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This is England

burford

Those who squeezed in to the Scottish Green conference this weekend were greeted by thought-provoking image on the front of their delegate packs – an inverted map of the UK with Scotland in the middle nestling comfortably between Norway and Ireland, England fading into the distance.

In England though Scotland is as peripheral as ever. On a Saturday afternoon in rural Oxfordshire people mill about the bus stops and market in Witney, the nominal home of the Prime Minister. This is small town English life as the modern Tories envisage it. Pavement cafes and bistros line the high street, itself furnished with ample parking. Witney is a bus ride from Oxford, and functions as a jumping off point for even quainter Cotswold towns and villages.
A few miles away, just down the road from the RAF base at Brize Norton, sits the town of Burford. Its long street of pubs and restaurants is straight out of the Visit Britain adverts plastered on the white walls of airports across the globe.

The town hall has a noticeboard outside listing all the goings on, a public letter of support about the maintenance of rural bus services in West Oxfordshire taking centre stage among the bulletins. There’s no appeal for food bank donations or invitations to public meetings though. The various crises and pressures hitting contemporary Britain from both left and right are well beyond being felt here. Burford is the final navigable point on the Thames, and it feels a very long way from London.

In the local deli, a phenomenon quickly replacing the dying village shop in places like Burford across the South, a woman is giving out samples of locally grown organic fruit liqueur. “I’m guessing you’re not local” she says, pushing over a thumbfull of red liquid. “It’s very nice here, even if it is a bit Midsomer Murders sometimes.”
Stepping outside on the street it is obvious she is right. This is not the kind of place that needs to put up Union Jacks. Its Englishness is written into the buildings, as is its wealth.

A taxi driver who ferries people from village to village, a British-Asian called Abdul, puts it succinctly. “I mostly just do station runs or take non locals to weddings. Almost everyone here has a car.”

At a local wedding venue you can hear the transport aircraft whine as they race up the runway at Brize Norton, headed for Afghanistan, the Falklands and perhaps now Syria too. Inside a Ceilidh band is starting up and a mixed crowd of nervous home counties partyers peppered with a few Scots nervously practice the dances the band want them to play. The Scots, kilted-up and playing their part, lead everyone else as the good whisky is uncorked on the sidelines. This is the only manifestation of Scotland that could possibly work in this part of the country, detached as it is from the reality of the England outside too.

The following morning the TV at the local pub broadcasts a silent Andrew Marr as guests tuck into their full English breakfasts. The UKIP election victory in Essex is comparable to the shockwave the SNP have created in Scotland, he says. In Burford and Witney though it is very easy to forget what is going on, chillax and eat your cereal.

Taxi for Lamont

Thanks to an anonymous (but definitely Labour) Labour person for today’s insidery guest post.

The precarious situation of Johann Lamont
lamontLeading Scottish Labour in this session was never going to be easy. Whoever led the party would have to deal with a Holyrood full of gloating Nats, and a Scottish Parliamentary Labour Party composed primarily of duds and d-listers.

Johann Lamont is in a precarious position. Since becoming leader two and a half years ago, she has failed to build a core of support around her. Upon reflection, this, perhaps, seems inevitable. Johann won the leadership thanks to the support of unions and parliamentarians. Little more than a third of ordinary members voted for her (a level of support that would embarrass even Ed Miliband). Unions are notoriously unpredictable with their support (remember when Unite backed Iain!) and parliamentarians are notoriously, well… treacherous.

Johann’s parliamentary support for the leadership was a strange ragbag of members ranging from Richard Baker on the right to Katy Clark on the left. While on the one hand, this can be indicative of a broad base of support, on the other it might also suggest that her support was built around her being the least-worst option. Since becoming leader Johann has built an inner circle that appears to consist of Margaret Curran, Duncan McNeil, and Paul Martin – hardly enough to keep the circling wolves at bay. In addition to not building a solid inner circle, Johann has also isolated a number of key figures, including Hugh Henry, Ken Macintosh, and Jackie Baillie. And despite having an MP for a deputy, Johann has done little to heal the rift between the Scottish leadership and the Westminster group.

