Monday, 27 February 2017

Dying Before Our Eyes

Last week was always going to be a hard, difficult week in the fight for Labour’s life with two key but unnecessary by-elections in England being contested.  The results of those by-elections coupled with events here have only strengthened the opinion that I have that Labour is a party heading for disintegration with a leadership (on both sides of the border) who have shown themselves to have zero political nous.

The original intention was to write only about the more local events happening here in Paisley, with Greater Glasgow & Clyde Health Board’s controversial decision to close a children’s ward at the local Royal Alexandria Hospital – 30 minutes walk from where I’m sitting.  However those events seem to be part of a bigger picture which proves how poor at politics the current generation of Labour politicians have become.

GGCHB had formulated plans to close this ward a couple of years ago so this is not a decision that has come out of the blue.  Indeed thanks to the current SNP Government’s own conservative policy towards the NHS here in Scotland – i.e. let’s continue to throw money at the service without looking at reforming the service or governance structures – then it is likely that Shona Robison will rubber stamp this decision.  However the ball is only now reaching the SNP Government’s court, there has been no SNP input to this decision up to this point, which is not how the local Labour Party have been spinning this.

If anything, the local Labour group have been spinning this as SNPBad from the off, complaining that the SNP have been planning this decision from the off.  This was front and centre of last years Holyrood election campaign for the local Labour candidates, especially for Neil Bibby’s attempt to unseat the SNP’s George Adam.  The election showed that there’s very limited political mileage (at that point) for a decision that was still some time off.  Since then though Labour have continued to hammer away at their message that anything the SNP do is bad.  It would be unfortunate then if the board of Greater Glasgow & Clyde Health Board included not just people from the professional board member classes of Scottish society but the leader of the council where the hospital at the centre of the closures is situated.  

McMillan’s own membership of this board has hardly been mentioned by Labour, yet this is a decision taken whilst, nominally, Paisley’s man on the board was in the room while the decision was taken.  Of course, these decisions are all taken on an evidence basis with submissions from all interested parties, which does not show McMillan’s argumentative skills in a good light.  However if a local MSP’s submission did go missing and was not considered as George Adam is claiming (and this is the subject of a piece in Friday’s Paisley Daily Express), surely this invalidates the process.  It is this argument that Labour should be making, not that this is all the SNP’s fault.

What the RAH issue shows is a lack of political nous within Labour.  We already know that this is a party which has lost its way and is in desperate need of direction and a reboot of it’s core values.  Yet instead of debating what Labour is for, we have kneejerk policy pronouncements and policy positions with very little thought put into them.  This is an issue deeper than Corbyn or anyone else within the Labour leadership, though the direction of travel being pursued by both Corbyn and Kezia Dugdale do not help.  What this issue, and the issues regarding both Sadiq Khan and Corbyn’s own keynote speeches to the Scottish Labour conference show is that Labour is to all intents and purposes a rotting corpse of a party.  A Dead party in all but name.

Instead of attempting to bully and humiliate people back into voting Labour – and make no mistake Khan’s attempt to portray support for Independence as evidence of the Trumpification of UK politics is precisely that – Labour should be focusing on their policies and formulating valid and constructive criticisms of the current SNP government.   After all, the policy to put taxes up regardless of income is nowhere near the re-distributive spirit of Labour’s own founding fathers while there has been very little in Dugdale’s manifesto from last year that provided the radical left turn Scotland needs.

Talk of policy and positioning though might well be rendered irrelevant in the coming months.  The constituency of voters which propelled Tony Blair into 10 Dowing Street 20 years ago have, as I’ve pointed out, splintered and split into several different factions with the two referendums accelerating that process.  With every passing day it looks more and more impossible for a left of centre figure to emerge at Westminster and pull together the rapidly diverging values and priorities of that constituency.  Indeed, within the Labour party itself there are now two, distinct, political entities.  Corbyn’s Momentum group and the group for the pro-Blair modernisers – Progress.  The differences between those two groups look irreconcilable yet there looks like there has been of late an uneasy truce between the two.  Scottish Labour’s Perth conference enabled both wings to unite in their cack handed dislike of the SNP and the wider Independence cause, but the big final blue is looming and you wouldn’t bet on the Labour Party surviving in its current form.

