Monday, 26 June 2017

Slipping Through Fingers

If May’s Conservative party are the big losers from the General Election, then what are we to make then of the party who lost more seats, net, than the Tories and unlike the Tories lost votes and dropped points in the share of the vote.  They may have won their second General Election here in Scotland, and continued the winning run that goes back to the 2010 General Election, but the SNP have the look of a party in trouble and in several minds as to its direction of travel.

The media narrative blames the SNP’s ‘obsession’ with a second Independence referendum as being something that has turned voters away from the SNP.  I’ve said before that I don’t think that this policy in itself is a vote loser, that it is more the SNP’s interpretation of their “material change” and that the public’s interpretation of that policy is different, the public clearly do not see Scotland as being “ripped from the EU against our will” as the SNP clearly do.  However it is the SNP’s clear tying of the Independence issue to membership of the EU which has caused the ‘Indyref 2’ policy damage. What the SNP’s so called obsession with ‘Indyref 2’ has done is galvanise another group of voters that the SNP have alienated & disrespected, that group of voters who voted to keep Scotland within the UK, voters who are not SNP voters or bother with the fripparies of '55' twibbons or such like.

The hierarchy of the SNP seem to have not noticed that 36% of SNP voters voted to leave the EU last June as since Referendum Day, the SNP have pursued a dogmatic, narrow view of the result.  Dogmatic in the sense that they have dismissed the 1 million leave voters as xenophobes whilst presenting the 62% of Scottish remain voters as true progressives.  If we became wary rather quickly with “Strong and stable” then “Tory hard Brexit” seems to have stood a better test of time, unjustifiably so as it isn’t just the Tories who would like a “hard” Brexit. To quote Donald Tusk “there is no ‘soft Brexit’, there is only ‘hard’ Brexit or no Brexit”.

The problem then is what the SNP should do about their, apparently, troublesome policy.  The SNP, and in particular the First Minister, have in rushing to put Indyref 2 on the table in the aftermath of the EU referendum badly misjudged the mood of the Scottish people.  Even now, after the election, there are SNP figures saying that they should ‘park’ the issue until the Brexit negotiations have been completed, which is...  err...  the same timetable the Scottish voters have apparently taken a dislike of.  There is some polling evidence to suggest that Scottish voters would like to revisit the Independence question, but after divorce proceedings have taken place.

As I’ve pointed out, the issue isn’t about the ‘material change’ but whether a referendum is winnable in the current climate or a climate 18 months down the line.  My conclusion is that any referendum tied to EU membership, which would not be attractive to the pro-Independent supporters who do not favour EU membership, would, allied to the SNP’s reluctance to look at how they lost in 2014, be simply not winnable given the split in the pro-Independence vote. Another factor to take into account here is that polls show that Independence is still around the 45% mark of the referendum with only some polls showing an increase.  In other terms Independence has still not overhauled the Union in spite of this apparent ‘sleight’ against Scots. And for as long as the SNP refuse to come to terms with their loss in 2014 and respect that result, they will continue to do so.

The lesson that should be learned here from the SNP’s loss of support is that the next Independence campaign needs to me much more of a big tent affair than in 2014.  The SNP’s narrow view of how an Independent Scotland would work was a flawed vision, with both their vision of EU membership and Sterlingzone being serious issues. And it is the SNP’s view that Scotland should be a full member in the EU that has caused them to become unstuck again.  The next time, they should not be so much in the cockpit of the campaign, they should perhaps promote other voices (the Common Weal & Radical Independence movements did not get the exposure or influence that they should have).  It would also be helpful if there were some right wing advocates of Independence.  It can’t just be Michael Fry from the Right who supports Independence.

The current vogue among SNP ‘grandees’ is to park the ‘Indyref 2’ issue in some way and promise to return to it in the next Holyrood parliament.  It is an attractive proposition but one with serious problems.  It risks annoying and antagonising the new found ‘Fundies’ that now make up the majority of the party.  People who joined in the wake of the first referendum and are now ‘mobilising’ for another crack at independence that have been marched to the top of the hill with their “putting the band back together” memes.  While they might be placated by a postponement, I suspect that both Davidson & Rennie would much prefer that the whole referendum thing would be kicked into the long grass in a more permanent way.

