Mad Murph: Last Days on Futility Road

After some weeks of working on manuscripts and application forms while I procrastinated about doing another blog, I’m finally moved to write this evening, after politics has escalated over the last few days.

This is politics in the broadest sense: Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy has finally yielded and agreed to go despite winning a vote of confidence from his party – he’s just waiting to put his own spin on the direction Scottish Labour’s recovery should take before he leaves. Appropriately enough, given Murphy’s inability to stop using footballing metaphors, someone equally unassailable – Sepp Blatter – having won his own ‘vote of confidence’ at the weekend, has also just an hour ago announced that he was standing down. I queried the announcement on FaceBook, asking what the reasoning behind such a decision could be, unless perhaps the sponsors Coca Cola and MacDonalds had exerted pressure on him to go – simple, replied a friend of mine: I bribed him to go.

Football, as they say, is a funny old game. As much as Murphy’s tireless football metaphors defined his leadership of Scottish Labour, so the allegations of corruption became synonymous with Sepp Blatter’s leadership of FIFA. It therefore seemed appropriate that Blatter’s departure (I’m goin’ – just no’ straight away) mirrored Murphy’s, ironically after both won their respective ‘votes of confidence.

In the run-up to the General Election last month, Murphy painted a dystopian future, invoking that old chestnut of the volatile oil resource and an accompanying apocalypse, under the rising spectre of an SNP bloc being elected to Westminster…a doomed fantasy which was ultimately less-convincing than George Miller’s current futuristic cinema outing, as far as the electorate was concerned. He campaigned on a series of scare stories that were not only reminiscent of those deployed by his identical backroom crew of MacDougall and McTernan during the Better Together fiasco last year, but also in direct opposition to public opinion on those very issues. Full fiscal autonomy was not a turn-off to the electorate (47% supporting it with only 33% opposed and 19% Don’t Knows), 60% supporting the football offensive behaviour act and 70% supporting the alcohol ban at football matches. 80.4% of Scots want another Referendum, with 58.6% wanting it in the next ten years, so presenting a second referendum as a bogeyman was likely to be similarly unsuccessful in terms of making inroads into the rising SNP powerbase.

And, hardest of all, Jim Murphy was up against Nicola Sturgeon. Never mind her well-recorded popularity in Scotland -during the last week of campaigning, Murphy’s popularity ratingwas at -35 next to Nicola’s +56 – TNS’s poll of 1,200 people in England gave her +33, the highest rating they have EVER recorded for a party leader.

Murphy had a mountain of trust to recover in around 5 months before last month’s Westminster routing, and although – as Andrew Tickell noted – he was probably the wrong man to work that particular miracle over that time frame, prospects seem little easier in the run-up to May 2016’s Holyrood election, with the likelihood of Sturgeon still being in post, and more limited funds than Scottish Labour has been used to in almost a century, to support their forthcoming campaign. Not only from the reduced party membership in Scotland: SNP’s Trade Union Group membership at over 15,000 now exceeds the total claimed membership of Labour in Scotland, and the unions are finally making noises about withdrawing their unconditional support for a party that has not looked remotely like protecting working people whilst in government since the 1970s. UNITE is the Labour Party’s biggest funder, with £1 million, UNISON the second, donating half that amount. There are now moves within UNITE to devolve its structure, and thus make separate (devolved) decisions over whom it supports politically, which could have repercussions for Labour’s campaign for Holyrood, given moves within Scottish members of the union to distance themselves from Jim Murphy and Scottish Labour. The motion is coming up to UNITE’s conference in July, proposing the concept of ‘Home Rule for Scotland’s Unions’, and in the absence of Scottish Labour looking like returning to its roots enough to appease union activists, it will be interesting to see what support this idea has without Murphy’s presence to effectively goad it along. Labour is no longer the party of working people in Scotland (although we can debate how long that might have actually been true for, or otherwise), and it is by default that the SNP have quietly picked up that discarded mantle, as part and parcel of becoming the party of Scotland. The SNP appears to have worked the trick of becoming the party of everyone in Scotland – primarily through the combination of the Referendum and the wondrously catastrophic mismanagement of the result by the Union parties, which revealed a more common cause than had been suspected, uniting us (50.2% of the electorate is no mean feat) as never before.

Once again you have to feel for whomsoever Jim’s replacement will be. Does Ken Macintosh really want to stand for the Scottish Labour leadership against deputy leader Kezia Dugdale right now, bearing in mind his constituency as an Eastwood MSP overlaps significantly with Jim Murphy’s ultimately fatal East Renfrewshire Westminster constituency? A second sipper from that bitter Eastwood chalice, if he is not careful…but it is hard to see how anyone would be keen to be piloting another turbocharged Pursuit Special down Scottish Labour’s futility road to yet another polling station again any time soon.

