Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Most Dangerous Phrase in UK Politics

You know that there are phrases which reveal something about a persons thinking – a laziness even when some sort of conventional wisdom is dispensed by several commentators at the one time. However since the election, we’ve seen a response to that result which can be summed up in one phrase. It’s a phrase that can be justified as being the most dangerous phrase in UK politics at this moment.

One more push.

It’s a phrase that Labour leftists and Corbynistas have used in their conversations about what to do next. That is that all that Labour need to do is to make one more push and Corbyn will be the next (or next but one if the Tories change leader before the next Election) occupant of Downing Street. It is tempting to see UK politics through that particular prism, as notably Rebecca Long-Bailey (pictured left, with Corbyn & McDonnell) did at the weekend. It would also be an incorrect and potentially damaging prospectus.

Here in Scotland, we have seen the damage that such a complacent view can do. I barely need to remind you of the outcome of the Independence referendum of September 2014. Rather than see the outcome of a loss by 10.6% as simply a defeat, supporters of Independence... indeed the SNP hierarchy as a whole saw the result and the gains made as a reason to carry on with their arguments. The logic here is that if the arguments stacked up for 44 odd % of the country then all that’s needed is to keep with those arguments.

Of course things haven’t quite worked out that way. The SNP’s refusal to look at the defeat in 2014 to see what lessons can be learned smacks of arrogance. The thing that looks to have done for Independence though (at least in the short to medium term anyway) has been the SNP’s continued bad handling of EU relations. In rushing to put Independence on to a virtual table in the aftermath of the EU referendum, the SNP hierarchy may have been listening to what their supporters within the social media bubble had been saying, but out in the real world it was a move which looks with each passing day like a catastrophic tactical blunder.

Labour, on the other hand, are in a slightly different place from the SNP and Yes Scotland. For one thing, their loss could not be attributed to issues with policy, the performance of their leader or the economy. The thing that very likely cost them votes in June would be the 18 month civil war within Labour between the party’s left wing and it’s pro-Blair Progress group. At a Progress fringe meeting, the right wing Scottish Labour spokesperson Jackie Baillie made the point that “We lost the general election against the most shambolic Tory campaign I’ve ever seen – we can’t get away from that” without acknowledging the role that Progress minded MP’s played in undermining the public perception of their leader. Or for that matter the shambolic Scottish Labour election campaign which completely ignored Corbyn’s policies in favour of promoting, to borrow a phrase, ‘local champions’ and for trying to out Tory the Tories on the constitution. It is therefore somewhat dispiriting to see both candidates for Scottish Labour leader make this mistake. Again.

If the momentum (ho ho!) is with Labour, then that does not make them automatic shoo-ins at the next election. For one thing there are policy area’s that need tightened up. I’m not certain that O’Donnell’s grasp of the economy is as tight as it needs to be. I think Labour’s Brexit strategy has the look of being cobbled together by committee and should be a much sturdier compromise between retaining trade links, protecting freedom of movement and ensuring we leave the EU and it’s centralising undemocratic tendencies. I also think Diane Abbott needs to step up to the plate a bit more and show us all that she is a capable Home Secretary in waiting.

There is one policy area where there is a lot of work needing to be done – Scotland. It was Labour politicians (Progress wingers mind, but still...) who thwarted attempts by the SNP to fully devolve Benefits to Holyrood during the Smith Commission negotiations and it was Progress wing Labour MP’s who voted down SNP amendments during the resulting Scotland Act’s passage through the HOC. For Corbyn to say that Holyrood has all the powers that the SNP asked for is an out and out lie.

There are criticisms that can be made of the SNP government, their timid policymaking, their lack of grip in the act of government and their fiscal conservatism – Sturgeon may talk the talk but so far she’s not walking the walk. Instead the criticisms that Scottish Labour and Corbyn are making are as the SNP as facilitators of Tory austerity. This is an argument that does not stand up to scrutiny.

