15 April 2015

Blair's last Horcrux...

Building on yesterday's thoughts on the sticky predicament which Chuka Umunna and the Eds generously dumped Jim Murphy in on Monday, I have a wee piece in this morning's National on Scottish Labour's new shapeshifter leader, several months into his agitated stewardship of his troubled party. An excerpt:

"For his critics and detractors, it is all too easy to see Mr Murphy as the undead, malevolent soul fragment of Labour’s late, unlamented wizard of spin. Having assassinated the decent but lost figure of Johann Lamont, and snatched the “branch office” from her, Jim has evolved into a divisive figure who kicks up remarkable levels of antipathy. 

Many see him as a sort of Lovecraftian monstrosity, conscienceless, centreless: all surfaces and no depth, his shifting harlequin face twisting and bending into whatever expression he imagines his audience want him to wear. 

Today, he is anti-austerity Jim, crusader against cuts and defender of the rights of the common man. Scant months ago, he was Trident Jim, a fully paid-up cheerleader for the military industrial complex, calling on his leader to accept Tory spending cuts and shun “shallow and temporary” populism to prove the party’s credentials as a “credible” opposition to Cameron’s Conservatives."

You can read the whole thing here.

13 April 2015

If the yolk sticks

If the yolk sticks. You would be hard pushed to invent a worse story for Jim Murphy and his Scottish and UK Labour colleagues, every which way you look at it. The Eds are anxious to establish their fiscal probity. They will never satisfy the baying hounds of the Tory press, but doughty little fiends that they are, they are desperate to show that they can "responsibly" hack away at the British state with the best of them. 

The usual suspects are itching for any opportunity or pretext to question Miliband's commitment to the deficit-frame of "fiscal probity". But the Labour leader held the line, with a cauld kale offering of cuts, interspersed with a few simple, positive, constructive ideas. A mean repast it may be, but compared to the ragged, personalised, unstrategic mess that is the Tory base campaign, you can rattle off a few clear and cogent Labour proposals on one hand. For voters of the left, much of this is robbed of its substance and vitality by the overarching commitment to the deficit fetish economics which Ed Balls has imbibed -- but there it is. Choices made. Lines drawn.

Mr Murphy's task is even trickier. He has deemed it expedient to tack to the left to restore Scottish Labour's ailing fortunes, keen to pin the SNP as careless cutters in contrast with his gloss on Labour economic plans as an "end to austerity". Simultaneously, Scottish Jim for Scotland has taken Scottish Henry McLeish's Scottish advice that Scottish Labour should embrace Scottish patriotism. He has also been struggling to cast off the acrylic uniform of the party's "branch manager", run up by tricoteuse and Murphy oustee, Johann Lamont, and to establish himself as the Heid Neep of Scottish Labour's warring vegetable rack of parliamentarians, divided by their jealousies, ambitions and contempts. 

Labour is onto two losing games here. If you want a chill hearted bastard to "balance the books", why vote Labour? Why go for the bloodless alternative? Why not back blue and get the real thing? Similarly, if you are the kind of voter animated by the idea of your representatives "standing up for Scotland", why back Labour over the SNP? Cram as many references to Scotland into your Twitter profile as you like, apply a patriotic gatling gun to your election literature - you are always going to be facing a Scottish National Party whose sole fealty is to the voters north of the border, without inconvenient colleagues with different and legitimate and incompatible political agendas in the rest of the country.

On austerity and the narrow Scottish interest -- it is a battle you can't win.  If Labour aspire to remain a - or the - national UK party, I'd have thought they'd be best to push back against this limited "patriotic" agenda, rather than embracing it. Which is a long-winded way of saying: both of these -- it seems to me -- are losing games for Scottish Labour to play. But poor Jim finds himself locked into, or has chosen to play, both hands. Cue broken eggs.

Today's "slapdown" by Labour's shadow business spokesman, Chuka Umunna, and Ed Balls, undermines just about everything that Jim Murphy has been agitating so antically to promote: Labour as an anti austerity alternative, his own office as robust, independent, "patriotic", in charge of the Scottish contingent in Westminster, paying the piper and calling the tune. But Chuka was having none of that, offering up this suspiciously quotable demolition of Mr Murphy's position to Andrew Neill this lunchtime. Gey generous it was of him too:

"The leader of the Scottish Labour Party will not be in charge of the UK budget. The leader of our country, our next prime minister, Ed Miliband, will be in charge of the UK budget and he has just answered the question, when that was put to him - will there be any cuts over the course of this parliament not just in the first financial year, but in the following financial years?  And he was absolutely clear - there will be the need for further consolidation and cuts throughout the rest of the parliament."