Murphy has espoused the need to guide the reassessment of the party prior to the conference at which he will resign – an offer which seems to be being resisted in some sectors of the Scottish Labour executive – but if they have the same mantra of ‘we have listened, we have learned, we have changed’ as they always had in their many leaders over the last few years, then one feels that it is fairly certain that they will have done nothing of the sort. I think it was Paul Kavanagh that noted: “It’s time the party stopped confusing a ‘period of reflection’ with looking at itself in the mirror and thinking it is gorgeous.”

Anything short of a break from Labour’s Brewer’s Green headquarters in London will not be enough to satisfy their former electorate in Scotland, especially as the party of the south summons its energies for yet another determined jump to the right again, almost as though it wanted to spite its former Scottish members. There is a mockingly hollow quality to the self-styled ‘party of devolution’ title that the Labour party once claimed for itself these days – but Labour has to devolve its Scottish branch if it wants to have any chance of becoming credible in Scotland again.

Scottish politics needs an opposition – but whether Labour can make itself fit for that role (the Scottish Conservatives voteshare dropping last month, despite what is generally agreed to be a good campaign by Ruth Davidson) by next May remains to be seen.

 

“But the evidence is mounting: for Scottish Labour, Murphy is the wrong man, with the wrong message, at the wrong time.” (Lallands Peat Worrier, Andrew Tickell)

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Conservative Apocalypse – the Meaning of the 2015 Result for the UK

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

As much as we can celebrate such a wholesale rejection of Labour in Scotland, by a people consistently a second (at best) priority in the plans of the Labour Project, we can only look with dismay south of the border at the party’s failure to win the favour of an electorate that was absolutely its priority to win. The striking yellow of hope clothing one electoral map, the striking blue of despair cloaking the other.

This contrast was brought into sharp focus by my return to FaceBook on the morning of the results, where so many of my friends were bemoaning the Conservative majority. Lots of people are criticising the supposed ‘polls failure’ – with no real reason, as they were showing the result within the margins of error on the average of the last 25 polls. From the stats, Miliband was never perceived as convincing prime ministerial material, and the contrast between his and Cameron’s ratings told that story for years, even when Labour’s lead in the polls was double digits. Perhaps this ultimately explains the reluctance (or paucity of numbers?) of the English left to support Miliband – because he was less convincing than Blair had been as a prospective statesman: that Conservative-incubus looked ministerial, at least, before the Scooby Doo reveal of his true nature.

One friend in particular commented about how many selfish people there were in the country – and I know that she was not talking about Scotland voting for an anti-austerity agenda en masse.  People like to talk about that ‘shy Tory’ phenomenon – perhaps ‘ashamed Tory’ would be more accurate this time around – with people reluctant to divulge their true voting preference when asked…and one can easily imagine that in a time of economic pressure, the incentive to seriously place yourself and your family’s direct financial interests first might well be much greater. So, in the same way as likelihood to commit crimes increases with poverty and economic threats to one’s family, perhaps – if one really buys into the vanishing myth of Conservative fiscal prudency with their current ideologically-motivated incompetence – one also is more likely to commit as similarly selfish and destructive an act as voting Conservative.

Certainly, according to Ashcroft’s post-election poll, 49% of Conservative voters believe they are already feeling the benefits of an economic recovery. Most LibDem voters said they weren’t feeling an economic recovery yet, but were expecting to…and then we have voters of all the other parties. The majority of Labour, UKIP, Green and SNP voters all declared they were not feeling any sign of the economic recovery, and were not expecting to do so – and that is hardly surprising: in the last year, in Edinburgh alone, the referrals to foodbanks have increased from 35 a month to 350 a month. That threat is increasingly present within people’s circle of experience, and likely to be an influence – yet something seemed to speak louder than accelerating social decline to those that returned a majority Conservative government last week.

One wonders if there is a darker reason – maybe in some of the lashing out of Scottish Labour after Thursday’s rejection by their taken-for-granted electorate. Perhaps this is predictable: despite the SNP offering to be a genuine force for social justice and moral conscience for a Labour Party with a track record of being rather good at losing its way once in government, there have been attempts by the remnants of Scottish Labour to blame the SNP for Labour failing to get enough seats to form the government. A first cursory analysis dismisses this argument – even if all 59 seats in Scotland had gone to Labour, they would still only have had 291, still far away from the required majority, or even capable of making a significant coalition with anyone else. But there is another narrative that argues for the rise in the Scottish bloc vote as a repellant to Labour voters in England.

