Sunday, 23 November 2014

Some poetry

The poets were at it again yesterday in the cause of Scotland. No-one obviously could compete with the achievement reached in such masterworks as Alan Bissett's "Peoples Vow" which in striking metaphor and pathos can only really stand test beside the likes of Paradise Lost.

I link to it here in acknowledgement of the scope of its achievement.
I urge you to watch it. No really I do. Just don't do it with a full bladder.

But I like a bit of poetry myself so I was delighted to come across the newly published poem below by a little known Scottish Poet. It is my great pleasure to give it wider currency. And it Rhymes.

by Bobby Northey

It was an Autumn evening
Wee Shuggie's work was done,
And he, his feet up on the couch,
Was reading that day's Sun
When he was disturbed by the strains
Of crying coming from his weans.

He joined them in the other room
To see what was afoot,
"It's Jimmy" said his elder sprog,
"His toe banged that big book".
For engaged in some childish caper
The boy had tripped....... on a White Paper

And looking down upon the tome
A tear came to Shug's eye,
And through the dust that layer'd it now,
He felt years past flash by,
"It was that very book" mused he
"Caused lots to join the SNP."

"And what was that?" the weans inquired
With little comprehension,
"It was a really curious thing"
Said Shug, pleased for attention,
"There was a time that lots you see
All rushed to join the SNP."

"But why and when and where was this?"
The children asked wide eyed,
"It was a long long time ago"
A wiser Shug replied
"Before you ask, I now know not
Why quite so many lost the plot".

"Their leader then was Black Bitch Eck,
His deputy from Govan,
For quite some time they fooled the mob
They knew the route to heaven,
And though they lost quite heavily
Still, many joined the SNP"

"They sometime claimed their movement then
Was something really new,
They claimed a great awakening
And in fairness woke a few,
But, on reflection, lots and lots
Were just the same old loud mouthed Trots."

Though Eck had failed, they each avowed,
"Where Nicola leads then I go",
And Eddie Reader sang them songs
As they gathered in the Hydro
So it was plain for all to see
That lots had joined the SNP."

"They sang, they danced, they heard wee poems
They lauded Alan Bissett
And all the time ignored the fact
They'd had their chance and missed it,
For ev'n the hated BBC
Said lots had joined the SNP"

"It was a time of dreams back then,
Though few could comprehend them,
But when the dreaming had died down
They'd still lost the referendum,
But it was all alright you see
For lots had joined the SNP"

"And everybody praised Great Eck
Who this great fight did lose,
"But what good came of it at last?"
Inquired Shug's infant two.
"Why that I cannot tell" said he
"But lots had joined the SNP"

Sunday, 16 November 2014


I am sure I was not alone in anticipating the first SNP Conference after the referendum with some relish. After all, a fair section of the fundamentalist wing of the Party had spent most of the campaign predicting that Salmond's wishy washy version of Independence would unravel in the full glare of public exposure and lead to electoral disaster and, jings, that was exactly what had happened.

Independence was off the agenda for at least a generation and indeed, if you thought about it for five minutes,  it was now less than clear what the SNP's purpose in life now exactly was? Was it as a technocratic career structure to the limited levers of power in a devolved Scotland? Was it indeed, and instead, as a vehicle to secure the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism? Could a movement only now really united by gripe and grievance really sell that long term to anyone but the wildest anglophobe?

All of this being addressed in public view boded rich entertainment for the well disposed spectator and even richer fare for those less charitably inclined.

And yet it never happened. The Nats have come and gone from Perth leaving behind not the slightest splatter of blood on the walls of that fair city's conference centre. How was this possibly achieved, I hear you ask? How did they achieve such unanimity in the aftermath of an epochal defeat?

It was easy, they pretended it hadn't happened.

So, in a brilliantly choreographed (reduced) two day event their disgraced and departed leader left the stage without so much as a polite mention of the reasons for his going. Their new leader then inherited the throne and announced that she was confident Scotland would one day be independent. No-one was rude enough to point out that Scotland had had the chance to achieve just that state a mere six weeks past and, despite campaigning in the most fortuitous of circumstance, the nationalists had singularly failed to convince the majority of the population of the merits of that course of action.

Why they had lost was not discussed at all and indeed it wasn't even clear that they all accepted that they had lost. Jim Sillars went so far as to assert they had [only] lost arithmetically! It was as if they expected Eck one day to imitate that member of the other famous Ewing Family,  Bobby, and step out of the shower to announce that the horrific events of 18th and 19th September had all just been a dream. Except, of course, Eck had gone for some reason. It was Nicola now...................but she was just as good. She'd soon have another referendum..... or something. Anyway, here are two men in kilts and with bagpipes to lead us all in Scots wha hae.

