Wednesday, 29 July 2015

An utterly depressing piece. (After a brighter start)

I've been really busy.

Andi and I were away for three weeks, initially with her folks in Hungary and then, a first even for me, in the Abruzzo. Can't recommend the latter too much as a holiday destination. The Adriatic remains as azure as ever and the sea food better than even my memory from further south recalled. And the hilltop towns inland, now restored, are the equal of much of Tuscany or Umbria. Two hours from Ciampino, straight across the peninsula on the A24, although not perhaps a road to be driven by anybody who suffers from vertigo.

And on our return we've bought a new wee house! Which needless to say, despite being in "move in condition", hasn't actually proved to be in move in condition to Andi's satisfaction. So, walls have had to have been scraped, perfectly good carpets dismissed from further use, and plans made for patio doors, decking and even canopies to be installed at some indeterminate future date.

And then there's my work. Trials held back for my return to be actually conducted. Ridiculously impatient clients demanding appointments to discuss their affairs with their lawyer who has, after all, only been unavailable for a mere three and a half weeks. None of this helped by my secretary of thirty years having decided she is going to retire. And to top it all, a coincidental Scottish Legal Aid Board "peer inspection" where even files in which the Crown unconditionally abandoned proceedings are sent off in fearful anticipation that some distant colleague might observe that this was an inadequate result.

So, I'd have had plenty of reasons for not doing much blogging.

But, to be honest, its not just that.

I'm really wondering what is the point to current Labour politics.

I've always kind of thought that the principal purpose of the Labour Party was to advance the cause of working people. Not just to complain about it but to actually do something about it. And for that, be in no doubt, you need to get elected.

Other than at a local government level, and then only within the constraints of a Council Tax freeze over which we have no control, Labour has not done any advancing of the interests of working people anywhere since 2010.

It is easy to blame/get annoyed with Jeremy Corbyn and those intent on voting for him for the way the leadership election has unfolded. "This man could never win a General Election" is an easy charge to make. And a true one.

But the real villains of this piece are not the Corbynites. Most of them readily concede that their man can't win anything other than an internal election. But it is not fair to say that (most of them) don't care.

It seems to me rather that much of the momentum for the Corbyn surge flows not from a desire to write off electoral success by choosing the man but rather from a rather fatalistic belief that none of the other candidates in the field would bring electoral success either. Given that starting point, there might even be some logic to deciding to go out with a bang rather than a whimper. Who would "remember the Alamo" if Davy Crockett had conceded Santa Anna had a reasonable claim to the fort and reached terms on a negotiated surrender?

Now, whose fault is that?

I started with little enthusiasm for any of the declared candidates and as the campaign has continued if anything my enthusiasm has waned.

It is all very well for her partisans to try and project Liz Kendall as the new Blair but she is not. Blair certainly had a successful political message but he also had other merits:

  • He was far from a political unknown before he was elected
  • He sought the leadership, thanks in part to the Granita deal, with the support of pretty much all of the Party's other front line representatives
  • He inherited, anyway, a pretty united and determined Party from John Smith so he himself did not have to strive to build that unity
  • He genuinely seemed something "New". It cannot be emphasised how much new Labour needed that. If Brown had stood and won we might still have claimed to have been "New" but we would never have done so as convincingly.
  • Sometimes you also have to be honest in politics, he also benefited from being an attractive man physically, with a clever wife and three young children. He struck you (and I was no great partisan of his, far from it) as somebody who would have been successful in life no matter what he chose to do.
  • He did not seem to be obsessed with personal ambition or even, particularly, politics.
  • He did seem to be somebody with a clear idea of where the Country (and not just the Labour Party) needed to go.
Now, Liz Kendall doesn't have any of these advantages. She was a pretty obscure figure before she declared and since then her usp seems simply to be "I've got the same politics as Tony Blair; Tony Blair won elections; vote for me". Possibly, I accept, as a result of the Corbyn factor, nobody could regard her as a unifying candidate. But in some way most importantly it is not really clear what she is for other than fiscal rectitude and a realistic assessment of the Country's toleration of Welfare. These might, I agree, be obstacles to us winning that have to be confronted, but people also want to know what you are actually seeking power for. People ultimately in the Country as a whole but initially at least people in the Labour Party contemplating voting for you. No-one is ever going to win an internal Labour election on a platform of fiscal rectitude alone. Even Tony Blair couldn't have done that. 

If that is a criticism of Liz Kendall however it is magnified in relation to Yvette. I wanted her to stand last time. I'll probably end up voting for her this time. But the Corbynite critique of New Labour is not without some merit particularly in relation to our latter period in office. We drifted into a sort of managerialism which did lead you wondering a bit about what we were achieving other than (I accept not unimportantly) keeping the Tories out of power.  The only excitement was of the wrong sort; the collapse of the Banks and the occasional terrorist outrage.