Put simply, is the decline in the Labour vote in England since 2010 a direct response to ‘anti-Scottish xenophobia’? That was the language that The Venerable Gordon Brown used to condemn Cameron’s campaign in the last two weeks. In that time the SNP was compared to the Third Reich, Salmond presented on giant posters as the stereotypical Scot pickpocketing an English voter… One important point is that criticising the SNP surge without evidence that they have actually lied to the electorate (because a clearly deceived electorate – as we were with Blair in 1997 – is not culpable) means directly criticising the electorate that is planning to vote for them, rather than the party itself. At the best of times, this is a dangerous move for any politician, as exemplified by Farage attacking one of his studio audiences during the debates – but a Scottish audience is likely to react even more contrarily to such an attack. ‘Thrawn’, as they say. ‘Oh, you bluddy think so, do ye?’ as Billy Connolly puts it.

It is true that this may simply have been a strategy by Cameron for immediate post-election gain: as Lesley Riddoch noted on polling day “English voters are being primed to overreact hysterically should Labour try to form a minority government on Friday – whether it’s a formal deal that includes the SNP, discreet dialogue or semaphore signals at dusk.” But the Conservative-supporting press campaigned to vilify the people of Scotland (by virtue of their electoral choice), making clear that when the Conservatives talk about ‘OneNation Britain’, we now know exactly which ‘one nation’ they are talking about. It is unclear whether this campaign had traction by bringing underlying chauvinisms to the surface, or created those chauvinisms anew, but one reporter from Nuneaton made clear that benefits claimants, immigrants and Scots were now seen as the three undesirables – perhaps because Scots fulfil stereotypes of the first two groups perfectly adequately down in the shires…

Paul Kavanagh neatly summed up the inherent genius of Labour embracing this strategy on results day: “Labour blames the SNP for its defeat. The Unionist parties went around screaming to anyone who would listen – which would be the BBC and Fleet Street – that the SNP would eat your babies. Labour smiled indulgently on the antics of Ian Smart when he called the SNP fascists and supporters of the Nazis. Labour looked upon a mildly left of centre social democratic party and it saw a scary monster. Then they blamed the SNP because voters in England were afraid of the imaginary monster that Labour had invented.”So Scottish Labour contends that even the possibility of SNP influence was sufficient to scare voters in England from Labour – and if that is the case, then perhaps the Union is more finished in the hearts of England than we previously thought. As Ian Bell put it yesterday: “If true, what does it mean? That Scottish voters should have declined the choice of a lawful party and declared themselves subordinate to the prejudices of English voters? If that’s the case, there’s no place for us within the UK. Does it mean, equally that voters in England will simply not countenance the participation of properly elected Scottish MPs within a government they regard as theirs alone? If so, the road is the same and it leads in one direction only.”

That Labour failed to contest the narrative of a ‘threat’ from Scotland, thereby falling neatly into a Conservative trap, is perhaps the saddest aspect of this. It is not hard to dismantle the argument of the ‘Scottish threat’: England has 82% of the MPs, therefore an automatic veto with a ‘majority’ of 533 votes. This was an obfuscation of a constitutional issue/problem as a political issue/problem: English MPs have total control of Parliament, and always have had – no vote counter to that would happen without 219 MPs in England choosing to vote with Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs. One of the very reasons why there is such widespread support for English Votes for English Laws in Scotland, is not because of widespread support for Scottish Conservatives (at this general election, despite a strong campaign by Ruth Davidson, their vote share fell to 14.9% – its lowest ever since they were founded in 1965): as Neal Ascherson put it yesterday in The Guardian “I think most Scots feel their MPs should not decide purely English issues. After all, before devolution they had 292 years’ experience of English MPs outvoting the Scots on Scottish issues.” Surely, given his arguments for the Union in the run-up to last September, Miliband could have come out fighting AGAINST the ‘othering’ of Scots, pointing out the basic arithmetic that undermines the portrayal of Scottish electoral choices as an ‘external threat’, and making Labour the party of an actual United Kingdom. During the Referendum campaign we were told ‘Scotland should lead the UK – not leave it’. Apparently that leadership is very much not wanted – and indeed any idea even of influence is to be shunned.

Personally, I prefer not to think that ‘fear of a Scottish vote’ was really a strong motivating force, as I would rather not think that we were so reviled by an electorally significant portion of England. Because if so – why is there still a Union? And – as an equally logical corollary – can we stop referring to it as a Union, and just say it is an Empire? (The definition being, ‘Supreme political power over several countries when exercised by a single authority’. A contentious question for another post, I think…)

As McWhirter put it “the entire post-war edifice of Scottish politics was pulverised into dust” last week. Nor were Labour and the Conservatives the only parties punished in Scotland: with less than 5% of the vote, LibDems paid out £170K due to lost deposits in 340 seats (my sister was apparently one of those candidates, when none of us knew she was even standing: ‘shy LibDem’ syndrome, perhaps?). Ascherson, again: “the meaning of last week is that the SNP has been adopted as ‘Scotland’s party’, not least because it has no strings to London.” If parties were smart, they would reconstruct themselves as autonomous units, in order to produce the required clear water for the electorate in Scotland to trust them again. If they simply don’t care, they won’t. Which will send its own message.

