A Grim Sense of Foreboding in the North: The Only Way is Down from an ‘Electoral Tsunami’…

The message from the pollsters for Scotland is somewhat grimmer: it is hard not to come to the conclusion that the snap election has taken all the parties not only by surprise, but – with the noteable exception of the Conservatives – has left them with no time to garner the necessary resources required to mount an effective election campaign. Again, this comes as yet more questions are being asked about Conservative funding sources that are bypassing scrutiny, and including donations up to a hundred thousand pounds. Sadly, this has meant that – even with their new financial resources as the third largest political party in Westminster and the vast increase in their membership – the SNP machine has been outbought by sheer mass of paper through letterboxes. It will be interesting to see how well the honed team of footsoldiers on the ground can resist that onslaught.

For it is an onslaught from substantively one party: the Conservatives. Labour are only targeting 3 seats, and the LibDems a similar number. As a result, Labour voter contact lists have collapsed in 31 seats (e.g. from 3,020 to 3 in the constituency of Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, and from 1,621 to 31 in Aberdeen South). The Scottish Greens, as guarantors of the independence referendum mandate in Holyrood, are only standing one candidate, their star Patrick Harvie, in Glasgow North. The Conservatives are targeting 15 seats…although early assessments made it hard to see where more than eight would come from. Eric Joyce noted this when he observed at the start of May that bookmakers seemed to expect the Conservatives to win two seats from the SNP, leaving a 52/4/2/1 breakdown. Similarly, two days ago WoS noted the best odds offered for all 59 Scottish seats, to conclude that the bookies were expecting a 48/6/4/1 breakdown – still well short of the 12 seats the press was predicting for Ruth’s party in the curious bombast of the council election results.

However, the weather has been bad today in Scotland, which may well act in the wrong direction for the eventual result with low voter turnout: the Greys have the greatest likelihood to turnout – especially using postal votes – and without a campaign based around independence the SNP was criticised in the council elections last month for not being able to inspire their usual turnout – although their votes acquired were massively increased, and the vote share only dropped by 0.03%. [Of course, it wouldn’t have been relevant for a council election to run it as a campaign on independence, but that didn’t stop Theresa May and Ruth Davidson trying to subvert the local elections into just that. Politics is a game to them, more than anyone else.] Today Joyce reiterated that if the anti-Conservative vote came out, the party would be exceptionally lucky to get 4 seats.

There has also been a certain mirroring of the two major parties fortunes down south…so as Theresa May has increasingly discredited the Conservative campaign, so Ruth Davidson’s support has begun to stall. Combined with Corbyn’s surge in popularity leading to Scottish Labour recovering in the polls (ironic, given that Scottish Labour have been his most virulent internal opponents within his own party, desperate for him to fail), some last minute polls have shown Labour taking back second place in Scotland from the Conservatives.

Most polls have had the SNP on 41-42% – some 7-8 points down on their 2015 ‘tsunami’ – which puts them close to the tipping point at which they will start to lose a lot of seats under First Past the Post Westminster rules. The Electoral Calculus tool prediction models the data to give the SNP 42-56 of the final 59 seats – at one end, doubtfully equalling their unbelievable success of two years ago, at the other…well, it may seem bad as it is much lower, BUT – it is still over 71% of the Scottish MPs. (see the Conservative Michael Forsyth graphic above for what that would have signified in the twentieth century in Westminster…)

Of course, this will be spun as a major disaster by opponents and media alike…but it would not be half bad as a result. It would also have them well-placed to fight the next General Election – again taking seats from other parties – with an appropriately long ‘non-snap’ build-up period. In the short-term, the potential loss of star performers such as Moray’s Angus Robertson, Gordon’s Alex Salmond and Perth’s Pete (yes, from Runrig) Wishart would be real blows – as well as the heroic Borders’ Callum Kerr (who has the most vulnerable majority of 328).

I fear, however, that the weather and an inability to motivate the 18-24s might extract a higher cost. The Greys have been an unusually abused section in this election, receiving direct attacks from Theresa May when Conservatives are normally happy to leave alone the most right wing and likely-to-vote demographic of the population, and it would be nice if that backfired up in Scotland as well as down south…but the Greys are also the most unionist demographic, and they will probably feel zero inclination to desert the Conservatives for abuse of their pensions, if the union is their most sacred concern.

The exit poll indication has been known to pundits such as John Curtice since 2pm, although they will not reveal it until the polls close, which will be within half an hour. It usually has some surprises, but is not far off the final mark. I may watch it through the gaps between my fingers…

“Not long now until the army of terrible grandparents tick the ‘fuck everybody but me’ box” (@TheSteveBurnio on Twitter before the polls opened)

Can they really make June the end of May?: The Sound of Far Off Shouting From Way Down South…

I have tried to avoid the day-to-day poll fascination that has occupied this blog in previous years, but in the wake of the attack in Manchester an interesting trend has appeared regarding voter intention across the UK for the General Election on June 8th. What makes it interesting, is firstly that it was conducted by YouGov, and we have a regular record of the vote going back to just before May called the vote in April, so a good means of direct comparison. Secondly there is the timing: it was held over Wednesday and Thursday of this week – in other words, clear of the Manchester attack and the first day of response to it, so it can be used as a means of assessing if the predicted ‘Manchester Attack Effect’ has taken place…or what the nature of it might be.

When YouGov polled in April, they showed the Conservatives with a 24 point lead over Labour. As of 25/5 (see above), it was down to 5 points – apparently the damage was even greater on Monday before the Manchester attack, so the 5 points was a ‘recovery’ for May.

Conservatives 43% (-5)
Labour 38% (+14)
Liberal Democrats 10% (-2)
SNP / Plaid Cymru 5% (n/c)
UKIP 4% (-3)
Greens 1%

The collapse in May’s support is testament to what one observer described as the Conservatives trying to erect a personality cult around someone with absolutely no personality – it also reflects how increasingly mocked she has become, the more she has tried to stage manage her rare appearances, and consistently fails to answer any questions that are actually asked of her…to nothing less than a comedic degree. The footage of her abyssmal performances now fill a not insignificant chunk of YouTube.