Our loss of power should have been an opportunity to reflect on that, to look at how we might create a new offer to the electorate in a digital age where the divide between the relative comfort of educated white collar workers in the private or public sector increasingly drifts apart from the life experience of those, largely uneducated, sectors of the workforce in marginal employment or no employment at all. An offer based on the realisation however that political power cannot be secured based on the support of the latter group alone.

That just never really happened. We went along with Ed's 35% strategy and kind of sleep walked through our five years in opposition until rudely awoken, one would have hoped, on the morning of May 8th.

Except Yvette still doesn't seem to have woken up. You don't need to subscribe to Liz's shock therapy to believe that the Party needs a pretty major rethink, yet I simply haven't seen or heard from Yvette, never mind what that rethink needs to be, even a recognition that a rethink is needed at all.

She's just there, competent and, insofar as I understand her distinctive pitch, a woman. 

And then, finally, we have Andy Burnham. Of those standing, I was inclined initially to give him my support. But his campaign has been all over the place. Everything from "more Blairite than Liz" (consistent with his time as a Minister, at least) to "Shoulder to shoulder with Jeremy Corbyn, just more electable". He just comes across as a complete chancer prepared to say anything to get elected. The problem with that is that such a reputation sticks.

My favourite Labour leader in my lifetime was Neil Kinnock. He inherited a Party in tatters and rebuilt it to the point where, had there been any justice, we would have won in 1992. I could see where Kinnock wanted to go but the pace at which he could proceed was hampered, particularly originally, by internal Party considerations. So, what I and others internally saw as a consistent direction of travel, others, in the wider electorate, saw as inconsistency. And that stuck. Fatally.

Andy Burnham is in danger of acquiring a reputation in three months that it took Kinnock years to achieve. Ask him if he thought Ed was too left wing or too cautious you get the distinct impression that he'd want to know a bit about the questioner before giving his answer. Big politics doesn't work like that.

But I kind of come back to where I started. Whoever wins will get my vote in the general election. As Tony Benn famously observed after the debacle of  1983, "Eight and a half million people voted for Socialism". So, even if it is Jeremy, I won't be entirely alone. But do I think, if they come from the present field, any of these candidates is capable of winning a General Election? I'm afraid I very much doubt it. 

That's why I'm so fed up. Ten years is a long time in politics.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Just (another) book review

I love  Iain M. Banks' Culture Novels. Read every one, often twice. Consider Phlebas at least three times. And I still cry at the end.

But, if you were being hyper (favourite Banks word) critical there is a certain repetitiveness about the plot(s) as the novels continue. Mere (very future) pieces of flesh and blood living out the narrative at the indulgence of more immortal artificial intelligences.

Nonetheless you keep reading, certainly because the storytelling is so good but also because of the added extras of worlds so different, so fantastically different, from our own that you revel in their description.

To that degree Banks was a true descendent of Sir Walter Scott, who described a historical time and place as precisely as Banks described a future time and place, Great plots but with an added bonus.

Well, now we have Andrew Nicoll. I have to confess he is a pal of mine. And we now have his fourth novel  The secret life and  mysterious death of Miss Jean Milne.                                         .

It is an odd synthesis of Banks and Scott. A historical novel, or more properly novella, set in an almost recognisable Scotland of our, almost, living memory but then describing that "almost recognisable" place as if it was one of Banks ring worlds on the edge of the known universe.

Broughty Ferry, the posh suburb of Dundee, where, in 1912, Police Sergeant Fraser of the Broughty Ferry Constabulary (total compliment 16) suddenly finds himself a key investigator, or at least key witness to the investigation, of the murder, in her own home, of the local spinster Miss Jean Milne.

As a police procedural, of time and place, the book more than holds its own. The same again as a (mere) whodunit. But this is not the book's real achievement. That is not so much to conjure up as to recreate a lost Scotland. A Scotland where professional men were invariably "Mister", unless they were "Doctor", even among themselves. Where Policemen always told the truth, no matter how inconvenient. Where the "cars" (trams) were the height of transport sophistication and the electric telephone as wondrous a thing as the modern internet.   Where local rivalry and distinction, in this case between Broughty Ferry and Dundee, but just as easily as between Glasgow and Rutherglen or Edinburgh and Leith, was a matter of almost vital importance to the junior partner involved.

I won't even really start to summarise the plot, for the book itself moves forward quickly in that regard. There's a murder, no obvious perpetrator, then too obvious a perpetrator and then.........

But the plot is not the star of this production. That lies as I say in its evocation of different but vaguely familiar world. I paid 49p for it on the Kindle. Or 9/11d in the old money. Worth every penny.

