Sunday, 21 September 2014

Think about it

This will be my last blog about the Referendum. I'll continue to blog from time to time, but probably not so regularly, about politics. The Referendum is however over. So I thought I wouldn't finish with a big theme but rather a number of bleeding obvious points that seem nonetheless to have passed many partisans by.

1. THE REFERENDUM IS OVER

In the aftermath of an ordinary election there is a tendency of the losing Party not to psychologically accept the result. "Our opponents will pay a heavy price for the manner of their victory" or "We will continue to oppose these evil plans with every inch of our bodies"or "The people will never stand for this".

Slowly but steadiily however it sinks in that the losing Party was not beaten by the votes of their opposing Party. They were beaten by he votes of the voters. And the only real way forward is to get the voters to vote differently next time. And next time is four or five years away even with a normal election.

Good luck to those rushing off to join the SSP or the Greens as an expression of their frustration at the result but nobody (well nobody except a few nutters calling for a re-vote) is contemplating another referendum any time soon. Nothing is going to change that.

Actually

2. IT IS HIGHLY UNLIKELY THERE WILL EVER BE ANOTHER REFERENDUM.

Actually, I can't say ever. Ever is a long time. I mean that it is highly unlikely there will ever be another one in my lifetime and I'm 56.

This referendum required a number of freak occurences. The first was a desire for the Nationalists to have a referendum. The second was their securing an absolute majority at Holyrood. The third was a willingness of Westminster to concede (temporarily) to Holyrood  the power to hold such a poll.

It is clear common sense has prevailed within the SNP on the first point with any number of senior figures conceding that "Another go" can't feature with any credibility (or, let's be honest, without immense electoral damage) in their 2016 Manifesto. I wouldn't bet on their conclusion on that being any different for 2020.

But there is another factor. The 2011 result had a number of causes. These included:

* The lack of realisation in advance of the election that the SNP were serious about independence, allowing voters not so inclined to vote for them nonetheless

 * The temporary collapse of normal four Party politics at Holyrood owing to the extreme unpopularity of the Lib Dems over the coalition and its policies. That is unlikely to be repeated and if it is not then there will always be a natural constituency for a centre Party enjoying some mainland Holyrood representation.

* The apparent futility of  voting Tory in a  Holyrood election, even if you were a Tory. That I think was also changed by 18th September. I'll say more on that below

* The exceptionally inept conduct of the 2011 campaign by the Labour Party.

Now some of these might happen again but all of them at once?

None of that is to say that the SNP won't continue to be the largest Party at any future Holyrood Election. Indeed I readily concede that they are current favourites for that prize in 2016. It is however to say that their chance of securing another absolute majority is remote. And, take it from me, after the fright we've had, there is no chance of any of the unionist parties co-operating to achieve the goal of a referendum without the Nats having that majority.

And then, finally, even if they did succeed in overcoming all these hurdles, don't forget that by signing the Edinburgh agreement the Nationalists conceded that the legal vires to hold such a poll still lies at Westminster. Suffice to say that any bargaining on the terms of any permissible future vote would be very different from 2012.

So it's over. It's really, really over. Or at least the Referendum route is. For the SNP to achieve their ultimate goal I suspect they'll have to come up with a different way forward. I simply have no idea what that might be. It could indeed be not just that the referendum is over, the idea of any practicable route to Independence might just be as well. And if that's the case what exactly would be the long term function of the SNP?

But I am danger of moving away from my own "bleeding obvious" constraint

So here is the third bleeding obvious point

3. LABOUR WILL HAVE TO ACCEPT THE RECOMMENDATIONS OF THE MCKAY COMMISSION

By one of these odd "Scotland is a small place" coincidences I know Sir William (Bill) Mckay, for he was on the Council of the Law Society of Scotland while I was the President. He is a genuinely thoughtful and considered man. In any contribution he made to the Law Society's deliberations he had clearly thought through his argument against any possible counter argument in advance of making his point. He was never one to throw a kite in the air simply hoping the wind might catch it.

And so as you would expect his Commision it is an impressive piece of work. Brevity prevents me from summarising its conclusions but if you have not read them then I urge you to do so.

The problem with the West Lothian Question has always been as much the unwillingness of "The English" to contemplate that the British Parliament and the English Parliament might be different institutions and as long as that is the case any solution will be imperfect. We have moved however  beyond the point where the answer to the West Lothian question is to pretend we can't hear it. Anyway, if, at a particular election, there is no majority in England for "Labour" policies on health or education then why should "Labour" policies be imposed upon England? The moment the Tories made a point about this Labour was always going to have to give ground for it is inconceivable that we could fight an Election in England on the basis that the result in a particular policy area would depend on what happened in Scotland and Wales without that any longer being a reciprocal arrangement.

The McKay proposals are far from crude "English votes for English issues". They, for example, still contemplate there only being one Government. If they are acceptable on a cross Party basis we should bite off the hand offering them. In the end we'll realise that ourselves. Best just get on with it.

4. SCOTTISH LABOUR REALISES WE NEED TO GET OUR ACT TOGETHER

The Referendum was a disaster for the official  Scottish Labour Party leadership. The unofficial Labour Party leadership, not just Gordon Brown but Jim Murphy, JK Rowling (!) and George Galloway (!!!) did well but by the end the official leadership had effectively disappeared. To lose Glasgow once, as we did in 2011, might be unfortunate but to do so twice looks like carelessness. The good news is that (I think) we finally realise that. No recovery at the Westminster test of May 2015 (which, for what it's worth, I think there will be) can disguise the fact that business as usual at Holyrood will presage another electoral disaster at the next uniquely Scottish Poll. Vested interest will ensure that some of what should be done won't be done but Holyrood remains an essentially Presidential contest and I think the Party knows we need to fix that. Watch this space.