Two posts back, we looked at why Corbyn has failed as Labour leader.  The by-election loss in Copeland, a first for an opposition party since 1982, provides yet another bit of ammunition for the anti-Corbyn faction within Labour and within the wider left wing diaspora.  Yet events over the past week have shown that Labour’s problems are deeper than Corbyn and operate on a more fundamental level.  What is not in doubt is that there is a huge gap in the market for a left of centre party with values centred around (in no particular order) protecting workers rights, protecting basic human rights, promoting equalitarian values and formulating an economic policy geared towards the workers and the many.  The current Prime Minister was previously an average Home Secretary who seems to have assumed an iron grip on UK politics, in spite of the fragile majority bequeathed to her by her predecessor.  That May is in this position shows off perfectly well the paucity of talent or lack of conviction on the left in this disunited kingdom. 

Monday, 20 February 2017

Asking The Question

Last week on BBC Parliament, there were a series of one man shows by the Independent & Guardian columnist Steve Richardson. In these talks, on the six big Prime Ministers over the past half century, there are trends that emerge, Rules if you will. What was new was the talk about space.  Richardson talked of Thatcher knowing when she had no space to do the things she wanted to do (at the start of her time in No 10, when she only had a 40 odd seat majority and she hadn’t managed to manoeuvre her like minded people into key positions yet), but instinctively knowing when she had the space to do things (Richardson pinpoints the formation of the SDP as the start of Thatcher’s ‘Imperial phase’ rather than the win in the Falklands the following year). Conversely Richardson talks of Blair not being aware of the space he had to do the radical things he could have done. Richardson in effect thinks of Blair as being overly cautious at the start of his time as PM – though interestingly he doesn’t expand on this during the Blair programme.
Sturgeon's conference announcement that the Indyref bill will be
written, 13th October 2016

Richardson's talks may be about UK Prime Ministers, but the lessons can be applied elsewhere. No more than here in Scotland where the talk is of a Second Independence Referendum. The pro-Indy fundamentalists firmly believe that the First Minister should call the referendum, preferably as soon as possible but are happy with the sainted Alex Salmond’s own preferred timetable of an Autumn 2018 plebiscite. There has, it is argued, been a "material change" in Scotland's circumstances which invalidates the last referendum so we should have a new one now. This is how the logic goes.

The big glaring problem with this argument is that the First Minister does not have the political space at this moment to ask the question once again of the Scottish people.  There are two reasons for this.  Firstly you might remember that in last years Holyrood election, the SNP failed to gain a second overall majority.  It is notable that for all the hype surrounding the “both votes SNP” online and real world campaign that it was the huge wins in the FPTP elections which cancelled out the SNP’s huge second vote.  If anything the SNP’s progress was checked by losing seats in the east to the Lib Dems and to the Tories.  In effect the SNP no longer have the right to vote for themselves for a referendum.  Granted there is now a pro-Independence bloc in Holyrood if you count the Scottish Greens.  However their leader Harvey has a reputation of being the sensible, moderating voice on Independence.  At least that was the case… well before the EU Referendum anyway. 

Just before that referendum, I’d argued that for the First Minister to successfully make the case that a material change had taken place in the event of a Leave vote, then the pro-EU vote here in Scotland had to be at least 65%.  Given that the majority of the Scottish Political classes advocated a remain vote, given that Remain voters also constituted people who voted to remain in that other union in September 2014 and given that 35% of her own voters voted to leave the EU, then the eventual 62% result gives Sturgeon no space whatsoever to demand a second Independence referendum.  Apart from one outlier, polling has since backed this theory up with a majority of Scots outside or blocked off from the Indy fundamentalists twitter echo chamber not keen on a second Independence referendum at the moment and with no sign of a pro-Independence majority.

That’s not to totally dismiss the SNP’s arguments about Westminster disrespecting the SNP totally.  However in spite of the SNP’s arguments about the EU referendum, nothing has changed and a re-run of 2014 would result in…  well a re-run of the 44.7% – 55.3% result.  If the SNP were to ask the question again however, I think their best chance of winning will be after the UK has left the EU.  By then we will know the terms of divorce, we will know whether Johnson, Fox & co’s boasts of countries lining up for trade deals are hot air or not. And we will also know if the EU itself survives.  For all the siren voices from the EU supporting an Independent Scotland’s not even on the drawing board yet application to join, those same siren voices might turn sinister if they are too vociferous about ‘punishing the UK’ for leaving their club.  Brexit is a two way process and while we may speculate how this will impact on the UK, the EU could fracture as well, especially if the leadership persist in the ostrich book of leadership.

