Sunday 30 April 2017

Three lessons learned.

During this election period I've decided to write the occasional blog in the role of a largely detached observer. My first effort is here

Don't get me wrong, I'll vote Labour as always but it would be fair to say that I'm pretty semi-detached from our Leaderships both north and south of the border and for the moment there is little sign of that sentiment changing on either side.

So in the spirit of that first effort here are a few more passing reflections about, on this occasion, how the UK campaign is being influenced by recent Scottish politics.

Firstly, we have what the UK Tories have learned from the Scottish Tories.

I modestly claim the credit for first promoting the concept of the "Ruth Davidson Party". Ms Davidson, on inheriting the Scottish Tory Party leadership appreciated early on that while (some) Scottish Tory Policies were popular with a significant section of the electorate, they were failing to resonate because a cultural hegemony (look up your Gramsci) had come to exist in Scotland that the Tories were an alien Party. The Party of another country (England) and the Party of Mrs Thatcher, a woman so horrible that her doings could not even be discussed in polite company. A sort of Finchley Voldemort.

So Ms Davidson's solution was, initially, to pretend that she wasn't a Tory at all. She was Ruth, who liked a laugh, and a drink and who could turn up at a Pride event not as an embarrassing auntie there on penance but as someone who could claim to be a legitimate front line soldier on the right side of the culture wars.

And having done that, she started getting a wider hearing, admittedly assisted by Labour's determination to pluck defeat from the jaws of victory in the aftermath of 18th September 2014.

But most of you reading this will know that story. No, what is interesting is what we've seen in the early days of the UK campaign. Not the Tory Party but the Theresa May Party. For as Mrs May makes her progress through the Country there is one thing very noticeable. The prominence on all the backdrops of all the staged events of the name "Theresa May" and the absence, other than very much in the small print, of the word "Conservative".

For the UK Tories have worked out that Theresa May can reach parts of the electorate that "The Tories" never could. Thus, she is much more popular than her Party in certain parts of the Country. I genuinely have no idea why (although actually I suggest one partial explanation below) but there is no denying the polling. Even in Scotland, why she is so much more (or relatively less un) popular than David Cameron mystifies me. But it is there and the Tories know it. So where Ruth went, Theresa follows. Only Theresa starts with advantages Ruth never had.

Well actually, that "May factor" might be what the Tories have learned from the SNP. The common narrative that explains the 2015 SNP landslide at the General Election in Scotland is that all the Yes voters voted SNP while the No voters fragmented. First past the post then did the rest.

Except it wasn't as simple as that. For the SNP did significantly better in attracting a share of the popular vote in May 2015 than had the Yes campaign in September 2014. During that time, polling on Independence itself barely moved and logic dictates that some Yes voters at least returned to their normal Party allegiance. So it is incontrovertible that a significant section of the electorate, having voted No (indeed still intending, if asked again, to vote No), then nonetheless voted SNP. Why? Because Nicola Sturgeon sold herself as the person prepared to "stand up for Scotland". And where is Theresa May in this campaign? Standing up for Britain. Not kow-towing to Brussels (as the Tories would paint the Libs), never mind kow-towing to anybody who raises their voice as (believe me) they are about to do to Corbyn. "However you voted on Brexit, only one Leader will stand up for Britain in its aftermath", could almost be lifted directly from the Nats appeal in May 2015.

Then, thirdly, we have what the Lib-Dems have learned from the Scottish Tories. Sometimes a limited aspiration can pay dividends.

In May 2016, Ruth Davidson did not really stand for the position of First Minister. She stood for the position of Leader of the Opposition. And it worked. As the inevitable return to office of La Sturgeon became obvious, the electorate looked round as to who might best hold her to account. And Ruth stepped into a vacuum. Tim Farron spots that opportunity. It's just a pity he is Tim Farron. "Go back to your constituencies and prepare for opposition" might not immediately prove the most effective rallying call but if coupled with "Labour is finished forever and people won't want Tory Government's forever." ........? If that works, Tim might at least have the decency to buy Ruth a drink.

Anyway, these are my thoughts this weekend. More next week sometime,

Tuesday 25 April 2017

Where are we?

I thought I might just share some thoughts about where we are in the General Election campaign in Scotland.

Firstly, it is important to remember there are other elections first, the local elections on 4th May.

