Saturday 21 February 2015

Cometh the hour?

You may have noticed that I've gone off the blogging.

From May 2011 until Christmas past I wrote a blog pretty much every week and while initially I ranged over all sorts of political subjects, and occasionally even non political ones, for most of 2014 I devoted my efforts to the Scottish Constitutional question.

And to be honest that's the main reason I have stopped. It's over. There was a referendum, there was a decisive result and notwithstanding the desire of some, by no means exclusively on the separatist side, to re-fight old battles nobody is suggesting there is going to be another referendum any time soon. Even in the eventuality of a SNP landslide this May or even a return to majority government for the nationalists in 2016. For before they'd even attempt another go the Nationalist leadership, at least, appreciate that their prospects of success would have to be considerably better than a marginal opinion poll narrowing (if there is that) on a ten point defeat. The "45" can rant away all they like. The key to their problem is in the very name they've adopted.

But of course there is another big political event,  now just more than two months away; the General Election. 

You might think I'd have something to say about that.

The problem is that what happens at that General Election, in the UK but in Scotland as well, is not now a matter over which anybody now can have much influence excepting one man. Ed Miliband.

I thought this very brief blog from Mike Smithson had it well. The election is a choice between a relatively popular leader of a very unpopular Party and the very unpopular leader of what remains a relatively popular Party. Three of these things are unlikely to change in two months but one just might.

It should never be lost sight of that in 2010 the Tories, facing a clapped out Labour administration that had been in office (at least) during the worst recession in living memory and was engaged daily in internal warfare, still couldn't secure a Parliamentary majority. The demographics of the country were simply against them. And nothing they have done since then in their presentation of  themselves to key sections of the electorate (ethnic minorities; sexual minorities; anybody living more than 150  miles from London, most of the people actually living in London!) has changed that. At no point in the last 57 months has an incoming outright majority Tory administration looked remotely likely. 

Yet Labour hasn't closed the deal. Instead, if anything, the anti-Tory vote has fragmented in directions as diverse as UKIP and the Greens and, obviously, latterly, towards the Nationalists in Scotland.

But the Labour Party itself is not unpopular. Indeed, ironically, what many of these voters claim to want is a "real" Labour party. 

Yet what is a "real" Labour Party? Even the now sainted leadership of Attlee had its contemporary critics from the left. Herbert Morrison, Ernie Bevin, Stafford Cripps might have been great men in our history but revolutionaries they were not.

What I suspect these discontents really mean by a real Labour Party is a Labour Party that understands them and appears to have a clear idea of where the country should be going. That's what Wilson achieved in 64 and 66 at least, and it is, whether people want to acknowledge it or not, exactly what delivered Blair his 1997 landslide and his 2001 canter back into office.

That is Ed's challenge and it may just be that starting from where he personally is now might even prove a slight blessing in disguise. 

Outwith election times most voters get their impression of non governing politicians from only the most limited of exposure. And the "meejah" has an important interlocutory role which undoubtedly significantly disadvantages those faced with a hostile press. 

But at election times people are inclined to look for themselves. Frankly, as Labour in Scotland found out in 2011, that is a high risk game. But the very fact that Ed's current transitory perception is one of a hapless and hopeless klutz might just play to his advantage in that, once people take a better look, it would almost be impossible for him to fall below current expectation.

We can't avoid the fact that he is a professional politician in an age where professional politicians seem held in particular contempt but we might expect that his undoubted (and yet unappreciated) intelligence will come as a surprise to many, previously only casual, observers. On the really big card however, the ability to empathise, the abiilty to get across not just that you care but that you the end that will be down to Ed himself.  No blog advice can give that to him.

And in Scotland? 

My own hunch is that if there is an enthusiasm for a Labour Government in the rest of the country then there will, in the end, be that enthusiasm in Scotland. And if there is not? We'll get gubbed. Not much I can do about that either. 

Over to you Ed.

Wednesday 4 February 2015

Reasons to be cheerful.

Well, first of all, a big thank you to Lord Ashcroft. Really.

He has on any view performed a public service with his constituency polls and anybody in the Scottish Labour Party consoling themselves that ignorance was bliss has surely had a rude awakening.

I'm not even certain that it wouldn't be a good thing if much of what is predicted came to pass. And that's for four reasons.

