Via the Manchester Evening News, here’s a story that may have passed you by over the weekend: the Department for Transport has agreed a deal with Rail North, an alliance of more than thirty local councils and transport authorities, to share decision-making on Northern England’s rail franchises, which are up for renewal in 2016.
Now, it’s clear at this stage that this is shared decision-making: the DfT still has a role and it’s not clear what will happen if the two bodies disagree; and this is an agreement, not law: it’s not set in stone. But still, it’s significant that the DfT now no longer sees itself as the sole arbiter of rail services in the country, and it’s a small triumph for the localism agenda.
A few things occur: firstly, this is represents another move on the part of the UK Government to chip away at the old Government regions, which are now used predominantly for statistics and the European elections. The membership of Rail North encompasses the entire North East, North West and Yorkshire and the Humber regions (as you’d expect), but also various northern midland counties, with Staffordshire taking part from what was the West Midlands region (leaving behind the metropolitan West Midlands, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire); and Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire signing up from the East Midlands, leaving out Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Rutland. A move like this, which crosses and even bisects regions on a matter as important as public transport helps to render the boundaries meaningless.
Secondly, it’s a step backwards in local accountability: John Major’s Government farmed out some Government functions to the regions; Tony Blair’s set up regional development agencies and regional assemblies and Gordon Brown even appointed Ministers for each Region, but with the exception of the Greater London Authority, the concept of a directly-elected Assembly that would oversee all regional functions died a rather humiliating death at the hands of the North East’s electorate, who were seen as the most enthusiastic supporters of an Assembly and still rejected the idea by a margin of more than three to one, with less than half of voters even opting to send the postal ballots back. But setting up what is essentially another quango comprised of representatives from the Councils seems like a retrograde step to the early days of the regions, and it doesn’t help that Greater Manchester has in effect returned to two-tier local government with the establishment of a Combined Authority, comprised of the Leaders of nine of the area’s councils and the Mayor of Salford. It certainly flies in the face of the UK Government’s ideas for more elected mayors and,of course, directly-elected Police and Crime Commissioners.
But there’s a more important point: this is part of a narrative that starts with the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales – the erosion of Westminster and Whitehall as the key centre of power in the UK.
Besides those bodies being created, and the GLA being set up, we’ve seen more powers move to Cardiff Bay and Holyrood, with more on the way to the Assembly and of course, a referendum on removing all Westminster authority over Scotland. And even if the No campaign win that vote, there’s been a remarkable shift in attitudes over the last 15 years.
Despite David Cameron’s protestations that the independence campaign is and should be a debate between Scots, it increasingly takes the form of Scottish and UK Government Ministers crossing paths and exchanging statements (William Hague’s visit being the most recent example). Labour, the official Opposition in both Parliaments, are involved in the campaign, but their involvement is getting increasingly overshadowed by the clash between the Governments.
When a row erupted over the regrading of GCSE exams, who crossed swords with Education Secretary Michael Gove? Was it then Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg MP? No, it was then Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews AM.
Who is touted as David Cameron’s most likely successor as Leader of the Conservatives? A sitting Minister? A Tory backbencher? No, Boris Johnson, Mayor of London.
And when David Cameron is on the defensive and needs to make a negative point about Labour policy, where does he turn? The Welsh Government under Labour’s Carwyn Jones.
But then, look at the Parliamentary CVs of the three main UK party leaders: of the three of them, David Cameron has the most experience, having been elected in 2001, four and a half years before he was elected Leader of his party and nine years before entering Downing Street, but has some experience as a Special Adviser to the last Tory Government. Ed Miliband was, of course, a member of Gordon Brown’s backroom team but didn’t get a seat in Parliament until 2005, five years before he assumed the Labour Leadership, while Nick Clegg was an MP for just two and a half years before he became Liberal Democrat Leader (though he had five years in the European Parliament behind him). The party leader with the most Westminster experience is the DUP’s Peter Robinson, who was first elected to the Commons in 1979 and would still be an MP today had the voters of Belfast East not voted him out in 2010.
Think about how much Parliamentary experience David Cameron’s predecessors as Prime Minister had before they entered 10 Downing Street: Gordon Brown had been an MP for 24 years, and a Government Minister for ten. Tony Blair’s first and only job in Government was Prime Minister, but he had been an MP for 14 years (and Leader of the Opposition for two and a half of those) before that. In fact, David Cameron is the Prime Minister with the least Parliamentary experience since William Pitt the Younger was appointed in 1783, almost three years after he was elected MP for Appleby.
So whichever way you turn, you see Parliament that is no longer the main source of authority in the UK, that Parliamentary experience is no longer a source of political credibility.
