Saturday 30 November 2019

My fourth election blog: The centre has not held.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,........
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming (1921)

This was meant to be the election of the centre. Both of the major Parties are in the grip of their wildest extremes. Both are led by figures who are in different ways regarded, even by some of their own members, even indeed by a number of their own candidates, as unfit for the post of Prime Minister. One is absolutely in favour of abandoning that great centrist institution, the European Union, the other at best ambivalent on that matter. 

When the election was called there was a real anticipation that not only would the Liberal Democrats flourish, possibly even to the extent of coming second in the popular vote, but that they would be joined in the Commons by a number of "independent" refugees from the two big Parties who weren't, for whatever reason, willing to completely jump the dyke to actual Lib Dem membership. 

In the run up to and indeed during the campaign, the Lib Dem cause has been joined by some of the brightest and best of former Labour and Tory centrist MPs and endorsed by former grandees of both big Parties. What possible better circumstance could they have?

Yet it simply has not happened. No-one now suggests they will get anything like the 23% of the popular vote and 57 seats won by Nick Clegg in 2010, when the electorate was otherwise faced with a choice between the far more mainstream Prime Ministerial candidates of Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

Furthermore, the chances of more than one or two of the miscellaneous independents getting elected is vanishingly small. My money would be on none at all. 

The reasons for this are many and complex. 

The starting point is that this is a quasi-presidential system and while objection can be raised to both Johnson and Corbyn in that role, objection can also be raised to Jo Swinson. I hesitated before writing this for fear of be accused of ageism or, worse, mysoginy, but you cannot avoid the conclusion that this election has came to soon for her. She is is too young, too inexperienced for you to able to close your eyes and imagine her in 10 Downing Street. If I might make a comparison with another political figure, Nicola Sturgeon, that was precisely the calculation that the SNP made when rejecting the idea of Nicola Sturgeon as their leader in 2004. Since then however Ms Sturgeon has been (at least) deputy leader of the SNP for fifteen years. She has had a leading role in in, now, eight Scottish or UK Elections, never mind two referendums. It is that which has honed her into the consummate politician which even her worst enemies would concede she now is.

Jo Swinson has had no such baptism, let alone confirmation. Until six months ago she was a fairly unknown figure and she simply has not had time to grow into a leadership role. It is that, rather than more fundamental personal failings, which has hampered her in this campaign.

But there have been other mistakes by the Lib Dems, most fundamentally on their positioning on Brexit. Whether we like it or not, in June 2016 the British people voted in a referendum to leave the EU. You can't just ignore that. But the Libs essentially proposed/propose to do just that. This was then compounded by suggesting that their initial ambition was to win the election outright. That avoided them having to express a preference between Johnson and Corbyn but left the Party of PR suggesting that c.40% in a General Election would overrule 52% in a referendum. This might have a certain logic if you believe any Brexit is disastrous, so, as the Party of Government, you could never countenance such a happening. It also avoids the absurdity of the Labour position of negotiating a different deal but then possibly campaigning against it in a referendum but it just doesn't/didn't seem fair and raised genuine fears of de-legitimising the democratic process.

In any event, the idea that the Libs could "win" the election, even with miscellaneous independent allies was always absurd. After three weeks of the campaign they have conceded that themselves and are back to arguing for a major role in a hung Parliament. But that then washes them back onto the perilous rocks of choosing between Corbyn and Johnson and in particular the problem that one key target voting group, Tory remainers, are horrified with the idea that Corbyn might gain power on any basis, while a second key group, Labour voters who don't like Corbyn, are equally fearful of Johnson still in number ten. If that wasn't enough, a third key group, those who just want to move on from Brexit, are far from convinced they want another hung Parliament at all.

Not even with the benefit of hindsight, this illustrates the strategic error of the centrist opposition in the last Parliament nailing their colours to the always illusory quest of a second vote rather than offering to work with Mrs May for the softest of Brexits. Now they would argue that offer would not have been accepted but since it was never made we will never know what would have happened if it had.  What we do know is that in consequence Theresa May, Philip Hammond, Jeremy Hunt and Amber Rudd have been replaced each by a much more right wing successor who are now on the verge of a Tory landslide.

