Wednesday, 31 May 2017

A Lesson In Talking Left And Acting Right

With us now into the final full week of this election campaign, it is strange that the SNP had not been able to unveil their election manifesto until now.  It is arguable whether this has been a hindrance or not as the election leaflet received so far by them is not a list of priorities but a list of “greatest hits”.  Akin somewhat to a band who put out one good album before their label released them from their contract and subsequently putting out said singles collection package.

That the SNP member seeking re-election in this case is one Ms Black kind of typifies the SNP’s approach to this election – face leftwards at Westminster whilst ignoring the (pragmatism driven) New Labour agenda being pursued by their Holyrood colleagues.  Hence at Tuesday’s manifesto launch we have seen the SNP pledge to protect all manner of benefits and to propose various tax policies – policies which the SNP government seem to be unwilling to pursue.

We can understand the rationale for wishing to protect benefits, after all not every inch of the DWP has been cloned and transplanted northwards. DLA and it successor PIP will still be Westminster (mis)run.  However there is some issue surrounding what the SNP can and can’t do regarding the powers that have been transplanted northwards with the Tories and Scottish Labour claiming Tax Credits (including Child Tax credits – centre of the controversy surrounding the so called “Rape Clause”) is under Holyrood jurisdiction (the government website states that Holyrood can “top up” Universal & Tax Credits but presumably not amend or scrap those UK wide benefits).  Surprisingly the SNP aren’t playing the “we were blocked from devolving all Benefits powers” card yet, though if this row develops, it’ll be a matter of time.

On the leaflet, Ms Black highlights her work fighting against the various benefits cuts and the WASPI campaign (fighting for equal pension rights).  Whilst this is very admirable and a plus point (and I’m sorry if that sounds patronising, it’s not meant to be), I wonder if this experience could (and perhaps should) be of further use to the SNP.  Last year’s Holyrood prospectus was a bland, conservative affair given the imminent powers transfer.  It should not be beyond the wit and wisdom of the SNP to use Black’s findings and Freedman’s experience to fashion a benefits system robust enough to take Scotland into the first years of Independence.  Maybe I digress, but it is a moot point worthy of consideration ahead of the next Holyrood elections.

Similarly, the SNP have said that they would like a 50% tax rate across all of the UK, but have currently no plans to bring this in here in Scotland.  The reasons given seem wooly – related to being a green light for people to leave Scotland and head south.  Coupled with their plan for the 50% rate to kick in at £150,000 (rather than Labour’s policy of it kicking in at about £130,000 – still above where i think it should be) leaves me to thing that the SNP are still wedded to Laffer thinking, that low taxation rates bring prosperity.

There is two points that came to mind with the SNP launch however.  The first is that the ambition shown and policy depth and reach espoused by Sturgeon... am I alone in thinking that we should have heard similar noises last year?  I don’t remember very much last year about what the SNP wanted to do with a third term – second referendum apart.  There were baby boxes – a fine idea so simple that you wonder why no one else thought about it.  But that’s it.  And that’s maybe my complaint as a whole about the SNP. 

There are many small things that the SNP propose and have done, but there is not one ‘legacy’ policy among them.  Think Free Care for the Elderly (McLeish), scrapping Clause 28 (Dewar) and the smoking ban in pubs (McConnell).  I’ve said before that reform of the NHS and other public services (democratisation of the health boards and a standards body for local authorities being two ideas I think are worth pursuing) should be on the table and that the SNP, more than Scottish Labour, were in a position to pursue those policies. It’s very strange to see the SNP willing to think outside the box for Westminster elections but be resolutely conservative in their approach to Holyrood.

The other point is that those referendums are never far from the surface, and it was again with Sturgeon pursuing the line about Tory Brexit and being dragged out of the EU against ‘our’ wishes.  That the person who said that “there is no such thing as soft Brexit, just hard Brexit or no Brexit” was the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, seems to have bypassed the SNP.  The desire to hand the UK a punishment beating from Tusk, Junker and Verhoffstadt (though interestingly, the European Parliament is thought to want to reign in Verhoffstadt) has also bypassed the SNP.  It once again reinforces the SNP’s worldview that Westminster Thatcherism is bad, but EU sourced Thatcherism is good (even if Verhoffstadt is from the Belgian left), which is a simplistic and incorrect way of seeing things.

