Sunday 17 May 2015

Sunday Bloody Sunday

Sometimes you are just screwed.

Before yesterday, I was genuinely not sure about the fate of Jim Murphy. I had supported him for the leadership and while it is always possible to find fault with minor aspects of any campaign, even successful ones, the strategy that he adopted was essentially the strategy I would have commended myself.

That this strategy changed was because each approach tried in turn didn't work.

Initially, we argued that the referendum was over and that the choice on May 7th was between a Tory Government and a Labour Government. This should have worked, not least, as was demonstrated by the result itself, because it was true. Even the SNP obliquely conceded this by stating that an SNP vote was not a vote for independence or even for another referendum. Essentially it was a vote to prop up a Labour Government. Logic surely dictated to the electorate that if you wanted a Labour Government the best way to get that was to vote for it directly.

It didn't work for two reasons. The first, bluntly, was because Scotland, actually, was no more enthused by the prospect of Prime Minister Miliband than was, as it turned out, the rest of the Country. Not very much Jim, or anybody else, could do about that.

The second was because, since just dumping on Ed directly was out of the question, we were almost obliged to buy into the myth that Labour's ongoing problem with the SNP in Scotland was that we weren't sufficiently distinctively to the left of the Tories whereas the nationalists somehow were.  I say myth because, with the exception of Trident, the SNP and Labour manifestos were almost identical. Before we went there, nobody was attracting any votes at all from being to the left of the SNP. Indeed nobody was even seriously contesting the election on that basis.

But, since strategy one wasn't working, and since we had nowhere else, it appeared, to go, that's where we had to head. And so we ended up with the period of "Red Jim". Whatever public spending the SNP offered we'd offer more. And, .......well there was no and. That was just it.

The problem with this is that it not only did it run directly contrary to the message of fiscal rectitude we were (correctly) identifying as essential to actually winning the (UK) election, whatever anybody knew of Jim Murphy, the idea of him being some new Red Clydesider simply lacked any credibility. Anyway, since nobody really doubted that the SNP would spend as much as they could, in offering "more", Labour was either offering to act irresponsibly or, more likely, just..........lying.

So, unsurprisingly, that didn't work either. But given the limited options I suppose it had to be given a try.

And that then left us with strategy three. The endgame. The one glimmer of hope in the face of otherwise uniformly grim polling and focus grouping was the realisation that, even among many Nationalist voters, there was no enthusiasm for an early re run of the referendum. In parallel it was also clear that for non-Labour but non-nationalist, voters, stopping a re run was their single most fervent desire. A desire even beyond the election of a government of their preference.

So we went for that in Spades. Ostensibly to strip off soft Nats but in reality also in the hope of attracting a tactical vote.

The problem with this (always you will note the recurrence of the word problem) is that the Nats had the same polls and focus group results and headed us off at the pass by declaring, long and loud, that the May 7th vote had nothing to do with another referendum. Then, with the iron discipline which can only bring admiration, they enforced that line on even the zoomiest of their candidates.

So vote Labour to stop something which isn't going to happen anyway proved, in the end, not to work either. The rest is history.

At this point, reviewing what I've written already, it occurs to me that it comes across as unduly critical. That's not my intention. For in truth, starting from where we were back in November, WHAT ELSE COULD ANYBODY ELSE HAVE DONE?

Sure, Neil Findlay might have played the red more convincingly than Jim. Sarah might have been a more attractive magnet for tactical voters but in truth they would each have ended up exercising the same options without, and I mean no disrespect to either here, the manic energy Jim brought to the role.

So, personally, it is unfair to lay the blame for our defeat at Jim's door. And, given that, would have been unfair to call upon him to go. But sometimes politics isn't fair and, before yesterday, I was hesitating between fairness and realpolitik. On occasions you have to do something because the public expects something to be done.

As it turns out, all of this is academic now.

Except that, as with the departure of every leader since Wendy, the circumstance of their going has actually left us worse off than we were before.

The public calls for Jim's head seemed motivated not for the most part by those who had come down on the side of realpolitik but rather by those who had never been reconciled to his leadership in the first place. Whatever caused our defeat a week past on Thursday it had nothing whatsoever to do with the manner in which we went about selecting a candidate for Falkirk  (a "safe" seat which, I note in passing, we lost by 19,701 votes). Yet for some his role in that process and in other internal Party battles was never to be forgotten, or forgiven. This is the politics of the madhouse.