Sunday, 7 June 2015


In a democracy, the principal purpose of like minded people gathering together in a political party is to fight and win elections.

And, on any view, historically, the Scottish Labour Party has been very successful at doing that.

Until last month we had won every UK General Election since 1964. Of the four Scottish Parliament elections to date we had won two and effectively drawn a third. Even at the one Scottish Parliament election that we did decisively lose we actually started the campaign as favourites to win.

None of that is in any way to ignore the crushing defeat we suffered on 7th May past.

It is however to query why so many in our Party seem to have already decided that we might as well write off 2016.

Now, I've not taken complete leave of my senses. For us to get back to the golden years of majority (albeit coalition) Government such as we enjoyed between 1999 and 2007 would require a recovery not just by us but by our potential Lib-Dem allies which it would, I accept, be unrealistic to see occurring within the next eleven months. But even in that terrible defeat a month past we still had the support of 24% of the electorate. That could, I accept, be little more than a dead cat bounce but, on the other hand it could indicate an irreducible core vote, even at the worst of times, of something approaching a quarter of the electorate.

And, if it is, let's consider some of the other things that are likely to happen over the next twelve months.

Firstly, Labour will have a new UK Leader. On any view one of the major problems Scottish Labour has had over the last couple of years has been, I'm sorry to say, Ed. He simply lacked.......... authority.

And Scottish Labour's response to this was almost to admit our embarrassment about him. It was clear months out that Scotland would be a decisive battleground at the General Election yet our response to that was not suggest the UK Leader should be up here as much as possible. Instead it was the complete opposite. To suggest that he set foot here only as much as absolutely necessary. That wasn't accidental.

Well, no matter who takes over that will change. And I suspect with it there will also be a very different approach to the rabble the SNP have recently deployed to try and disrupt our Party events. Potential Prime Ministers do not get sneaked in back doors. They arrive at events expecting that the Police will be responsible both for their safety and for the maintenance of public order.

It is difficult not to look like you are on the run if you are (literally) on the run. That will change.

Secondly, the fighting fifty-six will prove useless. That's not a personal criticism (even of the ones who are useless) it is simply an observation that all oppositions are useless except in their capacity as alternative governments. Well, the Nats have won virtually every seat in Scotland and yet they are not, and never will be, the alternative government. Once the novelty of playing musical chairs and sardines has ended, all that will be left will be the day to day grind of debating, voting and losing. Forever. Even if they can maintain their discipline, I suspect before long the electorate will begin to wonder what they are for. That shouldn't, logically, have any impact on a Scottish election but logic doesn't always currently feature in Scottish politics.

And then, thirdly, we have "Independence". It's clear that the SNP Leadership plan some sort of manifesto fudge on whether a 2016 victory would mean a second referendum. There would be one if their was "a change of circumstance". There are three problems with this. The first is that there is no indication that an early second referendum is anything like as popular with the electorate as it is with SNP activists. The second is, if anything, more difficult. If the SNP still believe Independence is such a great idea why wouldn't they want another referendum? The third however is the biggest problem of all. If a vote for the SNP in 2016 is not a vote for independence then what is it a vote for? To date the appalling actual performance of the SNP in devolved government: in health; in education; in policing; in energy policy, and in so much else has been obscured by a lot of flag waving. Once the flags stop waving however we seem increasingly in all of these areas to be falling behind the performance outcomes achieved by (even) the evil English Tories. Facts are chiels that winna ding.

And then, finally, we have the referendum that is actually going to happen. On the EU. That will dominate the public arena for the next two years. Now, the SNP would like this to be framed in terms of Scotland voting "in" while England votes "out" and that will at least be part of the debate. But there is one thing that even at this distance can be guaranteed. Certainly a third and most probably significantly more of the Scottish electorate will vote to leave the EU. And since half of Scotland voted SNP a month back then inevitably an awful lot of these people will have been SNP voters. Given the Nats harvesting to date of the malcontented, I suspect a disproportionate number. Now, we have a recent example of a Party campaigning monolithically in a referendum in Scotland against the inclination of a significant part of its electorate. Suffice to say it shakes things up. Yet at the moment at least that appears to be where the Nats are headed. And if they do? There is simply no logic in being unwilling to share sovereignty with your closest neighbours while being madly enthusiastic about sharing it with lots of other people. It was not for nothing that the Nats felt their assertion of Scots enthusiasm for the EU would best be tested by us not being asked directly. Now that it is however, I suspect the intellectual acrobatics required to hold the Party line will prove beyond the abilities of even the formidable Ms Sturgeon.

