Tuesday 31 December 2019

Different but not frightening

In the late afternoon on the day after the 1983 General Election my then girlfriend and I spoke at great length on the (landline) telephone while I was still hungover, sleep deprived and utterly, utterly miserable. An hour or so later she turned up at my door and suggested I needed to "get out the house".

We drove up the Gleniffer Braes and went for a walk.  The view of Paisley was as magnificent as always but it did little lighten my mood. At one point the path reached an escarpment with a sharp drop and Christine cautioned, not entirely in jest, that I was not to think about jumping.

The thing was that nothing about what had happened was other than as expected but it didn't make it any easier to bear.

You see elections are important. I'd done pretty much all the marching and rallying and meeting and conferencing on offer over the previous four years to 1983.  It was, to be honest, hugely enjoyable. "Everybody" you met hated the Tories. "Everybody" predicted utter catastrophe for the NHS, the Trade Unions, Local Government, poor people in general: everything the Labour Party cared about, if the Tories were returned to power. With, at the time, the additional frisson that there was every prospect of a nuclear war.

Yet we all just stood and watched it happen. The polls said Foot couldn't win but we, at best, believed this could be turned round in the campaign or, at worst, simply disbelieved the polls as bad for (our) morale.

During the day of 12th December I was struck by the enthusiasm of the very many young people shown on twitter engaged in "getting out" the Labour vote in appalling weather. Many, I have no doubt, enthusiastic Corbynistas. It is what they choose to learn from their own experience which will now determine what happens next. For I was so reminded of my younger self.

If they are content to spend another four or five years having a good time marching, rallying, meeting and conferencing,  knowing that it will almost certainly come with a massive hangover at the end of it, then Corbynism will continue in form if not in name. With the same, or potentially an even worse, ending in 2024 or 25. All of the 57 varieties of Leninism Corbyn has let (back) in will be quite happy with that, as they do not truly believe in a parliamentary route to socialism anyway. So will be the anti-Semites, for continuity Corbynism means continuity membership. So will the social media panhandlers and the Unite faction around Corbyn's inner circle, who will presumably keep their well paid jobs and disproportionate influence, as indifferent to the wreck of a once great Party as they have been already to the wreck of a once great trade union. 

But they are not enough without the (genuinely) idealistic.

The key lies with these new, mainly young, activists. Some I suspect will drift away, daunted by any prospect of turning things round. But others will stay. And hopefully they will not want to repeat the experience of "that" exit poll. Getting to them will be the key to any more mainstream candidate getting the Party back.

But we can't lose sight of the other errors of Corbynism that could as easily have been made by a more centrist leadership. The Party's image has become ridiculously Londoncentric. It is no accident that this is the one part of the Country where we actually gained a seat. But you can't win an election in London alone. As has just been demonstrated, Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry might have come from humble stock but they are not (today) humble stock. At least in public perception.

I'm not myself persuaded that it "has" to be a woman but I'm certainly of the view that it "has" to be someone with a direct appeal outside the M25. And, Dan Jarvis aside, that leaves the only credible candidates being women.

But it also has to be someone, to use a reference which is hopefully not too anachronistic, who has "The X Factor".

One of the lessons of the election is that while there should be no doubt (NO DOUBT!!!!) who now is the Party of Government, there remains little doubt who is the most likely alternative. Both the Libs and the Tigs crashed and burned. It might yet be the case that the next non Tory Government is not a Labour Government but even if Labour takes the most disastrous of turns in the next three months that is not, I suspect, something that would become apparent until (at least) after the next general election. Yes, on  the one hand, the task, in terms of conventional "swing" is an enormous one but on the other, given the volatility of the electorate, it need not be an impossible one. Assuming it has the right message, and messenger, from day one.

And this is where things become difficult, for it is not entirely about politics. But it is entirely about who cuts through as different but not frightening. And on any view that is Jess Phillips. Just as it was once about Barack Obama.

Sunday 8 December 2019

My final election blog: A strangely British Election.

It has been a strangely British election in Scotland.

In 2015 and 2017 the UK General elections were essentially different events north and south of the border.

