Wednesday, 19 August 2015

In Partial Defence of Corbynism.

"Now we're far from that valley of sorrow,
But it's memory we ne'er will forget,
So before we continue our reunion,
Let us stand to our glorious dead."

That is the final verse of Jarama Valley, probably the most famous song to emerge from the International Brigade who fought for the cause of the Spanish Republic.

It's original lyrics were actually written by a Scotsman although it was thanks to Woody Guthrie that the song became truly well known.

Anyway, the version of the song now sung in Scotland traditionally starts with Jarama Valley and then as the valley of sorrow is left in its final verse, segues into the much more upbeat Bandiera Rossa. The reason for that is that this is how the two songs are linked at the end of The Laggan's 1978 folk Album, I am the Common Man and there is virtually no Labour activist of my generation who doesn't possess somewhere a copy of that work. It is almost now a part of the traditions of the Scottish Labour Party.

Now the reason I am telling you this is that Jarama Valley/Bandiera Rossa was sung lustily last Friday night at the conclusion of the rally that Jeremy Corbyn held in Glasgow.

And, although I wasn't there, it seemed from the footage that I saw that a large majority of those present already knew the words.

I'm not voting for Jeremy, I never was, but I am getting more than slightly annoyed at some of the spinning against his supporters. The vast majority of these people were members of the Labour Party before the General Election. Never forget that as recently as December last year, Neil Findlay, Corbyn's Scottish Campaign manager, secured nearly one third of the votes of individual members in the contest to succeed Johann Lamont as leader of the Scottish Labour Party. Patently, none of these members then voting joined only to support the Corbyn surge and, with respect all round, this was despite Findlay being a much weaker candidate than Corbyn, while Murphy was a much stronger opponent than even the combined efforts of Burnham, Cooper and Kendal.

And a good further chunk of Corbyn's support seem to me to be people who had at one time been members of the Party, who had lapsed or consciously resigned, but who have been lured back by the prospect of change. Corbyn is the mechanism for that change but contrary to some of the mockery of these supporters he is NOT seen by them as a messianic figure. These people certainly want to change the Party but they have not taken leave of their senses and it is still, legitimately, their Party as well.

Now, that's not to say that Corbynism doesn't have its lunatic fringe, conspiracy theorists up there with the zoomiest of Scottish Nationalists; entryists from the ultra left and the devious right; keyboard warriors blind to the absurdity of those who paid £3 to become only associate members, even now, calling on those who have been in the Party all their adult lives to "JOIN THE TORIES"!

But it would be a critical mistake to tar the whole of the Corbyn movement with this brush.

A lot of longstanding members of the Labour Party: Election Agents, Branch Secretaries, local Councillors of many years service, have decided to vote for Corbyn. Good grief, today, he has even been endorsed by the Daily Record.

Some of these people genuinely think he can get elected as Prime Minister but I suspect most, in their heart of hearts, know he can't.  But I think there are three or four other things going on here.

Firstly, as I pointed out in my penultimate blog, they really doubt that any of the other current candidates can win the big election either. Certainly the utterly inept  way they have conducted their leadership campaigns hardly fills you with confidence in their ability to go head to head with Cameron or Osborne in 2020.

Secondly, Party members did not want the internal debate about why we lost immediately closed down, yet that was/is what is on offer from each of the other three. "I'm the leader now, we can't afford internal strife, so just leave it to me." That was essentially what happened in 2010 after Ed won and we then sleep walked to disaster. Certainly, if you phrase it that bluntly, it is absurd to say that the electorate gave the Tories a majority mandate and voted in huge numbers for UKIP because they thought the Labour Party was too right wing. But equally, things were altogether more complicated than it simply being all down to Labour's lack of economic credibility. Yet in many ways to install any one of the other three within four months of our defeat would be to be seen to have effectively endorsed that conclusion without it first being rigorously tested. A period of debate is sometimes a good thing and only Corbyn offers that.

