Tactical Voting in a Desert: Waiting for the tide to turn….back

Anyone remember the 1992 Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon dark political satire ‘Bob Roberts’? It featured Robbins as a Republican candidate that wrote and played reactionary US country songs. One that sticks in the memory from that film was the parody of Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A’Changing’: ‘Times Are Changing Back’.

I was thinking of this in connection with yet another PanelBase poll for the Sunday Times at the weekend, that showed further increases since their last poll (which was conducted maybe 30 seconds earlier – with poll density reaching saturation levels, who can recall clearly anymore?), with SNP on 48% (+3), Labour 27% (-2) Conservatives on 16% (+2) LibDems no change on 4%, UKIP on 3% (-1) and Greens no change on 2%. Can you imagine Labour’s Scottish headquarters? ‘Its not great…but next time, guys…I feel we are making REAL inroads – we might even get a kickback from Kaye Adams giving Jim a hard time and making him sound vulnerable on BBC live radio this morning…’ And then the next poll DOES comes out: TNS says SNP on 54% with Labour on 22%, giving the biggest lead yet to the SNP…’the next poll, lads – I can feel it, the countersurge is coming…’.

Of course, to a certain degree, you have to remember that they are right: those figures are only for those who say they have made their decision, and there are still a third of voters undecided – as much as 39% in Glasgow, according to TNS.

Of course, the responders may simply be shy (so why are they signed up to a political polling company, then?), may genuinely not have decided…or may feel sorry for Labour as ‘the new underdogs’ at the last minute. Or maybe they will join the happy band of tactical voters.

This has been increasingly espoused online as a strategy by pro-Union sites on a ‘keep the SNP out’ basis – but, bizarrely, the innate tribalism of those same parties does not seem to be allowing the same happy Union that it did during the Referendum campaign. Tactical voting wheels and guides have been circulated (despite the fact that advocating votes for other candidates is strictly against the conditions of membership of both Labour and LibDems), but suspicion has fallen on many as to just how ‘impartial’ they are with their counter-SNP recommendations.

For example, leaflets printed outside Scotland purporting to represent ‘Scotlands Big Voice’ (ah, don’t you just love those hoax grass roots campaigns, just like last year?) to ‘protect Scotland and maintain unity’ advocate who to vote for with the best chance of keeping the SNP out. Yet mysteriously they are advocating voting against sitting Labour and LibDem MPs, which would seem to benefit one party only…because it is the Conservatives that they are advocating voting for. Just as in the Referendum, it appears that the Conservatives are happily getting the followers of other parties (this time their voters, rather than their MPs and activists) to do their work for them. One tactical voting site over the weekend bitterly advised everyone to discount the voting guides as they had already been “contaminated” by SNP activists…and it is true that some tactical voting guides have appeared that are entirely coloured gold, and say ‘Vote SNP’ for every single seat (sometimes I love the Scottish sense of humour so much!! 😀 ).

But, aside from the innate tribalism, there are more fundamental problems with such a strategy, as noted recently by psephologist John Curtice. Curtice noted the 40:40:20 rule for the ideal tactical voting scenario, where two parties polling around 40% of the vote have a third party on around 20% – in this scenario, there is a reasonable chance of persuading significant enough numbers (it is pretty much likely to be a minority of their support) of the third party to support the second party, and swing the result. However, as Curtice notes, in post-Referendum Scotland it is now rarely clear what the logical choice second candidate to transfer to would be, given the radically changed voting patterns – and there is a lack of large enough feeder parties to provide significant transfers: support for the LibDems is 2% in many areas, and less than 10% in many for the Conservatives.

Notwithstanding Nick Clegg telling his above-noted 2% of voters to vote tactically to keep the SNP out, these attempts at coordinated pro-Union machinations are not helped by the pronouncements of party leaders – despite Ed and Dave’s readiness to regularly and repeatedly accuse each other of ‘supporting the SNP’. When David Cameron was in Glasgow on 16th April to launch the Conservative manifesto, he was emphatically urging supporters NOT to vote tactically to keep the SNP out. He could, of course, have been kidding on, but…that doesn’t help some voters swithering over whether or not to vote tactically at all. Similarly, the recent London slapdown of Jim Murphy by Labour’s leadership was seen by some as not about presenting a strong (and determinedly not ‘pro-Scottish’ for those coveted south east of England voters) front, but as a very clear tactical decision by Labour Central Office in a Scottish context: they realise that they can only win a few more Scottish seats, and actually, it would suit them better to have the solid block of SNP to facilitate their entrance to Downing Street. Ergo – best to slap down Jim, and encourage more Labour voters to feel comfortable voting for the SNP instead.

Realistically, it would probably be the smartest long-term policy for Labour to rebuild in Scotland – accept the nihilist requirement that in order to build, you must first destroy everything – or allow someone else to destroy it for you.

 

“For too long there have been Scottish Labour politicians at local government level and at Westminster who have been resentful, and even contemptuous, of the Scottish Parliament. That behaviour needs to stop now if we are to have any chance of regaining ground.” (The late Labour MSP Tom McCabe, after Wendy Alexander’s resignation as Labour Party leader in Scotland)

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Ruthie Says ‘No Thanks’, while (Jim) Frankie (Murphy) struggles to Say ‘Yes’

Michelle Stanistreet, the General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, last week criticised the proliferation of stage-managed political events where members of the public are kept away from politicians. This has become the norm for party leaders, as indicated by Jim Murphy’s recent ‘dawn raid’ events, where his early starts for his pretend ‘public rallies’ in front of his own activists are designed to help control access, as well as photo-opportunities.

But before the age of such managed rallies, there was an earlier iteration of this form of controlled photo opportunity. This was where, rather than spend a lot of campaign money on a series of posters around a constituency, the campaign would instead have one poster made up and put on a billboard, with the appropriate party candidate standing smiling in front of it. The idea being that rather than produce many hundreds of ads with the huge associated costs of renting the advertising space, one picture in a newspaper would achieve a far greater effect. I saw a promotional photograph from just such a Scottish Conservative event recently. Ruth Davidson was standing grinning in front of a new billboard poster with the Referendum campaign’s ‘No Thanks’ poster sitting below a ‘do a deal with the SNP?’ text. I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was either an ill-thought out idea – or something consummately brilliant.

The image is designed to resurrect the key ‘No’ emblem from the last months of the Referendum campaign, when the ‘No’ campaign had decided that ‘Better Together’ was not working as a brand identity slogan. So instead (and perhaps to rebrand themselves as polite, rather than somewhat thuggish and bullying, as they had been increasingly appearing) along came ‘No Thanks’. It seems a slightly odd move – is Ruth trying to convince the Scottish electorate that the Conservatives were opposed to the SNP and wanted to keep the Union – therefore vote for them again? I am not exactly sure that that was something that the electorate would ever have got confused about – until comparatively recently, the Conservatives were the only political party that carped on about the Union, wrapping themselves in flags at every opportunity to boast about involvement in any military conflict they could barge their way into. In short, I do not think that their position viz a viz the Union would have been forgotten.

