Monday, 21 September 2015

The Art Of Learning From Your Mistakes

Friday was of course the first anniversary of that referendum.  In the run up to it, we have had all manner of reminiscences about what happened last year.  Fine if you are seriously nostalgic about events from the near past, but tiresome if like me you’d prefer your history programmes to have some sort of distance.  The referendum is still to raw for people to really get some perspective.  For me, the day itself was about getting away from it all, so I voted early then took myself off to the pictures.

One of the things that has been raised is the prospect of a second Independence referendum, the whys and why not has been looked at here.  I’ve previously said that a second referendum was pretty much inevitable, given the result and also Cameron’s ‘business as usual but we’ll look at English Votes for English laws’ speech barely an hour after the final result was announced (pictured above). That’s not to say that it should be straight away.  However one of the reasons for not having a second referendum within the lifetime of the next parliament is the distinct lack of a post mortem from the SNP regarding their failure to carry the country last September.  It’s this lesson that the SNP are showing no signs of learning from.

Over the last month or so, the reasons given by the SNP for the loss have ranged from railing against the media bias against Independence to the now notorious “The Vow”.  The former First Minister, Alex Salmond, has been most vociferous in attempting to pin the blame on the media and the Vow, all of which ignores the fact that Salmond himself had a decidedly mixed referendum campaign.  It was Salmond who championed the millstone around the pro-Independence campaign – Sterlingzone – and became more dogmatic about that policy the more criticism was heaped upon it.  It was also Salmond who spoke the most about the behaviour of the BBC, whether it was Nick Robinson’s strop at a press conference or the BBC report about RBS.  It was however a collective SNP leadership failure to successfully rebut The Vow.  It may have been the stories about companies leaving Scotland if we voted no that set the template, but the SNP’s retreat into “scaremongering” betrayed a tiredness and an irritability.

So if there is to be a second referendum, the SNP really should be looking at what went wrong for them as well as the things that went right.  Sterlingzone killed them in so many ways, not least because it blocked the SNP from even discussing their vision on how an independent Scotland could be economically viable.  Smack, brick wall right there.  I’m also probably alone in thinking this, but the SNP’s spin operation I thought came up short in those crucial final days as Salmond, Sturgeon & co tended to overuse the word “scaremongering”.  Concise, clever rebuttals were needed and were not forthcoming.

All this is something for a future where the UK Government and pro-Union politicians here in Scotland ignore the lessons that they need to learn from last September.  Chef amongst those being that the final result of 55% to 45% (rounding up/down) does not represent the overwhelming vote of confidence in the Union that those politicians blithely assert.  Had the referendum been won by the figures suggested by the polling when Yes Scotland launched its campaign in May 2012, then the 70%-30% victory would have settled the debate for generations.  Instead, the people of Scotland have decided to stay within the union but this is firmly on a trial basis.  To extend Douglas Alexander’s “divorce is an expensive business” analogy, both sides would be at marriage counselling trying to keep a failing relationship from complete collapse.  Yet Cameron, Mundell, the Westminster parties and the pro-Unionist politicians are behaving as if it was business as usual and that the union has been saved.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the perception of the new powers being offered to Scotland.  Social Security powers have not been proposed to be transferred en bloc.  There will be no Full Fiscal Autonomy.  If anything, Smith looks more of a fudge than Calman.  So far, so predictable after Gordon Brown’s casual referencing of touchstone Scottish Dates.  St Andrews Day, Burns Night were all used as deadlines, presumably March 1st was given a bit of a steer.  It all sounded too slick and too well designed to push the buttons of waivers that I smelled rotting fish straight away.  In spite of SNP orthodoxy though, the next referendum won’t be caused by Brown or the notorious ‘Vow’ but by the current occupant of Downing Street.

As long ago as the Edinburgh Agreement, Cameron could have stiffed the Nationalist’s short term ambitions by agreeing to that second question.  Had he done that, Devo Max would have won and independence would have been off the table for a generation, perhaps more. I’d suspect as well that Cameron’s cowardice in not making any meaningful contribution to the pro-Unionist cause harmed the union as well.  After all, if the leader of your country can’t be bothered to defend the existence of your country, well…

Cameron’s biggest mistake though has been his reaction to the referendum result, believing that a win is a win and the green light to carry on as if nothing has happened and that there is no consensus-building to be done.  His speech minutes after the official referendum result reopened the door to independence that had been closed pretty much since Clackmannanshire declared at about quarter to 2 in the morning.  Cameron’s latest bout of treating us like his forefathers would treat the colonies was the announcement that there will be amendments to the Smith inspired Scotland Bill – one of which being an amendment making Holyrood a permanent fixture in the UK government architecture…  three months after his party voted down the same amendment from the SNP.

