Sunday 23 February 2020

What's the alternative?

One of the oldest sayings in politics is that oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them. Problem is that it is not true.

Sure, the starting point for there to be a change of administration at an election is that people must have lost faith in the existing administration but they also need to be persuaded that the alternative would be better.

And the current problem in Scottish politics is the failure for any Party to satisfy the second part of that test.

All three opposition Parties at Holyrood are, excepting a commitment to the union, which is, in truth, nothing to do with Holyrood, currently effectively policy free zones.

It's easy to berate the deplorable management of our public services under the SNP. Health, transport, education, justice. It would be difficult to choose which is the greatest shambles. And that's before you even consider major infrastructure projects. Bridges you can't cross. Ferries that can't sail. Hospitals you can't use.

But, and its a big but, in what way would a different administration do things........differently?

Labour would apparently spend more on everything. Except we are entirely silent as to where the money would come from. It certainly wouldn't come from restraining public sector wages. Indeed they are amongst that self same everything. Nor would it come from reviewing the big ticket items that so distort existing Scottish public spending; free personal care and free university tuition. Indeed they are also areas where we'd spend more money.

This simply lacks any sense of reality. Even when suggested in co-ordination with a wealth tax. Since Holyrood doesn't have the legal competence to levy a wealth tax.

It's just not credible.

But, let's be frank, barring the unanticipated departure of Richard Leonard to spend more time on the picket line, there is little prospect of Labour being more than a bit player after the 2021 elections anyway.

Which leads me to the Tories.

I like Jackson Carlaw, who was always good company at any election count when we were both younger activists back in Renfrewshire during a previous century. He is arguably also the best leader of (any) opposition since 1999. He deservedly won the outright Tory leadership at a canter.

But the whole contest was a policy free zone. A vote for Jackson was a vote for experience and, whisper it, also a vote against the other woman who was a "right wing lunatic".

A vote for the Tories in 2021 certainly isn't a vote for more spending. Indeed one of the few things they undoubtedly would do is align Scottish taxes with the rest of the UK. Arguably that would not lose much revenue but it certainly wouldn't bring in any more.

So what else would they do? Abolish the Curriculum for Excellence, presumably. But replace it with what? I have no idea. "Reform" the NHS. But how? Do "something" about transport. Again I ask what? Increase policing and lock more people up. Except they have no plan to fund this any more than has Richard Leonard. It certainly however won't feature a wealth tax.

Part of the problem is their own failure, for fear of electoral consequence, to confront the big ticket items I refer to. Not least because their principal beneficiaries are among key Tory demographics: home owning pensioners and middle class parents, or at least their offspring.

But at least they'd be more competent! I hear you protest. Mmm. The SNP administration might hardly be a ministry of all the talents, indeed, given the extent it is filled with Nicola's cronies, not even of all the talents in the SNP,  but, with a handful of exceptions, do many of the Tories fill you with confidence they'd be much better?

But I'm going to end with a strange conclusion. The best alternative to the current SNP administration might be a future SNP administration.

The independence campaign is going nowhere. There is no prospect while public opinion remains broadly 50/50 that Westminster will concede another referendum. And there is not much the SNP can do about that.

What would however change things would be if public opinion became clearly and consistently in favour of independence. At some point the political imperative would force the moving of the legal goal posts.

Now, to date, the SNP have tried to keep their fragile "Yes" coalition together by doing nothing that might annoy anybody. The problem is that this is precisely what has led to the woeful underdelivery across the public sector. And people get that "lack of powers" only goes so far as an excuse. Suppose the terms of the debate were changed however?  If it became not "we are doing so badly because of lack of powers" but instead "Look how well we are doing, just think how much better we could do with more powers?"

Difficult to imagine? Except that was essentially the underlying message of Andrew Wilson's growth commission.

And anyway, what else are the SNP going to do if returned for another five years? They are certainly not going to have another referendum.

Friday 7 February 2020

Waiting for Lisa

The nomination meeting for my CLP is taking place tonight at a location I can literally see from my office. It's at 7pm. It therefor makes no sense for me to go home for half an hour just to turn around and go back to where I started. Nonetheless that leaves me with an hour to kill and I thought I would pass it with a brief blog about why my own vote will be for Lisa Nandy*.

Firstly, it is because she got things right over Brexit. Labour should have voted for Mrs May's deal, particularly with the guarantees on employment rights and environmental protections she offered latterly. The failure to do so was always going to end in tears. There was never a majority in the last Commons for a second referendum nor would there ever have been. There was never a circumstance where a General Election before Brexit would have changed that. There was never a circumstance where Labour was going to win such an election.

Yet these three things were wilfully overlooked in Labour's pre December 12th strategy. The results were almost inevitable. A shift to the right among the Tories, a General Election at the moment of maximum disadvantage to my Party, a Tory landslide and....oh....a worse exit deal and the possibility, in time, of the hardest of Brexits to follow.

One person was at the heart of the devising of that strategy and that person was Keir Starmer. If the criticism of the Tories is that they have split the country to unite the Tory Party then what does that say for the Labour politicians who have facilitated that?

But I've also got a second reservation about Keir Starmer which is in no way his fault but nonetheless nothing he can do anything about.

The problem of Corbynism wasn't just its appalling politics and economics. It was it's appalling geography. The Leader, Shadow Foreign Secretary and Shadow Home Secretary all held literally adjacent seats. The Shadow Chancellor was just up the road and all of the leader's inner circle had been players in specifically London politics all of their lives. In many cases as also had been their parents.

Keir Starmer, to the public, will demonstrate no change from that. And that's a big problem. The northern towns who have turned away from Labour, just like the Scottish ones who had done so earlier, have a resentment of London. When the SNP talk of "Westminster", we too easily dismiss this as invariably just code for "the English". Sometimes it undoubtedly is but there is a legitimate argument against the vast accumulation of wealth, power and opportunity in one small part of the country which realises that "Westminster" is not England and that Scots antipathy to Westminster  is equally shared  across many of the English regions. Oddly, the person who seems at least to currently get that is none other than Boris Johnson. Whether he is sincere about doing something about it, only time will tell. But he is certainly talking a good game.

So Labour needs a visible change. Regrettably, Starmer is not it. That as I say is not his fault but it is a fact.

But the final reason I believe we need to do better than Starmer is a more positive one. I think Labour could win the next General Election. I don't think he does. His strategy is clearly to stabilize the ship and start then start pumping out the sewage that Corbyn has brought on board. His commitment to an independent complaints process is, to be fair, a move of genius in this regard. But do I think he believes he can take us safely to port in 2024? I doubt it.

As I say, I disagree. The very volatility that has led to us losing so many seats could, with an exceptional leader, be played to our advantage in that regard. But it needs an exceptional leader.

I heard Lisa Nandy speak in Glasgow on Monday. She was exceptional. Speaking largely without notes, she answered questions with a mixture of self deprecating humour and yet total command of her material when she spoke, on matters across the whole policy spectrum. And she was also wise enough, when asked about matters regarding which she knew little, to confess just that.

But above all she was relaxed and confident and full of ideas.

And she didn't have the decline of towns as a momentary leadership campaign hobby horse. She could point to a track history of work in this area. Sometimes even cross Party. That is precisely where Labour needs to come back and no candidate has a better grasp of what needs said and then, in Government, done.

She probably won't thank me for the comparison but I kept thinking she reminded me of someone else I had heard recently. Afterwards I realised it was Tony Blair.

*Obviously alongside Ian Murray and Jackie Baillie.