Interestingly, and wisely, Sturgeon does appear to be making babysteps away from a referendum in the Autumn of 2018 by saying one could be held after the negotiations have been completed.  I’ve already said a second referendum is unwinnable this side of divorce proceedings from the EU and my view is unaltered, I wonder if that is permeating SNP thinking hence the small, strategic, retreat (though not enough to scare the fundamentalists). If this were the case, it does not seem to be in tandem with any learning of lessons from 2014.  Certainly I do not think an Independence referendum can be won without a promise of a debate on whether we should join the EU (bearing in mind that last years referendum was dominated by a UKIP agenda, so a proper debate on the merits and democratic pitfalls of joining should be given exposure, alongside acknowledgment that free movement is a good thing which doesn’t work here because of social mobility issues) in the future. 38% of the SNP’s 2015 voters voted for Brexit, put off by the calamities of the CAP and the common fisheries policies, so any Independence campaign needs to bring those people back onside first.

Whilst the SNP can claim that Labour have borrowed (back) some of their policies under Corbyn, the SNP seem less keen on it being pointed out the debt they owe to the New Labour playbook.  Yip it is true (thanks to Labour’s... er... identity issues) that the SNP have been the only opposition at Westminster, but looking at Black’s leaflet a lot of the work undertaken by the SNP have been below the radar, on select committees and private member bills. If the narrative of this election so far has been the choice being between flawed candidates and flawed policy positions, the SNP’s prospectus may be less flawed than the others but still has serious issues – depending on which side you stood on in any of those two referendums. 

For all that the SNP talk of being progressive, they’ve continued the mistake of airbrushing the (just under)2 fifths of Scottish voters who voted for Brexit out of the equation.  It’s a mistake that looks more and more costly the closer we get to election day.  It is a mistake that could eventually put a second independence referendum off the table.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Previously on General Election 2017

So...  where were we before we were so rudely interrupted by the Muslim equivalent of those Christian fundamentalists who kill doctors and bomb abortion clinics in the US.

Before the Tories are allowed to get away with hitting the reset button on a campaign that was close to collapse, we should remember the scale of what happened on Monday.  No sitting government has ever u-turned or performed anything remotely close to a u-turn during a re-election campaign. Ever.

Yes, we need to think about care for the elderly and how it is funded (and Ian Smart writes a rather thought provoking and interesting piece on this).  However the Tories have rushed to conclusions and not thought out how to proceed.  It is not the first time this decade a sensible issue has been handled carelessly by the Conservatives with electoral consequences.  Think back to the EU referendum and before that the Sermon on the Pound.

However, at the end of last weekend there was a debate on BBC Scotland which partly over shadowed the Tories polling collapse.  There were two noteworthy issues to come out of that debate.  The first issue surrounded that Nurse.

Without really doing very much, the nurse that has to go to foodbanks and brought up nurses pay unwittingly uncovered the inverse snobbery that we Scot’s excel at.  After her appearance, she was subjected to the fullest assault from pro-SNP supporters on the Twittersphere, with some people claiming that she was a) married to a Tory councillor and therefore b) a Tory plant.  Both of which are falsehoods, lies which the SNP candidate Joanna Cherry did apologise for.  However, once again parts of the “Yes community” couldn’t help themselves and behaved like an unofficial secret police in dredging up parts of this woman’s life into the public domain.

Had those parts of the “Yes community” shown a modicum of restraint, we would have remembered that the First Minister actually handled the nurses questions and statements rather well and with understanding.  With Sturgeon expressing regret that she has been unable to raise nurses pay more than she has been able to, whilst pointing out her pay is higher that it is in England.  It is worth bearing in mind though that nurses pay is between £22-26,000.  The average wage in Scotland is around £28,000.  Something to bear in mind when we talk about the cost of independence and Scotland being too poor to be Independent without pointing out why living standards are so low here.  Instead, the story became about the so called ‘Cybernats’ and their alpha-chimp.

The most striking thing about that debate is that the election here in Scotland is now between the Tories and the SNP.  It was simply astonishing to see how diminished Scottish Labour have become, more so under Dugdale.  Her answers were not convincing, and Dugdale and Scottish Labour’s decision to sideline Corbyn’s manifesto (which is infinitely the most attractive Labour Manifesto in my voting lifetime) in favour of a ‘Stop Indyref 2’ campaign has and will backfire on them come election time.

It should come as no surprise whatsoever that Scottish Labour is now a very different animal from it’s English counterpart.  Whereas i think that Corbyn’s opposition to Scottish Independence is down to his (misplaced) view that the SNP are nationalists and not proponents of Scottish self determination and a view that Independence is electoral poison in England.  Scottish Labour’s opposition is dogmatic & kneejerk with very little actual arguments against, which as we’ve discussed ad nauseam has led to them being ridiculed under the #SNPBad hashtag.

Had Scottish Labour thought properly about this, they would have come up with more nuanced arguments against Independence and realised that talking about Independence all the time obscures their policies and values.  They would also be in a much better position to provide constructive opposition if they weren’t seen as the anti-SNP party.  That’s not to say I think they’re wrong in opposing Scottish Independence – there is a constituency of Scottish voters who are anti-Independence but are not Conservative in their thinking yet would only be given the option of voting Tory – but their opposition is poorly though out, incoherent and not solid enough.  A symbol of Scottish Labour’s approach to Independence is their relationship with Better Together.  They were happy to share stages with the Lib Dems and the Tories, they were happy to take the Tories money and happy to mouth Tory scripted attack lines yet could not understand how and why this offended Scottish voters.