Labour are all very quiet about this, but then again they have lessons of their own to ponder and learn from.  Their own conduct during and in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, where their hierarchy were too cosy in working with the conservatives and too happy to parrot conservative attack lines at the SNP/Yes Scotland, provided a realization for many Scottish people of how close to the Tories New Labour have become.  Better Together has in essence become Scottish Labour’s own Poll Tax moment.  Not the finest moment to hand the reigns to the most inexperienced figure ever to be anointed the figurehead of Labour in Scotland.

A year on from the referendum, there are reasons why both sides have not come to terms with the result and it’s aftermath.  For the SNP they need to come to terms quickly if the dream is not to die.  For the pro union parties, they need to learn the lessons to ensure that there is not an unstoppable demand for Independence.  Both sides though are showing every sign of carrying on as normal.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

The Referendum Shaped Elephant In The Room

With the general election gone and now a memory, this autumn’s party conferences will feed into the ongoing fallout from the said Westminster Election.  That next year sees the biggest electoral test out with those elections seems to have bypassed most people.

Now that Labour have elected it’s new leader in Scotland, they can now get on with trying to plan for failure.  In sharp contrast, the SNP are heavy, heavy favorites to win a third term and to return Nicola Sturgeon for a first full term as First Minister.  The problem of course is not so much whether they will win but what they should run on next spring.
Nicola Sturgeon at her election as SNP leader
(with her predecessor, Alex Salmond, in the background)

The ongoing performance of Scottish education, the Scottish NHS and Police Scotland has taken the gloss off of a party that had previously had a record for solid, if not unspectacular, governance.   The phrase I’d used at the end of Salmond’s first term as First Minister was ‘steady hand on the tiller’.  On the other hand, during the second term the Scottish Government have been on autopilot while they’ve been on referendum alert.  And that’s probably why the performances in the public services have suffered.

As I’ve said previously, the SNP should be looking at their place in history now with their policies.  Dewar could point at Section 28 and Jack McConnell can point to the smoking ban as legacies.  Even Henry McLeish can point to Free Care for the Elderly as a legacy.  Currently Salmond’s legacy is the lost referendum.  Sturgeon should be looking for that policy that will make her remembered beyond being Scotland’s first female First Minister.  Those troubles with public services provide ideal policy pickings for the SNP.

With regard to health, I’d think that the health boards would be ripe for modernisation with some sort of democratic element introduced.  A really radical policy would be tackling the management at the RAH, quite possibly the worst hospital in the west of Scotland.  Education has seen some modernisation with the introduction of the new National 4 and National 5 qualifications.  However literacy and numeracy rates have suffered over the past couple of years, therefore policies tackling primary education could be introduced.  Given that education has suffered from the PFI bill, extra money will likely need to be found.

Unrelated, but along the same lines as reform of public services.  I’d like to see some sort of easily accessible standards body for Local Authorities.  For too long our local authorities have existed in a land where they can do what they want without answering to anyone.  Recent school closures in Renfrewshire, Glasgow as well as the recent scandal in Edinburgh regarding the overpricing of council works have all shown that our local authorities still behave as they please.  It is time for our local authorities to be more transparent and I’d suspect that this would be a policy more likely to appear in an SNP manifesto than a Labour one.

Public sector reform should be at the focus of any SNP manifesto given how much they have taken their eye off the ball over the past 4 years and also how much some sort of defining policy would be desirable.  Yet most speculation about the SNP’s manifesto for next years Holyrood election is about the inclusion of a pledge to have a second independence referendum.  I can perfectly understand the motives for keeping a second referendum up the sleeves – something to use as leverage to gain more concessions from Westminster.  However a quick second referendum is madness.

Firstly, the circumstances that will lead to a second referendum needs time to ferment and to come to fruition.  Cameron’s speech at 7am on the morning of 19th September last year, tying further devolution to English Votes to English laws, has only started something – maybe Osborne’s visit to the Holy Loch adds to that.  Who knows when this will come to fruition?  Secondly nothing has really changed in the past year.  If there was a second referendum around the corner, the chances are that the result would be the same, maybe with percentage points movement either way.  True, there has been a recent STV poll giving a lead to independence for the first time since…  well the last outlier a year ago.  The big reason for that being the third reason why a quick second referendum would be sheer madness – that the SNP and the wider Yes movement have never quite talked about or held any meaningful post mortem about why they lost.