Rumours are rife that Johann isn’t in it for the long-haul, and plans on resigning the leadership within the year. Having cleared a lot of the deadwood out from John Smith House, and, presumptively, having led the Labour Party through a victorious referendum campaign – Johann perhaps expects that she can step down with the gratitude of her party, rather than face the onslaught of another election against Salmond. Alternatively, Johann might not plan on going anywhere, in which case the rumours emanating from “party sources” might be designed to undermine her leadership and fan the flames of speculation. Either way, it looks increasingly likely that Johann will either jump, or she’ll be pushed.

So if Johann does go within the next twelve months, who are the contenders to succeed her?

Anas Sarwar
sarwarIt has been reported that there has been a breakdown in the relationship between Anas Sarwar and Johann. It certainly appears that, while once Anas was said to be “leading” Labour’s campaign against independence, his role has been somewhat downgraded to being a Prescott-esque grassroots favourite touring around on a bus.

Anas is undoubtedly ambitious, having become Deputy Leader of the Scottish Party barely 18 months after first being elected to Parliament. There is no denying that Anas is extremely popular with members the length and breadth Scotland, and spending most of 2014 touring around on his “battle bus” is only going to broaden his appeal.

Rumour has it that, were Anas to run for leader, it would be on a joint ticket with Jenny Marra. Such a ticket has undeniable attractions: east-west balance; gender balance; and ethnic diversity. Both benefit from family-connections, yet both are fairly new to the scene.

However, such a ticket also has severe drawbacks. Anas could be charitably described as “somewhat light on substance”, while one comrade recently described Jenny as being “insufferable”. A Sarwar-Marra ticket also lacks any discernible left-wing element which, as Ken Macintosh can attest, will be a barrier to winning support both in the Unions, but also amongst the MSP group.

Anas is extremely likeable. He has a warmth and charm which is more sincere – or more convincing – than most politicians. However, it is questionable whether Anas’ personal popularity can be converted to political support. It may be that Anas is destined to be another Prescott – someone whom we love as a navigator, but we would never really want in the driver’s seat.

Jim Murphy
murphyUntil recently, Jim Murphy’s political career has been on an extremely slow but nonetheless upwards trajectory. It is, perhaps, because of this unfaltering upward momentum that Jim previously appeared entirely uninterested in leading the Scottish Labour Party. Following Ed Miliband’s demotion of Jim, from shadowing Defence to shadowing International Development last year, his career has, for the first time, gone into reverse. With the class of ‘97 being increasingly overlooked by the Labour leadership and the media, it would be natural for many, including Jim Murphy, to start cultivating other options.

I have little doubt that Jim is interested in the job. Recently, a “senior source” told Paul Hutcheon at the Herald that Jim has “star quality”, while another “party insider” described him as a “first-class politician”. Now, Jim’s alright, and he does have his supporters within the party; but the only person with that lofty an opinion of Jim Murphy is Jim Murphy! Perhaps, having recently reached the conclusion that he’s never going to be the biggest fish in the big pond, he has decided that being a shark in the Scottish political loch isn’t so unattractive after all.

Jim Murphy has a number of obstacles to overcome – least of which is the fact that seat selections are already well underway. The perception that Ken Macintosh was in Jim’s pocket was a major drag on Ken winning support amongst MSPs, and I see no evidence that the Scottish Parliamentary Party will be any more receptive to the principal than the agent. Jim might have some support within the MPs’ group, but I doubt MSPs would take kindly to having a leader foisted upon them by Westminster. Furthermore, while Jim might have enthusiastic (some might say “cult-like”) support in certain constituencies (his own constituency, along with Labour Students, worship him like a god), his support within the broader party is more limited than many think. Even if the party did unite behind him, his avowed centrism will do little to win back votes votes from the Nats.

