Monday, 13 November 2017

The Day Today

When someone becomes an ex-leader, there are normally two ways things can go. There is the back seat driver route, favoured by Thatcher and Blair. Most leaders though tend to follow the line unwittingly defined by John Major when he left Downing Street for the last time as PM in May 1997. “When the curtain falls it is best to leave the stage”.

There is, of course, now the third way, the way which Alex Salmond is now pioneering which rejects the concept of the ‘elder statesman’.

We have seen Mr Salmond again in the news this week, having signed up to produce and front a political chat show for the notorious (in UK media circles anyway) news ‘organisation’ Russia Today. For some people this has not gone down very well. By all accounts, the First Minister herself is not said to be happy about this. The critics do have a point.

Of sorts.

For someone who professes to be a democrat and to wish to uphold democratic values, it is not a good look to be providing content for a news organisation whose reputation is of essentially a 21st century Pravda. The charge against Russia Today is that they are essentially the mouthpiece of Putin and his government. While it is true that Salmond’s moves are disdainful, the phrase about glasshouses and stones comes to mind. Various Westminster MP’s have appeared on Russia Today as talking heads, most recently the ‘Sage of Twickenham’ Vince Cable. If Russia Today was that bad, shouldn’t they have declined their invites? Similarly there is little mention of Jeremy Corbyn’s appearances on various middle eastern news channels (he apparently has a slot on Iranian news).

Any mention of news channels dressing up fake news brings to mind another news channel, one rarely mentioned either by critics of Russia Today or by supporters of Salmond (who see this as another excuse to indulge in the tiresome sport of BBC bashing). Fox News before it was pulled from our screens by its parent company was recently charged with two counts of biased reporting. With this in mind, and the fact that Fox was the network that claimed that Birmingham was ‘a no go area for non-Muslims’, then you do wonder where the (equally deserved) brickbats are for regular UK based Fox contributors and general Trump/TEA Party sympathisers like the MEP’s Daniel Hannan and, err... Nigel Farage.

The thing that most people commenting on Salmond’s career turn have missed is that Alex Salmond doesn’t really care what people think. I’m not sure he wants to be that kind of elder statesman like (god preserve us) Paddy Ashdown or John Major. Certainly Salmond’s ego would never ever allow him to all but disappear from public view like his predecessors in Bute House, Jack McConnell and Henry McLeish, have done (save from the occasional appearance). Salmond, for better or for worse, still thinks he has an active part to play in the discourse of this country. It explains his behaviour relating to accepting the offer to provide content to Russia Today (an outlet substantially more ‘favourable’ to the concept of Scottish Independence than any UK based broadcaster) and it explains his bid to be put onto the board of Johnston Press, the owners of the Edinburgh newspaper ‘The Scotsman’.

If Salmond genuinely wanted to be a grandee in the style of Winnie Ewing, then his reputation as a serious figure in that mould would have been damaged long before this episode with Russia Today. Granted, he became an MP again after sparking a feud with Nick Robinson at the end of the Independence Referendum campaign and by continuing to play the BBC Bias card (whereas in truth, the real instance of BBC bias has been against Corbyn and his Momentum acolytes, it is a lot more blatant than any perceived ‘anti-SNP’ bias).

I think that the moment that guaranteed that Salmond’s career as a serious political figure was over was the series of shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. Serious political figures do not diminish themselves and turn themselves into vaudevillian entertainers. And serious political figures do not make bad, vaguely sexist, jokes that even Bruce Forsyth would have baulked at making. Yet Salmond seems not to have learned the lessons of history by pressing ahead with his no holds barred show. The only other leader to have tried a career in television after leaving office was Harold Wilson, who had a very short stint hosting “Friday Night, Saturday Morning” in the autumn of 1979. From the clips I’d seen (I think when BBC 2 did it’s TV Hell night in the mid 90’s) it wasn’t that great and also showed us the first visible sign of Wilson’s Alzheimer’s.

Wilson’s reputation took a knock, but partly due to us better understanding Alzheimer’s now, and partly because of a general reappraisal of Wilson’s time in Downing Street (if you’ve seen Steve Richard’s “Leadership Reflections” monologues – which I reference when talking about the political space to hold Indyref 2 – then the Wilson programme is fascinating in that respect) his reputation is recovering. Unlike Wilson, Salmond commands respect across his party. His issue is that he is seen as a divisive figure across the political spectrum. His deft handling of the first administration is all but forgotten.

The assumption across the mac-commentariat was that Salmond would retire and become some sort of avuncular elder statesman figure. Think a Scottish Tony Benn. If that was the case, they’ve underestimated Salmond’s ego and its capacity to override any political pragmatism he may have by showing a liking for growing older disgracefully.  Alongside the shows, the chatshow is a vehicle for Salmond's ego in the face of unfinished business, nothing more.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Waiting For Momentum

Nothing perhaps tells us more about the reduced circumstances of ‘Scottish’ Labour than the fact that the current leadership election is firmly background noise to other, bigger issues which are dominating the news. With sex-pestery dominating the headlines (and please please, can we not call it sleaze even if it’s called that with more justification here than during the 1990’s) this is an election battle coming to a conclusion in the next week or so.