Of course there are existing theories as to why the referendum was lost by the Yes movement.  The former first minister, Alex Salmond seems to favour two reasons – blaming the so called “Vow” and the perceived media bias.  Most hard-line independence supporters buy into these theories… and are wrong to do so.  The “Vow” did not win the referendum for “Better Together” or sway yes voters back towards the no camp.  What it did do was provide soft no voters with something to keep them in the no camp – effectively stopping the flow of no voters moving across to yes.  On the other hand the print media were no more biased against Independence than they were in 2011, so should really have been something the Yes camp should have factored into their campaigning.  The poor campaign that the broadcast media had is another matter.  Suffice to say that it’s something that certainly the BBC should be looking at, though away from the heat and gaze of anti-BBC protestors claiming bias.

Nope, the real reason that Scotland vote against Independence is the same reason the wheels come off of a losing election campaign – that of economic reasons.  Put simply the SNP simply did not win the big economic arguments.  We never got concise economic reasons why Scotland could go it alone and we never got a chance to see Business for Scotland’s workings.  Say what you like about Kevin Hague, but at least he shows you how he got to his conclusions – even if you ignore the blizzard of graphs and charts.  Business For Scotland never ever came close to providing that level of proof…  and people saw through it.

One word though could be used to sum up all of the SNP’s economic woes, Sterlingzone.   I’ve previously banged my head…  er… pinpointed the huge flaws in Sterlingzone here  and here  and here.  A lot of Scottish people could see through the false claim that the pound was ours and that we can use it if we want without any drawbacks.  Signing away power over monetary policy ran counter to the SNP’s power in your hands argument, while the SNP’s intransigence over the prospect of no Sterlingzone deal cost them.  A more serious issue, which never got discussed, was the prospect of a punishing fiscal straightjacket as part of any accompanying fiscal pact. 

Yet the more that Better Together brought up Sterlingzone, the more Salmond, Sturgeon and Swinney stuck their heads in the sand and refused to budge.  Egged on of course by the legions of one-eyed nationalists convinced that handing over hard won powers to the Bank of England was ‘a good thing’.  All of which brings into question the consensus that those members of the SNP hierarchy had ‘good’ referendums.  Sturgeon had the best campaign of the three thanks mainly to her demolition jobs on Michael Moore, Alistair Carmichael and Anas Sarwar.  In sharp contrast, Salmond badly lost the first big set piece debate with Darling and could not recover sufficiently to convince more of ‘commuter-belt Scotland’ of his arguments.  For all that the so called ‘Project Fear’ was clearly a dastardly notorious piece of political campaigning, it worked.

I’ve previously said that I think that there will be a second referendum within the next ten years or so, you can already see Westminster not understanding that last year the union was effectively given a qualified and heavily caveated thumbs up – the Union has effectively been put on trial.  Yet the SNP have not talked about why they lost.  If there is another referendum, say in 2023, then the SNP will almost certainly lose if they go into that referendum offering the same prospectus that they lost with last year.  After all, the maxim that Scotland will remain in the Union for as long as the SNP persist with Sterlingzone still remains.

That referendum though remains somewhere in the future.  Of a more pressing concern will be the ticket the SNP will run with for next year’s Holyrood election.  Scotland is ready for new ideas on how our public services are run and the direction of those services.  Of course, with a (nearly) new First Minister, this gives the SNP an opportunity to evolve from Salmond’s brand of MacNewLabour.  The question is whether the SNP hierarchy will be happy at the referendum shaped elephant overshadowing the serious business of government when there is an election to be won.

Monday, 31 August 2015

No Direction

I’m not exactly sure of the polling but I’d suspect that there is a majority of people who would quite like there not to be another Independence referendum around the corner.  Given this, it is somewhat strange to see Labour recreate last years campaign in the form of their own leadership election.

We have the candidates looking to preserve the status quo (ie the cozy right wing consensus at Westminster), check.  The upstart outsider, check.  The scare stories, check.  The escalation of the scare stories, check.  The scare stories becoming shrill and nonsensical, check.  Gordon Brown, check.  The Daily Record, ch…  no wait, there’s always something that doesn’t quite fit.

Last time I blogged about the Labour leadership contest, it had just started and Burnham was still the bookies favourite.  We had just had the Newsnight leaders hustings, where we had the harbinger of Burnham tanking, and both Cooper and Kendall treading water against a sensible but ‘suspend disbelief’ credible Jeremy Corbyn.  Since then, Burnham and Cooper are still in the race, Liz Kendall seems to have disappeared completely while Corbyn if the polls are to be believed (yep, I know) is striding towards victory.