Thirdly, I should say that I depart not one sausage from what I said in last blog. Many of Corbyn's supporters are confusing what is unpopular with them with what is unpopular in the Country. But, at the same time, we can't simply give up on what the Labour Party is meant to stand for: First class public services funded by progressive taxation and a continued concern for those at the bottom of society. Even if that is not universally popular. Kez said this week that people in Scotland no longer understood what the Labour Party stood for. It wasn't just in Scotland. I agreed almost entirely with Brown's attack on Corbyn at the weekend but amidst the repeated quotations from our great leaders of the past he missed one of the most important: "The Labour Party is a Crusade or it is nothing." The man who said that remains the only Labour Leader to have won four General Elections.

And finally there is this. Once installed, it is very difficult to remove a Leader of the Labour Party against their will. That was the problem with Ed. We knew in our gut (and from our canvassing) that he wasn't going to sweep the Country about two years out but he wasn't for shifting. And neither, once installed, would any of the other three candidates this time be for shifting.

But Corbyn is in a different position. He could fall at any time, for assembling the necessary Parliamentary votes to trigger a challenge would not be difficult. More to the point, he is nearly seventy. I suspect if they had known how things would develop he wouldn't have been the candidate of the Party's left at all. It is entirely credible to see Corbyn leading his coalition of the angry till 2018. We would have our debate and we would see where his leadership and that debate had got us. It might be messy, it would be messy, but would it necessarily be worse than the false, to use a quote from another former leader "unanimity of the graveyard" that  prevailed from September 2010 until May 8th 2015?

And in 2018? Hopefully the centre of the Party would have more credible candidates than those currently in the field.

So, do I want Corbyn to win? Certainly not. But would his victory be the utterly unmitigated disaster some predict? Perhaps not.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Is Austerity Unpopular?

I spent almost all of my young adult life hating Thatcherism.

Mrs T came to power just before my twenty first birthday and departed only after I had turned thirty two.

From start to finish she was incredibly unpopular with me and with just about everybody else I knew.

And we didn't bother to hide our disapproval of just about everything she did: the sale of council houses; the attack on Trade Union rights; the privatisation of basic public services; the emasculation of local government; the tax cuts for the rich; the abolition of exchange controls; the cold warmongering; the mealy mouthed attitude to Apartheid South Africa; Cruise Missiles; the imperial governing of Scotland; the destruction of deep coal mining................and that's just the start. Every single one of these things was an outrage, something up with which "the people" would not put.

And against each and every one I protested, I campaigned, I threatened an electoral reckoning. And that's just the examples which come most easily to hand. Not only was I against all this, millions of us were. These policies were incredibly unpopular.

And so they were. With a minority.

For it slowly dawned, following election defeat after election defeat, defeat even after the lady herself had departed the stage and we faced only her mini-me successor, that our problem with Mrs Thatcher and her philosophy was not that it was unpopular but rather that it was actually very popular indeed. So popular that it kept winning elections and actually almost split my own Party over whether it was necessary to reach some sort of accommodation.

Sometimes (actually always) you lose elections not because of the malign influence of the Tory press tricking the working class into a false consciousness as to their objective interests but rather simply because the other side's policy offer is more attractive than your own. That, rather than any more Machiavellian explanation, is really why Mrs T roared up record majorities in 1983 and 87. It's also why the Tories held on in 1992. More people supported the Tory Manifesto (in the broadest sense) than those who supported our own. That's all. The rest was just process.

The fact that our side were outraged about this, much more outraged than we'd ever been about Harold McMillan or Ted Heath* counted for literally nothing. There are no extra votes in being "really, really" opposed to the Tories.

And I wonder if we are making the same mistake over "austerity". "Everybody" is apparently opposed to austerity. Well actually, not everybody. Certainly not those who voted Tory: probably most of those who stood by the Liberal Democrats and certainly not those who voted UKIP in the belief that the Tories were too left wing.**

But what actually is austerity? In the proper sense it is neither left wing or right wing. It is not for nothing that Attlee's second chancellor was known as "austerity" Cripps. Austerity per se is simply an economic strategy based on living within your means. That can be done by lower government expenditure (Osborne austerity) or higher taxation (Cripps austerity). And living within the Country's means is the responsibility of every government.*** If you don't you do end up like Greece, or Argentina before it.

