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.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Intruding At The Wake

Watching the initial skirmishes of the latest Labour Leadership campaign, you get the impression that both the politicians and the Labour ‘supporters’ in the media can’t quite get their heads around how and why they lost last months Westminster Election.  The media driven narrative, that Labour were too left wing and pointedly ignored aspirational voters, ignores the post referendum political landscape in Scotland.  Yet three of the leadership candidates come from that Blair/Brown New Labour ‘tradition’ and seem to be receiving luke warm coverage at best.  Only the brazenly socialist Jeremy Corbyn seems to be garnering more coverage, and none of it good.

It’s this background which sees Newsnight organise a leadership hustings event in this elections version of ‘Basildon’.  It became clear early on why Corbyn is seen as a dangerous figure among those driving that particular narrative.  He defended immigrants (before being cut off by moderator Laura Kuensberg, who did not have a great night), he said Labour had been cowed by big business and said that Labour leaders should subject themselves to the democratic will of the party every couple of years.  In the section on leadership, where the standard bearer for a successful Social Democratic leader was our own First Minister, Corbyn listed the platforms he’d shared with Sturgeon. Principally on Iraq and on anti austerity marches.  You get the impression that it was a long list.

Yip, I know.  Sturgeon has well and truly arrived in the national consciousness.  It is striking that Sturgeon is now seen as the standard bearer among left of centre votes as to what a left of centre leader should look like.  That’s clearly not the view of the candidates (Corbyn apart) who put clear policy water between themselves and Sturgeon.  Still, it was a passage to have Scottish Labour members & various Cyberbritnats shifting uncomfortably in their seats.

For all that Corbyn spoke more sense than the other candidates, he did not really strike me as being leadership material.  None of them did, truth be told.  The one campaign though that looks as if it might be in trouble early on though was Andy Burnham.  He looked nervous and didn’t look as if he controlled the debate.  The tone was set when his opening speech overran the allotted 45 seconds.  After that he looked a bit rattled and retreated into bland, beige answers.  A sure sign of the trouble Burnham was in was the reaching of the “common man” stylings last used to devastating effect by one Jim Murphy…  er.

Given that I’m not a big fan of Liz Kendall, I find her New Labour stylings truly awful, I was surprised at some of the sense that she spoke.  On benefits she spoke of the need that people need to contribute (tax revenues I’d think) before they can take claim benefits and she also pinpointed a key issue with this country – that we are too much of a low wage low skills economy.  Essentially the UK’s too wee and too poor.  She also caviated the proposed surplus law (not that there should be one mind, Kendall didn’t oppose this measure).

That’s not to say the perceived criticism of Kendall swallowing the Tory manifesto as whole is entirely untrue.  Her perception of the economic arguments are grounded on Osborneomics and are not really the viable alternative we were craving from Labour.

Coming out of this debate as the favorite is Yvette Cooper.  Her pitch was that this needs an experienced hand with new ideas and her arguments were aimed at a centre-left constituency, more so than Burnham or Kendall.  Like the others though, there’s not really an obvious sense that this is the next leader of Labour, far less someone who could remove Cameron or his successor from Downing Street in five years time.

While there are plus points to all of the candidates, there is one overriding question that none of the candidates looked like answering.  Could they formulate a potential alternative government that would win votes in the South of England as well as regain votes in the North of England and Scotland’s central belt?  While you can’t really tell anything about how ideas and campaigns will develop from a 60 minute hustings at the start of a campaign, you can tell that Kendall would be really dangerous if she had even an ounce of Blair’s fabled political nous.  You can tell that Corbyn is only there to keep the other candidates honest.  That the Burnham campaign is in difficulty already and that Cooper has emerged as the favorite to win.  

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The Other Victors...

Other than viewers in Scotland, there was only one winner out of last months General Election.  This much has been clear as Cameron unfurled the first full fat Tory Queen’s Speech since 1996 and the clock has felt as if it has wound right back to that period.  Channel 4 even put on an update of it’s most famous programme from that period, TFI Friday, at the weekend.  Thankfully the revival in Dad-Rock has not appeared… yet.  Lord preserve us from the Shed Seven, Kula Shaker or Sleeper revival.

