentum) to make their displeasure known at the result as Jamie Reed ‘resigned’ from the shadow cabinet.  His was not the only person to, essentially, end their political careers by throwing their toys out of the pram.

The Labour war is really a proxy for something else.  The Progress Wingers believe that power must be won before good things can be done (even if those good things are watered down to become more palatable to so called ‘swing’ voters) so policies must be tailored to appeal to swing voters.  Corbyn and his supporters believe that arguments must be made and policies must be formulated to appeal to core supporters and that they can win through the power of their arguments rather than through compromise.  It is the question which Blair never answered, indeed his premiership has rather muddied the waters in this respect.  In the post Thatcher Britain, what exactly is Labour for?

From a position 10 years ago, where Labour held the reigns of power, we now see a Labour party being torn apart from the inside and on the outside by political opponents like the Tories, UKIP and the SNP.  This is a situation entirely of their own making through their own choices or their reactions to other people’s choices.  Labour needs to have a long hard look at itself and ask serious hard questions about what it stands for, why and how it can successfully regain power without compromising those answers.  While I’m not sure if this blog will be here in another 10 years, if Labour carries on with the current self destructive path it’s on then they certainly won’t be here.  Going the same way as the Dodo, the Dinosaurs and the Liberals on the extinct list.

Monday, 9 January 2017

First Footing 2017 With The Best of 2016

First of all can I wish you all a Happy New Year & let’s hope that 2017 will be a better one that 2016.

2016 saw 35 posts in a year which saw the Holyrood elections overshadowed by the events surrounding the EU Referendum on 23 June, though not in the best read posts list here.  So let’s get to that top 10 with an appropriate chart rundown music in your head.

At 10 is a post looking at the similarities of Blair’s New Labour project and the Salmond & Sturgeon led era of the SNP, the style of which and policy choices I had previously dubbed ‘Mac New Labour’ on more than one occasion before getting round to writing that post.  Given New Labour’s obsession with grip on their image, at 9 was a post about the pro-Independence movement’s own obsession with the media.  Namely the targeting of BBC Scotland’s news output in with bill posters designed to undermine the idea of BBC Scotland’s impartiality.  How to Lose Friends and to Alienate Key Voters attempted to tell the zealots that it’s not the BBC, it’s really your fault ‘we’ didn’t vote for Independence.

At eight, a blogpost on the First Minister’s first adventures into the EU Referendum campaign, and in particular the Curious Position of the SNP given their dislike of one political union but their love of another political union.  At seven, There Used To Be A Political Party Across There.  Yeah, there…  where Corbyn, O’Donnell, Smith and Benn are scrapping away over the body of something that used to be called The Labour Party.  Just outside the top five is a post, titled “We Need To Talk About Regrexit…” where I explain why I don’t regret voting for Brexit.

Into the top five now and the fifth best read post of the year was the results post looking at the Holyrood 2016: The Tale of the Tape.  Not fantastic reading for advocates of the #BothVotesSNP campaign.  Gosh, remember that.  We’ll come back to that in a minute, because the fourth best read post of the year looks at the changing political landscape and concludes that over the past two years we have seen The Death Rattle of TheThird Way.  Watching supposedly progressive politicians show us their lack of political nous and general political skills has been the most frustrating aspect of 2016.  Progress wingers subsequent toy throwing exercise is a constant reminder of why those people are not qualified to run a shop, never mind the country.

Into the top three and at three is a calm, reasoned post explaining why I voted for the UK to leave the European Union.  Of course being a post about the EU, then Immigration must get mentioned, and it does.  In the 14th paragraph.

The second best read post of 2016 was a post reviewing the SNP’s election literature for May’s Holyrood elections.  The Conservative Party also critiqued the SNP’s lacklustre election campaign and the rather conservative policy positions they took.  Certainly the conclusion was that there was not a great deal to justify both votes being given to the SNP for the genuinely centre left voter.

This years best read post is something of a surprise to me.  There’s a number of posts that I’d thought would top the list.  However, like 2015’s best read post, last years best read post got there through journalistic patronage.  Partly inspired by that week’s column in the Sunday Herald by the Common Space editor Angela Haggerty, SNPBad and the Golden Rule of Opposition was a comment on both SNP supporters ridiculing of Scottish Labour through the twitter hashtag #SNPBad and Scottish Labour’s relentlessly negative campaign which at that point refused to proffer Labour solutions to SNP problems.

So, that’s that for 2016, and a good thing too.  See you soon for 2017.