Category Archives: Labour

Death through hexangulation

donald dewar
donald dewar by Tom Donald, on Flickr.
I moved to Scotland in 2002, so I don’t have any memories of the creation of the Scottish Parliament — when I moved here, it was already a fact of life. However, based on what I’ve read, I believe Labour’s thinking in the ’90s could be paraphrased as follows:

When we’re in power at Westminster, the Scottish Office works great, but when the Tories are in power, they control the Scottish Office, too, which is a problem because they’re not us. So if we create a Scottish Parliament with a Scottish Executive to replace the Scottish Office, it’ll work exactly the same as before when we’re in power in both places, but when the Tories are in power, we can at least rule Scotland and use it as a showcase for our superior policies.

Unfortunately for Labour, there were a few problems with this analysis. For instance, voters tend to get fed up with all parties at some point with the inevitable consequence that the SNP would eventually get into power in Scotland. Also, Scottish voters would naturally expect the Scottish parties to respond to their concerns and desires, so it would become impossible to have the same policies on both sides of the border, which would be a bigger problem for Scottish Labour than for the other parties.

However, I believe the biggest problem is that New Labour is based on triangulation (“the tactic of shifting party policy in to a broadly perceived “centre-ground” in order to increase electability and outmanoeuvre the opposition, who subsequently become associated with extremism and anachronism”), but you can’t triangulate against two different parties at the same time without exploding like a chameleon on a piece of tartan.

The reason for this becomes clear when you consider than triangulation really means moving towards your opponent. However, when you have one opponent on the right and another on the left, doing triangulation towards both — let’s call it hexangulation — will tear you apart.

The alternative is to triangulate only in one direction and completely ignore the other opponent. This seems to have been Labour’s solution, focusing on triangulation against the Tories while allowing the SNP to monopolise all the popular policies in Scotland. The result is that they have deserted the centre-left in the process, making it easy for the SNP to supplant Labour as the dominant party north of the border.

Of course it hasn’t helped Labour that their best talent has always been sent to Westminster rather than to Holyrood, and their disastrous idea to keep the constituency candidates off the regional lists got rid of a lot of their best people at the last election.

However, at the end of the day the decision to sacrifice ideology on the altar of triangulation while introducing devolution must be the main reason for Labour’s collapse in Scotland.

Can the SNP realistically take East Renfrewshire?

Rouken Glen 08b
Rouken Glen 08b by TechDaveStudios, on Flickr.
Of all the seats that the SNP would like to win in May 2015, surely East Renfrewshire must be the jewel in the crown. In 1997, when Jim Murphy won what had until then been a safe Tory seat, it demonstrated the strength of New Labour. Today Jim Murphy is still one of the most faithful believers in Tony Blair’s project and it is with this background that he’s trying to become leader of Labour’s Scottish Branch Office. If the SNP manages to win his seat, it will symbolise the final defeat of the New Labour project in Scotland.

However, how likely is it? First of all, let’s have a look at my recent prediction:

Party 2010 Swing 2011 2014 Avg
SNP 4535 12570 9922 24287 12829
LAB 25987 20511 15343 23413 21314
LD 4720 0 980 4252 2488
CON 15567 15823 11254 14025 14167

The way to read this is as follows: The SNP got a poor result in 2010, ending up as number four just behind the LibDems. Once we’ve applied uniform swing (according to last month’s opinion polls), the SNP is up at number three, getting close to overtaking the Tories; however, Labour is still far ahead. The prospects look similar if we look at the 2011 Holyrood election. Only if we look at the referendum results and assume the No voters would divide up in the same way as in 2010 would the SNP win, providing a Yes Alliance was in place. However, once we look at everything together, an SNP victory looks like quite a challenge.

This table doesn’t show the full picture, however. For instance, if we apply uniform swing based on the recent sensational Ipsos MORI poll, the result would be SNP 20,964, Labour 16,263, Cons 12,138 — in other words a very safe SNP victory.

There’s another reason to believe the SNP can win East Renfrewshire, and this has to do with voter psychology and tactical voting.

Many people like to think of East Renfrewshire as a Tory stronghold although Labour has been the strongest party for two decades. The number of Conservative voters seems to be relatively constant, normally fluctuating between 26% and 33% of the votes — Westminster Tory support: 46.8% (1992), 33.5% (1997), 28.7% (2001), 29.9% (2005 [boundary changed]), 30.4% (2010); Holyrood: 32.7% (1999), 26.3% (2003), 33.6% (2007), 33.4% (2011); East Renfrewshire Council: 40% of seats (1999), 35% (2003), 35% (2007), 30% (2011).

Given that it strikes me as unlikely that very many people would vote Tory tactically to get rid of Labour, it’s probably safe to assume that the Conservatives will get about 30% of the vote in 2015.

