Category Archives: Labour

That’s not federalism!

England
England.
So Kezia Dugdale has been talking about introducing federalism again. I must admit that I stopped reading as soon as I got to this bit:

[A] federal solution where "every nation and the regions of England could take more responsibility for what happens in their communities".

Most instances of federalism are quite symmetric, which means that specific powers belong to specific levels of government, and that the same levels exist everywhere. (There are some instances of asymmetric federalism, but they're much rarer.) What that means is that if Scotland is responsible for criminal law, health, education and agriculture, one would expect the same powers to be devolved to the other constituent parts of the UK. That's fine with Wales and Northern Ireland, but what about England?

Does Kezia want to devolve criminal law, health, education and agriculture to the English regions (completely removing these areas from Westminster), or does she want to create an English Parliament to devolve them to?

I rather suspect she doesn't want to do either of these things, and she really wants to keep a system where Westminster is the parliament for both the UK and for England, devolving only a couple of insignificant areas to the English regions in order to look like she doing something.

That's not federalism!

Back to the Future: Scottish Independence

"You and Jennifer turn out fine. It's Scottish independence, Marty! Something's gotta be done about independence!"
"You and Jennifer turn out fine. It's Scottish independence, Marty! Something's gotta be done about independence!"
Because today is Back to the Future Day, I've been having some fun with fellow tweeters discussing how we'd achieve a Yes in the 2014 referendum if we could go back in time to 2012 or so.

It's actually quite an interesting question. To formalise it a bit, imagine you could go back to any point in 2012, and you could speak to one person for an hour. You could show them evidence such as photos, newspapers or videos, but they wouldn't be able to keep it. Who would you choose to talk to, and what would you tell them?

Would you try to convince Alex Salmond that his currency stance wasn't credible and that he needed to publicise a Plan B?

Or would you try to convince him that Blair Jenkins shouldn't be made the head of Yes Scotland? (I presume he was chosen because of his links to the BBC and STV in order to achieve favourable media coverage for the Yes campaign, but of course this didn't work out.)

Or would you convince him to step down and hand over to Nicola Sturgeon much earlier? That could have backfired badly, however, if it was seen as a sign of weakness.

Perhaps you would instead talk to Angus Robertson and show him his own advice, namely to "harness the powers of younger voters to persuade grandparents and grandmothers that it was not just about an older generation but about future generations and voting for the future of the country".

However, I think I'd go back to early 2012 and talk to Douglas Alexander. I'd show him a video of his concession speech from May 2015. I'd explain to him in no uncertain terms that practically all Labour MPs were going to be kicked out if they campaigned against independence together with the Tories. Although Douglas Alexander wasn't the leader of either UK or Scottish Labour, I believe he was influential enough in both that he would have been able to change things. Perhaps he would even have been able to save Scottish Labour, but I believe a Yes vote would have been a consequence of this.

Would would you do?

Changing the debate

Anti-Margaret Thatcher badge
Anti-Margaret Thatcher badge, a photo by dannybirchall on Flickr.
Margaret Thatcher was once asked what she considered her greatest achievement. She replied, "Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds."

Labour's current desire to abstain on most of the Tories' welfare cuts is just one example of how true Thatcher's words were. Margaret Thatcher's success (and the fall of Communism, to be fair) made Tony Blair and most other Labour politicians believe that the only way forward was to change Labour into a carbon copy of the Tories. The result of this was that there was hardly any debate on a UK level on the alternatives to Conservative ideas until the SNP tsunami in May.

Now there are 56 SNP MPs, and this is already changing the debate in the House of Commons and within the Conservative government, as pointed out by James Forsyth:

The party’s Westminster leader Angus Robertson now has two goes each week at Prime Minister’s Questions. This might seem like a trivial detail but it is worth remembering how much of the No. 10 machine is geared towards readying the Prime Minister for his most important half hour in the Commons. George Osborne, Michael Gove and several of Cameron’s senior aides devote Wednesday mornings to helping him prepare for this appearance. ‘We’re having to take a lot more interest in the minutiae of Scottish politics than before,’ one of those involved in these prep sessions tells me.

