Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Just What Has Alex Salmond Ever Done For Us?



I must admit to being amused by “Scottish” Labour’s very own pussycat in a cardigan Simon Pia.  He does have this shtick of being laid back and yet does catch people out.  His (and Scottish Labour’s) bone of contention is that the SNP aren’t really as left of centre as they make out.  This is all rather pertinent given the air of nostalgia enveloping the, not quite out the door yet, former First Minister Alex Salmond.

And just to show I don't have the power to point and tax things like glasses of water...
The tributes have flowed, and that’s before we get to Saturday’s conference appearance where he (unintentionally) nearly upstaged his successor Nicola Sturgeon and the gathering outside the conference venue to give thanks.  All of which has left me rather underwhelmed.

Yes, under Salmond there is free prescriptions, a council tax freeze, no tuition fees, a stop to the hospital closures proposed by the McConnell administration and an investment in renewable energy.  All of which delivered in the teeth of a rapidly contracting funding settlement from Westminster.  At the end of Salmond’s first term, I made the point that Salmond has been the effective “steady hand on the tiller” rather than a reforming character. 

However, Salmond has relied on this in his second term as this period has become all about the referendum.  Maybe it is unfair, after all there’s been the amalgamation of all of Scotland’s constabularies into the single “Police Scotland” (though to be honest, this did appear in the Labour & Tory Holyrood manifestos too in 2011, with the Lib Dems the only party to voice legitimate concerns).  It does feel as if the decks have been cleared for the referendum.  In the light of the no vote, does this leave Salmond without a legacy?

Certainly there have been opportunities among Salmond’s list of achievements to fashion a lasting legacy.  From the council tax freeze, we were supposed to be getting Local Income Tax.  When the sums were shown not to add up, there should really have been a debate on how to replace the Council Tax.  Instead the freeze continued.  Instead of upping the money flowing into the NHS, the Salmond administration could look at reforms (particularly in the field of middle management) to the NHS.  Maybe, the move from Standard Grades to CFE will be seen as a legacy in years to come – a successful attempt to bring the standard of education up – but at the moment there are still many teething problems to be ironed out.

Whatever else Salmond does though, front & centre of his time in Bute House will be that referendum.  Maybe that’s the thing though.  Salmond’s legacy might not be a policy initiative but more the comparative radicalisation of the Scottish electorate.  Not in terms of a shift to the left (it remains to be seen if this is the case, though we will know next May) but in the increased politicization of the Scottish electorate.  It’s this increased political awareness that spells bad news for a Labour party desperate to make up some red water on the Tories.  That dawning realization that the Tories spending plans will be aped by Labour will not go down well among the Scottish electorate, that realization can be attributed to the referendum effect.

If Salmond’s achievements are not as much as they could have been, his supposed black marks are not the ones you might think.  For me, the biggest disappointment was that the scandal surrounding the continuing of the First Scotrail franchise was swept under the carpet by all and sundry.  Mind you, maybe this did play a part in the recent award to Abellio of the Scotrail contract.  There was also his government’s part in Trump-town.  Then again, like with Salmond’s cheerleading regarding RBS takeover of the Dutch bank ABN Amro, politicians of all parties were all too keen on showing that Scotland was a good place for business.  It just makes Salmond’s involvement in Trump’s development more of a harbinger that things hadn’t really changed. 

The much higher profile black marks don’t really stack up.  The release of “the biggest mass murderer in Scottish legal history” on compassionate grounds doesn’t stack up because, as I’ve always argued, Megrahi rather than the biggest murderer is more the victim of the biggest miscarriage of justice in Scottish legal history.  Meanwhile Scottish Labour’s favourite stick was that the SNP was anti-Glasgow, the ammunition for this was the cancellation of the proposed Glasgow Airport Rail Link.  While there is a case for some sort of rail link between Glasgow and it’s Airport, the cack handed way it was put together was nothing more than a vanity project for Glasgow Labour. 

