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

Kippered

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.



Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Back to real politics

I want to start by talking about real life.

Because all of us, all of us engaged in politics. find real life sometimes embarrassing.

It is in the nature of my job that, since if I am in court at 10am there is no point in going into the office first, I drive to work each morning listening to a radio phone in.

Nicky Campbell on Five Live or Call Kaye on Radio Scotland.

And the callers are sometimes shocking in the absolutism of their opinions.

On Call Kaye we've had six months of “Secret Oil Fields” on one side against, on occasion, “The Queen should have Salmond arrested for Treason” on the other .

But that argument, the people having spoken, is at least over for the minute. Or, as it is slowly sinking in, the generation.

And so we are left with real politics. The haves (and their permanent allies the rich) against the have nots and their supposed permanent concern, the poor.

Only it is not nearly as simple as that.

For, when faced with the argument that there is no distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor , nobody stops to ask the former group if they agree with that distinction.

And the Tories get that much better than my own, increasingly detached from real life, political leadership.

Nobody who listened to Five Live this morning would be in any doubt of that.

I understand the logic of Tax Credits. That, whatever your circumstance, the State should guarantee your subsistence.

Except that if you asked virtually any working recipient of tax credits how they felt about that deal they would respond that it is not the deal they would want.  That going to work each day should, in itself, provide them with sufficient income to support  themselves. That certainly, if they had children,  they would welcome a non means tested boost in the form of universal Child Benefit but that they certainly do not want to have to fill in a form every year to establish how “poor” they were in order to qualify for additional support.

So, I say this. As a Labour man all my days, an increase in the minimum wage and of the basic Income tax allowance is surely the way forward for us rather than lumping all of the “poor” in together. There is a legitimate prejudice in favour of the deserving.

And nobody understands that better than the cleverer Tories. I will come back to that.

For I want to move on to a slightly different point. Immigration.

I understand the motivation of immigration.

I’m not in favour of “benefit tourism” but, let’s be honest, that’s a pretty small issue. The vast, vast majority of immigrants to this Country come here to work.

For there is work here.

So much work that kids from the Maghreb hang on to the underside of trucks to cross from Calais to Dover. That others from China allow themselves to be locked in containers for 72 Hours or more with nothing but some bottled water and a communal bucket for a toilet. That others still from the sub continent spend their families’  life savings to get on a flight to Heathrow to make a dubious claim for asylum in the knowledge that if it succeeds there will be no looking back.

But even all of these are small beer compared to those from Poland and the Baltic Republics and, yes, from Romania who will, temporarily at least, desert their families to pick fruit or pack potatoes or care for us in our dotage.

And yet we are asked to believe that there are those, born here,  who, recession or boom, have been unable to find any form of work for ten years or more no further away than in the town of their birth.

And, more to the point, asked to accept that the very, very basic subsistence that the State allows them (and I accept the very, very bit of that) should nonetheless go up each year in line with inflation while the wages of the deserving poor do not.

So when Osborne announced Yesterday that this was going to stop he was appealing not to the “Haves”, let alone to the “Rich”.  He has the votes of the latter and in securing the votes of the former he is unlikely to succeed on the basis of pure economics.

No, this was an appeal to the deserving poor or, put more bluntly, to the working poor.

The Tory bit of this was in the still continuing attack on Tax Credits and Housing Benefit for those in work. That was stupid politics. For despite hating having to depend on them the working poor appreciate that they nonetheless do.

But if Osborne had said that means tested benefit for those physically fit but “unable”, long term, to find work would not just fail to keep place with inflation but would actually decline to nil..................

I want to end with an anecdote.

Some years back I had a client who opened a late night carry out restaurant in Bellshill.

He advertised for staff in the local Job Centre.

An assistant chef and a kitchen porter.

No qualifications required but minimum wage and unsociable hours. Some training in one job, nothing but hard work in the other.  My client would concede that himself.

Nobody applied.