These will give us a much clearer picture than any opinion poll but I suspect they will only confirm what these polls are saying. That the Tories are on a surge north (and now elsewhere west) of the border. Only this time "the polls can't be trusted" won't wash as an excuse.

In the 4th May aftermath there will inevitably be last minute calls for Kez and Jez to go but there appears no sign either will. Kez's ability to hang on is a bit of a mystery to me. We are in a situation where despite the clear (slight) decline of the SNP and the speculation that they might lose seats to the Tories and the Libs, there is not a single seat in Scotland that Labour is tipped  (even wildly) to take off them. Yet the Leader of the Scottish Labour Party sails on oblivious, indeed apparently unconcerned. Perhaps she just assumes nobody else wants the job, and in advance of June 8th she might be right. But if she thinks she'll survive after that she is deluded.

In the UK contest I don't think we've even started to realise how bad things could be. Every so often something pops up on social media to remind people of McDonnell and Corbyn's past affiliations but generally, so far, this attack isn't coming from the Tories themselves. I think there is a reason for this. There remains a remote chance that if the local elections were even worse for Labour than has already been priced in, Corbyn might actually be forced to go. So, the Tories have reason not to press their advantage too soon. So far, Corbyn still persuades some voters that he is no worse than "nice but incompetent". The Tories will, I confidently predict, go all out to discredit that redeeming feature and nothing that Corbyn or his team have said so far indicates they have any strategy to deal with this. And that's before we even get started on the farce of "Labour supports a nuclear deterrent but our candidate for Prime Minister would never, ever use it."

But a lot of people still won't vote Tory in England & Wales, (many of whom are fervent Remainers) so I wouldn't be at all surprised if by two or three weeks out the narrative hasn't become "Will the Libs beat Labour in the popular vote?" Indeed I wouldn't be entirely surprised if that actually happened.

So, emerging narratives. If the Tories do well in Scotland and Labour implodes in the UK, it will have various consequentials for Scottish politics.

1. The answer to any challenge to the SNP will no longer be capable of being dealt with by just shouting TORY! (Red or otherwise). The Nats will have to engage with the Tories on policy grounds. They will struggle to do that while holding their coalition together because its clear a lot of Nats are far from inimical to power being moved out of Edinburgh, lower taxes, or Brexit.

2. The Tories will more generally be able to move the general discourse of Scottish politics to the right. There has been a baleful lack of debate in Scotland while Labour and the Nats have had a common interest (albeit for different reasons) not to challenge our complacent and flabby public sector. That will change.

3. If the Nats go backwards it won't just be whether they still say they'd still hold a second independence referendum. It will become whether they still really want one. No amount of "We're still (much) the biggest Party" in the early hours of 9th June will be capable of disguising that. And the clock to their 2020 Manifesto will have started ticking.

4. If the Libs beat or even get close to Labour in the UK result, post election political realignment there will become unstoppable. That will be particularly so if Corbyn attempts to hang on. This will also spill over to Scotland, particularly as here the Libs will almost certainly have more seats, if not votes, than us.

5. Speculation will start as to whether the Scottish Tories have a ceiling to their vote. Could Ruth Davidson actually become First Minister? and

6. If the Scottish voting patterns end up with Labour holding the balance of power between the Tories and the SNP what should we do? Actually, that's likely to be a question we have to answer on May 5th 2017 never mind May 2020. Anybody got any views as to what the answer ought to be? Small in number though we remain, I think that we might literally split on this issue alone.

So, cheery days.

Tuesday 18 April 2017

May 2020.

I am writing this blog in my lunchtime and I'm not the fastest of typists so I might have to finish it between clients this afternoon.

But, in summary, the decision of Theresa May to call an early UK General Election means that the next Holyrood Election will be in May 2020 rather than May 2021 as would otherwise be the case.

The Scottish Parliament was meant to have a four year term and in 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011 that's what happened.

But in 2011, the Westminster Parliament passed the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act essentially fixing the date of the Next UK General Election for May 2015. That would however have meant a Holyrood poll on the same date and,  for reasons I don't have time to go into here, there was a consensus against that. So, by virtue of s.4 of the 2011 Act, the date of the next Holyrood poll was moved to May 2016.

This was done on a one-off basis originally but there remained a view that the two elections should not clash, so when the Scotland Act 2016 was introduced it contained (in ss.4-10) provision that if a Holyrood and Westminster poll was to clash in future, the former would be moved.