And that was it.

Insofar as there was a a way forward it appeared to consist of trying to win as many seats as possible at the 2015 UK General Election. In the light of which putative achievement "Westminster" had better listen or........something.......... will happen. Not entirely clear what but it's early days. What it certainly won't be is support for a Tory Government. Most certainly not! Only a Labour Government would ever get the support of the Nationalists. Although we in this hall are all agreed Labour and the Tories are just the same anyway. Which does rather make you wonder why we would support a government formed by either of them? Their supporters all hate Scotland, particularly the Scottish ones. Although I suppose, when you think about it, in an essentially binary Party system, failure to support a Labour Government would look, to the uninitiated, awfully like support for a Tory Government? Ach well, Christmas is coming, I vote for a bit of early Turkey!

And so the delegates went on their way and my own televisual viewing shifted from the Perth Conference hall to watching Slovenia qualify as the most recent nation to prove a disappointment to Scotland.

But, later yesterday evening, @andimecbandi expressed a desire herself for an early festive experience and we stumbled upon Ms Sandra Bullock in While you were Sleeping buried away in our movies on demand.. I like a good romantic comedy and am a great admirer of Ms Ms Bullock's oeuvre. 

But as I watched the action unfold I realised what the SNP Conference had reminded me of and it was one of Ms Bullock's other films: Speed.

You will recollect the storyline. A bomb is planted on a bus and is primed to explode should the bus's speed drop below a certain velocity. For reasons I can't now recall, Ms Bullock ends up driving the bus. ( I know this is ridiculous but it's a movie!). This being Hollywood, there is a happy ending but the tension of the preceding plot derives from the knowledge that if the bus stops everybody on board gets blown up.

And that was the SNP Conference. Nicola was at the wheel knowing that if they conceded they had stopped going forward then they'd all get blown up.

The problem for Nicola and her partisans is that in this case we are in the realm of Holyrood, not Hollywood. Of fact not fiction. The bus already crashed on 18th September. No amount of dreaming otherwise is going to change that.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Homage to Catalonia

This weekend past saw the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

This was an epochal political event in more than one way. For, quite aside from the symbolism of the end to the division not just of Germany but of Europe it was then followed by an entirely orderly transition to a new constitutional settlement, again not just of Germany but of Europe, all carried out within the continuity of the rule of law.

The Germans voted for re-unification and the GDR effectively became part of the Federal Republic inheriting in turn the European Union membership of the latter. This was then followed by the orderly transition into EU membership of the other former countries of the Warsaw Pact and the, more or less orderly, dissolution of the Soviet Union.

It seemed at the time that we were seeing a new order in Europe where disputes were settled not by force of arms but by force of argument. Crucially, I repeat, then encompassed into a legal continuum.

Now, as it transpired in Yugoslavia and more recently in Ukraine, not everyone is yet signed up for this. But undoubtedly the states of Western and Central Europe are. And that has very real consequence for Scotland. 

Here, you need to go back a fair bit in the process that lead to the September 18th Referendum past.

There was, to say the least, considerable doubt whether the Scottish Parliament in May 2011 had the legal vires to hold an Independence Referendum. The Scotland Act 1998 proceeds on the basis that the Scottish Parliament has legal competence in all areas not reserved (legally) to Westminster. But in the areas that are so reserved it has no legal competence at all.

And that lack of legal competence is enforceable in court. Any attempt to legislate outwith the competence of the Parliament can be challenged in court and the decision of the courts (not, crucially, of the Parliament) is final. 

For example, the legislation passed by the Parliament in relation to minimum pricing of alcohol is currently under court challenge as incompatible with the Treaty of European Union. Any legislation incompatible with EU membership being specifically beyond the legal competence of the Scottish Parliament

Suppose the ultimate decision, probably by our Supreme Court having taken advice from the European Court of Justice, is that the legislation is in fact incompatible? Legally then there is no legislation. It's as simple as that. And that has consequence.

Suppose further that the Scottish Government, even with the unanimous support of the Scottish Parliament, announced that we did not accept that legal outcome? That this measure had widespread both cross party and public support and in that knowledge that they were instructing the Police still to arrest those selling alcohol below a certain price and the Crown Office to "prosecute" them?