Any parking would need to be done to not look like a reverse ferret, a difficult task when Sturgeon has gone so hard on the issue.  Even more so when both the leaders of the Conservatives and Lib Dems respective Scottish branch offices have put opposition to a second Independence referendum (regardless of popularity) front and centre of their last two manifestos.  Any retreat beyond the outlined timetable risks handing those two parties a PR boost, victory on a plate and conceivably enough political momentum to propel Ruth Davidson into Bute House come the next Holyrood elections.

SNP Elections under Salmond & Sturgeon’s leadership
% share
Seats won
5 May 2005 (Westminster)
17.7% (-2.4%)
6 (+2)
3 May 2007 (Holyrood)
32.9% (+9.1%)
21 (+12)*
6 May 2010 (Westminster)
19.9% (+2.3%)
6 (=)
5 May 2011 (Holyrood)
45.4% (+12.7%)
53 (+32)*
7 May 2015 (Westminster)
50.0% (+30.1%)
56 (+50)
5 May 2016 (Holyrood)
46.5% (+1.1%)
59 (+6)*
8 June 2017 (Westminster)
36.9% (-13.1%)
35 (-21)
*= FPTP seats only

The ideal route forward would be to keep reviewing the situation throughout the Brexit negotiations but indicate willingness to not pursue a second referendum if their wishes are given a fair hearing.  The SNP however have other pressing concerns, as I hinted at in the previous paragraph it’s now possible that the SNP’s stock has fallen to such an extent that they may be displaced from government and that the next occupant of Bute House may well be Ms Davidson.  Compared to Dugdale, Davidson is a shrewd operator who has manoeuvred herself into the premier protector of ‘the Union’.  She certainly hasn’t made silly mistakes like Dugdale has (though the footage of her ‘advocating’ tactically voting Tory to kick out the SNP shows no such thing and seems like a desperate attempt by pro-Indy supporters to smear Dugdale and Scottish Labour).  Davidson, unlike Sturgeon (or for that matter Dugdale) has prominent media support.  We can be certain that the Daily Mail and it’s columnist who used to work for STV will be Davidson cheerleaders from now until May 2020.

If the SNP were to decide to park ‘Indyref2’, then this provides them with the ideal opportunity to freshen up their domestic policies and to regain some much needed grip on the job of government.  The reason why 12% of SNP voters from 2015 switched to Labour would be because of the SNP’s performance in Holyrood and a discernible switch to the right from the SNP since Sturgeon became First Minister.  It is true that the SNP have been the standard bearers of Social Democratic policies over the past 10 years.  However that was in the first two terms of the SNP in government.  Last year the SNP ran on an uninspiring ticket promising to do better.  There was no radical vision or legacy style policy within that manifesto, instead we have seen Sturgeon promise not to raise taxes (granted the powers under Calman does not give Holyrood the power to change separate tax bands, tax rises are across the board, however Sturgeon shut down the debate on public financing), to continue the Salmond policy of advocating a lowering of business taxes – for example Corporation Tax and APT Duty – and to u-turn on the SNP pledge from 2007 to scrap the “unfair” Council Tax.  Is it any wonder then that when a genuine left winger, like Corbyn, comes along that the MacNew Labour project that is the current SNP looks...  well... like MacNew Labour.

Alongside the lacklustre manifesto, the SNP’s big mistake at the General Election was to not promote their MP’s in the media. Instead we saw a campaign headed up by and with the public face of Nicola Sturgeon.  Rather than talk about what SNP MP’s did at Westminster and the fine work that they do, the First Minister inserted herself into a campaign...  and invited the narrative of her government’s issues to become an election issue.  Whatever you think of Angus Robertson (and I think he’s a good debater with the flaw of veering into Paddy Ashdown style piousness, though he’s not the worst in his own party) he really should have been much more prominent than he was.  His appearance at the BBC debate was too little, too late.

The SNP may have won the election here in Scotland, but it was a much more pyrrhic victory than May’s Conservatives bigger ‘victory’.  Instead of the serene march to a second referendum, there are now questions about the SNP’s direction of travel and about the political nous of the First Minister. Instead of a party with one unified vision, there is now debate. Whether it’s MacMillan’s night of the long knives followed by his own resignation, Thatcher’s obsession with reforming local authority financing and growing Euroscepticism or the chickens coming home to roost for both Blair & Brown.  Third terms are quite often the most difficult of the lot.  Unless the SNP make changes, then the curse of the third term could harm them too.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

The Red Shoots Of Recovery

For a change of tack, I thought it would be good to hear about the recent General Election from an insiders point of view.  So first up, we have a guest post from Lauren Gilmour from Scottish Labour.