5. RUTH DAVIDSON COULD BE THE MOST POWERFUL POLITICIAN IN SCOTLAND

Now, if you concede that, for the reasons outlined above, even if they are favourites to emerge as the largest Party in May 2016, the SNP are unlikely to have an absolute majority, even with the possible addition of a few Greens, then what will that mean?

It is something that neither side are now inclined to talk about but the 2007-2011 SNP minority administration depended on the Tories to remain in power. I don't mind now confessing that I thought in 2007 Jack should have spoken to Annabel. That both our Parties would one day pay a price for legitimising the Nationalists in power.

Who knows if strategically I was right or wrong but what I can say I think is that if the Tories hold the balance of power in 2016 this question will return and will demand a different answer.

If I was speculating, rather than only dealing with the bleeding obvious, I would confess my impression is that few politicians had a better referendum, both in personal performance and electoral result, than Ruth Davidson. And that in consequence not only will there be more Tory MPs than pandas in Scotland after the May 2015 General Election, there will be more Tory MPs than Nationalist MPs or Liberal MPs.

But I'm not speculating. I'm only dealing in the bleeding obvious. And this is bleeding obvious. If the Tories hold the balance of power between Labour and the SNP at Holyrood in May 2016 all three Parties will be faced with a big decision but the King or Queen maker will be Ruth. Who knows, if she secures no greater prize she might at least end up as Leader of the Official Opposition.

And that's my last word for the moment. Next weekend is the Ryder Cup and the following week Andi is running in the Glasgow half marathon so I may or may not see you on October 12th.





Friday, 19 September 2014

Why?

In 2007 Wendy Alexander, recently elected as leader of the Scottish Labour Party in the aftermath of our first defeat by the SNP, decided that the only viable way forward for our Party was to call the Nationalists bluff on Independence by promoting our own referendum.

I was one of those involved in the inner circle at that time.

I was asked to go to a "secret" meeting in, for some reason, the Scotsman Hotel without even being told the subject matter to be discussed. There were perhaps ten others present; a couple of trusted MSPs, a half dozen formal or informal advisers and, importantly, a pollster.

Wendy outlined her thoughts and, she having selected those present, perhaps unsurprisingly they met with unanimous approval.

But there was one matter on which we had to be absolutely certain: was there any conceivable circumstance that such a referendum could be lost?

For that we could not just rely on our own political gut instinct and for that we turned to the pollster. His view was unequivocal. There was no conceivable circumstance in which Scotland would vote for independence.

There were any number of reasons for this but among them were two central "facts". Firstly, that those who voted SNP in much of rural Scotland were not truly nationalists but rather tactical anti Labour voters and, secondly, that the Labour vote in central Scotland was solid against SNP encroachment. All we had to do was deliver that latter vote and allow the former to return to its natural loyalty and even allowing for any number of adverse campaign circumstance it was difficult to conceive how the nationalists would ever get more than 35% of the vote.

In the political circumstances of 2007 I remain quite certain that this analysis was correct and Labour's decision to reject "bringing it on" was a huge strategic mistake. Why it didn't happen might yet be the subject of another day.

But what's done is done and I am writing this blog against a background of the Nationalists doing a full ten per cent better than we thought they conceivably might.

For what it is worth, and I appreciate that you will have to take me on trust on this, at no point from start to finish did I think there was any prospect of a Nationalist victory over the last two years. It can too easily be forgotten that over that entire period there was but a single reputable opinion poll putting the Nats ahead and the closest odds ever offered by the bookies was 3-1 against in what was always but a two horse race.

My confidence was also founded on the fact that nothing had changed since 2007 in respect of the second pillar of Wendy's analysis. And so it proved. Moray, Angus, Perth and Kinross, Aberdeenshire, all nominally nationalist strongholds, returned among the largest No majorities across the nation. It may well prove in the long term the big winners in what was perceived as an existential struggle between Scottish Labour and the SNP will in fact turn out to be the Scottish Conservatives and (importantly) Unionists.

But the first pillar of Wendy's majority, the one to be delivered by her own Party has, during the referendum eventually held shown itself to have far from stable foundations.

And why that happened is what I want to address today.

I would suggest it had three causes. The first two are entirely self inflicted wounds but the third may highlight for us, electorally, a much more difficult problem to solve.

But I'll deal with the two we can address first.

I have made this point before but I will make it again. Even among people viscerally hostile to the Con-Lib Coalition there is little or no enthusiasm either for a Labour Government or for Ed Miliband personally as Prime Minister.

In my political lifetime the Scottish Party would invariably be significantly boosted by the arrival here of any opposition Labour leader (Wilson, Foot, Kinnock, Smith or Blair) to campaign here. That simply is not the case at the moment. For a Labour leader to enjoy even lower approval ratings in Scotland a Tory Prime minister is an almost unique achievement. And as if that is not enough, except for the fact that it is not a Tory Government, what exactly is the case for a Labour Government?  Say what you like about Tony Blair he had big promises in 1997 and big early achievements: The minimum wage; the Independent Bank of England; the massive increase in NHS resources; the cut in class sizes; not least the Scottish Parliament itself.

But by 2010 Labour offered little more than benign managererialism against a background of vicious palace politics. And it's far from clear what more we are offering next year. We are seen as no more in touch with the actual day to day experience of working people than the Tories.

