Coulda, shoulda, woulda

SPOILER ALERT AND FULL DISCLOSURE: I love the FM and am also a Scottish Green


chamberSo, boom – that was the week in politics, or more or less anyway. It always feels a little bit like the balloon is letting out the last of the air after FMQs, and that’s not a reference to any one individual.

Notably, this week, our wonderful First Minister (non-ironic: see disclosure clause) gave evidence to the Convener’s Committee of the Scottish Parliament. It’s basically parents’ evening for the FM and an opportunity for supposedly influential MSPs from across the parties (except the Greens and the also wonderful Patrick and Alison who get dingied) to scrutinise the Government. The opportunity to do so is, clearly, vital, and an opportunity for a sit down with the FM herself is a perfect opportunity to hold the Government to account.

Not that you would know it from any of the questions – or not really. Conservative Murdo Fraser, rightly, worked to get clarification from St Nicola on her exact reasons for opposing some zero-hours contacts. Her inability to answer will possibly leave a staffer with a flea in their ear, but it marked out the one question the FM seemed to struggle with. Which begs a question – what is the point of our committees at the moment? It felt a little like they had all got a shared deal on Groupon for collective dental extraction and only Murdo missed the deadline.

As much as I love our FM, I expect the person – any person – in her job to be subject to serious and intense scrutiny. Not only did it fail to happen this week in Committee Room 2 with the Conveners, but it fails to happen on a weekly basis at First Minister’s Questions. Today, Head Girl Kezia Dugdale and Tank Commander Ruth thought the most important pressure faced by Scottish people was the case of Michelle Thompson MP, who is caught up in a police enquiry and has resigned the party whip and been suspended from the SNP as a result.

The allegations against the MP aren’t pretty and since I can’t afford a lawyer, I’ll let you google them. But I’m not sure what the FM can actually be held responsible for. I would like to know why our NHS is failing on mental health though. Or why hate crime is still appallingly under-reported – particularly by people who represent the most vulnerable communities. I’d also like to know why it’s all too prevalent in the first place and what the FM is going to do about that. I’d also like to know more about the Government’s position on fracking.

But most of all I would like a Parliament that’s more willing and able to hold the Government to account on its policies and actions. It isn’t coming from the Committees, it isn’t coming from the opposition and it sure as hell isn’t coming from the SNP backbenches. It’s hard to have faith that it will come from the Presiding Officer’s review of the committee structure either. Fingers crossed – but any review that gives us another system supporting a bunch of patsies, or people who oppose on command rather than principle, won’t work. And a First Minister’s Questions without on eye on the next council by-election is more necessary than ever as we head into a year of likely budget cuts.

(Sorry Nicola – I love you!)

pic copyright Scottish Parliament as per here

Why independence requires the SNP to lose their majority

Green v LabourIt’s been a long year since I voted to set up a new country more or less from scratch, and unsurprisingly there’s a lot of chat about having another go.

What are the triggers? Who gets to decide when we decide? What, in great detail, does Nicola think about it? All good questions.

But let’s admit what underlay many of the weaknesses last time: the SNP’s one-party majority at Holyrood, the very thing which led to a referendum in the first place.

Yes Scotland was seen as just a rebranded part of the SNP, and on policy issue after policy issue, the media (disingenuously but understandably) treated the SNP’s specific independence prospectus as a gospel summary of how independence would look.

The broader Yes campaign diverged from the SNP on many issues, of course. Greens (and RIC, and the SSP) had, for example, probably a less popular position on the monarchy, one which I am proud of still.

Conversely, Greens had a more robust and defensible position on the currency issue, and just today the party announced sensible plans for more research on what I call “actual independence”. As Peat Worrier memorably put it:

Take one example. You can understand the thinking behind the White Paper’s currency policy. Folk wanted to keep the pound. The focus groups urged it. So the Scottish Government decided to back it. But in practice, the policy amounted to giving your deadliest enemy a loaded revolver and saying, “please don’t shoot me with this”. The rest is history. Osborne pulled the trigger. Salmond foundered in the first debate with Darling. Credibility was never demonstrated or gained. We lost. I could go on.