More seriously, the juxtaposition with the Manchester attack (and the subsequent London Bridge follow-up only a couple of days ago) has had an impact on Theresa May that is likely the opposite of what the attackers had hoped. I remember seeing a similar manoeuvre, made by those who supported violence in the hope of radicalising Muslims for jihad, on October 29th 2004, four days prior to the election between John Kerry and George Dubya Bush. I had just got off the flight from Glasgow at Logan Airport in Boston, and was walking through a narrow corridor towards passport control. At one particular dog-leg in the passageway, there was a huge widescreen television present, and it was broadcasting a hot news item: Osama bin Laden had just delivered a message (via Al-Jazeera) urging the American people not to vote for Bush, criticising him for negligence and his subsequent response. I was arriving to campaign for Kerry, but as soon as I saw that, I knew that the election was over – the US public would likely react predictably to being told what to do by a non-American. Sure enough, Dubya won a few days later – which was almost certainly bin Laden’s objective: it was more in his interest to have someone likely to react aggressively abroad, than an intelligent diplomat in the Whitehouse. I felt the same way with the Manchester attack – scheduled just before the election, with the aim of provoking a radicalising response from a right wing foreign interventionist government.

And yet, that was not what happened.

Instead, the attack called into question May’s competency as Home Secretary in cutting 19,000 police from England and Wales – so that she needed to deploy troops on the streets as replacement police officers during the subsequent emergency. [In contrast, in Scotland – where police numbers have been maintained by the Scottish Government – this was not necessary.] One senior advisor to David Cameron commented that in the light of this Theresa May should be resigning for her failure as Home Secretary, rather than seeking election as Prime Minister. A harsh judgement indeed from one’s ‘own side’ (if such a concept actually exists within the Conservative Party).

So instead of the perhaps hoped-for boost to her ratings that the attackers may have planned for – and that any Conservative Government would have expected in the wake of a terrorist attack – Theresa May’s rating and lead plummeted. Desperate to defend their chosen anointed one, the Telegraph and Mail ran stories trying to attack the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn when he pointed out that foreign intervention in Iraq by the UK had made the UK a more likely target for terrorists (this should not have been contentious, as it had been publicly confirmed by two previous heads of MI5 – but this is an election campaign, when the journalistic memory grows more desperately selective with the approach of polling day)…yet Corbyn’s support (particularly amongst the more resolutely cynical of his party’s supporters, and the 18-24 year old demographic) continued to rise.

Now, only a couple of days before the vote on Thursday, a poll has emerged showing a Conservative lead of only 1% over Labour. In the mix with a load of ‘final final’ polls from the disparate group of companies trying to redeem their tarnished reputations from the 2015 General Election, it now becomes simply a question of decibels: as ever, the closer to polling day, the more loudly the different parties shout their narrative, supported by polls that show everything from a 1 to 12 point lead for the Conservatives, and consequences ranging from hung parliament to Conservative landslide respectively, and all becomes a noise. The louder you shout, the more chance you have of selling your narrative, and convincing the public that yours is the winning side that they want to be on. James Kelly has noted a seeming disconnect between the high level Conservative ‘message’ (which, lest we forget, is supported by the huge majority of current Labour MPs who actively oppose their own leader – because he is not a New Labour Blairite) that Labour is about to be hammered into oblivion, and the lack of ANY polling supporting this narrative from ANY of the companies. In 2015, a few wise observers (take a bow, Wings Over Scotland) had been predicting for well over a year that regardless of how well Labour was polling, they would never be elected to government, simply because the number of people that thought Ed Milliband could be Prime Minister was way too low…especially against Cameron’s incumbency effect. In contrast this time, as much as Corbyn still has not great ratings in this regard, he is against an incumbent Prime Minister who has laughably unravelled since the launch of the campaign. It is a different proposition – if people can hear that, above the shouting…

In 24 hours the polls will have closed – but the bulk of the results are merely about defining the context within which the second independence referendum will take place. Hardline Conservative – likely to refuse and therefore provoke the Scottish Government to call one anyway – or heavily chastened by Labour inroads, and the possibility of horsetrading. The starting pistol fires soon…

“ So the European Broadcasting Union [@EBU_HQ] has found the UK press the least trusted out of 33 countries. Again. This wouldn’t matter much, we’re used to it, it’s not a surprise. …the failure of the British press is a dire cultural and political problem we’ve just become used to. …Now Corbyn is neatly aligned with terrorism and Theresa May is steadfast and strong. The election is over. There are soldiers on the streets and propaganda in your newspapers. There is little more to say.” (Mike Small, ‘Media, Terrorism, Democracy’, 25/5/2017)

Theresa May, Poll-Dancer Extraordinaire

Last week saw the launch of the Conservative manifesto, and I thought that Theresa May had achieved yet another stage in her immaculate transformation into the Ghost of Margaret Thatcher Made Flesh. Thatcher was labelled ‘MilkSnatcher’ for her removal of free school milk for over 7s during her time as Secretary for Education under Heath in 1971, but May’s manifesto, cutting free school meals for children in England and Wales, had surely been enough to dub her ‘LunchSnatcher’. The celebrations of Thatcher’s death included plans to bombard her hearse with milk as it made its (near) royal procession through London – could Theresa expect to have sandwiches thrown at hers?

Theresa Mary May (née Brasier) has not sought to avoid the comparison with the Iron Lady (no matter how unpopular that would make her in Scotland in particular), the idea of the vicar’s daughter from Oxfordshire somehow resonating even more with the idyllic fantasy of England’s cricket-playing village greens than that of Margaret Hilda Thatcher (née Roberts), the shopkeeper’s daughter from Grantham in Lincolnshire. If May were to follow in Thatcher’s footsteps she would pay little heed to such opprobium from the mere public – but the Conservative manifesto launch contained other gems that certainly did make her core voters sit up and take notice.