And yet – conversely – think of the key ‘No’ party in the Referendum campaign – the one that did all the work: Cameron’s little helpers who were at the forefront of ‘No’ recently tried to rebrand themselves as a party of ‘Yes’ with their short-lived ‘Yes for Labour’ campaign – before it was ridiculed widely in the press, and quietly taken outside to a distant paddock and disposed off. They were clearly very far from being a ‘Yes’ party during the Referendum, and indeed were happy to tell everyone that…until after the vote, when the polls started moving away from them at a rate of knots. Now, they certainly seem convinced that they have to somehow distance themselves from their leading role last year, as their best damage limitation strategy.

And yet not so Ruth and her Conservatives: happy, and very much at home with the message that they were a part of that campaign. More than that – by embracing the logo, they take OWNERSHIP of the ‘No’ campaign – and remind everyone for whom Scottish Labour were working throughout that campaign. I think that ‘No Thanks’ poster sends exactly the right message – the close association with a Conservative campaign, kind of underlines who the ‘No’ vote was really for.

But to whom? In that sense, I wonder how much Ruth’s photo opportunity – and her big cheesy grin – are actually aimed at the Scottish public, as opposed to Scottish Labour. The ‘No Thanks’ image sends a very clear message from the Conservatives, to Jim Murphy’s mob: ‘we owned you – and you fell for it.’

As long as the Scottish public don’t get the impression that that message is aimed at them, I think she could do quite well out of this election.

 

“Ever since the modern SNP was created, around 1974, opinion polls have shown that Scottish people have a positive view of the SNP. They think the SNP stand up for Scotland’s interests. The Labour Party doesn’t understand that.” (Gerry Hassan)

Quintinshill, the Lies of War and Respect for the Dead.

Apologies for the recent silence, I’ve been in New Zealand for ANZAC Day this weekend. As the forces representatives gathered on the beach at Gallipoli for the ceremony, and Nicola Sturgeon laid a wreath at the Scottish War Memorial, it was perhaps an obvious opportunity to reflect on the different experiences between Kiwis and Scots. For me, as someone who grew up in the north of Edinburgh, Gallipoli’s main significance was in the lure that drew the 7th Royal Scots (a battalion recruited mainly from Leith) away from their intended deployment in France, to instead board a train from Larbert bound for Liverpool, where they were to board the Aquitania. Just before 7am, the first train, carrying 498 (half of all ranks) collided with a local passenger train at Quintinshill, just north of Gretna Green. The train overturned, largely from the southbound on to the northbound lines, just a minute before the Glasgow-bound express hit the wreckage, igniting the wrecked old wooden carriages with their gas tanks for lighting. Although ten died on the express, 216 of the 7th Royal Scots died, with only 62 surviving unscathed – only 6 of them (officers) went on to join the second half of the battalion when they embarked from Liverpool. Due to the damage and incineration, only 83 of the 216 bodies were ever identified in what remains the worst rail disaster in the UK. Although hushed up for obvious moral reasons, no family in Leith was untouched by the disaster.

Unsurprisingly for a first world war venture, the Gallipoli campaign itself proved a fairly futile exercise, in its failure to secure the capital of Turkey: after 8 months occupying cliffs around the peninsula in trenches, the allied forces abandoned it in January 1916 – or ‘retreated’, as you would say, if describing another army. A surprising trivia fact: Rupert Murdoch’s father is credited with the ‘Gallipoli letter’ that allegedly ended the botched Dardanelles campaign through its exposure of the needless deaths of thousands of Australian and New Zealand soldiers. At the commemoration ceremony, Kemal Atatürk’s magnanimous quote (see below) was repeated, with one modern Turkish representative explaining that just as they were under Germany, so New Zealand was under Britain, and that was the only reason that they fought each other. I wondered if that was receiving quite so much coverage back in the UK…and it made me reflect on the impossibility of such a quote as Ataturk’s being broadcast by a German state representative to any British dead. Not that such a statement was unlikely to be made – just that it would not be likely to be reported on the BBC these days.

I have talked before about the waste of life at this time (see ‘Greys’ Psychology: Inside the Mindset of a Defeated Demographic’), with Scotland’s losses per capita (145,000 Scots dead out of 887,000 total British losses gives a disproportionate 16%) as among the highest of any combatant nation. But I found the BBC’s online description of the campaign interesting. Although it asserts that with New Zealand only becoming independent in 1907, and Australia doing similar in 1901, that there was “no question” that they would “fight for the mother country”, the BBC’s website continues “war also fanned the flames of nationalism…Ordinary men…had the chance to ‘do their country proud’, and by joining the global conflict, Australia and New Zealand would establish themselves on the international stage.”

I found that a noteworthy departure from the line that we have become accustomed to hearing throughout the Referendum campaign, of how independence automatically rendered any death in wartime as a death betrayed. Labour’s John Reid, amongst others, was quite keen to draw a line suggesting that all those who went to war in Scotland were fighting not for their families, but for a monarch or British flag, as though that was in some way paramount. This was then used, in a fairly transparently desperate argument, to contend that therefore anyone voting for independence in the Referendum was in fact betraying dead relatives. Firstly, there is something of an arrogance in that presumption – you can drink a monarch’s health, sign on a dotted line, and if things go badly for you know that your family will have the privilege of receiving a letter signed with a genuine royal rubber stamp, but I would hardly say that that makes any declaration of your primary loyalty, or what your political views were towards either a republic or self-determination – and woe betide anyone who casually assumes otherwise.

After that arrogant presumption there is secondly the arrogant conceit of making such a judgement on people contemplating a better political future for their fellow citizens and families, and the naked use of such crass irrational emotional blackmail against reasoned arguments for a better future – invoking, and presuming to speak for, the dead, often of your own family.

And yet – it isn’t so unusual. It is not just Labour Party members on their way to the House of Lords that espouse such disdain for genuine popular political aspiration.

Currently, there are debates on removing the Queen – Elizabeth the First and Second – as head of state in New Zealand. It can be contended that such questions are being raised this year, to distract from a general National (=Conservative) Party failure here, and that also it is somewhat cynical to raise the question during a centenary year for the origin of the ANZAC legend. As some have suggested David Cameron is deliberately intending to ‘throw’ the EU vote with a weighted question, so there is a similar suggestion that this is a distraction, rather than a seriously considered political proposal. But the same patterns of political opposition can still be discerned.
New Zealand, with a slightly smaller population than Scotland, is having the same dirt thrown at people arguing for the monarch to be removed as head of state – that, again, this is so disrespectful to all who died for New Zealand in the past. The difference, of course, is that New Zealand has been happily independent for over a century – and was even independent before its military legend was forged. Apparently that does not provide an expiry date on this nonsensical monarchist claptrap, where wartime combat can apparently still only be permitted to be packaged and presented as purely a monarchic statement, and nothing else.