Why Labour are attacking the SNP lies with the results of June’s election and the SNP’s own collapse, which itself handed Scottish Labour a way back. Of the 64 seats Labour need to win, 18 are SNP held. Seven of those seats are highly vulnerable, with swings needed of under 1% to take those super marginal’s. My own MP, Mhari Black, is vulnerable at a swing of just over 3% while the winning line, the seat that would (if Labour take all the other 63 seats) put Corbyn into Downing Street would be Lisa Cameron’s East Kilbride, Strathaven & Lesmahagow seat. The swing needed for that to happen is the entirely achievable 3.5% (in sharp contrast, the Tories need 8 seats, and a swing of 0.25% to regain a working majority). It is why Labour need to frankly get better arguments and why the right candidate in the current leadership election for Scottish Labour needs to emerge and why it is now time for Scottish Labour to stop obsessing about an event (Indyref 2) that will not be happening any time soon. Scottish Labour’s leadership election is subject I will be returning to.

Momentum & Corbynism is a by-product of the collapse of The Third Way. However as the example of the last “mass movement” of UK politics showed, a failure is still a failure and issues will need to be re-examined and adjustments made. If the Tories are not to get away with their mismanagement then Labour simply cannot afford to make the same mistake that the “Yes” movement and the SNP made and carry on in the mistaken belief that ‘one more push’ will see ‘us’ over the line.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The Party Who’s Moment Has Passed

18th... 19th September. I’m sure I should be blogging about something, hmmmm.

I’m certainly not going to write about Independence, there is nothing else that can be said at the moment about a movement which seems intent on fighting an unwinnable fight, the Tommy Sheridan tribute parade at the weekend changes precisely nothing. If the SNP think that belittling ‘No’ supporters (hint: A key rule in politics is to not belittle potential voters, even if you disagree with their decision the last time) and that 62% of Scots voted to sign up to Jean Claude Junker’s vision of a United States of Europe 15 months ago will lead to an Independent Scotland, then they’re seriously up faeces valley.

Instead of that, or Wales (because I’m not Welsh so don’t really have a viable perspective on their assembly referendum 20 years ago) I’m going to talk about this small party on the brink of political oblivion. It’s the Lib Dem’s conference this week and while it feels like a lifetime ago, it was only two and a bit years ago they were in government. They did have a small but modest recovery in June’s election with a net gain of four seats from 2015. Their problem though is that their moment has now gone and that they don’t really know where to go next.

In the 90’s under Ashdown they presented themselves as a liberal centre ground party, but that was before Blair & New Labour came along and defined ‘Centraism’ in a post Thatcherite political landscape. When Charles Kennedy succeeded Ashdown, he pursued a policy of equidistance from both parties. This policy and New Labour’s movement to the right made the Lib Dem’s appear to be the most left wing of all the main parties. There were rumours that this turn of events did not go down well with Ashdown and his friends that were still in the party at the time.

By the time Kennedy was forced out of the Lib Dem leadership, there was an alternative viewpoint to the Kennedy ‘SDP’ line being formulated. These views and ideas coalesced around the so called Orange Book – a book of essays and think pieces advocating a Lib Dem version of Third way neo-liberalism edited by David Laws and featuring pieces by newly elected MP’s Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg. In this respect, a coalition between a Lib Dem party led by an Orange Booker, such as Clegg, and the Blair influenced Cameron & Osborne should have looked like a highly likely prospect in the event of a hung parliament. And so that passed.

The problem for the Lib Dem’s is that thanks to those Orange Bookers, their moment in the sun passed with very little in the way of influence. There are two policies that they can point at with justification as being Lib Dem policies, but they are intrinsically Tory minded policies. The first is the policy of raising the tax threshold at the bottom of the wage structure – cutting taxes being a Conservative aspiration. The other Tory aspiration is the cutting of regulation therefore the reforms to Pension regulations fits nicely into that narrative. Other than that, their reputation is of being doormat’s in the face of Tory attacks on.