The delayed announcement of the raising of the state pension age until after the election had caused suspicions to arise, as had the delay of 6 years to women born in the 1950s receiving their state pensions, so effectively publicised by WASPI (Women Against State Pension Inequality), losing up to £45,000 each in the process. In Westminster, the SNP leader Angus Robertson MP had read the way the wind was blowing and had correctly intuited an imminent threat to the triple lock protection on the state pension, pinning May during Prime Minister’s Questions as she refused to answer whether the lock would stay or not. Sure enough, in the Conservative manifesto the scrapping of the triple lock on pensions – the guarantee that ensures that state pensions rise in line with average earnings, inflation or 2.5 per cent (whichever is the highest) – was announced, as was the removal of the winter fuel allowance for the elderly, and the introduction of what was swiftly dubbed the ‘Dementia Tax’, wherein the appropriation of people’s homes to posthumously pay for their care costs became embedded in law. Given that a report last month showed a rise in pensioner poverty across the UK, it is perhaps less than surprising that Theresa’s core support group – the elderly – did not take kindly to being taken for granted, and over the last weekend her lead halved in two polls to only 9 points above Labour. Theresa did not take this change in polling fortune lying down, however, and set about spinning on the Monday morning – just 4 days after the manifesto policy was launched – at a press conference in Wrexham that there was always going to be a ‘cap’ on the homes affected (although this had been emphatically denied by ministers the previous week – but you can see why it would be an idea given the figures in the table above), to try and recover some political support from her ‘Greys’.

For Theresa Mary May is a Poll-Dancer. She called the snap General Election in April when two polls came in over a single weekend showing a 20-21 point lead for the Conservatives over Labour. Faced with the Crown Prosecution Service in imminent danger of removing her majority, and the certainty that the economy will progressively deteriorate (pardon the oxymoron) the further we get from Article 50 having been raised to leave the European Union, it only made sense to her to opportunistically scrap the Fixed Terms Act in order to call an early election under the pretense of it strengthening her supposed hand against Brussels in the forthcoming BrExit discussions. If she did not make a fast jump now, before times get really bad, the she would risk having to go to the country for an election in 3 years time, when expectations are that BrExit fantasies will have started to implode into a grim reality. In this way – one might suspect that she reasoned – she might be able to hold on to power until after the immediate start of the bite of the BrExit-generated austerity, and perhaps ride some kind of slow delayed slight upswing, with her political opponents having been annihilated by her new post-June majority.

And now she dances to the tune of the polls again – trying to pretend that her ‘Dementia Tax’ was not nearly so bad as had been said (much like the ‘Rape Clause’ of last month). Except that Theresa went into meltdown on live television twice in one day on Monday. First of all, in calling the press conference in Wrexham to announce that there was a cap (although what the cap value of the property was, noone knew, and she was not going to say), she took questions from journalists – something she is known to be poor at…and one from a Michael Crick of Channel 4 News. Michael is the journalist who pretty much singlehandedly dug up the story of the Conservative election expenses fraud when no other media outlet was acknowledging that it existed for over 9 months, which resulted in the Crown Prosecution Service receiving files from fifteen police services. Crick started softly, comparing May to Thatcher (which she obviously relished) with her ‘the lady is not for turning’ and ‘You turn if you want to’, pointing out that May’s U-turn not only set her apart from Thatcher, but far from being ‘strong and stable’ (as her election soundbite has wearingly been) this was “weak and wobbly”. May did not respond well – and ended up shrieking in an out of control fashion “Nothing has changed! Nothing has changed!” (ironically enough to a question from the Daily Telegraph). It is a shocking piece of video to watch, for someone who occupies the office of Prime Minister to crack like this – a friend of mine watched the tape back: ‘She looks like she is going to cry’, she said. That night, she went on to be interviewed live by Andrew Neill, and despite him being no enemy of the Conservatives, she looked adrift and lost, again reduced to repeating a limited number of vapid soundbites. She must have gone to bed that night wondering how she could turn things around, when she was losing her lead even with such solid support from the British press.

And then the bomb went off at Manchester Arena after the Ariana Grande concert, killing 22 and injuring a further 59 in the (predominantly) young female audience.

Even without going down the tinfoil hat conspiracy line that this ‘intervention’ seemed almost too perfect for her agenda (this is not to ignore that it plays very well to other external agendas), it is undeniable that this has given her breathing space which she will be grateful for: political campaigning has ceased, she gets to deploy  5,000 army personnel on the streets (she cut 19,000 police officers as Home Secretary, so there are not enough armed police to cut it anymore) under Operation Temperer and bask in reflected military strength (not unlike Thatcher sending off the Falklands task force when her popularity was waning with the public), to feed off the inevitable ‘anti-immigrant’ feeling that will strengthen her hardline BrExit stance, and give the public time to forget – even if just a little – her horrendous crumpling under modest pressure on live television. At a time when politically she had – entirely through her own doing – landed herself on the ropes, she will be able to regroup once more in time to restart the campaign next week, aided by cartoons and comment in the Daily Mail and the Telegraph that seek to remind people that her opponent Jeremy Corbyn ‘associated’ with the IRA while trying to make progress for peace, and thus insinuate that in some unspoken way he bears a ‘responsibility’ for what happened in Manchester.

As Jon Stone has noted in The Independent, Theresa May has developed something of a penchant for u-turns in her ten months as Prime Minister, willing to swiftly reverse unpopular announcements from BrExit (Remain before, Leave after), increasing National Insurance for self-employed workers, calling a General Election before 2020, amongst several. What poll trend she jumps to the rhythm of next will be interesting to see – but instead of strong and stable she has instead looked startlingly inconstant and all too desperate to court public opinion. In conjunction with the recent changes in the Labour Party’s fortunes, it starts to look as though the survival of this Poll-Dancer as PM would actually be something of a surprise. But one thing is for sure – the only thing that will be ‘stable’ in the run-up to June 8th will be Theresa May’s desperate dance and willingness to reverse for the favour of the polls, lest her electoral gamble fall to dust in her hands.

“She is hitting older people with a classic Nasty Party triple-whammy: Scrapping the triple lock on pensions, removing the winter fuel allowance and forcing those who need social care to pay for it with their homes.” (Jeremy Corbyn responds to the Conservative manifesto launch)

The ‘F’ Word’s Back?: Gordon Brown’s Far From Final Federalist Fantasy

Just over a year ago, I was working in Peterborough at a heritage site. I became very good friends with the events officer there, Laura, and one night while talking, I mentioned in passing the Scottish independence referendum. She looked quite blank, so I expanded a little, and she said ‘well, given that I did not have a say in whether or not it happened…’. I was kind of dumbstruck – and made sure not to raise any similar topics of conversation again while I worked with her.

Which brings me to Gordon Brown. A nation dejectedly sighs today upon hearing the news that he will be making yet another ‘shock’ intervention tomorrow – a warning has been issued that he may well be mentioning his pet ‘F’ word.