This issue of course leads to the tenability of Kezia Dugdale as Scottish Labour leader.  This is her second big election campaign and there are no signs whatsoever of lessons being learned. The problem, should Dugdale stand down, is the one of there not being an obvious replacement and one who can rebuild Labour into a party that can put someone into Bute House.  If there is no Labour advance in two weeks, then i’d think there will be trouble ahead for Ms Dugdale.

With campaigning getting back underway, it will be interesting to see the effect of Nursegate and the increasing irrelevance of Scottish Labour on this election.  At a wider level, an election that was billed as May’s coronation looked on Monday night to have turned sour.  If the Tories have successfully hit the reset button, it could still be a big win but there is now uncertainty, for the first time, about the result.

Friday, 19 May 2017

The Losers Debate

With the news that the Tories are still averaging in the high 40’s and Labour’s percentages are creeping up, the conclusion that you could make about ITV’s third outing of “I Want To Be Prime Minister” is that with the exception of the Scottish First Minister, none of the participants were in with a chance of making a dent in the already nascent election campaign, never mind in with a shout of the big prize.

Nicola from Ayrshire aka the SNP’s leader and First Minister of Scotland is already a dab hand at these affairs. I do wonder though whether the ease which she sailed through this was down to her skill at these affairs or whether no one actually had the knowledge or the nouse to tackle her on her record as Scottish First Minister.  As a result she sailed through the section on Education without one single mention either of the literacy figures or the pigs ear that is the replacement to Standard Grades & Highers.  Nobody brought up her policy of a 50% tax rate for the UK but not setting the higher rate at that level here in Scotland.  Her reasoning for that sounding suspiciously like George Osborne’s reasoning for cutting the top rate from 50% to 45%.  I don’t even think the UKIP guy laid a glove on her regarding her record on bringing the country together in the aftermath of the EU Referendum.

Then again, Scottish affairs have never really featured very high on the UK news cycles.  Which is why a high profile figure like Sturgeon can get away with being the darling of the progressive classes while pursuing a New Labour agenda in Scotland?  And why when Caroline Lucas talked about Free Care for the Elderly, Dim Faron didn’t claim the policy as his parties policy (pushed through by Jim Wallace when he was Deputy First Minster in the Labour/Lib Dem coalition). But certainly being a part of the non-Labour aligned progressive alliance (as opposed to the soon to be a thing Progressive Alliance party) paid off for Sturgeon as no one really laid a glove on her.

Unfortunately the story is more about who ducked out rather than the participants who did take part.  For all that Lucas was perfectly sane and sensible, that Sturgeon sailed through and that Nuttall was cast as the pantomime villain, the two main protagonists in this election were missing.  We all know the reasons, that May is believed to be a stiff and somewhat poor debater and that Corbyn...  well actually I’m not sure why he declined to appear.  I’m surely not alone in thinking that however bad a leader he is, he can’t surely be that bad against Wood, Lucas, Farron & Nuttall.  That and actually this could have been an opportunity to put your ideas across.  Polling suggests that there has been an increase in Labour’s vote, this could have been an opportunity to consolidate that increase.

While Julie Etchingham chided May & Corbyn for refusing their invite for this debate, I think that they should have empty chaired them, empty lecterns and all.  It would have been a visible symbol of parties that wanted to disrespect the UK voter.  Instead, I think Corbyn and more so May have rather gotten away with it.  Had both been there, we would have (for better or worse) seen the true mettle of the prospective prime ministers.  A by-product would be that we would have seen Sturgeon up against people who in the past (given the way she bulldozed through Michael Moore & Allistair Carmichael during the independence referendum) would have been a winnable test.  A much more difficult task than what was presented tonight.

Given ITV’s previous debates resembled game shows (and how nice of them to re-cycle the set from two years ago) then this edition is difficult to pin down.  The winner will not be the one striding up Downing Street in three weeks claiming victory.  Indeed, you could argue with the Lib Dems not cutting through, the SNP looking at defending seats rather than rolling through them, UKIP falling into history and Plaid and the Greens looking to hold on to what they have, the parties represented could end up as losers to varying degrees come June 9th. That rather suits Theresa May’s Tories just fine.

Monday, 15 May 2017

About That Mandate...

Quite possibly the only true thing the leader of Holyrood’s opposition party, Ruth Davidson, has uttered is her belief that we have passed, in her own phrase, “peak Nat”.  Whether that is as true as Davidson would like it to be and that the SNP suffer 20-30 seat losses in three weeks remains to be seen. It somehow feels that for all we were lauding the Imperial phase of the SNP, this era has now ended.