There are many lies of war that are told by governments. The true scale of Quintinshill was suppressed for reasons of morale for some time. Gallipoli was an inept campaign of protracted failure – but it took some decades before historians could freely come to that conclusion. The story of the tanks being sent into Glasgow before the peace treaty was signed in 1919 was similarly downplayed. But it seems that even after their lives were taken from them and their families, the dead are still a legitimate currency for the establishment to employ – long after they can speak for themselves, or answer back against their misrepresenters. Even when it is the establishment that bears the guilt for the misdeeds that led to those deaths, they find guilt an easy currency for them to employ without any thought to propriety or respect, as an attempt to block any threat to their own position.

Harry Patch may have described war as “the calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings” – but once dead, they are still not allowed to rest by those responsible for their deaths, as they can always be hauled out to dance for them one more time.

“There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.” (Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, on the fallen at Gallipoli)

Online or Face-to-Face?: Different Method, Same Result

Travelling just now, so just time to do a quick post – in fact,many may be relieved to hear that this will be a shorter one than usual, given some recent ‘accidental epic length’ posts…anyway, news is coming in that Nicola has – again – triumphed in a leaders’ debate, with Survation giving her some excellent post-debate results. As there is only one poll in so far, I’m going to wait and see if any more get released before I write that up more fully…and also see if the Establishment puts out another smear story  within 24 hours like they did after her success in the first Leaders’ Debate. 🙂

What I was going to mention, briefly, was a TNS poll that came out this week, giving Westminster voting intentions in Scotland as SNP 52%, Labour 24%. You might say that these are just ‘same old same old’ figures, pretty much matching IPSOS-MORI in both January and the now legendary October poll that signalled the start of the SNP surge. But TNS is different – they conduct their polling on a face-to-face basis. As James Kelly notes, almost all other polling companies use a component of online polling for their Scotland-wide figures. Now, you can see the possible problems there, as your panel is self-selecting, and therefore usually atypically politically engaged.

Face-to-face interviews are a slightly different business – for one thing, it takes a lot more footwork and time to do your sampling of 968 people…so some of TNS’s work was done before ‘FrenchGate’ occurred. This is important, because TNS’s last poll in March gave the SNP a lead of only 16 points – now they are showing 28 points over Labour. Does that mean that the real growth is larger, and they have missed part of it in their polling?.Only time will tell – it will be interesting to see how the figures change – and with rumours that Lord Ashcroft is using Populus to do a third poll, with 9 constituencies across Scotland, that could mean anothr big (and – possibly – illuminating…) announcement in under a week’s time, if he follows form and announces on Tuesday.

Other results from the poll were fairly mundane, showing Conservatives on 13%(-1), Libdems 6% (+3), Scottish Greens 3%(-1). But the increase in the demographic share for the SNP is also interesting, not only showing 71% support amongst the expected 18-34 year olds, but also 57% of 35-54 year olds, leaving the always difficult 55 and overs on 40%…which is still not be sneezed at. In the TNS sample, the most popular hung parliament option remains Labour-SNP on 25% (including almost a third of all Labour voters).

Oh, and when I said that only one other polling company apart from TNS does not rely on a self-selecting online panel for its Scotland wide polling? That company is IPSOS-MORI.

Yes…the other 52%/24% company.

 

“Particularly difficult to understand is the hysteria surrounding the suggestion that an anti-Tory majority could work together to lock out David Cameron from Number 10. Such a result might not give the majority of people the government they voted for…but it would mean the majority of people would not be forced to accept a government they specifically voted against.” (Richard Walker, 2/4/2015)

Gordon Brown’s New Vow: It’s Double Plus Good…

In the wake of the recent scandals surrounding the sting on Conservative Malcolm Rifkind and Labour’s former Defense Secretary Jack Straw, attention has once again focused on MPs’ incomes. Not overblown expenses claims this time (we dealt with Jim Murphy’s remarkable £1 million expenses achievement the other day in Murphy Madonna: Reinvent yourself until you fall on you’re a**e), or cash for questions. No, this time it is in connection with Rifkind’s comments about how much time he has to spend doing crosswords because he has so little to do as an MP – therefore it is quite legitimate to take on a couple of other ‘outside jobs’ (let us leave to one side the possibility that they may or may not compromise your role as an MP…that is another issue). This caused some press interest in what other MPs did as far as ‘pin money’ – George Galloway, the MP for Bradford West, is number three in the hit parade, with not just his £67K salary, but a grand total of £265,350 over 18 months for outside work. But way up there at the top of the pops, was Gordon Brown, the outgoing MP for Kirkcaldy, with £962,516. He set up a private company as a pseudo-charity, but only £1 million of the £3.6 million has actually made it to its charitable destination. The rest? Well, half a million a year is set aside for tax-free expenses for him and his wife Sarah.

But hasn’t this minister’s son described himself (some time ago) as a former politician? Well, in some ways you could argue so: he was present for only 7% of the votes in the Commons last year – and before you question whether or not that is normal for that slack bunch, the attendance at votes for the rest of the members of the House averaged 74%.

Gordon Brown has become a byword for Labour making promises it has neither the intention nor the ability to keep. Last year he waded in as a backbencher opposition MP, pretending to speak for the coalition government – a situation that (agreed in advance with Cameron) was so laughable, that Cameron must have been hardly able to control his voice during the conversation, let alone believe his luck. “You are going to act as the PR representative for the three Westminster leaders, who will digitally provide their signatures for some vacuous piece of paper – and you are going to tell the Scots that it represents Keir Hardie’s Home Rule dream??? Sure, Gordon – I just sent the e-mail with the signature attachment, knock yourself out…yes, I’m sure it will facilitate your entry to the Lords, and I’ll see if I can have a word with the CIA about those unfortunate Iraq e-mails…”

Brown set up ‘The Vow’, stating that the Scottish Parliament would be given extensive new powers, and be made permanent. Within minutes of the result of the Referendum being declared, Cameron was at the microphone in front of 10 Downing Street declaring that English Votes for English Laws was now on. Cue Gordon bleating with disbelief that it was ‘a Tory trap’ – yes, Gordon, one that you set up all by yourself, because you are THE Gordon Brown, who has the ego to believe he could go on a rock star tour as extensive as Nicola Sturgeon…. In July 1978 Jilted John presciently sang ‘Gordon is a Moron’, and truly, the gullibility of Labour in not seeing that this was going to be the outcome (EVEL was predicted as the consequences of a ‘no’ vote for months before the Referendum date by many ‘Yes’ websites), is breathtaking.

Gordon’s extensive powers were filleted down by the Smith Commission, before being gutted of welfare control by Ian Duncan Smith at the eleventh hour, and then watered down to a homeopathic extent by a Commons command paper that offered…..the ability to alter speed limit signage on roads. And what was hilarious was seeing Gordon joining the usual suspects of Danny Alexander and Alistair Carmichael in the chorus of ‘that will be the Vow delivered in full, then!!’ Extensive powers indeed, Gordon – and his wee plan for permanence for Holyrood? That only took Alistair Carmichael to knock it on the head, rejecting a proposed effective safeguard to prevent dissolution of the Scottish Parliament by requiring a super-majority of two thirds in Commons, Lords and Holyrood.