Over and over the SNP’s position got confused with the reality – i.e. that the Scottish people would make those key decisions in the first election to an independent Parliament, and at subsequent elections. Neither the currency nor the monarchy would or could have been settled by a Yes vote: both would be decisions to be made later, questions about what kind of independence we want, which would no doubt evolve. This confusion is still happening today: for just one example, the thoughtful Sunder Katwala blurs the two here.

Now it’s entirely up to the SNP to offer a monarchist Scotland, and to say they’ll seek to negotiate a shared currency with Westminster. Both are respectable positions – although I think the latter of those helped sink us. But as long as they have a majority all their own that position will be seen as what Yes2 is all about. A Scottish Government where they are the largest partner but share power with the only other party at Holyrood which supports independence would be entirely different. Such a coalition wouldn’t be able to produce a White Paper2 which just set out SNP policy, nor one which promoted Green policy. Such a document would instead have to say “those decisions will be made by the Scottish people in subsequent votes, if we vote Yes this time”, and simply to list the options. It’s stronger, it’s more winnable, and it’s more honest too.

So, if what you most want is for the SNP to continue to govern alone, and you would rather one or two more SNP MSPs plus eight to ten Labour MSPs instead of a dozen Green MSPs, please do vote SNP with both ballots. But if you’d rather both a Greener government and a more realistic prospect of independence, whenever those triggers are met, I’d urge a Green list vote.

We can’t do it without them, clearly. But they can’t do it without us either.

Elections 101

3d36f095-c244-4701-9235-6f99c2129911There has been some very optimistic chatter about Green collaboration with RISE recently. I understand why, superficially, given there will be some things we’ll definitely agree on with them (ending the monarchy, opposition to Trident etc).

If another referendum takes place we would of course be on the same side again. On other issues, though, we don’t know whether RISE will follow the SSP line, so it’s too early to tell whether we’ll disagree with the platform they’ll offer in May.

Despite the high number of lower-income Edinburgh households that don’t have access to a car, Colin Fox lined up with the Tories to oppose a congestion charge for Edinburgh that would have funded public transport. Is that still RISE policy? Do they still want to replace a flawed wealth tax (i.e. council tax) with another tax on salaries, even though it’d let share income and other wealth go untaxed? Will they support decriminalisation of sex work, as Greens do? Or will they, like the SSP, keep pushing the failed Nordic model, which exposes sex workers to more violence? Are they still for an impractical free public transport policy, which we wisely voted down last year?

Anyway, Adam Ramsay wrote an optimistic (to be generous) piece about cooperation with RISE yesterday, setting out a list of options from full merger (heaven help us) through to dividing up the list and constituencies between us. If this were a preferential election system, like STV, then we could consider a mutual recommendation for second preferences, although it’d be more beneficial to talk to the SNP about that first.

Until that point, we have only ever won list seats for Holyrood, and the only way RISE can win any seats is by competing with us for votes and slots on the list. Like all other parties in Scotland, we’re in competition with them. Like all other parties in Scotland, we’ll work with them if they win seats and where we agree (for example, even the Tories used to be reliably against ID cards, so we voted with them on that). The fact that there will be many policies we share doesn’t make them a major opportunity, it makes them a threat, albeit a minor one.

But don’t take my word for it, it’s time to listen to Colin Fox instead. He understands how the electoral system works, and that parties have to compete for votes. We’re not just a target for him, we’re his number one target.



That’s their right, much as his baseless nonsense about independence irritates me. It’s called democracy. But we need to point out that we have first class MSPs and excellent prospects of electing more, unlike RISE, and we need to illustrate why the Green vision for Scotland is so important and worth voting for. Let’s not kid ourselves that we can do that by promoting a rival party. Of course, though, as Adam says, let’s not spend our time attacking them – the people worth critiquing are the SNP for their failure to redistribute downwards, the Tories for their war on the poor, Labour for their inability to oppose, and all three for their lamentable positions on climate change and the rest.