That’s right – his fantasy. A federalist UK. A hoary old chestnut with no apparent expiry date. The benefit of deploying the idea of federalism, is that it never goes out of date, in that special, special way of ‘an idea whose time will never come’ has. That is not to say that it is not an idea whose time COULD have come. But we are kind of late for it now.

The problem that Federalism has – as much as it is an attractive idea – is that there will never be a political will to support it coming into play. The time to do it, would have been at the time of Union, when the English Parliament was supposed to be dissolved along with the Scottish, and a new parliament formed. In effect, this did not happen – a series of Scottish seats were added to the English parliament, vastly outnumbered, so that there was no chance of a ‘Scottish voting bloc’ ever being more than a protest group gesture against the settled will of the English members of parliament. The UK as it stands is very used to this arrangement, and anything that would alter the mass hegemony of the English parliament would not be taken seriously.

Why would any Westminster political party vote for such a thing? The Conservatives – who are about to gain unitary control of the state for some years – have no interest in giving more weight to the other countries in the UK, and neither does Labour. Gordon Brown was a back-bench Labour MP (the designation of ‘former Prime Minister’ is utterly irrelevant) when he first started spouting federalism anew: ‘home rule’ was Keir Hardie’s founding objective for the Labour Party, he would remind us…while neatly avoiding the point that it is further away as a possibility now than it was a century ago. So – good job on fasttracking that one, Labour Party. The LibDems who favoured federalism made some serious headway over many years to become the third party – and then promptly blew their credibility and electorate the first chance they got as a coalition. In short, it may be a very long time to hold one’s breath before any of the three Unionist parties make any serious (and unopposed) moves to introduce federalism.

Therefore, it is always worth ignoring entirely anyone who comes out with lines such as “We’re going to be, within a year or two, as close to a federal state as you can be in a country where one nation is 85% of the population.” (Gordon Brown, 15/8/2014). Which brings me back to Laura: remember that – unlike independence – devolution or federalism or home rule all have to be agreed with the rest of the UK. This is why the UK could vote unilaterally to leave the European Union – but would require the agreement of all member states to change its relationship within the EU. In the UK, any change of relationship has to be approved by the rest of the UK – in other words, the English Parliament still has the final say…and with polls indicating that English voters regard the loss of the Union with Scotland as a price worth paying to secure BrExit, it seems unlikely that there will be much interest in ‘reforming’ the UK relationship in order to retain Scotland.

Almost 3 years on from Gordon’s confident assertion that he was about to deliver Keir Hardie’s dream (and how quickly that began to unravel), and after the conclusion of the roadblock that the Smith Commission became, it seems clear that ‘as close as you can be’ means ‘not very close at all’. What is surprising is that there really appears to be no further room for movement – after the referendum was the time to ‘win the peace’, and yet heels were dug in (particularly by Labour – Gordon’s party) to refuse some of the most meagre of further devolved powers. That would have been the time to move in that direction, to heal the dissatisfaction, and have at least some political support from the public of the UK to do so. Instead, that became The Path Not Chosenso it is clear that if Scotland wants anything further (as some of us were saying 3 years ago – but undeniably so now) then it is independence: there is nothing else that will be put on the table…and even that option will not be willingly allowed on the table as an option, as witnessed by Theresa May’s impression of General De Gaulle’s 1967 “Non” to Britain entering the Common Market (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=faIWhXoam7Y ) with her strong and stable repetition of “Now is not the time”.

Any ‘new deal’ can only be independence – the British state has gone as far as it is willing to go. For the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the Labour Party may well regret (fide Eric Joyce) their rejection of the enhanced devolution option from the ballot paper – the consequent of swing of some 20% behind independence has made people warm to the idea in a way that they would mostly not have if the greater devolution option had been there to choose, as it was the most popular option in pre-referendum polling. Now that so many have warmed to the idea of independence, it has now made it impossible to put that genie back in the bottle: the enhanced devolution option (‘sometimes discussed as ‘DevoMax’ – the devolution of all powers save defence and immigration) could be introduced to a ballot paper now, but noone would be fooled that it meant anything. We are in the heart of a centralising UK that looks likely to strip away more powers from all the devolved governments in the state – not redistributing more powers outwards. The DevoMax ship has sailed.

Of course, tomorrow Gordon may shock the assembled BBC fan club by not advocating a federalist UK option now – but he most certainly will do so (mortality permitting) during the run-up to the next Scottish independence referendum in 2018/2019. It is all he has got left to say to Scotland.

Just remember that there is no political will in England for it – so it will never ever happen.

 

“Essentially [in Westminster] you’ve got a government of England, governing the UK – and there is no hope of that changing.” (Eric Joyce, former Labour MP, 8/3/2017)

A distant second: From Glasgow to Scotland in 5 years…or Everyone Wins – Except the Winners

The last week has been a fond journey into nostalgia for me. Five years ago, I had a wake-up call to overt bias, while watching television coverage of the council elections. I detailed the experience in an earlier blog – the short version is that the BBC reporting of the Glasgow Council elections was nakedly at odds with all other television channels, by virtue of (solely for Glasgow) counting the defections from Labour’s group as representing ‘losses’, and therefore the reelection of those Labour council positions as ‘Labour gains’. This was the only deviation from their otherwise uniform accounting of council changes on the basis of comparison with the 2012 result: it was plain, it was done almost with an arrogance – in the election studio, they laughed at anyone pointing out that saying Labour’s ‘gains’ in Glasgow outnumbered the SNP’s was erroneous. And yet they were the only channel reporting the Glasgow result in this idiosyncratic fashion.

Fast forward from May 4th 2012 to last Friday. The results come in – and the SNP have increased their number of council seats from 425 to 431. But hold – the BBC say that it is a drop of 7 seats? Over the ensuing days, as BBC journalists confessed they had no idea where the figures had come from, it slowly emerged that the figures had been ‘adjusted’. Apparently, if subsequent boundary changes had been in place, the SNP would (‘probably’) have won 13 more seats in 2012 – seats which they in 2017 ‘lost‘. It is a bit like ‘seasonally adjusted averages’ – those unemployment figures that first made you start to doubt the veracity of the UK Government in its reporting of unemployment in the UK – where the adjustment (however it is calculated) becomes more important than the upfront real figure. Surely the modification is a secondary figure, and should not have the headline position? It is somewhat misleading – to say the least – if not introduced by the broadcaster with the appropriate caveats.

