Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Very Definition Of A Cut & Run Election

You may remember a piece that I did about four weeks ago saying that May would not be calling an election this year.  You may remember me saying that there looked like there was no space in May’s plans for an election in May, June or September.  No chance of an election, no suree.
PM May announces her intention to disolve parliament ahead
of a June 8 vote.


To be fair, I did point out in the same piece that if May was in Downing Street living off Cameron’s mandate by the time the bells ring in 2018 then her chances of a large majority will recede, so I didn’t get everything wrong. It’s just I rubbished the bit that turned out to be correct.

May’s calculation clearly is that with tough negotiations ahead and with the likelihood of choppy economic conditions ahead, then this was the time to seek a new improved mandate.  Whether she will get that remains to be seen.  The last genuinely cut and run election (as opposed to elections called with months left on a five year parliament) was the one Wilson called in the autumn of 1974, attempting to win – and ultimately gained a nether less small three seat - majority that would see his government last five years.  That one took place 8 months after Heath’s own cut and run gamble backfired. Running on a “who governs” platform, Heath won the popular vote but finished four seats behind Wilson’s Labour, clinging on until the Monday in the hope of a deal with Thorpe’s Liberals.

May’s own position is rather more secure than the position which Wilson found himself in.  Assuming the parliamentary vote goes May’s way, her Tories will end the shortest parliament in 40 years looking to extend their working majority from 17 seats.  If the polls are correct, she will do that and a bit more.  Comparing the result of the 2015 election to current polling, there has been a swing of 5.5% from Labour to the Tories.  On a uniform swing, this will be enough to take 48 of Labour’s current 229 seats and give May a landslide win with a majority of between 98 and 108 seats.

For the record, not that the polls are indicating it, Corbyn’s Labour party will be looking for a uniform swing of 8.75% which will enable them to take the 94+ seats that will put Corbyn into Downing Street.  Of course, that list of targets includes SNP held seats which means that the swing required will be higher, about 9.5% if the SNP held seats are taken out of the equation.  As a matter of interest, a swing to Labour of 0.45% from 2015 would be enough to wipe out May’s majority.

Of course, Britain’s third party is no longer the party which began the last General Election in government and defending 57 seats.  The Liberal Democrats will go into this election defending 8 seats.  There is talk however that their openly pro-EU stance will attract “remain” voters which will hopefully (for them) boost their numbers.  Polling however only puts them up a couple of percentage points from their showing 2 years ago, maybe enough for 2 additional seats.  Of course, that’ll be dependent on if there’s any more homophobic gaffes from their accident waiting to happen cum leader Dim Farron.

Meanwhile Britain’s third party are already in full election mode.  Given that there are council elections in two weeks time – and they were the only blot on the SNP’s electorial copybook  since 2011 – the SNP will be looking forward to defending the 56 seats they won in 2015.  Conventional wisdom dictates that those seats will be mostly safe, of the 56 Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk is the only seat that falls into the ultra marginal category with Calum Kerr vulnerable to the Tories on a swing of 0.3%.  If there is a Lib Dem revival, they could target the East Dumbarton seat held by John Nicholson (2% swing required here) the Edinburgh West seat won by Michelle Thomson (2.9% swing required here) and the North East Fife seat, won by Stephen Gethins (4.8% swing needed).  Not that they’re in any position to challenge, but the SNP’s most vulnerable seats to Labour are Kirsten Oswald’s East Renfrewshire seat (3.3%), Deidre Brock’s Edinburgh North & Leith seat (4.8%), George Kerevan’s East Lothian seat (5.75%) and…  well…  this seat.  Mhairi Black being vulnerable in the (highly unlikely) event of a swing to Labour of 6.15%.  Having said that, there were signs of voter fatigue with the SNP in last year’s Holyrood election.  If the Lib Dem’s and the Tories manage to replicate their results which propelled Alex Cole-Hamilton and Ruth Davidson into Holyrood as constituency MSP’s, things could be interesting and not quite so rosy for the SNP.

There is the very real possibility that the SNP could take the other three seats they lost out on 24 months ago.  Of the three, David Mundell’s seat is the most vulnerable.  A swing to the SNP of 0.75% would be enough for the dislodgement of the man SNP supporters have dubbed “Snackbeard”.  A swing of 1.8% would be enough for the SNP to dislodge their hate figure from two years ago, Alistair Carmichael while Iain Murray’s Edinburgh South seat is the safest of the three – though that’s not saying much with the required swing being 2.65% to unseat Murray.