We had a record high turnout in Scotland yesterday but who would bet against a record low turnout in next year's General Election? It simply did not cut the mustard to ask traditional Labour voters during the referendum to  stick by us when we struggled to find a response to the answering question "Why?" We have in this regard simply encountered in September 2014 in Scotland what the Party will encounter across Britain in May 2015. Except that in September 2014 Scotland had somewhere else to go.  No matter how much we protested that the apparent destination amounted to a mirage.

And the second own goal was in relation to Labour's attitude to the Scottish Parliament itself. I tried to avoid arguments with personal friends during the referendum but I did have a few and I readily agree I did not have all the winning points. At one point a pal protested that Labour politicians were "all useless" and I responded "Is Jim Murphy useless?  Is Douglas Alexander? Is (our own MP) Greg McClymont". "No" came the response "but none of them are up here. If we were independent they'd be in the Scottish Parliament". And my only response was to try and move the argument on to a different topic.

The Scottish Labour Party continues to see Holyrood as nothing more than a "big cooncil". So if you are a reasonably competent member of a wee cooncil why shouldn't you head off to Holyrood if the opportunity arises? Well, that's not the view of the electorate who increasingly are unwilling to endorse the "appointment" of the candidates Labour places before them for the devolved Parliament. Yet the selection stampede for 2016 has been undertaken at breakneck speed and with as limited a selectorate as possible to try and protect the position of those already in Holyrood (many by accident) or provide the maximum opportunity for those recently ejected to return. Actually winning back the seats we lost has been no consideration of any sort. So we have just had a referendum campaign where the only contribution most MSPs and PPCs were capable of making was in the delivery of leaflets. A campaign instead fronted by Westminster MPs all with the apparent intention of returning to the green benches at the earliest opportunity.

This will not do. I say this as a friend of the Labour Party who has long abandoned personal political ambition. Unless we tear this up and start again then unless the Nationalists themselves descend into internal recrimination, Labour will be comfortably defeated in May 2016 and will deserve to have been so. And that observation goes in relation to any possible candidate for First Minister chosen from the current Labour Group as well.

And then finally we have the third development. The one we may have less control of. It is best understood by reference to a flag.

Yes Scotland grabbed hold of the Saltire at an early stage of the referendum campaign. In my opinion it was far too easily surrendered by our side but we, the unionist side, did of course have a flag of our own. Arguably the most famous flag in the world. Flown regularly on every public building; adorning the shoulders of every winning British sportsperson; draped over the coffin of every serviceman who makes the ultimate sacrifice for our country. The Union Jack.

But, of course,  it would be inconceivable for the (particularly) West of Scotland Labour Party to have any association with the Union Jack. For it is not the flag of many of our most traditionally stalwart supporters. Not just because it is "the flag" of a football team they do not support (!) but because it is a flag to which they have a dubious allegiance.

Until perhaps ten years ago it was almost a given that if you were a Scottish Catholic of Irish origin you would be a Labour voter. That applied even if you were in relative financial comfort yourself. It wasn't where you were now that mattered it was where you had come from. And what's more it was an almost equal given that you would have a certain hesitation about the Scottish Parliament having "too much" power or even, as was proved in 1979, existing at all. There was some logic to that both in respect of a legitimate fear of return to a "protestant ascendancy" the passing of which owed more to the achievements of (British) Labour Governments than to any great movement in that direction from within Scotland itself but also because many of today's  Nationalists would concede, privately at least,  that Scotland's "National" Party had, historically, a significant  "Orange" streak.

It is an entirely benign development that no-one could now see a return to the days where Catholics couldn't get a job in a bank or a shipyard because of their religious observance. So it is perhaps no surprise that a political allegiance once based on class politics and religious tolerance could not survive indefinitely when neither of these factors were at play in the life of at least many Scottish Catholics.

It was always a bit of a contradiction that stalwart supporters of a Thirty Two County Ireland were sceptical about even a modicum of home rule for Scotland but, contradictory or otherwise, that is how it had been. And that brought a price on the side of the political party these people overwhelmingly supported. To preserve the political advantage we gained from that dichotomy, in attempting to make a case against an independent Scotland the one argument that could never be used was that no matter what one might think of the United Kingdom it was a much more culturally mature, ethnically diverse and economically successful place than the Republic of Ireland. And yet it was and it still is. Unemployment is much higher in Ireland than in Scotland, living standards much lower and in relation to the most common cultural interlocutor, the national broadcaster, there is simply no meaningful comparison.

No wonder it remains the principal ambition of many of Ireland's brightest and best young people to live elsewhere. Ironically, for many, to live in the United Kingdom.

Now this past six months or so we have been caught out by this. Our opponents have suggested that Scotland could be "just like Ireland" without us being free to respond "We don't want to be just like Ireland. Britain is an infinitely superior place to Ireland." But that is precisely what we should have said.

Well it might presage an earthquake in Scottish voting behaviour but, let's be honest, yesterday already was a bit of an earthquake anyway. Perhaps it would be best all round if Labour in future was required to make its case based on actual policy rather than tribal allegiance. We didn't initially pitch for the "catholic vote", we pitched for the vote of working people many of whom happened to be Catholics. And we made the case then that the common interest of working people was far more important than differing religious denominations, or races, or genders, or ......... nationalities. We are not going to get our traditional voters back on the basis of "Some small countries good, other small countries bad; some ethnically based politics good, other ethnically based politics bad; some nationalisms good, other nationalisms bad." So let's not go forward on that basis. Let's instead make the case for unity being strength. In all circumstance.






Sunday, 14 September 2014

Terms of Engagement


This is almost certainly my last blog before the big vote itself.

I’m conscious that I’m now in a slightly odd position intellectually.

I started this blog from a standpoint significantly critical of my own Party’s strategy and have gained readership on that basis. In my immediate post referendum observations I promise that I will be that critical friend again.