The power to actually change the date lies with the Secretary of State but undertakings were given that he would respect the preference of the Scottish Government on whether to move the poll backwards or forwards. Prior to May 2016, Nicola Sturgeon indicated her preference for the former option.

BUT, although ss 4-10 of the 2016 Act were passed they have not been commenced. Even if they were commenced however, the power to adjust the four year statutory term would only be available if there was going to be a clash, which patently there isn't now going to be.

So its May 2020 for the next Holyrood poll.

Now, this is very important.

It has been clear from the outset that Sturgeon wanted the "next" referendum before the next Scottish Parliament election. The reason for that is quite clear. She fears the Parliament's pro independence majority might be lost at that poll. But, while suggesting her own preference for Autumn 2019, she was realistic enough to concede that it might have has to have been May 2020 for reasons connected to the negotiation of the terms of a s.30 and the inevitable time it would take to get a Bill through the Scottish Parliament.

Well it can't be May 2020 now. And the Tories have made it clear it won't be Autumn 2019.

So, there will only now be a second referendum if the SNP (and any allies) win the May 2020 elections on a clear mandate for a second vote. A mandate they fear they won't get. Don't take my word for that, ask Nicola Sturgeon.


Since I wrote this hurriedly at lunchtime, Professor James Chalmers of the University of Glasgow has entered this debate to suggest I am wrong and the Scottish Parliament has also claimed that the May 2021 date is preserved. I haven't seen anything in writing from the latter but am relying on what I've been told by political journalists who suggest they are following Professor Chalmers logic, so I'll assume that to be the case.

I accept absolutely that the Prof's only dog in this fight is that of correct statutory interpretation and that he is undoubtedly a more distinguished lawyer than me. I also concede that he relies on some legislation of which I was unaware at lunchtime. But I still think he (and if they have adopted his argument the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body) are wrong, albeit with regard to sections of the 2016 Scotland Act not yet commenced.

The Prof has pointed out that by virtue of an obscure piece of legislation, "The Scotland Act 1998 (Modification of Schedules 4 and 5)  Order 2015  the Scottish Parliament had, in 2015, been given the power to amend the date of the next Scottish Parliament Election. I readily concede I didn't know that, although the Prof himself was good enough to link to the Hansard debate in which it was clearly intended as a temporary measure. But while I might excuse myself from ignorance of an obscure Statutory Instrument the Prof also drew attention to The Scottish Election (Dates) Act 2016 of which I should have been aware earlier. For it uses the devolved competence of the 2015 Order to fix the date of the next Scottish Election as 6th May 2021.

But I don't think the Prof is interpreting things properly (ducks).

Because the 2015 Order was clearly intended as a temporary measure pending what became the Scotland Act 2016. And it says something quite different.

Section 2 of the Scotland Act 1998 (the founding Statute) says

    "The poll at subsequent ordinary general elections shall be held on the first Thursday in May in the fourth calendar year following that in which the previous ordinary general election was held, unless the day of the poll is determined by a proclamation under subsection (5)."

Section 5 of the Scotland Act 2016 amends that.

I've tried unsuccessfully formatting and reformatting this to get it on the page so here is the link

In summary the section (as amended) now reads

"The poll at subsequent ordinary general elections shall be held on the first Thursday in May in the fourth calendar year following that in which the previous ordinary general election was held unless

(a) subsection (2A) prevents the poll being held on that day......"

Subsection 2A reads

"The poll shall not be held on the same day as the poll at

(a) a Parliamentary General Election......"

I readily admit I've cut out a lot of irrelevant text here for brevity (and clarity) but if you doubt me, feel free to look at it for yourself.

Now, sections 4-10 of the Scotland Act 2016 have not yet been commenced but when they are they will become the law of the land. And they will then dictate when the next Scottish Parliament election will be, notwithstanding any Holyrood legislation. For, for the avoidance of any doubt on the matter, section 10(7) of the Scotland Act 2016 specifically revokes "The Scotland Act 1998 (Modification of Schedules 4 and 5) Order 2015".

So, in summary, if Sections 4-10 of the Scotland Act 2016 are commenced, the next Scottish Parliament Election will be on the first Thursday in May 2020. I stand by that argument.


Sunday 16 April 2017

Off with the Cap!

It is always worse if you have first hand experience of a particularly cruel government policy.

My day to day work now is mainly in the area of family law and accordingly I regularly see people whose relationships have recently broken up.

