This Time It’s Serious

Ridiculous I know, but when we are about to salute a new First Minister and have an unprecedented surge in support for Scottish Nationalism, the most gripping story in town is…Labour.

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I have never known a time when Labour was in such disarray in Scotland, so uncertain, so edgy and threatened…when oblivion loomed. Oh, there have been predictions from opponents or hand-wringing insiders and commentators of how Labour was struggling and could be forced into retreat but never – never – has there been a moment when the people themselves precipitated total mayhem.

The existential crisis engulfing Labour is not caused by the SNP or by Nicola or by the referendum as such, it is born out of the reawakening of the Scots to the duplicitous machine politics of hypocrites posing as socialists.

We came close during the poll tax debate when Labour lost its courage and went down on its knees to the sovereignty of the British Parliament and the Tories’ right to legislate against majority interest, but then it was left to nationalists, real socialists, students and trade unionists to carry the flag. The law-abiding opponents did not desert Labour and accepted they had gone as far as respectability allowed.

This time, the revolt is cross-cultural, running through all social groups and political outlook, a pulsing, deep-rooted revulsion at an organisation without principle, patriotism, policy or presentation – and without power.

It isn’t that I think Scots are crying out for left-wing policies, it is that they have seen through, and are repelled by, Labour pretending to represent that position. ‘We are a party of the Left who behave like a party of the Right…we get away with it because we contrast ourselves with Tories.’ The evolution of the SNP as a common sense European social democratic party selecting policies irrespective of Left-Right provenance has allowed them to outflank Labour AND build on their brand identification of standing up for Scotland.

This is exactly where Labour stood throughout the pre-devolution years – undeniably Scottish, working class in origin while embracing capitalism, demanding more domestic powers, campaigning for fairness and opposing doctrinaire Toryism. So it isn’t just the success of the SNP that has crippled Labour, it is their own failure to defend their ground.

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Blairism, with its middle class aspiration, barely concealed greed and rejection of a common social ethic, ate into the soul of Scottish Labour. Blair pragmatism and policy triangulation is all about accommodation and compromise and desperation to have universal appeal – a dread of being disliked. And when that moment came about – to make a tough choice – over the decision to invade without UN mandate, the people who needed to be accommodated and appealed to were powerful overseas allies, not the voters who elected them. (Harold Wilson refused to help LBJ with British troops in Vietnam).

Worth noting here that Labour’s failure to opt for civil disobedience to defeat the poll tax was because of they would not urge people to break the law. Yet on Iraq, they (initially) defied their own law officers and then the United Nations in order to attack, in an effective breach of international law. We see this same British ambivalence to the law in a Tory government adopting a strict legal code for citizens and immigrants yet refusing to pay a legal debt to the EU under European rules they themselves agreed.

So do any of the declared candidates offer hope that Labour can reverse what looks like catastrophe next May? I think not.

First, because I don’t think this is just a leadership issue. Far from it. This is existential – fundamental to its very being. Replacing one leader with another doesn’t answer the basic questions that are driving voter revulsion. Why is there a Labour Party? Who do we serve? Why do we do it and how are we going to advance the case? You can spin out a few ideas through leadership but you’re really appealing to the electoral college for votes and telling them what they want to hear. Promises will be made about change but this is not a bedrock reform process designed to engage all of Scotland. It is an internal bagatelle trying to hit as many pressure points as possible in the allotted time to win points.

It will merely decide who gets to determine what changes are made – another top-down, I-know-best exercise the electorate despises.

Since Labour seem stuck with the soviet-esque electoral college, shouldn’t each candidate declare that they will refuse the appointment if they don’t win the popular vote? Or, if they win without the support of ordinary members, they will immediately submit themselves to a separate referendum of the rank and file to get endorsement…

I think Murphy will win. I think Labour has set this up for Murphy to win and has prepared concessions in advance that he will ‘secure’ during the campaign. London want one of their own in charge, not another northern numpty, even if it is the out-of-favour Murphy.

The coverage he receives already spells disaster for the others. He dominates the mainstream because he is a known quantity, has profile in London, understands how to milk the media (and has his lieutenant McTernan campaigning through the media on his behalf). Those who would oppose him in the vote – half of the payroll hate him – have to look now at their own self preservation and the writing is on the wall for them unless someone – anyone – can pull them back from the brink. They will vote for him regardless after the recent polls.