But, you see, Gordon is their go-to, emergency, break the glass, ‘aw naw wir stuffed anyway’, guy – how many times does he paradoxically get press headlines as ‘Labour’s Secret Weapon’ in whatever political campaign is floundering? So when Jim Murphy’s failure to reignite Labour poll support in Scotland started perplexing them, back they went to Gordon, who – despite saying ‘The Vow’ was such an ace deal, and honest, they really delivered it – now had to offer ‘The Vow Plus’.

It is so hard to take seriously. Not only with (noted ‘No’ campaigner) Professor Adam Tomkins pointing out that ‘The Vow Plus’ is Labour’s 5th position on devolution since 2010, but also because it sounds like something from the Trey Parker & Matt Stone film ‘Team America, World Police’: “why…that’s like 9-11….times 34 and a half.” And yet game old Gordon comes out, prepared to spout anything. This last week he was out on the campaign trail again, promising to disburse £800 million wealth (again from the infinite number of mansions down south that are waiting to offer up money to Scotland, apparently….) from a budget that is already fixed for the coming year so cannot be altered. As Paul Kavanagh pointed out, if Jim Murphy was promising £1 billion to Scotland from the same source the week before, then where did the other 20% go – Gordon’s speaking tour fees, for getting him to come out on the road one last time?

Perhaps it is worth taking a few moments to consider the realities of the ‘Mansion Tax’, and why so many people in London get upset at the idea of Scots getting any money from it. The so-called Mansion Tax is a tax based on properties valued at over £2 million. There are 895 of these in Scotland. But there are 85,461 of them in London – out of an estimated UK total of 108,477. In fact, over 78% of the liable UK properties for this tax – calculated to yield £1.2 billion – comes from London, giving some credence to Diane Abbott MP’s criticism that this is a tax on London. Jim and Gordon are not the only ones to promise the Earth on this tax: Andy Burnham has also promised to spend £2.5 billion from it on the NHS in England and Wales, to recruit 20,000 more nurses and 8,000 more GPs, so that appointments can be guaranteed within 48 hours. Mansion Tax or mythical horn of plenty? Maybe a bit of both….

But politics is a cruel arena – the same week that Gordon Brown’s last constituency campaign (to save the Tescos in Kirkcaldy) ended in failure, research was being produced to say that actually his efforts with ‘The Vow’ were irrelevant. The Adam Smith professor at Glasgow University attempted to assess the impact of ‘The Vow’ on voting intentions…using Google Search data. Unsurprisingly, this has been criticised as a somewhat ‘flawed methodology’. A survey released by the Centre for Constitutional Change purported to show that only 3.4% of ‘No’ voters voted that way because they wanted extra powers for Scotland, therefore dismisses the impact of ‘The Vow’ in those last hours – other answers in that survey were that just under a third of ‘No’ voters did so because they felt British, 28.5% said too many unanswered questions, 26.3% believed independence would make Scotland worse off, 5.3% wanted to vote Yes but it seemed too risky, 5.2% didn’t trust ‘that Alex Salmond’.

But don’t worry, Gordon – your reputation for delivering the electorate on the back of a donkey called ‘The Vow’ can be saved…thanks – perhaps appropriately – to a Tory peer of the realm. On the night of the vote, Lord Ashcroft conducted an extensive post-referendum poll, where 25% of ‘No’ voters gave their most important reason for voting ‘No’ was that a ‘No’ vote would still secure extra powers for the Scottish Parliament, as enunciated in ‘The Vow’. It is important to notice that this was done at the time of the vote, and before the result was known – and not after the months of media coverage that watched the material substance of Gordon’s Vow fall apart. How happy would you be to admit to it, if you had been tempted from ‘Yes’ to ‘No’ at the last minute by the promise of more powers, and then realised you had been taken for a mug – just like those irritating ‘Yes’ campaigners said you would be at the time? Perhaps being a fresher recollection – and less subject to repenting at leisure – this is the survey that more attention should be paid to…rather than HangOver Nos, slowly going into denial.

Even Peter Kellner, the President of YouGov, acknowledged that ‘The Vow’ was pivotal, in a January article where he scolded the Conservative Government for its panic in the last week of the Referendum campaign: “our poll [Yes 51, No 49] led to panic, the panic led to the Vow, and the Vow led to the SNP’s biggest ever boost”. The Vow DID matter, not just because of Kellner, or Ashcroft’s recognition – or even because that is how we who were there experienced it in that last week. Ashcroft saying it was the main reason for 25% of people voting ‘No’ of course does not take into account where it might have been a contributory factor for other voters. As Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp of Business for Scotland notes from YouGov polls, “This means it created the single largest weekly fluctuation in the campaign, stopping the Yes momentum dead in the last week, and suggests that without it the result would have been even closer.”

Dr. W. Elliot Bulmer, author of ‘A Model Constitution for Scotland: Making Democracy work in an Independent State’ (2011) and ‘A Constitution for the Common Good: Strengthening Scottish Democracy after 2014’ (2014), notes the direct impact of ‘The Vow’ – much as with Peter Carty [see Beyond ‘Conditional No’s: The Ongoing Political Uncertainty of What the ‘No’ Vote Actually Meant…]: “The referendum was emphatically not, however, an endorsement of the Union as currently constituted. Scotland was asked to give the Union a second chance. We were told it would change, that it would become what it had always pretended to be – a family of nations based on equality and mutuality.”

It is important to recognise why unrepresentative research might be pushed at this time, and other conclusions conveniently ignored – that that there are strong political motivations for people to argue that ‘The Vow’ did not make a difference, specifically in the run-up to this General Election. Destroying the argument for more powers, say Labour, will stop what is keeping the SNP high – and if you produce research that says that ‘The Vow’ did not make a difference, then ‘weaponise’ more powers with fear so that people start to be afraid of what might happen, then not only are you clearly not under any obligation to deliver those much-promised powers – in fact, you will be ‘doing them a favour’ by not delivering them. More powers is NOT about the Conservative doctrine of fiscal accountability, although, of course, that accountability comes along with them, but the important thing is that is not WHY they are needed: economy-growing and job-creating powers are needed because of Westminster’s abject negligence in management, that has Scotland paying so heavily every year to service Westminster’s debts for services that Scotland does not benefit from.

So yes – Gordon is still in the frame for delivering that ‘No’ vote. And those early days when – even against the backdrop of the rise of the SNP and the decline of Labour – he was still regarded as having done good things as leader of moves to ensure the UK leaders’ promises on devolved powers were kept…those days are gone. From an enclave of his being one of 4 Labour seats projected to survive the coming SNP onslaught next month, Lord Ashcroft has now polled his constituency to find a 28 point swing to the SNP from Labour in Kirkcaldy, the largest swing in any constituency that Ashcroft has polled, for it to prospectively change colour with much of the rest of the map of Scotland.

