The decline of the Party of Necessity

Referendum Eve in Glasgow

Referendum Eve in Glasgow by Phyllis Buchanan, on Flickr.

Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, left-wing parties in Europe typically had left-wing policies, such as being in favour of universal benefits, free education (incl. university tuition), generous unemployment benefits and free healthcare.

However, the collapse of communism seems to have made many formerly left-wing politicians believe that neoliberalism was the only game in town, and they gradually started enacting almost exactly the same policies as their right-wing opponents, just presented in a slightly left-wing fashion.

Most of the politicians from both formerly left-wing and right-wing political parties have studied politics, economics and/or law at university and have learnt to treat neoliberal textbooks as gospel.

To a large extent, one cannot tell these former opponents apart. I’ve suggested in the past that the Tories, Labour and the LibDems should merge into one Better Together party in Scotland, but in an international context, I’d suggest the merger should be called the Party of Necessity, because its politicians always claim their unpopular policies are “necessary” according to their textbooks.

So when the banks started collapsing in 2008, the reaction of the Party of Necessity governments was the same in all countries, namely to bail out the banks and introduce a version of austerity protecting the ultra-rich and sending the bill to the poorest citizens.

However, the beautiful thing about democracy is that if all the existing parties get something completely and utterly wrong, new parties will emerge from nowhere and replace them, or existing small parties will suddenly become huge. This is what we saw in Greece yesterday, and very similar things are happening all over Europe and beyond. (The Scottish Yes campaign, which nearly achieved Scottish independence last year, was of course also part of this international trend.)

Here are a few examples of the decline of the Party of Necessity:

Greece (PASOK + New Democracy): 2007: 79.9%, 2009: 77.4%, 2012: 32.1%, 2012 (again): 42%, 2015: 32.5%.

Spain (PP + PSOE): 2008: 83.8%, 2012: 73.4%, latest opinion polls: ~45%.

Italy (Democratic Party + People of Freedom): 2006: 99.5%, 2008: 84.3%, 2013: 58.6%, latest opinion polls: ~50%.

Scotland (Tory + Lab + LibDem), Westminster elections: 2005: 77.9%, 2010: 77.6%, latest opinion polls: ~45%.

UK (Tory + Lab + LibDem): 2005: 89.6%, 2010: 88.1%, latest opinion polls: ~68%.

Denmark (SocDem + SocLib + Cons + Lib): 2007: 67.2%, 2011: 65.9%, latest opinion polls: ~55%.

Germany (CDU/CSU + SPD + FDP): 2005: 79.2%, 2009: 71.4%, 2013: 72.0%, latest opinion polls: ~67%.

It’s clear that different countries aren’t at the same stage — as a rule of thumb it seems to be linked to how well they have coped with the recession. However, it seems likely that many European countries soon won’t be governed by the Party of Necessity. It’s already the case in Scotland and Greece, but the figures above makes me think it’s simply a question of time before a majority of European governments are anti-Necessity.

I’ve said it before, but we truly do live in interesting times.

Addendum (27/01/14): Aditya Chakrabortty has written a very interesting article about how Labour risks ending up like PASOK. His name for what I have called the Party of Necessity above is TINA (“there is no alternative”), which is a very accurate description, too.

Share Button
Posted in EU, Labour, LibDems, Tories | 21 Comments

Indyref postmortem II: We need to talk about Yes Scotland

I think it’s quite likely the next independence referendum will happen sooner rather than later, so it’s important to have a look at what we could have done better, not in order to point fingers at anybody, but simply to make sure that we win next time. This is the second of several indyref postmortems.

Blair Jenkins

Blair Jenkins by Ninian Reid, on Flickr.

During the independence campaign, lots of people were privately girning about Yes Scotland, but most of it remained private out of fear that any criticism would be used against us. However, Yes Scotland — or rather, the headquarters on Hope Street in Glasgow — made many mistakes, and we need to learn from them before the next referendum.

My main criticisms are listed below.