And there’s a wake-up call here, because whatever the outcome of the independence referendum, it’s not enough to replace just one centre of power – London – with three: London, Edinburgh and Cardiff. The regions of each nations have their issues as well, whether it’s public transport in the North (and believe me, that will just be the beginning: the Richard, Calman and Silk Commissions prove that this process just keeps on going), the Lerwick Declaration confirming the possibility of further devolution from Holyrood to the three Islands Councils, or the longstanding semi-detachment between North and South Wales, most recently evidenced in the Daily Post’s decision to cut costs by no longer distributing the paper outwith its traditional North Wales market.
But politicians in the three centres haven’t truly grasped that: the DfT has its vague ‘partnership’ with a quango; the Scottish Government has promised nothing more than a working group to the islands and Carwyn Jones is too busy trying to get Silk implemented and wading into the Scottish referendum debate to deal with the problems that come with being, in effect, the First Minister of one nation but two countries.
It’s not just the London-Edinburgh or even the London-Cardiff dimension that matters any longer: it’s the London-Manchester dimension; the Edinburgh-Lerwick dimension; the Cardiff-Wrexham dimension. But the continued focus on London as the centre of the multi-national Union means that it’s not entirely clear that Westminster, Cardiff Bay or even Holyrood truly grasp what’s going on and the regional questions within each of the nations are coming increasingly to the fore. And it’s going to take the dissolution of the London-Edinburgh-Cardiff nexus for policymakers to wake up and really deal with the challenges facing them in their own backyards.
Sure, if there’s a No vote in Scotland, there might (if the Better Together parties can actually be trusted to deliver on their vague promises of action) be a discussion of what else can move north to Edinburgh. But England has a diverse population of 53 million people, living in regions with different economic and demographic pressures. Scotland’s population might be a tenth of that but has a land area of half of England’s, with a large percentage of the population concentrated in small area in the centre, producing a small yet diverse nation with different challenges facing each region. And Wales has a lot of work to do before its North and South are as well connected to each other as they are to the likes of Liverpool and Bristol respectively.
So each nation has a lot of work to do to produce a method of governance that works for all the different regions, and it’s not the national constitutional question but the status quo that’s getting in the way of that, as it has done for so long.
Quite simply, we need a major event to shatter the complacency that dogs officials in the three governments.
Something that will change our perspective of the countries we live in.
Something that will force us to really think about who we are, and how we are governed.
And that event could well happen on the 18th of September.
I was fascinated by Tavish Scott’s op-ed in The Scotsman, which appeared online last night, in which he opines (once again) that one-party rule was hurting Holyrood, lamenting that it’s all gone horribly wrong since the SNP won a majority in 2011 (those pesky voters!), overlooking the fact that only one party had formed the Government in 2007 (albeit with a Parliamentary minority), and the 1999-2007 Coalition had rendered debate in Holyrood somewhat sterile before that. But never mind.
For those of you who do not remember him, it’s worth pointing out that Tavish Scott is a former Leader of the
Norwegian Scottish Liberal Democrats. Let me now explain why he is the former Leader: an element of rot had set in before he assumed the role, with a net loss of LibDem seats in 2007, and the lost deposit in Glasgow East during the interregnum between Nicol Stephen’s resignation and Scott’s election. Scott was unable to stop the rot: his hardline anti-Government tactics backfired spectacularly in Budget negotiations; lost deposits followed in Glenrothes and Glasgow North East; Scotland became the only part of the UK where the LibDem vote went down in 2010; and the loss of more than two thirds of his Parliamentary group in 2011 capped it all off. He had no choice but to quit.
So it’s perhaps that the period around that election was such an emotional maelstrom that explains why he opens his article by misremembering the election of the Parliament’s current Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick.
Since 2011, Scotland has been ruled by a majority Nationalist government. In Holyrood, this meant the imposition of an SNP presiding officer. The only secret and so-called free vote was between Tricia Marwick (SNP) and Christine Grahame (SNP) to become presiding officer. Marwick won. Observers concluded that the SNP leadership wanted one of their own and Grahame did not fit that bill.
Let us begin by bearing in mind that if the SNP Leadership were capable of subverting a free vote and secret ballot, it would have been capable of preventing Christine Grahame’s candidacy in the first place, let alone stopping her from receiving 32 votes for the post. Let us also bear in mind that Jack McConnell attempted this very move as First Minister, when having appointed then Deputy Presiding Officer Patricia Ferguson as a minister, attempted to shoehorn Cathy Peattie into the vacant post ahead of Trish Godman. Godman’s candidacy never materialised, but neither did Peattie’s election: she lost to Conservative Murray Tosh by 68 votes to 45 (ultimately, Godman got her way in 2003 in any case). Now, it is entirely possible – indeed credible – to suggest that not a single Labour member voted for Tosh: the combined total of the SNP, Conservative and others, together with Labour’s junior Coalition partners the LibDems, would have had a majority. But Labour did have 55 MSPs at the time, so even if none of them rebelled, at least ten of them went walkabout when they were needed. That is what happens when Leaderships attempt to subvert votes in this fashion.