Does this election, as some have said, truly mean the launch of a trajectory towards a federal UK? Unlikely – as noone is interested in federalising England. Is it really so ‘impossible’ that Scotland’s vote for home rule will be ignored? Yes, of course – regardless of how much this vote was a clear mandated call for more powers for the Scottish Parliament than Smith was offering, the arithmetic is clearly on the side of the Conservative government. But such a strategy of turning a blind eye is somewhat fraught, if you truly are intent on preserving that Union, as opposed to consolidating short-term political advantage, creating, as it does, many avenues that fast-track independence.

As Alan Bissett noted, Scotland having to suffer another five years of Conservative-led government is a direct consequence of the ‘No’ vote – I don’t think that is an unfair observation, as one of the most resonant arguments in the Referendum campaign was that independence was the only way that Scotland could guarantee having no more Conservative governments dictating to it from London without a Scottish mandate. With a ‘No’ vote in place, it was only a matter of time before it happened – but what I find particularly distressing is that the left vote seemed to take a vacation in England, when the incumbent government had such a poor record on the economy (massively increasing the debt, failing to get the deficit down to 65% over the time period that it originally said it would completely eliminate it), and was promising to continue its savage cuts to a welfare state that were ideological and irrelevant (if not actively counter-productive) to getting the economy to recover. The positive attributes to what Eddy Robson dubbed “The best crisis since the abdication” were body-swerved in favour of Austerity Max.

A week before the Referendum was lost last year, Robin McAlpine of the Common Weal wrote the following on Bella Caledonia: “A butterfly rebellion is coming close to winning Scotland away from the forces of the British state. I think we’ll do it, but either way, they can’t beat us. We are already half of Scotland and we keep growing. They are weak and we are strong. When the people of Britain see their titans defeated by a rebel army who used infographics and humour, what is there to stop them following? England needs its butterfly rebellion as well.” That conclusion seems hauntingly prescient now, as we ask the question: is there any potent left remaining in England? Labour was hardly a radical left platform at this general election, but if an underlying xenophobia was really more powerful than the prospect of an unleashed Conservative government, indeed was strong enough not just for people to go to the Conservatives but to move straight to UKIP instead of a fundamentally right of centre Labour party, then what hope is there for any longevity for the concept of Britain?

Cameron can be bold – but it is hard to see how anything that he does is going to do other than pass the historical title of ‘Last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom’ to his successor.

 

“For the long dark decades of Tory rule, Scotland was told that getting a government we didn’t vote for was simply the price of the Union. Now the tartan high heels are on the other foot, England might get the government that Scotland votes for. Ed, Davie, Nick and Nige scream that Scotland’s choices are illegitimate and unwelcome. But to no avail, no one in Scotland is listening to the four hoarse men of the Jockalypse.” (Paul Kavanagh, 7/5/2015)

 

May the Fourth Referendum Be With You: Stall Wars, and the Return of the Rebel Alliance

I flew back from working in China over the weekend, getting into Edinburgh Airport early Saturday evening. A day to chill on Sunday (and briefly adjourn to BrewDog), and I was checking if the Stall was back on Monday.

Yes, the Stall – the one on the Meadows for ‘Yes Marchmont’ that I had helped staff throughout August in the run-up to the Referendum last year. I knew that there were plans to get something in place regularly for the run-up to the election, but was unsure how well those plans had been realised. Sure enough I got a response back – it was running in the afternoon, 2 till 4.

So I went back to The Meadows with some trepidation as to what I would find.

The Yes stall was always staffed by a disparate group from different parties. Last year, following the result, there had been talk of parties standing under a Yes Alliance banner in this General Election – but that was before Johann Lamont became the story with her stinging departure as head of Scottish Labour at the end of October, and launched the SNP’s stratospheric rise to switch its 20-odd% position in the polls with Labour’s 40+% in Scotland. (It is somewhat ironic that Lamont’s departure was allegedly precipitated by Murphy – who ironically now holds the poisoned chalice to his own shouting and protesting lips.) At that point, with such a clear leading party, the idea of an alliance seemed less obvious – in particular for the SNP. It was no longer as though they were a minor party in the run-up to Westminster that could help others in a similar position, and vice versa, as proposed by the tactical voting Unionist advocates: suddenly they were the clear and logical primary ‘Yes’ party in every seat in Scotland, to which votes should be lent.

So, in the absence of an a-party ‘Yes’ stall, were the same faces still there?