It simply would not happen. There would be no "law" being broken and no "crime" to be prosecuted. The "legislation" would be no more than a piece of paper. The Police would not arrest; even if they did the Crown would not prosecute; even if they did the courts would not convict. That is what is meant by the rule of law.

Now in terms of Paragraph 1(b) of Part 1 of Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998 (the legislation creating the Scottish Parliament) "The Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England" is a matter specifically reserved to Westminster. It is an area therefor where the Scottish Parliament has no legal vires.

But of course Scotland did have a "legal" referendum. Never lose sight however of the fact that this occurred not because the Scottish Parliament acted illegally but because the Westminster Parliament acted to give the Scottish Parliament temporary legal authority to hold such a vote despite the fact that the vote was clearly about "The Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England". Temporary legal authority negotiated as part of the Edinburgh Agreement and given legal effect by virtue of an Order in Council made under Section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998. Temporary authority which, there having been a vote, has now expired.

It seems to me that in the kerfuffle that has followed the vote on 18th September this has been completely lost sight of. The newspapers and the SNP leadership hustings are full of discussion about whether there should be an SNP Holyrood 2016 manifesto commitment to another referendum but, with respect, the issue is not when Holyrood might call another vote. Holyrood cannot call another vote unilaterally. The issue is when Westminster might allow such a thing and that's got nothing to do with the SNP. As I say, that was the more or less unanimous legal view prior to the Edinburgh agreement and any lingering doubt was surely resolved when, by seeking the Edinburgh Agreement, the Scottish Government themselves effectively conceded that they needed Westminster permission to act. And in asking the question of Westminster again no-one should expect any answer short of "not for a generation". That, after all, was the basis on which the Nationalists secured their agreement to the referendum just past in the first place

Now, I just want to make clear what I'm saying here. I am not engaged in a political argument over where sovereignty ought to lie in these matters, I am engaged in making a simple legal one. Holyrood has no unilateral legal authority to hold an Independence Referendum. And that means that any purported Holyrood legislation to achieve such an event would be a fundamental legal nullity. Returning Officers would have no legal authority to incur expenditure publicising such a vote, let alone to incur expenditure conducting or counting one. If they were inclined to act illegally (a most unlikely event) they would be interdicted from proceeding by the courts. If they breached the interdict (an even more unlikely event) they would be locked up. That's what the rule of law entails.

But most importantly of all, even if the nationalists somehow got to the end game of a vote and even a vote overwhelmingly for Independence, "everybody" could just ignore it. 

You don't need to take my word for it for that's exactly what has happened in Catalonia this last weekend.

The Nationalist controlled Parliament there announced they were going to hold an Independence Referendum and passed "legislation" to this effect. The Spanish Supreme Court ruled that this legislation had no legal effect as it contravened the Spanish Constitution. That Constitution, adopted after the fall of Franco and endorsed then by all parts of Spain in a referendum, specifically prohibits the unilateral secession of any one part of the Country. A referendum about precisely that proposition was therefor ultra vires of the Catalan Parliament and could not go ahead decided the Supreme Court. After a bit of mucking about, the Catalan Nationalists announced they would accept that outcome but would have an "unofficial" vote, conducted legally (in both senses of the word)  independently of the Parliament but with majority political support from within it

Which the Catalan Nats duly did yesterday when in a derisorily low turn out event the nonetheless differential enthusiasm of the separatists delivered them an 80% Yes vote. But so what? Is Catalonia Independent this morning? Can its Parliament levy any taxes other than those it is allowed to do so under the current constitutional settlement? Can it raise its own army, police its own borders, require anyone at the EU or the UN to consider its application for membership? Is anybody even in Madrid paying the slightest attention?

Now of course there is an alternative but that alternative involves the repudiation of the rule of law and the resort to the use of armed force. But that brings me back to where I started, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. That course of action is not likely to be acceptable not just to Spain but to any other European democracy. It is not how things are now "done" in this part of the world. So even if the Catalans achieved some sort of military victory what they would be left with would be a pariah state excluded from engagement, never mind co-operation, with the rest of democratic Europe. And utterly financially ruined in the process. Which, to be fair, is pretty much the conclusion the Catalan Nationalists have reached themselves. Without progress within the rule of law there can now be no progress. Their referendum has given them another excuse to gripe and moan and....that's it. 

And that's where Scotland is now. Independence outwith the rule of law is just so......... 19th Century and Independence within the rule of law has had its chance. No doubt we will have to put up with our own griping and moaning for some time yet but slowly that will sink in even to the most died in the wool Yesser.