But I digress. Let us also remember that Tavish Scott is wrong in any case, for the choice in 2011 was not only between Christine Grahame and Tricia Marwick, but also Labour’s Hugh Henry, and that in this supposed two-horse race, Christine Grahame came third, with 32 votes to Marwick’s 45 and Henry’s 49. Now, note the combined total of the two SNP MSPs’ votes: 77. Let us, for the sake of argument, make a number of assumptions:
- That partisan calculations were the only arguments in play in selecting Alex Fergusson’s successor;
- That every member of the SNP was hell-bent on seeing their party seize control of the Chair;
- That every SNP MSP had entirely overlooked the merits of having a PO from the Opposition so as to enhance the SNP’s majority rather than reduce it;
- That Margo MacDonald was happy to get on board with this line of thinking; and
- That the Greens, who over the course of the previous four years had gone from ushering Alex Salmond into Bute House to seemingly lamenting every action taken by the Scottish Government, were also happy to get on board with this line of thinking.
You will notice my enthusiasm for these assumptions. But do the maths: there were 69 SNP MSPs then. There were (and still are) two Greens, and there can only ever be one Margo MacDonald. That makes 72. Who, then, were the other five to vote for them? Even in the final vote, Marwick defeated Henry by 73 votes to 55, meaning that at least one outright anti-SNP MSP backed Marwick. Partisanship was not the only factor, particularly as so many observers had noted the opportunity to elected a woman to the post for the first time.
So Parliament had more of a choice than Scott contends – and more than SNP members chose Tricia Marwick. But let us move on.
The Presiding Officer now proposes that Holyrood committee conveners could be elected by the whole parliament and not appointed by their parties. It is a reasonable idea. But only if parliament was to forget politics on the day of these elections, and that seems unlikely. Currently, parties are allocated conveners in proportion to their seats in parliament. That is a fair principle. Marwick proposes retaining that. A party then chooses a particular MSP to chair a committee. Instead, Marwick wants the entire parliament to vote in each convener. In the current parliament, that would enshrine power in the hands of the SNP whips and in reality, that means Alex Salmond. Nothing happens in parliament without Salmond’s assent. The SNP controls parliamentary business, votes and the timetabling of legislation. That is what one-party rule means. Marwick now proposes that a majority government would in effect appoint conveners of committees, thus enshrining patronage and loyalty. A minority or coalition government might ensure a more open contest.
Except on votes for the Chair, Parliament does forget politics, or at least, partisanship: the Cathy Peattie debacle of 2001, which saw Executive MSPs (whether Labour or Liberal Democrat) opt for an Opposition MSP to succeed Patricia Ferguson instead of one of their own; the 2007 election for the Deputy Presiding Officers in which two Liberal Democrats stood and between them, managed to get support from outwith their party in the first round of voting (though this may have fallen away in the second round after Jamie Stone was eliminated). It was forgotten to some extent in 2011 when not the SNP found not one but two women among its ranks to stand. Now, it can’t be completely forgotten in the race for Committee Convenerships as there is still a constraint on which party takes which chairs, but still, it is a secret ballot. And Whips cannot enforce it. How could they? They can neither reward compliant voting nor punish rebels, as neither can be identified. They will certainly have less influence on proceedings than they do now.
But, as always with Tavish Scott, the problem is not the proposal but the proposer: Marwick has to be politically neutral in her role, but for Scott she is still a Narionalist and therefore, she is The Enemy. She must, in his mind, always be wrong, and have sinister motives in mind. That her proposals for the next Parliament would take effect after an election must also be noted. He’s lamenting what effect the changes would have on a landscaped changed by an election more than two years from now, with two other elections and a referendum to come before then, by looking at what would happen now. Is he conceding that majority government is here to stay? Or is he lamenting that the voters behaved as they did?
The fact is that the system is what it is, and while successive Presiding Officers have sought to refine and develop it, MSPs – whatever their party – have to make it work regardless of whether we have a single-party majority, a coalition or a minority government. The system is built around what members require to do their jobs effectively, and taking the convenerships out of the Whips’ hands will surely push things away from the monolithic nightmare Tavish Scott sees. Instead, he’s opted to second guess the electorate. His argument seems to be, “We can’t reform things, as the public might vote in people I don’t like”. Some Liberal! Some Democrat!
