Sunday 29 November 2020

The Walking Dead

Party Conferences have two purposes. Firstly they allow the Party's activists, among their own herd, to  feel important, although in any well run Party they will not actually be. Secondly they require the media to pay your Party some attention and provide some favourable coverage. In both respects the SNP Conference has been, for them, a disaster. It is no wonder their leadership postponed it repeatedly.

Sturgeon's interview on the Marr show today was a meltdown moment. She was caught out lying on not one but two occasions. About two unrelated matters, the first of which, about how many people in Scotland were dying of Coronavirus, was a performance which, in its indifference to the population she governs and  regard instead for protecting her own image, would have put Donald Trump to shame. 

Whether this will be a breakthrough moment only time will tell, but I suspect wiser heads in the SNP have appreciated for some time that Nicola is only the air in an increasingly over inflated bubble and that someone might come along with a pin at any moment. If she has just evaded this pin today, there will be others to come. In my lifetime first Ally McLeod and then Fred Goodwin went from being the most admired person in Scotland to the most despised person in Scotland within the space of a month. If it became common currency that Sturgeon had used an hour of live telly every day not to inform the people of Scotland but to lie to the people of Scotland, you could see a similar moment coming. 

But the second way in which the conference has failed is in making the Party's own activists, herding among their own, to feel important. Don't take my word for this, look no further than The Reverend Stuart Campbell, proprietor of the Nationalist's favourite website, Wings Over Scotland. He suggests the SNP leadership are treating their ground troops like (his simile) mushrooms. To be kept in the dark and fed shit. Now, to describe many SNP activists as as insentient as mushrooms is probably an insult to funghi worldwide but, if those continuing to support the leadership's strategy of waiting for the UK Government to grant them as.30 are stupid, how much more are those wanting a "Plan B"?

There is literally no Plan B. Insofar as I can even comprehend it, it consists either of passing a referendum bill at Holyrood and waiting for the Supreme Court to vote it down. And then to be..... aggrieved. Or instead have a referendum about something else such as "Should Holyrood have the right to have.....a referendum?".

What all this ignores is that their has been a referendum in 2014 where, on a record turnout, 55% voted to remain in the UK. All the attention has been on the relative recentness of that event. Not enough of the decisiveness of it. Not just regarding the result but regarding the turnout. Now, were the SNP to have some sort of other referendum and get 2.1 million votes, or even something remotely approaching that, then I kind of agree that might make a difference. But there is literally no prospect of that! And if the Plan B team think otherwise they are not just stupider than a mushroom, they are stupider than a grain of salt. The only kind of goal they are pursuing is an own goal. 

The SNP is now existing in a strange zombie like incarnation, They can move about. They can, to be fair, still bite people. They certainly continue to take chunks out of the Scottish Labour Party. But they are in truth the walking dead. They should stop herding about  to draw attention to that.

Sunday 22 November 2020


Yesterday, Douglas Ross talked about what everybody interested in Scottish politics should have been talking about for months. What happens if the SNP and their gardening wing don't have an overall majority at Holyrood in May next year?

That is much more of a possibility than conventional opinion allows. However, as I have pointed out elsewhere, conventional opinion has a vested interest in a narrative that an SNP majority is inevitable and so all attention should focus on there being to come, somehow, a second independence referendum. 

But, as you will surely know, I am on twitter a lot. And for a long time I had as my  pinned tweet one sent initially early in the morning of of Friday 6th May 2016, pointing out, based on early results, that the SNP were about to lose their overall majority. As I watched the live TV on the night, it was about two hours before those commentating acknowledged that this was happening, despite it surely being obvious to the informed participants. Because conventional opinion in advance deemed such an outcome inconceivable. Even after it had long since been conceived by the votes of the actual electorate.

So let me start by conceding the most likely outcome of a Holyrood election next May. The SNP, possibly relying on The Greens, will still have a majority in the chamber. And the second most likely, they will still have a plurality. But if you express that second result a different way? The second most likely outcome of the next Holyrood election is that the SNP and their allies will no longer have a majority. For a second independence referendum or, unless they cobble together votes on an issue by issue basis, for anything else. In 2016, the SNP lost six seats. If that happens again, and the Greens simply stand still, the second referendum game's a bogey but Scotland will still need a government. 

So why has there been an utter silence on this? As New Labour stored up opinion poll lead over opinion poll lead in the run up to the 1997 election, there were still counterfactual pieces written about what a fifth continuous Tory term might mean. As we in turn stumbled to defeat in 2010, reams written about the potential post election landscape. In Scotland however? Complete silence from the commentariat about what, as I say, is the second most likely outcome of an election six months away. An outcome about which current polling suggests is improbable but hardly impossible. An outcome, in terms of no Party and its obvious allies having an outright majority, being what PR systems normally produce. 

Yesterday, Douglas Ross did us all a favour by breaking that silence. The Tories would do a deal with anybody except any party proposing a second independence referendum. And, to be fair, our own current leader, Richard Leonard, responded almost immediately. We would do a deal with anybody except the Tories. I have literally no idea why he said this.