If this does happen, the reasons are fairly obvious.  A party that has had enough of it’s leaders buying the economic narrative of their chef opponent’s will have gone for the candidate that least articulates Osborne’s Scorched Earth as the only way.  As for the attacks on Corbyn being unelectable, maybe he is, but that doesn’t mean that Burnham, Cooper and Kendall are any more electable.  Indeed, if Corbyn is elected as Labour leader it will be an admonishment of the Progress wingers by the Labour rank and file – if you speak for the country then why have you provided us with weak, vacillating, vague and unelectable politicians to choose as candidates. 

The various interjections from Party “grandees” have been Cameron-esque in the unintentional boosts that have been given to Corbyn. One suspects that the same result will come from Blair’s recent piece – especially as Blair seems to have a blind spot regarding the squeeze from the left that has cost his party votes.  The main reason that Blair’s stock is not high among the left can be found in the comparison with the other PM to have won three elections in a row.  Where Thatcher won and took the country rightwards, Blair won and did not attempt to take the country leftwards – preferring to keep the country in it’s centre right small c conservative mindset.  Wasted opportunities…

There are two other things in Corbyn’s favour.  Firstly there is his readiness to speak the apparently unsayable.  For too long people with left of centre values and ideals have been driven to the sidelines, firstly by a media only too happy to brand socialists as ‘loonies’ and then by a party hierarchy only too happy to pander to those stereotypes.   Secondly, Corbyn does have a plan, a series of alternative policies, policies which pay no relevance to the New Labour/Conservative convergence in economic policy.  It comes back to one of Labour’s failures in May – they simply did not provide a viable alternative to Osborne-omics, Austerity and all that.  Milliband did try and failed to ride the two diverging horses that is the current Labour party with his curious mix of left wing market interventionist policies and acceptance of Osborne-omics.  His reward was a whispering campaign and the treat of a revolt from the Blairistas virtually as soon as the BBC/ITV/Sky News exit poll was released.  Milliband’s successor however is already guaranteed to be less successful if the sound of toys being thrown out of prams is anything to go by.

Whether Corbyn himself is electable is a mute point in itself.  I think he would have to work very hard to convince an electorate which gets its news from a still anti-socialist media (pro-Indy supporters who complained about anti –Independence bias in the media seem to have forgotten the 1980’s when the press were en mass anti Labour.  The S*n being the very definition of pro-Thatcher bias.  Everything the BBC quite resolutely was not).  The circumstances against Corbyn becoming PM are even more stacked against him than they would be against say Liz Kendall, and that’s before we talk about his policies (which would quite possibly be his strongest point).  Those ideas and debates, which Labour would need to have with the country and it’s own members, would be obscured by a hostile media that would do everything to egg on the Progress Groupers.  The wing of the party that will be even more desperate for Corbyn to fail than they were for Ed Milliband to fail.

We’ve already seen Blair speak of Corbyn supporters as being in need of heart transplants and his policies likened to “Alice in Wonderland politics” as well as the various torrents of abuse rained down on Corbynistas by Blair and his supporters.  Maybe there are armies of Cybernat style keyboard warriors trolling members of the Progress wing of Labour, from the view of the air war there is only one side loosing it.  A Corbyn win and no bookie in the land would take a bet on Labour splitting, with the Progress group favorites to throw their collective toys out of the pram.

While the Progress wingers are busily going about their collective temper tantrums, perhaps they should spare a thought as to why not one of their candidates has the talent and wherewithal to unite the Labour party without recourse to a ‘stairheid rammy’ (© Bernard Ponsonby).  Before the campaign, I’d have thought that Yvette Cooper would have had a decent chance of winning.  More so given that the mandarins and civil servants in Whitehall thought very highly of her.  Instead, she has tried to out Kendall Liz Kendall and not really sought to entice left wing voters beyond the Project Fear-esque scare stories.  At least Burnham has tried to adopt a bid tent approach to politics by not ruling out shadow cabinet positions for either Corbyn or Ed Milliband, even though his campaign hasn’t been very good.

At the moment, there is only one candidate with ideas and policies. That person is the favorite and has spooked the Labour establishment so much that they now look guilty of attempting to gerrymander the Labour leadership election.  Whether Corbyn wins or not, Labour has somehow found itself in an even bigger hole than it was in on the morning of 8 May.  Labour is in dire need of a figure that can gain the support from all sides of their party, and on the current showing none of the candidates are showing the crucial ability to square the rapidly diverging priorities of middle England and the Scottish central belt.