A standard scenario is meeting a woman with children who has been working part time, in order to discharge child responsibilities, while her departed husband or partner worked full time. And her immediate concern is how she'll survive on a much reduced family income; pay her bills; feed her kids.

And for the last fifteen years plus one of my first pieces of advice has been to check her eligibility for Tax Credits. On any number of occasions this has led to a realisation that her financial position is not as bleak as it first appeared. Thanks for the advice regularly follows. Only my belief that politics has no place in professional life forbids the response "Don't thank me, thank Gordon Brown."

Tax Credits were one of the greatest successes of the last Labour Government. Between their introduction in 1998/99 and the Tories initial assault on them after 2012/13, they reduced the percentage of children living in poverty from 35% to 19%. And 65% of all Tax Credit recipients ARE WORKING! A much higher percentage still of those with children all aged five or over.

The value of Tax Credits has already been reduced, but the most recent restriction, from 6th April past, is the most outrageous. Unless already born, from that date Child Tax Credits will only be paid in respect of the first two children.

Now the stated logic of this policy is to discourage poor people from having children but that's an absurd logic. WE SHOULD BE ENCOURAGING PEOPLE TO HAVE CHILDREN!  The current birthrate for all women in the UK is 1.9 children. Think that through. Continuation of that trend will see the population fall. While, not only will we have fewer young people but, thanks to advances in medical science, we will have more old people. This is demographic madness. And if you are the sort of Tory who obsesses with immigration it is madder still. For the major reason we need these immigrants is that we do not have enough young people "of our own" to pick our crops, produce our goods or provide our basic public services.

But, the Tories might argue, we can't have "all these people" having children "the rest of us" have to pay for. They seize on the idea that there are "Welfare Queens" out there with teamless broods brought into this world, and then brought up within it, with a casual disregard for "conventional norms".

But this is nonsense! Sure there are a few people like this but the idea they are motivated by money ascribes to them a degree of calculation that belies everything else about the way they live their lives. And, anyway, their circumstance is already sanctioned by the benefit cap and even then, frankly, it is less than clear what anyone gains from making their children even poorer than they already are.

BUT THAT'S NOT EVEN THE POINT! For 68%, (68%!!!!) of those hit by the two child tax credit cap have the, hardly wholly irresponsible, number of three (three!!!!) children.

And, anyway, anyway, other than very much at the margins, if this idea is really motivated by the lunatic idea of discouraging children, IT WON'T WORK! For people generally have as many children as they think they can cope with. They don't sit down in advance with an abacus to calculate the financial consequences. And, as in the working example I provided above, they often bring children into the world without a thought for a moment that they might, one day, ever need to claim Tax Credits.

No, the crude reason the Tories are cutting Tax Credits is that they wish to cut public expenditure. They need to reduce the deficit and, being Tories, raising taxes is not a viable option. Anymore than, for electoral reasons, they would ever hit those most easily able to afford it, better off pensioners. So, instead, they intend to make already poor people even poorer and, on their own figures, by the time the policy works through, save "up to" £3.1 Billion per annum.

Now, on the face of it, Labour and the SNP are both equally opposed to this policy. Both Parties certainly voted against it in the Westminster Parliament.

Except we are both in opposition in the Westminster Parliament. But at Holyrood the SNP are in Government. And, since September 2016, the Holyrood Parliament has the power to reinstate these cuts. But, strangely, the SNP shows no inclination to use this power.

When I first raised this on Twitter, I was accused by no less than a SNP Member of Parliament of talking "mince" but, that tactic having failed, the Nats new objection suddenly was that if they did so they would either have to raise taxes or find the money from cutting elsewhere. Well, indeed. Isn't that what both our Parties are supposedly calling on the Tories to do at Westminster? One of us at least sincerely.

Instead the Nats have decided to work themselves into a faux frenzy over the so called "rape exemption", which is in reality a very minor and humane exception to what is an otherwise appalling policy. Insofar as I understand their supposed argument, it appears that they object to people claiming the exemption having to fill in (in confidence) a form that contains a number of personal questions. Well, here's something else from my professional experience. If you claim Criminal Injuries Compensation for being raped you have to fill in such a form. Is it the policy of anybody in any Party that rape victims should be denied such compensation to avoid that regrettable form filling necessity?