If the Tories get this many votes and the LibDems get less than 5% (the uniform swing predicts they won’t get any votes at all, but let’s be generous), it follows that Labour + SNP are fighting over 65% of the vote. This means that if they split it evenly, both get 32.5% of the vote, which is more than the Tories, and in all other scenarios, the winning party will be significantly larger. This means the Tories cannot realistically take East Renfrewshire back.

However, just because the Conservatives cannot win it doesn’t automatically imply that the SNP can do so (although both the referendum result and the recent Ipsos MORI poll suggest that they can).

The reason the SNP has traditionally done so badly in East Renfrewshire is because the Tories have been seen as a real threat. In other Scottish seats, the Tories disappeared from the horizon a long time ago, but here the Tories have been seen like real contenders until recently. Many people have therefore voted for anyone-but-the-Tories, and that has normally benefited Labour.

However, if we can convince the voters that the Tories cannot win in East Renfrewshire (based on the arguments above), it follows that there’s no point in voting Labour tactically to keep them out. This might weaken the probably significant number of tactical anti-Tory voters in this constituency.

At the same time, many people are strongly against Murphy. Of course the Yes voters from the SNP, the Greens and Labour for Independence want to see him lose, but there must also be many No voters who cannot stand the man for various reasons. If they believe the SNP has the best chance of getting rid of him, they might vote tactically for the SNP candidate.

Finally, Jim Murphy’s candidacy for the leadership of Scottish Labour means that one of the following will be the case in May 2015:

  • He lost the leadership battle and now looks like a loser condemned to returning to Westminster when he really wanted to become First Minister. This is hardly a good platform for winning East Renfrewshire.
  • He won the leadership battle but is returning to Westminster for a year until the next Holyrood election because Labour’s rules say you have to be either an MP or an MSP but not both to be leader. This means that he isn’t committed to representing the constituency and a good candidate should be able to use this against him. Also, it means a good SNP candidate will get a second shot in the subsequent by-election.
  • He won the leadership battle and managed to get into Holyrood through a by-election. In this case a new Labour candidate will be fighting this seat, and the incumbency effect practically disappears.

In other words, because the Tories cannot win, because Murphy is hated by a large number of voters and because Murphy will be weakened in this seat by the leadership battle, it should be possible to get an SNP candidate elected in May 2015. It will require a strong candidate however — it remains one of the most challenging seats for the SNP in the entire country.

The Better Together Party

The Better Together Party logo.
The Better Together Party logo.
At the moment the front-runner to take over the leadership of Labour’s Scottish Branch Office appears to be Jim Murphy.

Mr Murphy is my local MP, so I’ve taken a certain interest in his career in the past, and he’s as New Labour as they come. If he becomes leader, it means that Scottish Labour is finally accepting its natural home is to the right of the SNP. Socialism will be dead as a dodo inside the Scottish Labour Party.

This means that Scotland will have three right-of-centre Unionist parties: Labour, the Tories and the LibDems. It’s possible English voters can tell them apart, but in Scotland they’ll be virtually indistinguishable.

The logical step will therefore be for the Unionist parties to merge. The most obvious name would be the Better Together Party, and I’ve designed a logo for them above that they’re welcome to use free of charge.

Obviously this merger will be impossible without cutting the ties to the Westminster parties, so it’ll probably not happen any time soon, but it would be the logical way forward for three parties that clearly enjoyed working together in their No Thanks coalition.

The only thing that matters for UK Labour

Ed Miliband being interviewed in Glasgow
Ed Miliband being interviewed in Glasgow by Scottish Labour, on Flickr.
When Johann Lamont announced that she was going to step down as leader of Scottish Labour, she also pointed out what needs to happen now: “The Scottish Labour Party must be a more autonomous party which works in partnership with the UK party. We must be allowed to make our own decisions and control our own resources.” Some people are even suggesting that Scottish Labour should become a separate party that works together with rUK Labour in the House of Commons, in the same way that CDU and CSU always work together in Germany.

I totally agree that this is sorely needed to enable the party to compete successfully with the SNP again. However, as far as I can tell, nobody in Scotland can make that kind of decision — just like devolution in the UK, it would have to be granted by the centre. This was exactly Lamont’s problem — she didn’t have any real power and constantly got overruled by Miliband and the other Labour MPs, and whoever succeeds her will have the same problem. Unless they want to form a brand-new party and resign en masse from Labour, they’ll have to convince UK Labour to grant them the internal devolution they need.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t believe UK Labour will do this. The only thing that matters to them is whether they get a lot of loyal MPs sent down from Scotland at each general election, and the SNP’s electoral successes have so far been limited to Holyrood, the European Parliament and the councils. From their point of view, Scottish Labour is still supplying the goods.