This doesn't even leave Mr Murphy the wriggle room to be a critical friend of the UK leadership, pursuing different priorities from within the UK Labour Party. If you want to give the Labour party the heart and stomach to pursue different priorities -- there is clearly no point backing Jim. Even his own senior colleagues apparently see him as an irrelevance, and do not have the good grace to conceal their indifference to his opinion from the public. 

Today's clash also helps to marginalise impressions of Mr Murphy's control over his own Westminster parliamentarians.  In principle, at least, Jim heads up the whole contingent of Scottish representatives -- but the Eds apparently regard his colleagues as their worker bees, to troop biddably through the lobbies in Westminster without reference to the manic pterodactyl (Alex Massie™). It is the old, unedited hubris. But it diminishes Jim to a cypher, to do as telt, again. Either the Scottish Labour leader a) misunderstood the nature of his UK colleagues' plans, or b) dissembled about it none too subtly, but whether a) or b) is the case, his point of view is dismissed as irrelevant. 

If Murphy cuts up rough, he gives the Tory press an enviable opportunity to chuck muck at Ed Miliband. If he doesn't, and keeps his tongue in his head, he looks craven, disingenuous, calculating, and ineffective. A fine day at the office, all around. Tonight, the frittatas are on Jim. 

The Vow+?

This morning, the Labour Party launches its 2015 manifesto in Manchester. It pledges to hold a UK wide "people-led" constitutional convention and commits any new Labour government to additional Scottish devolution. The key paragraph reads as follows:

"In September 2014, people across Scotland voted overwhelmingly for change. Labour will keep its vow and implement the Smith Agreement in full. And we will go further, with a Home Rule Bill to give extra powers to Scotland over tax, welfare and jobs. Rates of income tax will be set in Scotland. Billions of pounds of social security spending will be devolved, including benefits that support disabled people. The Work Programme will also be devolved along with a greater ability to invest in capital projects.

The new devolution settlement will recognise the strength and security offered by being part of the United Kingdom. We will maintain the Barnett formula, and Scotland will continue to benefit from pooling and sharing resources across the UK."

For all of its superficial conclusiveness, this paragraph leaves urgent questions about the contents of the "vow plus", advanced by Gordon Brown and Jim Murphy, unanswered.  Labour pledge to "go further" than Smith, but go on to list only policies which the Smith Commission agreed to devolve, and which we already find in the draft clauses of the Scotland Bill published by the Scotland Office.

There is nothing here which the Tory and Liberal Democratic coalition have not proposed. So what more are Labour proposing? What precise elaboration on the Smith heads of terms are they planning? Smith came to the conclusion that housing benefit could not be disentangled from the universal credit. No mention of housing benefit here. So what is the scheme, Jim? Ed?

Nothing in today's manifesto affords even a speck of illumination. We are left where we started with Labour: no minimum wage, no pensions, no employment law, no Equality Act, no national insurance, no housing benefit, no universal credit, no broadcasting, no corporation tax, no inheritance tax, no capital gains, no renewable energies, no oil.

The draft clauses of the Scotland Bill were clearly Treasury work: grudging, minimalist and controlling. There are a number of different ways in which the broad, airy proposals of the Smith Commission might be realised, some bolder, others more cautious and limited. The devil is, proverbially, in the legal detail. And in drafting that detail for Alastair Carmichael, UK civil servants adopted the most restrictive alternative at every turn. In the light of today's manifesto, I increasingly wonder if the Murphy/Brown "vow plus" rhetoric really amounts only to this -- a commitment to give effect to the Smith Commission in a very slightly more ambitious way than the outgoing coalition has proposed. Haud me back...

9 April 2015

Notes on "Defcon F*****d"

Believe it or not, in Inverness Nairn Badenoch and Strathspey in the general election of 2010, Danny Alexander's primary challenger was the Labour Party. The Liberal Democrat secured just shy of 41% of the vote in the Highland seat (19,172) while his Labour challenger Mike Robb took 10,407 to John Finnie's (SNP) 8,803. This time out, Alexander faces Drew Hendry for the Nats, while Labour have given Mike Robb a second crack at the seat.  

But given the history of the constituency, its Holyrood voting behaviour, and the failure of the Scottish Labour Party to pitch beyond urban (and increasingly west-central) Scotland, few folk will be expecting Danny Alexander to be unseated by the representative of the People's Party. Robb will hope to run his opponents close, and to build on his solid 2010 performance to make it a three-way race, but Ashcroft's February poll suggests that he has already been pushed into a distant third.