Assuming that May’s Commons debate goes her way today, there will be a Westminster Election on June 8.  The polls point to a likely May landslide with a majority around the 100 seat mark.  I’m not that sure that this will be the likely outcome as election campaigns tend to take on a life of it’s own.  I think May will remain in Downing Street, but I think that’ll be the only thing that will go precisely to plan.  I don’t think the SNP will hold all of the 56 seats they won two years ago.  Other than that, I’m not sure what will happen.  If you need a reminder of the unpredictability of elections, cast your minds back 47 years to when Harold Wilson called the first post war June election.  Wilson’s Labour were heavy favourites…  until Ted Heath won a 30 odd seat majority.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The Bad Tactics of Indyref II

Refererendum’s eh. 

We’ve now had quite a few of them where we can pick up traits and rules.  Yip they can be divisive, but the most successful ones, and there are only two that fall into this category, can also re-enforce what Donald Dewar called “The settled will” of a nation.  The second one being the one Dewar used that description on, the second Scottish devolution referendum 20 years ago this September.  The first being the first EU referendum way back to just before I was born.

The revamp of Reporting Scotland takes an unexpected turn...
With that in mind, you’d be thinking that those people with pro-Independence views would be looking to try and play the long game.  Reach out and try and build a cross party consensus on the issue of independence whilst developing a loose narrative about how an Independent Scotland will work – a narrative flexible enough to have a left wing as well as a right wing spin.  We have seen a stirring of the economic debate which we didn’t quite see last time with the cross platform debate between Kevin Hague and the fair tax campaigner Richard Murphy (More on that later I think…) but it feels like there is undue haste put on things.

That speed is entirely down to the First Minister’s preferred timetable for a second Independence Referendum.  This timetable is designed entirely to ensure a smooth passage between the UK’s membership of the EU and (the SNP hope) a newly Independent Scotland’s membership of the EU.  There are several big problems with this plan, though I’d suspect that the EU might not be the biggest problem (they have a reputation for breaking their own rules if it suits them – witness Greece, Italy, Portugal… etc’s entry to the Euro club at inception without meeting all of the, supposedly necessary, convergence criteria).  No, Sturgeon’s biggest problem will be winning the referendum, especially if it is tied to the question of EU membership.

The problem which the SNP haven’t even broached is the estimated 36% of their voters which voted to leave the EU in last years EU Referendum.  Those voters…  indeed all of the million plus people who voted to leave the EU, have been talked down or airbrushed from the SNP’s “dragged out of the EU against our will” rhetoric.  It smacks of bad politics that the SNP, and in particular Sturgeon, has risked alienating this constituency in the rush to a second referendum. Possible evidence for this has been that there has been no bounce for Independence in the polls in the aftermath of the EU vote.  This alienation could also explain why we are split on the question of whether there should be a second referendum and if so, when?  Alongside the other reasons why having an Independence Referendum in the autumn on 2018 would be an extraordinarily bad idea.  Holding one predicated on an issue that would split your ‘core’ vote would be the big reason for not holding one at that point.

That’s not to say that those other reasons are not important.  That Sturgeon and the SNP seem to be prospering in spite of the lack of people who are outraged at “Scotland being dragged out of the EU… against it’s will” or that it looks highly likely that we will see Yes Scotland 2 as the campaign weapon of choice are important in their own right.  It’s just that the decision to go on an issue that splits Independence voters along similar lines to the way Scotland itself split last June does look like suicidal political tactics.  Coupled with the other reasons, you would pretty much write off any chance of successful referendum win this side of the UK’s divorce from the EU being finalised.  Then again, I did say that for the SNP to successfully argue that the EU referendum was a material change then they did need a pro-EU vote in Scotland of at least 65%.  At 62% (or if you’re Stephen Gethins, two thirds of Scottish voters), that vote is too small a foundation and has so far proven to be a flimsy pretext for a referendum.

If you were Theresa May and you really wanted to secure the Union for a generation, ideally you would ‘engineer’ a referendum as quickly as possible.  Give Sturgeon what she wants, a referendum in the Autumn of 2018.  At that point the Independence Campaign will still be slightly unorganised, the arguments rushed, and perhaps just slightly off guard.  The big problem with that scenario is the conservative, cautious nature of May.  Like Brown, when he became nervous over Wendy Alexander’s bravado over the possibility of a referendum 10 years ago, May will recoil over a snap referendum which will eventually come in conditions much more favourable to Sturgeon.