The idea that the Labour Party has ever, internally, been an entirely happy band of brothers is a wholly fallacious one. Never mind the great betrayal of 1931 we've seen the enforced deposition of Lansbury; the Bevanite/Gaitskellite feud rumbling on long after both were dead; the Bennery of the 1980s and, most recently Blair v Brown. Even under our greatest ever Government, when Ernie Bevin had it suggested to him that Herbert Morrison was his own worst enemy, Bevin famously replied "Not while I'm alive he isn't."

But the Murphy/Unite dispute is of a different order. For the leader of our largest affiliate to arrive in Scotland during an election campaign unwilling to encourage his members to vote Labour is an outrage. For that same affiliate then to decide that the moment of an existential crisis for the Party in Scotland was simply the opportunity to settle scores surely calls into question that affiliate's commitment to the wider cause altogether.

But that is what happened and we are now utterly adrift: leaderless; directionless; hopeless.

Yet we must rise again.

Be in no doubt, the recovery of the Scottish Labour Party is essential to the very survival of progressive politics in the UK. No matter any amount of wishful nationalist thinking it will always be unacceptable to the people of England & Wales for their Government to be in office at the whim of a Party who don't really want to be in their company at all.

So the card Cameron played so successfully in the last days of the election campaign past, that the only possible stable government is a Conservative government, will remain on the table so long as current electoral circumstance remains. It is all very well for my side to say, logically, to the Scottish electorate that so long as we remain in the United Kingdom we must participate properly in that Country's political process, not sitting on the sidelines in the huff. The problem is that for the moment logic isn't much of a force in Scottish politics.

So Labour in Scotland needs a new offer. And not just in the interests of Scotland.

Perhaps understandably, some nationalist commentators think the answer is an independent Scottish Labour Party which would, strangely enough, look remarkably like their (imagined) view of the SNP. Ideally, indeed, this Party would actually be in favour of independence which rather gives the game away. The same commentators often offer a similar prescription to the Scottish Tories. Independence is, it seems, to their mind the answer to every question.

Well, that's not going to happen. The Labour Party is not in favour of independence. In our opinion it would leave Scotland economically impoverished and culturally crippled. You don't have to agree with that opinion but you can't (yet at least) force us to think otherwise. The point can't be made often enough that the SNP exists at all only because its founders could not persuade the Labour Party of the merits of separation. If that changes, the logic is not a separate Scottish Labour Party, it is the winding up of the Scottish Labour Party altogether. Ask Jim Sillars.

We have a devolved Party structure and we should keep it but the idea that Scottish members shouldn't get a say in the selection of the Labour Candidate for Prime Minister is a non-starter.

Others think the Scottish Party needs a new programme. But what would that be? At this point it all becomes a bit hesitant. Sure we need another one of these ubiquitous "policy reviews" but the idea that our problem, other than very much at the margins, is about policy................really?

No, what we need is a fresh face in a meaningful way. And that should start with the realisation that none, literally none, of those eligible and willing to stand for the leadership under the current rules is a viable candidate for First Minister.

There are only forty one people in that category. The one MP, the two MEPs and thirty eight members of the Scottish Parliament.

The first three can be discounted as presumably can the two MSPs who have already had a go. A number of senior people who might act in a caretaker role to get us beyond 2016 show no enthusiasm for the task and much of the rest of the Holyrood group are, to put it kindly, not leadership material.

There is always Kez by default and that's kind of where the momentum (sic) currently is but seven months ago she herself concluded she wasn't up to the top job yet and I really doubt that the electorate will conclude that an intervening period participating in a disastrous election campaign has somehow filled that gap in her CV.

No, what I suggest is this. We rip up the list of already selected candidates. That might be easier than you imagine since virtually none of them have a chance of getting elected anyway. We select of new based on a system of constituency primaries where anybody prepared to declare an intention to vote Labour next May gets to have a vote. We could look to the Daily Record to assist in this process.

We do all that by 31st December. Then from anybody capable of getting fifteen (?) candidate nominations (even if they are not a constituency candidate) we select our FM candidate by means of a national open Primary conducted by the end of February. Whether or not they have a constituency, they go to the top of a list of their choosing

As for who then goes where on the list? The leader chooses. Simple as that.

Not a magic bullet but at least a visible fresh start. If instead, as I fear we might, start from the objective of trying to salvage the careers of those, by fortune rather than calculation, still clinging to elected office we will deserve all we get. And anyway, we would not be bringing them a reprieve, just a stay of execution.

