Sunday, 31 December 2017

2017: The End of The Third Way

At the start of May this year, many of the Anglo-centric punderati were lauding the rise of the French politician Emanuel Macron, and his election as French President. With very little to zero self awareness, the consensus was that what we needed here in the UK was the emergence of a similar ‘Centrist’ style party and politician. May also saw the twentieth anniversary of, well... the Macron thing happening here. If I’ve pointed out before that the political landscape is now turning against ‘Centraism’ (another new name), Neo-Liberalism or Third Way Politics, then this was the year that this became obvious to... well, even the dumbest of Progress winger.

While the year began as it ended, with Theresa May in Downing Street. That security of tenancy has become weaker with there now a real possibility of a Corbyn or Corbyn minded government entering Downing Street if this government falls apart. The Civil War within the Labour Party between the ‘moderate’ Progress and the ‘hard’ left Momentum is still ongoing, but is not getting the media exposure it was. The difference between then and now is that election.

Before the election was called, I’d felt that May would not go to the country. She had just sent the letter which triggered Article 50, she had a small but working majority. In short, her timetable would not have the time or space to fight an election. When she called the election, a lot of those pundits rushed to predict 100+ seat majorities for May. I didn’t, partly because it didn’t feel like a 100+ majority election, partly because cut and run elections have a history of not going to plan for the party which call them and partly because May was no Thatcher or MacMillan. Having said that, I still thought a comfortable majority for May would be the outcome. However that was before the most disastrous Conservative election campaign in living memory. The true turning point of the election and the year was the unveiling of the so called ‘Death Tax’, and the subsequent u-turn which drove a coach and horses through “Strong and Stable”. It was this which caused the Tories polling to fall.

The other thing which cost them the election was the much, much better than expected Labour campaign. The deliberately ambiguous but politically astute stance on single market membership, the policy on tuition fees and the promotion of workers’ rights all contributed to Labour’s biggest vote since 2001. For all of this though, Labour still lost. The infighting and the high media profile of Progress wing MP’s banging the anti-Corbyn drum is a part of that, but perhaps more exposure should be shone on Scottish Labour and their reticence to campaign on the Corbyn manifesto. That the Corbyn bounce came late to Scotland could explain why the SNP held off Scottish Labour in 7 seats by a margin of under 2%.

Yet, for all that May and the Conservatives have had a bad year, she is still there in Downing Street. Fear of a Corbyn government is only half of the reason, the other half being that there is not one candidate that looks even like a potential Prime Minister in waiting. Rudd looks the most capable, but is a risk thanks to potential questions about financial probity in her past and her majority in her Hastings & Rye seat being 346. Hammond has too many enemies, while Gove & Johnston should be damaged goods. I did think that had she a bad conference, she’d be gone by now. Well, she did... but the party still rallied around her, for the reasons outlined above. I now think that she’ll be safe for the foreseeable future, or at least until the divorce with the EU is finalised.

If there was a climate in this country for ‘Centraist’ politics, both Labour and the Tories would not have vacated the centre ground (and seen electoral dividends in doing so). We wouldn’t have seen the fall we have seen in support for the SNP (which we will come to in a minute). But most of all, we would not be seeing the Lib Dem’s essentially on life support. They may have gained four seats in June, with three of them gains from the SNP, but their vote share dropped again. This is in spite of their policy for a second referendum on the EU, this one on the divorce terms, gaining praise among pro-EU commentators. The problem with that is that the likes of the “Sage of Twickenham” and other pro-EU politicians use the comparison of buying a house rather than that of a divorce.

Cable’s installation as Lib Dem leader following their election disappointment (which saw their previous leader Nick Clegg lose his seat) hinted at Progress level desperation among the Orange Book wing of the Lib Dem’s. What was apparently needed was someone to steady the ship and not make gaffs about homosexuality as Faron did. The problem for the Lib Dem’s though is that people remember the coalition, who felt that a vote for the Lib Dems was not a vote for the Tories.

The SNP’s problem this year is rooted in their desire for a second Independence referendum and the lack of policy formation out with that target. Since the first Independence referendum, they had moved to the right on key issues, notably on taxation. The performance of Scottish public services began to cause concern among SNP ministers, with the Tory charge that the SNP were neglecting “the day job” hitting home. The SNP’s problem wasn’t that they were neglecting the day job as such, but there was not enough ‘grip’ on the day job, hence the issues with Police Scotland, education and the NHS.

The election campaign also highlighted that the First Minister is not actually that astute a political strategist; we saw this in several ways. Sturgeon’s high profile in the campaign, for a campaign where she wasn’t standing, invited questions on her government’s performance to be an election issue rather than highlighting her MP’s and their achievements. While the loss of seats, especially those in the North East, could be attributed to Sturgeon’s tying of Independence to EU membership. Scotland’s North East coast was the most eurosceptic part of Scotland in the EU referendum, with Moray seeing the closest vote with 22 votes in it. Remember, because the SNP seem not to have, that 36% of SNP voters in 2015 also voted to leave the EU.