And that leads me to my final reason for failure, Liberal Democrat sectarianism. They have quite expressly spurned the opportunity to assist their own would be allies. Excepting their rather strange deal with the Greens and Plaid in sixty or so seats, few of these where any of these three Parties have any chance, they have resolved to stand against almost all the centrist independents, withdrawing only against the apparently randomnly chosen Sir Dominic Grieve. They also continue to oppose those surviving centrist candidates of the two big Parties even where that might only assist their hard Brexiteer or mad Corbynista opponent. 

I'm going to write further about this after the election but hopefully the Liberal Democrats will finally realise themselves that their most fundamental error of this election is that if the centre is to prosper, it requires the Liberal Democrats (the mistake the Tiggers made in not realising) but it can't comprise the Liberal Democrats alone.

Sunday 24 November 2019

My Third Election blog. For Labour, Winter is coming

It says everything that today's Panelbase poll giving Scottish Labour a mere 20% was nonetheless greeted with some sense of relief in my Party's ranks. The week before last there were three Council by-elections in Scotland: two in Fife and one in Inverness. The Labour vote fell by 4.3%,  6.9% and, in the only seat where we had much of a vote share to start with, a spectacular 13.%. In the last case, Dunfermline Central, we also managed to go from second place to fourth in one fell swoop.

It is looking increasingly likely Labour will lose every seat we currently hold north of the border excepting the wholly unrepresentative example of the "Labour and Unionist" candidate Ian Murray in Edinburgh South.

This would remain a tragic outcome to me, semi detached though I am from Corbyn's Labour. Not least as several outstanding public representatives will be swept away in the process, never mind that many others who would make outstanding public representatives will never get that opportunity.

It would be fair to say however that Corbyn and his allies wrote off Scotland from the start. Their pivot to supporting or at least allowing a second independence referendum had nothing to do with attracting Labour votes in Scotland but everything to do with attracting SNP votes in a hoped for hung Parliament in the post election period.The Scottish Labour Party was not even as much as consulted in the process and I doubt if this policy shift will feature on a single Labour leaflet north (or indeed south) of the Border.

But it will all, anyway, be in vain, except for leaving us with an immense hangover for the 2021 Holyrood election, as it seems increasingly clear from the UK polls that on 12th December, we are heading for at least a Tory majority and in all probability a Tory landslide.

There will then be an existential choice for the Labour Party. The manifesto consists of little more than a whole list of retail policies aimed, not, in my opinion, even very cleverly, at specific target groups of voters, together with a gigantic wish list of public sector and want to be public sector Trade Union demands. Today's £58Bn overnight "promise" to women in their sixties without even the pretence of knowing how it would be funded is but the most ludicrous example of the former to date, while the straightforward manifesto offer of an immediate pay increase to a select group of workers, whose unions are bankrolling Labour's campaign, borders on the farcical. And don't even get me started on "sectoral collective bargaining".

But there is no doubt the manifesto was greeted with something approaching hysteria in Corbynista circles. It is in truth worthless. Mere words on a piece of paper much of which the leadership circle know themselves has no prospect of being implemented, given that the limit of their electoral ambition is to be the largest Party in a hung Parliament. Anybody think the SNP would ever sign up for the entire country's broadband being within the monopoly hands of the British Government? Or the Libs for pretty much any of this, even if Corbyn himself was sacrificed in pursuit of their support? No, me neither.

But the question is what happens next. For some, a "brilliant" manifesto every five years and four years and ten months of meetings, rallies and protests in between will be an end in itself. "Hobby politics" as someone once described it. The cult of Jeremy will become the cult of Rebecca, or whoever, but otherwise things pretty much carry on as before. Hopefully., at least, with a bit less anti-Semitism.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if that happens. The same Trade Unions most signed up for Corbyn have been content with that pattern of events for their own internal affairs. Declining memberships and declining real world influence or even relevance but still brilliant banners to wave on the occasional, not very well attended, demonstration.

If it does, Labour's only continued function will be to entrench the Tories in permanent power in a way that the Italy's PCI did for nearly fifty years post war for the Italian Christian Democrats. The PCI had even better banners, and bigger, more colourful marches, in the process. They could also call on much better film directors than Ken Loach to document their struggle. A lot of good it did them. Real change only came when the DC destroyed themselves with the corruption absolute power always brings in the end. Even then, continued factionalism between the left and centre simply paved the way for Berlusconi and now, one fears, Salvini.