Finally, timing may be a problem for Jim. As a front-bencher in a party that’s in the lead in the polls, Jim may well be a cabinet minister with a foreign affairs brief within a matter of months. Unless the polls begin to paint a clearer picture of the outcome of the next election, then Jim will have to weigh-up the risks of staying put against the risks of abandoning ship. A post-May 2015 election would be eminently more suitable for Jim, for a number of reasons. First, he won’t have to gamble his career on the outcome of the 2015 election. Second, MSPs might be more receptive to being led from Westminster were it only for a short period in the run-up to the Holyrood election in 2016. Finally, if in 2015, as I fearfully predict whatever the outcome UK-wide, Labour loses seats to the SNP in Scotland, and wins few from the Lib Dems (taking Ochil off Labour is not a tall order for the Nats in the present climate, while Argyll, East Dunbartonshire, Edinburgh West, and Inverness could all be snatched from Labour’s grasp by the SNP) then the party may well go into panic mode and seek a “game-changer” to unite around. This, in my opinion, represents the best chance for Jim Murphy.

Kezia Dugdale
dugdaleKez Dugdale is already a candidate for leader. Whether she knows it or not; whether she likes it or not. The prominence that she has been afforded lately suggests that there are some within the party organisation (although, if sufficiently senior, then possibly as few as one) that see Kez Dugdale as the future of the party. Kez was recently placed on a BBC Question Time panel, a rare privilege afforded to few Labour MSPs (only two Labour MSPs outside of the leadership have ever appeared on Question Time – Hugh Henry, and Kez). She was proffered as the co-host of the BBC’s new “Crossfire” programme, and has recently been given a column in the Labour-supporting Daily Record. In a Stella Creasy-like way, Kez has built a higher profile in two years than most do in ten.

Kez has incredibly sharp political antennae. She is highly intelligent, though she doesn’t go around telling everyone that she’s highly intelligent (unlike Jenny, or Wendy, for that matter  - and it worked well for her!). As a parliamentary researcher, she was incredibly diligent. Her forensic use of parliamentary questions and FOIs made her a valuable asset to the parliamentary party. In some respects, Kez has actually been an MSP for seven years – because while George Foulkes may well have been the giant head, everyone knew that it was Kez behind the curtain.

Once upon a time, Kez’s naked ambition caused her to be looked upon sceptically by many. Like so many of Labour’s youthful staffers, she appeared only to discover her lifelong love of the Labour party when she was looking for a job. However, becoming an MSP at a comparatively young age appears to have satisfied Kez’s ambition for the time being, and she appears more comfortable, natural, and more likeable as a consequence. And whatever anyone thought about her ambitiousness, it was hard to deny that Kez is a grafter.

Kez commands considerable support amongst younger members. She runs a structured internship programme that pays a living wage. She previously worked for NUS Scotland and the Edinburgh University Students Association, which has endeared her to many in the party’s centrist student movement and its alumni. However, it is that centrist tag that may harm Kez most. Kez has been, somewhat unfairly, labelled a ‘Blairite’ for her involvement with David Miliband’s ‘Movement for Change’ – a tag that will endear only the very few remaining believers.

One asset that Kez might have is her association with John Park. The now-former MSP was crucial in securing the support of Unite for the most unlikely of candidates – Iain Gray – in the 2008 leadership election. And with it, others followed. While it’s a longshot that a centrist will be able to pull-off that one again, and Park now works for the much smaller ‘Community’ union – if Kez did manage to win some union backing then I’d make Kez the hot favourite for the job. And while she may not be an avowed Trotskyist –  she might not need to be. One way or another, unions and affiliates will cast a third of the votes, so Kez only needs to be more union-friendly than her competitors – and in a leadership fight with Anas and Jim, Kez may well be.

Neil Findlay or Drew Smith
findlaysmithWhile the last leadership election was effectively a two-horse race between, on the one hand the establishment candidate (Johann), and on the other the members’ favourite (Ken), making union support the decisive factor; the next leadership election offers plenty of scope for being more open. I am considering Neil Findlay and Drew Smith together as they both occupy similar political space: Neil is the more likely candidate; where Drew is the more plausible.

Neil Findlay is well known and well liked on the left of the party, having previously served as a councillor in West Lothian. Being the only candidate ever to have served as a councillor may well help Neil win support amongst Labour’s 400 councillors, and the associates and relatives that come with them. As Shadow Health Secretary, he is undoubtedly more senior than Drew, however he has failed to make the same impact in his role as Kez has in hers.