Now, none of these things guarantee that Labour will recover ground next May but they do at least suggest that things are not quite the foregone conclusion that seems to dominate the thinking of our high command. It should certainly not be Kez's pitch, to either the party or the Country, as I fear that it sometimes seems to become, that she is engaged in a five (or six?) year strategy as part of which next year's objective is mere survival and a clear second place.

For at the very least there is one very realistic goal. We have a PR Parliament and it is very difficult for one Party to secure an absolute majority. Certainly last month's election repeated would bring that result. But even in our pomp, at the high tide of New Labour and led by the irreplaceable Donald Dewar, the very electorally successful Scottish Labour Party I started with never achieved that. It would still be an exceptionally good result for the SNP to get 42% or so next May but it would mean that the Nats had lost their absolute majority. And then, I think, we would be entitled to quote with approval Alex Salmond who famously announced on the  morning after the 2007 contest "It might not yet be clear who has won this election but it is certainly clear who has lost."

When outlining matters changing in our favour I started by identifying a new Party leader. If I concede Ed was a major problem, it is only right that I acknowledge that, conversely, the Nationalists greatest asset was their own plausible and personable front woman. If you accept that, and who truly would deny it, a Holyrood Parliament in which there was no majority to re-elect Nicola to the post of First Minister would be a significant victory for the Labour Party and the Union and, even if it opened up no other more immediate opportunities, at the very least a major milestone achieved on any five year strategy to return to power.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Sunday Bloody Sunday

Sometimes you are just screwed.

Before yesterday, I was genuinely not sure about the fate of Jim Murphy. I had supported him for the leadership and while it is always possible to find fault with minor aspects of any campaign, even successful ones, the strategy that he adopted was essentially the strategy I would have commended myself.

That this strategy changed was because each approach tried in turn didn't work.

Initially, we argued that the referendum was over and that the choice on May 7th was between a Tory Government and a Labour Government. This should have worked, not least, as was demonstrated by the result itself, because it was true. Even the SNP obliquely conceded this by stating that an SNP vote was not a vote for independence or even for another referendum. Essentially it was a vote to prop up a Labour Government. Logic surely dictated to the electorate that if you wanted a Labour Government the best way to get that was to vote for it directly.

It didn't work for two reasons. The first, bluntly, was because Scotland, actually, was no more enthused by the prospect of Prime Minister Miliband than was, as it turned out, the rest of the Country. Not very much Jim, or anybody else, could do about that.

The second was because, since just dumping on Ed directly was out of the question, we were almost obliged to buy into the myth that Labour's ongoing problem with the SNP in Scotland was that we weren't sufficiently distinctively to the left of the Tories whereas the nationalists somehow were.  I say myth because, with the exception of Trident, the SNP and Labour manifestos were almost identical. Before we went there, nobody was attracting any votes at all from being to the left of the SNP. Indeed nobody was even seriously contesting the election on that basis.

But, since strategy one wasn't working, and since we had nowhere else, it appeared, to go, that's where we had to head. And so we ended up with the period of "Red Jim". Whatever public spending the SNP offered we'd offer more. And, .......well there was no and. That was just it.

The problem with this is that it not only did it run directly contrary to the message of fiscal rectitude we were (correctly) identifying as essential to actually winning the (UK) election, whatever anybody knew of Jim Murphy, the idea of him being some new Red Clydesider simply lacked any credibility. Anyway, since nobody really doubted that the SNP would spend as much as they could, in offering "more", Labour was either offering to act irresponsibly or, more likely, just..........lying.

So, unsurprisingly, that didn't work either. But given the limited options I suppose it had to be given a try.

And that then left us with strategy three. The endgame. The one glimmer of hope in the face of otherwise uniformly grim polling and focus grouping was the realisation that, even among many Nationalist voters, there was no enthusiasm for an early re run of the referendum. In parallel it was also clear that for non-Labour but non-nationalist, voters, stopping a re run was their single most fervent desire. A desire even beyond the election of a government of their preference.

So we went for that in Spades. Ostensibly to strip off soft Nats but in reality also in the hope of attracting a tactical vote.

The problem with this (always you will note the recurrence of the word problem) is that the Nats had the same polls and focus group results and headed us off at the pass by declaring, long and loud, that the May 7th vote had nothing to do with another referendum. Then, with the iron discipline which can only bring admiration, they enforced that line on even the zoomiest of their candidates.

So vote Labour to stop something which isn't going to happen anyway proved, in the end, not to work either. The rest is history.

At this point, reviewing what I've written already, it occurs to me that it comes across as unduly critical. That's not my intention. For in truth, starting from where we were back in November, WHAT ELSE COULD ANYBODY ELSE HAVE DONE?

Sure, Neil Findlay might have played the red more convincingly than Jim. Sarah might have been a more attractive magnet for tactical voters but in truth they would each have ended up exercising the same options without, and I mean no disrespect to either here, the manic energy Jim brought to the role.