But the raw data come out like this: the SNP increased their votes by 21% with over 108,000 more first preferences in the transferrable vote system (39.6% turnout in 2012, 46.9% turnout last week) while holding their vote share on 32.3% from the previous council election (pedants may wish to quibble that the vote share dropped by 0.03% – does not really show up when figures are being reported to one decimal place). In contrast, Labour’s votes fell by 21% (20.2% vote share, so down 11.2%) – Conservatives were up 12% (25.3% vote share) – a straight accretion of the unionist vote, coalescing around the Conservatives as it drifted from Labour, as the SNP vote held up (indeed, with more turning out, held up very well indeed) – as shown by the graphic above. (Indeed, it is striking how poorly the Conservatives did, coming in 155 seats behind the SNP, compared to Labour being only 31 seats behind in 2012.) Yet the Conservatives were hailed as ‘the winners’.

The turnout is important – it was the highest for a council election (when they have not been held on the same day as the Holyrood elections) since 1977, and that can perhaps be attributed to Theresa May’s attempt to hijack the council elections to give some sort of ‘anti-second Scottish independence referendum’ position. Although increased, it is still nowhere near the levels of turnout that we would expect for June 8th’s General Election 2015 rerun.

With the figures for the Lib Dems (6.8%, up 0.2%) and the Greens (4.1%, up 1.8%) added in to the mix, one can read it as an overall 0.6% increase for pro-independence parties since 2012. So, with an increased voting percentage for pro-independence parties, that will be Theresa telt, then?

Well, not so much…of course. Even although they have been making noises about vote share and seats, the Conservative Government just wants one good statistic to say ‘drop in SNP support’, to try and legitimise their resistance to the Scottish Parliament’s support of the SNP’s elected mandate to have a second independence referendum as a direct consequence of the result of the EU referendum. If Nicola Sturgeon engages with that game, then it will be a perpetual one – the electorate supported you this time? Well, then it has to be next time as well. Supported by the electorate again? Well, best of three, surely. It starts to sound like the IRA after the Grand Hotel bombing in Brighton – they only have to be lucky once, we have to be lucky all the time.

The SNP were right not to play that game – they would have undermined their already existing mandate, preemptively won at Holyrood last year if they had. To paraphrase Derek Bateman, how many votes do we need to emphatically record-beatingly win? When your record of support has set records in both the Westminster and Holyrood parliaments, then what can be obtained by repeating them time after time, except by giving the Unionists hope that you will inevitably one day fall as you jump through an infinite number of hoops coated with increasingly flammable materials.

As I have said before, trying to hijack the council elections for a national/constitutional issue is a grossly irresponsible approach of the Conservative Prime Minister – and perhaps shows how much they truly value local government (although given their contempt for devolved governments in the UK, that is not really a huge surprise). Fundamentally, using council elections as some sort of referendum on a national issue skews the quality of representative elected – their intention in standing is not one driven by local issues, but purely to serve the national party leader. This started to manifest itself with depressing speed, as the announcement that a series of Orange Order candidates had succeeded in being elected (without declaring their membership of said organisation, as required) to BOTH Labour and Conservative council posts was followed by some of their somewhat extremist Twitter account activity. A Moray independent councillor (who had, like many notionally independent candidates, stood as a Conservative candidate 5 years earlier) resigned, and a new Dunblane Conservative councillor  (swiftly exposed as an extremist BritNat troll) was under pressure to do the same – but had been ‘talked out of it’ by the Conservative Party.

Two out of nine Stirling Conservative councillors had similarly had their Twitter ‘backstory’ brought to light. On the one hand we can see a ‘barrel scraping’ exercise in terms of trying to get candidates for the unionist parties (particularly Conservative in Scotland) at this time – on the other there is a chill that these ‘shock troops of the union’ have been called upon, and a true indication that there is no level of racism, hatred or violence that will not be stooped to by the Union’s defenders, in order to oppose the assertion of self-determination in Scotland.

And in Stirling we might also see the exception that makes the rule of council elections have nothing to do with national or constitutional issues that are not in any way a part of the remit or competency of councils to handle.

For, in 2014, Stirling Council had an impact on the referendum question, in their approach to host Armed Forces Day in Stirling over the same weekend that commemorated the 700th anniversary of the battle that consolidated Scotland’s independent status, Bannockburn (as seen here, here and here). As it turned out, their little escapade – trying to divert numbers from the paying 700th anniversary event to the free ‘British’ event – did not exactly work out, with noteably larger numbers paying to attend Bannockburn. But they provided the opportunity for the media to parade something packaged as anti-independence, and ignore something more related to Scotland’s history as an independent nation. That had an impact, in the run up to the referendum that year.

In the end, that is the same role that is fulfilled by Theresa May trying to make every election another means of casting doubt on the SNP’s mandate – an excuse to distract, undermine and ignore. The truth of it – as shown by the reportage of the council election results, where some in London and abroad assumed that the Conservatives, with a mere 22.5% vote share, finishing 155 seats behind the SNP, had ‘won’ the election – does not really matter: it is just an opportunity to misrepresent and shout as loudly as possible – knowing the mainstream press will happily only listen to – and volubly echo – that narrative.

Last week, the Conservatives (assisted by Labour and the LibDems) threw everything they had at the SNP, to try and break through against them…even producing leaflets that mentioned no council-related policies – only ‘opposed to another independence referendum’. The SNP vote held firm. The press – led by the BBC – ignored that, adopting something akin to a New Labour education approach, where ‘everyone wins’ – except the winners. The result did not matter – they already had the script. And the script is about momentum for a very specific narrative – and not one that ends with self-determination.

 

“How many elections can we win hands down and still be angling for another referendum – like dookin’ for apples? I see the Unionist Press now indicates that the loss of any SNP seats [in the General Election on June 8th], which seems inevitable to me, will be taken as failure and loss of credibility even if Yes parties win an overwhelming number of seats and 50 per cent of the vote. They, on the other hand, have only to win a seat or two or even hold Edinburgh South to claim a major victory. This is the world of distorted democracy we inhabit.” (Derek Bateman, 19/4/2017)

50 More Days of the ‘Come What May’ Attitude: Is She Looking for Backing, Silencing Dissenting Voices by Establishing Her One Party State, or Just Worried About the Crown Prosecution Service Amputating Her Majority?