Ball and chain: Labour and the union link

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 13.58.33I’ve got a little more unsolicited advice for Labour today. *booing* Actually, I’ve got one more piece after this as well, but then I’ll try to leave it for a while. *sustained booing, attempted egging*

The formal link between Labour and the trade unions is totemic both for the left and right of the party. On the Corbynite left, it proves Labour is somehow still what it was 100 years ago – a party rooted in the activism and life experience of working people. On the right, it proves Labour is somehow still what it was 40 years ago – a party held back by dinosaurs and hard left dogma. Is the link essential and umbilical, or is it a ball and chain?

Both of these positions are pure ideological fantasy, though. From a well-intentioned outsider perspective, here’s a left argument for the disaffiliation of the unions, based on the interests of trade union membership and even of the Labour Party.

What are the actual relationships between Labour and the unions? The formal voting bloc that was provided by union leadership and latterly by individual trade union members is being weakened or removed across Labour. What remains is substantial funding from the trade unions to Labour, plus a informal cultural requirement to engage with each other as allies – a Labour leader cannot refuse a call from Unison or Unite. This means the pronouncements of one half are discussed by the media in the context of the other, especially when they’re hostile (as here: Murphy v McCluskey in the Daily Mail). Another minor element is more direct patronage. General Secretaries still end up in the Lords from time to time, and ex-Labour MPs and MSPs still get jobs with the unions.

But in policy and political terms, the relationship is hardly fruitful. Sure, even Blair and Brown did some good things for working people – notably the minimum wage and tax credits, limited as both were – but the unions failed to get a single public service renationalised over thirteen years, and inequality continued to rise. Crucially, industrial action was effectively hamstrung. As the late 1970s showed, strikes under a Labour government, especially in the public sector, damage both sides, largely because of the link. They’re seen, rightly, as one half of a “movement” fighting the other half. Who wants to vote for that? Or join that? Equally, when there’s a Tory government, strikes are used by Ministers as a weapon against Labour, and additional venom is deployed in the effort to crush them (which would be doubled again if Corbyn is elected). The rhetoric of conservatism writes itself here, exploiting the link to the fullest. Without the link, union members would be more able to take industrial action, where appropriate, under a future Labour government.

Above all, ending the formal link would primarily benefit the members of trade unions. Currently they pay subs, get demonised by the Labour right, and get warm words but no policy wins from the Labour left. Why should working people continue to fund a party which is even considering electing Cooper or Burnham, let alone Liz Kendall? The Labour establishment wants to reach right and win back defectors to the Tories and UKIP. That inevitably leaves a substantial gap between the party’s policies and any positions which might be designed benefit working people. The rise of Corbynism not withstanding, why have union members spent twenty years funding a party that doesn’t represent their interests? Or, where individual members do support Labour still, as the voting numbers show they do, why isn’t just joining the party the right course of action? Labour could even offer trade unionists a discount membership on an individual basis to encourage them to take part, so local branches get the benefit of their direct experience.

The original merit of trade unions was in collective bargaining, in directly representing the interests of their members. Of course it was advantageous for there to be socialists in Parliament who would fight alongside them. But, as the wrangle about getting Corbyn onto the ballot paper shows, how many actual socialist MPs are there on Labour benches? And collective bargaining, plus the ability to withdraw your labour without it being directly party political, would be really damn useful about now.

It’d also reflect the fact that, in addition to the working class Tories which have long been part of the trade union movement, many trade union members are now supporters of other parties to Labour’s left: the SNP, Plaid, the Greens, or the various minor left unity projects. Unions are stronger with those non-Labour-supporting members, but they’re less attractive to them because joining is still seen as supporting Labour. The idea that declining union memberships are a cause of declining Labour support might be looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Might unions be declining in part because would-be members have been put off by the association with a Blairite party?

Independent unions would be free again to be independent champions of their members, beholden to no-one else, able to bargain on their behalf with employers in the public and private sectors without fear, without coming under pressure from Labour politicians to back off for fear of damaging the party. They could focus on their real priorities, and sure, find ways for members to channel their money towards candidates who they support, whether in Labour or elsewhere.

And the Labour Party would be free to have an honest debate about policy and positioning, not one where union leaders are seen as saints or devils, with their thumbs on the scales. If Labour candidates wanted the money and support of working people, they’d have to demonstrate they were worth it. If they’d rather try to win with big business money, let them. If they’d rather win with grass-roots donations, let them. And when working people acted together to defend their interests, Labour wouldn’t have to cringe in fear of a Daily Mail headline tying them to the unions in quite the same way. It’s not kow-towing to the media pack – it’s neutering them.