So, personally, it is unfair to lay the blame for our defeat at Jim's door. And, given that, would have been unfair to call upon him to go. But sometimes politics isn't fair and, before yesterday, I was hesitating between fairness and realpolitik. On occasions you have to do something because the public expects something to be done.

As it turns out, all of this is academic now.

Except that, as with the departure of every leader since Wendy, the circumstance of their going has actually left us worse off than we were before.

The public calls for Jim's head seemed motivated not for the most part by those who had come down on the side of realpolitik but rather by those who had never been reconciled to his leadership in the first place. Whatever caused our defeat a week past on Thursday it had nothing whatsoever to do with the manner in which we went about selecting a candidate for Falkirk  (a "safe" seat which, I note in passing, we lost by 19,701 votes). Yet for some his role in that process and in other internal Party battles was never to be forgotten, or forgiven. This is the politics of the madhouse.

The idea that the Labour Party has ever, internally, been an entirely happy band of brothers is a wholly fallacious one. Never mind the great betrayal of 1931 we've seen the enforced deposition of Lansbury; the Bevanite/Gaitskellite feud rumbling on long after both were dead; the Bennery of the 1980s and, most recently Blair v Brown. Even under our greatest ever Government, when Ernie Bevin had it suggested to him that Herbert Morrison was his own worst enemy, Bevin famously replied "Not while I'm alive he isn't."

But the Murphy/Unite dispute is of a different order. For the leader of our largest affiliate to arrive in Scotland during an election campaign unwilling to encourage his members to vote Labour is an outrage. For that same affiliate then to decide that the moment of an existential crisis for the Party in Scotland was simply the opportunity to settle scores surely calls into question that affiliate's commitment to the wider cause altogether.

But that is what happened and we are now utterly adrift: leaderless; directionless; hopeless.

Yet we must rise again.

Be in no doubt, the recovery of the Scottish Labour Party is essential to the very survival of progressive politics in the UK. No matter any amount of wishful nationalist thinking it will always be unacceptable to the people of England & Wales for their Government to be in office at the whim of a Party who don't really want to be in their company at all.

So the card Cameron played so successfully in the last days of the election campaign past, that the only possible stable government is a Conservative government, will remain on the table so long as current electoral circumstance remains. It is all very well for my side to say, logically, to the Scottish electorate that so long as we remain in the United Kingdom we must participate properly in that Country's political process, not sitting on the sidelines in the huff. The problem is that for the moment logic isn't much of a force in Scottish politics.

So Labour in Scotland needs a new offer. And not just in the interests of Scotland.

Perhaps understandably, some nationalist commentators think the answer is an independent Scottish Labour Party which would, strangely enough, look remarkably like their (imagined) view of the SNP. Ideally, indeed, this Party would actually be in favour of independence which rather gives the game away. The same commentators often offer a similar prescription to the Scottish Tories. Independence is, it seems, to their mind the answer to every question.

Well, that's not going to happen. The Labour Party is not in favour of independence. In our opinion it would leave Scotland economically impoverished and culturally crippled. You don't have to agree with that opinion but you can't (yet at least) force us to think otherwise. The point can't be made often enough that the SNP exists at all only because its founders could not persuade the Labour Party of the merits of separation. If that changes, the logic is not a separate Scottish Labour Party, it is the winding up of the Scottish Labour Party altogether. Ask Jim Sillars.

We have a devolved Party structure and we should keep it but the idea that Scottish members shouldn't get a say in the selection of the Labour Candidate for Prime Minister is a non-starter.

Others think the Scottish Party needs a new programme. But what would that be? At this point it all becomes a bit hesitant. Sure we need another one of these ubiquitous "policy reviews" but the idea that our problem, other than very much at the margins, is about policy................really?

No, what we need is a fresh face in a meaningful way. And that should start with the realisation that none, literally none, of those eligible and willing to stand for the leadership under the current rules is a viable candidate for First Minister.

There are only forty one people in that category. The one MP, the two MEPs and thirty eight members of the Scottish Parliament.

The first three can be discounted as presumably can the two MSPs who have already had a go. A number of senior people who might act in a caretaker role to get us beyond 2016 show no enthusiasm for the task and much of the rest of the Holyrood group are, to put it kindly, not leadership material.

There is always Kez by default and that's kind of where the momentum (sic) currently is but seven months ago she herself concluded she wasn't up to the top job yet and I really doubt that the electorate will conclude that an intervening period participating in a disastrous election campaign has somehow filled that gap in her CV.