But, as one of the common infantry,  no matter how much you might to have wished to have been better equipped, or to have engaged on better ground or indeed to have had better Generals, all of that becomes irrelevant when the order is given to fix bayonets.

And that is where I am now. About to advance towards the sound of gunfire knowing that, politically, on Thursday it will be kill or be killed.

With that knowledge, I  kind of feared that in this blog I might be left writing a sort of “Rally round the (Red) Flag” piece  that might have had its place in the Daily Record but is not really what my more select readership comes here for.

Except that, when I got home from work yesterday, Yes Scotland themselves had given me my theme.

For they had sent me a personally addressed communication assuring that my pension would be safe if I voted Yes.

Setting aside what it means for their much vaunted data base that they bothered writing to me at all, let alone that they thought I was a pensioner, this communication was a scandal.

Pensioners are rightly concerned what independence might mean for the value of their pension. It remains the case that they can have no idea of the currency in which it would be paid and it remains the case that Mr Swinney’s leaked document confessed that he had no idea as to how affordable it would be in any currency.

BUT, I concede that, publicly at least, Mr Swinney now says  he has done his sums and that existing pension levels would be affordable. I equally concede that it remains the position of the Scottish Government that, no matter how incredibly, the UK Government will back down on a Currency Union to allow that pension to be paid in Sterling.

So if the leaflet had said that “pensions will continue to be paid at existing levels and in Sterling” I would concede that this is indeed the proposition put forward by the Nationalists. I personally might say that this is unaffordable and incredible but that would be no more than the  counter argument of my side.

Except that’s not what the leaflet said. It said (and I quote precisely although the emphasis is mine):

“The answer is [your pension] will be paid in full, in exactly the same way..............

The Scottish Government guarantees it and the UK Government agrees”.

Now, properly the word “guarantees” might more properly be “proposes” but that sort of word substitution is common currency across different political campaigns.

My objection is to the suggestion that “the UK Government agrees”.

That is an outright lie. It has no basis in fact, it cannot find even the most tenuous basis in fact. It is a deliberate deceit of the (properly intended) recipients of this letter.

I blew up on twitter when I first got “my” letter and the cybernats then directed me to a communication sent in error by a lowly employee of the DWP to one of their number saying that the UK Government would continue to pay Scottish pensions after independence.  For the avoidance of any doubt, not only is it the position of the UK Government that post independence Scottish old age pensions would be the responsibility of the Scottish Government , that is also the position of the Scottish Government.

So it is as absurd to say that the UK Government “agrees” that Scottish old age pensions would be unaffected by independence as it would be to attribute similar sentiments to the German Government.  Post independence, Scottish pensions would be the responsibility of neither of these foreign Governments. They would be our responsibility alone. That is meant to be the whole point of independence.

And so in ending my pre referendum observations I want to observe this.

We, my side, have misunderstood the terms of engagement. For all the faults of conventional politics, Parties understand that while you might gain a temporary advantage by making wild and uncosted promises at one election, if you win on that basis you will pay the price at the next election. Don’t take my word for that, ask Nick Clegg. Or, to be even handed across the Party divide, Francois Hollande.

But of course on this occasion there would be no “next election”. The Scottish pensioner being told in May 2017 that their pension was to be cut by 20% and even then paid to them in a devalued currency so that it purchased even less than that in the shops; to be then being told that there was no "guarantee" from the Scottish Government and even less so from the UK Government and in truth there never had been. That Scottish pensioner might well resolve “never to vote for independence again."
But what would that matter? It would be enough for the authors of my letter that the pensioner had been fooled into doing so just once. For while the pensioner might not have their "guaranteed" pension, the authors of the letter would have the one thing they truly cared about. A flag.
And while you can't eat a flag it is clear that those behind "my" letter believe that waving it would be regarded as adequate compensation for an empty stomach.
Don’t let them get away with it.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Two moments in history

I want to start with two stories. Or rather one piece of history and one anecdote.

On 3rd April 1917, V.I. Lenin got off a train at the Finland Station in St Petersburg, He had returned from a long period of political exile in Switzerland courtesy of the German Imperial Government who saw, correctly, that his presence back on Russian soil offered the opportunity to knock their Russian enemies out of the First World War.

And Lenin brought hope. Hope certainly for the embryonic "urban proletariat" who had been bequeathed to him by the half hearted industrialisation of latter day Czarism. But, in an almost "New Labour" way, hope also to those who seized upon the Bolshevik slogan of "Peace, Bread and Land" as meaning whatever they wanted it to be. For nothing could be worse than the alternative of "War, Starvation and Servitude". Or so it seemed at the time.

And, almost 100 years on, I'd still have been with Lenin. Sometimes the end justifies the means.

But my second story is also important. Some of my readers may recall that during the final period of the 1997 General Election, already on our way to a landslide, Labour went with the slogan, "Seven days to save the NHS".  It played out very well on the doorstep even if the doorstep belonged to the already faithful.

One of its main salespersons was the much mourned Labour MP Mo Mowlam. In common with many other Labour politicians taken before their time, Mo is now an almost legendary figure, even though at her actual time she was as "New Labour" as the rest of them, Some of that legend is therefor a bit overdone but, nonetheless, she retains a certain reputation for integrity and plain speaking not without some justification.

In the final few days of the 1997 campaign Mo knocked a door while canvassing in her Teeside constituency. It was the sort of place unlikely ever to endorse the Tories but, as I'm sure the Tories equally recognise in Tunbridge Wells, you can't be seen to take your own voters for granted.