Breaking the link in its current form looks even more like the correct decision for a Corbyn Labour Party, which already knows what to expect from opponents, both within and without, but it still makes sense if one of the former Ministers under Blair wins. And it looks essential if unions are to deliver more for their members. The only people who would really lose from this disaffiliation are old-style union bosses, who might see their peerages slip away. And lazy Labour hacks who like unaccountable money to blow on carving stone epitaphs. Ending the link would liberate both unions and Labour, and might improve the lives of those who need better politics and better labour representation.

An appealing alternative?

A guest post today from Stuart MacLennan on the Labour Party: leadership and policy. Thanks Stu!

2ldg9znIn the couple of months that have passed since the election, I find myself increasingly despondent with our hopes for the future. It seems I’m not alone in this. I started writing this post over a month ago, but buried it for fear of seemingly like a stereotypical lefty crank. But even the noble and learned Lord Mandelson seems to share my despondency, so I felt, perhaps, it was worth commenting further upon the Leadership election presently underway within the party.

We are repeatedly told that the Labour Party has failed to “learn the lessons of the past” – which is true. Unfortunately for us, far too many people who are keen to learn those lessons have been going to the wrong classes altogether.

In the 2015 General Election, Labour suffered a double whammy, losing support on our right – to the Tories and UKIP – and on our left – primarily to the SNP, but also to other parties too. This poses a dilemma to the party. In the past we’ve suffered losses at either end, but never before in recent memory have we suffered both at the same time. How do we address this? The fact that losses to our right occurred primarily in England, and losses to our left occurred primarily in Scotland has led people to the obvious, but incorrect, answer that we need to move to the right in England, and to the left in Scotland – and that only a total separation between Scotland and England enables this.

Chasing voters is the most cynical – and usually least effective – way of doing politics. “People voted for X, so if we’re more like X then they’ll vote for us instead.” This is utter nonsense, and Scottish politics illustrates this. In response to a sizeable number of former Labour voters voting for Scottish independence, Jim Murphy sought to woo them back by being more “patriotic”. But if you vote for the SNP because you’re an existential nationalist, why on earth would you vote for Labour because they’re a bit nationalistic, but nothing like as much as the SNP? The answer is, of course, that you wouldn’t.

Nonetheless, this is the exact same approach that is advocated by fellow vote-chasing cynical Blairite, Liz Kendall. Kendall’s answer to Labour’s lack of electoral appeal is, as Yvette Cooper put it, to swallow the Tory manifesto. Think about this from the same perspective as above: if you support the Conservative position on most things, why would you vote for a party that’s basically the same, just a bit less so? The answer, again, is that you wouldn’t.

The need for an alternative

Opposition parties are at an incredible disadvantage. Not just in terms of resource (although having the machinery of the civil service to work out your policies for you is an undoubted advantage over reliance upon Short Money staffers) but because Britain is an inherently conservative country. That is not to say that the majority of Britons are ideologically right-wing, but that we are inherently suspicious of change. That suspicion can be overcome, but the strong presumption in the minds of British electors is that the devil you know is always preferable.

So the first task in winning elections from opposition is persuading voters to defy their conservative tendencies and agree that an alternative to the present government is desirable. Sometimes you can get lucky – as Tony Blair did – and find yourself up against a government of whom the electorate have grown so tired that you barely have to make this argument. David Cameron arguably benefitted from such a sentiment, as did Wilson in 1964; but this alone is not enough to propel you to Number 10. Labour undoubtedly made this case well in the late 80s, which spurred the Conservative Party – and subsequently the electorate – to agree that a change was needed (which, unfortunately for Neil Kinnock, was not him). Similar observations could be made of Tony Blair’s Government in 2005. On both occasions incumbent governments of whom the electorate had grown tired were not challenged by opposition alternatives that the electorate found remotely attractive.

