Monday, 25 April 2016

Obama And His 'Sermon On The Pound' Moment

It is a law of politics that even the shrewdest of political minds will come unstuck when attempting to traverse foreign or unfamiliar political landscapes.  Blair, for example, always kept an arms length approach to the murky world of Scottish Labour, instead coming undone, to the extent that it was the end of his 'imperial phase', in that most Labour friendly of places – the Women’s Institute.  Having commented on the Scottish Referendum, the US President, Barak Obama probably felt that he would be able to repeat the trick with the upcoming EU Referendum.  Not the smartest of moves…
Friday saw Obama arrive on the UK leg of his farewell tour as President, it was already controversial due to the pre-announcing that he would be making comments as he did two years ago.  For some people, those comments two years ago were okay while his comments now were him sticking his nose into something he doesn’t understand.  The blatant hypocrisy of the likes of ‘Boom Boom’ Johnson, Fox and other foaming at the mouth right wingers were a sight to behold, as was the faux outrage at Obama’s supposed snub regarding the removal of the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office.  Try telling the people of Dundee (indeed, anyone with a grasp of Scottish history who has studied the events that led to tanks in Glasgow’s George Square) that Churchill stands for democracy and freedom.

When Obama made his speech on Friday, the usual suspects rushed to their typewriters to claim that this was the big game changer – that the UK voting to leave the EU would see it’s influence markedly diminish and be forced to “the back of the queue” in terms of trade deals with the US.  No doubt pro-Europhiler de jour Alyn Smith was crushed in the stampede of Euro enthusiasts to rush to the television studios or laptops and tweet their victory.  There’s one small problem with that argument.

Many people who lived through the Scottish Independence referendum will remember an episode from February of 2014, when the Chancellor, his Shadow and the Lib Dem…  no I’m not sure of the best description for Danny Alexander either…  when they comprehensively ruled out any kind of deal with an Independent Scotland regarding the setting up of a Sterlingzone.  Granted, it was a rank bad idea anyway and most certainly not the best option had we voted yes.  Similarly, while the politicians were desperate to block off this proposal as something likely to happen, the currency markets would have forced Osborne, Cameron & Salmond to the negotiating table by close of play on the Friday.  At the latest.

It was Osborne’s speech in Edinburgh that categorically, in no uncertain terms, ruled out the UK government doing a Euro style deal with an Independent Scotland which turned the tide of the referendum… in favour of the nationalists.  It was almost immediately dubbed ‘The Sermon on The Pound’ by the Sunday Herald columnist Iain McWhirter, such was it’s dismissive, condescending & overbearing tone.  As Portillo pointed out on that weeks ‘This Week’ programme, it was sound economically to make the speech but was “Bad politics”.  The smack of someone representing something bigger than you coming to your part of the world and telling you that you can’t is not smart politics at the best of times, even more so when the message is delivered by someone so utterly toxic like Osborne. No wonder Scottish Labour are struggling to hold on to second place in Scottish voters affections, never mind pushing to get back into government for the first time in 9 years.  It’s a scenario which looks awfully familiar having been replayed again on Friday.

Someone representing something bigger than you (replace Osborne with Obama) coming to your part of the world to tell you that you can’t (replace Sterlingzone with trade and Obama’s desire to complete the TTIP negotiations) and you see the issue here.  There are two crucial differences though.  Firstly, it’s not Obama that’s the toxic figure here – more the currently in development hell deal that is TTIP that is the toxic mug of poison on the table.  Indeed, in spite of Obama’s threat, he remains relatively popular in this country, unlike say, the convicted fraudster’s 'friend' Boris Johnson.  Johnson’s jibe about Obama’s heritage has generally gone down like a bucket of sick and is the political equivalent of committing political Hari-kari on your own campaign.  Indeed, given the limited small but poisonous issues we have heard so far on the trade treaty negotiations, it is surprising to hear Gordon McIntyre-Kemp from the pro-Indy Business for Scotland group make claims about TTIP and the negotiating stance of the UK.  Claims unsubstantiated anywhere, thanks to the deeply secretive nature of the treaty.

The other difference is that Obama stuck around for more than five minutes, and gave interviews to news media and other outlets – there was an interview broadcast by the BBC yesterday for example.  In sharp contrast Osbourne couldn’t wait to get out of Scotland once he’d made his speech, blanking STV’s Bernard Ponsonby during his walk to his ministerial car.