Logically it would mean that if he had come an improbable second to an SNP/Green block denied an overall majority, his immediate response would be to offer that block continued support as the government of devolved Scotland. Because he would never do a deal with the Tories. Even if Douglas Ross tracked him down on a picket line somewhere and begged him to become First Minister, even offering to take his place and hold his placard while he got on with the job, Richard would still never do a deal with the Tories. Really?

Dare I suggest it is not as simple as that. Let's model my six losses for the SNP, assuming an equal division of spoils. It gives you 57 Nats, 6 Greens, 33 Tories, 26 Labour and 7 Libs. 

Now let's look at the law. The aftermath of an Scottish Parliamentary election is dictated by sections 3 and 46 of the Scotland Act 1998. Unlike at Westminster, a First Minister does not remain in office until someone else is appointed. Rather, within 28 days the new Parliament must elect (or re-elect) a First Minister. If they do not, then there is another election. The Parliament itself can't change this because it is in the Act. Simple as that. 

The First Minister so elected has to win a majority of votes cast, so, if, on my model, the three "unionist" parties voted consistently against any SNP nominee but failed to take any other initiative, there would be another election. 

But why conceivably would they do that? "Unnecessary" elections are never popular with the electorate. Those responsible never prosper. They are also expensive. And refighting an election on the platform that the choice was either continued stability (of sorts) with a returned SNP majority or, alternatively,  probably a third election. Really?

So there would be a mutual "unionist" interest in their not being an immediate further contest. At least until the Autumn of 2021, probably, assuming the local government elections still go ahead, until the Autumn of 2022 at the earliest.

But what happens in between!!!???

Surely the unionist parties also have a mutual interest in denying the SNP the advantages of continued incumbency? Of using public money to subtly and sometimes even not so subtly promote their separatist agenda. Of using the power of patronage to reward their friends or the threat of patronage withdrawn to silence their critics. And that logically must involve Labour talking to the Tories about some sort of interim administration.

Now would this be difficult or far from perfect? Of course it would. Labour and the Tories are agreed about the failures of the SNP but have radically different solutions. No Labour Party would support the criminal justice changes Douglas Ross proposed yesterday just as no Tory Party would support the permanent nationalisation of Scotrail. Much of the criticism of the SNP for being unwilling to do anything "bold" for fear of imperilling that part of their electorate with a vested interest in the status quo, would undoubtedly carry forward to an administration unable to do anything bold because the bold things the Tories would do would horrify us and vice versa.

But such an administration would not be without potential opportunities where we and the Tories (and the Libs) actually do agree. I say that particularly in relation to local government. We are entirely agreed that the failure to pass Barnett funding on to local authorities must stop. We are entirely agreed local government must be given more power and more respect. Written in to law. Although this would require a policy change on Labour's part, we might now be strangely agreed on directly elected Lord Provosts. We might even be able to find a way forward on non-domestic rates reform.

We would also have a mutual interest in rebranding the Scottish Government to reflect its true constitutional status. No more Saltires (alone) on everything from letterheads to commemorative plaques. No more overseas embassies. A happy embrace and acknowledgement of projects directly funded by the UK Government. Agreement with the UK Government when possible and respectful disagreement when required. But with the emphasis on respectful.  

I also think there is probably more agreement than you'd think on Pandemic recovery, using the powers of the Parliament to support small businesses and the Green revolution coming to assist the private sector (yes) in exploiting Scotland's natural resources in this regard. 

I couldn't see such an administration lasting five years. We and the Tories have too many genuine differences of opinion for that but I could certainly see it having a useful two years. While the SNP tore themselves apart over their (supposed) missed opportunity after Brexit and worked out that they hadn't known what they had with Nicola until she was (surely) gone.

The big question however remains which Party secures the key position of First Minister. I can't conceive of  us ever voting for a Tory FM or indeed them ever reciprocating. My answer would be neither. It should go to the third member of the triumvirate, the Lib Dems, on the understanding that this was to be a collegiate administration with the incumbent more chair than chief executive. 

But I also want to finish by stating one further clincher argument for Labour. If the Nats lose their majority and Labour stands aside, we will eventually get to a situation whereby the SNP, having been perceived to have lost the election, are nonetheless being kept in power by the Labour Party. If he had thought that through, that's above all why Richard should not have been so speedy in his response.

Sunday 15 November 2020

Step aside brother.

The next few weeks are my least favourite period of the whole year. Autumn's glories are fast fading and all of that season's rituals passed. The September weekend; Halloween; Guy Fawkes night; Remembrance Sunday and, probably now also on that list, the start of Strictly. Yet the Winter Solstice and the Christmas Festival of celebration to follow are still a bit too far away to provide (forgive the cliche) a light on the horizon.