Fast forward to the election of 2017 and we see that the Lib Dem’s have a very real problem. Since they lost almost 50 seats in the 2015 election, there has been a cleaving of the political landscape. Labour has hit the reset button – to much resistance from their own Neo-Liberal wing –and are in the process of re-emerging as a party of the left once more. The Tories are also in the process of resetting themselves as a party of the right, with the issue of leadership a piece in their jigsaw still to be placed (among other pieces still in the box). The Lib Dem’s remain as a resolutely pro-EU pro-Centre ground party at a time when both standpoints are not popular.

You would have thought that the Lib Dem’s pledge for a second EU referendum, to ratify the terms of divorce would have proved to be a popular policy given that just under half of the country voted to remain within the EU. Apparently not if the small increases in seats is anything to go by. Indeed, any examination of the seats gained would leave us to wonder what would have happened to the Lib Dem’s if they weren’t the beneficiaries of the SNP’s own poor campaign. As a result, a campaign which saw net gains (but below what was clearly expected) saw the Lib Dem’s force out their own leader within a week of the June election.

Farron’s replacement is the man formally known as the Sage of Twickenham, Vince Cable (above). The man who keeps telling us he saw the financial crash coming, even though those in the know (like for example, my ex) saw it coming as well. It’s just they didn’t have media profile or a natty line in juxtaposing Mr Bean and Stalin within witty repartee. For a politician who is intent in recasting himself as a keeper of the liberal flame, he has a hell of a lot of work to do to rebuild his own reputation. Never mind his party’s fortunes.

As the Business Secretary, he caved in to the Taxpayers Alliance’s campaign to scrap the consumer regulator, Consumer Focus, and sanctioned the scrapping of the act which gave it the statutory powers it had, dumping them on the near charity Citizens Advice Bureau. Cable also sanctioned the across the board slashing of regulations, including building and health & safety regulations. Many on the left and some Lib Dem’s tried to pin the scrapping of regulations which (it is alleged) led to the Grenfell fire on Sajid Javed. In truth it was Cable which sanctioned this.

With both Labour and the Tories looking to reset themselves and so called ‘centralists’ on both sides looking to set up a new party entirely rather than swap parties, the Lib Dem’s look more and more lost and irrelevant. Cable and Willie Rennie’s claims that power for them is around the corner would be laughable if it wasn’t made seriously. Clegg might have taken the Lib Dem’s into power, but as they gather in Bournemouth this week that decision to sup with the devil looks more and more like a turning point in the history of the Liberal Democrats.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Devolution Britain At 20

We seem to be going through a phase at the moment where we are seeing all sorts of nostalgia for 1997. A couple of weeks ago we saw various reminiscences of the most famous drink driving car crash in history, while last week BBC Parliament repeated 1997’s other so called ‘JFK’ moment. Including the moment that has given it’s name to all subsequent high profile electoral casualties at the moment of defeat – the Portillo moment. We have also seen people revisit, thanks to an appearance at Glastonbury in June, Radiohead’s critically acclaimed/criminally overrated (delete where appropriate) album from that year.
Blair, Dewar and McConnell greet pro-devolution supporters in Edinburgh's Parliament
Square, post result: Friday 12 September 1997

One moment that seems to have evaded the nostalgists, except for viewers in Scotland (of course), is the moment where devolution began to be made flesh. Twenty years on from those twin referendum’s it is forgotten how controversial they were. But then again, there is an awful lot that is forgotten about the development of what became the Scottish Parliament.

Labour were of course, late converters to the Devolution cause. Seeing it more as something to stymie the rise in support for the SNP in the aftermath of the two General Elections in 1974, Labour then put together and proposed assemblies in Wales and Scotland. Both were put to their respective electorates in the winter of 1979, but with the campaign taking place among the backdrop of the so called ‘Winter of Discontent’ it’s debatable if the climate was conducive to a positive outcome. As a result the Welsh proposals were dismissed by their electorate. The Scottish assembly won by 51.6% to 48.6%. However thanks to a key intervention by the Islington (Labour) MP George Cunningham who successfully got his motion passed (on of all days, Burns Night 1978) stating that if less than 40% of the electorate voted yes then this ‘Scotland Act’ should be brought back to parliament for repeal. At 63.8% turnout, that 51.6% vote looked more like a third of the Scottish electorate and failed the 40% rule. The ensuing arguments brought about the fall of the Callaghan government within four weeks of the Assembly referendum and a resulting General Election which provided Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives with a 44 seat majority.

