Category Archives: Tories

Friend or foe?

Cain interficit Abelem
Cain interficit Abelem.
Some of the infighting amongst the Yes parties sometimes reminds of the Danish proverb “Frænde er frænde værst”. Literally it translates as “friend is friend worst”, and the meaning is that friends often fight each other more than their enemies.

It seems to encapsulate the current state of the Yes parties perfectly. Instead of concentrating on fighting the Unionists, most of the Yes energy currently goes into infighting amongst the SNP, the Greens, RISE and Solidarity.

It makes sense on a certain level. Very few voters are undecided with regard to the independence question, so most voter movements are going to happen within the two main blocks. For instance, the SNP won’t gain many votes by attacking Labour, but taking list votes from the Greens could potentially make a huge difference. It’s true on the No side, too. The Tories aren’t going to overtake Labour at Holyrood by converting SNP voters but rather by convincing Labour and Lib Dem voters that they’re best placed to represent Unionism.

However, it’s a real shame. All of us Yes campaigners should be spending our energy on turning soft No voters into Yes voters, rather than arguing about the merits of splitting the vote or not.

I’m annoyed the electoral system used for Holyrood elections doesn’t allow for formal electoral alliances. In Denmark, two or more parties can declare a formal alliance, which means that they’re treated as one party for the purpose of working out how many seats they get; once that has been determined, the votes cast for each party determines how many seats it gets (using d’Hondt, the system used for European elections in Scotland). If we had such alliances here, all the Yes parties could form one such alliance, and it would then be in everybody’s interest to maximise the Yes vote. (Of course, all the No parties could also form an alliance, but I’m not sure a Labour/Tory alliance would go down well with many traditional Labour voters.)

However, the electoral system won’t change soon, so we all need to take a deep breath and make sure that we never do or say anything that will it harder to win the next independence referendum.

Of course, there’s is also another perspective on this, namely whether both the governing party and the main opposition party could eventually be Yes parties.

It’s my firm belief that in a democracy, voters at some point get fed up with any ruling party, no matter how great they thought it was originally.

However, if a ruling party is opposed by more than one party, it has a certain amount of influence with regard to choosing its own successor. It can ignore and ridicule one party while working constructively with another, and of course this makes a difference with regard to how voters perceive these parties.

At the moment, the SNP seems to focus very strongly on retaining all the voters who came from Labour after the referendum while ensuring that the Greens don’t split the Yes vote too much, and as a result the Tories seem to be growing, and I’m not sure I really like the sound of that at all.

I can’t see Labour recovering in Scotland for a generation, and the Lib Dems are in an even worse state. Logically the only alternative to a Tory opposition would therefore be a Green opposition.

Is this possible? Can the SNP and the Greens eventually sook up enough No voters to allow them to dominate Holyrood together? Or will the independence question continue to dominate so strongly that it will unavoidably produce one big Unionist party to oppose the SNP?

How the SNP should deal with the Greens ultimately depends on the answers to these questions.

Tax credits and the self-employed

22nd Sept: Taxing
22nd Sept: Taxing.
When challenged about the cuts to tax credits, the Tories typically reply that most people will be compensated by a higher minimum wage. This is not entirely true (as far as I can tell, the minimum wage isn’t going up enough to fully compensate workers), but the biggest problem with it is that it assumes everybody is paid a salary.

However, there are a lot of self-employed people (either freelancers or owners of one-person companies) whose income depends on what they can sell (whether services or products) and who cannot simply increase their prices to compensate for falling tax credits.

Some politicians and economists have been wondering why productivity hasn’t been rising in the UK when employment has appeared to be doing rather well. I believe the answer can be found in a large rise in under-employed self-employment.

One shouldn’t forget that the job-seeker’s allowance (JSA) is in effect a working-class benefit, because recipients typically also get their rent paid; if a potential JSA claimant has a mortgage, on the other hand, there’s no help to get with that, and there’s therefore hardly any reason to apply for it. (It’s instructive to compare this with other countries like Denmark, where unemployment benefits are much higher but don’t include free rent, which means the system also works for people with mortgages.)

If you’re paying a mortgage, it makes much more sense to apply for Working Tax Credits (WTC) than JSA. You might only get £1,960 p.a. instead of £3,801, but you’re then free to do freelance work to top it up, and making at least two grand a year shouldn’t be too hard. (If you have kids, you’ll can also get Child Tax Credits, but let’s leave that aside for a moment.) Furthermore, you won’t be assigned silly jobs without pay by the Job Centres, and they won’t sanction you for missing a meeting, so you’ll have much more time to either make freelancing pay off or to apply for a real job elsewhere.

In other words, tax credits have to a large extent functioned as an unemployment safety net for people with mortgages, providing a certain amount of financial safety during the beginning of a freelance career or during bad years later on. (See also this article for some examples of the ways self-employment has simply become a way to hide unemployment.)

So what will happen now that the Tories cut the tax credits down to a very low level? The consequences won’t be felt by people in full-time minimum-wage jobs. Instead, it will be the large number of middle-class people who lost their jobs during the recession and who have been struggling to make ends meet by a combination of freelance work and tax credits that will potentially now have to throw in the towel, sell their house and go down to the Job Centre.

Another problem is that the way child tax credits will be limited to two children for new claimants. That will make it unattractive for people with more than two kids to accept temporary well-paid employment, because they can’t run the risk of not getting their tax credits back afterwards.