 The vote recently past wasn't just for the moment, it was for keeps. Unless the Nats can somehow explain otherwise. Which, although they continue to put on a brave face for the moment, they know they ultimately can't. Hopefully once we've finally got a competent leadership back at the head of the Scottish Labour Party that will be made clearer to everybody else. 

Sunday, 2 November 2014

A bit more about the Leadership

On the morning of polling day 1997 I had to do a few hours at my work.

There, just as I was leaving, I was told there was somebody on the phone from the Labour Party. I took the call to realise I was speaking to the agent for the Labour Candidate in a nearby constituency.

"Are you still the Labour Party's lawyer?" he inquired. I told him I still was, as far as I knew.

He went on to advise that the SNP were standing inside the grounds of a local polling station, that he had complained to the returning officer to no avail and so, he concluded, he wanted to go to court. Immediately.

I was not attracted by this course of action. Certainly the rules appeared to be being broken but, frankly, given that we were talking about a constituency where we had enjoyed a five figure majority even in the dark days of 1983, it seemed to me that this minor infringement was unlikely to have a material bearing on the 1997 result.

This was typical New Labour pusillanimity, I was informed. Give them an inch and all too soon it would be a mile. If I was not prepared to get involved he would just find himself a lawyer who would. And with that he rung up.

I thought about things for a bit and decided that some sort of petty court action of this nature was not the sort of thing that would do the Party any good. So I decided I had better get somebody in authority to phone this guy and tell him not to be so bloody stupid,

At Keir Hardie House , Lesley Quinn, the Scottish Organiser was "out on the road" and unavailable. I asked who was there and was told "only Jim Murphy" who was then the Party's research officer.

Jim having assured me that he would sort things, in signing off I thought it only right to ask why he was not in Eastwood, where he was the Party's candidate?  He'd been and was just going back, Jim advised me. But there were other things to be done and, if we were being honest with each other, while Labour was going to win the national election big, in Eastwood the Tories had a majority of more than eleven and a half thousand with nearly fifty per cent of the popular vote, We might be going to win big but we weren't going to win as big as Eastwood.

Twenty four hour later Jim Murphy was an MP. The landslide had reached even a seat where in past elections Labour had really only been in a contest for second place. Even then a consolation prize we had more often lost than won.

The immediate Party reaction was of course delight but once the dust had settled the consensus was that for Jim personally winning Eastwood was a bit of a disaster. 1997 would never be repeated and the inevitable, even minor, Tory recovery would see Jim back to a less elevated existence.

That, after all had been the fate of Donald Dewar whose prize for winning marginal Aberdeen South in 1966 had been eight years in the political wilderness after the pendulum had swung back in 1970.

And indeed, come 2001, while William Hague went down again to defeat, nonetheless many of the "Were you still up for Portillo" seats went quietly back to their more natural allegiance. Except, you noticed the next day, Jim Murphy was still there. And still there not with a 1997 majority of  three thousand but with one of nearly ten. He still is there today.

And during that time he has built the Constituency Party from a band of local diehards into one of the most active and well funded in Scotland.

But that's not all.

In 2007 Labour got gubbed at the Scottish Parliamentary Elections and in keeping with the Party's best traditions marked this reverse by a massive internal rammy involving leaders and policies coming and going on an almost daily basis.

The polling was appalling. Scottish politics had changed forever we were told. The SNP was the new natural Party of government. At the very least the Holyrood seats we were now down to them would be followed by their Westminster equivalents at the earliest electoral opportunity.

Except that never happened. Instead,by the end of the 2010 campaign Salmond was in hiding and the SNP,  far from challenging Labour, ended up only just scraping more votes than the Tories.

Now, don't get me wrong, there was more than one reason for this but among the decisive factors was the coming of Murphy to the post of Secretary of State for Scotland. His quiet, reasoned ability to dismiss the wilder claims for the merits of Independence, more it seemed in sorrow than in anger, simply highlighted the extent to which these were based on little more than bluff, bluster and wishful thinking. Don't take my word for that, look at the actual election result.

So, people are entitled to have a go at where Jim Murphy stands on the internal spectrum of Labour politics but those who assert that he wouldn't be a vote winner for Labour are, I think protesting not only too much but in the face of all the evidence.

That's all very well, I hear some say, but he's a Westminster MP. That, I readily concede initially, looks not ideal. Except that if you start by recognising that part of Scottish Labour's problem is that we are perceived as having our A Team in one Parliament and (at best) our B Team in the other then at one point surely somebody has to move from one to the other to overcome that perception?

