Thursday, 26 March 2015

The Curse of the Favourites

One of the golden rules of power is to know when to stop, when enough is enough and not to go on past you’re sell by date.  Presumably it’s also a rule that you don’t advertise when that sell by date will be…

Cameron’s slip of the tongue that he won’t be standing for a third term as PM, weeks before attempting to win a second term underlines how poor a prime minister Cameron has been.  There is a blogpost in just how poor Cameron has been as PM, starting a five year leadership contest just before his campaign to win a second term hits top gear.  Errr…

What is interesting though is the list of potential successors.  When Cameron is ousted, which he surely will be, will play better to different candidates.  Defeat in May will see Theresa May & Boris as the frontrunners.  Victory will see Osborne rise up the favourites list as presumably his stock will have risen.  There is however just one small problem with this set of outcomes.  The Tories have never elected the favourite to be leader since the leader was elected.

When Heath lost his third election in October 1974, Thatcher was some way down the list of potential leaders, even behind the chairman of the 1922 committee Edward Du Cann.  Indeed, if you’ve seen the coverage, it’s at the insistence of Bob MacKenzie that Thatcher is even quoted – he though that she was someone worth watching.  When Thatcher stood in January 1975, she was thought to be the stalking horse candidate – a candidate designed to damage the leader enough for others to enter the race.  The favourites were Willie Whitelaw and the ‘mad monk’ Keith Joseph.

15 years later, Thatcher faced up to the former Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine in a fight to the death, with Heseltine favourite to beat a (now) unpopular PM.  Instead it was Heseltine who proved to be the stalking horse as when Thatcher pulled out of the fight, Major and Hurd entered the race with Major anointed as the stop Hezza candidate.

When Major resigned in 1995 to fight for his job, many speculated that there would be a stalking horse candidate again to knock Major out before the Clarke’s, Portillo’s and co would fight it out.  Instead John Redwood stepped forward with a lacklustre campaign that saved Major’s bacon.

When Major lost in 1997, the favourite was the former Chancellor Ken Clarke yet William Hague came through from the outside. In 2001, the shadow Chancellor Portillo and Clarke were again favourites only this time both were trumped by Iain Duncan Smith.  All of which brings us to Cameron.

Ken Clarke was going for his third attempt at leader, but David Davis was slight favourite.  Cameron was the rank outsider going into the race, his note less conference speech being the moment that catapulted him into the job.

So the moral of the story is to not focus exclusively on the favourites.  And keep your eye on Sajid Javid.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

It's The Economy, Stupid...

Something that surprisingly bears repeating is the adage that the key battleground for elections in this country is the economy.  Every election going way back has been won on the election.  The same can be said of last years referendum too, where the failure of Yes Scotland to convince enough people to vote “yes” can be attributed to Sterlingzone and a failure to win the big economic arguments.

Those arguments re-surfaced again last week when the latest GERS figures were released, showing that expenditure was outstripping revenue by £2,328 per head.  On first reading it does look like a blow to supporters of Fiscal Autonomy. Even more so when the SNP deployed the ‘we would do things differently’ argument… without really explaining what they would do.  Given that 2016 will be the first Holyrood elections that will feature a fiscal debate thanks to the Calman recommendations coming into law gives the SNP an incentive to look at the finance side of things without adopting the “two in the bush”-isms of their love of Laffer style corporation tax cuts.

Do the GERS figures blow a hole in the case for Fiscal Autonomy, as has been argued here?  Well… no, not really.  For one thing, Fiscal Autonomy is the logical conclusion of devolution (Scottish solutions for Scottish problems and all that) and for another, well the GERS figures do not take into account the so called “tax gap” – the gap between the tax that should be paid and the amount collected by HMRC.  You would hope that Revenue Scotland would be better at gathering money than it’s UK level counterpart.

We would like to think that the SNP would be better at making the case for Fiscal Autonomy than they were with the economic case for Independence.  For all that the BBC have found themselves cast as the bogeymen de jour of pro-Independence supporters, the real reason for the no vote can be found in the SNP’s failure to win the economic argument. Oh and Sterlingzone.