The other downside to the proposal is the inherent failure of the Holyrood committee system. Holyrood does not have enough members to have separate legislative and select committees as Westminster does. So committees must mix cross-party, impartial inquiries with consideration of new laws. This tends to be highly political, irrespective of the colour of the government. All governments want their own way on legislation and whip the votes accordingly. Marwick has not proposed any reform to this.
So let’s see. Scott has identified a problem: the committees have to engage in both detailed study of their subjects and full-on legislative scrutiny. He may have misdiagnosed the symptom – that legislation politicises the Committee (it’s the Members’ political affiliation that does that) – but it does mean that there aren’t enough MSPs to have as many committees as are needed to carry out both the day to day scrutiny and the important pre-legislative work that was to be the cornerstone of the Committee system. But having identified the problem and the root cause – the lack of numbers – he then seems to be calling on the Presiding Officer to abandon her political neutrality and unilaterally demand that the Scotland Act be re-amended to increase the numbers. That is the only viable reform to this issue and it is beyond any Presiding Officer. If Marwick did attempt it, you can bet that Scott would be the first to criticise her for coming off the fence.
She has also rightly said that First Minister’s Questions does not work. Backbenchers are frozen out, as the party leaders take up most of the half hour allocated to allow Salmond to provide answers to questions that were not asked. There is one person who can do something about this: the Presiding Officer. She or he controls the format. If the First Minister or a party leader is waffling far from the subject matter, the Presiding Officer can stop them. A former incumbent says the day to get that right is at the first FMQ of a new parliament. Wise words.
And again, the Presiding Officer can only go so far: she has to enforce the Standing Orders. If the leaders are waffling at FMQs, how can she enforce a Standing Order to shut them up, if that Standing Order does not exist? Aside from the Leaders being more responsible themselves, that’s really one for the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, who have more influence on the format and structure of FMQs than the Presiding Officer, who selects the questions and keeps order. MSPs control the content of their speeches, not the PO. The SPPA Committee controls the format of FMQs, not the PO. But then, while Alex Salmond’s responses can be verbose, it takes two to tango: if the questions are long-winded, the answers will be as well. But Scott won’t blame long-winded speeches on the speechmakers if some of them aren’t in the SNP. Nor will he demand the Standards Committee do everything he wants because some of its members are not in the SNP. But Marwick is (or rather, was) an SNP member, so in Scott’s mind, she is not to be trusted.
And that, ultimately, is what’s really wrong with Parliament, and Scott is its leading proponent. When he was Leader, we heard so often about “Alex Salmond’s Referendum”. And even in this musing about Parliamentary procedure, the only names singled out are SNP names, Alex Salmond gets mentioned by name three times, and Hugh Henry appears to have been airbrushed out of Parliamentary history because his presence doesn’t support Scott’s argument. If you can’t win on policy (and Tavish Scott comprehensively lost on policy), attack the process. If you can’t win on process, attack the person. And if you still can’t beat the person, just tell an outright lie, as Scott did at the start of his article.
Scott presided over the near-wipeout of his party at Holyrood, but he has failed to learn from that electoral disaster that he way he did things was wrong. Instead, he has carried on as though everyone (including the electorate, who rejected his party and his way of doing things by a margin of more than eleven to one) is wrong except him. So let me be clear: yes, there is something wrong with Parliament. But it’s not the state of the parties, the election result or who’s in Government. It’s the Opposition’s obsession with the proposer rather than the proposal. It’s the unwillingness to let the facts get in the way of a hatchet job. It’s the unwillingness to come up with clear proposals on the way forward when carping from the sidelines will do.
No, what’s hurting Holyrood isn’t majority Government, but the same thing that delivered majority Government in the first place.
An incompetent Opposition.
From today’s Daily Record:
The independence referendum will be the first time Louise Cameron, 17, sets foot inside a ballot box.
If she’s actually going to set foot in the ballot box, which is the small black thing we put the completed papers into, then perhaps we need to take a close look at the Modern Studies curriculum…
In many ways, the current position of the commentariat should be seen as a compliment to Labour: it’s not often that people can look at a poll lead of just short of ten percentage points and start asking, “Where is it going wrong?”. And yet, that seems to be what’s happening – partly because that lead was in excess of ten percentage points just a couple of weeks ago. Of course, this might yet be a blip and the lead could return to double figures rather than start to erode. But even so, things seem to have held steady at around a ten-point Labour lead for months, which suggests that not only has the Official Opposition not gained the “Big Mo”, but that it seems not to have even found a small mo. So where is it going wrong? Is it actually going wrong at all?
Well, yes, it is. The UK’s much vaunted credit rating is being downgraded by agency after agency; the economy is teetering on the brink of a triple-dip recession; the Coalition is beset by infighting; the Government’s Big Idea appears to be the Bedroom Tax.