So, on this doorstep she was encountered by an elderly woman who assured Mrs Mowlam of her life long Labour support. "But" she went on  "I am awful worried about the this Tory plan to abolish the NHS that it talks about in your leaflet

"For my husband doesn't keep good health. It's his lungs. The doctors say its all these years in the blast furnaces. But, whatever it is, we are never away from the hospital.

"We're just working people, Mrs Mowlam. We've only got the basic pension. We couldn't possibly afford to pay for a doctor, If the Tories get back in and abolish the NHS we might as well close the door and let the Lord take us. I'm not sleeping worrying about it."

And Mowlam thanked the woman for her support, assured her of her confidence in a Labour victory, and returned to our canvas team.

But two or three doors knocked later she announced she wanted to go back to a door knocked earlier and that the others should carry on without her.

And she went back to that door.

"Look" she said "If I tell you something you have to promise me you'll keep it a secret". The woman nodded. "The Tories are not actually proposing to abolish the NHS. We're just saying that because.....it's an election.  Even if we lose you and your husband will be fine"

Because that is the post war, welfare state, settlement. Some things are not truly at risk. Sure, the Tories might say it should be harder to get long term Job Seekers Allowance but they don't ever say there should be no Job Seekers Allowance, Sure the Tories might say less should be spent on disability benefits but they don't ever say there should be no disability benefits. (Actually, whisper it, it was the Tories who actually introduced non means tested disability benefits.) Sure the Tories might want more private sector provision in the Health Service but they realise that if the principle of free at the point of need was ever threatened then, even in Tunbridge Wells, they'd find themselves knocking doors for reasons other than appearance.

So that is Labour's achievement. A much more profound and lasting legacy than Thatcher's liberation of the market will ever be.

Except that even that turns on the ability of the basic state structure to pay.

It is easy over the period since 2008 to bemoan the fate fallen upon us. The effective public sector pay freeze. The repossessions falling upon those unable, despite their best efforts, to find work sufficient to pay their mortgages. The difficulty of the young, and the old, to find work.

But against that background it has been difficult to speak up for what the United Kingdom has not been. We have not been Greece. Or Argentina. Or Spain or even Italy.

The Tories like to say "What has Chancellor Brown brought us to?" while we like to say "Why is Chancellor Osborne prolonging our misery". That is Party politics.

But, actually, even in the worst economic crisis since the Thirties there has still been a National Health Service, There has still been Job Seekers Allowance and disability benefits. If you can play the game and avoid being sanctioned there has been no outright destitution. Because there is a political consensus that as long as we can afford it  there should not be.

But what if we couldn't afford it?

Nothing annoys me more than those who announce that they intend to vote Yes because they have nothing to lose.

The vast majority of the objective economic commentary on an independent Scotland says that it must mean significantly higher taxes to maintain (even) the current level of public services.

Now, if necessary,  I'd vote for that. Except that, in building his bizarre coalition, Eck has assured a much larger constituency than that of liberal lefty lawyers that he has no plans for any tax rises. Indeed the only tax proposal he has at all is to cut taxes for big business.

So who'd be the loser in that? Those who don't pay (direct) taxes at all but those who nonetheless depend on the proceeds of these very taxes for their every day survival. Those who have been tricked into thinking they have "nothing to lose" from independence.

I'd readily concede that there is fault to be found with the Scottish Labour Party. There is much self interest, plotting for the sake of it, unwillingness to confront harsh reality. But there remains an underlying commitment to the best interests of working people and to those unfortunate enough to be not even in that circumstance. A commitment well beyond the attraction of a constitutional experiment that, in their heart of hearts, even its most ardent advocates know would only come at the expense of the utter destitution of those at the bottom.

There might have been those in 1917 Russia with so little to lose it was worth a gamble but 2014 Scotland is a very different place.

Vote No.

Vote Labour.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Time to be blunt.


So. There has been a poll and we are on the point of Armageddon. Apparently.

For what it is worth I do not believe that if the Referendum was to be held tomorrow that the nationalists would win and I strongly suspect that in their heart of hearts neither do they.

But only an idiot would now dispute that if the poll was held tomorrow they would get a decent result. By which I mean a result above 40%.

Now my critics can feel free to pile in to observe that I have long maintained that the Yes vote would be 28%.  I still maintain that is the true level of support for Scottish Independence, somewhere between a quarter and a third of the electorate. I readily concede however that I have misjudged how the campaign would unfold. My misjudgement was in assuming that people would vote based on the relative merits or demerits of Independence. It is increasingly clear however that, for a critical section of the electorate, they are proposing to vote not against the union but against the real world.

There is a profound disillusionment with politics in the United Kingdom, indeed across the wider democratic world. It manifests itself in any number of different ways. Insofar as in Scotland it has not, so far at least, led to support for Parties of the extreme right, as it has elsewhere in Europe, or to violent religious fundamentalism, as it has elsewhere in the world, I suppose we have some cause to be grateful.

But it is the same phenomenon. That "the system" has failed to deliver for the "little man" (and woman) in a way it is perceived to have done (often quite wrongly) in days gone by. Indeed that the system has failed to such an extent that virtually nothing else could be worse.

These tides of opinion come around from time to time. In different times they gave rise to the belief that capitalism itself was the problem that needed to be swept away, in others that what was needed was submission to the will of a unique man of destiny as the embodiment of the national will.

And the problem on each and every occasion for the supporters of the status quo was that they found themselves hobbled by the faults and limitations of the status quo while those advocating something new could never be accused of that having failed because that "something new" had never had the opportunity to fail.

But each historic example had its own unique features and so does what we are currently experiencing in Scotland.