The parallels to 2014’s independence referendum are becoming more and more striking, ‘Project Fear’ has already entered the common vernacular, with ‘pooling and sharing’ a key argument for staying in the union while Iain Duncan Smith accused the government of arguing that we were ‘Too wee, too poor, too stupid’ to leave the EU.  There was also a campaign asking pro-EU supporters to convince older relatives of the merits of the EU, in a striking parallel of Dan Snow’s ‘Stay’ set of publicity stunts.  Whether Obama’s speech will go down as the moment that clinches it for the pro-EU camp or becomes this campaign’s equivalent to ‘The Sermon On The Pound’ remains to be seen.  While this is playing out, dominating the Election campaigns to Holyrood & Cardiff Bay, any odds that Freedom Square will be the next Indyref thing to transfer to the European referendum?

Monday, 11 April 2016

Spending A Penny

Long time readers of this blog will know that one of the things this blog does is to look at and dissect election literature that comes through the door here at Dispatches towers.  The first piece of election literature to appear is something called “Paisley Voice”, extolling the virtues of Scottish Labour and their candidate for the seat of Paisley, Neil Bibby.  If the literature, and indeed Saturday’s campaigning outside the Piazza, are anything to go by, Bibby’s campaign will be centred around health and the (rumours of) proposed cuts to services to the Royal Alexandria Hospital.

The largest part of “Paisley Voice” is devoted to health issues and the fight to retain services at the RAH.  As has been previously been flagged up, public services suffered most during the second SNP government due to their attention being on other issues.  This is the target Labour are clearly aiming at, with Bibby highlighting the threat to close or downgrade the children’s ward and Maternity Services at the RAH.  Indeed, when I..  er.. bumped into the leader of Renfrewshire Council, Mark McMillan, on Saturday, this was the line being pushed.  The argument that the SNP have cut NHS funding and that NHS funding has not risen at the same rate as funding for NHS England.

Of course there is a specific reason for this – that NHS England is essentially operating on a hand to mouth existence thanks to exorbitant PFI repayments and that the NHS in England wouldn’t be able to operate without the rises in spending.  Up here we only have the Queen Margaret in Edinburgh…  and that’s pretty much it in terms of English style PFI schemes within the Scottish NHS.  Of course the same can’t be said of our schools (and to be fair did not crop up in my ‘conversation’ with Mr McMillan).  Another time maybe…

This isn’t to say that Bibby, McMillan & co aren’t making valid criticisms of the SNP.  They are, and from what Mr McMillan was saying the ball is definitely in the court of Shona Robison regarding the proposed cuts.  It would be strange for an SNP government with a reputation for keeping hospitals open (one of Sturgeon’s first acts remember was to keep open Monklands Hospital) to now start closing wards & vital services.  Then again, Greater Glasgow Health Board are a strange beast anyway, centralizing A&E into the new Southern General Hospital and prioritizing Glasgow ‘overspill’ A&E in the RAH is not remotely the brightest of ideas.

However all of this comes back to what I was saying around the time of the height of #SNPBad-ism, namely that it’s all very well being critical of the government but you need to provide alternatives as to what you would do if elected.  While Saturday was mostly about ‘debunking’ the SNP’s claims to protect Scotland from austerity (and McMillan’s claims had the air of ‘he said, she said’ about it all without getting to the bottom of the matter), there was very little promotion of policies.  Thankfully some policies are mentioned in the “Paisley Voice” sheet.

I say some.  Dugdale’s flagship policy of an across the board 1% rise in income tax is not mentioned, nor is the preference for a 50% rate starting at £150,000.  I’d suspect that not mentioning this is a tactical error, given the number of left wingers critical of the SNP’s own rather conservative tax proposals.  Of the policies that are mentioned, the Warm Homes Act looks promising and a ban on rip off rent rises is welcome. The policy for building 45,000 homes for rent looks ambitious at best, given Labour’s record when they were in power. Regulation of bus services looks like a good policy too, however what is deeply unwelcome is the white elephant from the dying days of McConnell’s time as First Minister – Glasgow Airport Rail Link. While the pledge to “refurbish and build new schools” should attract further scrutiny in the light of what has happened in Edinburgh.

Observing both of the main parties on Saturday, the SNP looked like the most relaxed.  The Scottish Labour canvassers were easily the more animated and aggressive – when it looked like I wouldn’t sign their petition one of the canvassers quipped “So you want our hospital to close”.  Looking at Bibby’s task, that aggression is deeply unhelpful.  George Adam scraped home 5 years ago on a majority of 248.  With Bibby requiring a swing of 0.6% to reverse that result, Paisley will be 4th on Scottish Labour’s target list.  Like last years Westminster Election, the fight for the seat of Paisley is a microcosm of Labour’s problems & issues.  A campaign heavy on government criticism but light on policy initiatives does not feel like the correct campaign to fight for this election or is ultimately a winning campaign.