Reassuringly – ‘Yes’. A couple of Green activists were not only in evidence, but one of them was actually organising the stall…which was 50% SNP, 50% Green/Scottish Socialists/CND. Non-aligned Kay was there, retired ‘Faslane Frances’ from the Western Isles, Paddy – it was good to see. I felt all fingers and thumbs – all those valuable ‘skills’ of responding to individual questions while deploying badges and asking if any children wanted balloons…those assets needed to be renurtured, and it does not look like there will be time to do that. Rain scheduled for Tuesday, meant only Wednesday remained as a stall option before the day.

Amongst the encouraging numbers of visitors regularly coming to take and display material – stickers to adorn a ‘Revolution’ brand bike, a balloon and badge for the kid riding pillion behind its mother – there was an interesting issue that raised itself, perhaps relevant for that initial broader question of the proposed ‘Yes Alliance’ platform for the vote. It was raised by one somewhat aggressive (?)student individual who approached the older women on the table to challenge the presence of ‘Yes’ imagery as an indicator that there was a secret agenda for a second referendum. As his targets began to answer, he interrupted (in classic troll, Murphy-aping style) with other questions – what about the ‘decision for a generation?’ Was that a lie? I started to answer that I did not believe that it was Nicola that had said that, but Alex – and I understood that was the reason why he had resigned after the result, to free up the possibility of as many further referenda as were necessary. The troll looked confused – I don’t think he expected to be challenged about Nicola, let alone have Alex’s resignation presented in that fashion – then an SNP man moved in to start insistently offering him a leaflet, which he kept refusing, until he moved on.

Of course, it isn’t really a ‘second’ referendum – it would be the fourth one on constitutional change in a generation. The first was in 1978 for the Scottish Assembly, the second the 1997 one for the Scottish Parliament, the third was last September on independence. And perhaps that is a more realistic way to look at it.

In the wake of this encounter, it became evident that there had been a couple of similar (if less aggressive) queries earlier that day. We debated, and decided that it might be simpler – if the presence of ‘Yes’ symbolism was being deliberately misconstrued as a sign of a (poorly) hidden agenda – simply not to display such iconography. But this particular species of attack relies on criticism of ‘the neverendum’, that idea of ‘oh how terrible it is’ that the question was ever asked once in over 300 years, just think how it paralyses the Scottish Government while that happens. It is predicated on the idea that any Scottish Government so committed to such a referendum would just be doing that and nothing else…when actually the reverse appears to be true. While the majority government preparing for the Referendum, the SNP were an extremely dynamic government in office, very much showing how Labour and the LibDems should have been doing it in the first years, and effective and efficient in governance and legislation. Perhaps actually being in office to fight for a single imagination-capturing political issue as the main focus of your time in government should actually be obligatory, if not mandatory, because it is a concrete reminder of why you are in office – and it stops holding office being simply power for its own sake, a lesson that Labour have failed to learn during their stewardship of Scotland.

But it did make me reflect on how problematic it might have been, had the SNP not become such an emphatic frontrunner, and the Yes Alliance had indeed been launched for the General Election: it would have been impossible to deflect the accusation of a hidden agenda – although in the immediate wake of September’s result, many of us were admittedly fired up for exactly that – a second independence one straight away. Under Nicola, we keep the powder dry, and restrict the question to manifestoes for Holyrood only – and if support then delivers a system-beating majority for the SNP again, then a second referendum will happen. In contrast, for Westminster, Nicola Sturgeon is now – following her astonishing individual success on the televised leaders’ debates – campaigning credibly as a UK politician, talking about policies for the whole UK as a result of the potential influence of the SNP on a Labour government – not just Scotland. Even the Labour-supporting Sunday Mail and Sunday People delicately came out in support of Nicola at the weekend….That all builds a perception that does much to ameliorate the anti-SNP (arguably anti-Scottish) propaganda distributed south of the border during the Referendum by the press. It also hints at the possibility of SNP-allied candidates standing in England in the future. Previously unthinkable, that is indeed an exciting prospect.

The Fourth Referendum spectre might well have been the negative aspect of the Yes alliance concept, and certainly for where we have got to now – without at all disputing that we would welcome another one as soon as practicable – it would be a distraction. We have other more immediate fish to fry. I took two new campaign badges from the stall, one in ironically UKIP purple saying ‘Hey, where’s my powers?’ The other one was in Labour red – ‘Labour No More’.

I’m keeping that one – with crossed fingers – in hope for Friday morning.