Frankly, this a crude distraction from the real scandal. The failure of the SNP to use the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament to relieve a crude attack on the poor. Because as always, the Nationalists social democratic mantle seldom survives much examination. For, again as always, they are not really interested in solutions, only in stoking grievance. For a flag.

So Labour should take the initiative here. Lay down a Holyrood motion condemning the Westminster policy but calling on the Scottish Government to act. Let's see how the Nats vote then.

Wednesday 5 April 2017

From Hungary.

So, I am writing this on Tuesday from the terrace of Andi's parents' house on the outskirts of Budapest.

I won't be able to post it though until I'm back as, despite there being broadband internet, nobody can remember the password and the British (surely) genius who decided that it was a good idea to put that on the router doesn't seem to have extended his or her wisdom to Hungary.

I was therefore a bit worried when, connecting briefly to the outside world via my phone, it looked like we might be going to war with Spain. As Hungary is in traditional Hapsburg territory, I even feared momentarily that I might be interned.

Actually, internment itself would probably have been OK since it is a very pleasant 24 degrees here and I've always liked pork (pretty much the only meat anybody eats, albeit in infinite variety). But internment without access to the internet would have been intolerable. Although at least I wouldn't have to worry about seeing any spoilers for the Walking Dead series finale until a latter day Drake (not that one!) or Howard (more of a possibility) or Raleigh (Labour is big on Raleighs at the moment) had succeeded in securing my liberty. Firstly by the traditional burning of Cadiz and then seeing peace guaranteed by persuading Prince Harry that he must forgo the fair Meghan for the hand of the Spanish Infanta. Aged eight. Or Forty-eight. Or whatever. Who cares when the Nation's interest needs served?

However, war with Spain came to nothing, allowing the attention of the Royal Navy re-directed towards the National Trust. So I should be fine now if, on my return, I stay away from Culzean Castle.

As Chris Deerin points out today, the Country has gone mad. Or at least some of it has.

Andi's folks stay in the suburbs of Budapest, on the large Island of Csepel, where the Danube divides,in a very Scottish way, between the “big Danube” to the north and the “wee Danube” to the south. It is an astonishingly peaceful place, despite every single resident apparently owning a big dog. Except for those who own two big dogs. And sometimes some small dogs as well. Just to keep the big dogs company..

But at the centre of the island, nearly thirty years on, there is an air base, on prime land, which, although still used for light aircraft, can't be developed properly because, for the forty plus years prior, it was was operated by the Red Army, Who, on leaving, but even before leaving, simply dumped their unwanted diesel, paraffin and other chemicals into the soil. Making it a mammoth task now to clean that up.

Victor Orban, the political top dog here, is not my cup of tea. He is a firm believer in the superiority of Hungary and Hungarians over all and any other nation. A sort of central European Alex Salmond. And the principal opposition is worse, coupling all of the above with an open anti-semitism in a way that might make even Ken Livingstone blush.

But Hungary is still a very European Nation. The EU flag flies alongside the national tricolour and shield on just about every public building. Sometimes even outside supermarkets. There is no going back here. I wrote, while here before  about the Hungarian insistence on a hard external border to the EU, but as you negotiate the M0, Budapest's equivalent to the M25,you are struck by the signposting to Austria, Slovenia, The Czech Republic and Slovakia and the importance, ultimately, of maintaining Schengen access to each as you head off in whatever direction.

The idea, in some quarters at home, that the EU is a project about to collapse would be laughed at by the vast majority of Hungarians. Even here, in probably the most eurosceptical of all of the remaing 27. Because the EU means peace and significantly greater prosperity. And one day, if required, Hungary will find its own Macron to point out that adherence to liberal “western” values will always trump the alternative of returning to the status of a closed nation state, never mind a border land. Notwithstanding today's grandstanding by the Vizegrad 4.

So, the EU will go on. And, slowly but certainly, Britain will come to realise that declaring that we have no need for any allies at all on the Continent of Europe makes no more sense in the 21st Century than it had done for the previous five Centuries before.

For if, even at the height of Empire, Lord Salisbury concluded that self same thing, then surely Theresa May will eventually do so herself one day. If not, hopefully before it is too late, the electorate will do it for her.

Anyway, back in Hungary, they have had a relatively mild Winter. So the blossom is already on the Cherry Trees (white for sour cherry; red for sweet) and will surely be gone before the Lilac even first appears.

And I'm getting ready to go home.

From where I will finally post this blog.