Waking up to snow blizzards in Munich in the second half of April, and Theresa May has apparently called a General Election for June 8th – after saying she would do nothing of the sort for the last 8 months (she last reiterated this via a spokesperson on March 21st).

She gave a series of reasons for this turnaround, a mere 21 days after raising Article 50, citing ‘disunity’ in Westminster in contrast to the ‘coming together’ she imagined over the weekend in her ‘God Loves a BrExiter’ beatific Easter Sunday message to the nation. The House of Lords – an unelected chamber that has been a bulwark for the Conservatives and the establishment for centuries – was suddenly the ‘enemy within’ (although their amendments were quickly removed by the House of Commons). The Labour Party was identified as a problem – despite the fact that they (regardless of their leader’s wishes) have shown zero inclination to vote against anything proposed by Theresa’s government, BrExit or otherwise, so scared are they of looking like anything other than Red Tories. Even having helped Theresa obtain a majority for the BrExit bill, she felt threatened by them because they have apparently said they might vote against the final EU agreement that she would bring to Westminster after negotiations were complete. But…surely, in allowing the idea that the Commons could vote on that final agreement, as Theresa had already proposed, that means that people could vote other ways than just supporting whatever pig’s ear of a piece of nonsense she turned up with? (Although, to be fair, on recent form she may have just been expecting Labour to abstain.) But to her, ‘disagreement’ may simply be synonymous with ‘division’.

In her speech on Tuesday morning outside Downing Street, where she had left a cabinet meeting, she invoked the ‘national interest’ – a codified phrase for ‘everyone should unquestioningly be supporting me as the leader of government, come what may’. And she appealed to the public to back her, with her cartoon supervillain line of ‘Every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger’. (No secret glowing amulet was immediately visible at her neck.)

It is perhaps significant that her domestic policies are being blocked by members in her own party in a way that her BrExit moves are most certainly not – this notion of a ‘Westminster Fifth Column’ against her BrExit is nonsense, and it is more likely that she is simply creating this myth as a pretext to get past domestic opposition from within her own party. So it may at first sight seem a little strange that she has chosen this path – especially as private polling for the Conservatives by Crosby Textor from only a couple of weeks ago (see 5th April, the New Statesman New Statesman ) indicated that more or less all the Conservatives’ 2015 gains from the LibDems looked to be returned to them in the event of an early general election call. But projections from the weekend’s two polls suggest that this move will increase her majority from 17 to somewhere between 100 and 140, and this would most likely help her a lot in bringing her domestic will to bear. She is clothing her own weakness in her capacity as leader of her own party in the robes of imagined ‘traitors’ to her at Westminster – she will brook no opposition to ‘The May Way’ from within her own party. Because, it’s…y’know…’divisive’. (Or ‘different’ – that has been a very popular thing for Conservatives to complain about, since they started adopting UKIP’s finery – perhaps they are just taking that fear of ‘difference’ that little bit further?)

She did note her current small majority of 17 seats in Tuesday morning’s announcement of the June 8th General Election – and perhaps that is the key deciding factor for her…perhaps even more than the 20-21 point lead over Labour that those two polls over the weekend gave her. It is worth noting that early the same morning as May’s announcement, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that they would deliver their judgement on Tory election fraud in the 2015 General Election in the next few days. With fifteen police forces having handed files to the CPS regarding possible electoral fraud, and 30 individuals consisting of sitting Conservative MPs and their agents under consideration for charges as a result, the chance of Theresa May losing (or having vastly reduced) her current 17 seat majority cannot have been far from any strategic decision that she made in the cabinet meeting before she walked out of Number 10 to stand in front of the cameras to announce the snap election. The CPS will now be in an invidious position in terms of making a decision, given that many of the suspected electoral fraudster MPs will already be out campaigning by the time such a decision is announced. Despite this, Theresa has made clear that she has no problem with those individual MPs standing for the June election – in spite of the fact that they might be under investigation for – and guilty of – criminal wrongdoing in campaigning for the previous General election. (Having said that, a by-election to a Manchester seat has also been confirmed as going ahead shortly, in spite of the fact that it will be to a doomed parliament with less than 50 days to run – farce may simply be compulsory for General Election 2017.)

Within minutes of Tuesday’s announcement, the pound started to recover (by around 1% against both US Dollar and Euro), with London stocks similarly falling (90% of the FTSE 100 fell – see image above, from Newsnet ) – perhaps because the markets could see a glimmer of light for the first time that maybe the London financial market was not going to disappear into the wilderness for 40 years plus due to BrExit locking it out of the European Union (but more likely because businesses relying on income from abroad would start to lose with a strengthening pound…still, it is a nice idea that that might be the cause.).

In recent weeks, Theresa May has looked by turns confused (this is just the latest position that she has reversed on), isolated, at times even quite dangerously deluded – anything but strong, as her narrative of a resolute hard and successful BrExit went cascading off the rails before she had even raised Article 50, with Nicola Sturgeon so predictably preempting her, ensuring no easy negotiations with the EU. She has looked so out of her depth – up to and including calling this ‘snap’ election – that she has seemed the real ‘player of political games’ – playing at being a grown-up possessing the political aptitude to carry out the responsibilities of the position that she occupies, when she clearly does not.

Making a move to use local council elections in Scotland as a vote against an independence referendum mandate secured by the SNP and Scottish Greens in last year’s Holyrood election was a strange tactical move by her, and could be seen as wrong on many levels – but perhaps the most important one being that it is hijacking an election of representatives for local councils which have nothing whatsoever to do with referenda. In short: prioritising the election of a political gesture so that the electorate feel pressured into using their vote for something other than selecting the best council service representative – then are stuck with that individual instead of the representative that they might have selected to do the job for 5 years, as opposed to be a proxy for 1 day of election result exploitation. (An almost Mayfly-like fleeting political existence, one might say.)