As Thatcher’s brand of Friedman/Hayek inspired Monetarism became more and more toxic here in Scotland, devolution gradually came back into fashion. A cross party, cross society, constitutional convention was set up in the late 80’s. The only people who did not contribute was the Scottish Tories, who instantly set their face against devolution, and the SNP, who at that point did not see a roadmap to Independence through devolution. It is strange to remember that the SNP spent most of the 80’s and 90’s disdainfully dismissing devolution. When Labour eventually won, and it became clear that there would be a referendum campaign, the SNP were wise to set aside their misgivings and campaign for a Scottish parliament.

Ah, the referendum. As the late Donald Dewar observed, the Scottish Parliament had become the settled will of the Scottish people by the time Blair had succeeded the late John Smith. It was therefore a shock and a surprise to see that Blair intended to hold twin referendums on both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. As Blair pointed out in his book though, this was a tactic designed to make the passage through parliament easier, not to thwart the desires of the Scottish People – “As the legislation to devolve trundled through Westminster, I knew the only way we could avoid the trap that previous governments had fallen into was to negate the possibility of the legislation being sabotaged by the House of Lords... The tactic was obvious: get the people to say yes, then the lords could not say no.”

At the time though, this tactic went above some people as it became rather controversial and somewhat set the template of Blair’s opinion of us. Being Scottish, going to school here and being brought up here, Blair felt like an alien in his own country, thanks in no small thanks to our own inferiority sensibility, or as he put it our chipiness. The other thought I had at the time was that this was Labour laying to rest some ghosts from 1979. In the event, Blair’s election in the May of 1997 meant that there would be significant changes to the UK constitution and that those twin referendum were now pencilled in for the 11th and the 18th September 1997.

If memory serves, it was all too obvious that we would vote for a Scottish Parliament. There were two areas where there was some doubt. The second question on the ballot paper was on whether the parliament should have tax varying powers. Pre-Indyref and pre-Calman, the original proposals were that the tax raising powers only extended to 3% difference either way. There was doubt over whether this proposal would gain approval from the Scottish electorate. The other doubt being that campaigning was essentially curtailed for a week thanks to the death of Diana in that aforementioned accident. We’ve since had campaigning curtailed by the death of Jo Cox and terrorist incidents in Manchester and London but this was the first time that campaigning was suspended in this way. The worry was whether and how would this impact on voting. In the end we shouldn’t have worried.

Scottish Devolution Referendum, 11 September 1997
Should there be A Scottish Parliament?1,775,045 (74.3%)614,200 (25.7%)
Should the Scottish Parliament have tax varying powers?1,512,889 (63.5%)870,263 (36.5%)
Turnout 60.43%

Now, looking back at that referendum, there are two thoughts that occur. The first is that while we wouldn’t want to get rid of the Scottish Parliament, there is an element of disappointment about the Scottish Parliament as a radical transformative force. Say what you like about Scottish Labour (and I’d generally agree with you) but at least they can point at some sort of legacy. Donald Dewar scrapped Clause 28, in the teeth of vicious opposition from home-grown religious fundamentalists. Henry McLeish brought in Free Care for the Elderly, in the teeth of opposition from his own party. The longest lasting of Labour’s three First Ministers, Jack McConnell brought in the smoking ban. However both Scottish Labour and the SNP have looked to protect and manage public services, but not looked at ways of making them better. Meanwhile the SNP ducked out of reforming local authority financing because, firstly they couldn’t make Local Income Tax work and then lost faith in that policy.