For what would an SNP landslide mean?

It certainly wouldn't mean independence, for the Nats  have painted themselves into a corner on that by conceding that a referendum win is the only route to that goal. Setting aside for the moment the constitutional obstacles to another referendum, that at the very least depends on what happens in May 2016 and not May 2015.

Secondly, it would almost certainly mean another Tory Government not, this time, because Scotland had voted Labour and England otherwise but rather because Scotland had sat out the contest. Now, if that was on the basis that Scotland (now) was clearly in favour of independence we would have a problem but nothing in other polling suggests that. So it's difficult to see how the Nats would go forward. Even if, after a gubbing, Labour was inclined to the offer of a coalition partnership and the Nats to accept (both most unlikely scenarios) it's difficult to see that coalition having a Commons majority. SNP seats gained off Labour don't affect the number of Tory (or English and Welsh) Lib seats at all. Even the failure of either big Party to construct a Commons majority leading to a second election doesn't change that. It would only demonstrate the futility of voting SNP at a Westminster Election. And who'd bet on the SNP repeating their putative "achievement" in that circumstance? Common sense says they'd have to end up backing one or other big Party, if only by default.

Thirdly, and arguably most importantly, it would give not just the Scottish Labour Party, but the whole Labour Party, a well deserved kick in the arse.

For far too long we have taken the electorate not just in Scotland but in our safe seats elsewhere elsewhere for granted and in the process treated them with contempt. Partly, it has been that all the focus has been on small numbers of swing voters in marginal seats and on their concerns, mainly in the realms of personal taxation. The assumption has been that traditional Labour voters have nowhere else to go. Well, if that was the assumption it can no longer be that. People, even traditional Labour people, need reasons to vote Labour which go beyond stopping the Tories (or indeed the SNP). And if the strategy to attract these swing voters is premised on us being not too much different from the Tories then perhaps it's not unreasonable for our (past) more committed voters to take us at our own word and query whether that's what they signed up for.

But there has also been another factor. Actual Party activity in these safe areas has been regarded as altogether secondary to running (or trying to get elected to run) the Country. Or at least to running the Cooncil. So local Parties have become moribund., consisting largely of Councillors, would be Councillors, and their families. But it didn't really matter, was the argument, for "the community" was Labour. So, come election times, all sorts of local leaders in trade unions, community enterprises, voluntary organisations and the liberal professions could be relied upon to send out a subconscious message that voting Labour was just "what you did". We never however tried to tie these people more firmly to the Party not least because, between elections, the view of too many of our elected representatives was that they would prove "more trouble than they were worth". The one historic exception to this was in regard to the trade union movement but, to put it mildly, that movement is not what it was and indeed what is left of it no longer feels that Labour is, automatically, its Party. So neither "the community" nor the Unions can now be regarded as a secret army. Indeed, in many cases their attitude to perceived Labour complacency and arrogance has become part of the problem rather than its potential solution.

If we need to actually win (back) our safe seats then the starting point has to be to look at selecting candidates suitable to that task; not just to "working" the seat but to rebuilding the Party. If we can achieve that then that would surely be some sort of silver lining to these very dark clouds indeed.

And finally, there is this. How far May 2015 affects an equally important election in May 2016. Scotland currently exists in a kind of political alternative reality where Independence is somehow imminent. It's not. But as I pointed out in an earlier blog, the Nats have to maintain the illusion of progress to avoid their bubble bursting. I wonder however how a result in May this year will play out for them if it transpires that their success has nothing but a disruptive consequence as they attempt to force upon Scotland something we have only too recently rejected. And if it has any other outcome? The current SNP vote clearly couples traditional independistas with those expressing the "anti politics" sentiment that manifests itself across Europe in support for Parties as diverse as Syrzia and the Front National. But, as Syrzia are about to discover, it is one thing to travel hopefully, quite another to arrive. The minute an anti politics Party becomes a participant in government they are inevitably drawn into the compromises and disappointments that entails. Traditional Party support appreciates that. I'm far from certain that the anti politics wave does. And if disillusionment does follow from the SNP wave not so much changing nothing as not changing much except the politicians faces?  Then the very point at which that would fall to be expressed would be at an election the Nats really need to win.

Always darkest before the dawn.