Yet last week was a good week. A vaccine was announced. Biden was confirmed as the winner of the US Presidential election to the satisfaction of everybody except Trump. Scotland qualified for a major football tournament. In UK politics Dominic Cummings was despatched back to Barnard Castle to spend more time with his family, while the Labour Party NEC was decisively regained by those who are more interested in winning elections than in excusing anti Semitism. In Scotland, there was even a straw in the wind that the pandemic fuelled bubble of enthusiasm for Scottish independence might be beginning to deflate.   

But in the midst of all this good news, one grim spire stood standing. Richard Leonard's ongoing disastrous leadership of the Scottish Labour Party. While it was good to be reminded by last week's events that you don't always lose, Scottish Labour remains in a mindset of not even trying to win.

There was a by-election in Edinburgh on Thursday. In what as recently as the 2012 local government elections was a Labour Stronghold. Not only did we not come second, we very nearly came fourth behind the Greens. 

Now, at a UK level, there seems little doubt that the accession of Starmer has led to a Labour recovery. I actually have some sympathy with the Corbynistas argument that had Corbyn been the only problem for Labour we should actually be doing better still but equally the more sentient of them would concede that, for whatever reason, we have gone from being consistently behind the Tories under their hero to being at least neck and neck.

But there has been no recovery in Scotland. That despite the following undisputed facts.

1. While Johnson's management of the pandemic has been hapless, Sturgeon's, presentation aside, has been at least as bad. Indeed, factoring in population density, arguably significantly worse. Tellingly, even Devi Sridhar, asked on Channel 4 News weeks back whether Scotland had done better than England, pretended to misunderstand the question and talked instead about something else. And nobody would surely have been keener than her to answer with an emphatic "Yes", had that been conceivably possible to justify. 

2. There is something fishy about the Salmond case. Something that is, behind the scenes, causing a very real schism within the SNP. A schism that has led or is leading a significant faction within the Party to contemplate removing Sturgeon from her current position of leadership, personal opinion poll ratings notwithstanding. Even today,  Sturgeon is spending your and my money to try to get a court order to prevent the publication of a paragraph in an email she sent to the Permanent Secretary about this matter. A most unusual thing to have to do if she was truly taking no part in the process, then or now. Jackie Baillie is playing a blinder on this but Leonard is looking on like Zelig. He seems to misunderstand that being "present but not involved" was not one of the greatest merits of our recently departed UK leader. 

3. The Scottish Government is tired. That is not a partisan point. All government's get tired after too long in office. Clement Attlee's revolutionary government of the left got tired, perhaps to soon but after delivering so much. Just as Margaret Thatcher's revolutionary government of the right also got tired. If we were being honest, excepting Brown and Darling's response to the crash, the latter years of New Labour leave little in the memory. But as each failed someone had to be positioned to pick up the baton. The sole purpose of the SNP running the Scottish Government was to have an independence referendum. They did. They lost. No matter how much they might pretend otherwise to emolliate their kilt wearing, flag waving, rank and file, there will not be another such event in the immediate future. Even if there were somehow, the nationalists do not have a coherent argument to make. This is hardly a difficult argument for an opposition to articulate. 

Yet Scottish Labour remains utterly irrelevant to the political process. Obsessed with internal wrangling over who gets the distinction of failing to get elected as a Labour candidate next May. A complete policy free zone. An organisational shambles. 

Now, just as Corbyn was not the only problem for the UK Party almost a year ago, Richard Leonard is not the only problem for us here in Scotland. It wasn't a left wing leadership who lost the last Holyrood elections or indeed presided over our original collapse in 2015. But there is simply no way his continued occupation in office is helping the situation. He has, to be fair, upped his media profile but it is too late. Nobody is listening and, excepting a running commentary on internal matters and a wholly confused narrative as to where we stand on a second referendum, he has, anyway, literally nothing of interest to say. Anybody think that Anas or Jackie would not improve matters somewhat in what should be the only important measure of performance, how well would we do at the polls? Can they win a Scottish General Election, in the sense of gaining a plurality of votes? Almost certainly not. But can they gain enough ground to deny the nationalists an overall majority? That remains to me a real possibility. And perhaps someone should be saying what we might then do with the balance of power. 

But time is short. I've long been of the view that there should not be a Holyrood poll next May. Campaigning would be too difficult in current circumstances. No door knocking; no street stalls or leafleting; no public meetings or hustings; no rallies; no stickers or balloons. The result of the US Presidential Election might have been satisfying but the process leading up to it was not. I suspect with a less controversial incumbent it might have been delayed by cross Party agreement.

But there is no way the SNP will want to waste their current poll advantage brought about by their (or at least Nicola's) impression of being the, pandemic assisted, only show in town. They also will want the election over before any pandemic post mortems have time to be concluded and before they are finally obliged to publish their much delayed report into the state of Scottish education. 

So, it will be May. Less than five months away. For Scottish Labour, less than five months away from disaster. 

The STUC is currently running a campaign to increase the number of women in leadership roles under the slogan "Step aside brother". A proud trade unionist, Richard should take the hint. Otherwise, as a distinguished historian of the Scottish Labour Party, he may well end up writing its obituary.