Well done Jeremy. If you can secure the succession for an acolyte, you will leave a lasting legacy. Where that leaves the rest of us will be the subject of my next blog. I suspect it won't be happy reading either.

Monday 11 November 2019

My second election blog: What worries the Nats.

On the face of it the first Scotland wide poll published since the election was called (although its fieldwork pre-dated that) was good news for the SNP. 42% and almost twice the votes of their nearest rivals (The Tories).

But, in truth they have four quite separate worries.

The first is that they are aware of a tendency, that I have already alluded to in my previous blog, for Westminster Scottish polling to overstate their support. They themselves realise that constant references to Westminster as a "foreign" parliament, necessary for their wider project, is hardly a strong point when arguing that their supporters must nonetheless turn out to vote in its elections. The big thing about 2017 was not that the opposition Parties gained lots of votes but rather than the SNP lost them. I wouldn't bet on them having got them back.

The second is that they fear being caught in a pincer. They worry on the one hand about leeching votes to the Lib Dems, who are the "quiet life" Party in Scotland promising "no more referendums" but also promising remain. This will lose them no seats directly to the Libs, except obviously Fife NE, but it certainly, under first past the post, sees them losing seats to others. They also worry however about how their own, now more, far more, than 2017, express commitment to Remain will play with the forgotten 38% of Scottish politics. Those who voted leave in 2016, a good one third of whom at least, by most calculation, had voted Yes in 2014. Brexit wasn't really an issue in Scotland in 2017. It will be this time.

Thirdly, they worry about their closeness to the idea of making Jeremy Corbyn Prime Minister. He is not, by any means, the sole reason for Scottish Labour's current unpopularity. He is, nonetheless, exceptionally unpopular. Almost as much in Scotland as in England.  And yet given the way the Nats have positioned themselves, the  only way now to ensure he never enters Downing Street is to vote for the Tories or the Lib Dems. I bet, given the chance, Nicola would turn back time to adopt the Jo Swinson position of possible support for a Labour Government but never for one led by Corbyn. Then again, as she juggles the nationalist balls in the air, that might risk losing populist votes elsewhere.

And finally, they worry about the weather. Not really extreme weather that would affect all parties equally but just dreich horrible weather. The SNP are blessed, if that's the right word, by some front line supporters who would, to their credit I suppose, walk five miles barefoot through a snowdrift to cast their votes for "Freedum!" But their leadership are acutely aware that they also have more or less a monopoly of those who, on the day, depending on the day, look out the window and might not feel bothered to vote at all. Roll on the sleet.

Now, there remain lots of things to encourage the Nats. Nobody suggests they won't remain Scotland's largest party on 13th December. They have however set the bar so high for themselves, and the stakes are so high for them, that I suspect Nicola would bite your arm off now if offered the deal of a single net gain on 13th December. For she gets what a single net loss would mean.

But I finish with a telling example. In 2017, I highlighted what I described as "secret seats", meaning seats that no-one thought in play but I believed might change hands. A lot of them then did. So here's my 2019 secret seat. Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey. SNP vote 2015, 50.1%. SNP vote 2017, 39.9%. But that's not the really telling thing. Tory vote 2015, 5.9%. Tory vote 2017, (an astonishing) 30.5%. Apply what I say above and I think we can at least speculate it will soon be somebody else joining the Caledonian Sleeper.

Next blog, excusing events, I will turn my attention to the Labour Party. North and South.

Sunday 3 November 2019

My first election blog.

I say with due modesty that, back in 2017, I wrote a series of blogs, in the last of which I pretty much predicted the result of the 2017 General Election in Scotland. Feel free to look them up. They were written against the received wisdom of the day, even among those equally ill disposed to Scottish Nationalism as am I. Which received wisdom was, like it or lump it, that the Nats would pretty much stand still on their annus miraculis of 2015, when they had taken more or less every seat in Scotland.

In 2017, once the people had spoken however,  the proof was in the eating. And received opinion suddenly found itself hungry. 21 seats hungry.

My starting point tonight is pretty much the same. Once again that the "received opinion" of the day, that the Nats will make significant gains, is simply wrong. They will probably stand more or less still but the opening question about the "Scottish" election should not be about how many seats the Scottish Tories will lose but rather about how many they will gain.