And what of Scotland? The independence referendum is front and centre of Scottish politics, and given the state of opinion polls, the Scottish Government inevitably finds itself at a disadvantage in that it actually has to change people’s minds rather than simply get out its vote. It could do better at that: the Scottish Government gives off the appearance of making binding, quasi-constitutional decisions for the future of an independent Scotland seemingly without giving the ideas much thought or checking that their allies share their vision for a post-2014 Scotland. Moreover, the tightened Scottish Budget is making the choices required even harder to make. The Government isn’t doing badly, but it has had better periods. A strong opposition could capitalise.
And yet, and yet. Voters still don’t trust Labour to run the economy any better than the Tories, and despite having endured David Cameron as Prime Minister for almost three years, they appear dislike him less than Ed Miliband. The gap opened up between the SNP and Labour in 2011 under Iain Gray shows no sign of closing any time soon under Johann Lamont, and at the last serious electoral test, the Eastleigh By-Election, Labour’s percentage point increase only registered to the right of the decimal point. So, yes, we do need to ask where it’s going wrong.
It seems as though Labour still believe that all they need to do is watch their opponents do badly, and the voters will flock back to them. How wrong they are! If you don’t like the Coalition, yes, voting Labour, as the main opposition, might make the most sense, but there are also the Greens, Respect, the SNP, Plaid and UKIP, which exists very much on the opposite end of the political spectrum, but provides a clearer opposition to the Tories. In Scotland, opponents of the SNP might head to Labour as the main opposition, but could also switch to the Coalition parties if they were so minded; the Greens at least partially survived the 2007 electoral cull of smaller parties and are growing in local government; UKIP claim to be on the verge of some form of breakthrough in Scotland; and reports of the SSP’s demise are very much exaggerated. It’s not enough to just not be the Tories, the LibDems or the SNP.
So what’s the prescription? The Blairite assessment put forward in recent weeks is both quite correct and at the same time, very, very wrong. John Reid is correct when suggesting that voters want solutions – they can see what the problems are for themselves, so expect the politicians to provide answers. But the solution put forward by Tony Blair and his acolytes – to jump right back on the Thatcherite bandwagon – is the precise opposite of what needs to happen: if you’re offering the same thing as the other side, there is no reason to vote for you.
Yet paradoxically, Thatcher does provide the template, just not in terms of policy. Ed Miliband himself hit the nail on the head in his tribute to the former PM when he said she reminded us that ideology mattered. What, then, is his – and Labour’s – ideology?
The time has come for a new approach to politics and to government: and the Banking Crisis from 2008 saw a previously under-regulated financial sector turn cap-in-hand to the government for state aid. The bailouts and attempted economic stimulus created new pressures on public finances to which the Thatcherite answer was the current austerity approach taken by the Government. It hasn’t worked, sustained growth still seems like a distant prospect, and the banks still seem happy to reward themselves for years of failure. The alternative must have its roots in the political left and it must come from Labour: the legacy of Thatcherism can’t be erased just as it would be a foolish politician who did away with the NHS, created under Attlee. But a new approach should allow for more responsibility and scrutiny to be built into the system.
But is Miliband the man to do it? It looks unlikely: obviously you would expect details of what a post-2015 Labour government would do when there are two years of twists and turns to go until an election, but setting out what his mission would be, the broad themes and aims of that government is an absolute must. And not the ‘One Nation’ message either: I’d love for Northern England to have the same development and opportunity as is afforded parts of the South, and I’d love for the South East to enjoy a cost of living closer to the (lower) Northern lifestyle. I’d love for bank managers to actually care about their customers’ welfare and for the CBI to lay down with the TUC. But it ain’t gonna happen so it’s up to Labour to set out not what we would all wish to happen, but what they are going to make happen. All we get now are howls of protest about the Bedroom Tax followed by an uneasy silence when asked if Labour will repeal it.
And what of Johann Lamont? She has an extra year to play with as the earliest she could enter Bute House is 2016. At a time when the public is crying out for a left-leaning alternative, asking Arthur Midwinter to produce a shopping list of universal benefits to be axed seems like the stupidest thing she could possibly have done. But it could be framed in a left-wing context. After all, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” was a Marxist slogan, and you have to ask if someone who was able to save for their working lifetime (and who is likely to enjoy a lengthy retirement) needs a free bus pass as much as someone who just managed to make ends meet every month for decades and, living in an area with one of the lowest life expectancies in the developed world, won’t have much time to enjoy the benefits of free public transport and personal care.