And, anyway, the public does not have the same affection for Parliaments that seems to infect the politicians in either place. The public looks for a convincing candidate for First Minister or Prime Minister.  Certainly, part of that convincing requires a visibly competent circle of deputies to fill the ministerial offices but without the right person in the lead role the rest can't make up for that absence on their own.

Just before Johann's departure John McTernan wrote in the Scotsman with considerable frustration at Scottish Labour's inability to take advantage of the any number of open goals the referendum result had provided to us. Not least Salmond's own departure, it appears, to a life of opening supermarkets,

But there is a wider use of that sporting analogy. All football teams need someone capable of putting the ball in the net. Look at the fate of the teams led by John Swinney or Michael Howard.  Yet, in both cases, with a change of striker the same midfield players were transformed from journeymen pros into...........well at least they looked much better players.

So at this time Labour can't make do with an Anthony Stokes or a Lee Griffiths. Players perhaps good enough against inferior opposition but who are found out at the top level.

We have a political Henrik Larrson available on the bench. It's time to get him on the pitch.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Desperate Days

From almost the very start the Nats have understood the new politics of post devolution Scotland much better than us.

I say “almost” because at the very start the Nats didn’t.

They fought the 1999 election on a platform of bare coherence. Never mind the electorate not understanding what a SNP victory in that contest might mean, the SNP  didn’t have a lot of idea themselves.  It would have meant some sort of Independecy thing but as to the conduct of the day to day administration of Scotland in the meantime? No idea.

The Labour Party, on the other hand, was the Labour Party. Perhaps not very exciting but with generations of experience of running Local Government and the wider local state: Health Boards; Universities: Quangos and voluntary organisations large and small. All experience immediately available. And if that was not enough, also immediately available, patently sensible leadership in the personification of big Donald himself.

Looking back it was only our own self denying ordinance of a system designed to ensure there never being an absolute majority for any Party at Holyrood which prevented that very occurrence.

Anyway, what did that matter when we had the Libs?

So we were in power, the Libs were in power of sorts and all was well with the world. Or at least our wee bit of it.

Except that the SNP learned from experience.

John Swinney was at one time a much derided figure. He took over from Eck version one, struggled to make any real public impact and eventually resigned after the 2003 election having lost further ground from an initially losing position.

But Swinney had one major achievement. He turned the SNP into a serious Party of Government. At least in aspiration.

By 2003 you understood what an SNP administration at Holyrood would mean and that it didn’t mean immediate insurrection. And you understood, crucially, that it would mean at least as basically a competent administration as the Labour Party could bring.

The chip on both shoulders brigade would still be accommodated within the SNP, for they still constituted the bulk of the foot soldiers, but they would no longer call all of the shots.

Meanwhile the Scottish Labour Party moved in the opposite direction.

When we thought we had a serious battle against the Tories we deployed serious forces. If you look at who picked up the spoils of the Scottish Tory collapse consider who they were: Sam Galbraith; Brian Wilson; Anne McGuire; Anne Begg. At the point of ultimate triumph Jim Murphy.

Even our bitterest opponents would concede that these are not exactly lobby fodder.

But in the context of the Scottish Parliament we didn’t need such considerations. We’d be in power forever so why not share out the spoils with the faithful irrespective of talent? We were surely never going to lose any of these safe seats.

So between 1999 and 2011 virtually every vacancy that arose on the Labour benches was filled, or anticipated to be filled, by an undistinguished former local councillor who secured selection in their own home constituency despite having not the remotest prospect of being selected in a million years in any other.

The key phrase above is “anticipated to be filled”.  For, time and time again, the electorate, even the traditionally Labour electorate, responded that if this was the best we could offer........

Not that we noticed.

Meanwhile the Nats moved in one other vital respect in the other direction.

In 2007 every ballot paper across Scotland read “[Insert name here] SNP. Alex Salmond for First Minister.”

Now, I don’t like Mr Salmond but I recognise that he is a politician of the first rank.

But more importantly the Nats had recognised that.  If you didn’t have strength in depth then you looked to where you did have strength. And Mr Salmond was that strength.

We on the other hand offered Jack as no more than our leader of the moment and, after Wendy fell, essentially suggested to the electorate that our (and potentially their) momentary leader was a matter that they should leave up to us.  

So we end up where we are.

But let us (Eck aside) conduct a public recognition contest about the 2016 Scottish Parliament Election.

And, having thought about it briefly,  let us concede that based on current Holyrood runners and riders it would be a bit like when Shergar ran in the Derby and the bookies offered odds on who would be second.

