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.

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.

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.

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.

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?