I’m afraid his opponents simply don’t match up in the media performance stakes which will largely determine the outcome. This morning on Radio Four neither Boyack nor Findlay sounded remotely convincing or even competent, both heavy on prognosis but lightweight on solution. They sounded timorous and unsure when they are supposed to be full of passion and possibility. They sounded exactly what Murphy is suggesting they are – self-pitying and defeated. If neither can answer the question: Why aren’t you connecting with the voters, then they don’t deserve to win. If they can’t find a phrase to criticise Miliband however mildly then they haven’t the balls for the job.

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Frankly, the two of them would sound to English ears the personification of what has gone wrong in Scotland – poor quality politicians with nothing to say beyond platitudes.

But the election of Murphy is only the beginning of Labour’s problems. He will have Kezia Dugdale as deputy – a wise choice – but he will be the living, breathing embodiment of everything Labour have become…metropolitan, right wing and sleekit. The areas for criticism are already appearing from overt support for Israeli policy interests to anti-universalism and nuclear weapons – a right-wing leader of a lost party. He dare not open up the party to a comprehensive review of the operation and policy for fear of the consequences and will field an uncomfortable array of faces and voices in his coterie. Expect an even heavier dose of John McTernan on television…and this is the solution?

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Checklist

I have half an hour before going for the kids…some random thoughts.

I’m pleased about Neil Findlay standing for Labour leader because he is very direct, sounds authentic, has distinct left-leaning views and might be just what Labour needs.

Sarah Boyack offers a very different option with experience, intelligence and not a little grace.

I want to know which one will be first to declare the Hate the SNP campaign at an end. Until somebody does so and starts treating the party of government with respect in public, Labour will be trapped in old politics. It’s going to be hard enough finding space to reconstruct the party in a leadership race without being burdened by old baggage. A declaration that the SNP are ‘not our enemy’ and we will not oppose for the sake of it would be the most positive sign of change imaginable.

Jim Murphy standing would be a mistake for him and the health of Labour bringing a note of toxic Blair versus Real Labour poison we can do without.

One of Yes’s failures was to attack effectively the United Kingdom and how it works. Today we hear of chronic deficiencies in immigration policy that has become a death star of inaction and confusion as we draw more wanting to live here and as thousands of asylum cases have gone unchecked.

Many who fled here from desperate straights arrived seven years ago and don’t even have an initial assessment made – that is a shameful story for some of the most distressed and frightened people on earth who cannot even work while here. In fact, it’s a form of cruelty.

On the same day we hear how promises to treat wounded military personnel as a priority is also failing, leading to poor and delayed treatment for soldiers who have fought for the state. Some have waited years for the help they need. Funny how rashly the politicos offer to send our troops in yet are painfully slow in looking after them when they come home…

 

Here are three stories on the BBC news site which all tell the dismal tale of the UK financial sector to which we have all to genuflect….

Deutsche Bank swings to a loss in the third quarter because of higher legal costs to settle investigations.

                  ‘Rip-off’ payday loan broker warning NEWConsumers are warned to be wary of “rip-off” payday middlemen, after the NatWest bank reports that it is receiving hundreds of new complaints every day.

                  Yorkshire fined £4.1m over mortgagesYorkshire Building Society is fined £4.1m for failing to deal properly with customers who were falling behind on mortgage payments.

 

Lastly, I like Nicola Sturgeon’s style. There is a remorseless logic to her Four Nations EU Exit idea based on the UK’s own rhetoric of family of nations all respecting one another. Makes life tricky for the London parties – always a good thing in itself.

Britain is far from the fair society the Unionists claimed in the campaign and now we are armed with a mass of new evidence they provided to win the indyref…

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The Sound of Silence

In victory, they don’t know how to behave. In resignation, they don’t know how it’s done. In rehab, they get it wrong. Everything that is happening now illustrates and confirms the total failure of the Labour Party in the basic duties of organisation and campaigning.

Anyone who thinks Labour’s travails will be cured by replacing the leader has been asleep for the last seven years. It isn’t a new head Labour needs, it’s a heart.

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The payroll brigade utter phrases about the Labour family and ‘what brought them into politics’ and repeat mantras that echoed hollow years ago. Out there in the streets and schemes nobody knows what they are any more. They know they have changed but they’re searching for a handle they can grip to get a feel for the meaning and objectives of a political tribe they once belonged to.

Because Labour stopped speaking to them before 2007, they switched sides and did so with ease four years later and every sign shows that to be an estrangement that is accelerating through maybe 40 per cent deserting the Union cause in the indyref and on to an opinion poll rating barely half the SNP’s.