Because of their focus on Westminster, UK Labour HQ also won’t agree to a separate party in Scotland — that would create the possibility of disloyal MPs that wouldn’t vote for UK Labour’s ideas all the time, and thereby potentially undermining a UK Labour Government. (This is of course also why they’re against Evel — if they can’t rely on Scottish MPs, they’re useless from their point of view.)

The only thing that will make them reconsider is if lots of Scottish Labour MPs lose their seats in May. If Miliband doesn’t become PM becomes his party was decimated in Scotland, UK Labour will start thinking that the only way forward is to give the Scottish party the autonomy it has craved for so long. Interestingly, this means that the only way to save Scottish Labour in the long term is by voting SNP in May.

The impossibility of UK federalism

Bundesrat - Festival of Lights
Bundesrat – Festival of Lights by Stadtlichtpunkte, on Flickr.
I had decided to stop talking about federalism, for the simple reason that it’s not on offer and is a distraction from the much more urgent independence debate.

However, today Labour started talking about replacing the House of Lords with a regional chamber:

[Labour leader Ed Miliband’s policy team] are looking at proposals for a radically reformed second chamber made up of representatives from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions. The body would be “indirectly elected”, possibly by elected politicians from the different nations and regions of the UK.

Whereas this proposal would probably be better than the currently unelected mess, it wouldn’t be federalism.

Federalism is at heart a symmetrical system (there are some exceptions, such as India, but what I describe here holds true for the best-known examples such as Germany and the US). What this means is that the states (Länder in Germany) all have the same powers, and it’s well-defined which powers are reserved to central government. Countries with federal systems often have a bicameral parliament: One representing the people, with one vote per citizen (e.g., the American House of Representatives and the German Bundestag) and one representing the states (e.g., the Senate and the Bundesrat); the latter sometimes give equal representations to the states (e.g., in the Senate each state has two members), but sometimes big states have slightly more votes (e.g., in the Bundesrat each Land has between 3 and 6 votes, depending on size).

Federal countries normally have states that are similar in size, but it’s not a requirement. However, England is huge (53m inhabitants, while the rest of the nations have only about 10m together), and this makes it hard to establish a federal system.

Firstly, the English Parliament would be hugely influential — it’s quite possible the best political talents would go there rather than to the UK Parliament, and it’s probably all the BBC would be talking about most of the time.

Secondly, a proper federal parliament would allow Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to block legislation desired by England. For instance, using the Bundesrat scheme, the three smaller nations would have 3 votes each, so they could easily outvote England (with 6 votes).

This is of course where Labour’s devious invention comes into play. By resurrecting the English regions (which aren’t popular in England — let’s not forget how people voted No to regional assemblies when they were asked), they can overcome this problem. By splitting England into nine regions for Senate vote allocation purposes, they can ensure that England will never be outvoted by the small nations of the UK.

However, of course Labour aren’t proposing to give the English regions powers like the real nations. There won’t be an East Midlands legal system, there won’t be an independent South West NHS, there won’t be a separate Church of Yorkshire and the Humber, there won’t be a distinct London education system, and the North West won’t start fielding its own football team in international tournaments.

The problem is that if there is a debate in Labour’s second chamber about the NHS, for instance, the three nations with their own separate health systems will be outvoted by the nine English regions that not only share an NHS but also have no direct influence over it, given that it’s controlled by Westminster.

The only way I can think of to create proper federalism in the UK is to split England into two or more nations, each having the same powers as Scotland. However, this will never happen. The English feel their nation is England, and it would be an abomination to destroy England in order to save the UK. The consequence is that the UK will never become a federal state. It’s impossible.

The weakening of the Scottish institutions

Prime Minister Gordon Brown
Prime Minister Gordon Brown by Downing Street, on Flickr.
It might come as something of a shock to people who know me, but for once I agree with Gordon Brown (in his recent article in The Guardian):

It is also a mistake to think what’s new is Scotland demanding its own national institutions and the freedom to run them. From its churches and law to its schools, universities and hospitals, Scotland has had its own distinctive national institutions throughout all those 300 years of union. […]

Perhaps surprisingly, what is also new is the recent loss of a million members from Scotland’s churches and the weakening of the Scottish institutions – religious, legal, educational and even sporting – which expressed our Scottishness. They provided an anchor that made us comfortable with being part of Britain. The delicate balance between cultural nationalism and political unionism has been ruptured […]

I think this analysis is spot on. For centuries, Scotland effectively had cultural autonomy within a political, economic and monetary union called the British Empire. Because of this autonomy, and because almost no Scots spoke English as their native language until recently (Scots and Gaelic dominated for a long time as spoken languages, and English was only used in schools and churches and some other formal settings), their was no threat to Scottishness at all.