Friday 15 May 2015

Not never, but not now.

The immediate aftermath of the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections seems a long time ago but it was when I started blogging.

Labour had just suffered a devastating defeat in the Scottish Parliament elections, Iain Gray had understandably resigned as Scottish Party Leader and the cry that went up immediately was "We must have a new leader"!

I asked then however the simple question "Why"?

To my mind that question was never answered satisfactorily.

We knew in May 2011 that given the SNP had an absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament there would, definitely, be no further Scottish General Election until May 2015.*

Four years ahead, or, more correctly, in the immediate run up to an election four years ahead, Labour would have needed a candidate for First Minister. We did not however need that candidate selected with declared finality in a process conducted over the Summer of 2011.

Yet that is what we got.

At the time I backed Tom Harris but I concede that Tom, as a Westminster MP, would undoubtedly have had difficulty in time management between Westminster and Holyrood over a four year period. It seemed to me that there was however no adequate candidate (or at least no adequate candidate willing to stand) within the rump Holyrood group. Time proved that indeed to be the case.

I'm not yet ready to fully engage with the mess the Scottish Labour Party is in but it seems to me that the lesson of four years past learned through harsh experience by the Scottish Party should be being paid more attention by the Party as a whole.

Why are we rushing to select a new UK Party leader when in Terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, and in the context of increasingly Presidential General Election contests, that person will not actually be a candidate for Prime Minister until May 2020?

I have simply no idea.

Certainly we need a leader of the Parliamentary Group but why couldn't the Parliamentary Group not simply select such a person? That might be a task pretty thankless outwith the ranks of the Party itself but internally the individual involved could expect considerable gratitude and goodwill.

They could easily take Prime Minister's Questions and deal with the operation of  "the usual channels" for the next two or three years.

It's clear that the Party needs a much more honest discussion about what went wrong a week past on Thursday and how to put it right than that which took place in the immediate aftermath of 2010. Wouldn't that more honest discussion be aided if it didn't involve challenging and, potentially, "undermining" a leader already in post?

But there is another and more fundamental reason to commend this approach.

It is clear that the Labour coalition of the organised working class roped to the liberal middle class and minorities: ethnic, national or indeed other, simply isn't enough any more.

Never mind that the organised working class is not, numerically, what it was. In voting intention, the "liberal" adjective is increasingly subordinate to its subjective clause "middle class" and minorities clearly think they have other options. In Scotland have exercised these options in spades.

All of this makes the way ahead increasingly difficult for the Labour Party.

Yet the selection of a new leader here and now will not be dominated by consideration of how to rebuild that coalition and/or how to expand it.  Rather it will be dominated by who best would aid internal Party factions in a struggle over the next five years.

For all the repercussions that flowed from it, the principal point on the agenda at the famous Blair/Brown Granita meeting was "Who will best beat the Tories". By the Spring of 1994 minds had already turned to an election that, under the prevailing rules at the time, might have been as little as two years away.

And when Blair emerged from that internal leadership contest he really was something "New".

Over the period up to the election Blair could create the impression of an insurgency, of being the "coming thing", in a way that would have been altogether more difficult over a five year long haul. A significant part of that was that Blair himself was "new"; change made flesh if you like.

The Americans get this. After the defeat of McCain and then Romney it would not have occurred to the Republicans that they immediately needed a different "alternative President".

More to the point so do the Democrats. After 2004 an immediate contest could never have delivered what remains the archetypal insurgent progressive campaign of our time: Obama for America. Even if somehow it had, it is difficult to see how that momentum could have been maintained for four years.

That's what Labour needs. A contest in 2018/19 from which hopefully a candidate "for Britain" would emerge. A candidate not selected based not on who the Party membership most wanted but  chosen with regard who the electorate most wanted. And not a platform and then a candidate or indeed a candidate and then a platform. Rather a candidate AND a platform emerging together.

So no harm to Andy or Yvette or Liz or Mary or anybody else yet to declare, asked for my vote  in the next three months my response would be to each: "Not never, but not now".

Not that anybody is likely to listen. Any more than they listened in 2011.

*Later the Fixed Term Parliaments Act extended the Scottish Parliament term to May 2016.

Monday 4 May 2015

I disagree

I've been blogging for the last few weeks on the implications of a hung Parliament and the effect of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.