The Tories remake of the video for Cher's "If I Could Turn
Back Time" proves to be a hit with the media.
Arguably the thinking about how to play this election has lead to some muddled arguments from the SNP.  Should they make this about Independence or should this be about Brexit and the holding of the government’s feet to the fire in relation to the EU referendum.  As a result, we have seen the SNP move away from Independence thought still saying that this election will have no bearing on their plans to hold a second Independence referendum.  This is a card that both Labour and the Conservatives are flipping and trying to turn into an issue.

That both parties are attempting to run an openly anti-Independence campaign perhaps says more about the thinking behind both parties than it does about the SNP.  For “Scottish” Labour, this is a line which has directly led them to being deposed as the SNP’s strongest challengers.  “Scottish” Labour’s  out and out hostility alienated lots of left wing voters, attracted not just by the SNP but the idea that “Another Scotland is Possible” to borrow the Common Weal’s tagline.  You would, have though that having seen lots of voters decamp to the SNP would cause Scottish Labour to pause for thought.  I think however it’s not their hostility to Independence which has done for them, more their unreconstructed hatred of the SNP resulting in a dislike of everything the SNP do.  This non constructive approach, which led to the #SNPBad hashtag and the ensuing ridicule which also drives away potential voters.

The Conservatives on the other hand have only recently hardened their stance on Independence and have seen some electoral success thanks to that new found ‘standing up for the union’ stance.  They took four FPTP seats in last years Holyrood Election, Jackson Carlaw’s victory in Eastwood on a swing of 5.7% to unseat Ken MacIntosh and to deprive the SNP of victory could perhaps be seen as the start of the Tories revival and proof that Davidson was on to something in standing up for the 55%ers.  More than the vagaries of the list vote, it was the SNP’s loss of seats to the Lib Dem’s (North East Fife on a swing of 9.5% and Edinburgh Western on a swing of 7.8%) which deprived the SNP of a second Holyrood majority.

Top 8 Conservative Target Seats
SNP Vote
Swing Required
Berwickshire, Roxborough & Selkirk
Dumfries & Galloway
Aberdeen West & Kincardine
Perth & North Perthshire
East Renfrewshire*
Aberdeen South*
Edinburgh South West*
* = currently third placed in this constituency

While the SNP are perfectly correct in saying that they hold a mandate to hold a second referendum thanks to that Holyrood win, perhaps the question should be whether they should.  With the EU Referendum and the result of the last UK Election, everything has changed.  Except that nothing has really changed at all with the SNP’s outlook towards selling an Independent Scotland firmly within the EU.  And that’s a problem when there’s a sizable minority happy to be leaving the EU.  The other issue the SNP have created is their creation of and interpretation of “material change”.  It is this interpretation which, given the Holyrood election last year, might backfire.

For the first time, and due in no small thanks to the EU Referendum, the SNP are not in control of the narrative.  The signs though were there in the Holyrood elections with those unexpected reverses to the Lib Dems.  It is the Conservative’s who are in charge of the media narrative and the SNP on the defensive.  While we are certainly past peak Tsunami SNP, and this was self evident two weeks ago whether you believed in the nominal figures or not, whether we have gone past ‘peak Nat’ is another matter entirely.  The latest polling suggests a swing to the Tories of around 10.5%.  If this is to be believed, then both Pete Wishart (Perth & North Perthshire) and the Westminster Leader Angus Robertson (Moray) are at risk of losing their seats to their Conservative opponents.

Top 5 Lib Dem Target Seats
SNP Vote
Swing Required
East Dumbartonshire
Edinburgh West
North East Fife
Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross
Ross, Skye & Lochaber

Polling also suggests a drop in support for the SNP.  It might be because of the SNP’s post EU referendum tactics or it could be because of dissatisfaction with the SNP’s performance as Scottish Government.  This drop could also enable the Lib Dem’s to repeat their trick from Holyrood.  The Westminster equivalent’s to the seats taken by the Lib Dem’s last May do appear in the five winnable seats but are topped by John Nicholson’s East Dumbartonshire.  The re-run of 2015 with Jo Swinson attempting to retake this seat looks like being a contest to watch.

The Tory narrative is to vote for them to derail Indyref 2.  I think the only way that this can be derailed will be if the Tories make big gains, gains which at the moment look highly unlikely, having said that I think that the SNP can maybe afford three losses.  On the other hand, if the Lib Dem’s regain North East Fife and Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross and if Pete Wishart or Angus Robertson lose their seats to the Tories – scenarios which are likely – then all of a sudden the narrative shifts once again and Indyref 2 will look like a not very winnable prospect.