 

“Scotland reloaded appears to be a nation prepared to challenge the establishment in all its guises, to shine a light, to demand and to do different, to call for and create change, seemingly content to create uncertainty in doing so. We are a country suddenly confident in our choices and challenges. Gaun wirsels.” (Kate Higgins, Women for Independence, 20/3/2015)

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)

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)

Green Interlude 2 – The Green Surges and the UK Shrugs those ‘Broad Shoulders’

As some of you might be aware, the SNP were not the only post-Referendum ‘Yes’-beneficiaries: from their 1,700 members in September, they achieved 9,000 by the end of January, quite possibly making them a larger political party than Scotland’s secretive Labour membership figures. In spite of this, STV took Ofcom’s advice and did not allow them to participate in their Scottish Leaders Debate (although the BBC, the following night, presumably acting from the same Ofcom advice, did). This has also meant a huge demographic change for them, with 40% of the party being under 30. Consequently, they are fielding their largest ever number of candidates, standing in 32 out of 59 Scottish constituencies, and polling ahead of the LibDems 3%. A Survation poll for the Daily Record in February also showed them riding high for Holyrood next year, as prospectively the third largest party, with 13% regional or list MSPs (the same poll in June last year showed them on 10%), which could equate to an increase from their current 2 to 15 MSPs, ahead of the Conservatives on 14 MSPs.

They have a broad range of policies, of course, not ‘simply’ a narrow vision of the environment (which is more what other political parties tend to have, with the environment neatly boxed off from other policy areas, not seeing it as interconnected). The Scottish Greens are proposing a wealth tax not that contentious, as many European countries already have such a tax in place, eg Spain, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, and 48% of Scots think that taxes and spending should increase, and that the government should redistribute money from the rich to the poor. Similarly, they argue for a 10 pound an hour minimum wage. These policies are, of course, designed to address the UK’s horrendous equality deficit: of the 34 members of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), the UK has 13th highest level of average household income, but is also the 7th most unequal country of the group.

Aside from this, they act as a very valuable conscience to the SNP government, particularly when it comes to managing the energy mix transition, changing from still supporting fossil fuel industries (in particular coal) towards something sustainable. This is not all about ‘doing the right thing’, either – as Scotland pushes more into the greener energy sectors, it develops international world-leading expertise to put as at the forefront of the next global energy phase.

This came sharply into focus recently, with the fate of the Longannet coal-powered station. Run by Scottish Power, it is scheduled to close in March 2016, after failing to get a contract for 15 million from the National Grid. This has grim consequences for the local economy, with 270 jobs lost and an additional 1,250 jobs supported. As the average age is 50, and there are few local opportunities, it is highly likely that this will mean another thousand adding to the jobless total. Longannet was not going to last forever – it already looked as though it was going to fall foul of new EU regulations in 2020, but the loss of this contract means that its life expectancy has suddenly been cut brutally short by 4 years. In 2013, Scotland’s other coal-fired power station (also owned by Scottish Power) at Cockenzie was closed. Although Scottish Power retains the rights to build a replacement, it seems likely that neither Longannet nor Cockenzie will be replaced – primarily due to the charging costs that have to be paid for connecting to the National Grid.

Despite a recent overhaul of these connection charges, Scottish energy generators produce 12% of the UK’s energy supplies, but pay 35% of the charges, despite in 2013 exporting 28% of their output. The reason for this is that the National Grid bases its connection charges on proximity to ‘centres of demand’ – which actually means ‘London’. As – apparently – the central belt of Scotland is actually a barren wasteland devoid of people. So, located in Scotland, Longannet has to pay 40 million a year (it would have been 50 million, without the recent pricing overhaul) to keep Longannet connected. In contrast, a similar power station in the south of England only pays 4 million, and power stations near London are actually paid a premium TO connect to the National Grid.

This charging system is a UK framework, with the transmission charging methodology primarily introduced to Scotland by Labour in 2005, that penalises Scottish generators and discourages investment. Keith Anderson, CEO of Scottish Power, has argued that the current charging system was a major barrier for future investment in Scotland, for either renewing Longannet or replacing Cockenzie: “No other country in Europe has this unfair locational-based charging system for power stations, and we need a fairer system for Scotland…Scotland needs a mixture of generation types, but there needs to be a fair and level playing field with the rest of the UK in order to develop new power generation in Scotland”. As Douglas Chapman, SNP candidate for Dunfermline and West Fife, put it: “The question is where are these ‘broad shoulders’ [of the UK Government] when the workers at Longannet need them?”

It can be argued that this closure is not without national implications. Built in 1970, Longannet at the time was the biggest power station in Europe. Longannet produces about a quarter of Scotland’s power, which has raised concerns that this closure may require importing electricity, as it now leaves the UK operating on only a 2% extra capacity for the coming winter. The imported coal that produces almost 40% of Britain’s electricity comes from Russia – a country that we are not exactly on the best of speaking terms with, right now.