As I’d pinpointed when Dugdale resigned, the favourite is Labour’s current health spokesman Anas Sarwar. There was a point in September when his campaign looked terminally holed under the line when revelations surfaced about the family business he held shares in. In short, a millionaire owner of a business which did not pay its workers the minimum wage was not a good look for a prospective leader of a party committed to workers rights and a equalitarian agenda. Alongside the question of sending his children to a fee paying school – a question which dogged Blair in his early days as Labour leader and it also led to Harman leaving the shadow cabinet – this painted Sarwar’s campaign as a doomed campaign.

There is also the suspicion that there are also people who have signed up to become members to just vote for Sarwar, with the insinuation that these are Scots-Asians who are influenced by the Sarwar’s standing in their own community. It’s not as if there are people signing up just to vote for Leonard, are there... err...

As it happens Sarwar’s campaign has been far from doomed. In the television debates between the two men, Sarwar has bested Leonard in all of them. He has put his ideas across very well and in one of the debates went on the attack over Leonard’s (perceived) non-commitment to keep Scotland in the single market. In sharp contrast, the supposed ‘Corbynista’ candidate, Richard Leonard, has looked leaden footed and rather slow witted. The only really difference between the two candidates is essentially how both have performed, and that in itself is somewhat disappointing.

Part of the reason for the similarity in the two is Sarwar’s adoption of Corbyn style taxation policies – he promises to put taxes up for the wealthy whilst cutting it for low paid workers. There are parts of this which is appealing and worthy of debate. It has also provoked the response from the SNP that they are the true progressive party of Scotland (any response should make the point that they refused to be this radical when they had the opportunity to be so in 2016, therefore the SNP’s rediscovery of a revolutionary zeal should be seen with the timid & conservative 2016 manifesto in mind). The other SNP announcement is to... err... preannounce an intention to have a debate on taxation with the SNP minded to put taxes up.

The other reason is that I’d suspect, as I pointed out earlier when Dugdale resigned, that the timing of Dugdale’s departure unintentionally hindered the pro-Momentum branch of Scottish Labour. If there was a plot to oust Dugdale, I’d suspect that they were not ready or prepared for a leadership battle this autumn. If they were, we wouldn’t have seen so much focus on tax policy, which brings me to my point.

Given that both Sarwar and Leonard have focused so much on tax increases, there is shockingly little thought on why taxes need to go up. Two years ago, when I responded to Chris Deering’s “Scotland Has Gone Mad” piece, I made the point that both the SNP & Scottish Labour had retreated towards a lazy form of Social Democracy where indiscriminate tax rises are somehow seen as “Socialist”. As if to prove my point, Dugdale’s flagship policy at last years Holyrood election was a rise in taxes because “it was the progressive thing to do”. Sadly both Sarwar and Leonard have fallen straight into this trap.

That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be a debate about taxation, especially with those new taxation toys that are Holyrood bound. There is a gaping hole here though, public service reforms. The sort of reforms that it now looks like the SNP is not interested in making, eschewing that for the prize of Independence. It’s a pity as I suspect that their timidity quite possibly cost them votes in 2016. From Scottish Labour’s point of view, the reforms they should be thinking big about are schools and the NHS.

Schools, because the Curriculum for Excellence does not look like it is working. Michael Russell’s reforms is still proving cumbersome for teachers to facilitate properly while there have been several reports highlighting the falling standards of Scottish education. While with Health there are the failures to reach targets. Locally though there are concerns about the management at the arms length Greater Glasgow Health Board and their high profile decision to close the Children’s ward at Paisley’s Royal Alexandria Hospital. The truth is though that this proposal is the tip of the iceberg as far as GGHB’s management of the RAH has been concerned. There have been a number of services that have been downgraded at the RAH, some of them have been down to the new Southern General hospital in Glasgow’s south-side being given preferential treatment for services.

If the SNP have botched reform of Education, then this is ripe to be put right. Health is also ripe for reform. It is here where there should be a focus not in pouring resources indiscriminately in but on a SWOT analysis of what needs fixing and how it can be fixed. Given that any time I’ve been in the RAH the frontline staff have been nothing other than excellent, I’d start with management and Health Board structures. Democratise the health boards, cut back on representation from the ‘professional board member’ classes and in the ranks of NHS managers and go from there.

It is not just in the promised radical policies that we are still waiting for Momentum, but in the kind of firebrand leadership needed to facilitate those policies and that kind of politics. Instead the candidate of the left in this election is not unlike Corbyn himself, okay at speeches but with question marks over his abilities as a leader. Sarwar might be continuity Dugdale – with all the baggage over Independence and a closeness to the pro-Blair Progress that these bring – but in spite of the disastrous start to his campaign he still looks like the marginal favourite to win. Just.