Even more distasteful was the bandwagon jumping of Renfrewshire Labour politicians claiming that the GARL was a good thing, that the construction of a link destroying football pitches was a good thing, that a rail link that took visitors away from Paisley was a good thing.  Salmond & Swinney were right to scrap the project, though maybe should have looked as cost effective alternatives.  That Renfrewshire Labour activists still cling to GARL as all that is wrong with the SNP shows that they’re not learning.

In some respects, Salmond has been fortunate that his opponents in Scottish Labour were still in a sulk about 2007 and all that to be a truly effective opposition.  It’s possible that Wendy Alexander would have been much more effective at bringing Salmond to account than Gray and Lamont.  On the other hand, an effective Labour opposition may well have pushed the SNP to go further with regard to legislating through Holyrood.  If there’s that sense that Salmond’s second term was all about the referendum, well it’s because they could afford to.  A poor opposition at Holyrood meant that Salmond’s government has essentially been in cruse control since May 2011.

With the Salmond years now over, only the Inverdale question remains.  To paraphrase.  In the pantheon of great first ministers, where does he stand?  I’ve long said that he has set the standard for Scottish First Minister and nothing has really changed my mind.  Singularly the most accomplished & effective occupant of Bute House, Salmond has been the one man advertisement for the big jobs being filled by experienced people that have served their apprentice.  Especially pertinent given the inexperience at the top of the Westminster parties (Cameron has been an MP for only 13 years, Milliband & Clegg for 9).  Them’s big shoes to fill for Sturgeon, and as I’ve already said that brings it’s own pressures.

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Miliband Problem



I don’t really tend to do I told you so posts.  I had in mind a post for if Scotland voted no putting reasons as to why Scotland voted No but couldn’t bring it to fruition.  It is obvious though that since the posts I wrote in 2011 and 2012 about Milliband’s performance as Labour leader, things have…  er… developed.

The first of these posts – “The Miliband Drift” – pinpointed Miliband’s carefully crafted tightrope walking act in trying to appease the Blairite tenancies that still form a large bulwark in the Labour hierarchy.  The decision not to formulate a viable alternative to Osborne’s Scorched earth policy of cuts has since that post boxed Labour into accepting these cuts as fait accompli.  We can blame Balls for many things, but Milliband should really have hit the ground running on this issue.  Lets not forget as well that Balls was not Shadow Chancellor when the Shadow Cabinet were faffing about – it was the King over the water “Uncle” Alan Johnsone and his Economics for Dummies book.

What has undone Miliband though is not the swing votes or the continual threat from the Blairite Progress wing of Labour but his continual pandering to the Progress wing has pushed many labour voters away.  Oh and that referendum.  The referendum bounce has not gone to the parties that backed the winning side – the Conservatives or to Labour.  The referendum bounce has gone to the SNP – the leading party on the losing ticket – with polls suggesting a whole tranche of Labour seats are at risk at the next Westminster election.  If this was to happen, Labour’s Scottish heartlands will have really turned their backs on Labour – remember that there’s only three Labour seats within a swing of 10% to the SNP but there’s a bunch of 20 seats around the 12-18% swing mark so for the SNP to reach this cluster of seats must signify a collapse in support for Labour.  A collapse that current polling suggests is happening.

Labour’s biggest problem post referendum is recognizing that Scotland has changed and that desire for change is not going to go into any box, or be sated by the crumbs promised by a still Blairite Labour party.  How this square’s with a party that wants to focus on winning the swing seats it needs to win to push their party into government is anyone’s guess.  What it does do is torpedo under the waterline Milliband’s alleged 35% strategy – the strategy of winning by just appealing to core voters and to disaffected Lib Dems.