I might not like Nicola much more than Eck but.......

So where does that leave the Scottish Labour Party following Johann’s departure?

Well, first of all, it does not leave us in a situation the remaining 36 of them are free to fight  it out between themselves. Much as they did in 2011, the 36 will argue that’s what should happen for who would turn down a 36/1 chance of being First Minister?

Except, I’m sorry, not one of the 36 has the remotest chance of being elected First Minister in May 2016. Some might have missed their chance, others might yet have their chance to come. But if any one of them is offered as the option in May 2016............. we might as well save the Party and the Country some money by cancelling the election altogether.

I have no idea why the Scottish Executive took a paniced decision today to hold a leadership election on a truncated time scale and under a discredited electoral system. They might not have noticed but the referendum is over and there is no Scottish Parliament election for eighteen months. We could easily have allowed Anas to act pro tem and elected a temporary "group leader" at Holyrood.

That would have allowed us to think at least one move ahead. Instead, what would someone not currently at Holyrood be expected to do at the General Election next May if they became leader of the Scottish Party? Leave any elected office for a year?  Stand for Westminster for twelve months and hope the parliamentary arithmetic doesn't require their regular attendance? Try to get into Holyrood in an engineered by-election and risk defeat in the process? 

None of these matters appear to have been given the slightest thought. But I suppose that is par for the current course. 

But what is done appears to be what is done. 

And so I end with a blunt but obvious statement. We need a leader with some idea (any idea) of what to do and one who has even a remote prospect of becoming First Minister in 2016.

It pains me to say it but only one conceivable candidate ticks both these boxes.

And thus although he and I come from different wings of our Party I am left with one inevitable conclusion.

Give me Murphy or give me death.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Apparentlies aren't everything

In a democratic system, politics is all about winning.

Since September 18th the Nats have talked a good game.

We’ve heard of all sorts of wonderful things they apparently achieved on 18th September.

·         If only people born in Scotland had been allowed to vote they would actually have won, apparently.

·         If only people over 65 had had the good grace to die off sooner, then again they’d have won, apparently.

·        Four Local Authority Areas actually voted Yes! This is nearly a majority out of 32 Local Authority Areas, apparently

·         Some people have vowed never to vote Labour again, apparently

·         Lots of people joining the SNP is almost as good as independence itself, apparently

·         They’re still going to have websites and rallies and flags, apparently

·         And Tommy Sheridan is going nowhere, apparently.

The list of positives is almost endless, apparently.

The problem is that there is one big negative that doesn’t involve any apparentlies.  There was a vote and they lost. Not even narrowly but by more than ten percentage points. In an event they themselves promised would happen only once in a generation.

Ironically, the one person on the nationalist side who got that was Alex Salmond.  He’s chucked it. There’s no apparently about that either.

And, slowly the rest of them are getting it as well. Tellingly, while there is lots of “we are not defeated” verbiage in the manifestos of the three SNP Deputy Leadership candidates published in today’s Scotland and Sunday,  none of them seeks the cheap internal votes that would come there way by pledging an early re-run of the contest just past. For good reason.

Instead the Nats do have a short term strategy disclosed in today’s Observer by Kevin McKenna. If they can win lots of Westminster seats from Labour then this will assist the return of a Tory Government. This might not be particularly good news for ordinary working people in Scotland, or indeed elsewhere in the UK, but it would be good news for the SNP. Apparently.

I don’t really see how this works with the electorate myself: “Vote SNP to increase the chances of a Tory Government” seems to me an improbable vote winner in west central Scotland but, since “Vote SNP and we’ll support a Labour Government”, seems to be politically off the internal Nat agenda that is what their line is to be, apparently. The problem is that going from a September argument that you should “Vote Yes to permanently stop Tory Governments” to a following May argument that  “It doesn’t really matter whether it is a Tory or a Labour Government if it is not a Scottish Government ” might prove sufficient for the flag eaters, it is difficult to see it gaining much traction with those who thought getting rid of the Tories was the reason they found themselves voting Yes.

And even if the same “anti politics” sentiment which seems the mood of the moment across Europe does bring this strategy some success, and I don’t rule that out, is that a success the Nationalists would really want?  This isn’t a one off referendum vote where the end might justify the means. This is a decision which will, within the continuing Union, have day to day consequences for years. While I concede that “We’ve got a Tory Government because England voted for the Tories” might drive votes towards the SNP in 2016, by that same logic  “We’ve got a Tory Government because Scotland voted SNP” seems likely to have precisely the opposite effect. Don’t ask me, ask anybody who was in the SNP during the 1980s.