No, what I suggest is this. We rip up the list of already selected candidates. That might be easier than you imagine since virtually none of them have a chance of getting elected anyway. We select of new based on a system of constituency primaries where anybody prepared to declare an intention to vote Labour next May gets to have a vote. We could look to the Daily Record to assist in this process.

We do all that by 31st December. Then from anybody capable of getting fifteen (?) candidate nominations (even if they are not a constituency candidate) we select our FM candidate by means of a national open Primary conducted by the end of February. Whether or not they have a constituency, they go to the top of a list of their choosing

As for who then goes where on the list? The leader chooses. Simple as that.

Not a magic bullet but at least a visible fresh start. If instead, as I fear we might, start from the objective of trying to salvage the careers of those, by fortune rather than calculation, still clinging to elected office we will deserve all we get. And anyway, we would not be bringing them a reprieve, just a stay of execution.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Not never, but not now.

The immediate aftermath of the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections seems a long time ago but it was when I started blogging.

Labour had just suffered a devastating defeat in the Scottish Parliament elections, Iain Gray had understandably resigned as Scottish Party Leader and the cry that went up immediately was "We must have a new leader"!

I asked then however the simple question "Why"?

To my mind that question was never answered satisfactorily.

We knew in May 2011 that given the SNP had an absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament there would, definitely, be no further Scottish General Election until May 2015.*

Four years ahead, or, more correctly, in the immediate run up to an election four years ahead, Labour would have needed a candidate for First Minister. We did not however need that candidate selected with declared finality in a process conducted over the Summer of 2011.

Yet that is what we got.

At the time I backed Tom Harris but I concede that Tom, as a Westminster MP, would undoubtedly have had difficulty in time management between Westminster and Holyrood over a four year period. It seemed to me that there was however no adequate candidate (or at least no adequate candidate willing to stand) within the rump Holyrood group. Time proved that indeed to be the case.

I'm not yet ready to fully engage with the mess the Scottish Labour Party is in but it seems to me that the lesson of four years past learned through harsh experience by the Scottish Party should be being paid more attention by the Party as a whole.

Why are we rushing to select a new UK Party leader when in Terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, and in the context of increasingly Presidential General Election contests, that person will not actually be a candidate for Prime Minister until May 2020?

I have simply no idea.

Certainly we need a leader of the Parliamentary Group but why couldn't the Parliamentary Group not simply select such a person? That might be a task pretty thankless outwith the ranks of the Party itself but internally the individual involved could expect considerable gratitude and goodwill.

They could easily take Prime Minister's Questions and deal with the operation of  "the usual channels" for the next two or three years.

It's clear that the Party needs a much more honest discussion about what went wrong a week past on Thursday and how to put it right than that which took place in the immediate aftermath of 2010. Wouldn't that more honest discussion be aided if it didn't involve challenging and, potentially, "undermining" a leader already in post?

But there is another and more fundamental reason to commend this approach.

It is clear that the Labour coalition of the organised working class roped to the liberal middle class and minorities: ethnic, national or indeed other, simply isn't enough any more.

Never mind that the organised working class is not, numerically, what it was. In voting intention, the "liberal" adjective is increasingly subordinate to its subjective clause "middle class" and minorities clearly think they have other options. In Scotland have exercised these options in spades.

All of this makes the way ahead increasingly difficult for the Labour Party.

Yet the selection of a new leader here and now will not be dominated by consideration of how to rebuild that coalition and/or how to expand it.  Rather it will be dominated by who best would aid internal Party factions in a struggle over the next five years.

For all the repercussions that flowed from it, the principal point on the agenda at the famous Blair/Brown Granita meeting was "Who will best beat the Tories". By the Spring of 1994 minds had already turned to an election that, under the prevailing rules at the time, might have been as little as two years away.

And when Blair emerged from that internal leadership contest he really was something "New".

Over the period up to the election Blair could create the impression of an insurgency, of being the "coming thing", in a way that would have been altogether more difficult over a five year long haul. A significant part of that was that Blair himself was "new"; change made flesh if you like.

The Americans get this. After the defeat of McCain and then Romney it would not have occurred to the Republicans that they immediately needed a different "alternative President".

More to the point so do the Democrats. After 2004 an immediate contest could never have delivered what remains the archetypal insurgent progressive campaign of our time: Obama for America. Even if somehow it had, it is difficult to see how that momentum could have been maintained for four years.

That's what Labour needs. A contest in 2018/19 from which hopefully a candidate "for Britain" would emerge. A candidate not selected based not on who the Party membership most wanted but  chosen with regard who the electorate most wanted. And not a platform and then a candidate or indeed a candidate and then a platform. Rather a candidate AND a platform emerging together.

So no harm to Andy or Yvette or Liz or Mary or anybody else yet to declare, asked for my vote  in the next three months my response would be to each: "Not never, but not now".