Readying Cameron to face Robertson’s barbs means ensuring he is well-informed about events north of the border — about the SNP’s record at Holyrood. Slowly but surely, the Tory attack machine is turning its attention to being able to rubbish the governing record of the SNP as effectively as they trashed the last Labour government. One adviser in charge of this says that ‘for years, things have been hidden away in the Scottish Parliament. Now, they are moving front and centre.’

There are also many signs that Jeremy Corbyn is rapidly changing the debate within Labour. If he wins, there's a possibility that Thatcher's greatest achievement will be undone (unless, of course, the Blairites decide to split the party or commit some other form of collective harakiri).

Thoughtful right-wing politicians are starting to realise this. For instance, Tory councillor Oliver Cooper recently wrote this:

No matter how incredible or ludicrous, Corbyn would still have six questions at PMQs. His frontbench would still have a representative on Question Time and Newsnight. His party’s policy announcements and press releases would get just as much news coverage as a credible opposition.

In short, Labour being Labour, they’ll still have the same platform, no matter how bizarre their leader’s views. The only difference is Corbyn’s views will be more left-wing, so will shift the entire political debate to the left. Long-term, so long as Labour and the Conservatives remain the two major parties in the UK, the only way to make progress is to persuade Labour to accept our position. Our ideas don’t win just when our party does, but when the other party advocates our ideas, too.

Instead, a Corbyn victory would lend credibility to the far-left’s rejection of reality: giving a megaphone to their already over-blown and bombastic politics of fear and envy. Inevitably, this would skew the discourse, letting Corbyn’s ideas become the default alternative to the Conservatives. Corbyn’s brand of socialism would poison the groundwater of British politics for a generation: influencing people, particularly young people, across the political spectrum.

I don't agree with his characterisation of Corbyn's policies as a rejection of reality (I'd argue most Tories are much further removed from it in fact), but I think he makes a very good point about how it would undermine Conservative ideas (which would be great in my opinion).

The commentator Iain Martin is having similar concerns:

Just as the rise of UKIP has had an enormous impact on the British debate on Europe, forcing Cameron into a referendum he did not want as his party felt it needed to counter Farage, a distinct new Left movement would exert a gravitational pull on the centre-left more broadly and on the national conversation about taxation, ownership, profit and constitutional reform of the voting system and the House of Lords. The rise of Corbyn is already forcing terrified Labour moderates such as Andy Burnham to say all sorts of silly stuff.

Again, I wouldn't characterise Burnham's new-found principles as 'silly stuff', but otherwise it's a sound analysis.

If Jeremy Corbyn wins, the combination of a strong SNP and a left-wing Labour party might finally change the terms of the debate so that the Tories won't get the easy ride they've got used to recently. And once the debate changes, ordinary people might also start to question the neoliberal consensus.

This will be great in many respects, but I do fear that it could make Scottish independence less likely again, simply because it was the total disconnect between the political discourses in Scotland and Westminster that really fired up many Yes activists, so if UK Labour politicians start saying things we agree with, perhaps it will be harder to convince people that we need independence, even though Scotland will of course still only supply 10% of the MPs at Westminster.

The SNP would have won 221 seats in England and Wales

The 2015 results if the SNP had decided to stand in England and Wales, too.
The 2015 results if the SNP had decided to stand in England and Wales, too.
The SNP's huge victory in the General Election saw some truly incredible swings. It made me wonder what would have happened if the SNP had been standing in England and Wales, too.

To find out, I first calculated the changes in each party's support in Scotland between 2010 and 2015. I measured this in terms of the electorate, so because the turnout went up, the figures don't add up to zero.