In 2015, contrary to the “Red Ed” dogma that appears to permeate the Blairite right since the election, Labour’s economic message was, in fact, a conservative one. There can be little doubting that we accepted the premise of the Conservatives’ economic message. Our own economic position was “we’ll be basically like the Tories, but shitter at it”. For this reason, we fundamentally failed the first test for winning elections from opposition – that we need an alternative. If you believe that the Tories’ approach to the economy is the right one, then why on earth would you vote for Tory-lite? Why have the shandy when you can have Special Brew? On this basis, Labour fundamentally failed to persuade the electorate that an alternative to the present government’s approach was either needed, nor desirable.

Therefore, once you have achieved the difficult task of persuading the electorate that an alternative to the present government is required, you then have to persuade them that you are an appealing alternative. The prerequisite of this step is that you actually have to be an alternative.

The need for an appealing alternative

Having made it through stage one – either by accident or by design – it then follows that you have to adequately meet the second test. That is to say, that the electorate, now convinced of the need for an alternative to the present officeholders, have to believe that you are the alternative that they crave. Failing this second test will result in people either plumping for what they know, or those who crave a change looking elsewhere. So it’s not simply enough to be an alternative, you have to be an appealing alternative.

In 2015, Labour suffered the catastrophic double-whammy of failing both tests.

As I detailed above, by the mid-90s Labour did not have to do very much to persuade voters that an alternative was required. However, for all he was painted as a centrist, Tony Blair’s Labour was distinctive to an extent. In the same way that Wilson focused on technology and modernisation, New Labour – at the very least – embodied an energetic renewal of Britain’s stuffy politics. It wasn’t radical, though it was distinctive; and, crucially, New Labour smacked of managerial competence and personal appeal – which by this stage was the exact antithesis of John Major’s government.

It is not necessary to stray particularly far onto your opponents’ political turn in order to win office. For all his critics on his own side might have decried him for being the “Heir to Blair”, there has never been much doubt that David Cameron is planted firmly on the political right. Certainly, Margaret Thatcher never felt it necessary to embrace any part of the Labour platform in order to win office, and comfortably retain it.

But I do not advocate that was is needed is an alternative that is necessarily radical, but rather, an alternative that has mass appeal. Our platform in 2015 was anything but appealing. Our offering to the public was composed of a handful of minor platitudes to the left and right. The gist of the 2015 manifesto was:

• “Banning zero-hours contracts” – except that hardly anyone is actually on a zero-hours contract and a lot of the people who are, it turns out, actually quite like them;
• “Ending the bedroom tax” – a noble pursuit, except, again, it’s something that hardly anyone has actually been affected by;
• “Cutting tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000?” – we’re going to cripple students with *slightly* less debt;
• “NHS” – Britain’s answer to motherhood and apple pie.

Where is the appeal to the masses? Where is the distinctive position? It’s certainly a long way from the radical platforms upon which the governments of 1945 and 1979 were elected.

Is all lost for the Kendallites?

Those adherents to the Kendall-cause aren’t entirely without hope. It might well be that – for reasons unrelated to policy – the present conservative government might become so unpopular that the electorate seeks out another conservative government – just one that isn’t run by the Tories. But unless it transpires that David Cameron and George Osborne are manifestly corrupt and/or incompetent (which they’re not) then the Liz Kendall approach to leadership – which is, ostensibly, following voters – is doomed to failure.

We cannot win elections by chasing voters and, worse still, following our opponents. It may be an article of faith to the Blairites in England, and the Trots in Scotland, but the mountain cannot come to Mohammed. To win again, we need first to convince electors that an alternative to the approach of this Conservative government is required – something you cannot do by emulation. We then need to persuade voters that we are the alternative that they crave, and we cannot do that with insipid, piecemeal policies aimed at a fraction of a percent of voters at a time.

In 1945, we fought an election ostensibly on the issue of housing. Its mass appeal is that everyone needs a house and we didn’t have enough of them. The same could be said for today. Similarly, as a population we are more mobile than ever, and evidence appears to suggest that the public are open to radical ideas with respect to transport. These are just two areas in which the potential exists for alternative approaches that appeal to the masses, and not just the fringes.

What we need is an appealing alternative. Is that too much to ask?