Today a much more distinguished lawyer has entered the fray, Professor Adam Tompkins.

I commend and agree with much of Adam's blog but in one critical aspect I think he is fundamentally wrong.That is on the issue of whether, in light of the terms of the Act, a Government can resign without the consent of the opposition either to take office themselves or to dissolve Parliament.

The figures Adam posits for the election outcome are broadly in line with my own previous hypotheses: A Tory Party clearly ahead of Labour in Commons seats but without, even with the Liberal Democrats, an absolute majority in the Commons.

I agree entirely that the starting point then is that David Cameron gets the first attempt at a continuing administration.

But where I disagree with Adam is as to what happens if that administration fails to secure a Commons majority on its legislative programme.

Adam suggests that the Government would resign and the Leader of the Opposition would be invited by the Queen to attempt to form an administration. Now, if it was known in advance that the Leader of the Opposition had the willingness to form an administration, or at least to try, I agree that is what would happen. But to my mind Adam misses one central point.

The day to day administration of the Country requires a Government and a Government requires a Prime Minister. We are in an election period and there are no MPs but David Cameron is still the Prime Minister and his Ministers are still Ministers of the Crown. From day to day they will still be called upon, necessarily, to exercise executive functions.

So what if the Governing Party offers to resign but the principal opposition party is either absolutely unwilling or at least as yet undecided as to whether even to attempt to form a Government?

It seems to me that in that circumstance the current Government can offer to resign but the Queen is not obliged, indeed could not, accept that resignation.

I illustrate that with an obvious example.

The purpose of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act is to prevent the current governing Party, in the person of the Prime Minister, having the effective right to require the Queen to call a General Election at a time of their choosing.

The Act is quite clear. Only two things now can trigger an early election. The first is the House of Commons voting for one by a two thirds majority. The second is the House of Commons passing a motion specifically declaring itself to have no confidence in the current Government AND no motion declaring confidence in an alternative Government then being passed within a fourteen day period thereafter.

Resignation of a Government is not mentioned in the Act but if resignation did effectively also trigger an election then the Act would have no meaning.

For, logically, a Government with a comfortable overall majority desiring an early election could simply resign. By Adam's argument the opposition would have to (?) take office and the majority party could then simply use that majority to pass a no confidence vote and achieve their objective of a dissolution.

That can't be right. Surely in that situation the Queen would refuse to accept the Governing Party's resignation.

And, in my opinion, if the coalition government sought to resign before Ed Miliband was sure he wished to attempt to form an administration, a similar scenario would ensue.

That's not to say the Prime Minister, or particular departmental ministers could not resign as individuals but in the case of the former development the Queen would simply invite another member of the governing Party/ies to serve as her Prime Minister pro tem. Of course you could get the absurd scenario of nobody being willing to be Prime Minister but before that point was reached I suspect there would be the two thirds Commons majority available for a dissolution.

This is where the Nats get lost. Their assumption is that if Labour plus the SNP have a Commons majority then somehow Ed would be obliged to become Prime Minister and, in the process, Labour be obliged to form an administration.

But we wouldn't.

Again, I illustrate that with another obvious example.

Suppose it was not the SNP but UKIP who were enjoying a surge. And suppose Labour had fewer seats than the Tories but Farage announced he would, for reasons of his own, be prepared to support a Labour Government. Would we take office on that basis? Not for five minutes.

Now, the SNP say that in real life Labour would grasp any chance of power. In that, in my view, they are simply wrong. Whether the Nats like it or not, even protest it to be unfair, much of the Labour Party finds their politics as distasteful as those of the Kippers. And, to flatter the SNP, supposing their prominence in Scottish politics is a permanent one, such would be the likely electoral backlash in England to the "losing" Party somehow winning "their" election,  that it would be likely Labour would lose ground in England without recovering it in Scotland. Never mind forever losing the argument in Scotland that if you want a Labour Government you need to vote Labour.

My final point is this however. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act has the capacity to "trap" a Party in power. A Labour Government could find its legislative programme regularly blocked by the Nationalists but unable to dissolve Parliament because the same Nationalists refused to vote against us in a confidence vote. Because, I repeat, that Government couldn't then simply resign.

Now all this might yet be academic. Labour might yet have a Commons plurality. Or indeed the coalition a small majority. Barring either however it is increasingly difficult to see past an October re-run. The one and only thing the surge might deliver to the SNP is, if they wish it, a re-run even sooner than that.