I also decided to calculate the changes separately for each incumbent party, because the swings weren't exactly the same (to be honest, the swings were actually more similar than I had expected, but they differences were still significant):

In Labour-held seats:

CON +0.7%
LAB -9.2%
LD -7.2%
SNP +26.7%
OTH +0.8%

In LD-held seats:

CON -2.1%
LAB -7.2%
LD -3.6%
SNP +23.5%
OTH +1.0%

In SNP-held seats:

CON +3.2%
LAB -4.0%
LD -4.6%
SNP +14.3%
OTH +1.0%

In the Tory-held seat:

CON +5.0%
LAB -8.3%
LD -11.5%
SNP +22.5%
OTH +1.7%

I then applied these changes to the 2010 results from England and Wales (treating Plaid Cymru as the equivalent of the SNP given they're sister parties), and the results are truly astonishing: Cons 309, SNP/PC 221, LD 34, Lab 7, others 2.

When we add these figures to the actual results from Scotland, the 2015 election results would have looked as follows for Great Britain: Cons 310, SNP/PC 277, LD 35, Lab 8, others 2. This means it would probably have been possible to form a minority SNP government with support from the other non-Tory parties.

(In case anybody is interested, the seven surviving Labour MPs would have been elected in these constituencies: Bootle, Ealing Southall, East Ham, Knowsley, Liverpool Walton, Liverpool West Derby and Mitcham & Morden.)

Of course the SNP wouldn't have achieved these results simply by standing in England, but it shows the potential for an English party that tries to emulate the SNP.

Prescribing Blairism today is mathematically illiterate

Happy St George's day
Happy St George's day by Nick Veitch, on Flickr.
Seumas Milne had an interesting wee article in The Guardian yesterday, which rather backs up my recent blog post about Labour:

The fallout from that mistake was clear last week: in the haemorrhage of votes to the Scottish National party, Ukip and the Greens, and the reluctance of many working-class voters to turn out at all. [...] [T]he idea that New Labour-style politics would have fixed the problem is clearly delusional. Would Blairism have won back voters from the SNP, which had positioned itself to Labour’s left and campaigned against austerity, or the Greens, or the anti-immigration Ukip, many of whose voters are pro-nationalisation and state intervention, and want protection from corporate globalisation? Where exactly is the centre ground between the SNP, Greens, Ukip and middle-income English voters?

I thought it would be interesting to look at the numbers behind this. I consider Scotland to be a lost cause for Labour, so I'll concentrate on England and Wales in the following.

Last week's results were as follows: CON 329, GRN 1, LAB 231, LD 7, OTH 1, PC 3, UKIP 1.

Let's assume that a successful Blairite strategy would make 10% of Tory voters swing to Labour, but that it would also make 5% of current Labour voters switch to the Green, another 5% to UKIP, and another 5% would go apathetic and stay home on the couch. The 2020 result would then look like this: CON 312, GRN 1, LAB 241, LD 12, OTH 1, PC 4, UKIP 2.

On the other hand, what if a new Labour leader instead decided to copy Nicola Sturgeon's programme and style, adding 10% to the turnout (all Labour) and taking back half of UKIP's votes (the half that aren't xenophobic but just crave a genuine working-class voice), but losing 5% of voters to the Tories? The result of this would be CON 266, GRN 1, LAB 299, LD 4, OTH 1, PC 2 (in other words a clear Labour win).

Of course the swings above have been chosen more or less randomly, but not unfairly -- I think getting 10% of Tory voters to vote Labour just because they had a handsome leader with Tory policies is very generous.

It's very clear Seumas Milne is right. The Blairites cannot win the 2020 election, because the crucial voters that Labour needs are the ones that have deserted the party. 2020 is not 1997, when the political landscape looked completely different, and prescribing the old medicine will simply not work any more.

PS: In case any Labour person reading this doesn't believe they cannot win Scotland back, the two scenarios above would look as follows north of the border: With Blairite swings Labour would retain their single seat but the SNP would win the remaining Tory seat; however, the alternative scenario sees Labour taking one seat from the SNP. I do realise that's an increase of 100%, but it's hardly going to determine whether the UK gets a Labour Prime Minister.