Failure to liaise with local groups

Yes Scotland did play a role in setting up many of the local groups. However, once they had been set up, they were to a large extent ignored, except for endless requests to raise money for Yes Scotland.

One particular problem was that it led to uneven campaigning — if there were many volunteers in one area, they could undertake lots of activities such as fundraising and canvassing that would help later in the campaign, whereas other areas were starved of resources. Nobody seemed to look at the “empty” areas and try to help them grow until they could campaign on their own.

It could also get quite depressing being a Yes campaigner in a strong No area — on Facebook you could see how much fun campaigners in Yes areas were having, but the strong focus on local campaigning meant you had to knock on the doors in your No-leaning area alone. I often wished we could have swapped volunteers with a Yes area for a day!

Perhaps this was all caused by the lack of community organisers, as pointed out by Alistair Davidson last July:

Yes HQ made a serious mistake in not hiring any community organisers. An organiser’s job is to put themselves at the service of a movement (the professional jargon calls organisers “staff” and ordinary movement members “leaders”), to develop and maintain relationships with people who take on leading roles, and to encourage new activists to become involved in leadership and planning. This kind of organic connection to a movement helps to smooth over clashes with the careful plans of the political strategists.

Instead of actually liaising with local groups, Yes Scotland seemed to see it as their role to provide ads, literature, merchandise and email updates.

Yes East Renfrewshire's offending leaflet.

Yes East Renfrewshire’s offending leaflet.

Another problem with not engaging sufficiently with local groups was seen when HQ called me in June ’14 to tell us (i.e., Yes East Renfrewshire) to pulp 20,000 newly printed leaflets because they contained a link to Wings over Scotland. We had already distributed the first batch, and before we produced it, I had talked to somebody from HQ who waffled and didn’t give me a straight answer. (They claimed later they had said they didn’t want Wings included — but if so they did it so subtly that I didn’t understand it — all I took from the conversation was that it wasn’t their job to tell local groups what to do or not do.) However, because of a potential media story about a leaflet produced by Yes Leith, they wanted us to pull ours, too. Eventually we produced 20,000 more leaflets without Wings, which we then distributed before distributing the old leaflets once the media story had gone away, in spite of what HQ had said. I imagine a community organiser would have been more closely involved in the design and contents of local leaflets so that the issue wouldn’t have arisen.


Yes Scotland seemed to think that all the local groups should do was fundraising and canvassing. As soon as people signed up, they were typically told to go and canvas rather than being invited to a social event to make them feel welcome. I think we lost many potential volunteers in this way, especially in the early days of the campaign.

Raccoon Circle

Raccoon Circle by CommonGroundAdventuresFL, on Flickr.

As I argued on this blog in July ’13, there was a huge need to motivate and encourage volunteers, and this almost only happened online, and not by HQ, who instead told us to “step away from your keyboards and talk to people!”. Robin McAlpine expressed this very well a year later:

[Wings over Scotland] has lifted our spirits throughout the campaign. When we wake up in the morning and Yes Scotland isn’t in the papers (why?) and the SNP is being timid and talking like an accountant, it is often Wings that is the primary source of commentary that doesn’t seem always to accept the premise set by the mainstream media as the only possible frame for discussing independence. It makes it OK to be both angry and excited while becoming informed at the same time.

It often felt like Yes Scotland had no idea how to deal with their campaigners. As a parent, I often felt they used negative parenting techniques, ignoring the volunteers for too long and then suddenly barking commands at us (“Pulp that leaflet! Don’t participate in the BBC Bias demo! Don’t read Wings!”), instead of using positive techniques, such as engaging proactively. The problem with negative parenting is that eventually the sproglets get fed up and start ignoring you or — worse — start acting against you. Yes Scotland were actually quite lucky that all volunteers felt so strongly about the goal — Scottish independence — that nobody wanted to rock the boat during the campaign.

In addition to community organisers, some internal web forums might have been useful, as well as a yearly Yes conference for lead volunteers.

Yes Scotland the company

Other people have already pointed out that Yes Scotland initially seemed to waste a lot of money by hiring directors used to working in big corporate positions.