Instead of rushing into a second referendum, the SNP need to come up with a plan different to the one which lost in 2014.  They need to work on uniting the country behind a vision of a better Scotland rather than the ‘over enthusiastic’ argumentative style which Yes fundamentalists are very guilty of.  That means continuing with the long game, which means consistent rebuttals that an Independent Scotland would be too wee & poor.  It needs to be a long game firstly because as I earlier point out a quick referendum will lead to defeat and secondly because I think there will be better examples of ‘material change’, or certainly examples that will have a bigger impact on the Scottish electorate than the EU referendum.  If the UK’s divorce from the EU turns sour, if May’s proposed Grand Repeal Act proves not to represent Scottish interests or if May follows through and has a manifesto pledge to scrap the ECHR from English/Scots law.  These are the known examples that could go down badly with a Scottish electorate and unite them behind the idea of Independence, but not if the SNP persist in standing up for Scotland by not talking to the 1 million Eurosceptic voters or the 2 million pro-UK voters.

When I wrote in 2012 that Scotland would vote to remain within the UK, it was because the flaws within the Independence argument were becoming self evident.  Arguably, had Osborne not made his notorious ‘sermon on the pound’ speech then Better Together could arguably have had a bigger lead – as it was that speech which precipitated the fall in the pro-UK’s poll ratings.  Even before this referendum has started, the same issues remain alongside other issues, possibly related to Sturgeon’s impulsiveness. She may not see it that way, but May’s continued stonewalling of Sturgeon’s demands for a second referendum hands Sturgeon and the SNP an advantage.  Only if they recognise it and use the time to sort out the issues with their arguments.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Forgetting The Elephant In The Room

This time a couple of weeks ago, the Westminster village was full of rumour and speculation concerning debates supposedly happening about whether the Prime Minister should go to the country before the date stipulated on the Fixed terms Act.  William Hague then penned a piece calling for an early election, whilst BBC Scotland’s num… ah, sorry, ‘flagship current affairs phone in’ show “Call Kaye” debated the issue.  After the week May had last week, it was somewhat surprising to see the issue crop up in yesterday’s Sunday Politics show.  By now, you’ll have guessed that there’s something of a roadblock to this plan.

The closest precedent to the predicament May is in -
Harold MacMillan after his General Election win, October 1959
The Fixed Terms Act didn’t just give the UK the concept of fixed terms for Westminster elections (even if there’s some debate over whether it should have been 5 year terms) but also changed the terms of any future vote of no confidence.  This means that a simple +1 majority no longer counts as a vote of no confidence and therefore makes it more difficult for May to engineer a vote.  For May this would be a pity as I’d suspect that if she wanted a big stonking Commons majority then the optimum time for getting that will be the next 6 or so months. If she’s living off the mandate won by Cameron when the bells ring in 2018, then the chances of a big majority start to erode.

Having said that, I’m not sure an election this year figures largely in May’s plans anyway.  By the looks of things, May’s timetable will be full until the divorce from the EU is completed.  The sending of the letter triggering Article 50 will in effect mean no early election and for that matter no second Independence referendum until divorce with the EU has been finalised.  I would think that if May does want an early election, then the earliest she will go for will be spring 2019 with an election campaign centred on the supposed “Great Repeal Bill” and the rumoured scrapping of ECHR – a much better ‘material change’ than the European Referendum result is proving to be surely.  Other than that temptation, I’d think she’d stick with the date stipulated in the Fixed Terms Act, namely May 7 2020.

We might be in uncharted territory, however May’s predicament is not entirely without precedent.  In the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, Anthony Eden resigned 19 months into his only term as PM.  His successor, Harold MacMillan (above), did not seek a fresh mandate straight away waiting until the autumn of 1959, 2 and a half years into his premiership, before going to the country.  MacMillan won on the famous “You’ve Never Had It So Good” slogan, winning the Conservative’s first post war landslide election win with a majority of 100.

It is Brexit then, which is driving May’s timetable, rather than the Fixed Terms Act.  However both of those situations have deprived us of the parlour game once beloved of political hacks – name the election date.  Harold Wilson was a master of picking election dates, with the exception of picking the date of his third election as Labour leader.  Rather than wait until the autumn, Wilson chose to go to the country in June 1970 and lost to Heath.  When Heath decided to go to the country, it was on a ‘Who governs’ slogan…  and stumbled into a hung parliament in February 1974.  That election called in the winter of 1974 was the last truly ‘snap’ election as every election since the following October election has been called at 4 year intervals at least.  There is a school of thought that had Cameron not set up the Fixed Terms Act (as part of the coalition deal with the Lib Dems), he possibly could have called another, snap, election at some point in 2011 or 2012.