Monday, 4 April 2016

The Race For Silver

You know, given the SNP’s record in government being not the most convincing record (with their minds and resources concentrated on that referendum), you’d imagine that the next five weeks would be taken up with pieces and a focus on Scottish Labour’s target seats, with Glasgow Anniesland, Kirkaldy, Edinburgh Central &  Paisley (all ‘winnable’ with a swing to Labour of under 1%) being the top 5.  Instead, thanks to the near collapse in the Scottish Labour infrastructure & support post referendum, it will be the SNP who will be eying up further gains in the upcoming Holyrood election.  Top of their list will be East Lothian (Iain Gray’s seat), Greenock & Inverclyde, Edinburgh North and Motherwell & Wishaw.  Seats the SNP ‘just’ missed out on five years ago.

With the first full week of the campaign ahead, it is to no ones surprise that tax is at the front and centre of the campaign. It featured heavily in the BBC debate, where all parties contributed to a dull and lifeless debate.  Any spikiness was down entirely to Glen Campbell’s inability to successfully monitor a debate.  David Dimbleby’s successor to the chair of Question Time will surely not be Campbell, as he failed several times to regulate the debate.  I’ve said it before, but BBC Scotland really should attempt to snap up STV’s Bernard Ponsonby.  And lo, as if to prove my point he had a good debate when STV hosted it’s own set piece debate last Tuesday.

The thing that STV did differently was that they had a cross examination section where each leader was cross examined by their fellow leaders.  This was done during the referendum campaign (and possibly during last years Westminster Election), but worked very well here.  For one thing, it was the catalyst for Davidson to have a ropey start to the election campaign.  It gave some respite for Labour’s Dugdale before she carefully inserted her foot into her mouth again over the proposed tax rebate and her voting intentions in any future Independence referendum, and also enabled Sturgeon to get off the back foot.

Firstly, Davidson.  As previously mentioned by Peat Worrier, one well placed and suitably well crafted question by the First Minister destabilised the Tory machine so much that Davidson completed a stinker of a debate.  Even a rejuvenated Dugdale took strips off Davidson for showing her support for the union by posing, Cher style, on a tank.  Her poor week continued into Thursday morning’s big set piece interview on Good Morning Scotland.  Davidson flunked the tax question again and ended the interview doing a Rab C Nesbitt impersonation – “I will tell you this…”.

In contrast, Dugdale didn’t have a bad start, even getting to best Davidson during the STV debate.  That was at least until the weekend when she announced the dropping of the policy of scrapping the rebate part of her scheme for an across the board 1% tax increase. What has put her own side’s back up is the revelation that she would vote for Independence if we voted to exit the EU.  It assumes that the UK will vote to leave the EU (not a certain proposition at this stage) but also smacks of a certain kind of arrogance that puts the EU above the sovereignty of the Scottish people.  Grandees on her own side see this as ‘not being sufficiently pro-Union enough’ and in providing a stick with which to beat Labour with.  This has prompted briefings against Dugdale, yip I know Labour people briefing against their leader.  Shocking.  Especially as Labour are conceivably fighting for their very existence, but there you go.

Meanwhile, what of the current governing party.  In the campaign for a first full term for Nicola Sturgeon, her campaign hasn’t really got going yet.  The SNP have been under pressure for tax proposals that can best be described as conservative.  Tinkering of the Council tax rates, when the scrapping of the Council tax was a manifesto pledge in the 2007 election, and the explicit ruling out of a top rate of 50% has attracted criticism from the Greens & Scottish Labour.  A party that was painting itself as a protector of Scotland from English led austerity is now seen in some quarters as adopting Osborne’s tax policies, that’s an interesting turnaround for the SNP. Yet the only party that can convincingly attack the SNP on this front is the Scottish Greens, who's co-Convenor Patrick Harvie (in my opinion) actually won the STV debate.  It’s this reason why Sturgeon and the SNP haven’t quite got out of second gear with their campaign or media performances yet.