Another reason for waiting for a better opportunity is that the current Westminster government will provide much better, and more obvious, “material changes” than the EU referendum.  Next on the horizon will be Theresa May’s policy pledge to scrap the ECHR from law and replace it with a UK bill of rights.  This policy will be akin to wanting to remove a supporting wall from a house because it’s not liked.  The ECHR is, of course, a key foundation of Devolution Britain, with it being key to the foundation & workings of the Stormont Parliament, the Cardiff Bay assembly as well as the Holyrood Parliament.  The fear here is that the First Minister, having overplayed her hand over the EU referendum will have shown her opponents how a very real material change will go down and they will be able to change their arguments appropriately.

Lastly, I’m not sure that the SNP or anyone else on the pro-Independence side are anywhere near ready to win this referendum. There has been, as far as I’m aware, no post mortem on what happened in 2014.  There has been no discussion or debate over the reasons for the loss, while the Common Weal director Robin McAlpine has said that many of the pro-Independence organising groups are not ready, or more specifically “chaotic, unorganised and… not yet prepared”.  It took two years fore the SNP to acknowledge that they might have made a mistake over their Sterlingzone policy but no real understanding about why exactly it was such a bad idea.  In his column in last week’s Sunday Herald, Iain McWhirter wrote about what pro-Independence campaigners could learn from the Brexit campaign and came to the conclusion that Yes-2 should be a deliberately vague campaign.  This is entirely the wrong lesson.  Leave won the economic argument by talking about the effect of freedom of movement on communities in terms of living standards.  If there’s any lesson, it is that economic arguments are not just confined to dry, remote, treasury statistics but to real anecdotes.  Having said that, it’s surprising that the SNP haven’t made a successful argument about the £9bn/£15bn deficit figure – their argument should be that this is an election issue not a referendum issue.

The new case for independence needs to be bomb-proof.  It needs to prove that an Independent Scotland can work, most importantly on an economic basis.  This is the most important roadblock to Independence, so for Indy fundamentalists to wilfully ignore or, worse, contemplate the use of UKIPesque/Trumpist “fake news” tactics displays a disrespect of the electorate.  There are elements that could be vague, explained under the banner of “This is an issue for when we become independent”, but that assumes that the new campaign is a genuinely cross party affair and not an SNP led and run campaign.  Economic arguments do not fall within those parameters so those above all else need to be utterly bomb proof.

Even in this fluid political climate, honeymoon periods must end.  Nicola Sturgeon’s has pretty much lasted for two years.  While there are now growing questions about her government, the prospect of a second Independence referendum is a double edged sword. It acts as a distraction to many SNP supporters, something that keeps the pro-Independence supporters united.  It also looks like a crossroads for the Sturgeon administration.  If they manage to hold the referendum when they can best win, Sturgeon will claim her place in history.  Unfortunately it looks like the pro-Independence fundamentalists will win the day and a vote will be held within the next 18 months.  If this happens it makes a second consecutive referendum defeat pretty likely.  

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Dead Man Walking

Huh, not just Dead Man Walking, but potentially this is the month where there is no going back for Labour.  A party of opposition and potential government…  gone.  Dead party walking.

While we can all criticise the Progress Wingers for their ritual toys throwing exercise whenever the name of Jeremy Corbyn comes up (ex-Scottish Labour staffer and ex-Political Editor of the Daily Record Paul Sinclair was the weekend’s nominated Corbyn-Bad de jour person), there does come a time when the leader has to start playing the conditions and do the job properly.  In the case of Corbyn, it is now time to tell the truth. 
Corbyn is a truly awful… awful leader.

Let’s start with his speeches.  They ramble on, lack a focus and badly need editing to have a clear & concise message.  His Commons performances veer between average and ropey, with wistful looks at the golden days of Ed Milliband a regular occurrence.  That lack of focus is also something that comes to mind in interviews.  Less kind souls would say Corbyn resembles a rabbit caught in the headlights.