Until  two lads turned up at his door one day wondering if he had any vacancies. So he gave them the jobs.

Three months  later he was raided by the immigration service.  It transpired  one of his employees was a student who had over stayed his visa. The other had a false identity and, in truth, no papers at all. My client was fined £10,000 for employing “illegals”. His two employees were deported.

But during this whole episode, in an area with more than 10% nominal unemployment, nobody else at all had applied for either of the jobs.

We need to move on from the “Coal not Dole” narrative. It had its time and its merit.  I was there. But it was thirty years past.

Now?

If, long term, you can work but you won’t work then you should starve.

I’d die in the last ditch for the qualifications on that: childcare responsibilities; illness or disability; temporary circumstance.

But that said, I repeat.  If, long term, you can work but you won’t work you should starve.

And I say that confident that, faced with that choice, nobody would starve.


Real politics. Osborne gets that. Here’s hoping so do the Eds.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Think about it

This will be my last blog about the Referendum. I'll continue to blog from time to time, but probably not so regularly, about politics. The Referendum is however over. So I thought I wouldn't finish with a big theme but rather a number of bleeding obvious points that seem nonetheless to have passed many partisans by.

1. THE REFERENDUM IS OVER

In the aftermath of an ordinary election there is a tendency of the losing Party not to psychologically accept the result. "Our opponents will pay a heavy price for the manner of their victory" or "We will continue to oppose these evil plans with every inch of our bodies"or "The people will never stand for this".

Slowly but steadiily however it sinks in that the losing Party was not beaten by the votes of their opposing Party. They were beaten by he votes of the voters. And the only real way forward is to get the voters to vote differently next time. And next time is four or five years away even with a normal election.

Good luck to those rushing off to join the SSP or the Greens as an expression of their frustration at the result but nobody (well nobody except a few nutters calling for a re-vote) is contemplating another referendum any time soon. Nothing is going to change that.

Actually

2. IT IS HIGHLY UNLIKELY THERE WILL EVER BE ANOTHER REFERENDUM.

Actually, I can't say ever. Ever is a long time. I mean that it is highly unlikely there will ever be another one in my lifetime and I'm 56.

This referendum required a number of freak occurences. The first was a desire for the Nationalists to have a referendum. The second was their securing an absolute majority at Holyrood. The third was a willingness of Westminster to concede (temporarily) to Holyrood  the power to hold such a poll.

It is clear common sense has prevailed within the SNP on the first point with any number of senior figures conceding that "Another go" can't feature with any credibility (or, let's be honest, without immense electoral damage) in their 2016 Manifesto. I wouldn't bet on their conclusion on that being any different for 2020.

But there is another factor. The 2011 result had a number of causes. These included:

* The lack of realisation in advance of the election that the SNP were serious about independence, allowing voters not so inclined to vote for them nonetheless

 * The temporary collapse of normal four Party politics at Holyrood owing to the extreme unpopularity of the Lib Dems over the coalition and its policies. That is unlikely to be repeated and if it is not then there will always be a natural constituency for a centre Party enjoying some mainland Holyrood representation.

* The apparent futility of  voting Tory in a  Holyrood election, even if you were a Tory. That I think was also changed by 18th September. I'll say more on that below

* The exceptionally inept conduct of the 2011 campaign by the Labour Party.

Now some of these might happen again but all of them at once?

None of that is to say that the SNP won't continue to be the largest Party at any future Holyrood Election. Indeed I readily concede that they are current favourites for that prize in 2016. It is however to say that their chance of securing another absolute majority is remote. And, take it from me, after the fright we've had, there is no chance of any of the unionist parties co-operating to achieve the goal of a referendum without the Nats having that majority.

And then, finally, even if they did succeed in overcoming all these hurdles, don't forget that by signing the Edinburgh agreement the Nationalists conceded that the legal vires to hold such a poll still lies at Westminster. Suffice to say that any bargaining on the terms of any permissible future vote would be very different from 2012.