So what are we to make of the other winners from last months elections, the Angus Robertson led SNP group swelled to encompass all but three of the Scottish Westminster contingent.  For all that Sturgeon is the SNP’s leader & co-ordinator & chief, it will be the Corporal Jones styling’s of Angus Robertson that will be the public face of the SNP at Westminster.

So far the SNP have attempted to install themselves as the unofficial opposition to the government, with something of a temporary vacancy for that position thanks to Labour’s navalgazing about how much of the Tory manifesto they can agree with before the rank and file revolt.  So far any chance to oppose has only come with the Government’s two big constitutional questions – on the conversation of the Smith Commission into law and the EU referendum.  Both have produced mixed results.

With the Smith Commission proposals the SNP clearly relished the opportunity to flex their knowledge of the Scottish psyche and to outline just why more powers are the settled will of the Scottish people.  The SNP also seem to be not recognising/ignoring the warnings of a deficit and of a black hole in Scotland’s finances should they succeed in gaining full Fiscal Autonomy for Scotland.  This is an issue that the SNP contingent can wrap their chops around…  er… (commons votes prohibiting).

With the EU referendum, the SNP have shown their one eyed love of the EU.  They are correct to press for suffrage for 16year old's and for EU nationals for this plebiscite, but to vote against the referendum simply because of the exclusion of EU nationals seems like pedantry gone mad.  I’ve previously argued that the SNP seem quite content to accept Thatcherism smuggled into Scotland by the EU and their argument against the EU referendum seems to confirm this view.  Even though it would fall on deaf ears, it would be nice for the SNP to show a vaguely Eurosceptic streak in arguing against some of the privatisation agenda forced on to Scotland.

Other than FFA, talk continues about the possibility of a second independence referendum, possibly during Sturgeon’s first full term as FM (given the shattered state of something called Labour in Scotland – an SNP victory next May is highly likely).  Stuart Winton has argued that the government should go for an early second referendum to try and settle the issue for an generation, while pro-Indy supporters think one should happen if Scotland votes to stay in the EU while the rest of the UK votes to exit the EU.  I disagree with Stuart because I think – if you’re looking at this from a pro-unionist point of view – if they push for the early referendum it will backfire on them.  I think the SNP realise this which is why they think the EU referendum will provide the next set of events that will lead to the second Independence referendum.  I also think that the pro-Union parties haven’t covered themselves in glory with the Smith proposals

As for the EU referendum scenario, I don’t think that will play out.  For starters, polls still suggest an advantage for staying in the EU.  That may change if the pro-EU teams employ Blair ‘Jonah’ McDougall or some other unknown unknown surfaces.  And I also think that this is an issue where Scot’s are not that far out of kilter with the rest of the UK.  I think the trigger point for Indyref 2 will be more to do with Westminster’s intransigence towards Scotland and their inability to stop themselves inserting their collective foot into their mouth.  Last night’s series of votes on the SNP’s amendments to the new Scotland Act being a possible starting point.

With the next Holyrood elections a dot on the horizon, the SNP could conceivably sit back and watch Labour fall apart while the votes roll in.  They’d be wrong to do so as I’d think Scottish voters would quite like to see the SNP come up with policies non-Independence related.  A successor to the Council Tax would be good.  Action on sliding education standards and in tackling the failing Health Boards & NHS management would be very welcome.  Some sort of easily accessible standards body for local authorities would be good as well, because our local authorities are just not transparent enough.  This will also be the first Holyrood elections where tax and the economy will be policy based issues, so outflanking Labour in the progressive taxation stakes should be a priority for the SNP.  In short, there’s scope there for the SNP to change up and not coast through the next parliament as they have done during this parliament – referendum aside.

I’ve said previously that the SNP are currently in their imperial phase – where everything is possible.  That will not last, Labour you would think will stop digging their graves.  In the meantime, the SNP should learn one last lesson from New Labour, being effective managers of policy & public services is one thing but if you don’t have a big policy initiative/vision then you might not be in control of your legacy.