What should Labour do now?

2015_04_10_LabourParty_248_IMG_1104
2015_04_10_LabourParty_248_IMG_1104 by Labour Party, on Flickr.
I think Paul Mason might be right that the UK has effectively disintegrated into three tribes: Scandi-Scotland, the asset-rich south-east and post-industrial Britain. At least, when I sat down to write down some helpful advice for Labour, I realised I couldn't think of any meaningful advice that would apply to both
Scottish and rUK Labour, and the latter might be easier to understand if seen as straddling two quite diverse areas. However, let's first have a look at the pandaified party north of the border.

Scottish Labour

Some observers -- mainly those based in London -- seem to think Scottish Labour might bounce back in five years' time. I don't think so. Of course they might regain a few seats, but most of the new SNP voters have switched for good -- they haven't just temporarily lent their vote to another party.

Furthermore, they might still be Scotland's second-largest party, but their voters are in the "wrong" places, making it very hard for them to stage a come-back. For instance, there are only four seats that can be taken from the SNP on a swing of less than 10%: Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk (which will fall to the Tories on a swing of 0.8%), Dunbartonshire East (4.9% to go Lib Dem), Edinburgh West (7.5% to go Lib Dem) and East Renfrewshire (8.1% to go Labour).

All other seats require a swing from the SNP of more than 10% to go Unionist, and a great number of Labour's old seats require a swing of more than 20% to revert to the status quo ante referendum. This is simply not going to happen unless Labour completely reinvents itself, and even then it might take decades.

Which seats would a Better Together electoral alliance have won last Thursday (purple), and where would the SNP still have won (yellow)?
Which seats would a Better Together electoral alliance have won last Thursday (in purple), and where would the SNP still have won (in yellow)?
Even if the three Unionist parties decided to merge as the Better Together Party north of the border, it wouldn't save them. If we imagine such a party had been standing last Thursday, only 19 of Scotland's 59 seats would have gone Unionist (assuming that all current Labour, Tory and Lib Dem voters had supported it). Sadly for Labour, they were the largest of the three amigo parties in only 8 of them (4 lean towards the Tories and 7 towards the Lib Dems).

Nevertheless, the Better Together route is probably the least bad prospect for Labour. The swing required to retake most of the Central Belt seats is so enormous that it's simply not going to happen. At least as a new Unionist party they will have a chance to win some seats back in five years' time (if Scotland hasn't left the Union by then, of course).

rUK Labour

In the rUK, Labour's main rival isn't a progressive Social Democratic party, so the way forward is likely to be very different.

At the moment, the most prominent candidates to take over the leadership of UK Labour (such as Chuka Umunna) seem to be focusing on the swing seats they failed to take from the Tories, and as a result they're prescribing Blairite medicine, i.e., copying the Tories' policies. However, we know well where that ends: Voter apathy in the first instance, and eventually it allows new parties to take over from the left -- it would have been almost impossible for the SNP to become so popular if Tony Blair hadn't pulled his party so far away from the Scottish consensus. In other words, a Blairite leader might retake some southern seats, but it will probably lead to huge advances for the Greens and UKIP (and perhaps even the Lib Dems) in Northern England in five years' time. Triangulation might work in the US, where there are only two significant parties, but in multi-party Britain it leads to electoral disaster after a few years.

To return to Paul Mason's tribes, the Blairite Third Way might work in the asset-rich south-east, but it will eventually cause Labour to collapse in post-industrial Britain, just like what happened last Thursday in Scotland.

I doubt UK Labour are mentally ready to set up two separate parties in England (just letting Scottish Labour go is going to be hard enough), so let me suggest another way forward for them:

In England, the Tories got 41% of the votes, while Labour got 32%, the Lib Dems 8%, UKIP 14% and the Greens 4%. Now, I don't believe all UKIP's voters are racists; many of them are just ordinary people who feel abandoned by the political classes in London, and UKIP seems to them to represent the most authentic working-class voice in England, so let's assume that a more traditional working-class alliance could recapture at least half of them. If such an anti-Tory alliance could unite Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and half of UKIP, it would have won 51% of the votes in England last Thursday, which would have been translated into 299 seats (and the Tories would have got the remaining 234 seats). Given that this alliance would also have gained the majority of seats in Wales and would have found it easy to work together with the SNP, if would have been able to command an enormous majority in the House of Commons.