In contrast, at least in calling a General Election as a vote of confidence in her (thus far) unmandated BrExit strategy, May’s result will actually be relevant to the representatives elected, in that the elected MPs will actually have an influence as representatives on that BrExit process (even if it is merely as her personal rubber stamp in the House of Commons) – unlike electing council representatives as a proxy for whether or not an already-mandated Scottish independence referendum happens.

[This is a bit of an academic sidebar of a question now, perhaps, but what would have been the benchmark criteria for that, anyway? How could one say a win or a loss either way for May? Simply whether or not the Conservative vote share increased? The SNP’s went down? Or just a straight win on numbers? Or numbers of councils controlled? This question now looks to be applicable to the General Election in 50 days time, as far as Scotland is concerned…what – if anything – would Theresa ‘accept’ as not undermining the Scottish Government’s current mandate? The right wing press are arguing that – less than a direct measure of one party’s fortunes relative to another’s – any metric that in any way declines for the SNP (be it seats, votes cast, vote share, numbers of jellybeans) at all from its astonishing current level, would be swiftly interpreted as a ‘Conservative victory’. But surely – if she is effectively ignoring the mandates of the devolved parliament in Edinburgh, then we are back to the old pre-devolution metric – that a majority of Scottish MPs being SNP would automatically start negotiations for independence?]

Regardless of this, something appears to have changed since Theresa May’s Easter Sunday message about ‘sensing a coming together’ behind BrExit – although one could easily argue that her Easter message was all about establishing a narrative that ‘the country was unifying’, when there was precious little evidence that it was doing anything of the sort, so that she could justify calling a General Election against those naughty (and possibly largely fictional?) MPs who were not mirroring that ‘pattern’. In fact, one could far more easily make the counter argument: the 52% to 48% vote for leaving the European Union has shown little sign of change, whereas the vote to raise Article 50 in Westminster was achieved with a 498 to 114 majority. If anything, the country remains divided, whereas Westminster has – inexplicably, and with a few noteworthy exceptions – united behind her headlong charge at national self-harm.

Although yesterday Theresa May managed to suspend the Fixed Term Act (another tight vote in the House of Commons that she barely scraped through by 522 in favour and 13 against – another ‘clear example’ of Westminster refusing to support anything she does for BrExit…) brought in by her predecessor David Cameron to stop Prime Ministers opportunistically calling elections based on positive opinion polls (although the veracity and sincerity of that move by Cameron is open to question, see here), what might have been of more immediate concern to her was the possible fixed term sentences (a year in prison) that might be handed out to a possible 15-30 of her sitting MPs.

So once again it seems that Britain’s future is being thrown into the tombola wheel – or perhaps simply under the nearest leftover ‘Leave’ campaign bus – purely for the sake of the Conservative Party leadership. By the time May began the debate yesterday to suspend the Fixed Terms Act in parliament, the Crown Prosecution Service had indicated to Channel 4 News that the early General Election would not affect their prosecutions of any of the 30 individuals that they are currently considering charging in connection with 2015’s Conservative Party electoral fraud. And perhaps that was what had changed since her broadcast message on Sunday.

Perhaps May simply knows that the police investigations are not going so well for some of her MPs, and is therefore choosing to jump before the collar (to use the vernacular) is felt of the ‘May Majority’ – to consolidate it, before it is taken from her by her dear BrExit friend – the judiciary.

 

“If any hint of that impending reality has dawned on the UK Prime Minister then she will move heaven and earth to stop Scotland being given an option to choose a better, more progressive, international and egalitarian national culture than post-Brexit Britain can offer…Not least since without Scotland, the UK’s balance of payments deficit would collapse the UK economy and Sterling would sink below the dollar without Scottish exports of food and drink and oil and gas. ..If Scotland’s independence referendum is announced before the Brexit negotiations complete, then the only bargaining chip Theresa May has to retain financial passporting, is offering access to Scottish fishing waters, and if Scotland is to become independent with an option to be fast tracked to full EU membership after a period of EFTA/EEA single market access (if we want it) then May will enter the Brexit negotiations empty handed while simultaneously facing ScotRef, where the economic certainty of the single market, and potentially hundreds of thousands of new jobs would be on offer to an independent Scotland.” (Gordon Macintyre-Kemp, 7/4/2017)

When the Dykes Held Firm: the Dutch withstand the onslaught of the Alt-Right Tidal Wave from the West…this time

There is a narrative about the last 12 months in western politics, whereby (without going into the realms of tinfoil-hatted conspiracy theories), BrExit and Trump’s election are part of a global phenomenon – a wave across the world, a rise of right wing politics. (Indeed, within Scottish politics, many of us in Yes, would add the ‘No’ vote in the 2014 referendum to this trend, as it bears the same hallmarks of support and funding by the same groups that delivered the Leave vote as well as Trump’s victory – see here and here). Under the terms of this narrative, Trump’s victory sweeps east across the Atlantic like an Alt-Tsunami, sweeping BrExit to the hard right, and thunders towards mainland continental Europe, where a series of right wing parties are poised with forthcoming elections to sweep back civil rights, demonise immigrants and generally move towards the door out of the European Union. Graphic image, isn’t it? I can almost see Roland Emmerich applying for the right to make the movie.

Within the narrative of this political catastrophe, March 15th 2017 was the first real test of how the wave was going to strike, with the parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, followed by France in just under two weeks time in April, and Germany in September. And in February, it seemed that the rumoured apocalypse was going to happen: the far right PVV (Partij voor de Vrijheid, or Party for Freedom) was on course to become the largest political party in the new Dutch parliament, standing to win 35 seats in a parliament with a 75 majority. In the wake of a coalition between the conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie – VVD) and the Labour Party (Partij van de Arbeid – PvdA), in which the Labour Party was disappearing in the polls (as did the LibDems in the UK, after their similarly disastrous coalition with the Conservatives), this was a significant problem, with the PVV led by Geert Wilders (who is, indeed the only member of this party) looking to take much of VVD’s political support. All the political parties that were running for the Dutch Parliament vowed not to work with Wilders even if he was successful…but many are the political parties who have espoused fine values until the ballot stations are closed, then will do a deal with whomever is necessary, in order to be a part of government.

