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.