So it's over. It's really, really over. Or at least the Referendum route is. For the SNP to achieve their ultimate goal I suspect they'll have to come up with a different way forward. I simply have no idea what that might be. It could indeed be not just that the referendum is over, the idea of any practicable route to Independence might just be as well. And if that's the case what exactly would be the long term function of the SNP?

But I am danger of moving away from my own "bleeding obvious" constraint

So here is the third bleeding obvious point

3. LABOUR WILL HAVE TO ACCEPT THE RECOMMENDATIONS OF THE MCKAY COMMISSION

By one of these odd "Scotland is a small place" coincidences I know Sir William (Bill) Mckay, for he was on the Council of the Law Society of Scotland while I was the President. He is a genuinely thoughtful and considered man. In any contribution he made to the Law Society's deliberations he had clearly thought through his argument against any possible counter argument in advance of making his point. He was never one to throw a kite in the air simply hoping the wind might catch it.

And so as you would expect his Commision it is an impressive piece of work. Brevity prevents me from summarising its conclusions but if you have not read them then I urge you to do so.

The problem with the West Lothian Question has always been as much the unwillingness of "The English" to contemplate that the British Parliament and the English Parliament might be different institutions and as long as that is the case any solution will be imperfect. We have moved however  beyond the point where the answer to the West Lothian question is to pretend we can't hear it. Anyway, if, at a particular election, there is no majority in England for "Labour" policies on health or education then why should "Labour" policies be imposed upon England? The moment the Tories made a point about this Labour was always going to have to give ground for it is inconceivable that we could fight an Election in England on the basis that the result in a particular policy area would depend on what happened in Scotland and Wales without that any longer being a reciprocal arrangement.

The McKay proposals are far from crude "English votes for English issues". They, for example, still contemplate there only being one Government. If they are acceptable on a cross Party basis we should bite off the hand offering them. In the end we'll realise that ourselves. Best just get on with it.

4. SCOTTISH LABOUR REALISES WE NEED TO GET OUR ACT TOGETHER

The Referendum was a disaster for the official  Scottish Labour Party leadership. The unofficial Labour Party leadership, not just Gordon Brown but Jim Murphy, JK Rowling (!) and George Galloway (!!!) did well but by the end the official leadership had effectively disappeared. To lose Glasgow once, as we did in 2011, might be unfortunate but to do so twice looks like carelessness. The good news is that (I think) we finally realise that. No recovery at the Westminster test of May 2015 (which, for what it's worth, I think there will be) can disguise the fact that business as usual at Holyrood will presage another electoral disaster at the next uniquely Scottish Poll. Vested interest will ensure that some of what should be done won't be done but Holyrood remains an essentially Presidential contest and I think the Party knows we need to fix that. Watch this space.


5. RUTH DAVIDSON COULD BE THE MOST POWERFUL POLITICIAN IN SCOTLAND

Now, if you concede that, for the reasons outlined above, even if they are favourites to emerge as the largest Party in May 2016, the SNP are unlikely to have an absolute majority, even with the possible addition of a few Greens, then what will that mean?

It is something that neither side are now inclined to talk about but the 2007-2011 SNP minority administration depended on the Tories to remain in power. I don't mind now confessing that I thought in 2007 Jack should have spoken to Annabel. That both our Parties would one day pay a price for legitimising the Nationalists in power.

Who knows if strategically I was right or wrong but what I can say I think is that if the Tories hold the balance of power in 2016 this question will return and will demand a different answer.

If I was speculating, rather than only dealing with the bleeding obvious, I would confess my impression is that few politicians had a better referendum, both in personal performance and electoral result, than Ruth Davidson. And that in consequence not only will there be more Tory MPs than pandas in Scotland after the May 2015 General Election, there will be more Tory MPs than Nationalist MPs or Liberal MPs.