To head straight into a leadership race based on personalities with the sound and fury that generates is to pretend to address the issue by brushing over the tracks. What Lamont left behind was a stark essay on the dilemma at the heart of Unionist Labour – what is it for…what is its objective…who does it represent…how should it organise itself? To fail to ask these questions – or only air them obliquely in the heat of a campaign – is to remain silent as the clamour grows outside for answers and debate. Sorry to associate them with Labour, you S and G fans, but it reminded me…

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And in the naked light I saw

Ten thousand people, maybe more.

People talking without speaking,

People hearing without listening,

People writing songs that voices never share

And no one dared

Disturb the sound of silence

That is, if you can equate Jackie Baillie with the sound of silence. I have heard her twice now saying Labour is united, no matter which chamber colleagues sit in – they all want the best for Scotland. If so, why are they briefing against each other, undermining each other, attacking each other in the media, going behind Lamont’s back and exposing deep personal, political and territorial differences? If it is so, why is Baillie herself openly disagreeing with Lamont, calling her remarks on the bedroom tax offensive and wrong? This is vacuous and counter-productive pig’s swill. To deny there is a problem and that everyone is united is laughable and falls into the old Labour trap of complacency. The hard truth about too many of Labour’s very limited representatives is that they are accustomed to winning the jackpot at every election without trying. They therefore believe that if you say just about anything and stick a red rose on it, the bulk of punters will just turn up and vote regardless because generationally they know nothing else and are weaned on Tory-hating and Nat-baiting.

For decades this has worked and as a consequence has reared a cynical and conceited breed of machine politician who has abused the trust of working class Scots. To be kind to the bulk of Labour Westminster backbenchers, you would call them mediocre, yet the only real challenge has been to win the nomination in the first place and thereafter a lifetime of salaried oblivion follows – the key requirements being an efficient constituency operation (to do the main work for you) and a craven capacity for obedience.

I think the dash to replace – and therefore bury the memory of – Lamont is a huge strategic mistake. It follows on from the same error in 2007 where the door opened for a full all-member debate on purpose, policy and process in the light of losing power. Instead they failed to confront the truth and we got Iain Gray. To make the same mistake is catastrophic and, historically, unforgivable. It won’t win any seats in the General Election, won’t win the Holyrood campaign in 2016 and won’t produce any new talent.

A leadership race is an attempt at circling the wagons and keeping in-house the festering issues. It ensures that when the question of party autonomy does break out, it will be laden with anger and antipathy between rival camps. As ever, it will get dirty and will produce a titular head with no more powers that Lamont had.

He/she will also carry the burden of election through the discredited electoral college which Scottish Labour itself says should have been abolished.

My own proposal is to appoint as an interim head, a mature and uniting figure who will conduct a full party debate including country tour and open meetings designed to bring in non-members who can be recruited if the message is strong enough. This is where Gordon Brown could properly play a role as conciliator and not commander. Or, if hatchets can be buried, a McConnell or a McLeish. Or Malcolm Chisholm. And let’s hear from the MEPs the best lessons of how parties in Europe organize themselves (mostly separately but in alliance with larger groupings). All MSPs should be on the road following the example of the Yes campaign, hearing the views and listening for a change instead of mentally deleting anything that won’t be acceptable to the Westminster gang.

There is no reason why it could not be a non-Holyrood figure if it is temporary and would allow an aspiring MSP – or even more than one – to speak in the chamber. This arrangement allows a fluidity in which debate and decision can flourish without the fixed and abrasive business of personality politics. It may be that it would also reveal the natural heir through the process of discussion and leave little doubt about who should lead. Does a leader of Scottish Labour have to be in place before the General Election? I don’t see it. They have a leader, Miliband, and the MPs have their own constituencies to contest which in not going to change if there is an elected leader in Scotland. If they could learn to drop their shoulders and relax and let the air in, Labour could find this an invigorating experience.

There is a difference between SNP representatives and Labour’s – the nationalists are bound by a cause more than party but Labour are united by party having lost a cause. The missing mojo must be rediscovered long before some individual emerges to dictate the direction and tone of any recovery.

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The mainstream commentators have already fallen into line with the leadership. I heard Paul Hutcheon deriding the idea of ‘internal, interminable debate.’ This is the same shallow thinking that got Labour into this mess, pretending that Who is more important that What and Why.