I wonder what it is like being Gordon Brown, staring at the mirror in the morning – or perhaps as the light fades and he prepares for bed at night. ‘Why did I believe Tony over that deal in the café? Doh! Why did I say as Chancellor I had ended ‘boom and bust’? Doh! Why did I support the war in Iraq? Doh! Why did I sell the state’s gilts off cheap, and rob national pension funds? Dohdoh! Why did I say I was going to deliver Keir Hardie’s ‘home rule’? Doh! Why did I think I could make a commitment for a government that I wasn’t even part of? Doh! Why have my repeated failures led to the death of the Labour Party in Scotland?’ For the price of Brown’s complicity (if not that of the rest of the Labour Party during the Referendum campaign, as often speculated in the press) may now be virtual extinction in Scotland for his party. The latest YouGov poll that gave the SNP a record 49% high in voting intentions for Westminster, also indicated that 41% of Labour 2010 voters (approximately 400,000 voters) plan to vote SNP next month – and 71% of those same former Labour voters think Nicola Sturgeon is doing a good job as First Minister.

So, given the consequences of his intervention for his party, how will Gordon intervene one last time to save the Labour Party in Scotland? A new Vow perhaps? Perhaps just to shut up? Because a vow of silence might just be ‘The Vow Double Plus Good’ that we have been looking for him to make….

 

“I have spoken to firm no voters across the party political spectrum, from my own constituents to prominent Scots elsewhere, and there is no doubt in my mind that if this parliament kicks the vow beyond the next election, and therefore into the long grass, it will be Labour – not the Conservatives – that will be held responsible. Such a failure to legislate would be a moral hazard of such a scale as to confirm, even to many unionists, that the UK government has indeed become corrupted, and that the referendum was won on a lie.” (Eric Joyce, Labour MP, 22/9/2014)

50 Shades of Austerity: Poles Apart, or an Example of Economic Masochism?

I watched a summary of yesterday’s Sunday Scottish Politics half-hearted Leaders Debate this morning. It was not an entirely wasted experience, however – as much as the broadcast little resembled what I understand buy a ‘debate’, I am informed that the hectoring and interrupting that Murphy so frequently deploys is actually a debating technique, called ‘gish galloping’ (thank you, Patrick Roden…). The ‘technique’ involves lots of small simple questions or accusations regularly being hurled at your opponent while they are speaking, never giving them time to answer. This works particularly well if you know that the answers take time to give a proper answer to – because you can then deny the environment that such an answer can be given in…providing you have a moderator that is not going to switch off your microphone.

One SNP person, with 3 from the Westminster parties ganging up to shout her down and talk over her in a BBC studio, with one behaving like the playground bully – it was somewhat depressingly familiar to what one saw during the Referendum campaign, and highlights the difference when other parties (say, like the Scottish Greens, who are looking somewhat more relevant than the LibDems to Scottish politics right now…) are involved to break the onslaught of establishment dogma, and perhaps also explains why Nicola, Natalie and Leanne did so well during the Leaders’ Debate. But there is much that is different between the Referendum and this General Election, in terms of the coverage – for one thing we now have a newspaper!!! This makes my work very different, as it is less a role of collation of data and extemporising my own viewpoint, compared to largely passing information on to the comparatively few people not reading one or two key sites, or ‘The National’, rather than generating new copy myself.

Another difference is the interaction with polls: in ‘Yes’ we largely ignored the polls, except to look for signs of slow growth over time. By June/early July I know I was a little alarmed when we were not turning the corner of 50:50, as there was not going to be time to deflect counter-propaganda if we did it late, so hoped that we might sneak over that threshold on the day, without any polls to expose our rise. Of course, we had the worst possible scenario – a week to go, YouGov arrives, the propaganda lie of ‘The Vow’ was delivered in response, and we slumped at the last day.

But now the polls have a very different role. From the point of Johann Lamont’s resignation, the SNP has soared in the ratings, making this our General Election to lose. This means we are in the ‘No’ campaign’s starting position, three years ago, but once again with most media outlets turned against us…fortunately with Labour and the Conservatives taking some flak as well. YouGov, which always gave fairly low ratings of ‘Yes’ popularity, have now become our new Best Friends Forever as far as SNP versus Labour support goes. And also – even more unlikely as an ally – Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft’s extensive polling has indicated that dissatisfaction with Labour is greatest in those seats that they hold with the largest majorities.

But, within that, there was one weird statistic of his that made me do a double-take.

In a question on austerity, 57% of those that he polled did not want any more austerity – which does not seem so surprising – but 43% DID. Closer analysis shows that his 57% was made up of 36% yes austerity was needed but no more, and 21% that it was never needed, but, yes, 43% said that more austerity was needed. Say what? I mean, I could understand if it was a class thing, perhaps a poll done in Mayfair or the heart of Kent, but 43% based on national polling? What is, this some sort of inferiority complex, that the government in charge ‘must know better than me’? ‘Punish me – if it hurts, then it must be good for me’, is that it?

Well, let’s take a look and see how that is working out – first looking at the social impacts of austerity, and then at those all-important ‘economic benefits’ – shall we?

David Cameron was recently supported by a letter from 103 businesses in the Telegraph saying that if Labour got in, it would be a disaster. But would it really make such a difference, or is this simply a sign of traditional prejudices? Miliband has pledged to limit zero hours contracts to twelve weeks, rather than letting them run for a year, but (as those of us who have been on renewable contracts know, where employers will end them as the two year mark approached, when you would actually acquire some rights as an employee) that just means the turnover period is faster. Ed Balls, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, knows all about zero hours contracts: he recently claimed that he would pass legislation to ban zero hours contracts – shortly before it emerged that that was how he employed four of his staff. Ed has committed to spending £800 million in Scotland, but that is somewhat offset by Scotland’s anticipated £2.4 billion share of the forthcoming cuts that he has pledged not to overturn if he gets into office. As one wag correspondent put it on April 1st: “Cracking April Fool’s story on the front page of The Herald today – Ed Balls pledging to ‘end Tory austerity’. Who makes these things up?”
Ed still cuts a more human figure than Ian Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, though. He has planned £12 billion in welfare cuts for Scotland alone over three years of the next parliament, which he claims will be cut from the welfare budget without affecting the poorest in society.

It is fair to say at this time that no one is pointing out the positive aspects of welfare in terms of benefits to the economy, not just for ameliorating inequality, but also through business promotion. A recent US study, demonstrating the impact of welfare dimensions to business development and success, recently showed a dimension that we are missing in the UK. Looking into expanded foodstamps, they found that it provided new businesses with a safety net to fall back on: if business is about risk, or managed risk, then knowing that you will not compromise the security of yourself or any dependents is a key consideration. The research showed that there was an increase of 16%, in other words a greater likelihood for people to start up their own business, if they knew that they could rely on this welfare availability…although most of them never used the facility – that was not the point, it was the idea of managed risk. Similarly, US Government healthcare means people at retirement age are more likely to start their own businesses, as they no longer have to worry about relying on an employer providing health insurance. Those families in the US that qualified for Children’s Health Insurance were 31% more likely to start their own business, than those in the slightly higher income bracket that failed to qualify. Similarly, France continues to pay benefits to long-term unemployed people starting a business, finding that they are 25% more likely to start a business than without.