But I'm not speculating. I'm only dealing in the bleeding obvious. And this is bleeding obvious. If the Tories hold the balance of power between Labour and the SNP at Holyrood in May 2016 all three Parties will be faced with a big decision but the King or Queen maker will be Ruth. Who knows, if she secures no greater prize she might at least end up as Leader of the Official Opposition.

And that's my last word for the moment. Next weekend is the Ryder Cup and the following week Andi is running in the Glasgow half marathon so I may or may not see you on October 12th.





Friday, 19 September 2014

Why?

In 2007 Wendy Alexander, recently elected as leader of the Scottish Labour Party in the aftermath of our first defeat by the SNP, decided that the only viable way forward for our Party was to call the Nationalists bluff on Independence by promoting our own referendum.

I was one of those involved in the inner circle at that time.

I was asked to go to a "secret" meeting in, for some reason, the Scotsman Hotel without even being told the subject matter to be discussed. There were perhaps ten others present; a couple of trusted MSPs, a half dozen formal or informal advisers and, importantly, a pollster.

Wendy outlined her thoughts and, she having selected those present, perhaps unsurprisingly they met with unanimous approval.

But there was one matter on which we had to be absolutely certain: was there any conceivable circumstance that such a referendum could be lost?

For that we could not just rely on our own political gut instinct and for that we turned to the pollster. His view was unequivocal. There was no conceivable circumstance in which Scotland would vote for independence.

There were any number of reasons for this but among them were two central "facts". Firstly, that those who voted SNP in much of rural Scotland were not truly nationalists but rather tactical anti Labour voters and, secondly, that the Labour vote in central Scotland was solid against SNP encroachment. All we had to do was deliver that latter vote and allow the former to return to its natural loyalty and even allowing for any number of adverse campaign circumstance it was difficult to conceive how the nationalists would ever get more than 35% of the vote.

In the political circumstances of 2007 I remain quite certain that this analysis was correct and Labour's decision to reject "bringing it on" was a huge strategic mistake. Why it didn't happen might yet be the subject of another day.

But what's done is done and I am writing this blog against a background of the Nationalists doing a full ten per cent better than we thought they conceivably might.

For what it is worth, and I appreciate that you will have to take me on trust on this, at no point from start to finish did I think there was any prospect of a Nationalist victory over the last two years. It can too easily be forgotten that over that entire period there was but a single reputable opinion poll putting the Nats ahead and the closest odds ever offered by the bookies was 3-1 against in what was always but a two horse race.

My confidence was also founded on the fact that nothing had changed since 2007 in respect of the second pillar of Wendy's analysis. And so it proved. Moray, Angus, Perth and Kinross, Aberdeenshire, all nominally nationalist strongholds, returned among the largest No majorities across the nation. It may well prove in the long term the big winners in what was perceived as an existential struggle between Scottish Labour and the SNP will in fact turn out to be the Scottish Conservatives and (importantly) Unionists.

But the first pillar of Wendy's majority, the one to be delivered by her own Party has, during the referendum eventually held shown itself to have far from stable foundations.

And why that happened is what I want to address today.

I would suggest it had three causes. The first two are entirely self inflicted wounds but the third may highlight for us, electorally, a much more difficult problem to solve.

But I'll deal with the two we can address first.

I have made this point before but I will make it again. Even among people viscerally hostile to the Con-Lib Coalition there is little or no enthusiasm either for a Labour Government or for Ed Miliband personally as Prime Minister.

In my political lifetime the Scottish Party would invariably be significantly boosted by the arrival here of any opposition Labour leader (Wilson, Foot, Kinnock, Smith or Blair) to campaign here. That simply is not the case at the moment. For a Labour leader to enjoy even lower approval ratings in Scotland a Tory Prime minister is an almost unique achievement. And as if that is not enough, except for the fact that it is not a Tory Government, what exactly is the case for a Labour Government?  Say what you like about Tony Blair he had big promises in 1997 and big early achievements: The minimum wage; the Independent Bank of England; the massive increase in NHS resources; the cut in class sizes; not least the Scottish Parliament itself.