For all the talk about a snap election, it is surprising how little the Fixed term Act has entered people’s calculations.  This has removed the temptation of a ‘snap’ election for May, though the divorce proceedings with the EU are probably the main reason we can rule out snap elections in May, June or September this year.  Thanks to May’s timetable – which does not involve a Scottish Independence referendum either – then the earliest that Theresa May will be going to the country will be late spring 2019. I fully expect May to go to the country on the Fixed Term stipulated date, and not receive the huge majority that the polls think she’d get if she’d got an election this year.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

It's Deja Vu All Over Again

Regular readers of this blog will know that the previous referendums this country have organised were announced quite out of the blue and resulted in proposed posts being spiked.  That tradition has continued as this week, I’d planned to bring you reasons why Theresa May will wait until 2019 (at the earliest) to call that much speculated General Election.  So, thanks Nicola Sturgeon for sparing the country that…

There is only one conceivable angle where announcing the intention to hold a second Independence referendum now works, that is if you are signalling your intention that an Independent Scotland becomes a fully paid up member of the EU, bypassing the will of the electorate.  Therefore it is obvious that Independence will be tied to membership of the EU.  The problem with that of course is that of the people who voted for the SNP in 2015, 36% (according to Michael Ashcroft’s post EU Referendum polling) voted against their own party’s line.  I’d imagine that those people who have seen the Scottish Government, via EU directives, put key ferry services out to tender and the UK Government, as part of the Lisbon Treaty, privatise the Royal Mail, will baulk at Blair Jenkins description of the choice between a “Social Democratic Scotland within the EU” versus “a right wing Tory Brexit Britain”.

Other than that, calling this referendum makes no sense whatsoever at all.  Average polling is still roughly where the 2014 referendum left us, the expected bounce post EU Referendum has only happened in the minds of fevered activists and James “Scotland goes Pop” Kelly.  When she was elected as SNP leader, Sturgeon said she’d only hold a referendum if polling suggested consistent leads for Independence, so why hold one now when you’re still behind and there is clearly no ‘settled will’ for a second Independence referendum at the moment?

The other issue facing the Neo-Yessers is that the SNP have not shown any signs of coming to terms with how they lost in 2014.  That they were battered over currency masks how poor the economic case was prosecuted with oil both a bonus and the bedrock of an Independent Scotland’s finances.  Yet, even if the so called figures have deteriorated and are less favorable, the pro-Independence side’s task still remains the same – to show that an Independent Scotland can work.  The £15bn deficit is only a jumping off point after all.  Whoever is making the economic case (it shouldn’t be the terminally awful Business For Scotland, with their outlandish claims last time around) should be putting forward viable reasons how an Independent Scotland could work.  For tips on how to prosecute an economic case, perhaps they should be looking at Kevin Hague’s blog for tips.  I don’t agree with what he says, but he did show up Business for Scotland three years ago.

Of course, if the figures for Scotland have deteriorated, the case for Independence has not improved therefore the case for remaining within the Union must have improved, right?  Ummm, actually the case has remained the same... the attractiveness of remaining within the UK though is another matter.  Forgetting Brexit, we’ve seen a sharp right turn from the UK government and a rapid disintegration of something called British values from high profile politicians, the commentariat and other sundry media figures.  Casual racism is now mainstream, while respect has all but disappeared from public forums.  True, some of the sneering started during the first Independence Referendum, but since then Westminster has gone full Farage.

Whilst Theresa May’s cack handed handling of the EU referendum – essentially she’s going to argue for cliff edge Brexit when she could easily have sat back and let the EU push for it making them look like the bad guy’s – has precipitated a second Independence referendum that was avoidable at this moment. It was Cameron with his victory speech, moments after the ink was dry on the first Independence referendum, tying English votes for English laws to further powers for Holyrood, which all but ensured that there would be a second Independence vote.  And it was the Westminster village’s misreading of the referendum result – seeing an issue closed when the better interpretation would be of a couple needing marriage counselling – which has seen the London-centric commentariat adopt a gradually more sneering stance towards Scotland.

Of course, the pro-Independence supporters are excited and the pro-Indy fundamentalists are over the moon at sticking it to the hated ‘Yoons’.  However you should ask yourself one simple question.  Should you hold a referendum when you are all but certain of winning it – like Harold Wilson did in 1975 and Blair did in 1997.  Or do you hold it when you’re not certain of victory – like Callaghan did in 1979 with the Scottish Assembly vote and like Sturgeon’s predecessor did in 2014.  And shouldn’t you hold a referendum when all of your arguments are utterly bombproof, which was Cameron’s big failing last year?  It seems like an awfully big gamble from the First Minister, a bigger one if it’s tied to EU membership.  Unless the government insist on a vote after the UK exits the EU (which, coincidentally I think would help the SNP) then I think this referendum will be doomed to failure.