In the past few months though, the SNP seem to have shown signs of recognising the signs and formulated policies. They are talking about tax rises and investment and a publically owned energy company. They’ve also put talk of so called ‘Indyref 2’ on the back burner. This move is a smart move; however the policy announcements are not. The SNP might recover their political standing in 2018. However, in another example of Sturgeon’s poor political strategy, these policies should have been in the 2016 Holyrood manifesto when the SNP had the political space rather than when the SNP look behind the Corbyn led curve.

As 2018 looms into view then, the big questions then are thus; will May survive (I think she’ll still be in Downing Street this time next year)? Will we have a second Independence referendum (I don’t see that happening, and possibly not in 2019 either)? And will we have a satisfactory divorce from the European Union (Hmmmm)?

Before we find out, may I wish you a happy new year and see you in 2018.

Monday, 11 December 2017

The One About The UK City Of Culture

Thursday, 6:30pm, The Library Bar: It is the day that the next UK City of Culture is announced, with Paisley up against Coventry, Sunderland, Stoke-On-Trent and Swansea for the honour of succeeding Derry/Londonderry and Hull in hosting this event. The Library Bar is filling up with some of Paisley’s finest... well some of those that hadn’t been invited to the big shindig up the road at the UWS.

The past couple of days had seen some tension, but it is now palpable with moments away from the announcement. The announcement is live on television, but there is no speeches congratulating the final five or any ceremony. No the announcement is made on BBC One’s ‘The One Show’, a not very good attempt to recreate the BBC’s ‘magazine’ show from the 70’s and early 80’s, Nationwide. With that comes the feeling that this announcement isn’t exactly the centrepiece of the show... and so it proves.

When the announcement is made, it comes as such an anticlimax that you had to pinch yourself that they’d made it before asking yourself ‘did he just say Coventry’, or if you were out of earshot and caught by surprise (and let’s be honest, The One Show handled the thing like SPOTY handles Scottish Football) ‘what did he say?’. What that anti-climatic feeling did do though was act as a buffer, cushioning the disappointment. When that disappointment came, it was tempered with a sober realisation and didn’t come as crushing. I am of course speaking for myself, and probably quite a few people in that pub. At the UWS shindig and in Hull (where the announcement was made), feelings may have been sharper and the sense of disappointment more immediate and raw.

Of course, congratulations should be given to Coventry. Like Paisley, an area struggling to re-define itself in the age of Globalisation with a cultural heritage. The birthplace of Phillip Larkin, Lee Child and the home of Two Tone records – the first successful ‘Indie’ record label (even if distribution was, I think, done through Chrysalis) and conversely the first ‘Indie’ number ones (The Special’s “To Much Too Young” in February 1980, followed by the iconic “Ghost Town” 15 months later). It is a city which is as deserving of the award as we would have been.

Paisley 2021's Jean Cameron hands over the final City of Culture bid
document, 29 September 2017

Sunday, 9pm: On the Thursday night, I had put up a post on social media, congratulating Coventry but also paying tribute to the Paisley 2021 team and also saying that a lot of the things happening in Paisley (the plans for the “Baker Street” cultural quarter, the Spree, the Mod) were all things happening independently of the bid – these were not things contingent on the success of the bid. With 72 hours hindsight, there’s nothing which has changed that view. If anything, the mindset that is now showing is the mindset of it being a setback but not the end of the world. That mindset can only be commended.

The only thing which is bothering me is the question at the root of Thursday night. Why did we lose? In what way was Coventry’s bid superior to our bid? Did they have a better bid, or did we do something to lose it? Or were we the victim of outside forces? Like with UK cities now being expelled from bidding for the European Capital of Culture, did our bid fall foul of the power play between the governments in Westminster and Holyrood?

My own view, as someone with zero experience of bidding for arts & cultural events, is that this was a bid that was not lost by us. The bid team, led by the effervescent Jean Cameron, have created a buzz around a town that not that long ago was a backwater and a joke. I remember vividly my former partner bemoaning the fact that there was nothing in Paisley and that it was dying on its backside, so remembering Paisley at a low point is relatively recent history.

It may have been Derek MacKay who bid (successfully) to bring the MOD to Paisley and it may have been his (Labour) successor Mark McMillan who sanctioned the setting up of the inaugural Spree festival (which ran concurrently with that MOD in October 2013). It was certainly under McMillan that Renfrewshire Council decided to bid forthe City of Culture. Both figures are people who I have criticised on these pages in the past. But here, they deserve praise as both the MOD and the Spree can with some justification be seen as the starting point of Paisley’s comeback.

However, returning to the bid. To my untrained eye, I don’t think there’s very much else the bid could have done. From the art installation ‘Pride of lions’ to the dispatch of the final bid there has been a gently choreographed building of a buzz around the bid. Yet whilst the things happening in Paisley were independent of the bid and it’s success, they were stimulated by the bid. I am sure that in the fullness of time the DCMS team tasked with making this decision will explain their decision, I do hope they do.

In the meantime, plans are rightly continuing within Paisley with new events and plans being announced on Twitter alongside the hash-tag #ourjourneycontinues. For all that Thursday was a disappointment, that Paisley, City of Culture has a ring to it and that the Paisley 2021 bid team deserve every bit of credit going their way. It only represents the end of the first chapter in Paisley’s revitalisation, nothing more.