Lauren is a Labour Party member and activist, and exiled Buddie living in Glasgow, who has a degree in Politics from UWS.  Lauren's post is about how Labour can kickstart it's recovery in Scotland.

What a difference two years make… 

We didn’t see that one coming. Even as the exit polls, proven to be very wrong at the last election, came in predicting a hung parliament, we didn’t see it coming.

We’ll be taking a look more closely at the campaign Labour ran in the general election both across the country, in Scotland and in the West of Scotland.

It wasn’t always going to be this way. Labour went into this campaign with dismal poll ratings of 25%. They were predicted to fall under 200 seats in an election loss similar to 1931. But Corbyn had a trick up his sleeve – to run the general campaign in the same, positive, upbeat way he ran his two previous leadership election campaigns, which both delivered stonking victories.

Gradually this worked. We saw Corbyn in his element – proposing not opposing. Ironically, Corbyn’s campaign events attracted more and more media attention as they grew due to a focus on the broadcast media, rather than the print media. Journalists who would push a pro-Labour line were also identified in a strategy similar to Tony Blair’s 1997 strategy.

In contrast, Theresa May’s campaign was limited to the reluctant party faithful and very sympathetic journalists who did little to challenge her. Labour election rallies were open to whoever wanted to go. Corbyn grew more and more comfortable, speaking and rallying the crowds. He moved from speaking behind a podium to being able to make off the cuff speeches with just a small black notebook to prompt him. The internet meme machine was also in full force during the election, while they weren’t alone in delivering a good result, they certainly helped to mobilise the youth vote – thought to be around 70%. The youth vote was also responsible for winning in places like Canterbury who have had a Tory MP since 1918. There were some truly historic victories during the evening of the 8th of June.

In Scotland, there was a noticeable shift in attitude towards the Labour Party. Lets face it, things couldn’t have gotten any worse after the 2015 election humiliation and finishing third behind the Tories in last year’s Scottish parliament elections. Scottish Labour was buoyed by a Corbyn boost, he appeared three times in Scotland during the six week campaign culminating in an early morning, pre-work rally the day before the general election. In 2015, Labour activists were subjected to things like being chased with chainsaws and having election events picketed by extreme nationalist fringe groups. Towns and cities were plastered with stickers saying “red tories out” and doors were slammed in faces.

Now on the doors, people were willing to listen to what we had to say and even switch from the SNP back to Labour because the SNP had been largely absent. The Labour campaign was more visible in a lot of areas and as a result, the SNP vote fractured. SNP voters either did not turn out, voted Labour or Tory.

The biggest surprise of the night was Labour winning six seats back from the SNP in addition to their now safe seat of Edinburgh South. The mood within the party was that we would be having a good night if we managed to retain Edinburgh South and win an additional seat. Some unfortunately missed out like Angela Feeney in Motherwell and Wishaw and Matt Kerr in Glasgow South West who lost by just 60 votes.

Whilst Labour exceeded expectations, there is now a feeling that we could have done better. Scottish Labour’s vote share went down in areas which until 2015, were Labour heartlands including Renfrewshire and Ayrshire. In Paisley and Renfrewshire North the Conservative vote went up by 15.3% and in it’s southern neighbour, the share of the vote went up by 11.8%. Labour in North Ayrshire were knocked into third place by the Tories.

This is in contrast to other deindustrialised areas in Scotland such as Midlothian, East Lothian and Fife who all returned Labour MPs. The experience being on the doors in these areas matched the results at the ballot box. In Midlothian the response was very positive for Labour, but in Ayrshire, not so much.

In east coast former mining areas and in Lanarkshire there is more of an industrial legacy that binds working class people together in a way that it no longer does in the West of Scotland. Particularly in Paisley and Renfrewshire – many of those who worked in the mills here have now passed on and the experiences of mill workers in Paisley exists only in the heads of those with parents or grandparents who worked there. For many in the Lothians and in Lanarkshire it is still a first hand memory.

We also have to recognise that there is more of a tradition of protestant loyalist unionism in the West of Scotland. Where these people used to vote Labour in the knowledge that the union would be safe, they now feel that the Conservative Party are best placed to preserve the union, ironically.