But think harder: means testing all of these previously universal benefits risks wiping out any savings to fund the new bureaucracy needed to administer them; charging for Higher Education puts social mobility for Scotland’s young people at serious risk; charging for prescriptions calls the whole free-at-the-point-of-need ethos of the NHS into question; and while the Council Tax freeze gives disproportionate benefits to the wealthy, ending it would inflict disproportionate costs on the poor. A “smite the poor to spite the rich” proposal, couched in vituperative rhetoric about Scotland’s “something for nothing” culture? Keir Hardie must be spinning in his grave.
And again, Lamont’s approach to the Bedroom Tax is little better than Miliband’s. She and Alex Salmond are locked in a circular row, with each party demanding that the other do something to mitigate the effects of the changes to Housing Benefit. She calls on the Scottish Government to legislate to ban evictions for tenants who default on their rent as a result of benefit cuts. The FM calls on Labour Councils to operate a no-evictions policy as their SNP counterparts are doing. Now, Lamont could force the Government’s hand tomorrow by introducing a Member’s Bill to ban evictions: Ministers would either have to follow her lead or oppose the Bill. Instead, SNP Councillors are introducing a no-evictions policy where they are in administration, and proposing no-eviction motions where they are in opposition, only for Labour-led administrations to vote them down.
So while opposing the Bedroom Tax, Labour won’t commit to repealing it at Westminster, they’re passively waiting for someone else to do something about it at Holyrood, and they’re actually inflicting the full force of the policy on the people they represent in local government.
But what do Scottish Labour and Johann Lamont stand for? Her speech at this weekend’s Scottish Labour Conference contained no fewer than 22 references to the SNP and 13 to Alex Salmond, and the Leader of the Party failed to get her constitutional proposals past the ‘futile forty’ – Scottish Labour’s cohort at Westminster (and successors to the ‘feeble fifty’ who couldn’t protect Scotland from the worst excesses of a government rejected time and again at the ballot box), who do at least stand for something even if it’s just the status quo.
And on the constitution, I don’t expect the Labour Leadership to undergo some sort of Damascene Conversion to independence, but I’d have thought that by now they could come up with something better than a ‘Misery loves company’ argument which suggests that the best reason for remaining in the Union is that Scotland should have to put up with a Tory government it didn’t vote for just as Newcastle and Liverpool do. Instead, more and more believe that an independent Scotland could be a beacon of progressive politics, whether it’s Labour for Independence, John Niven, or Mary Lockhart, the Chair of the Scottish Co-operative Party. Johann Lamont, by contrast, spent the weekend defending the business dealings of a Tory donor to Better Together.
Meanwhile, what Fringe event at the Conference caught the most attention? One discussing Scotland’s role in a progressive Union? No. One discussing how to counter the Scottish Green Party’s ability to pick up a quarter of Labour constituency voters’ support on the Regional Vote, and the party’s “threat to progressive politics” (should that be “threat of progressive politics”? – Ed). Not a policy discussion, or even one on how to work with the Greens. But one designed to slag them off and work out how to shaft them electorally. I wonder if it even occurred to any of the attendees that at least some of those voters might actually be Green voters first, and the trick is to keep attracting their constituency votes?
So when a Labour Leader could build a new vision for the UK and for Scotland, Labour are found wanting at every level, relying on empty buzzwords and attack politics. That’s where it’s going wrong.
Of course, it’s a bit rich for me to spend a post attacking the Labour Party while at the same time concluding that they need to stop being so negative. But here’s the thing: I’m living in England and as a resident of Lancashire, have a vote in next month’s County Elections. I’m on the left politically, so that rules out support for the Tories, let alone UKIP or any of the various far right groups active at the moment; the actions of LibDem Councillors in both Chorley and Edinburgh have left me wondering how “Liberal Democrats” haven’t run into issues with the Trades Descriptions Act (and I don’t even have the option of dismissing the LibDems in this election as they aren’t fielding a candidate); the Greens only make it onto a ballot paper in this ward for the European Elections; and obviously, the SNP and Plaid aren’t options here.
So with a choice between the sitting Tory Councillor, Labour and UKIP, the only option I have that involves casting a successful vote is Labour. I want to support them, I really do. So it would be nice if, with less than two weeks until polling day, the one party whose leaflet I actually wanted to receive, whose candidate is the one thing standing between me and a spoiled ballot paper a week on Thursday, were not the only party not to have left some visible evidence of at least an attempt at communication. Is my part of the ward ‘in the bag’? Have they given up on it?
And the thing is, I know that my personal and political journey (an SNP member living in England) might not be all that conventional, but I’m convinced that I’m far from alone in my attitude towards Labour: I want to support them. I want to vote for them. But I have no idea what difference to my life and the life of my community voting Labour will make, or even if it will make any difference at all. With no clear message, and, it would appear, no messengers in this part of the world save for a name on a ballot paper, I can’t make an informed judgement.