Not that anybody is likely to listen. Any more than they listened in 2011.

*Later the Fixed Term Parliaments Act extended the Scottish Parliament term to May 2016.

Monday, 4 May 2015

I disagree

I've been blogging for the last few weeks on the implications of a hung Parliament and the effect of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.

Today a much more distinguished lawyer has entered the fray, Professor Adam Tompkins.

I commend and agree with much of Adam's blog but in one critical aspect I think he is fundamentally wrong.That is on the issue of whether, in light of the terms of the Act, a Government can resign without the consent of the opposition either to take office themselves or to dissolve Parliament.

The figures Adam posits for the election outcome are broadly in line with my own previous hypotheses: A Tory Party clearly ahead of Labour in Commons seats but without, even with the Liberal Democrats, an absolute majority in the Commons.

I agree entirely that the starting point then is that David Cameron gets the first attempt at a continuing administration.

But where I disagree with Adam is as to what happens if that administration fails to secure a Commons majority on its legislative programme.

Adam suggests that the Government would resign and the Leader of the Opposition would be invited by the Queen to attempt to form an administration. Now, if it was known in advance that the Leader of the Opposition had the willingness to form an administration, or at least to try, I agree that is what would happen. But to my mind Adam misses one central point.

The day to day administration of the Country requires a Government and a Government requires a Prime Minister. We are in an election period and there are no MPs but David Cameron is still the Prime Minister and his Ministers are still Ministers of the Crown. From day to day they will still be called upon, necessarily, to exercise executive functions.

So what if the Governing Party offers to resign but the principal opposition party is either absolutely unwilling or at least as yet undecided as to whether even to attempt to form a Government?

It seems to me that in that circumstance the current Government can offer to resign but the Queen is not obliged, indeed could not, accept that resignation.

I illustrate that with an obvious example.

The purpose of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act is to prevent the current governing Party, in the person of the Prime Minister, having the effective right to require the Queen to call a General Election at a time of their choosing.

The Act is quite clear. Only two things now can trigger an early election. The first is the House of Commons voting for one by a two thirds majority. The second is the House of Commons passing a motion specifically declaring itself to have no confidence in the current Government AND no motion declaring confidence in an alternative Government then being passed within a fourteen day period thereafter.

Resignation of a Government is not mentioned in the Act but if resignation did effectively also trigger an election then the Act would have no meaning.

For, logically, a Government with a comfortable overall majority desiring an early election could simply resign. By Adam's argument the opposition would have to (?) take office and the majority party could then simply use that majority to pass a no confidence vote and achieve their objective of a dissolution.

That can't be right. Surely in that situation the Queen would refuse to accept the Governing Party's resignation.

And, in my opinion, if the coalition government sought to resign before Ed Miliband was sure he wished to attempt to form an administration, a similar scenario would ensue.

That's not to say the Prime Minister, or particular departmental ministers could not resign as individuals but in the case of the former development the Queen would simply invite another member of the governing Party/ies to serve as her Prime Minister pro tem. Of course you could get the absurd scenario of nobody being willing to be Prime Minister but before that point was reached I suspect there would be the two thirds Commons majority available for a dissolution.

This is where the Nats get lost. Their assumption is that if Labour plus the SNP have a Commons majority then somehow Ed would be obliged to become Prime Minister and, in the process, Labour be obliged to form an administration.

But we wouldn't.

Again, I illustrate that with another obvious example.

Suppose it was not the SNP but UKIP who were enjoying a surge. And suppose Labour had fewer seats than the Tories but Farage announced he would, for reasons of his own, be prepared to support a Labour Government. Would we take office on that basis? Not for five minutes.

Now, the SNP say that in real life Labour would grasp any chance of power. In that, in my view, they are simply wrong. Whether the Nats like it or not, even protest it to be unfair, much of the Labour Party finds their politics as distasteful as those of the Kippers. And, to flatter the SNP, supposing their prominence in Scottish politics is a permanent one, such would be the likely electoral backlash in England to the "losing" Party somehow winning "their" election,  that it would be likely Labour would lose ground in England without recovering it in Scotland. Never mind forever losing the argument in Scotland that if you want a Labour Government you need to vote Labour.

My final point is this however. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act has the capacity to "trap" a Party in power. A Labour Government could find its legislative programme regularly blocked by the Nationalists but unable to dissolve Parliament because the same Nationalists refused to vote against us in a confidence vote. Because, I repeat, that Government couldn't then simply resign.

Now all this might yet be academic. Labour might yet have a Commons plurality. Or indeed the coalition a small majority. Barring either however it is increasingly difficult to see past an October re-run. The one and only thing the surge might deliver to the SNP is, if they wish it, a re-run even sooner than that.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

You can't have your cake and eat it.