However the Scottish Greens see this clearly as part of the transition from dirty energy to clean energy, as we enter what appears to be the last year of coal-powered energy in Scotland. Energy capacity in Scotland itself is 11GW, while peak capacity is only 5.4GW – which means we can well afford the loss of fossil and nuclear plants that are scheduled to be decommissioned over the coming years.

A bitter irony is that the closure of Longannet was announced in the month of the 30th anniversary of the end of the miners’ strike (NUM, SCEBTA, COSA), with only 100 members left in the National Union of Mineworkers in Scotland today. Thatcher’s approach to the coal industry put 600 years of coal out of reach through crippling the industry, purely to curtail union power. It has been argued that it was the failure of the trade union leadership to support the miners that led directly to the ease of privatisation of so many basic services under Thatcher’s government. This means that the UK now has the most expensive provision costs of transport, water and energy across the whole of Europe.

Which, with the failure of privatization of utilities to deliver those much-promised ‘cheaper prices’, sort of leads rather naturally to another Green policy.

Nationalisation of utility ownership.

 

“We have the green surge [in England]. They’ve got the green tsunami up there [in Scotland].” Natalie Bennett, Leader of the Green Party of England and Wales)

Murphy Madonna: Reinvent yourself until you fall on you’re a**e.

Psychological projection is an interesting phenomenon. An individual will criticise others – usually quite forcefully – for patterns of behaviour that are more readily obvious in themselves, than the people that they are criticising.

I could not but help think of this condition, when Jim Murphy referred to the SNP as ‘David Cameron’s little helpers’, during a visit by Ed Balls to Glasgow a week ago, to give a typical closed audience presentation that was so much the hallmark of ‘Better Together’ last year. At the time, a number of individuals (including Angus ‘I’m taking nothing for granted’ Robertson MP) commented on the hypocrisy of this, after Scottish Labour willingly acted as Cameron’s boot boys in the Referendum, delivering campaigning that Cameron could not be seen to do himself, and voting to support continued austerity cuts, as well as avoiding repealing the bedroom tax (because that would be more convenient for Labour to have a platform on during election time – so let’s not get rid of it early with a Commons’ vote, eh, guys?).

The willingness of Jim and his small band of merry men to jump at whatever piece of bait is thrown for them by the Conservative-press is remarkable – a Pavlovian level of Twitter response kicked in as soon as the Telegraph non-story broke on Friday night, so keen were they at a rare opportunity to get stuck in to Nicola, without bothering to check the facts first. This had a couple of hilarious outcomes – one being Dougie Alexander hastily deleting 48 hours-worth of Tweets, the other being Kezia (first to Tweet within 3 minutes of the story’s release) Dugdale’s dad reprimanding her on Twitter with ‘check facts before opening mouth next time, Kezia!’.

But if the primary target of the scam story was to make left-leaners hesitate about supporting Nicola, it can be argued that that was far from the main objective UK-wide: to have Labour Party leaders (Ed did it too) pile in saying how shameful it would be for the SNP to let the Conservatives in again, also is likely to push those moving towards voting Labour instead of the Conservatives, right back to the Conservatives again. All it took was some ill-chosen criticism by Labour to do it –and some of Labour were all too daft to fall for it. The condemnation that Labour representatives uttered was exactly what Cameron wanted them to say, on both counts, as it attacked Nicola’s rise as a credible force, and also made Labour look bad for reacting so negatively to the idea of him remaining. ‘Cameron’s little helpers’ worked overtime for him over the weekend…then woke up on Monday wishing they hadn’t.

Of course, Jim’s projecting of criticisms of himself on to others is probably quite understandable – he changes policy position so fast, that it must be hard for him to know what to be attacking people with on a day-to-day basis, from one press release in the morning to the next one, half an hour later. Although Jim might not have been deleting Tweets as frenetically as Dougie, it was recently highlighted that Murphy had been removing pro-austerity cuts interviews from his website, as part of his strategy of repositioning himself as a left winger to ‘combat the Tory cuts’ that he apparently used to so dearly love. Now he opposes tuition fees – although he voted for their introduction in 1998, at which point he described free university education as “incoherent, indefensible and unrealistic”. Now he is opposed to the war in Iraq, despite his well-documented hawkish history to the contrary. Even on the NHS, his proposal to hire a thousand extra nurses was framed in the context of ‘a thousand more than whatever the SNP says’, and he did indulge in deleting social media posts when he made erroneous claims about operation cancellations in Scotland because he got his figures completely wrong.