Let us start by looking at the polls,

Here is every opinion poll on Westminster voting since 2017. Since I'm assuming an informed readership I'm not bothering with a graphic, just a link,

Now, what does that tell you? Well, first of all, that its a bit odd that in pretty much every poll the SNP percentage exceeds anything they actually got when real people actually voted. Which might suggest sampling error. But also that, even excluding this possibility, that the "nationalist" vote bumps along somewhat short of the infamous 45%. Let along the 49% they got in 2015.

Yes (or whatever) you say, but the Tories are still in the low twenties.As indeed they are. Except that a fair bit of the overall percentage is, in the later polls, given to the Brexit Party. Who in most places won't actually be standing, or at least seriously competing. And where do these voters go in that circumstance? Add, shall we say, 4 points from the Brexit Party to the Tory column and then run the figures again through the electoral calculus own calculating tool, even giving the Nats their supposed 38.9% and the Tories lose precisely four seats. Logically, they would be Ayr, Ochil, Gordon and Stirling.

But in all of them there are particular circumstances in that the Tories  came from third place in each in 2017, leaving a significant "unionist" vote in the hands of other Parties , some of such voters we can assume were confused about where to place any anti nationalist tactical vote. I'll be very surprised indeed if the Tories lose Gordon, or Ayr or Ochil this time round. But almost as much to the point, most of the other Scottish Tory seats are just about as safe as any seat is in a four Party system. Solid majorities of around 5,000. or above.

Whereas, and here is where things get really interesting, the second most marginal Scottish Tory seat (Gordon) has a majority of 2,607. No fewer than eighteen SNP seats have smaller majorities.And 22 of under 3,000.  Most over Labour (of which more later) but five: North Perth, Lanark, Central Ayrshire, Edinburgh South West and Argyll. over the Tories. I see no reason the Tories won't take four of these. The exception is Edinburgh South West, which is very posh but also very "remainy" and where the incumbent, Joanna Cherry, is, like her or not, a very prominent "remainy" MP.

So, even giving the Nats Stirling the other way, by no means a given, the Tories would be up a net three. Even assuming a UK wide landslide didn't deliver them the three way marginals of Edinburgh North or (God forbid) East Lothian.

Now, before going on to look at the prospects for my own Party, a brief word about the Libs. They are up in both Scottish and UK polls but, except for the four seats they hold and NE Fife, anywhere else their starting point is nowhere. In only two seats beyond these five are they even third. There has been talk of the Tories not really trying in Ross, Cromarty and Skye (where they are second) in the hope of unseating Ian Blackford but, majority 5K plus, I can't see it, much as I would like to. The Libs however will regain NE Fife (SNP Majority 2) at a canter. They might well have have done so already in 2017 but for a returning officer wanting to go to his bed.

And so to Labour, second in 16 of these 22 seats where the SNP Majority is less than 3,000.

Well, the most likely thing is that we'll gain none of them. And, what's more, lose 6 of our existing 7. Possibly East Lothian to the Tories but otherwise all "back" to the SNP.

But, hope springs eternal. Two things might happen. Corbyn might once again enjoy a campaign "surge". In 2017, had we pulled resources from the quixotic attempt to regain Eastwood, we would almost certainly have won half a dozen seats in "proper" greater Glasgow and Lanarkshire. Either Kez was completely campaign deaf or, "once a volunteer", knew exactly what she was doing in that exercise. More sympathetic to "the project" leadership this time at least won't make that "mistake". Alternatively, once it is clear there is no danger of Corbyn actually winning, we might pick up some tactical anti Nat votes in the latter stages of the campaign. Although the polling and by-election results have been terrible, there remains a defiant core vote on which to o be built . That tactical add on simply didn't happen in 2017. Where Labour won, or lost narrowly, the Tory vote actually went up. As indeed did the Labour vote in the seats where the Tories defeated the SNP. If however a "unionist together" phenomena happens, where the Greens choose to stand might prove critical.

Anyway, we'll see.

For the moment my prediction is this. SNP 34 (-1) Tories 17 (+4) Libs 5 (+1) Labour 3 (-4).

But I reserve the right to revisit that as the campaign develops