What did occur in the referendum though was that there were people who were immune to the bad policy of Sterlingzone.  I hypothesized that currency would not be as much of a potent argument for people with very little currency.  Those people immune to the failures of Sterlingzone would also be very immune to Osborne’s supposed economic miracle as the Tories still remain level pegging with Labour in the polls in spite of being a country mile ahead of Labour when it comes to polling on each parties economic competence.

Osborne has staked his parties’ fortunes on the economy, which is why there was the emphasis on the job being half done, on the work still to be done and on the dangers of leaving it to Labour.  Yet the figures in Osborne’s budget do not add up.  His claim that wages are coming back to pre-recession levels is something that is not being felt.  He has missed his deficit target, borrowing is still rising and the country still feels in recession.  That Osborne is still ahead in economic competence says more about the ineptitude and, frankly cowardice, of the two Eds.

Competence because Milliband (and Balls) have allowed Osborne’s arguments about the recession being the fault of Labour’s overspending (rather than their adherence to Laissez Faire economics, or as Brown rebranded it “Light Touch Regulation”) to become conventional wisdom.  Cowardice, because of Balls reluctance to formulate an alternative to George’s Scorched Earth.  It is this which has provided the room for the Greens and more pertinently the SNP to come and hoover up votes from people who do not agree that Austerity is working.

It is obvious that this election will feel like no other election.  That the conventional arguments about the economy have been replaced by a weariness of austerity is still to be added to the calculations of the main parties.  It could even be argued that the main parties still haven’t quite understood that stagnating wages have exacerbated the economic troubles rather than helped.  In the meantime the SNP & Greens seem to be making hay at the expense of those who claim there is no alternative to austerity.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Vote SNP And Get...

You know that the pre-election campaign is straining to get to the real battle when what would happen if you vote SNP becomes a talking point among the MacComentariat.  The weekend saw contributions to this argument from both The Observers Andrew Rawnsley and the Sunday Herald’s Iain MacWhirter.  Not surprisingly, both had different ideas.

Lynton Crosby's appropriation of old Australian attack posters didn't quite translate.
Rawnsley’s argument is that a vote for the SNP plays into Cameron’s hands as he would be the beneficiary of the SNP taking scores of seats from “Scottish” Labour.  MacWhirter’s argument is that both the SNP & Labour’s aims are (give or take a nuclear missile or several) not a million miles apart and that they might well be half way up the aisle.  Unfortunately, things are not as simple as has been claimed.

If Cameron were to be the beneficiary of an SNP surge, then who’s fault is that then that this vintage of Labour is not to the Scottish palate?  Lamont’s “Something for Nothing” speeches clearly chimed with Labour in England’s attitude towards cutting the benefits budget.  Not to mention Balls signing up to Osborne’s scorched earth.

In among MacWhirter’s piece about Milliband & wondering how he could be more unpopular that Cameron, these policy positions are forgotten.  I’d also suggest another reason why Milliband is not as popular among Scots as Cameron.  There may be the thought that Milliband, although standing up to Murdoch & the energy companies, is still in a weak position within his own party.

About a year or two ago several commentators (the one that springs to mind is the Independent’s Matthew Norman, then writing for the Torygraph) said that for Milliband to be seen as prime ministerial, he had to get rid of Ed Balls.  I think many people see him, Wee Dougie Alexander and Chukka Umuna at the top of the Labour tree as being evidence that Blairite Progress Groupers still hold a lot of influence at the top of Labour, in spite of Miliband’s slight leftwards turn. It was Balls & Umuna who have been trying to woo business types, and Balls who said at a city speech a couple of years ago that light touch regulation would return.  Reportedly Alexander wanted a UK presence in Syria, fighting on the same side as the New Wahhabists ISIL.

That’s not the only thing MacWhirter seems to have not mentioned.  Whilst mentioning Labour’s various policy agreements with Milliband’s Labour, MacWhirter seems to have not noticed, or does not mention, that relations between the SNP and Milliband’s Scottish outpost are, at best, Frosty.  A better description would be that a state of animosity exists between the two parties.  I don’t know what Milliband thinks of the idea of a deal with the SNP, given that he’s not ruling anything out and is in no position to do so (at this moment).  Were he to indicate that this was a possibility, then I would suspect that “Scottish” Labour would be in open revolt at the idea.