But by 2010 Labour offered little more than benign managererialism against a background of vicious palace politics. And it's far from clear what more we are offering next year. We are seen as no more in touch with the actual day to day experience of working people than the Tories.

We had a record high turnout in Scotland yesterday but who would bet against a record low turnout in next year's General Election? It simply did not cut the mustard to ask traditional Labour voters during the referendum to  stick by us when we struggled to find a response to the answering question "Why?" We have in this regard simply encountered in September 2014 in Scotland what the Party will encounter across Britain in May 2015. Except that in September 2014 Scotland had somewhere else to go.  No matter how much we protested that the apparent destination amounted to a mirage.

And the second own goal was in relation to Labour's attitude to the Scottish Parliament itself. I tried to avoid arguments with personal friends during the referendum but I did have a few and I readily agree I did not have all the winning points. At one point a pal protested that Labour politicians were "all useless" and I responded "Is Jim Murphy useless?  Is Douglas Alexander? Is (our own MP) Greg McClymont". "No" came the response "but none of them are up here. If we were independent they'd be in the Scottish Parliament". And my only response was to try and move the argument on to a different topic.

The Scottish Labour Party continues to see Holyrood as nothing more than a "big cooncil". So if you are a reasonably competent member of a wee cooncil why shouldn't you head off to Holyrood if the opportunity arises? Well, that's not the view of the electorate who increasingly are unwilling to endorse the "appointment" of the candidates Labour places before them for the devolved Parliament. Yet the selection stampede for 2016 has been undertaken at breakneck speed and with as limited a selectorate as possible to try and protect the position of those already in Holyrood (many by accident) or provide the maximum opportunity for those recently ejected to return. Actually winning back the seats we lost has been no consideration of any sort. So we have just had a referendum campaign where the only contribution most MSPs and PPCs were capable of making was in the delivery of leaflets. A campaign instead fronted by Westminster MPs all with the apparent intention of returning to the green benches at the earliest opportunity.

This will not do. I say this as a friend of the Labour Party who has long abandoned personal political ambition. Unless we tear this up and start again then unless the Nationalists themselves descend into internal recrimination, Labour will be comfortably defeated in May 2016 and will deserve to have been so. And that observation goes in relation to any possible candidate for First Minister chosen from the current Labour Group as well.

And then finally we have the third development. The one we may have less control of. It is best understood by reference to a flag.

Yes Scotland grabbed hold of the Saltire at an early stage of the referendum campaign. In my opinion it was far too easily surrendered by our side but we, the unionist side, did of course have a flag of our own. Arguably the most famous flag in the world. Flown regularly on every public building; adorning the shoulders of every winning British sportsperson; draped over the coffin of every serviceman who makes the ultimate sacrifice for our country. The Union Jack.

But, of course,  it would be inconceivable for the (particularly) West of Scotland Labour Party to have any association with the Union Jack. For it is not the flag of many of our most traditionally stalwart supporters. Not just because it is "the flag" of a football team they do not support (!) but because it is a flag to which they have a dubious allegiance.

Until perhaps ten years ago it was almost a given that if you were a Scottish Catholic of Irish origin you would be a Labour voter. That applied even if you were in relative financial comfort yourself. It wasn't where you were now that mattered it was where you had come from. And what's more it was an almost equal given that you would have a certain hesitation about the Scottish Parliament having "too much" power or even, as was proved in 1979, existing at all. There was some logic to that both in respect of a legitimate fear of return to a "protestant ascendancy" the passing of which owed more to the achievements of (British) Labour Governments than to any great movement in that direction from within Scotland itself but also because many of today's  Nationalists would concede, privately at least,  that Scotland's "National" Party had, historically, a significant  "Orange" streak.