Chevron Corporate Offices in Houston TX

Chevron Corporate Offices in Houston TX by Jonathan McIntosh, on Flickr.

As a result, it often felt like they constantly felt cash-strapped but short of hands. However, many people who participated in the campaign had more time than money, and to me it just didn’t seem sensible to beg volunteers for money in order to hire people to do the jobs that the volunteers would have done for free if they had been asked. The number of emails asking for financial contributions were endless, but I don’t think I received a single one asking for help (apart from reminders to go canvassing).

Would HQ in their heart of hearts have been happier with a small army of paid canvassers like Better Together’s, rather than having critical and engaged activists with their own dreams, hopes and campaigning ideas? At an event for lead volunteers in Stirling in June ’14, a representative for Yes Scotland for instance told people their job online was to regurgitate the daily messages sent from HQ so that the campaign theme of the day was the one decided in Hope Street, which of course was a pointless appeal at that point in the campaign.

In fact, Yes Scotland often seemed to think like spin doctors, for instance preferring to arrange photo-ops for the media with hand-picked volunteers, while talking down or ignoring the actual grassroots events organised on Facebook.

The database

One huge problem was Yes Scotland’s database. They were clearly so keen to get it up and running quickly that they installed a version of NationBuilder without testing properly that it could cope with Scottish addresses.

Database Diagram FAIL

Database Diagram FAIL by Tony Buser, on Flickr.

The result was that we lost many volunteers. The system couldn’t assign volunteers to the right groups (partially because it didn’t register the address of many volunteers, only their email address, I believe), so when we tried to use their system to email everybody in our area, we didn’t reach many people. My dear wife at first received the emails from Glasgow, not from East Renfrewshire, and later she didn’t receive any local emails, only fundraising messages from HQ.

I understand they were keen to launch before Better Together, but they would have been better off with a simple one-table MySQL database and a simple PHP website (I could have made this for free if they had asked) until they had had time to test the real system sufficiently.

It would also have been good if there had been a decent canvassing app (or a mobile-friendly website) that could have been used when you sent people out to knock doors. Yes, eventually there was an app, but it arrived late in the day and its functionality was limited.


Yes Scotland wasn’t given an easy task, of course, being tasked with combining the campaigning strength of the SNP with the varied skills exhibited by smaller groups and inexperienced first-time volunteers. One might argue that the laissez-faire attitude adopted towards local groups in many instances actually worked well and that a more active HQ could have demoralised local campaigners much more than Yes Scotland actually did.

However, many of highlights of the campaign that people instinctively associate with Yes Scotland were actually organised independently, such as the wonderful independence marches, the flashmobs and the gatherings on Glasgow’s Independence (George) Square, and it often felt like Yes Scotland weren’t always too happy about not being in control of these.

Hopefully the next incarnation of Yes Scotland will learn from the mistakes made, turning the coming Yes campaign into a truly unstoppable force.

Share Button
Posted in postmortem, Yes campaign | 22 Comments

Indyref postmortem I: What went wrong in Edinburgh and the North East?

I think it’s quite likely the next independence referendum will happen sooner rather than later, so it’s important to have a look at what we could have done better, not in order to point fingers at anybody, but simply to make sure that we win next time. This is the first of several indyref postmortems.

The colour of each council area shows the difference between the actual indyref result and my prediction. Red means it did less well, and blue means it did better.

Map of disappointing results: The colour of each council area shows the difference between the actual indyref result and my prediction. Red means it did less well, and blue means it did better.

On the 18th of September last year, the good people of Edinburgh were basically asked “Would you like to live in the capital of an independent country?” and proceeded to answer No. How could they?

Also, the SNP has traditionally been strongest in the North East, but places like Moray that I had predicted would vote Yes by 60% instead voted No by a huge margin. Why are the people up there happy to vote SNP in local elections, but when they’re asked about the raison d’être of the SNP, they say No?