Those of you watching even snippets of the STV and BBC Scotland debates these past two evenings will have been struck by the vehemence with which the old Better Together coalition representatives went hunting for Nicola. And no surprise. The SNP is the only political party which can really be said to be in contention in every single seat in Scotland. Aberdeenshire to the Borders, Dundee to west central Scotland, everyone up there with Sturgeon has something to lose. Everyone, everywhere, has colleagues and comrades, with a Nat potentially nipping at their heels. The same cannot really be said of Labour, defending their redoubts, or the Tories, trying to shore up Mundell and hoping to give the ailing Liberal Democrats a kicking in Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk. 

Whatever your view of the national question, Nicola was always going to have a big, beaming target on her back. And despite the rough handling and the multiple angles of fire, she held up well.

Deprived of the relative security of a proportional electoral system, first past the post ratchets up the stakes. It forces the candidates - as if they needed any encouragement - to fight like rats in a sack. The risks and rewards of failure are far greater. Think of it this way. If Holyrood had been elected in 2011 solely on the basis of who won in the Holyrood constituencies, the SNP would have won 53 of 73 seats (73%) on the basis of 45% of the votes. Labour would have been reduced to just 15 seats in the chamber (21%), despite attracting 32% of constituency votes. The Blair years tell a similar story. 

Other first past the post systems throw up parallel calamities and triumphs, as marginal winners win big, and marginal losers get decimated. The mild folk of Canada have been particularly ferocious in this respect. In the federal election of 2011, the Liberal Party under Michael Ignatieff went into the poll with 77 MPs in the Canadian House of Commons, crashing to just 34. That was as nothing compared to the party's fate in 1984, when the Liberals lost 73% of their parliamentary delegation, falling from 147 to just 40 MPs. The Liberals paid their opponents back in kind in 1993, however, when the Progressive Conservatives conspired to lose 99% of their ridings, belly-flopping from the heights of 169 seats to just two. 

Even the disheartened Scottish Labour MP, complaining of "being set to Defcon f****d", must concede that their own predicament isn't quite so dire -- yet.  But first past the post can be like like Saturn: it devours its own children.    

8 April 2015

Nae pals

Look at the numbers. By all means, the polls may be out. I remain unconvinced that the SNP will approach anything like 50-odd seats. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats will do slightly better in those parts of the Britain which remain authentically liberal - comfortable, too snobbish to vote Labour, with with too much - tepid - regard for the general welfare to embrace Toryism. But look at the overall totals, the trend, and the likely outcomes. 2015 is a general election of friends. Or at least of uneasy allies. 

Whoever wins a plurality of seats will have to rely on the support - or at least the acquiescence of near neighbours - to seize power, installing themselves in Downing Street and distributing the ministerial dodgems to their followers. There are 650 members of the House of Commons. If we eliminate Mr Speaker, and discount the five Sinn Fein members who do not take their seats, a working majority in the Commons is currently 323 seats

And standing there, isolated in the corner of the school-yard, nose snotters, eyes streaming, we find the Conservative Party: a petulant little Lord Fauntleroy figure - Spoilt Bastard for Viz readers - friendless and alone. UKIP's broad but shallow support may throw up a handful of MPs who could be persuaded to leave David Cameron's settee in No 10. The Unionist alliance in Northern Ireland will yield a few more - but the price for their support seems to be greater lucre for the Six Counties - and a state-slicing Tory administration must yield fewer opportunities for bungs and investments in exchange for confidence and supply. 

It remains to be seen how the shattered fragments of the Liberal Democrats will reassemble after voting day, or what ideological strain and analysis of their current predicament will prevail: the noble self-sacrificing patriots, or a Benedict Arnold leadership, foolishly deserting their base. Even then, the party looks almost certain to be deprived of its 2010 predicament and opportunity: the only viable coalition partner for the single largest party. It is a question of rainbow coalitions all round, formal and informal. 

Analysing last night's debate on STV, Adam Bienkov rightly underlines a point this blog has been making for some time:

"... as things stand, Labour are highly unlikely to win an overall majority at the election. According to most forecasts it is also likely that the Tories will be the largest party in a hung parliament. If this turns out to be the case then you might expect Ed Miliband to have no chance of becoming prime minister. You would be wrong. In a parliamentary system, it is not the party which has the largest number of seats, but the party which is most able to pass a majority in that parliament, which gets to govern. If current polls are correct, that party is Labour. The Conservatives know this, which is why they have spent the past few months trying to delegitimise the idea of any kind of post-election arrangement between Labour and the SNP."