It is an entirely benign development that no-one could now see a return to the days where Catholics couldn't get a job in a bank or a shipyard because of their religious observance. So it is perhaps no surprise that a political allegiance once based on class politics and religious tolerance could not survive indefinitely when neither of these factors were at play in the life of at least many Scottish Catholics.

It was always a bit of a contradiction that stalwart supporters of a Thirty Two County Ireland were sceptical about even a modicum of home rule for Scotland but, contradictory or otherwise, that is how it had been. And that brought a price on the side of the political party these people overwhelmingly supported. To preserve the political advantage we gained from that dichotomy, in attempting to make a case against an independent Scotland the one argument that could never be used was that no matter what one might think of the United Kingdom it was a much more culturally mature, ethnically diverse and economically successful place than the Republic of Ireland. And yet it was and it still is. Unemployment is much higher in Ireland than in Scotland, living standards much lower and in relation to the most common cultural interlocutor, the national broadcaster, there is simply no meaningful comparison.

No wonder it remains the principal ambition of many of Ireland's brightest and best young people to live elsewhere. Ironically, for many, to live in the United Kingdom.

Now this past six months or so we have been caught out by this. Our opponents have suggested that Scotland could be "just like Ireland" without us being free to respond "We don't want to be just like Ireland. Britain is an infinitely superior place to Ireland." But that is precisely what we should have said.

Well it might presage an earthquake in Scottish voting behaviour but, let's be honest, yesterday already was a bit of an earthquake anyway. Perhaps it would be best all round if Labour in future was required to make its case based on actual policy rather than tribal allegiance. We didn't initially pitch for the "catholic vote", we pitched for the vote of working people many of whom happened to be Catholics. And we made the case then that the common interest of working people was far more important than differing religious denominations, or races, or genders, or ......... nationalities. We are not going to get our traditional voters back on the basis of "Some small countries good, other small countries bad; some ethnically based politics good, other ethnically based politics bad; some nationalisms good, other nationalisms bad." So let's not go forward on that basis. Let's instead make the case for unity being strength. In all circumstance.






Sunday, 14 September 2014

Terms of Engagement


This is almost certainly my last blog before the big vote itself.

I’m conscious that I’m now in a slightly odd position intellectually.

I started this blog from a standpoint significantly critical of my own Party’s strategy and have gained readership on that basis. In my immediate post referendum observations I promise that I will be that critical friend again.

But, as one of the common infantry,  no matter how much you might to have wished to have been better equipped, or to have engaged on better ground or indeed to have had better Generals, all of that becomes irrelevant when the order is given to fix bayonets.

And that is where I am now. About to advance towards the sound of gunfire knowing that, politically, on Thursday it will be kill or be killed.

With that knowledge, I  kind of feared that in this blog I might be left writing a sort of “Rally round the (Red) Flag” piece  that might have had its place in the Daily Record but is not really what my more select readership comes here for.

Except that, when I got home from work yesterday, Yes Scotland themselves had given me my theme.

For they had sent me a personally addressed communication assuring that my pension would be safe if I voted Yes.

Setting aside what it means for their much vaunted data base that they bothered writing to me at all, let alone that they thought I was a pensioner, this communication was a scandal.

Pensioners are rightly concerned what independence might mean for the value of their pension. It remains the case that they can have no idea of the currency in which it would be paid and it remains the case that Mr Swinney’s leaked document confessed that he had no idea as to how affordable it would be in any currency.

BUT, I concede that, publicly at least, Mr Swinney now says  he has done his sums and that existing pension levels would be affordable. I equally concede that it remains the position of the Scottish Government that, no matter how incredibly, the UK Government will back down on a Currency Union to allow that pension to be paid in Sterling.

So if the leaflet had said that “pensions will continue to be paid at existing levels and in Sterling” I would concede that this is indeed the proposition put forward by the Nationalists. I personally might say that this is unaffordable and incredible but that would be no more than the  counter argument of my side.