But the ideological changes driving these Conservative cuts, under the veneer of ‘necessary austerity’ do not allow for that perspective. They do not believe in the state’s role in providing support, and come what may they will try to remove as much of that structure as possible, while they have the pretext of the deficit.

And Scotland will still have limited ability to protect itself from those welfare cuts – again, thanks to Ian Duncan Smith’s last minute intervention before the Smith Commission report was finalised. Only 14% of the total welfare budget is to be devolved, including benefits for disabled people and carers. In 2017, under the Smith proposals (if they ever see the light of an Act of Parliament), the Scottish Government will take over responsibility for the successor to the Disability Living Allowance, called the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), with a 20% cut in the relevant budget. This means that 100,000 working age disabled people will see their benefits reduced, the equivalent of cuts of £300 million a year, a loss of around £1,120 per person affected. Across the UK, this will see a million people affected by 2017/2018.

The policy of ‘sanctioning’ welfare claimants has been a particularly dark ‘costcutter’, with documented cases of suicide resulting: from October 2012 until September 2014, 81,980 Scots experienced 143,671 sanctions (meaning no state benefit for at least 4 weeks), equivalent to £32 million in Scotland in 2014. Over the whole UK it was 355 million, up from a mere 11 million sanctioned in 2009-2010. Former senior Scottish Medical Officer Sir Harry Burns (see NHS Scotland: Always independent, now at the TTIPing Point of Privatisation ) has been highly critical of coalition policies on welfare, chillingly talking about the legacy of the seventies and eighties unameliorated industry cuts in Scotland, which destroyed communities, boosted problems of violence and substance abuse, until Scotland has the worst drugs problem in Europe. He is well worth listening to in conversation on Bateman Broadcasting online as he talks about the causes of ill health from this political legacy, and noting the statistically significant connections between percentages of ‘Yes’ votes and low life expectancy in a given area: these were people who knew the Westminster system is not working, with the evidence of their everyday lives. Burns describes sanctions as “a judgment on the poor”, and those sanctions are only due to increase with the rollout of the Department of Work and Pensions’ new Universal Credit system, which reaches Glasgow just after the General Election.

A pilot scheme for the new Universal Credit system was introduced in Inverness last year, leaving families with only beans on toast for their Xmas dinner, as there was a 5 week gap transferring from JobSeekers Allowance to Universal Credit, with no money in between. The transition of the system – never mind the smaller level of support offered to fewer people – seems to be deliberately creating gaps for people to fall through. Certainly, jobseekers in the UK receive very little help in finding work. compared with other European countries. Alex Neil, Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing, has argued in the wake of the Smith Commission for immediate legislation to abolish bedroom tax so that the Scottish Government can redirect the £50 million being spent on mitigating the effects of that tax.

Child benefit is now at its lowest point (0.6% of GDP) since 1977 (it reached a high of 1.3% in 1980). In some areas in Glasgow 1 in 3 children are living in poverty, and by the end of the coalition government’s term of office, the value of Child benefit will have fallen by 14%, against a backdrop of increasing costs. Accompanying this, the Scottish Trades Unions Congress highlights that this is the fifth consecutive year of a drop in the median wage in Scotland. Women working part-time have experienced the biggest losses (down 11.6%), but financial sector directors’ salaries went up 23% in last year alone.

This has seen the rise in the phenomenon of ‘the working poor’: Professor Steve Fothergill of Sheffield’s Hallam University recently noted that Scots in work have lost £730 million a year as a result of the coalition’s welfare reforms. 48% of the £1.5 billion (or £440 for every working adult) losses would be met by households with at least one working member, with £960 million of the cuts going on families with young children as well as disabilities and health problems. So, for example, a couple with 2 children on average would be £1480 worse off, single parents with one child £1770 poorer, single parents with 2 or 3 children £1850. Sick and disabled households are losing £600 million a year in total. Although many of the effects of the cuts have been mitigated by the Scottish Government refusing to pass on the 10% cut in council tax benefit payments, and non-implementation of the bedroom tax, the impact is still severe and it drives people further into poverty: 43% of people in poverty live in working households, although the low-paid are better qualified than ever. The UK’s minimum wage level lags behind the level in Luxembourg, Ireland, Belgium, Germany, France, Netherlands, and the Trades Unions’ Congress has highlighted the problems of ‘living wage blackspots’, e.g. Birmingham Northfield, where 53.4% of people earn less than £7.85 per hour, blighting entire areas. This led to the STUC calling on all Scottish parties in the run-up to the General Election, to restore trade union freedoms and collective bargaining, the lack of which prevented them from defending those who suffer most from low pay and insecure work.

Foodbanks first appeared in the UK under the 13 year Labour government, and the disability benefit scheme of Work Capability Assessment was introduced, with its notorious implementation by ATOS to remove as many disabled claimants as possible from benefits. 71,000 people in the oil-rich nation of Scotland now depend on foodbanks (the figure stood at 7,500 four years ago). In December, 10,500 people visited the Trussell Trust’s Scottish foodbanks, a 13% increase on the previous year, and a third of them were on low incomes.

80,000 people in Scotland are working on zero hours contracts, 180,000 on council waiting lists, 820,000 Scots in poverty. The least wealthy 30% of households (half of whom are headed by someone employed) in Scotland have no savings or pensions, and own only 2% of the wealth of the country, property and personal belongings – they are most likely to be single adults or lone parents. But the most wealthy 2% own 17% of the wealth in Scotland.

At the same time, although Scottish rents are rising at their slowest for over two years (1.1%, with inflation becoming zero for the first time since records began in February 2015), the numbers of late rent payments are still increasing. This has all resulted in a predictable rise in personal debt. A PricewaterhouseCoopers report (24/3/2015) states that the average UK household is set to owe close to £10K in debts of personal loans/credit cards/overdrafts by the end of 2016.

The evidence from this blizzard of statistics (which is testament in itself to how endemic the problem is, with the ever-mounting numbers of studies being carried out) is that this is an ‘economic recovery’ based on low wages, rising insecurity for those in and out of work, rising household debt, and a failure to ‘rebalance’ the economy away from the financial sector. Any recovery in living standards is still to be seen, with shockingly weak reforms to the cause of the current crisis, namely the banking sector, and a lack of preparation or actions to prevent a similar crisis in the future.

The UK Government’s budget deficit (the difference between expenditure and revenue raised) peaked at £150 billion, and now stands at £80 billion. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that eliminating the annual deficit will require departmental cuts of 14% and 750,000 job losses. UK national debt has now trebled since 2008 to £1.4 trillion, because tax receipts plummeted with the collapse of the economy in 2009. This was compounded by the Thatcher-style cuts policy of the 2010 coalition, which increased the downturn of the economy, and thus the welfare bills. The only economic growth is coming from £130 billion of subsidised mortgages, triggering another property market bubble (particularly in London – although the Centre for Economics and Business Research is predicting a fall in London’s house prices this year of 3.6%, after “years of overperformance”), with rising house prices encouraging consumers to borrow again. This, of course, creates a mini consumer boom…which only lasts until interest rates start to go up.