Even if you don’t want to discuss direction and vision, what makes you think a new leader will solve anything? Jim Murphy for example will deeply divide the whole party as a pro-Trident, anti-benefits Blairite war-apologist out of step with majority opinion in progressive Scotland and would be a gift on the policy front to the SNP. He can organize though and he can manipulate the media as he showed during the campaign where they fell for his victim stunt. I can’t believe at the same time they would think it struck the right note to have a leader from Westminster, the heart of the problem. Murphy is divisive internally too and would create too much resistance to heal any rift. (Odd, isn’t it that the Saviour of the Union Alistair Darling is nowhere to be seen. If Labour want a mature leader to get them through and unite the party surely the Darling of the Tory conference should be their man?)

And let’s remember that while Lamont lit the fuse and in the long run Labour should be grateful, the reason she failed was her own ineptitude. She lacked the talent to lead, failed to show fight in office, chose the wrong advisers, didn’t consult MSPs or party members, got on the wrong side of every argument and repelled support with criticism of popular SNP policy and with jarring and unattractive language. In going immediately in this way, she has left Labour holding the toilet brush. They deserve each other.

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Party Time!

Who won? Seems strange to be asking but even the Unionists are worrying that victory in the referendum was pyrrhic and that in the long run they are the losers.

I came across two new versions of this dreadful awakening, one from the increasingly strident John McTernan who is assuming territorial rights over Scottish Labour, and the other in Labour List by Peter Russell.

They argue that Labour has failed to press home the win and take command of Scotland again. This apparently is down to miserable leadership and must be corrected to stop Yessers striding around with grins on their faces while Labour quietly put away the banners.

http://www.scotsman.com/news/john-mcternan-turning-referendum-win-into-a-defeat-1-3582379

http://labourlist.org/2014/10/what-should-scottish-labour-do/

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But surely they miss the point – they DID lose. They lost the argument, they lost their soul and they lost their credibility. Now they’re losing their support.

Since the vote went their way, why aren’t they celebrating and bragging? Could it be that they didn’t know what the prize was? They didn’t understand what they were fighting for because they don’t really believe in Britain either, at least not its Tory government every 10 years and the rise of UKIP and dodgy wars and hopeless productivity and dismissive treatment of unions, not Ed’s creepy appeal to southern middle classes nor Balls’ lust for austerity. They were fighting against the SNP – that bit they understand – and the supposed prize of the Union holds only the grim knowledge that they keep their MPs at Westminster. It doesn’t deliver the joy of triumph because the reward is threadbare, broken old Britain and its intolerant right wing ascendancy.

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Instead of celebrations on the streets, we had the Save Our NHS marches, pathetic in the counterpoint they provided to the lies told during the campaign. Labour folk know their side betrayed principle – wasn’t the grasping by Darling of Ian Taylor’s £500,000 donation from Vitol early proof that morality would play no part?

The cavorting with Tories –Darling at their conference getting a standing ovation – the threat from Balls over the pound (their Scottish pound) and the incessant insults about Scotland’s inability to run its own affairs, crushed many Labour voters and turned up to 40 per cent of them into voting Yes. This was a disaster for Labour and already the internal campaigning has begun to resurrect some kind of genuine working class movement…at the same time as McTernan (and Murphy) are pulling in the opposite Blairite direction of no universal benefits and keeping Trident. Celebrations? More like rats in a sack.

Labour people were also forced to see close up just how talentless their leadership is both in Scotland and London and they were embarrassed.

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The trouble with victory is you need to know what to do with it. What was winning for? What policies, what new approaches, will now flow from it? How will Scotland be changed by Labour? Do their voters know their position on extra powers (sort of, and pretty weak they look), will they now implement some ground-breaking policy ideas and begin a massive recruitment drive and build towards winning the 2016 Holyrood election? Of course not. There is no prize. Even the departure of Salmond produced the even more popular Sturgeon…and the SNP is now massively bigger and more powerful than Labour as a party. In theory, no Labour seat is now safe.

The next few years could be dog days in which the failure to create a new invigorated democracy in Scotland will follow in their shadow. They are identified with hard right Conservatism (their partners when it suits them) in anti-European, anti-worker Britain. That is what they fought for and what they won. Not much to celebrate, is it?

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Star Letter…

Here I publish a message from my correspondent James Anderson following my blog on John McLaren and Fiscal Affairs Scotland. It raises some very good points.

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I’m totally with you Derek that this was the politics story of the day. There have been many story’s in the MSM to raise my hackles in the past few weeks(!) but this one really pushed my buttons for many of the reasons you highlight. It is the veneer of impartial academic credibility John McLaren and Jo Armstrong are deploying; Scots-based, at respectable Glasgow University, with knowledge of oil economics, not Tories, and using ‘real’ evidence. Frankly John and Jo’s contribution is verging on the outrageous, at least in terms of the sheer volume of UNCHALLENGED coverage it received today. Below was my own contribution to the topic, which I posted on the Herald . More power to you Derek – stay aggrieved and focussed. You are doing the job only the Sunday Herald is doing on the public’s behalf in the mainstream.