Here, there were "local" debates with the Scottish Party leaders up front and centre and distinctively different television coverage. That was to some extent the preference of all of the main Scottish Parties. The SNP naturally welcomed an assumption that Scotland was already semi-independent but the other three Parties also had a vested interest. Labour and the Libs assumed that their Scottish "brand" and leader had an appeal beyond the UK franchise. The Tories initially simply wanted to be seen to be "different" here but by 2017 had worked out that they possessed a Scottish leader with a  Heineken reach.

That was then however, this is now. Even in two and a half years we have a much changed media. Uniquely Scottish newspapers are in relative decline in relation to the readership of the Scottish editions of their UK based competitors and that does mean that coverage of the election has more of a UK tinge but, more importantly still, the BBC, still most peoples's source of news, has shuffled off much of its Scottish political coverage to a channel literally nobody watches. The SNP should perhaps have been more careful about what they wished for in that regard.

And then there are the specific circumstances of this contest applying to each of the four main Parties. On any view this is not so much a Tory election campaign as a Boris Johnson election campaign and the Scottish Tories have had little option but to buy into that. Johnson has been far more prominent here than either Cameron or May, interestingly directly taking on the nationalist mantra that "the Tories don't care about Scotland". That in turn has rather disguised the fact that the Scottish Tories don't actually have a permanent leader and freed up Ruth Davidson to play the role of a Scottish El Cid, taking the battle to where she wants to go without having to carry the burden of kingship.

Labour has also had to make a virtue of necessity. The absence of any identifiable Scottish leadership has left us with little alternative to Corbyn being here far more than in 2017, although he continues to feature little if at all in local campaign literature. By now the election here for Labour has become a struggle for survival, retaining as many "touching distance" second places as possible. Time will tell if this has worked.

And the Libs, led by a Scottish MP at Westminster, clearly have an interest in promoting her over giving Willie Rennie much more than a bit part this time round.

Finally, we have the SNP. Or should I say Nicola. For the rest of the Nats have been more or less invisible. Nicola seems to be on the UK telly just about every night, not as the voice of independence but as a sort of fantasy, social democratic, candidate for the position of a Remain Prime Minister. I am genuinely at a loss as to the purpose of this, for she is not seeking that position, indeed she is not seeking, at this election, any position at all. It also seems somewhat strange to effectively write off the votes of North East Scotland in pursuit of the votes of south east England.

Anyway, as I say, the net effect of this is that this has been the most British election in Scotland since at least 2010.

And that will have consequence.

It increasingly looks that there is going to be a UK Tory landslide and Tory landslides (or indeed Labour landslides, remember them?) do not pass parts of the country entirely by.

I started my election blogs by pointing out that the opening question at this election should not have been how many seats the Scottish Tories were going to lose lose but rather how many they were going to gain. How the press report matters is entirely a matter for them but I don't think that it is unfair to observe that, purely from the point of view of trade, Scottish political journalists have a vested interest in a narrative that the SNP are still going forward and that a second independence referendum remains very much on the horizon. That might explain why, even now, no-one has really been prepared to dive in to the inviting pool of seats the Tories might pick up. But there are in fact a good number.

And two things particularly favour the Tories this time.

In 2017 there was, in truth, little tactical voting. Where the Tories picked up seats the Labour vote actually went up. Where the Tories got close, and were clearly close, it also remarkably held up. But since then the nationalist cause, on the streets at least, has developed a much more distinctive  republican tone, including overt parallels to Irish republicanism. There is a certain section of the electorate who really don't buy into this but who for reasons of class or family history have been previously reluctant to ever vote Tory. My own view however is that these people are open to the Tory call to be "lent" their vote to stop a second independence referendum. Particularly as their objections to nationalism mirror their objections to Corbynism. That's not just my view however, it is pretty much every piece of Tory literature is saying. For a reason.

The second thing which favours the Tories is that they are going to win. And there is a certain logic, with that as a given, that it favours Scotland to have large numbers on the winning side. Playing the sort of role that was probably most famously played in the past  by George Younger. But, additionally, if the SNP are not going to hold the balance of power and if there is not going to be another referendum, what exactly, in a Westminster context, is their function? Moaning?

In 1979 the Scottish Tories got 31.4% of the Scottish popular vote. I think they will beat that in 2019.
31.4% brought them 31% of the seats then available (22 of 71). I think that's pretty much where we are now. So my final election prediction? Labour 3; Lib-Dems 5; Tories 18; SNP 33.