I'm not in favour of Trident renewal.

The rationale of a continuously at sea Submarine launched ballistic missile system (to use the technical term) is rooted in the era of mutual assured destruction. If anybody (actually only the Soviet Union) was tempted to launch a nuclear attack on the United Kingdom the logic is/was that we could promise such a devastating response that they wouldn't try in the first place.

Whether by accident or design, that theory worked. The Soviet Union is no more and thankfully no alternative player would have the slightest intention or even capacity to launch a strategic nuclear attack on the UK.

So who or what would a strategic deterrent be deterring?

Some rogue regime yet to be invented? For it certainly wouldn't deter the various rogue regimes in actual existence. Those "in love with death" are hardly likely to be put off by the thought of .......dying. Mutual assured destruction presumed an element of rational calculation on both sides. That cannot now be presumed to exist among our modern enemies.

Now, that having been said, I am no pacifist and I can see the case for the Nation to have the potential to launch a devastating counter punch in (admittedly) pretty unlikely circumstance but more importantly not to leave itself open to nuclear blackmail. It seems to me however that there are various other, cheaper, delivery systems by which this blow could be delivered.

So, I am not in favour of Trident renewal.

All very conventional thinking by a member of the Labour Party, widely shared by others. Even shared by many Lib-Dems and even a few Tories

But what has any of this got to do with my usual subject of discourse, the constitutional debate in Scotland?

In the course of a twitter discussion last night I replied to @RossMcCaff thus

The odd thing is that, without the need to defy the SNP, we'd probably not renew Trident.

This appears to have led to complete apoplexy on the part of the cybernats who seem to think I was suggesting Labour would purchase a weapons system just to spite them.

It seems to me however that they fundamentally misunderstand the nature of their own Party.

For all they are posturing at this election as little more than a slightly more left wing version of the Labour Party, even conceding that, improbably, to be true, the SNP is fundamentally something more than that. It is a Party which is in favour of Scottish Independence and, as such, is hostile to the very idea of the "United Kingdom".

Nonetheless, the SNP maintain that they would be happy to lend their support to a Labour Westminster regime and expect everybody else in the Country to be too polite to mention the Nats more fundamental goal.

What they fail to understand is that that hostility to the United Kingdom inevitably has a consequence for any Party relying on them for support in the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

Labour is scarred by the experience of the 1980s when we paid a heavy price for being seen to be weak on the defence of the Country. So any straightforward Labour majority administration would have to proceed cautiously in the area of the "abandonment" of the nation's strategic nuclear defence. However one legacy of Blair is that it is difficult now to argue that we are not willing to use military force in pursuit of our perceived interests. Some, myself included, might say possibly even seen in some quarters as too willing to fight or at least too willing to perceive these interests.

Given that legacy it would be more difficult to criticise an uncircumscribed decision not to renew Trident as being other than based on the rational, military case I myself start off with. Certainly a lot more difficult than it would have been in the 1980s.

But, of course, a decision made by a Labour administration reliant on SNP support would not be seen as an uncircumscribed decision. It would be seen as a decision taken by the government of the United Kingdom to appease a Party hostile to the very existence of the United Kingdom.

Frankly, if you take off tartan spectacles for two minutes, you appreciate that this would be political suicide in the rest of the Country.

And this is indicative of the wider difficulty that the predicted SNP landslide causes for Scotland. 

That landslide, if it happens, will undoubtedly deserve a response from the rest of the Country. But that response would need to be a collective response. It couldn't conceivably be seen as the self interested response of one Party seeking to secure the support of those hostile to the Country's very existence. If Labour voters in England and Wales gained the impression that the Labour Party is selling out the interests of the Country to secure the temporary, but essential,  support of those who don't even want to be in the Country then it wouldn't be long before they took their electoral support elsewhere.

That's what the Nats don't seem to grasp. Or perhaps, despite their surface rhetoric, they do. For nothing better would suit the interests of Scottish Nationalism than the emergence of a significant English Nationalism.

That's also why, perfectly logically, a Labour Party that had not won the election in England and Wales could not conceivably take office based on the support of the SNP. Not spite, or pique, or contempt for the views of "Scotland". Simple electoral calculation.

The decision on Trident renewal is only one obvious example to demonstrate that.

If Labour is the largest Party we will take power. If we are not, but the Tories can't construct a Commons majority, there will have to be another election. And if we get a repeat result? It would be up to the Unionist Parties to devise a solution.

The SNP can be a British left social democratic Party or an anti British separatist Party but if it remains the latter it can hardly expect to be an essential pillar of the "British" government. The key is in the title.

You can't have your cake and eat it. Even in today's Scotland.