It has been a fundamental error of the No campaign from the outset to assume that the key to victory was to deliver the solidly unionist Tories and Liberals to the polls and then to get Labour voters there along side them with the assurance that a Labour Government is just around the corner. That's not to say a Labour Government is not just round the corner, it probably is. The problem has been to assume that Labour's traditional electorate in Scotland is as enthusiastic at that prospect as the Party's hierarchy undoubtedly is.

For we face a dual problem. The days when a new government could offer a real and immediate transformation to the economic prospects of the electorate are past. Peter Hennessey wrote a book about the 1945 Government entitled "Never Again". I suspect that many Tories have a similar conclusion about the 1979 to 1990 period and see a possible solution in withdrawal from the EU. But the days where Great Britain or indeed any other even large European Country could pursue an economic policy in defiance of the wider effects of globalisation are a thing of the past. That's not all bad, for the benefits of the modern, inter connected, world are many and varied: from the relatively trivial in respect of the ease of travel across national boundaries to the very significant indeed in the longest period of continuous peace enjoyed by western Europe since the high days of the Roman Empire.

But that comes at a price. Let us be honest, if Labour had somehow won the 2010 General Election then certainly some things: rampant euroscepticism at the heart of Government, the Bedroom Tax, this bloody referendum would have been different but the general macro economic policy of Government would have been much the same. Perhaps a little less austerity leading to an earlier and more evenly spread recovery but austerity nonetheless. The deficit is as unsustainable for the country as it has proved unsustainable for individual punters to maintain a lifestyle based on easy credit underpinned by rising property prices. So any government would have needed to address that.

And in that process people, poorer people in particular, have been hurt. Certainly  Labour would have spread the misery more fairly but we couldn't have magiced the misery away.

But the danger is that as a consequence of that misery people are understandably drawn to anybody offering happiness instead. Without considering why if it was that easy to do none of the current political shops have it on sale.

To be fair, in proffering Independence as that magic solution the Nationalists can also point to any series of own goals scored by the current system. The lack of regulation of the banks that led to the crash in the first place but, more mundanely, the disclosure  of long running inadequacies in everything from the competence and honesty of the Police to the sexual misbehaviour of once revered public figures to the MPs expenses scandal.

So the initial Better Together offer "UK:OK" was never going to work. The UK had been proved to be far from OK. The question should have been whether what was offered as an alternative would be any better. In that, with a critical section of those contemplating a Yes vote, not the 28% but the others, we have much to do.

What needs explained in much more direct terms than it has been to date, is that the solution to not liking the view does not lie in throwing yourself off the cliff.

The economic evidence that an Independent Scotland would be significantly worse outwith the United Kingdom is overwhelming. It is spelled out most recently here  but there are any number of other independent sources for that conclusion. It is simply not good enough for the nationalists to quote a handful of, often partisan, dissenting voices and even then to often quote them selectively. Decisions of this importance have to made on the basis of the overwhelming balance of opinion not by relying on the occasional contrarian.

Common sense says that the major Edinburgh financial institutions would not wish to be domiciled in a different country from the vast majority of their customers and that our financial services sector and its ancillary support would be devastated by a Yes vote. Common sense says that the pork barrel of warship orders would not be awarded where no electoral reward could ever follow. Common sense says that the complexities of European Union membership could not be resolved in eighteen months and that if the Nats stick to their March 2016 timetable then on September 18th we are voting Yes to temporarily at least leaving  the EU. Above all common sense says that even if it is unwise for the UK to reject a common currency (and it most certainly is not) it would now be politically impossible to sell a U-turn on that to the UK electorate.

Yet a Yes vote demands a suspension of common sense in all of these areas or, and this is where we are failing,  a belief among otherwise sentient potential Yes voters that somehow, even if all of the above does play out as inevitable, somehow the living standards of ordinary working people would not be affected too badly. Ironically the underlying mindset for this is because really significant collapses in living standards "do not happen" in the post war United Kingdom. After all, for the vast majority of people they haven't even really happened even as a result of the 2008 crash. What gets forgotten is that a Yes vote is a vote to leave behind that very security.

The idea that there is likely to be no major financial consequence to Independence is bordering on the delusional. And not just consequence for "the country". Financial consequence for every voter. And their children. And their parents. And their friends. We have to say that loud and clear. Yes means a devalued currency; higher prices in the shops; lower pensions and benefits in real terms; mass unemployment; collapsed property prices.

Independence is not something we could "give a try" and then change our minds about later. It would involve not "a wee bit of hardship" as some of the less dishonest Nats might concede. It would involve years of grinding misery with living standards butchered and with the civil unrest and human misery that would inevitably follow.

The UK is not OK but even with the Tories in power it is a much better prospect than that. That, I'm afraid, is the message we need to get across.

To hell with positive campaigning. Let's just tell the truth.

And, P.S. There are no secret oil fields.

Friday, 5 September 2014

What's not happening

Since the publication of last week's yougov poll a state somewhat approaching hysteria seems to have descended on the Nationalist camp.

Partisans who have been maintaining that "yes will definitely win" since Eck finally realised that he had no alternative but to have a referendum now suddenly claim to have only truly believed this within the last week. Apparently they were whistling in the dark before but, trust them, they are not whistling in the dark now. And what is also rather inclined to be overlooked is that even this poll still showed the No side well ahead and much of the actual apparent narrowing over the last three Yougov polls being attributable to a change in methodology between the third and second last of these.

But, as I have argued before there is a self interest shared by the Yes campaign, the No campaign and the media in maintaining it is close. For the first it keeps up the spirits and efforts of their activists; for the second it serves to guard against complacency and for the third it sells newspapers or gets people watching television programmes.