The map on the right shows the most disappointing indyref results in red. Some of the areas aren’t that surprising. I can understand that some people in the Scottish Borders would have worried about creating an international border close to home, and the fact that this area receives ITV instead of STV cannot have helped the Yes vote either. It’s also natural that people in Orkney and Shetland are worried that Edinburgh might be too far away to fully understand their needs.

"Let's become independent before 100,000 more children are living in poverty."

“Let’s become independent before 100,000 more children are living in poverty.”

I wonder whether there was a lack of local campaigning materials. Many of the posters, leaflets and TV ads produced by Yes Scotland seemed to have been designed to appeal to low-income voters in Greater Glasgow and similar areas.

Why didn’t anybody produce Edinburgh-only posters with messages such as “70 embassies will be built in this city, bringing a lot of money to the local economy” or “After independence, Edinburgh will be a real capital again, like London, Paris and Washington”? Where were the leaflets reassuring voters in the Scottish Borders? What was being done in Orkney and Shetland to explain to voters there that turning Scotland into a Nordic country would make them a central and crucial part of Scotland? Did anybody serious target occasional SNP voters in Aberdeenshire?

I was campaigning in East Renfrewshire, where we did more or less as well as one could have expected, and the only other area I visited frequently was Glasgow, which did better than most people expected, so I don’t know what exactly went wrong in other areas. However, my impression was that the campaign themes were the same all over Scotland, and if they were right here, they must have been wrong in other places. I definitely got the impression that a lot of the leaflets we distributed went down much better in the poorer parts of East Renfrewshire than in the rich neighbourhoods.

Did Yes Scotland suffer from a lack of regional campaign managers that could have identified a need for local campaign materials? Were local groups too passive, expecting to be given materials by Yes Scotland instead of producing their own?

Whatever the reason, it’s an error we can’t afford to make next time. Of course we need national campaign materials, but we must be better at targeting local areas with messages that matter to people there.

Share Button
Posted in postmortem, Yes campaign | 65 Comments

The different meanings of ‘Unionist’

English Dictionaries

English Dictionaries by John Keogh, on Flickr.

Less than ten years ago, the Collins English Dictionary listed only the following senses of the word ‘Unionist’ (with a capital letter):

  • (before 1920) a supporter of the union of all Ireland and Great Britain
  • (since 1920) a supporter of union between Britain and Northern Ireland
  • a supporter of the US federal Union, esp during the Civil War

It listed two further senses in lower-case:

  • a supporter or advocate of unionism or union
  • a member of a trade union

It’s therefore clear that if Jim Murphy could travel ten years back in time, his claim not be a Unionist (“I’ve never been a Unionist – it’s not my political tradition. As a family of Irish Catholic immigrants, we’re not Unionists. I grew up in a family of trade unionists but not political unionists.”) would have been unremarkable and trivially true.

However, at some point during the past ten years, this word has been redefined, at least in Scotland. When did this happen?

I personally used it for the first time in a blog post on 1st May 2007: “Today is the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union between England (with Wales) and Scotland. If it’s such a great thing as the unionist parties proclaim, surely they should be out there celebrating it.”

Here are the first uses for three of the main pro-independence blogs:

  • Bella Caledonia: 14th October 2008 (“At the last Scottish elections arch unionist dinosaurs like John Reid and George Foulkes were rolled out …”)
  • 9th March 2010 (“a Unionist reaction to the ‘National Conversation’ launched by the new SNP government …”)
  • Wings over Scotland: 7th April 2011 (“… the three Unionist parties …”)

This wasn’t very conclusive. I then got the idea to Google for a narrow search term (“three unionist parties”), employing the option to look only at the results between two dates.

In 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006, all the results were clearly Irish (e.g., “In an upstairs room the United Unionist Alliance was having a meeting, and the leaders of the three Unionist Parties — the Official Unionist, the Vanguard Unionist, and the Protestant Unionist, and members of the loyal Orders were present”).

2007 returned three results. Two of them are wrongly dated, but one of them links to a comment made by Doug the Dug under an article in The Guardian on 15th April 2007: “All the main three unionist parties can do is argue about who can divvy up the Westminster block grant the best. The SNP have a vision for the future and offer an alternative to the dead hand of the Union and a restoration of pride in Scotland. ”

Of course, if anybody has a lot of time on their hands, it might be interesting to look at the word “Unionist” rather than “three Unionist parties” during 2006 and 2007 to establish when exactly this usage became common.