No, I can’t be the only one in that predicament – that would, I suspect, explain why Labour’s poll lead is starting to decline ever so slightly. Whether or not that forms part of a trend, a ten-point lead at this stage in a Parliament isn’t enough.
In fact, look at polls at this stage of every Parliament (~57.5-59 per cent of the way through the term) since 1970, and compare them to the subsequent election result, and you see two sets of trends: on average, the Labour position is overstated by just under six and a half points, while the Tory vote is understated by just over four points.
Looking at the figures another way, the principal opposition party finds its position overstated by five and a half points, and that of the principal party in government is understated by just under three and a half points.
And whichever way you look at it, you would expect the third party to have its support understated by an average of just over two and a half points. That would still have the LibDems getting their poorest result since the merger (and still the worst showing of the party and its antecedents since 1970), but things aren’t as apocalyptic as the polls suggest and a LibDem Westminster group in the low thirties wouldn’t be an unreasonable outcome.
Now, bear all that in mind when you consider Labour’s ten-point lead, and the three-figure majority that would come with it. All of a sudden, it looks very, very vulnerable. The government-opposition discrepancy sees the Labour lead cut to just one point. The party discrepancy makes even worse reading for Labour: a ten point Labour lead could turn into a Tory lead of just under one point. Now, even that would make Labour the largest party in the Commons and would probably put Ed Miliband in Downing Street. But the three-figure majority? Gone. Labour could find themselves short of a majority, at best by three seats (take out the Speaker and Deputy Speakers and assume five Sinn Fein MPs refusing to take their place, and Labour would be able to win most Commons votes without working too hard for support from elsewhere), and at worst by fourteen seats (which would all but force Labour and the LibDems into formal talks).
And here’s the worst part for Labour: as we add new polls and take out old results, and keep looking at historic polls in the equivalent timescale in previous Parliaments, we see a double whammy for Labour: in this Parliament, their lead seems to be going down; while the gaps between what historic opinion polls were saying and what actually went on to happen seems, if anything, to be getting wider. Obviously, those leads to go down – but if the past week really has heralded the start of the decline for Labour, it has come too soon.
There are those in Labour who fantasise about SNP members praying for a never-ending Tory Government as a way of boosting support for independence. I hate to burst their bubble, but I can’t imagine many SNP members preferring a Tory Government to a Labour one. Next year is next year – we all have to deal with the consequences of a Tory Government right now. And unless the Labour Leadership extracts its collective digit, regardless of what I want, what other SNP members want or what Labour supporters want, a Tory Government could well be what we get in 2015. Could Scotland be blamed for wanting to get out when it can?
After Eastleigh – TOC
Did Labour have a bad night or a good night? Their vote share held up, in fact it increased (albeit by 0.22%), giving them the best overall performance of the Big 3. Not bad in a seat where they had no real infrastructure or organisation. If the swings in Eastleigh were repeated across the country, Labour would end up with a majority fairly close to the one they scored in 2005. There ends the case for the defence.
The case for the prosecution is far more damning: they were third in 2010; they came fourth in 2013. Not only did they fail to convince LibDem voters to move to Labour, they actually lost a thousand votes. In a seat where they apparently haven’t had any organisation in place since the last By-Election in 1994, Labour still achieved over 10,000 votes consistently from them until 2005 – more than one vote in five was for Labour. This time, they couldn’t even manage 5,000 votes or one vote in ten. John O’Farrell tried to frame the contest as a two-horse race between the Coalition parties and Labour. In his own narrative, he still came third.
There, once again, is Labour’s problem. It’s what got them humiliated in Scotland in 2011. It’s what cost them Bradford East in 2012. It’s still hurting them in 2013. Don’t they get it yet? It is not enough, and it will never be enough, simply to not be the Coalition. UKIP aren’t the Coalition. Respect aren’t the Coalition. The SNP aren’t the Coalition. The Greens aren’t the Coalition. And so on. We know what Labour is against, but with just a little over two years left of this Parliament, we are no closer to working out what Labour is for.
And it flies in the face of Labour’s latest buzz-phrase: One Nation. Where is ‘One Nation’ evident in Chuka Umunna shrugging his shoulders and saying that if Labour won Eastleigh in a General Election they’d have a majority of 350 seats? Where is ‘One Nation’ evident in there needing to be a By-Election for Labour to get organised? With the LibDems getting pummelled in local elections for the past two years, with Labour being the main beneficiaries of that, and with the party still as recently as eight years ago being to enjoy five-figure polls and a 20% vote share in a seat where you would expect tactical voting to have been the order of the day, why weren’t they in there, getting a toehold on the Council?