This will be a disaster for the Tories in many ways. Not only will many of the people affected be Conservative voters (at least in England), but it will also mean that the unemployment figures will start rising again (although it might be good for productivity).

Unfortunately, many of the people affected aren’t saying very much because it’s hard to come across as a successful professional or consultant or whatever if you’ve just told the world you didn’t manage to make more than three grand in the past year. It’s easier to keep shtum, grit your teeth and try even harder to find more work.

It’s interesting that whereas the problems with zero-hour contracts and salaries lower than the living wage are well-known, the hurdles facing the self-employed often get overlooked. Perhaps it’s because the issues are really hard to solve. You can’t simply legislate that freelancers and small businesses have to sell their products and services at specific prices — the consequence would often be a drop in earnings rather than a rise. In fact, tax credits are probably the single best way to help this group of people.

The Tories are going to regret this for a very long time. The SNP and the other pro-independence parties should already start to outline how they’ll solve it after independence.

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.

Cameron wants the UK to leave the EU

PM attends European Council
PM attends European Council by Number 10, on Flickr.
David Cameron has said in the past that he intends to campaign to remain in the EU provided that he achieves a satisfactory deal before the referendum. I’ve just realised he must be bluffing.

The reason for this is Number 10’s announcement that EU citizens won’t be able to vote in the referendum. They didn’t have to announce this yet, so they’re clearly trying to shut down debate on this topic quickly — which again means they must be desperate to achieve this. It would have been much easier simply to let everybody discuss the pros and cons of different franchises, but then the outcome might not have been what they wanted.

And let’s face it: There can be only one reason to be desperate to prevent EU citizens from voting in the referendum, and that’s to achieve a vote in favour of Brexit, given that they’re the only group of people living here who would be almost guaranteed to vote in favour of continued EU membership. It’s worth noting in this connexion that the Tories have also ruled out giving 16- and 17-year-olds the vote — another group that are likely to be more positive towards the EU than the average UK voter — while being perfectly happy to let Commonwealth citizens vote, although they’re likely to more lukewarm towards EU membership.

If David Cameron really thought he would be likely to campaign in favour of remaining in the EU, it would be nonsensical to move fast to ensure the EU’s biggest fans are disenfranchised.

My guess is he’s already expecting his negotiations will fail (if for no other reason because he’s asking for things that any EU expert will tell him the other countries won’t give him), and he’ll then go out and say something along these lines: “I really wanted to remain in a reformed EU, but the other countries have turned their backs on us, so I will with a heavy heart have to recommend that this great nation leaves the EU.”

Why is Cameron doing this? My guess is it’s to save the Conservative party. If he came out in favour of leaving the EU already, some pro-business Tories would break out, and if he campaigned in favour of EU membership, a very large number of MPs would rebel. By pretending to negotiate in good faith, he keeps the pro-EU Tories happy, and by setting the negotiations up to fail, he ensures the Eurosceptics will eventually be happy.

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.

Between Scylla and Charybdis

Scylla and CharybdisLord Ashcroft’s 16 constituency polls today confirmed that the national opinion polls are correct (if anything, the swing is larger in traditional Labour seats), and Labour and the LibDems are likely to join the Tories in panda territory soon.

Labour (and to some extent the other Unionist parties) are finding themselves in a horrible situation. The problem is basically that the party until recently had a large minority of independence-leaning supporters, who were happy to stay loyal to the party because independence wasn’t on the agenda; however, during the indyref campaign the parties made clear that Unionism was an important part of their identity, and these supporters departed for pastures new (mainly the SNP).

The way I see it, Labour must choose between Scylla and Charybdis. (Scylla and Charybdis were mythical sea monsters noted by Homer. They were regarded as a sea hazard located close enough to each other that they posed an inescapable threat to passing sailors; avoiding Charybdis meant passing too close to Scylla and vice versa. According to Homer, Odysseus was forced to choose which monster to confront while passing through the strait; he opted to pass by Scylla and lose only a few sailors rather than risk the loss of his entire ship in the whirlpool.)

Scylla: Labour could try to return to the status quo ante bellum by becoming a party that is agnostic with regard to Scottish independence. Basically, they would need to apologise for being part of Better Together and promote several big Yes campaigners to important positions within the party. Personally, I think it’s impossible now. It’s what they should have done two years ago instead of jumping into bed with the Tories, but it will look very hypocritical today.

Charybdis: Alternatively, the Unionist parties could all disband in Scotland and form one new party, the Better Together Party. This party would have the potential to compete successfully with the SNP if all the three main Unionist parties’ current voters decided to support it. However, would they really do this? Also, what would the Better Together MPs do at Westminster? Would they support Labour, the LibDems or the Tories? Would their long-term supporters really put up with this merger?

I really cannot see a good way forward for Scottish Labour. They can hope that the SNP for some bizarre reasons disintegrates, or that the Scottish Greens starts taking support away from the SNP, or that voters suddenly forget about the independence question, but I don’t see why any of this should happen quickly enough to save Labour. If they had a time machine, they could save themselves by going back in time and staying out of the independence campaign, but then Scotland would almost certainly have voted Yes to independence.

Before the referendum, I was speculating that the SNP wouldn’t prosper after a Yes vote, and that Labour might have been the big winner. We’ll never know, of course, but it’s definitely clear now that the No result wasn’t good news for Labour. I wonder whether Scottish Labour’s strategists are starting to regret they didn’t campaign for a Yes vote?

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.