However, it seems to be almost unknown before 2007, and it doesn’t seem to have been widely used for another couple of years. Of course, 2007 was the year when the SNP became the largest party in Holyrood for the first time, and it was the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union, so it would have been a natural starting point for assigning a new meaning to the word “Unionist”.

The publicly available text corpora, such as Google’s Ngram Viewer, unfortunately don’t cover the last few years well, so we’ll have to wait a few years before we can firmly document the emergence of the new sense of “Unionist”. However, my gut feeling is that it became the default meaning of the word in Scotland during the independence referendum.

If Jim Murphy hasn’t sussed the recent change in semantics, one might suspect that he didn’t pay all that much attention to the referendum, apart from his own travelling crate show. Otherwise, he should have realised that his mental dictionary is out of date.

Share Button
Posted in lexicography | 5 Comments

Je suis Charlie

A Charlie Hebdo cover.

A Charlie Hebdo cover.

When Jyllands-Posten published the now famous Mohammed cartoons back in 2005, I must admit I felt a bit annoyed. The Danish newspaper is consistently right-wing, so it was very fond of Dubya and his War on Terror, and it had no history of provoking people (other than left-wingers) just for the sake of it. I therefore thought their real motives had less to do with protecting free speech and more to do with provoking Moslems. At the same time, I supported their freedom of speech 100%. In other words, my attitude at the time was very well expressed by the quote wrongly attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

However, this time it’s different. Charlie Hebdo didn’t just criticise Islam — they were ruthless in their treatment of everything and everybody (see the cover illustrating this blog post), as a left-wing secular satirical magazine should. It would have been very strange for them not to criticise Islam using their best cartoonists from time to time. In other words, the terrorist massacre of Charlie Hebdo’s core staff is the clearest attack on free speech imaginable, and we all have to join the fight against those people who want to transform our societies into illiberal, totalitarian regimes, whatever their religion and nationality.

Moi, je suis Charlie. Et toi?

Share Button
Posted in culture, freespeech | 18 Comments

Triangulator extraordinary and plenipotentiary

Tony Blair spin doctor Private Eye cover at Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Tony Blair spin doctor Private Eye cover at Victoria & Albert Museum, London by Karen Bryan, on Flickr.

Alea jacta est. Labour’s Scottish Branch Office has chosen Jim Murphy to lead it, and he in turn has chosen his strategy: Triangulation.

It’s already abundantly clear that Murphy intends to steal the SNP’s clothes (or at least the most popular garments), in exactly the same way that Tony Blair used triangulation (or the Third Way) to marginalise and confuse the Tories in the late 1990s. Murphy’s claim in his victory speech that “the prize is a fairer country” is clearly based on the Sunday Herald’s main reasons for supporting a Yes: “the prize is a better country”. Indeed, ever since his election he seems to have focused on saying everything the Labour-SNP swing voters would want to hear.

As I argued recently, Labour’s problems in Scotland to a large extent have been caused by insisting on triangulating only against the Tories, making it ridiculously easy for the SNP to outmanoeuvre them in Scotland.

Jim Murphy seems to have decided to focus solely on the SNP, which makes him much more dangerous for the SNP, but will UK Labour put up with it? Has Murphy really been given free rein to beat the SNP, even if it means having dramatically different policies north and south of the border? Or will he like Wendy Alexander before him be forced into a humiliating climbdown at some point?

I fully expect Jim Murphy to sound almost like a Nationalist from now on — all his previous views will be youthful errors of judgment or something like that. He’ll promise just about anything that would be popular with voters — he knows that there’s no way he’ll get an absolutely majority in 2016, so even if Labour wins, he can blame his coalition partner for any divergences from his promises.