Seats like Inverclyde came within a whisker of going Labour once again and Paisley could once again be winnable. When we look at the campaigns run by Labour candidates in Paisley and Renfrewshire, Inverclyde and East Renfrewshire, they have a very overtly pro-union message primarily. Jobs and the economy come secondary to the union.

What lessons should Scottish Labour learn from this?

We don't have to spend lots of money to deliver victories – resources and money were pumped into East Renfrewshire to buoy Blair McDougall. Sadly, this did nothing to boost Mr McDougall's chances. Conversely, in Glasgow North East, Paul Sweeney's campaign was delivered on a shoestring budget and he won.

Indyref 2 is well and truly off the agenda now. It would serve Scottish Labour well to put it on a back burner, too. It's time for Scottish Labour to be more ambitious and aim for the SNP vote. Supporting the union is not and never was the raison dĂȘtre of the Labour Party.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

331* Days Of May

The tagline for many a left wing and Scottish Nationalist campaign against the Conservatives was “Let June be the end of May”.  While that didn’t quite happen on the 331st day in Downing Street for Theresa May, it’s a day that will be coming thanks to events from 7am last Thursday onwards.

May at her Maidstone count on the morning of 9 June 2017.
Yes, that is one of the candidates behind her.
A lot has been written about how dreadful the Tory campaign was, and how it was driven by a left hand of May’s advisors and a right hand of Australian campaign co-ordinator Lynton Crosby.  I suspect an awful lot more will come out, once May leaves the stage.  However, I wonder if May herself contributed to her downfall.  While we may dislike the slimey failed PR guru that was Cameron, at least he did not hide away to the extent that May did during the campaign.

One other thing strikes me with hindsight about the Tory campaign, the utter arrogance of it all.  Whether it was the thought that they could go into the campaign with undercooked ideas, that refusal to engage with normal voters or even the thought process which led to May subverting the Fixed Terms Act (2011), it all feels like a party where complacency had smashed in the front door and taken over their house.  If not complacency, then perhaps a curse?  Certainly every campaign slogan thought up by Crosby has rebounded in grand style on the Tories.  “Strong & Stable” lasted as long as it took for the so called Dementia Tax to unravel, while the attack line on Corbyn’s alleged IRA links were countered online by May’s own links to the Daesh funding Saudi Arabian regime, whom May signed a trade deal with several months ago.  Now that May is seeking a confidence & supply agreement with a party with it’s own terrorist links, as well as having views that even Daesh might consider backward, then this pretty much immunises Corbyn from further attacks along the IRA line.

The question though is where do the Tories go from here.  At this moment, I suspect that it’s not that hopeless for them.  I don’t think it’s a given that the government will collapse in a couple of months and we could be back at the polling stations again before the leaves turn yellow.  For one thing the Tories are the great survivors of UK politics, having adapted to so many conditions to be the natural party of government for pretty much all of the 20th Century.  For another for all of the outstanding praise levelled at Corbyn & Co, the Tories did end up the largest party on Friday falling 8 seats short.  It’s a situation which will need managing, but is not without precedent.  Even through a four or five year spell.

Most recently, we have seen the SNP, under Alex Salmond wheel & deal their way through their first term.  Many thought that they’d crumble, including Scottish Labour who thought that if the SNP didn’t self destruct then they’d win the following election.  Well, that was before their leader went for a sandwich.  Before that though was the years when Labour were in office with knife edge majorities and having to cobble together deals to stay in office.  Who knew that it would be May bringing back the 1970’s.

Callaghan leaves No 10 for the last time, May 4 1979
In the aftermath of the October 1974 election, Labour emerged with a majority of 3 seats.  That majority soon disappeared, with Labour soon seeking and getting a ‘confidence & supply’ deal with the Liberals.  When that collapsed the Labour government existed on a day to day basis.  It was the years of long days and late nights voting which partly feeds into Scottish Labour’s visceral hatred of the SNP, their “betrayal” over the events when it all came crashing down.  On Wednesday 28th March 1979.

Those two examples show that it’s possible for the Tories to cling on and survive.  For May, things will be different.  I suspect that if the men in grey suits don’t pay May a visit during the summer, then it will be during the October party conference.  I don’t expect her to lead the Tories into next year’s English Local election campaign.  As for how long the Tories cling on for, I suspect we’ll be going to the polls again next Autumn.  And it won’t be for Indyref 2.

* - 331 days, not out, in office on 9 June 2017