This of course is the frustrating thing about the SNP. Among all of our parties, their values have the highest ambition, national self determination. Yet as we found out during the Independence referendum campaign they didn’t really articulate very well what they would do differently – save for some corporation tax cuts and giving power away to Brussels and to Threadneedle Street. The really interesting and radical policy manoeuvres came from The Common Weal and Radical Independence Groups. Organisations that the SNP hierarchy would only touch with a long stick and the SNP supporting Macblogosphere have recently started to try to discredit. Now that Independence is in the long grass (until it becomes feasible and winnable), the SNP have started to do what they should have been doing two years ago, and kitefly desirable policies. On the one hand it is to be welcomed that there will be new Social Security powers to tackle inequality, free care and childcare will be extended. On the other while record investment is needed in the NHS, surely we should be looking at NHS reform & reorganisation to see if the NHS can be run better. If anything, the running sore which is GGHB’s treatment of the RAH is proof that the NHS is something that needs to be looked at, not treated as a sacred cow.

The people who should be looking back with interest at events 20 years ago are the current occupants of Bute House. As I’ve said previously and in previous posts, Indyref 2 is simply not winnable at this moment. Three years is still fresh in the memory and in most people’s minds nothing has really changed. Yes the First Minister and her supporters talk of material change having taken place last June, in the minds of most voters however this material change has not happened. The second thought that occurs is that the SNP really should be aiming to take inspiration and emulate what the campaign for a Scottish Parliament achieved twenty years ago. Independence as the settled will of the Scottish People, and on those percentage points, should be the target.

How they do that is really for the SNP to decide. Here though it’s worth reiterating some thoughts I’ve had both here and on twitter. It should be a broad campaign, not afraid to make contradictory left wing and right wing arguments. The SNP should not be front and centre of the campaign (James MacKenzie first made this point in the aftermath of the first Independence referendum & it’s something I completely agree with). Some right wing endorsements for Independence might not be a bad thing (is Michael Fry seriously the only right wing person in Scotland who supports Independence?). The arguments (from whichever wing) should be completely and utterly bombproof and in particular the economic argument. Though if there is anything that can be learned from the EU referendum it is that dry economic figures can be trumped (apologies for the use of that phrase) by making the link to people’s real lives. Maybe pro-Independence campaigners could use graphs and charts. After all, it seems to work for Kevin Hague...

More than Blair’s victory and the death of Diana, the twin referendums here and in Wales (followed by the Good Friday agreement) did more to change the UK than those two previous events. It has changed us, I may be disappointed at Holyrood, but that’s the failings of Holyrood politicians. It has also changed England as it has somehow become easier for the London based media to not cover events here with the nadir being McConnell’s win in 2003 garnering very little coverage in the network news. SNP victories seem to gather much more interest (can’t think why...) while coverage of the Independence referendum merely showed how ignorant the London based media were of events here. For as long as we remain within the UK, Holyrood should remain a part of the political architecture of this country and be allowed to evolve and thrive. Any attempts to remove or neuter Holyrood would therefore be akin to playing with fireworks in a garage forecourt. Be warned Teresa May.

Monday, 4 September 2017

No Job For A Novice

In among all of the heartfelt tributes to Dugdale, even from her political enemies, there were two observations missing. It is perhaps true that the leadership was foisted upon the young Dugdale or at the very least she took on the challenge of winning the leadership and then the job itself perhaps reluctantly. This does not excuse however what a poor leader she was and that her stunning inexperience shone at every opportunity.

Attacking Corbyn, ‘SNPBad-ism’, and adopting a hard line Unionist tack in the three elections she was leader all showed a leader not experienced enough to develop her own ideas. With Corbyn, it would have been prudent to have stayed silent on the subject and not claim he was unelectable (or at the very least abstain from doing your political enemies job for them, a task the Progress wingers seemed unable to resist doing when it came to Corbyn). On attacking the SNP, there should (as I pointed out at the time) have been policy ideas designed to ensure the attacks on the SNP were not just for the sake of attacks on the SNP. On the issue of a second Independence referendum, I’m just simply not convinced that there are that many votes on the left in out-Torying the Tories on this policy. It is noticeable however that the surge in votes from the SNP to Labour came when the First Minister herself said that Indyref 2 would not be an issue in that election.