In truth, nobody knows what would happen if the SNP performance matches the current polling.  All that’s really certain is that neither Milliband or Cameron are attractive candidates for the job of Prime Minister and that these “Vote X & get Y” tactics is a surefire way of showing the desperation of the big two.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Just What Is The Point In Voting SNP In May?

Amongst the mountain-out-of-molehillary of the Mhari Black stuff, one thing popped out.  At 20, she might be the youngest MP in the next House of Commons.  Hardly believable, given that wee Douglas Alexander holds the 8th safest Labour seat in Scotland.  If she’s good enough and all that… In the meantime though Sturgeon has been attempting to flesh out her parties pitch to voters come May.

Interestingly, Sturgeon has outlined the approach that I said Labour should adopt back in 2011 of pitching an alternative to Osborne’s “Scorched Earth” austerity programme.  The Sturgeon alternative could see and extra £180bn spent on extra on public services – through 0.5% spending rises, or real terms cuts as some might spin this.  The biggest target of savings would be coming from the UK’s non renewal of Trident.

Of course the unspoken issue with Austerity is that it’s exclusive focus has scared many horses and led to continued drought with regard to the flow of money.  The centrepiece of Thatcherism – trickledown – is not happening as rich people continue to save and salt away their “hard earned” money.  Probably in Switzerland’s branches of HSBC.  Only the rich are spending money, which is why the likes of Tesco, Morrison’s et all are beginning to struggle.  Pro-unionists point to a growing economy.  Where, cause it ain’t here?

Sturgeon’s position is possibly undermined by her (assumed continued) belief in the Laffer Curve which is the bedrock of the SNP policy of lowering corporation taxes.  A read of Richard Murphy’s own blogpost on the subject shows how false this belief is.  Both the SNP (if they support it) and Labour’s position is undermined by the belief in a 50% tax rate at £150,000.  If anything, a higher rate should be starting at £100,000.

So, if the SNP are putting together some welcome bones to their pitch to voters, why the sceptical title?  See, I’m just not convinced that the SNP will have that much influence come after the election.

Jim Fairlie has long argued that the SNP’s policy of only backing Labour in the event of a hung parliament is not tenable as SNP policy.  Indeed in a previous post, Fairlie has hypothesised about a Labour/SNP coalition splitting the SNP.  Certainly the Lib Dems have been poisoned by the experience of coalition with the Tories at Westminster – a much more chastening experience that 8 years in coalition with Labour as part of what laughably was called “The Scottish Executive”.  I completely agree with his analysis, but don’t think the SNP will get a sniff of government.

From the Labour point of view, the SNP are trouble.  They represent a throwback, anarchy and worse.  In their heartlands (that’ll be here then), where they weight votes, they are the enemy.  An irritating enemy that stops them from focusing on the real enemy – the Tories – but still the enemy. I can’t believe that having gotten so much wrong about the referendum, and been consistently been barracked about it, that they’re going to be as accommodating as Sturgeon thinks they’ll be.

If anything if things go wrong, and the Tories end up in bed with Clegg and his Orange Bookers again, I think Labour will blame the SNP for it.  After all they blamed Clegg for not wanting to talk to Labour when Reid and Harris pushed them into Cameron’s loving arms 5 years ago – though admittedly it does take two to tango as Clegg wanted Brown out of the way first…

If Labour somehow end up as largest party though and get second dibs at forming a government…  then I still think Labour will conspire to freeze out the ‘nationalist bloc’ from any potential coalition.  I just can’t see Labour passing up the opportunity to deliberately marginalize the influence of the SNP – and that’s even if the SNP somehow win upwards of 30 seats.

As has been said before, neither Milliband or Cameron lead parties that look like government’s in waiting – hence the rise in small parties.  Whether the SNP have broken the Labour hegemony remains to be seen.  What will happen without question will be that the views of Scotland will be sidelined, whatever happens and in spite of the claims of Sturgeon and the SNP.