Then there was the bizarre ‘Yes for Labour’ campaign (smothered at birth by Scottish Labour) as an attempt to appropriate the ‘Yes’ voters that they so vindictively derided throughout the Referendum campaign. [Although perhaps he was – again – inspired by an SNP policy, in the way that the SNP website slogan these days is ‘Together we can make Scotland Better’ – shades of the ‘No’ campaign, anyone?] Even the one broken record repeating ‘a vote for the SNP is a vote for the Conservatives’ starts to fall apart when Robert McNeill – a member of Labour’s Scottish Policy Forum – and other Labour activists, start campaigning for their members to vote to get Conservative and LibDems elected – although this increases the chances of the current coalition government being reelected…and it is supposedly against party policy and apparently should lead to automatic expulsion from the Labour Party – just to try and block SNP candidates from getting to Westminster.

Then on Tuesday night in the debate, Murphy was arguing that the Institute for Fiscal Studies had made very clear that Labour Government did not have to make the forthcoming cuts after the 2015/16 budget year – but Ed Balls and Ed Miliband asserted the following day that they would do just that. This was categorically reiterated by Chuka Umunna, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, on April 13th’s Daily Politics show in emphatic form, with the somewhat harsh rejoinder to Andrew Neil: “The leader of the Scottish Labour Party will not be in charge of the UK budget”.

His capacity for reinvention – or attempted reinvention – seems Madonna-esque in stature, but he risks coming to a similar pass as she did during her Brit Awards performance.

I did see one April Fool saying Jim Murphy had resigned and joined the SNP (somewhat unlikely, given Scottish Labour’s obsession with Westminster above all else – especially for the expenses claims opportunities), but what was less clear that morning was if his interview with James Naughtie was a similar ‘huntigowk’. In that programme, Murphy declared that he would of course work closely in opposition with the SNP at Westminster…when the only people who could put themselves in opposition (by putting the Conservatives in) are Labour…by refusing to work with the SNP to support their government. How does that work, then? As much as no party wants to discuss scenarios where they fail to win a majority before it actually happens, the logic of Jim’s assertion is that Labour would rather be a party of opposition and let the current government continue, rather than be serious about stopping it.

Jim did not have the best of campaigns in the Referendum, at one stage last January being openly laughed at by BBC Radio Scotland commentators (normally quite supportive of Scottish Labour), at his attempt to ban supporters of independence from TV audiences (although, for an insight as to how he ‘may’ see his role in that part of history, this video is both highly entertaining and, indeed, informative in that regard: http://wingsoverscotland.com/history-tomorrow/ especially if you are aware of the archaeologist Neil Oliver’s presentation style). But his gimmick of the Irn Bru crate (regardless of whether it was one of his own entourage, as was suggested by photographs, that threw the famous egg at him) gave him the profile to be nominated by Party Central for the Scottish leader’s job, after Johann stormed off in high dudgeon. Around about now, he may be wishing he had not been such a ‘high profile success’ (for such things are definitely relative) for the ‘No’ campaign, as his immediate career prospects have begun to look a little as though they hang on the proverbial Scots ‘shoogly peg’. Last night, on the STV Scottish leaders’ debate (which seems to have been poor compared with last week’s offering), Jim was up against Nicola Sturgeon for the first time since her Thursday night success on the UK Leaders’ Debates, in a position of nothing to lose, and everything to gain, especially knowing that he could rely on the support of Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie against her. According to the initial polling after the broadcast on who won, he does not seem to have made many inroads (Daily Record’s poll: Nicola 71%, Jim 19%, Ruth on 10%, Willie 0%; Press & Journal poll: Nicola 77.69%, Ruth 11.02%, Jim 9.68%, Willie 1.61%), but he did appear to use his favourite strategy of football references to try and show he is ‘one of the people’ – David Cameron, he informed the audience, was not Lionel Messi. So how’s that shrewd populist manoeuvre working out, Jim?

Murphy once said “I won in 1997 without really trying. Tony Blair won my seat.” Since claiming that formerly safe Conservative seat with a 3,000-odds majority, he has boosted that majority through boundary changes to over 10,000 (claiming over a million pounds in parliamentary expenses between 2001 and 2012 in the process). But he has a mountain to climb to reverse his unpopularity ratings both within his own party and across Scotland (his popularity rating dropped 13 points from December to March at -2, leaving him 23 behind Nicola; YouGov’s net satisfaction ratings at the start of February gave Sturgeon +42, Murphy -10), and a whole range of them to traverse in order to gain credibility with the electorate (his leadership rating is -25, compared to Nicola’s +33). With such a heavy baggage of personal and party inconsistency, reversed policy decisions and a party seemingly deviating from his script, that journey – as Paul Kavanagh notes – won’t simply be done through being “borne aloft on nothing more than John McTernan’s frantic spinning and the dust created by a thousand press releases.”

 

“Credibility is the bridge away from populism and towards popularity. It is difficult to sustain popularity without genuine credibility.” (Jim Murphy, Daily Telegraph, January 2012, criticising “shallow and temporary” populism in place of “genuine credibility” – explaining, in the process, why today he is neither popular nor credible)