Thus, the coalition government’s economic strategy is short-term, as it is based on a housing bubble, and transferring state debt to households (by 2020, the household debt to income ratio is forecast to be more than 10% above pre-recession levels, according to the Office of Budget Responsibility), and undermining sustainable long-term growth. The Coalition has overseen the weakest recovery for 200 years, where indeed the only factor exerting a positive influence on living standards across the UK is the falling oil price – which is nothing to do with government policy (although their response to it is).
Paul Krugman, 2008 Nobel Prize winning economist, noted recently in the New York Times that although growth resumed in 2013, the income per head of the population is only now reaching pre-crisis level, giving Britain a worse track record than during the Great Depression. He went further, in terms of the evidence that political response by the public to the economy is only based on very short-term perceptions.

In brief, he suggested that for politicians (NOT for the economy) the best strategy would be kind of similar to one that I used to employ in games of SimCity. Your popularity as the leader of your City was dependent on taxation, but your ability to build your City and keep the people happy, was dependent on taxes. So you could keep taxes incredibly low throughout the year, and then just before it came to the end of the financial year, you kicked taxes into the stratosphere to get a massive amount of revenue to compensate for the rest of the year – then dropped taxes way down again straight afterwards. In the game, the public had long-term, rather than short-term, memories, so would ignore the recent pain of the high taxes. What Paul suggested as the best route for political success was an inversion of that approach: as voter memories are only interested in the last couple of quarters, not the longer term picture, a successful strategy to stay in power would be to deliberately impose “a pointless depression on your country for much of your time in office, solely to leave room for a roaring recovery just before voters go to the polls. That’s a pretty good description of what the current British government has done, although it’s not clear it was deliberate.”

He is far from alone in this analysis, as noted by George Kerevan. Foreign investors hold £400 billion (a quarter of the total market), and are selling off their holdings of British Government debt at a rate of knots – a massive £14 billion went in January and February, far faster than during the credit crunch. The usual buyers are refusing to pick it up, as it has become toxic, because Britiain’s current account deficit (borrowing required to pay for imports, when a state does not export enough) reached 5.5% of GDP last year, heading for a record 6% in 2015. Productivity has been falling for many years (which even the International Monetary Fund has raised concern about, as a ‘major risk to growth’), and the only reason the City of London stays afloat is because of its low regulation tax haven status, which allows foreign investors cheap access to the EU market of 500 million customers (usually providing a convenient 2.5% of the UK’s GDP in the process). Except, of course, that this is threatened by the EU exit referendum, which will render London of no interest, next to Paris and Frankfurt, as choices for basing your trade. Uncertainty on the financial markets for a Scottish Referendum? You ain’t seen nothing yet…

And for those of you – evidently into masochism, if you have stuck with me so far – who are still wondering, this is why I am shocked that 43% across the UK could still be saying ‘more austerity is needed’.

Really? Inequality is rising, poverty increasing, which means crime rises too, society becomes less safe – and all because of a strategy that is failing to work, but generating an inflatable model of a recovered economy, relying on a housing bubble. In the age of Christian Grey, this appears to be a population that truly wants to be punished.

Austerity is not a way forward – it never was, and certainly isn’t now, with the reams of stats above. Austerity is an ideological transformation of the British state, while failing to address the economy it purports to be helping, and destroying social cohesion and the fabric of society along the way.

It is time for something different.

 

“Very few British academics (as opposed to economists employed by the financial industry) accept the proposition that austerity has been vindicated. This media orthodoxy has become entrenched despite, not because of, what serious economists had to say.” (Paul Krugman, 2008 Nobel Prize winning economist)

Aberdeen’s Foodbanks, Scotland’s Curse and the Price of an Oil Fund

I remember a conversation with a ‘No’ voter, early in the Referendum campaign. “It’s all about the oil, really, isn’t it?” she grinned. I felt something groan inwardly, deep inside me – a combination of the demoralizing thought of just how much talking I was going to have to do, with so many pieces of information, but full in the knowledge that I probably was still not going to get past that initial, obviously deep-rooted idea. Scottish independence, it is all about greed, a mistaken belief that Scotland would be rich without those ‘broad shoulders’ of Westminster to manage the resource for the child nation to the north…

Of course, it was not about oil – the demonstrations of the strengths of Scotland’s economy without oil being almost directly equivalent to the UK’s, showed that oil was a surplus benefit, and not something that the Scottish economy was hung up or overly dependent on (not like the financial services industry, which has a few percent too much of our overall economy, leaving us slightly vulnerable to the vagaries of that particular market).

And oil does not automatically equate to wealth, despite appearances to the contrary. Just look at the reports of the Aberdeen foodbanks being emptied. A very different picture to when I went to work there in the mid-eighties. I was rooming in an elderly couple’s house (all that I could afford, as I was in part of the oil industry that made the profits pretty much exclusively out of what it charged Shell for staff time), and that first weekend, another guy who was renting another room offered to show me around, and introduce me to his family. I remember we walked over to his brother’s place for lunch, just as his brother pulled up…in a brand new Lotus sports car. I asked what his brother did: “Aw, he just works in fish packing.” This impression of a city of riches only grew when that night, the room-renter confided in me that he had a cocaine habit, but it was ‘not a problem’ – I just was not to tell the elderly couple about it…an elderly couple who had microwave ovens at a time when they were actually pretty rare things.

Thirty years on, and the Silver City is a grimmer place to be, with starker inequality than ever before: 1 in 4 children are born into poverty in the northern half of the city, average house prices have increased by 88% since 2005 (compared with 3.3% in Stirling), and those NOT working in oil and gas are on close to the national average wage, making things difficult as prices increase – you cannot pay £800 pcm when on minimum wage. A recent survey noted that Aberdeen was countering the Scottish rental trends, with a fall in prices, in an attempt to adjust to the changing market with the collapsing oil price – but they are still well above the Scottish average: the average rent of a 2-bedroom property fell 1.2% to £972, with a 3 bedroom on £1,216, down 7.2% on last year, whereas the Scottish average figure for a 2 bedroom property was £654, up 6.8 % this last quarter on last year’s figure. Community worker Ian Armstrong notes the opportunities missed: “When l came to Aberdeen in the first instance the government should have had something in place to protect the city. We have missed the boat on an oil fund.”