In the end, 2016 has to be the election the SNP are really interested in. For, more venal considerations of personal office holding aside, it is by the Nationalists own concession that the only route to Independence now runs through Holyrood not Westminster.

So what’s the point of them contesting Westminster elections at all?

“To keep up our momentum” would be their reply. But that brings me back to where I started. Momentum towards what? There was a vote and they lost. And in a democratic system it is all about winning. All or nothing I’m afraid. No apparently about it.

Sunday, 12 October 2014


And so the world moves on and yet things are not quite the same.

I wrote before the Referendum vote about how a certain sector of the Yes vote were voting not against the Union but against the real world.

Thursday's Heywood and Middleton by-election showed that this is far from a purely Scottish phenomenon although the beneficiary on this occasion was a different populist politician.

No matter how Labour try to spin this, it was a shocking result. 

Sure, our percentage share increased (just) but it increased only from the vote we had secured in our worst ever performance in the seat (we even did better in 1983) and on Thursday past it increased, even then, almost negligibly when we must surely have had some significant benefit from the complete collapse of the Lib Dems, It can't be the case that all of these Libs were previously nothing but "neither of the above" voters, 

The suggestion therefor that all that happened was that the anti Labour vote simply rearranged itself is derisory and anybody making it should be ashamed of themselves.

No, on any view, a signicant number of people who had always voted Labour chose to vote UKIP and an even larger number were sufficiently unconcerned about a potential UKIP advance in the seat(which by polling day was no secret) that they felt no need to vote at all.

So, what is to be done?

Well, firstly, we need to accept that something actually needs to be done. That's not as much of a "bloody obvious" point as it might initially appear.

Let us be clear, the calculation of the Labour leadership has been that, if we could get 35% of the national popular vote,  then UKIP cutting in to the Tory vote might deliver us an absolute Westminster majority from that paltry level of support. That calculation has always been a shameful one. 

If disillusionment with traditional politics is at the root of the UKIP surge then how much more disillusioned would people be if they found themselves on 8th May 2015 under the elected dictatorship of a Party with a mandate from barely one third of those who voted and, depending on turnout, perhaps as little as 20% of the total electorate? A Party indeed that had made little more than a token effort to get elected in large parts of the Country and relied instead on the systemic by-product of a nod and a wink to those who wished to abandon the Tories (The Tories!!!) as not right wing enough?

Yet that is where we had found ourselves and indeed it meant that while we were free among ourselves to quietly be contemptuous of Farage and all his works, our public message was essentially that UKIP were (just) right wing Tories. That was supposed to be the only message needed to our voters to keep them out of Nigel's clutches while at the same time giving a green light to those who actually were right wing Tories to go ahead and vote UKIP. Under First Past the Post, we calculated, every vote lost by the Tories to anybody was effectively a vote gained by us. 

Except UKIP are not (just) right wing Tories. As is common with all such insurgencies matters are altogether more complicated.

First of all it is important to set out what they are not.

They are not an overtly racist Party. That's not to say that some of them are not racists or that they do not attract the "racist vote" such as it is. Whoever benefited from the collapse of  the Lib Dem vote in Heywood there is no such doubt of the destination of the 5% who had previously voted BNP. BUT racism is not the raison d'etre of UKIP. It is simply nonsensical to suggest that 40% of the population of Heywood (and 60%  of the population of Clacton) have recently become racists. 

And, equally, UKIP are not really about leaving the EU. Again that's not to say they don't want to leave the EU but simply to observe that leaving the EU is not the only, indeed possibly not even the main, reason people vote for them. They are in reality against "modernity". The EU is simply that modernity in one easily focused upon form.

For that's what UKIP are really about. About a return to earlier times. A time certainly when your passport was blue but also a time when men only married women and vice versa; when Johnny foreigner might be a perfectly nice, if inevitably slightly inferior, chap you would encounter on holiday but not someone you met routinely on your own High Street; a time however most importantly of all when, as an ordinary person at least, you knew that the next generation would be better off than your own. 

For that was the experience of the long post war boom. Sure, their was some turbulence in the late seventies and early eighties but Mrs T "fixed" things and for another twenty five years or so this happy circumstance continued. Until 2008. And since 2008 Labour has been so worried about the reputation for economic management then lost that we have tried to say as little as possible about the economy at all. If you promise nothing then you can't be attacked for making wild promises, The problem is that promising nothing is never likely to be much of a motivator to potential (or even dyed-in-the-wool) Labour voters.