The big surprise so far has been the difficulties so far that the Tories have found themselves in over Tuition Fees and Prescription charges, or as the First Minister calls them – hidden taxes.  The perceived wisdom about this election being a battle for second is what is playing out, with Scottish Labour not quite grasping that this election is conceivably a tipping point for them and the Tories seem intent in not taking their chances.  All the while the SNP are in cruse control with no pressure being put on them.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

The Sinking Of Gideon

This week sees the proposed date that, had Scotland voted a different way we would have become an Independent country, if you believe that those negotiations would have been brisk, swift and fruitful and not become bogged down very quickly.  I suspect that, like a couple of weeks ago, the GERS figures estimating a Scottish budgetary shortfall of £15bn will be common place within social media and the news.

The fact that the £15bn has been racked up by a body with very little powers regarding the raising of revenue (the ability to raise or lower income taxes by 3% either way seems quaint by comparison to the Smith submissions) seems to have bypassed most of the Scottish Media.  Indeed as sticks to beat the pro-Independence supporters go, it’s not the best stick to choose.  This would be a potent weapon to use against pro-Independence supporters if the UK economy was being run properly and we were genuinely better together.  Nowhere was this more evident than with last week’s Budget statement, a statement which looks more and more disastrous for Osborne than the notorious Omnishambles budget.

For someone who has been influenced by the Blair/Brown dynamic, you would have thought that Osborne would have noted that what eventually undid Brown the Prime Minister was the homecoming of the Chickens he set free during his time as Chancellor. Apparently not as Osborne blithely set about his favoured game last week of setting traps for the opposition and talking of hard choices etc etc etc.  The policy of a sugar tax did catch the eye of many people on the day, as did Osborne’s bashing of the SNP when announcing tax cuts for the oil industry.  There were five moments in that speech which spell the end of Osborne: The Heir Apparent.

The most obvious moment, at the time, being the less than good economic figures unfurled by Osborne.  True, as a country we have never resolved to fix the issues in the economy which led to the Credit Crunch/Banking crash from 2007 onwards.  This has not been helped by a political system which still places a priority on home ownership and increasing house prices.  Having said that, Osborne has at least recognised one of the issues holding the UK back – stagnant wage increases – and has attempted to rectify this.  Even if the resultant new ‘National Living Wage’ is still below the actual living wage. 

The poor forecasts announced by Osborne meant that 10 months on from last years election, Osborne will not hit his targets for debt in this parliament, with the GDP share forecast to be 77.2% at the time of the next election.  Borrowing forecasts have also been revised upwards by the OBR, up to £55.5bn (+£5.6bn), £38.8bn (+£14bn) and £21.4bn (+16.8bn) in 2016-7, 2017-8 and 2018-9 respectively.  Growth figures have also been revised downwards, as the global economic climate is forecast to take a downward turn.  Those figures do not suggest a man fit to be chancellor.  It’s so bad that it's enough to make you pine for the days of Irn Broon.

It is the second moment, coupled with the others that have lit the blue touch paper, typed without any irony whatsoever. It is the plans to cut Personal Independence Payments, the successor benefit to Disabled Living Allowance, which has been the straw to break the camels back for many Disabled rights campaigners, coupled with cuts to Corporation Tax and Capital Gains Tax.  The latest attempt by Osborne to go to the well of Benefits cuts has backfired big style.  More so since the resignation (which may or may not be influenced as well by the upcoming EU referendum) of the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith.

That resignation and the bitter aftermath appears to have split a party that a couple of months ago was still in the full glow of the honeymoon period of this government.  Smith’s resignation letter laid squarely the blame at the Chancellor.  His phrase that the “salami slice” of welfare cuts were a “compromise too far” has deeply damaged the Chancellor, torpedoing not just his leadership hopes but has cast serious doubt about how long Osborne will be chancellor.  Yip, the so called Quiet Man as the assassin is a strange prospect.  Not as strange as the prospect of a man who went to Easterhouse, and came out of the experience wanting to make poverty stricken people worse off, holding the moral high ground, but we do live in strange times.

The prospect of Cameron not lasting this year is now a real prospect as the enmity towards the Cameroonies has now erupted into open warfare.  All of this should be an open goal to a Labour opposition still recalibrating itself after defeat.  Maybe all Corbyn needs to do is sit back and do nothing but plan his next move, I don’t particularly remember John Smith being outstanding around the time of ‘Black Wednesday’.  After all, Cameron’s government is showing every sign of not knowing when to stop digging, with the prospect of Osborne having to submit a second budget to cover the estimated £4bn black hole that the PIP’s u-turn has created.

To make a clusterfuck of one Budget might be, if you were being charitable, seen as careless.  To make the same mistake twice might be, if you were being honest, a terminal sign.  George Osborne is now the lame duck Chancellor just marking time until the referendum or when Cameron is replaced.