And here we have Aberdeen – the oil and gas capital of Europe – with a call by Aberdeen City Council for a summit on the crisis in the oil industry. It starts, of course, with the oil price at around 60 dollars a barrel, when it was averaging 109 dollars a barrel last year ( http://chartsbin.com/view/oau ), the shift down apparently due to a concerted US/Saudi Arabia strategy to hit both Russia and Iran (although Saudi Arabia may also be trying to undermine US fracking expansion). With 90% of UK reserves in Scottish waters, Scotland is the largest oil producer and second largest gas producer in the EU, an industry that supports 200,000 Scottish jobs, so the N-56 group’s mid-March report argued for co-location of policy makers responsible for oil and gas taxation and regulation (i.e. UK government) with the industry, in Aberdeen (instead of London), mirroring Norway’s strategy in Stavanger, to make them more responsive. They also argued for a long-term economic tax approach, rather than unstable short-term tax grabs (which the current coalition government were heavily criticized for, early in their term of office). Although this prompted North Sea-based oil companies to divert their funds into much needed research and development, in order to avoid the new production taxes, critics have observed that the big oil companies had mistakenly invested heavily in new oil exploration such as oil sands, deep water and arctic fields when the price was high, rather than building up reserves, and are now ill-placed to deal with a low oil price – hence the prospective job losses.

However, some people are keen to put a glossy glow on the loss of all those Scottish oil industry jobs: PwC claim that oil prices at 50 dollars a barrel could boost employment across the country by 91,000 over the next 5 years, with GDP rising 1% per year between 2015 and 2020. Their model adjusts the rise in employment figures to 37,000 if the price is $73 a barrel, and only 3,000 if the price is $108 a barrel. Long-term, the price of oil to 2040, as predicted by OPEC, is expected to be $100 per barrel, reflecting a global rise in costs of production.

So, back to that hoary old question: why do we not have an oil fund, to protect those in our oil industry when the price is low? I mean, it is not as though this would be an unusual strategy for oil-producing countries to have: Iraq relies on oil for 90% of its revenues, yet it along with the UK are the only two countries in the world not to have a wealth fund. Another unusual strategy was not to have the oil state-owned: globally, 70% of oil is nationalised, with only 10% of the remainder in the hands of the large companies, as we have in the UK.

What about the practical economics of having such a wealth fund (which Labour like to call a ‘resilience fund’, just so that it sounds different from what the Scottish Government are arguing for)? Would it ever have been feasible to acquire such a thing?

Emphatically, yes – if one subtracts Scotland’s total tax receipts since 1980 from the average for the UK, Scotland has contributed a surplus of £222 billion in today’s prices, an average of £6.73bn per annum. But what about that persistent idea that Scotland has ‘always’ run a deficit, amounting to £15 billion as per the ‘Better Together’ propaganda sheets? It crucially ignores the fact that Scotland only ran a deficit because it was in the UK. Even before you factor in the savings that could have been made if Scotland hadn’t been subject to UK spending decisions (most obviously on defense, getting rid of Trident, never mind supporting needless London infrastructure and vanity projects), independent analysis shows that Scots subsidised the rest of the UK by £222bn over that period.

[This casts the recent hilarious UK Government campaign to post small union flag plaques saying ‘Funded by UK Government’ on a variety of public projects and buildings throughout the UK. At the time, it was widely seen as a response to growing support for Scottish devolution and independence – but perhaps it would have been more accurate to have the plaques say ‘Funded by the Scottish TaxPayer’. 🙂 ]

To continue: the economist Professor Brian Ashcroft (former Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander’s husband, and he was a strong advocate for the ‘No’ campaign during the Referendum, so does not exactly go looking for arguments against the Union) found in 2013 that Scotland’s notional deficit was entirely down to having to pay interest on the UK’s debt (much of which was run up by aforementioned vanity projects): over 32 years, the total value of Scottish tax receipts is £1,425 billion, with public spending in and for Scotland at £1,440 billion – there, in that difference, is the figure of £15 billion. “But, Scotland’s share of UK debt interest amounted to £83 billion at 2001-12 prices. Subtracting this from total estimated Scottish spend of £1,440 billion we get a debt interest adjusted estimate of spend of £1,357 billion. This means that Scotland was in overall surplus by about £68 billion (£1425 billion-£1357 billion). A very modest oil fund (assume 3% interest, and then think – again – about the reduced public spending without having to subsidise those London vanity projects) would have protected Scotland for many years. In early 2014, even the Office of Budget Responsibility was predicting that oil revenues for 2016/17 would be just £3.3 billion . If the oil price fell so far that companies made no profit at all, as is currently the case, and therefore no tax revenue accrued to the Scottish Government, that would make only a small dent in even Professor Ashcroft’s worst-case £68 billion fund.

Harold Wilson may be criticized for promising a Scottish oil fund in his election manifesto and then failing to deliver it, but as he appears to have been subject to an attempted coup to put Louis Mountbatten in as an unelected Prime Minister (due to CIA paranoia that ‘socialist’ meant ‘communist’), his spirit might well legitimately argue in his defense that he had a reasonably good excuse for having taken his eye off the ball. Instead, he gave the oil fund to Shetland, who now, consequently, have a higher standard of living than on the Scottish mainland.

Gordon Macintyre-Kemp of Business For Scotland made a fine point at the start of January in an article entitled ‘The Shrugging of those Broad Shoulders’: “Labour argued against the creation of a Scottish oil fund for a generation. They stated that it didn’t make sense to borrow to pay into a fund [while in deficit], but we are still in deficit [when they are suggesting their ‘resilience fund’] so this smacks of a Labour deathbed conversion to SNP policy.”

But – decades on from those early seventies Labour governments, who missed the opportunity to have a state-owned oil industry – here comes Gordon Brown at the start of March…no longer a Labour Chancellor, but now with a wizard idea: the government should step in, to nationalise the unprofitable fields about to be abandoned. Wait… what? This is worse than closing the stable door after the horse has bolted…as one commentator observed, Brown is continuing his policy as Chancellor of nationalising the losses and privatising the profits, just as he took on the Alliance & Leicester’s toxic debts into public ownership and sold off the healthy part to get the worst possible deal for the public. (Come to think of it, is that really such a socialist approach for a Labour Chancellor?) Does this really help anyone, save for possibly saving jobs in a somewhat notional sense with a deflated market? Well, for one thing, it would really help those big oil companies: the decommissioning costs for oil rigs are £60 billion – half of which would be borne by the Westminster Government. Except that, in public ownership, the UK government would be liable for ALL of it – genius!!

My ‘No’ voter did eventually vote ‘Yes’ in the Referendum – sadly not because of any argument that I could bring to bear – but as I have always said, I wish we had never found the oil in the North Sea, as Westminster would have let us go a long time ago. Now we can only dream of the the oil either running out, or prices staying perpetually low (both highly unlikely in the next twenty years), at which point it might finally act as a trigger for them to get rid of us. And perhaps – as a resource that we are unlikely to ever see the real benefits from – that is the real reason why oil is Scotland’s curse.

 

“…And the oil price is dropping so Tony [Blair] thinks independence is a no-no, although he was still opposed last year when oil was riding high. Clearly the price of oil is as relevant as the price of a bag of sugar. The Unionists do keep going on about the plummeting price – the logical corollary is that there must be a price at which independence becomes a moral and economic necessity. Perhaps they should tell us what that is, then?” (Paul Kavanagh, 9/4/2015)