And that's the problem and the challenge with UKIP. Just as it was part of the problem in grappling with a different group of snake oil merchants here in Scotland less than a month back

Sure UKIP's policies are incoherent. Lower taxes combined with various public spending promises from a bigger army through to a higher old age pension. More housebuilding but absolute protection of the greenbelt. And of course, not forgetting, free trade with Europe without actually being subject to any of the rules that others have to observe for that privilege. It's all mutually contradictory nonsense. Anybody who saw Ken Clarke on Friday's Channel 4 News would have seen made flesh the frustration of the traditional political class that people can't just "see" this.

But of course most people can. No matter how far UKIP go nobody suggests they will come as much as second in the popular vote next May and it remains a moot point whether they will even be third. But we surely can't now deny that those who are blind to these economic realities are not simply retired colonels from the home counties. 

So the fact that UKIP have support from, even some, traditional Labour voters should be a concern to us. Not least because, even sticking to  a 35% strategy, it is not just UKIP we are up against. It is also apathy.

What these UKIP voters are seeking is hope Even as we protest that Farage brings nothing but false hope we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that in turning away from Labour these voters are consciously blind to the cautionary adjective. For we, the Labour Party, are so keen to secure respectability for our "sound economics" while threatening nothing in terms of tax increases to avoid offending anybody at all that we have fallen into a trap of our own making. 

In short, too many of our traditional supporters perceive that we are offering them no hope at all.

There remains, I am afraid, simply no enthusiasm for the Labour project.

On of my pals was on Tony Blair's staff during the 1997 General Election and speaks about scenes towards the end that he could only compare to film he had seen of the allied liberation of western Europe. People leaning out of windows and gathering on the street to spontaneously cheer the Labour entourage as it entered town after town in what was still officially marginal middle England. 

But we shouldn't forget that on a different battle bus, John Prescott, touring our heartlands was being received just as energetically. For we hadn't just won over the middle ground, we had enthused the core vote as well. More than 57% in Heywood and Middleton. That "weigh the vote" might not have been as important to the parliamentary arithmetic but it was certainly important to the high morale in which we eventually entered power.

Suffice to say that core vote is not currently enthused. Far from it.

Certainly we have to be realistic and responsible in our policy offer but if it depends entirely on a strategy not of hope but of calculation then we should not be surprised if more Heywood's lie ahead.

Yet the leadership's response is to aim at the wrong target. To assume (or at least to calculate) that this really is about immigration and Europe and that if we talk tough on both somehow it will all be alright. 

This is wrong on just about every level.

Firstly, it simply legitimises the UKIP cause, If we concede that these are truly the source of many of our woes then why not vote for a Party that will really do something about it rather than one which addresses the matter half heartedly?

Secondly, most of our own supporters understand the what limited prosperity we do have, and indeed the viability of our jewel in the crown achievement, the NHS, actually depends on the European single market including the free movement not just of capital but of labour. What are they meant to think if we abandon that ground?

Thirdly, not unimportantly, we actually agree with most of our supporters on that. Even if it was possible to rein back on European integration and immigration (and truthfully, without outright withdrawal it is difficult to see how that could be done) do we actually think that would be a good thing? If we don't and are just saying it to get elected one can't help feeling we would only be swapping one problem for another. Anyway, political parties are expected to stand for something and those who are perceived to stand for nothing seldom prosper. Ask the Lib Dems.

But finally, most importantly of all, none of this gives anybody a positive reason to vote Labour and, as I say, that is the real reason our traditional base is unenthused. Farage is not the illness, he is just one of the symptoms.

And that brings me back to 1997. It is not to dismiss the very real achievements of that Labour Government to recall how nervous we were then as well at being perceived as weak on the management of the economy. And how limited our policy offer was in consequence on traditional tax and spend. I readily confess too weak for my taste at the time.

But we offered something else in 1997. We offered empathy and we offered  hope. And having secured the empathy we could survive that the hope, at least initially, was not of much more than a change of tone. 

That's where things are going wrong at the moment. We appear to have no empathy with our own supporters. To be a metropolitan elite much more interested in what a Labour Government would bring to us than in what it would mean to them. That's why "hang on six months for a Labour Government" proved not a silver but a chocolate bullet when fired in the referendum campaign.

Without empathy there cannot be hope. And without hope.....

And it is that which needs addressed. Not the British (or Scottish) isolationist symptom but the Labour illness. 

Time for radical treatment.