However, these days it’s getting harder and harder to define what it means to be Scottish. The TV programmes young people watch the most are British (X Factor, Big Brother, The Apprentice, Britain’s Got Talent and so on), the churches are dying out, and Scots increasingly speak standard English with a slight accent — and even that is dying out (my kids are struggling with pronouncing the ‘ch’ in ‘loch’ and the ‘w’ in ‘whale’). Gordon Brown even created a UK-wide football team for the Olympics.

I’m surprised how Gordon Brown can see these issues so clearly and yet fail to provide any solutions for them. His article doesn’t suggest any concrete measures — he doesn’t suggest splitting up the BBC into four national broadcasters, he doesn’t think the UK should field four separate Olympic teams, he doesn’t draw up a plan for revitalising Scots and Gaelic.

Because Unionists don’t seem to want to do anything to create new distinctive Scottish institutions to repair the “delicate balance between cultural nationalism and political unionism”, I cannot help but conclude that they’re happy to see Scotland merging gradually with England until eventually it becomes just another British region like Yorkshire or Devon.

I agree with Gordon Brown’s analysis, and so far as I can see, the only practical solution to the problems he raises is independence. Surely he can see that too?

Real home rule

Tory anti-Home Rule poster
Tory anti-Home Rule poster by Plashing Vole, on Flickr.
I’ve been wondering for a while whether modern Scottish Labour Unionists are right when they invoke the struggle for home rule by the founders of Labour in Scotland as an argument in favour of devolution and against independence, so I read George Kerevan’s article about Gordon Brown and James Maxton in The Scotsman with great interest:

Here is the authentic James Maxton speaking at a rally in Glasgow in support of the 1924 Scottish Home Rule Bill. Maxton declared that he asked “for no greater task in life than to make the English-ridden, capitalist-ridden, landowner-ridden Scotland into a free Scottish Socialist Commonwealth”. He went on to say that “with Scottish brains and courage … we could do more in five years in a Scottish parliament than would be produced by 25 or 30 years heartbreaking working in the British House of Commons”.

Just try referring to “English-ridden” Scotland today and you will be rightly ticked off. But James Maxton was an angry man. […] His anger was understandable to everyone in Glasgow. It expressed not an anti-Englishness, but a hatred of a class system run from London.

The Home Rule espoused by Maxton has nothing in common with the drip-feed of powers by London Labour. […] The Red Clydesiders […] wanted Home Rule in the sense of the full, de facto autonomy already enjoyed by Australia and New Zealand.

At the time, it made good sense to aspire to home rule like in Canada, Australia or New Zealand. These places had been running their own affairs for a while already. For instance, the modern-day Parliament of Canada came into existence in 1867 (and full legislative autonomy would be granted in 1931), and Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament was opened in 1901.

To a large extent, the British Empire consisted of countries that had a lot of independence (notable exceptions being foreign affairs, defence and international shipping). In other words, they had significantly more independence than Scotland has at the moment.

One could argue that the British Empire was the equivalent of EU and NATO of that era, maintaining an internal market with free movement of goods and people while providing a reciprocal security guarantee.

It made sense to want independence within the Empire. It wasn’t easy being a fully independent small country in the 19th and early 20th centuries. To take but one example, Denmark got her capital bombarded and the fleet confiscated in 1807, went bankrupt in 1813, lost Norway in 1814, lost Schleswig-Holstein in 1864 and was occupied by Nazi Germany from 1940 to 1945 without being able to liberate herself. If Scotland had remained an independent country instead of forming a political union with England in 1707, it’s quite possible similar national disasters would have occurred.

To return to the present, it’s still the case that most Scots want the Scottish Parliament to handle everything with the possible exception of defence and foreign affairs. (According to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (PDF), 32% of Scots agree that “the UK government should make decisions about defence and foreign affairs; the Scottish Parliament should decide everything else”, and another 31% want all decisions to be made in Scotland.)

The various devolution plans put forward by the three main Unionist parties don’t go nearly far enough. They’re mainly concerned with letting the Scottish Parliament collect a few more taxes, but they’re not even close to offering Devo Max along the lines outlined by the SSAS.

To be honest, I’m not sure many Scots really want Westminster to make decisions about defence and foreign affairs (gauging from the Scottish reaction to the Iraq War and all that). What people want is to make sure Scotland won’t get attacked by foreign countries and that we can continue to trade and travel freely.

In fact, a large majority of the Scottish population agrees with Keir Hardie, James Maxton and other early Scottish Labour politicians. We want real home rule, meaning independence with free international trade, the ability to travel and work abroad and a security guarantee. That’s what we’ll get by voting Yes.