The conservative VVD had been less outspokenly xenophobic in its rhetoric than the PVV – and opposed PVV’s advocacy of the Netherlands leaving the EU (‘Auf Niedersehen’ – or ‘NExit’ – as it was less imaginatively dubbed) – but in the final run-up to the vote, the VVD’s leader, the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte looked to try to take the fight to the PVV…by beginning to ape their language. This is a similar scenario to the recent one faced by London’s Conservative Party, who in late 2014-early 2015 moved to disempower UKIP by occupying a similar anti-EU and anti-immigration position. (And we all know how that brilliant strategy is currently working out.) Rutte launched an advertising campaign touting supposedly ‘Dutch values’, with ‘Doe normaal of Ga weg’ (‘Act normal or Go home’, reminiscent of Theresa May’s advertising campaign during her time as Home Secretary) as the strapline. Then, as a further move to triangulate on PVV’s electoral support in the week running up to the election, he engineered a confrontation with Turkish government officials visiting the Netherlands to speak to Turkish voters there. In the high-profile statements and expulsions of diplomats from the country, Wilders was all but absent, only able to stand by while Prime Minister Rutte used his position in government to ‘act tough on foreigners’, clearly positioning himself as a crypto-Wilders to the PVV’s would-be supporters. By this final week, the polls were already showing a slide from the PVV’s high water mark the previous month, but after the confrontation between Rutte and Erdogan,  it seemed that the VVD had consolidated their position to be the largest party.

I was watching the election coverage with an apprehensive group of Dutch academics at Munich University on the night (the picture above shows the whiteboard in the common room, with predictions and the exit poll figures in black), and sure enough, the exit polls came through as the polling stations were closing (a few had to remain open as they had had an unexpectedly high demand and so had run out of ballot papers), and PVV were projected to be equal second with two other parties (Democrats 66 and the Christian Democrats) on 19 (only gaining 4 new seats, instead of the previously predicted 20), and the VVD remaining the largest party on 31 (losing 10 seats). There was some relief…but over the next couple of days, the final tallies came through, and VVD finished on 33 seats, with Wilders’ Party on 20 – the second largest in the Dutch Parliament.

Tom – a friend in Amsterdam – had made a schoolboy error, arguing that everyone in his extended family should vote for the VVD to keep Wilders out (the VVD were weak in Amsterdam, so it is debatable how much this strategy would have worked anyway – at a time when the Greens were in the ascendancy, a vote for them would have been a more effective use of his franchise). But more than a wasted vote, the approach of voting for the VVD as an attempt to undermine the PVV, is of course counter-productive – it reinforces the support for a party espousing overtly right wing mantras – effectively borrowing PVV’s political ‘clothes’ – and thus validating that rhetoric and keeping the ground free politically for the continued expansion of the VVD to the right. Such a vote validates VVD’s xenophobic approach (ironically, Tom has a Polish wife, so this may well lead to a problematic position for his family if the VVD goes further down the PVV or UK Conservative Party’s path, in terms of foreign residence and right to remain), and sets their agenda: the existence of Wilders’ political support means that they know that they always have room to expand to the right to consolidate their power – and the moment they start to look ‘weaker’ on xenophobic policies than PVV’s hectoring, they know that that same support will return to Wilders, so they are unlikely to abandon their rhetoric. It depends how much of an influence the final coalition (which currently looks to contain the more left of centre Democrat 66 and the Greens) can devise to keep the most right wing of VVD under control. In a political system where coalition is the norm (rather than the UK’s first past the post, where coalition is an unusual anomaly), there is not a single party of government (as the UK Conservatives had, making their EU referendum obligatory), so less opportunity for the government to be forced to move to the right to disempower the far right, thus legitimising far right xenophobic viewpoints as mainstream Dutch politics. In addition to giving the far right more prominence, the VVD’s climate change denial agenda is liable to pressurise any of the Green policies that they wish to enact.

So, is that it? Emergency over, Fortress Europe’s western seaboard flood defences held, everyone stand down? Well, not really – there is still a bloc of 33 seats of the right wing VVD, whose leader Mark Rutte (likely to continue as PM, regardless of the final coalition agreement), had recently talked about people who were not ‘normal-acting Dutch’ that should leave the country (even if they were born in the Netherlands). Then there is the second largest party with 20 seats, the anti-EU membership PVV.  The PVV drove the VVD to the right, making the right wing perspectives normalised, and sustains the problem presented by the PVV. Unless the VVD can work back from their current position, they are in danger of being nudged further each time by the presence of a farther right group such as the PVV.

In terms of the broader European question, perhaps there is cause for more hope: the expected boost to Marine Le Pen in advance of April 23rd’s first round of the French Presidential elections that would have come from Wilders having the largest party in the Dutch parliament, has not happened.  The day after the Dutch election, the IFOP survey indicated that public support for the EU had increased by double digits in Germany (18%), France (19%) and Belgium (11%), having seen the mess that the UK was making of leaving the European Union. But Marine may yet succeed politically through expressing anti-immigration sentiments, even if not (yet) advocating a French exit from the EU. She is, after all, the second most influential MEP after Martin Schulz, and under her leadership the Front National won 24.9% of the vote in the European elections in France – personally winning over 33% of the vote in her own constituency: she is clever – more so than her father (the previous Front National leader) or Wilders, and may win office without the right wing wave of xenophobia from the Netherlands that she might have been hoping for.

Under Angela Merkel, Germany currently looks unlikely to fall prey to the far right or anti-EU movements – as indeed its neighbour Austria rebuffed such approaches from Norbert Hofer in its October 2016 presidential election.

The results for the Dutch Parliament – however the coalition turns out – still shows that there has been an accommodation towards a ‘normalisation’ of immigrant-hatred, which is close-kin to a more general hatred of foreigners, and its affiliated suspicion of all things ‘European’. There will not be grounds to feel safer until that tide of the right starts to recede from mainstream politics.

So, yes, this time the flood defences held, but the move of Dutch politics to the right means that there may yet come a ‘NExit’ time.

 

“Nobody in their right minds has faith in [the PM getting ‘the right deal’ for the UK] as the Conservative government stumble and stagger towards negotiations in a European community now strengthened by the Dutch election results.” (Mike Small, ‘Citizens of Nowhere’, 16/3/2017)

 

[For a more in-depth review of the political background to the Dutch election, I commend you to Bella Caledonia’s article on the Dutch election result: http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2017/03/20/dutch-elections-curb-your-enthusiasm/ ]