Monday, 17 August 2015

The Very Long Haul

I’ve been doing this blog now for over 8 years.  As the risk of coming across all  ‘it were all fields here when I were a lad’ and all that, I can remember quite a few of the bloggers from when I started.  One of them in particular never really struck me as future leadership material.  Then again, like with Nicola Sturgeon, I wasn’t looking for signs of leadership potential with Kezia Dugdale.

...And it's goodnight from him.
That’s not to say that she’s not leadership material.  The problem I have is that it’s just too early in her career for her to be landed with such a huge job.  Strike that, it’s a massive job with the near certain guarantee that her party will be defeated again in next May’s Holyrood elections. In essence, Dugdale’s task for next May is to halt her party’s decline and maybe get her party into the position where Bute House is a realistic shot come 2019 (or whenever the next but one Holyrood election will be).  To do that, they need to put pressure on the SNP Government.

Under Murphy, they’d started to do that.  Though why they ran a Holyrood campaign for a Westminster election will be lost on everyone…  unless Murphy tells all in his memoirs.  They’d flagged up the SNP’s record with waiting times at my local hospital, forgetting that the RAH was poorly run when Labour were in charge of…  it wasn’t government at that point, was it? They’ve flagged up the labyrinthine replacements for Standard Grades & Highers as well as the falling standards.

Of course, none of this will work without viable policies.  It’s this which Scottish Labour have dramatically failed at for the past three elections, which explains the relentlessly negative attacks on the SNP.  Given the tack hinted at with their attacks on how the SNP have ran public services, perhaps they should pitch for the modernisation of those public services.  After all, the SNP have been remarkably conservative when it has come to the running of those public services.  Reorganisation of the moribund Health Boards might be a flier, while policies aimed at driving up numeracy & literacy rates could well be eye-catching.  If Dugdale was feeling really bold and radical, she could pledge to replace the Council Tax.  A move that would instantly put the SNP on the back foot – given it was one of their policy pledges in 2007.

The early days, indeed conceivably whether she lasts beyond next May’s election, probably depends on the outcome of the main UK wide leadership election.  With this in mind, Dugdale should press for more autonomy for the Scottish party.  To date, we do not know the leadership’s honest opinion of the conduct of Scottish Labour since…  well probably since the SNP retained power in 2011.  Certainly the seeds of their behaviour goes back that far, Scottish Labour’s decline goes further.  If Dugdale pushed for more autonomy, it will give her more leeway to push for…  ah… “Scottish solutions for Scottish issues”.  Policies that might not sit well with Cooper or Burnham, let alone Corbyn or Kendall.  Conversely, a degree of autonomy might insulate Dugdale from any further fallout from the UK-wide leadership election.  

The only certainties about Dugdale’s election to the leadership of “Scottish” Labour is that she faces an uphill battle to even stand still from 2011 and that her fate is not fully in her own hands.  Outside of the party line, no one really knows what she stands for.  In this respect, the comparison is not with her immediate opponent, Nicola Sturgeon, but with the two most recent Conservative Prime Ministers.  David Cameron became leader of the Conservatives five years after his entry to the House of Commons, the fastest rise to leadership of the two main parties since the war.  Hug a Hoodie, Compassionate Conservatism and Vote Blue, Go Green were his early slogans, but we really had to wait until the 2010 election campaign to get Cameron. 

John Major’s rise might have been comparatively slow, entering parliament in 1979 and appointed to cabinet in the aftermath of the 1987 election win followed by being appointed Foreign Secretary and Chancellor in the 18 months before the fall of Thatcher, yet the perception was of Major being a Thatcher placeman, rather than the harbinger of Blairite New Labour-ism (in terms of policy, rather than presentation) that he became.  Dugdale entered Holyrood in 2011, we are not even at the end of her first full term at Holyrood.  Granted, that rise is nowhere near as rapid as Ruth Davidson’s rise.

It’s not inconceivable that Dugdale could end up being the next First Minister in 282 or so days time, it’s just highly unlikely.  Given the huge hole “Scottish” Labour finds itself in, handing the keys to the car to the youngest candidate available has the potential to be a recipe for disaster.  If “Scottish” Labour want to get out of the mess they find themselves in, they must ignore the almost certain defeat heading their way come next May.  For them, the planning for 2019 begins now.