So when Yes Scotland claims to have registered thousands of last minute (implicitly solidly Yes) voters nobody really has an interest in finding out if that is actually true. If it scares little old Tory ladies in the shires to make an extra effort to get to the polling station, Ruth Davidson might even have cause to thank the Radical Independence Campaign (sic). If it cheers up the Nats to believe their own propaganda, it might avoid too many early internal questions about why, with all these enthusiastic foot soldiers, even in this poll they are still losing. And for the media last minute voter registration is on any view a better story than simply repeating the sound bites that increasingly form the output of both the official campaigns.

But it suits nobody to inquire why, if all these trots and greens really have been swarming over, and indeed being received with acclamation within, the most deprived areas of Glasgow, large numbers (?) of potential voters only got round to thinking about registering to vote within the last 48 hours available to them.

And then we have the "look" of Scotland. There are on any view many more Yes posters in windows than No posters. And far more Yes badges too. But equally there are far more windows with posters from neither side and far more unbadged citizens of any sort. If this really was a popular insurrection about to throw over one of the world's most stable democracies shouldn't the whole thing just be considerably more visible?

And then we have the utter financial calm. Sure, the Yougov poll caused a (very) minor blip in the value of Sterling and sure Eck says we will keep the Pound and many are foolish enough to believe him but many others see through that pledge but yet seem in no hurry to get their money out of Scottish Financial institutions. Myself included. If there was any real anticipation of a Yes vote things would be very different. Sure, many nationalists would regard it as their duty to stand by the state they had created but anybody who thinks "rich Tory unionist capitalist bastards" would feel patriotically obliged to keep their money here and see what happens has a somewhat naive view of that clan. And, sure, optimists in Scotland would believe something could be worked out on currency while optimists in England might believe Scotland's departure would be of no great fiscal consequence. But would that be the view of the international exchange markets who, unlike we common herd, had alternatives to crossing their Zurich based fingers? Most certainly not. And yet the interesting thing about the financial markets is that they are so uninteresting.

And then we come back to the issue of polls. There is a recognised psephological phenomenon about polls in this sort of situation. They cluster. I have to start off by briefly explaining how polling is conducted. The standard sample is usually just over a thousand. But you don't just ask a random thousand people their view. You try to get a "representative" sample. 52% women being the most obvious example but you are also looking for the correct percentage of over 65s or under 30s; the correct percentage of blue collar and white collar workers; of economically active and inactive. And indeed various other determinants.

Now you can try to do this in your initial sampling but without polling much larger numbers and discarding many results you can only achieve a certain degree of precision. So you introduce "weighting". And that then involves value judgements by the pollsters themselves. If, for example, to weight up the under 30s means you increase the number of those economically inactive, the pollster has to judge which which is likely to be the more important determinant  of voting intention. There is nothing sinister about any of this, it is the way things have always been done.

BUT. In this campaign many of the polling companies decided early on that an important determinant was how people had voted in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections. Thus, if crude sampling produced 30% of your sample saying they would vote SNP then in the published poll this was "weighted up" to reflect the 45% the Nats actually got in that election. Fair enough on one view except that obviously that 30% intending to vote SNP were understandably much more likely to vote Yes. This is all very well in a vacuum but of course it ignores three things. Firstly, it ignores the fact that in lower turnout Scottish Parliament elections the Nats always do better (and the Tories worse) than in other elections. No-one expects the referendum to be a low turnout affair. Secondly it ignores the fact that the 2011 Nationalist triumph was against the most inept campaign fought by a principal opposition Party in just about any election ever fought in any country at any time. And thirdly it ignores real elections that have taken place in Scotland since 2011, in almost all of which the SNP vote has gone down while both  Labour AND Tory votes have increased. The very absurdity of this method might best have been demonstrated by Survation who polled on both Independence and voting intention in the European elections in the run up to the latter.Ten days before polling they produced a poll, having applied "2011" weighting that produced a 56/44 No/Yes result. But using the same method they also predicted a 39% SNP vote share in the European elections. Ten days later the SNP got 29% in the actual election.

So maybe, just maybe, 2011 50% turnout voting intention is not the most accurate guide to  party affiliation now, the 80% turnout distribution of that affiliation or, most importantly, the knock on referendum vote based on that premise being accurate.

That certainly was the belief of Yougov who regarded it as of little importance and until recently produced much more robust leads for No. But of course that has changed with the most recent polls. So however has Yougov's weighting. This change has not been intended to bring Yougov into line with actual voting intention (for no-one knows what that is). It is however intended to bring Yougov more in line with other pollsters, albeit without adopting their precise method. Precisely the phenomenon I have described above as clustering. For no polling company wants to be an outlier. Ideally they all want to be right but there is less reputational risk in, at worst, all being wrong together.

Now, finally, if that clustering was indeed taking place then it would affect both sides, of course. If pollsters providing favourable results "to us" start aligning with pollsters providing favourable results "to them" then that cuts both ways.

Panelbase, the pollster who have provided consistently the most favourable results "to them" carried out a poll last week for the Yes campaign. It was a private poll but Yes Scotland have a, perfectly legitimate, track record of publishing favourable private polls. And of course where better to publish that poll than in today's Daily Record under the one off editorial control of Mr Alex Salmond.

But no such poll result appeared and I think we can now assume it is not going to appear. The polls are clustering. And that then leads me to observe this. Actually, although I use the phrase myself,  there have not been polls "more favourable" to Yes Scotland. There have only been polls less unfavourable. Never a single properly conducted poll putting them ahead from start to finish.

Now it might be in 13 days time all the polls are wrong. It might be that this will be just about the only referendum ever where the polls underestimated the vote for change and/or there was not a last minute swing back to the status quo. That might all be what happens.