That’s not to say she was poor all of the time, indeed arguably she was a harbinger of Labour’s wider left turn with her call for tax increases during the 2016 Holyrood elections. The problem with that call was that thanks to the evolving devolution settlements, tax increases were across the board and not targeted at higher earners. The policy workaround of a tax rebate fell apart under scrutiny as it was found to be unlawful. This policy was Dugdale’s big missed opportunity, and a missed opportunity for the country as a whole to debate taxation as the resultant campaign played out with the SNP successfully (as it turned out) making the argument that they were standing up for Scottish tax payers.

Mind you, maybe those criticisms are harsh. After all a lot of the left/Labour people I’ve spoken to think warmly towards her. A colleague in work said he wasn’t surprised she’d gone, her best friend had died and she’d had her private life publicised in the newspapers, it was no surprise that this had affected her. It’s somewhat telling that, as someone more leftwing than me, he did say that he rather liked her. With those circumstances in mind and the fact that “Scottish” Labour looks in much better health than it did in the aftermath of the 2015 Election near wipe-out, perhaps those criticisms are harsh. Then we remember that one of the other members of the intake from the 2011 Holyrood elections was another young female politician who also became a party leader and that two posts ago I was talking about as possibly the next first minister. Perhaps it’s better for you dear reader to judge if comparisons between Dugdale and Ruth Davidson are entirely fair.

The second observation missing is that Scottish Labour is, to all intents and purposes, still run by ‘Progress wing’ people. All the talk by London based commentators seems to have missed this in the aftermath of Corbyn’s mini tour of Scottish ‘super-marginal’s’. The (mis) calculation being made being that Corbyn’s visit followed by Dugdale’s departure must mean some sort of putsch. While it is true that there is now a growing ‘Momentum’ presence within Scottish Labour, Dugdale’s resignation has deprived them of the time to get their respective ducks into line. Rather inadvertently, Dugdale has ensured a ‘continuity Progress’ candidate will be her successor.

The hot favourite therefore will be the former Glasgow Central MP and current List MSP and Health spokesperson Anas Sarwar. He was Deputy Leader to Johann Lamont during the Independence referendum campaign, he was one of the people shredded by the SNP’s then Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon during Scotland Tonight’s referendum debates during the 2013/14 period. It remains to be seen if his debating skills have improved. That he will be the next leader probably won’t be in doubt, given he was seen at Corbyn’s rallies pressing the flesh, shoehorned Corbyn’s name into his Sunday Mail piece at every opportunity and may pitch himself as the unity candidate. Whether he should be the next leader is another question entirely.

Apart from being shredded by Alex Salmond’s anointed successor, Sarwar I suspect will simply repeat many of the mistakes of the Dugdale months. The top of that list would be a reaffirming of strident opposition to a second Independence referendum (in spite of the prospect of said referendum disappearing quicker than the EU’s ‘diplomatic face’). Of course, as Sarwar is a key architect of ‘SNPBad’ then we would have that back. I’d suspect that as a Progress winger, some of Dugdale’s well intentioned but doubtless knee jerk left wing policy moves will be for the bin too, which would be an opportunity not taken as the SNP might be quite vulnerable there since they’ve moved to a fiscally right wing position.

So far Sarwar has not declared his candidature. At this moment the only runner and rider in this contest is the party’s economy spokesperson Richard Leonard. One of the 2016 intake at Holyrood, Leonard’s background is from the unions and he is firmly on the left of the party. I must admit that I don’t think I’ve seen him before either on television or heard him on the radio so I can’t really tell if he’d be any good or not. It is however very pleasing that the left will have a dog in this fight.

When Dugdale was elected, I wrote that she was the most inexperienced person to have taken on such a high profile job. That Labour have recovered their position is not something I think you can ascribe as her legacy (indeed Scottish Labour’s vote increase in June was only the second election since 1997 where Labour’s vote went up in Scotland, the other election being 2010). Any legacy I suppose would begin and end with stopping the rot. With the glimpses of sympathies towards Scottish independence and her relationship with an SNP MSP, for the first time the story of a resignation may not just play out into the succession battlefield but what happens next with Ms Dugdale.