Except that’s not what the leaflet said. It said (and I quote precisely although the emphasis is mine):

“The answer is [your pension] will be paid in full, in exactly the same way..............

The Scottish Government guarantees it and the UK Government agrees”.

Now, properly the word “guarantees” might more properly be “proposes” but that sort of word substitution is common currency across different political campaigns.

My objection is to the suggestion that “the UK Government agrees”.

That is an outright lie. It has no basis in fact, it cannot find even the most tenuous basis in fact. It is a deliberate deceit of the (properly intended) recipients of this letter.

I blew up on twitter when I first got “my” letter and the cybernats then directed me to a communication sent in error by a lowly employee of the DWP to one of their number saying that the UK Government would continue to pay Scottish pensions after independence.  For the avoidance of any doubt, not only is it the position of the UK Government that post independence Scottish old age pensions would be the responsibility of the Scottish Government , that is also the position of the Scottish Government.

So it is as absurd to say that the UK Government “agrees” that Scottish old age pensions would be unaffected by independence as it would be to attribute similar sentiments to the German Government.  Post independence, Scottish pensions would be the responsibility of neither of these foreign Governments. They would be our responsibility alone. That is meant to be the whole point of independence.

And so in ending my pre referendum observations I want to observe this.

We, my side, have misunderstood the terms of engagement. For all the faults of conventional politics, Parties understand that while you might gain a temporary advantage by making wild and uncosted promises at one election, if you win on that basis you will pay the price at the next election. Don’t take my word for that, ask Nick Clegg. Or, to be even handed across the Party divide, Francois Hollande.

But of course on this occasion there would be no “next election”. The Scottish pensioner being told in May 2017 that their pension was to be cut by 20% and even then paid to them in a devalued currency so that it purchased even less than that in the shops; to be then being told that there was no "guarantee" from the Scottish Government and even less so from the UK Government and in truth there never had been. That Scottish pensioner might well resolve “never to vote for independence again."
But what would that matter? It would be enough for the authors of my letter that the pensioner had been fooled into doing so just once. For while the pensioner might not have their "guaranteed" pension, the authors of the letter would have the one thing they truly cared about. A flag.
And while you can't eat a flag it is clear that those behind "my" letter believe that waving it would be regarded as adequate compensation for an empty stomach.
Don’t let them get away with it.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Two moments in history

I want to start with two stories. Or rather one piece of history and one anecdote.

On 3rd April 1917, V.I. Lenin got off a train at the Finland Station in St Petersburg, He had returned from a long period of political exile in Switzerland courtesy of the German Imperial Government who saw, correctly, that his presence back on Russian soil offered the opportunity to knock their Russian enemies out of the First World War.

And Lenin brought hope. Hope certainly for the embryonic "urban proletariat" who had been bequeathed to him by the half hearted industrialisation of latter day Czarism. But, in an almost "New Labour" way, hope also to those who seized upon the Bolshevik slogan of "Peace, Bread and Land" as meaning whatever they wanted it to be. For nothing could be worse than the alternative of "War, Starvation and Servitude". Or so it seemed at the time.

And, almost 100 years on, I'd still have been with Lenin. Sometimes the end justifies the means.

But my second story is also important. Some of my readers may recall that during the final period of the 1997 General Election, already on our way to a landslide, Labour went with the slogan, "Seven days to save the NHS".  It played out very well on the doorstep even if the doorstep belonged to the already faithful.

One of its main salespersons was the much mourned Labour MP Mo Mowlam. In common with many other Labour politicians taken before their time, Mo is now an almost legendary figure, even though at her actual time she was as "New Labour" as the rest of them, Some of that legend is therefor a bit overdone but, nonetheless, she retains a certain reputation for integrity and plain speaking not without some justification.

In the final few days of the 1997 campaign Mo knocked a door while canvassing in her Teeside constituency. It was the sort of place unlikely ever to endorse the Tories but, as I'm sure the Tories equally recognise in Tunbridge Wells, you can't be seen to take your own voters for granted.