And then there are his political decisions.  Well, to be specific, there’s really one issue which Corbyn has handled spectacularly badly.  That Corbyn used to be (and perhaps still is) a Eurosceptic could have been awkward for Labour, especially if he campaigned to Leave.  Instead, he was press ganged into campaigning for the Remain side but did so in the style of a surly teenager.  His displeasure at being forced to campaign for ‘remain’ was obvious to all and sundry.  It would have been better if Labour could have let Corbyn be Corbyn and let him campaign for the leave side.

Instead, Corbyn’s prescience was a sullen shadow on proceedings.  His ‘contribution’ to the Remain cause overshadowed the then Home Secretary’s equally… detached contribution to the ‘remain’ cause.  With no great surprise, almost no one mentions Theresa May’s almost withdrawal from public life, save for a less than wholesome endorsement for remaining within the EU during a TV interview, during the referendum campaign.  Then again, Corbyn has almost no supporters in the media while his media spin doctors might as well be fully paid up members of the Tory party given their uselessness.

Speaking of spin doctors, Corbyn really needed someone who would have been able to argue Corbyn’s case in the media.  He really needed a pugnacious character able to do the most difficult kind of writing – writing for a tabloid audience.  Instead Corbyn employed the Guardian’s resident Stalin apologist Seamus Milne.  Surely the man Private Eye’s totally fictitious ‘Dave Spart’ character is based on, all terrible syntax and faux high-brow language.  Is it any wonder UKIP get away with painting Corbyn as some sort of Islington elite.

The issues surrounding Corbyn seem to have crystallized around how he handled the EU referendum, how he handled the aftermath and, most pertinently, how he has handled the bill to allow the government to trigger Article 50.  I may have voted for the UK to leave the EU, but I would still have expected a socialist politician’s instincts to kick in and to make life as difficult as possible for a right wing government.  Let alone give hell to the proto-fascists in UKIP.  That Corbyn gave the May Government a blank cheque and justified this by, to all intents and purposes, appeasing UKIP’s arguments is nothing short of a disgrace and an embarrassment. 

Normally at this point in proceedings there would be a call for Corbyn to resign, or for some kind of revolt.  Given I’d previously penned such pieces calling for Lamont to go, you’d be wondering why this post isn’t called “Why Jezza Must Go”.  Well, there’s one very good reason for that.  The leader that Labour needs to help them through this difficult period and to rebuild just does not exist within their ranks.

Labour’s issues go beyond Corbyn.  The old Labour constituency is now diverging at a rate of knots.  There is the group of ex-Labour voters now agitating for a second Independence referendum here in Scotland – firmly in opposition to the line taken by their old party.  There is the group of soft Labour voters, attracted by Blair, who now look likely to return to their natural home of either the Lib Dems or the Tories.  There is now the group of Labour voters, like the English versions of now SNP voters who were left behind by New Labour now contemplating voting for UKIP post the EU Referendum.  Any possible successor to Corbyn needs to bridge these gaps.  You’d be as well asking for someone who can bridge the Grand Canyon.

The fact that the job of being Labour leader has now become the poison challis of British public life has not put off some people from putting forward their own preferences, the current favourite being an MP only a year into his first term as a sitting MP.  Clive Lewis might be a talented person, I’ve only seen him on TV a couple of times and he seems okay.  That’s not a reason to repeat the mistake that Scottish Labour made in elevating their own talented but highly inexperienced politician – Kezia Dugdale – into the post of leader.  Lewis just doesn’t look ready.

Corbyn’s rank bad handling of the Article 50 vote is, for many people, Corbyn’s own ‘Jump the Shark’ moment, the moment where we can no longer excuse the fact that the leader of the Labour party is not fit for purpose.  That this is the case should be seen as a tragedy for people of the left across the country, that the left could not produce a leader capable of taking the Labour Party back into government.  Not that they’ve ever stopped sneering, but the Progress wingers will crow even more now about how they told us so and that they are the only people with the know how to take Labour back into power, even though they are part of the problem.  Meanwhile on the horizon are two now key by-election tests, if Labour lose these two seats it could spark the end of the beginning of the end of Labour as a force in UK wide politics.  The damage will have been done by the Progress wingers, but this will have happened on Corbyn’s watch.