This is the Tory cri de cœur. Demanding power without a mandate, claiming legitimacy without support, lashing out at the "undemocratic" outrage of the SNP refusing point-blank to re-install this unpopular and divisive minority party in power. But the bleak truth, my snivelling, lonesome, friend is this: this is a general election of friends, and save for Nigel's crackpot gang of three or four, you've nae pals.

1 April 2015

#GE2015...

Contrary to the shamefully misleading impression given by this morning's blog: (1) Lallands Peat Worrier is not dead; (2) I have not been transformed into a by turns cold-eyed and by turns sentimental devotee of our present Union; (3) Ruth Davidson has not hired me to be her dogsbody, factotum or generic legal henchperson. I remain an occasionally off message but essentially devoted old separatist peat worrier still. 

My wee hiatus is part labour, part inclination. Term and teaching is roiling to its busy conclusion with exam papers and essays and dissertation drafts accumulating. It is lovely work, enjoyable, engaging, gladly tiring. But to be entirely candid with you, I have also never much enjoyed blogging general elections. Even ones which went well. As a partisan, you feel the impulse to make yourself somehow useful, either by keeping your great gob shut, laying into your opponents, cheering your own infantry into battle or taking pot shots at their senior officers from afar. This is all in good fun, to some extent, for a while. We are not short of ammunition. The headlines and manifestos contain plenty to vex and to animate and contest, but I feel gripped by a sort of post indyref stasis. 

Against the pitter-patter of spring rain, I can make out the background babble: the broadcasts and the interviews; the coalition arithmetic and its petty personalities; disciplined insincere speeches and honest indiscretions quickly disavowed; the relentless messaging and framing, the ghastly repetition, "a strong economy," "social justice," the ghastly repetition; "Vote SNP get Labour", "Vote SNP get the Tories"; the nonsense and the flesh pressing, wet handshakes, hollow laughter and terrified smiles; the relentless, daily polling and blethering about polling and speculation on the impact of polling on blethering, and the polling on the impact of the blethering about the polling on the polling. 

In response to all of this breath and ink, all of this opinion giving and criticising and speculating - I catch myself unlistening, decided, uninterested. I feel ratty, ungenerous, unprovoked and unstimulated. A sort of cantankerous stasis, somehow. And the talking heads witter on cluelessly. Twitter churns. Our broadcasters pretend that each day must be a bringer of great new things. Of tidings, new strategies, savvy interventions. And the concrete, trudging realities defy all efforts to bleach their greyness from them. 

The relentless polls burst little, like whizzpoppers, to keep you from nodding off. They sting, slightly, but their temporary victims soon forget the pleasures and the pains of momentarily being a few pips ahead of their chosen foes but within the margin of error. Nobody has a clue and is reduced to earnest, disconnected fakery and bubble talk. Today a stricken Mr Cameron reels from the pressure. Tomorrow Mr Miliband blunders, and is eaten alive over some trifle most folk will overlook. And the spring rain falls. And I have essays to mark. 

The End

You may have noticed something of a hiatus on this blog. I think I owe it to you all to explain myself, to account for my silence. It is with a heavy heart that I must tell you that this is the final post you will ever read here on Lallands Peat Worrier.  The referendum moved me in ways I had never expected. As the Yes campaign tugged and tore independence into the mainstream of Scottish political opinion, I found my own emotional and intellectual ties to the independence movement and the idea attenuating, weakening. In my heart, despite the family and the history, the arguments and the reasons, I found that I cherished our sometimes lopsided, sometimes imperfect union. 

I remembered the balmy Oxfordshire sunshine. The twinkling eyes of a generous pensioner in York. The words of Shakespeare, and of Tennyson. In the silence of the ballot box, communing with my most inward, secret thoughts, I at first tremblingly, then proudly scored my cross in the "No" box on the 18th of September. I can only apologise for maintaining the hypocrisy in the days and weeks that followed. I have failed you, and failed the country I love also. It is time to efface that dishonour and finally to speak up for what the Prime Minister has rightly described as our family of nations, and our noble traditions of parliamentary democracy.

After some necessarily private talks and negotiation, I have been approached by Ruth Davidson to provide advice to her parliamentary colleagues on justice, law, rights and I have been honoured to accept. This appointment is obviously incompatible with my continued contribution to the public debate here. 

So farewell, my friends, farewell.

*ahem* For those of you who have launched hysterical phonecalls, remonstrating emails, appalled comments of your worst political suspicions confirmed ...