So, on this doorstep she was encountered by an elderly woman who assured Mrs Mowlam of her life long Labour support. "But" she went on  "I am awful worried about the this Tory plan to abolish the NHS that it talks about in your leaflet

"For my husband doesn't keep good health. It's his lungs. The doctors say its all these years in the blast furnaces. But, whatever it is, we are never away from the hospital.

"We're just working people, Mrs Mowlam. We've only got the basic pension. We couldn't possibly afford to pay for a doctor, If the Tories get back in and abolish the NHS we might as well close the door and let the Lord take us. I'm not sleeping worrying about it."

And Mowlam thanked the woman for her support, assured her of her confidence in a Labour victory, and returned to our canvas team.

But two or three doors knocked later she announced she wanted to go back to a door knocked earlier and that the others should carry on without her.

And she went back to that door.

"Look" she said "If I tell you something you have to promise me you'll keep it a secret". The woman nodded. "The Tories are not actually proposing to abolish the NHS. We're just saying that because.....it's an election.  Even if we lose you and your husband will be fine"

Because that is the post war, welfare state, settlement. Some things are not truly at risk. Sure, the Tories might say it should be harder to get long term Job Seekers Allowance but they don't ever say there should be no Job Seekers Allowance, Sure the Tories might say less should be spent on disability benefits but they don't ever say there should be no disability benefits. (Actually, whisper it, it was the Tories who actually introduced non means tested disability benefits.) Sure the Tories might want more private sector provision in the Health Service but they realise that if the principle of free at the point of need was ever threatened then, even in Tunbridge Wells, they'd find themselves knocking doors for reasons other than appearance.

So that is Labour's achievement. A much more profound and lasting legacy than Thatcher's liberation of the market will ever be.

Except that even that turns on the ability of the basic state structure to pay.

It is easy over the period since 2008 to bemoan the fate fallen upon us. The effective public sector pay freeze. The repossessions falling upon those unable, despite their best efforts, to find work sufficient to pay their mortgages. The difficulty of the young, and the old, to find work.

But against that background it has been difficult to speak up for what the United Kingdom has not been. We have not been Greece. Or Argentina. Or Spain or even Italy.

The Tories like to say "What has Chancellor Brown brought us to?" while we like to say "Why is Chancellor Osborne prolonging our misery". That is Party politics.

But, actually, even in the worst economic crisis since the Thirties there has still been a National Health Service, There has still been Job Seekers Allowance and disability benefits. If you can play the game and avoid being sanctioned there has been no outright destitution. Because there is a political consensus that as long as we can afford it  there should not be.

But what if we couldn't afford it?

Nothing annoys me more than those who announce that they intend to vote Yes because they have nothing to lose.

The vast majority of the objective economic commentary on an independent Scotland says that it must mean significantly higher taxes to maintain (even) the current level of public services.

Now, if necessary,  I'd vote for that. Except that, in building his bizarre coalition, Eck has assured a much larger constituency than that of liberal lefty lawyers that he has no plans for any tax rises. Indeed the only tax proposal he has at all is to cut taxes for big business.

So who'd be the loser in that? Those who don't pay (direct) taxes at all but those who nonetheless depend on the proceeds of these very taxes for their every day survival. Those who have been tricked into thinking they have "nothing to lose" from independence.

I'd readily concede that there is fault to be found with the Scottish Labour Party. There is much self interest, plotting for the sake of it, unwillingness to confront harsh reality. But there remains an underlying commitment to the best interests of working people and to those unfortunate enough to be not even in that circumstance. A commitment well beyond the attraction of a constitutional experiment that, in their heart of hearts, even its most ardent advocates know would only come at the expense of the utter destitution of those at the bottom.

There might have been those in 1917 Russia with so little to lose it was worth a gamble but 2014 Scotland is a very different place.

Vote No.

Vote Labour.