What is Labour’s plan? To sit there quietly, and win by default? They should be trying to seize the agenda, shape the narrative and build momentum. They aren’t doing that. And it’s UKIP who benefit from Labour’s complacent inertia.
The party enjoys, on average, an eleven-point lead in the polls. At the equivalent point in the 1987-1992 Parliament, in early 1990, Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party enjoyed a lead of fifteen points. The Tories won a fourth term in 1992. Tony Blair had a lead of 27 and a half points in early 1995. His lead was reduced to just(!) thirteen points in 1997 – enough for a landslide, but half what he was predicted to get two years earlier. Hell, even Michael Foot had a lead of 10 and a half points in mid-1981, and look what happened to him!
So Labour might have been the only party to increase their vote share, and the swing on display might grant them a 60-seat majority. The polls might give them a lead over the Tories of eleven points and a three-figure majority to go with it. But there is a gap between mid-term polls and the actual result – a gap which could see their lead shrink to three points at most: enough to give Labour a majority of just 22 seats.
If Eastleigh should have taught Labour anything, it’s this: the party needs to stop assuming that the votes will simply come, and start going out to find them. No more shrugging of shoulders. No more musing that a seat isn’t on the target list. No more 20-year organisational vacuums. No more just not being the other guy.
There were surely ten thousand potential Labour voters in Eastleigh, and the party just found four thousand of them. A few more failures on that level, and even that 22-seat majority could look optimistic. Labour could end up handing David Cameron another five years in Downing Street.
After Eastleigh – TOC
It’s hard to know what has been the biggest disaster for the Tories in this By-Election: the campaign, the result, or the aftermath. Maria Hutchings should have been a shoo-in to win: she had stood in the constituency before and her previous opponent had resigned in disgrace.
But the Conservatives forgot the First Law of By-Elections: for the main three UK-wide parties, a candidate is one of more than six hundred in a General Election, but is one of one in a By-Election. Her previous utterances were scrutinised, her views canvassed on a range of subjects. She was as hostile to immigration as UKIP; were David Cameron’s proposed referendum on the EU to take place, she would vote to leave it; had the been in the Commons a few weeks earlier, she would have voted against equal marriage. It seems that she shared a party affiliation with her leader, but very little else: she had more in common with UKIP, a point that all of her opponents were happy to exploit.
So faced with this gulf between the candidate and the Leadership, the Tories had two options: try and spin her as an independent(ish) voice for Eastleigh, or crowd her out with neighbouring MPs and frontbenchers, and lock Hutchings in a cupboard somewhere. They went with Option B, which served to only further highlight the ideological gap, and raised questions as to whether or not she had been gagged. Even following the result, her speech was brief and devoid of any political content, and she was whisked out of the counting hall, not speaking to any of the reporters throwing questions at her. Not speaking at all.
So again, it’s a judgement call: she was fine as one of six hundred, but the party assumed she’d be fine as one of one. She wasn’t. They then needed to find a way of backing her up when exposed. They didn’t. The Second Law of All Politics was in effect: it’s not the action that hurts, it’s the reaction.
Then there was the result: the Tories came third in a two-horse race. They shed their vote fell by 14 points and Hutchings shed almost half the votes she’d garnered in 2010. The only things that bore even a passing resemblance to a ray of light were the minuscule net LibDem-Tory swing (0.26%) and the almost total failure of Labour to capitalise on Coalition misfortune. Yes, it was a mid-term result, as the Tory mantra went, but they initially had hopes of victory in this poll.
So what now? David Cameron has said that there will be no lurch to the right,but his Cabinet seem out to prove him wrong, with Defence Secretary Philip Hammond demanding a cut in the welfare budget to preserve the MoD, and Home Secretary Theresa May openly musing about the UK quitting the ECHR.
This might be what Tories want to hear. But it won’t work. The Tories need to get that they didn’t lose the election because they just weren’t right wing enough. They tried that approach in 2001. It failed. They tried again in 2005. It failed. Their candidate embodied those views in Eastleigh. She came third. UKIP are now established on the party’s right flank. Yes, they need to compete against that, but with recent LibDem travails, the left flank, the centre-right ground, is ripe for exploitation. They missed that, and so the LibDems held it.
This now is the Tory problem: they have a Leader who is still trying to make the odd pitch for the centre, but those who might be attracted to it take one look at the rest of his party and back off. The activists and candidates are on the hunt for red meat, taking a hardline approach for what should be core support on the right of the party, forgetting that core support alone doesn’t win elections. But that core support looks at Cameron’s pitch for the middle and is put off. They are trying to appeal to everyone but are convincing no one. They have two years to come up with a convincing narrative.