That second post about Miliband now looks like a harbinger of the Labour strategy for keeping the union – unreservedly stand shoulder to shoulder with Cameron, Osborne, Clegg & co and not even bother to think about the consequences, or any viable alternative that would play to the settled will of Devo-max (but not full Independence) supporting voters.  Iain McWhirter in his column in the Sunday Herald called last week the moment Miliband lost the election (though McWhirter lays the blame more at the feet at the dissenters than Miliband).  I think it was obvious as far back as that post in 2012 that Miliband would not be the next occupant of No 10 – though those caveats do include UKIP & their performance.  His inflexibility and inability to think on his feet is a huge minus.  He reminds a lot of Brown – a thinker that unfortunately does not have the requisite skill settings to be a leader.

So will Miliband’s removal be the silver bullet for Labour’s ills.  Well, maybe.  Certainly a more New Labour figure could play well in England.  However this figure would exacerbate Labour’s position in post-Indyref Scotland and would make it an awful lot easier for pro-Indy supporters to hang the “Red Tory” label on Scottish Labour.  Of course, “Tartan Tory” would be a much more damaging epithet.  One needs to look at the polling figures of Murphy to see what a right of centre Labour leadership would do to Scottish Labour.  Miliband might be lots of things, but a cursory glance at the shadow cabinet shows no obvious successor.

Ed Balls is still universally reviled for his part in the last government, so any ambition to lead is tempered by his unpopularity.  His wife Yvette Cooper would probably be the favourite in any leadership contest but would still be seen as someone from the right.  Both Reeves & Umuna though – also considered contenders – would be disasters at this stage (Umuna just doesn’t look leadership material full stop).  Conspicuous by it’s absence would be wee Dougie.  He however is being lined up by supporters of Ed to be the scapegoat for when things go wrong.  All of which leaves Andy Burnham as the flag bearer for the left.  Except his left wing credentials tend to gloss over his part (alongside another No 10 staffer James Purnell) in spiking Tony Banks football taskforce and partly being responsible for the development of ID cards.

For better or for worse, Labour is stuck with Milliband until the election.  Those malcontents on the back benches can congratulate themselves on pretty much ensuring Cameron’s second term as PM.  Then again, us Scots could have warned the rest of the UK about the red Tories in the midst of the Labour party.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Taxing Issues For Scottish Labour


For all of the schadenfreude surrounding the current meltdown of Scottish Labour, there was a moment on Sunday where you could have pinpointed a smidgen of complacency within SNP ranks.

Ffft... Who wants a coronation anyway!
The BBC’s Sunday Politics programme had the three candidates for the position of SNP deputy leader.  While they might be impressive regarding spending priorities, they fell apart on the issue of taxation, in particular the issue of corporation tax.

Disappointingly, all of the candidates advocate the cutting of corporation tax.  Falling into the trap of believing that lower corporation taxation rates will entice companies to come to Scotland to invest, shows that these candidates have not seen that this strategy does not work.  An example being the fate of Ireland, who saw their tax take fall as it chased the two birds in the bush whilst becoming something of a pariah among the EU hierarchy.

Normally, such ineptitude would be food and drink to an eager and alert opposition.  You can hear the attack lines if you imagine hard enough.  The SNP candidates were being fiscally irresponsible and that lower corporation tax rates would create a black hole in our finances.  Except that our opposition would think nothing of the sort and only really have eyes for their symbolic 50% tax rate – which because it only would kick in at £150,000 would only be symbolic and as much use as a chocolate fireguard anyway.

The resignation of Lamont really should be the opportunity for Scottish Labour to regroup and rethink their strategies.  A chance to check the decline before it affects Westminster seats and to diagnose where and why Lamont failed.  The candidacy of Neil Findlay offers this.  What Scottish Labour does not need is one dominant candidate emerging who imposes their policies all over the debate.  With the entrance of Jim Murphy to the contest, this turn of events is likely to occur.