Where Jim Murphy will necessarily be weak will be with regard to reserved policy areas. If for instance UK Labour continues to be in favour of austerity, he can’t be against it while promising to toe the UK line at Westminster. If he decides to go against the UK line, will he force Labour’s Scottish MPs to follow him or Ed Miliband? And if he doesn’t, the SNP will quickly exploit that there are triangulation-free zones that can be used to differentiate themselves from Labour.

I don’t think many people expected Jim Murphy to change his political views so comprehensively. In the short term it’ll make things much harder for the SNP — he won’t simply repeat London’s anti-Tory slogans mindlessly. However, the history of Tony Blair’s premiership has demonstrated that eventually voters will see through triangulated policies, so in the longer term voters will realise that Jim Murphy never wears his own clothes, but always the opponent’s.

Share Button
Posted in Labour | 8 Comments

The Murphy/Dugdale era

Iain Gray, Jim Murphy, Gordon Brown

Iain Gray, Jim Murphy, Gordon Brown by Scottish Labour, on Flickr.

It’s just been announced that Jim Murphy has been elected leader of Labour’s Scottish Branch Office with a vote share of 22.36% (MPs/MSPs) + 20.14% (party members) + 13.26% (affiliates), and Kezia Dugdale has been elected depute leader.

The Guardian has some interesting information from his victory speech:

  1. he doesn’t intend to lose a single Labour seat to the SNP in next May’s general election
  2. he’s not trying to convince yes voters that they were wrong
  3. he will make clear where he intends to stand for Holyrood in the new year
  4. Kezia Dugdale will take on first minister’s questions in the Scottish parliament in the interim

Let’s have a quick look at these four points:

Firstly, holding on to all of Labour’s Scottish seats sounds about as likely as the SNP losing all of theirs. It’s certainly possible the SNP won’t do nearly as well as predicted by current polls, and I would have thought a realistic goal for Labour would have been to remain Scotland’s largest party in terms of Westminster seats, but he seems to be setting himself up for failure here.

Secondly, if you don’t convince the (ex-)Labour Yes voters that they were wrong to vote in favour of independence, why on Earth would they vote Labour again? Surely voting Labour only makes sense if you swallow the Unionist bait hook, line and sinker? I’m not at all sure that a argument along the lines of “let’s just agree to disagree on independence, but you must admit Labour’s commitment to continued austerity, as well as our track record on conducting illegal wars, is admirable” will go down at all well with many Scottish voters.

Thirdly, it’s interesting Murphy only intends to comment on where he’ll stand for Holyrood, not when. Surely the most interesting question is whether he can convince somebody to vacate their seat soon (potentially costing them £58.000), or whether he’ll have to remain in Westminster for ages. It sounds like there’ll be a lot of arm-twisting going on around Labour’s Christmas tree this Yuletide. It will also be interesting to see whether he’ll stand for his Westminster seat in May if he doesn’t find a Holyrood seat in time, or whether he’ll state soon that his constituency party needs to find a new candidate now. Also, what will be his role in Westminster for now? Will he be leading the Scottish MPs, or will he basically be a general without an army?

Fourthly, it will be interesting to see how well Kezia Dugdale can present Jim Murphy’s policies at Holyrood. When Nicola Sturgeon did the same for Alex Salmond, at least he was already a household name with well-known views, but Murphy will somehow need to backpedal frantically away from his New Labour past in absentia, which will be fun to watch.

To conclude, it will be fascinating to observe whether the Scottish Branch Office will tread water or collapse during the Murphy/Dugdale era. Murphy is certainly a very capable politician, but also one of the least liked MPs in Scotland — many people here in East Renfrewshire seem to develop an acute rash whenever they see him. Perhaps he’ll manage to ditch all his former views and present himself in a way that will appeal to Scottish Labour voters. Perhaps he’ll present himself as the unifying figure for all right-of-centre Unionist voters, whether Labour, Tory or LibDem, but losing Labour’s traditional supporters in the process. Or perhaps he’ll simply be a failure, presiding over such a catastrophic loss in the next two elections that his leadership will be extremely short-lived. We live in interesting times.

Share Button
Posted in Labour | 9 Comments