But for less level heads among the commentariat on our side to be offering "helpful" advice suggesting that the major Parties and the Better Together campaign should, at this point, be engaged in a collective outbreak of "Corporal Jonesism" seems to me to be unjustified. Not least, but not only, by the polls.

P.S. There is, nonetheless, no room for complacency.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Joy of Sects

It was once observed, not entirely frivolously, that the Scottish Labour Party has got more factions than it has got members.

It can't be denied that the Leader of the Labour Group on Glasgow City Council is a man (or very occasionally woman) who survives at all only by virtue of sleeping with one eye open. Sinilarly, no sooner had we gained control of the first Scottish Parliament and with no inkling on anybody's part of the tragedy to follow, manoeuvring started as to would be best placed to be Donald's successor, even though that eventuality was, then, anticipated to be at least six years away. Then Henry won by virtue of being willing to stand and not being Jack; Henry fell as it quickly became apparent that his only qualification for the position was "not being Jack"; Jack took his revenge; then he fell; then Wendy did finally stand but was then brought down by a leak which could only have come from within the Labour Party itself; then Iain Gray did the decent thing and most recently we have had Johann, although even she is not immune from mutterings that she "Won't do" for May 2016. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

But there is something that I think was overlooked in the anticipation of the Independence referendum. When the chips are down, Scottish Labour knows, firstly, if not what it is for then certainly what it is against and secondly than when it's very existence is under threat then even the joy of sects must be put to one side (at least temporarily).

We've been there three times in my lifetime: with the first SNP surge of the seventies; with the SDP split and most recently since 2011. (No harm to the Nats but at the time 2007 was regarded very much as temporary aberration).

In each of these three potentially terminal situations the Party has rallied; the ground troops have actually got on the ground and the threat has been seen off.

Those who thought Scottish Labour would fight the referendum divided on tactics and unmotivated on effort must now surely concede that hope to have been unfounded. And that's not going to change in the next three weeks.

But that's not my main topic tonight.

The SNP themselves are no strangers to factionalism. Labour has never got to the point where we expelled a future Party leader or more recently deselected our most high profile and popular elected representative!

But it has to be conceded that since Salmond's return to the leadership the Party has shown a remarkable discipline. It is inconceivable that the numerous republicans in SNP ranks are all now content to be loyal subjects of the Queen; or that more than a few are truly convinced of Salmond's currency strategy; or indeed that intellectually many can truly reconcile "British unity bad" with "European Unity good".

But silence has prevailed for good reason. Firstly, Mr Salmond is entitled to their loyalty. On any view he has been electorally a  remarkably successful leader. Anyway, he is the best leader they've got. Secondly, whether they like it or not, the Salmond way is the only way. It is only his proposition which is on the ballot paper on 18th September. No point in arguing about things before then. On any view his Yes is still better than any conceivable No.

So recent developments are worth considering.

Firstly, the Nats have started to leak over internal disagreements on strategy, most recently in Fife. Eighteen months back it is inconceivable that no-one in the SNP was unconcerned as to how Bill Walker had become a candidate in light of what the leadership knew about him. But not a whisper appeared publicly. This week the fact that their leading remaining Fife MSP has fallen out with their local convenor over referendum tactics is suddenly all over the Dundee Courier.

Then we have the strange case of Mr Alex Bell and the serialisation of his diary in (of all places) the Daily Mail. For what it is worth I agree with much of his criticism of the Yes campaign, I have said as much on this blog. That's not the point. Patently the Nationalists can't change their pitch now, even more so as if it was seen to be in response to articles in..... the Daily Mail! So what is the point of publishing this book now? Mr Bell's views would surely be of as much interest on September 20th. Unless of course Yes win when he would be saved a considerable embarrassment by quietly binning the manuscript.

But most tellingly of all we have the activities of Mr Jim Sillars. I've spoken to a few people who have attended Mr Sillars evangelical events, some of them committed Yes voters. They have all expressed the same curiosity as to what transpires. Mr Sillars expends almost as much of his oratory attacking Mr Salmond than he does advocating Scottish Independence.

Now, let us for the moment assume that the purpose of these meetings is truly to persuade genuinely undecided voters of the virtues of a Yes vote. Does anybody really think that an undecided voter is likely to be persuaded to vote Yes by a Yes platform that proceeds on the basis that the leader of the Yes campaign is a man who doesn't have a clue what he is doing?

No. That's indeed why my Yes voting informants found the whole thing so curious.

Nor is it any more likely that Mr Bell truly thinks that he is offering last minute helpful guidance or indeed that the Fife SNP are truly fighting like cats in a sack over the best way to win.

The fight now taking place is not about September 18th. It is about framing the terms of the debate on September 19th. About who takes the blame for the defeat and, since it is clear that is to be Mr Salmond, more importantly who is to absolved of blame. For the prize at stake is not now Scottish Independence but rather the future leadership of the SNP.

So that's what is really going on at Mr Sillars "public" meetings. The important audience is not the unconverted. It is too late for them to exist in sufficient numbers for them to be important. Rather, the important people in the hall (the vast majority anyway) are the true believers seeking an explanation as to why they have lost and who might, at some future date, secure a different outcome. In that regard it is of interest to note who regularly sits next to Mr Sillars at these public meetings, demurring at no point from Sillars' rhetorical assault on the First Minister and his strategy.  I mean not the miscellaneous Trots or Greens rolled out to make up the numbers but rather the other reasonably well known face on the platform. The most prominent figure at the Cabinet table around whom the venn diagram of nationalist fundamentalism and infantile leftism intersects.

I mean Mr Alex Neil.