You can already see Murphy dominating the debate.  Clearly the London-centric media’s favorite, Murphy was on Jon Pienaar’s show on Radio 5, on the news and all over the print media, with the normally sage Andrew Rawnsley falling for the charms of Murphy in his weekend column.  Both Boyak and Findlay are not getting a look in, then again Murphy’s supporters are pretty much the leaders of the Better Together campaign – including the perpetually piss poor Blair McDougall.  Who’s refusing to move on now?

In Rawnsley’s big puff piece on Murphy, he attempted to slay some home truths about New Labour’s apparent unpopularity – winning 56 seats in 1997 & 2001 (when 71 seats were returned from Scotland) and 41 in 2005 (when 59 seats were returned).  A cursory look at the votes cast tells a different story – and one that feeds into the downfall of Labour at Holyrood.  In the Blair landslide of 1997, 1,283,350 people voted Labour – a share of 45.6%.  In 2001, that had fallen to 1,001,173 – a share of 43.3% (turnout had dropped by 13% in Scotland).

In the first post Iraq Westminster election Labour garnered 922,402 votes – a share of 39.5% of the vote.  This represented Labour’s worst result in Scotland since 1983.  Conversely, in the election Brown fought (In 2010), he attracted 1,035,528 votes and a share of 42%.  Of course, as I’ve said previously, in Holyrood elections Labour have never surpassed the result of the inaugural elections under Dewar.  Indeed since the 1999 elections, Labour’s share of the vote (in both the constituency and the regional list vote) has dropped at each election.

Rawnsley’s own ignorance at the Scottish political scene does not serve his readers very well.  Gray and Lamont may well have been accident prone, but both failed because they attacked the SNP from the right.  One can speculate how much closer the 2011 election might have been had Gray not run away from anti-cuts protesters in the middle of Glasgow’s biggest train station.  As for the person who lost to Salmond in 2007, McConnell was the person who swung Scottish Labour to backing Blair (as opposed to Brown) in 1994.  In office, McConnell oversaw the transfer of housing stock to arms length companies as well as the upgrade of our schools infrastructure via PFI.  Not exactly left of centre thinking.

One of the things I kept hearing from a certain constituency of Yes campaigners was how much they disagreed with Salmond – on Sterlingzone, on the EU and on Corporation tax rates.  The lack of serious opposition providing alternative policy positions is beginning to lull the SNP into a sort of comfort zone. Whilst the SNP occupy the centre ground of Scottish politics, there is very little room for Labour to garner votes from the right.  Yet this is where they will stay should the Compass group's Scottish figurehead become leader. 

Murphy had a dig at the SNP, about coronations being undesirable. The manner with which this leadership election is being played out though provides the worst of worlds.  An election where one of the candidates is favored so much by the media and certain stakeholders that it renders the contest an election in name only.

Monday, 27 October 2014

The Political Suicide of Johann Lamont



A couple of years ago I wrote a post where I argued that if Labour wanted to win, they needed to dump their leader Johann Lamont.  Now that the referendum campaign is… well we’ll maybe comeback to that one…  Now the vote has passed, Labour has come to that conclusion. 
 
Except that Lamont has jumped before she was pushed.  Ah, you can never find a man in a grey suit when you need them...

Lamont’s departure has put into focus the current post referendum narrative, that having been a “key” player in the pro-Union Better Together campaign, Scottish Labour have contrived to lose the peace.  What’s worse for them is that with Westminster followed very quickly by Holyrood elections, the bitter recriminations look highly likely to spill into both campaigns.  This makes the SNP’s task that bit easier in bringing that group of Labour held seats that currently need a swing of over 12% within their range.  It also means a first full term for Nicola Sturgeon at Holyrood.

And boy are there recriminations.  Lamont described Labour MP’s as dinosaurs (“colleagues who think that nothing has changed”) and accused “London Labour” of treating “Scottish” Labour like a branch office.  There’s the allegation that she was sidelined.  There’s the allegation that the General Secretary (of the Scottish party) was removed without Lamont being consulted.  There’s an allegation of some sort of “network” of Scottish Labour MP’s intent on doing down Lamont.  It sort of points to the fact that Lamont was not trusted to do the job she was elected to do – in essence she was in office but not in power.