Cheers

James

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Fiscal Affairs Scotland – that’s the Centre for Public Policy for Regions to you and me – and John McLaren appear intent on continuing to push ad-nauseum the Labour and Tory line that Scotland runs a perpetual deficit position within the UK. OBR figures? Really John? And if these figures are all accurate and in the public domain what is the point in your report? Why are you continually recycling public domain information? Rushing out a press release to coincide with the first full Smith Commission plenary session? With headline conclusions and projections based on a few months of dipped oil prices?? It is a tough gig being meaningful in terms of academic research value; challenging and testing norms. I’d love to know where the value-add is in this ‘latest report same as the last doomsday report’. Utterly ignoring, say, Scotland’s Westminster controlled fiscal position now compared to five years ago and where it’ll be five years hence. This is not a report based ‘over and above cuts’; this report, if anything, simply tells a story of what Scotland’s fiscal position might be if we didn’t send our cash directly to the Treasury.

Here’s the issue. Even if you accept McLaren and Armstrong’s worst case scenario – a £5bn deficit in Scotland’s finances right now or in six months if we’d had full fiscal control – our operating deficit remains no worse or remains better than that of rUK. But that is not the worst crime committed by this report. That honour is reserved for this line: “Our calculations suggest that, across a wide range of assumptions, full fiscal autonomy could lead to a significant shortfall in funding over what the current system delivers.” No John, your calculations do not show that at all. Your calculations are based on revenue and spending without borrowing: outputs without all the inputs to Barnett plus non-devolved spend. Scotland’s public finances and all UK public finances are presently already paid from an operating deficit. The UK Government operates a gargantuan fiscal black hole. So the “current system” cannot and does not pay out anywhere in the UK from a fiscally neutral, balanced books position. Nor does Treasury pay out as a benevolent benefactor; lavishing extra spending on Scotland as net beneficiary of Westminster’s benign commitment to ‘sharing and pooling’.

Yes this press release IS part of that exact same narrative. Yes you are being lead to conclude the UK is in serious surplus whilst Scotland is in serious deficit. Yes you are being lead to conclude that rUK is subsidising Scotland and providing a safety net (Barnett). Yes the report utterly ignores Scotland as a long-standing net contributor to UK finances, our lower debt-to-spend ratio, and that Barnett itself is only one part of a near bankrupt, eye-watering, debt-laden economy (£1.5trillion and counting).

The “current system” is, of course, based on running a chronic shortfall between tax and spend (at least till 2018 but we know Osborne and the OBR will get that wrong as well), which the UK Govt borrows to offset. In fact John might have wished to re-interrogate his conclusions following the news on Osborne’s tax receipt shortfalls yesterday (based on modeling he’d been receiving from, you guessed it, the OBR!). So even if Scotland did have a shortfall between revenue and spend; so does the current system!! With fiscal autonomy we’d borrow to maintain, or increase, or decrease our levels of public spending. And we’d do so from a healthier fiscal position than Westminster (either as a fiscally independent country or as a federated state enjoying fiscal autonomy within the UK).

Given John and Jo’s undoubted intellect I can only conclude that to present the fiscal position Scotland ‘enjoys’ under Westminster’s financial control in this way (that somehow Scotland, uniquely within the UK, experiences centrally approved levels of public spending beyond its current means), is not ‘non-aligned’ and is indeed a partial and politically-loaded view. Others on here might question the substantive nature and quality of the FAS intervention: is FAS really asking the Smith Commission to reflect on what fiscal powers accrue to Scotland based solely on some disputable evidence spanning only a few months around a single out-turn (O&G revenue forecasts)? FAS put the exact same proposition to the Scottish electorate prior to the Referendum.

I know Jo Armstrong is a former O&G economist so FAS might feel it has a degree of expertise and authority on this single issue but come on; this is our country’s shared future. Economic and policy choices are far more complex than repackaging some questionable short-run O&G stats!! Perhaps that is why John and Jo set-up FAS as a semi-autonomous ‘think-tank’ running parallel to their day jobs at the taxpayer-funded CPPR? More flexibility to influence political and public thought rather than straightforward interrogation of public policy choices? There is a fair chance one or both read the Herald online so it would be good to receive a rebuttal to the points I’ve made here

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