And some of even Osborne's austerity is presumably supported by the left. The reduced Defence expenditure; the de facto widening of the 40% tax band; the limited targeting of Child Benefit.

No, what in reality is meant by the shorthand condemnation of "austerity", is condemnation of two specific aspects of how Osborne proposes to balance the budget: Firstly, by cutting the benefits received, and placing increased conditionality of their receipt at all, by the long term unemployed**** and, secondly, by attacking the wages and conditions of public service workers.

Now, these two things are incredibly unpopular with those affected. But, and this involves some hard reality, are they really unpopular with everybody else?

Well, actually, no.

The "benefit cap" is really a Housing Benefit cap. And, do you know, do I think that lots of taxpayers are happy to subsidise the rent that allows others to live in parts of the country where the self same taxpayers could not possibly afford to live themselves? Somehow I doubt it. Actually I don't doubt it. The polling is clear. Just as it is equally clear that, excepting those who have made that choice themselves, virtually nobody supports unemployment at public expense as being a legitimate lifestyle choice.

And, while I know that some, even most, public sector workers work very hard for little reward, do even I think that is anything like a unanimous condition? Or that outrage, on the part of the self same public sector workers, to a freeze on unnecessary recruitment or restrictions on annual increments provokes widespread sympathy with their outrage? To be honest, I suspect it provokes rather a reverse outrage as to why unnecessary recruitment was being contemplated in the first place or indeed why anybody, in this day and age, gets a guaranteed pay rise for doing nothing more than serving time at their work, irrespective of their performance in the job or of the ability of their employer to pay

The Labour Party for good and historic reasons attracts into its membership those more naturally concerned for the condition of the poor. And the pattern of decline of industrial Trade Unionism is such that those working in the public sector are now hugely disproportionate among our affiliated membership. So, for obvious reasons both "wings" of our movement are self selecting when it comes to opposition to this "austerity". If we were in office and did not have to worry about getting re-elected these things would not be happening. Since some attempt would be needed to get the deficit under control I suspect other pretty unpalatable things would be happening but it wouldn't be these things. Actually, I suspect that internally within the Party there would be a majority for solving the problem by an increase in general taxation. There remains however a dim realisation that this would be electorally toxic. So we are left with the only option of pretending that increased and indefinite borrowing is not equally electorally toxic because "everybody" is opposed to "austerity". Unfortunately that's not true. No matter how much we would like it to be. The polling on that is equally clear. Day to day living is equally clear.

Now, it is possible to build an impressive rainbow coalition of the angry, around bleeding heart liberal professionals and (insofar as they vote) their clients; around public sector trade unionists and around that small part of the youth vote with any interest at all in politics. The problem is that this rainbow is several colours short of the full spectrum necessary to win an election. And that the priorities of its limited membership are positively repellent to any other refracted light.

That's the realisation that seems lost on those swept up in Corbynmania. They cannot grasp that what is unpopular with them is not what is unpopular with the Country. That just because it is very unpopular with them and (some of it at least)  only half heartedly popular elsewhere (and then only still) with people NOT REALLY INTERESTED IN POLITICS AT ALL! or ONLY INTERESTED IN THEIR OWN POCKET! or INDIFFERENT TO THE MISERY OF OTHERS! that this really makes any difference at all. Everybody only has one vote. Our job is to attract it, not to write it off. That's democracy.

So let's be clear. It may be that fighting "austerity" is morally the right thing for Labour to do, that's almost a different argument.  But anybody who thinks that this will be popular with the voters we need to attract to actually get elected is to confuse the views of these voters with the views of those arguing with them.

And would you vote for someone who starts off  wanting to argue with you?


*Actually, I was quite outraged at Ted. I'd probably have been outraged at McMillan as well but I was only three at the time.

**I appreciate that's not the totality of the UKIP vote but it's a fair chunk.

***Even Keynes thought it necessary to balance the budget over an economic cycle. Even Syriza do. They just think (probably correctly) that, starting from here and without default,  this is impossible for Greece to do without debt relief.

****Cutting benefits for the working poor is a different matter entirely in the popularity stakes. As the Tories may learn to their cost in due course.

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.