That version of events only works if you ignore Lamont’s failings as leader.  She did make speeches that positioned her party to the right of the SNP – the infamous “Something for nothing” speech being the obvious example of this.  I’m not sure I have any sympathy for her.  For one thing, she was in the shadow cabinet when Iain Gray was leader, so she must have had an idea of the poison chalice that awaited.  Especially with a party run by “Anglos” on the Blairite Compass group wing of the party.  For another, it was those strange decisions.  Either she was tactically inept not to spot an opportunity on the left of the SNP, in which case she was not leadership material.  If she was told to go down a right wing line – echoes of which could be seen in the allegation that Lamont & co told to not oppose the Spare Room Subsidy until Miliband had made his mind up – she should have shown some spine and resigned.

One of the thing’s I speculated about in that post was who would be the candidates to succeed Lamont.  The conclusion being that there was no outstanding candidate.  This is even more true now.  The favorite to succeed is the current Eastwood MP Jim Murphy.  Labour MP’s are already trying to sound Murphy out about running for the job.  Should he decide to go for it, Murphy would be the big hitter Labour have needed… pretty much since they engineered Alexander’s removal as Holyrood group leader in 2008.

There are two big problems to Labour adopting this particular plan – pioneered by Salmond 10 years ago.  Firstly, they probably would prefer Murphy to be in Holyrood in the run up to the 2016 election and not leave the Holyrood group in the hands of a deputy/caretaker for too long.  The bigger problem is that Murphy, being from the Compass Group wing of Labour, would take the same policy positions as Lamont did.  In a country that did not take to New Labour with the same zeal as the rest of the country, this will be a problem.  Especially given that Sturgeon is likely to take the SNP slightly leftwards.

The other Westminster name being touted is someone by the name of Gordon Brown.  Yes, he did save the union with his speeches & by laying out that timetable so carefully crafted to include touchstone Scottish dates…  but really, the guy that failed as Prime Minister…

That the frontrunners are two Westminster MP’s really illustrates Scottish Labour's problem in that there’s no one really at Holyrood that can be seen as viable candidates.  That one of Lamont’s rivals three years ago (Ken McIntosh) seems to have vanished from front line politics illustrates the paucity of talent on the Labour benches.  That’s not to say that there’s not talent on the Labour benches.  You do sense however that there’s just not enough experience between Dugdale, Marra or Findlay for any of them to make a decent fist of the job. They may have potential down the line, but those three are still only just over half way through their first term at Holyrood.  If anyone doubts the need for experience, just look at the current line up of leaders at Westminster where Cameron is the most experienced party leader, having been elected to parliament in 2001.  It shows.

I wonder if the best strategy available to Scottish Labour is not the Salmond strategy from 2004, but the strategy employed by the Conservatives when they ditched Iain Duncan Smith in 2003.  They rallied around an experienced figure, one that was essentially an elongated caretaker figure, this gave possible future leadership contenders time to gather experience & to formulate campaigns & ideas.  Yes they possibly did write off 2005, but then again it’s unlikely whoever wins will be in a position to be First Minister come May 2016.  An elongated caretaker figure also gives Scottish Labour time to sort their internal structures, look at ideas & just generally just to stop and think about where they are going.

While the SNP and the other parties in the “Yes” coalition have much to learn from the referendum, so do does the leading party in the “Better Together” coalition.  That lesson is not the frankly graceless “We won… (and) helped to deliver over 2 million people that kept us in the union” but more to do with there being an appetite for left of centre politics and that Scotland is fed up of being left behind by the cosy right wing Westminster consensus.  Lamont’s legacy may well be that in resignation she forces Scottish Labour to look at the changed landscape before the party becomes totally irrelevant.