In other words, UK Labour doesn't need to copy UKIP's xenophobic ideas or the Tories' austerity policies to win. All it takes is a genuine working-class alternative to the Tories, probably with policies very similar to the SNP's in Scotland. Let's not forget that the Tories got more than half the votes in only 175 constituencies, so the only reason they're in power today is because the English opposition is fragmented.

Of course, assembling such an alliance wouldn't work in Scotland because the SNP is already occupying this space, so here a better alternative for Labour is probably to set up a Unionist alliance, as discussed above.

Taking the whip

20100205 SDLP IMG_4715
20100205 SDLP IMG_4715 by Allan Leonard, on Flickr.
According to Wikipedia, Northern Ireland's "SDLP is [...] working to strengthen its ties with the Parliamentary Labour Party, whose whip they informally accept." I must admit I'm not entirely sure what this means. Normally taking the whip means participating in a parliamentary group, including voting with it in important votes, but I don't know how they do that informally -- do they just vote with the Labour party without getting the influence that comes with participating in internal parliamentary party business?

Normally this wouldn't interest me terribly, but like others I'm finding Labour's different attitudes towards the SDLP on the one hand and the SNP on the other quite puzzling, given that both parties advocate independence from the UK through peaceful means. When you ask Scottish Labour, they reply that the difference is that the SDLP takes the Labour whip at Westminster.

In other words, it would appear that it's not actually the SNP's commitment to an independent Scotland that really upsets Labour, but the fact that the party won't always vote with Labour in the UK Parliament. Of course, there's also the fact that Labour is a major party in Scotland, so there is a lot of rivalry between the parties here, not like in Northern Ireland where Labour never contests elections (something which the local Labour members are quite upset about).

Would UK Labour be happy to disband Scottish Labour if the SNP in return promised to take the Labour whip at Westminster in perpetuity? From an SNP perspective, I think this would be disastrous, and I haven't heard anybody advocating this ever. However, would it suit UK Labour? From their point of view, it would give them free rein to pursue their policies in the parliament that matters to them. In practice this would be very similar to the way the Scottish Unionist Party operated before 1965:

Independent from, though associated with, the Conservative Party in England and Wales, it stood for election at different periods of its history in alliance with a small number of Liberal Unionist and National Liberal candidates. Those who successfully became Members of Parliament (MPs) would then take the Conservative Whip at Westminster just as the Ulster Unionists did until 1973. At Westminster the differences between the Scottish Unionist and the English party could appear blurred or non-existent to the external casual observer, especially as many Scottish MPs were prominent in the parliamentary Conservative party, such as party leaders Andrew Bonar Law (1911-1921 & 1922-1923) and Sir Alec Douglas-Home (1963–1965), both of whom served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

This sounds rather similar to the current relationship between the CDU and the CSU in Germany. I'm not entirely sure how the Unionist/Conservative handled policy differences (it was probably easier in those days when political parties were less centralised), but it was clearly more attractive to Scottish voters than the post-1965 UK-wide Conservatives.

I can't see the SNP would gain anything by being forced to vote in favour of austerity and Trident in return for Scottish Labour being dismantled, but it would clearly make things a lot easier for UK Labour.

To return to the SDLP, I'd love to find out whether it's just the party whip that differentiates them from the SNP in the eyes of UK Labour. Surely Miliband should take one of the following two positions: (1) Peaceful sovereigntism is bad, so Labour will refuse to deal with the SDLP, not just with the SNP and Plaid Cymru, or (2) Taking the Labour whip is all that matters, so the SNP will be welcomed as a sister party if only they take the whip. Which one will it be?