Though even younger than Kez, Drew Smith has all the hallmarks of an extremely plausible candidate. He is intelligent (although he does like people to know it), he is a good communicator, and you can be certain that Drew would attract union support. He has key allies in Dave Moxham (STUC) and Lynn Henderson (PCS); and having served on the STUC Youth Committee in the past, it is understood that both Unite and Unison are both strong supporters of Drew.

As a Glasgow list MSP, Drew has the advantage of representing the largest number of Labour members of any candidate. However, while Drew may be well connected, he can often come across as smug and/or aloof. Despite constitutional matters being at the very forefront of political debate, he has been practically invisible in his role as Labour’s Constitution spokesperson.

The role of unions is crucial in these elections for more than just their votes. Their endorsement is often key to demonstrating to constituency members that you are a credible, left-wing candidate. Union support also brings with it resources, including direct mails to members. There is a spillover effect too, as union members who vote often also cast a vote in the constituency section.

However, while union support might swing a close election your way (hi Ed!), you cannot win anything without support in the other sections, which is what makes Neil and Drew long-shot candidates. It is difficult to see from where either Neil or Drew would draw support within the Parliamentary parties – beyond the usual awkward squad. I cannot see either of them mounting serious leadership campaigns: however,  if either of them were to stand they might still play an important role in drawing union support away from the other candidates.

Long shots

Margaret Curran is always worth mentioning, having been a senior figure in the party since Jack McConnell’s leadership. However, Margaret has passed on three leadership elections thus far, and there is little to suggest that she has changed her mind this time. Astonishingly, it might well be that she doesn’t want the job!

Hugh Henry has flitted back and forward from the front bench more times than I’d care to remember. Well liked by much of the press, Hugh could draw support from both members and unions. He cuts a somewhat lonely figure around Parliament these days. If Hugh had the appetite he could be a serious contender, but all the evidence suggests he has no interest in the job.

Douglas Alexander appears confident enough that his Westminster career is safe enough, though, like Jim, much depends on what happens in 2015. If Labour remain in opposition then the election co-ordinator for two consecutive humpings may suddenly be in need of an exit plan! Douglas is a close ally of Paul Sinclair, Scottish Labour’s chief spin-doctor, who could be extremely useful in any leadership bid. Douglas is smarter and more conciliatory than most contenders, but I doubt he has either the desire nor the malevolence to knife his buddy Jim.

Scottish Labour and the supposed self-evident truths of separation

We’re pleased to have a guest post today from dearly-missed erstwhile Better Nation editor and former Labour staffer Kirsty Connell. Thanks Kirsty! Come back to Scotland any time!

KirstyIt’s painful, not to be surrounded by others like yourself. Where you can repeat back to each other what you think, or are meant to think, and be reassured that others think the same.

During my time as a Labour Party member (which I am no longer) I heard from others and repeated back five core mantras as my reasons for opposing independence.

With the benefit of now being a member of no party, I have spent the last wee while having to think for myself. Likewise, I’ve not been living in Scotland, granting me distance and perspective from what I used to do and used to think.

Please don’t read the following seeking profundity, or innovation. You will have heard every line, probably many times, before. But like all oft-repeated things, these mantras are nothing but canards. Clung to. Repeated. Until they are instilled with the appearance of self-evident truth.

I’m not sure I’ve found the truth, whatever that may be, but at least I think I’ve identified the false. And if you want to tell me why I’m wrong, go ahead – at least I’ll take it as evidence you too have thought these things through. Haven’t you?

1. A vote for independence is just a vote for the SNP.

If you’re a Scottish Labour activist, the SNP are the opposition. Your reasoning goes something like this: SNP are bad. SNP want independence. Whatever the SNP want must be bad. Independence is bad. Hence, voting for independence is like voting for the SNP, and both are bad. Capiche?

Voting for, or against, Scottish independence is a decision stemming from, well, everything. What we want Scotland to be, how we want to act, what we want to do. There are considered and thoughtful arguments for and against both sides, whether Scotland is independent or part of the United Kingdom.

What a vote for independence it is not, is a vote for party politics. It doesn’t always, but it ought to transcend that. To relegate it to just choosing sides isn’t good enough.

And, if I can be really cheeky, a vote for independence is a vote to probably get rid of the SNP – how’s that for defeating your enemies!

2. Independence is a policy panacea.

“It’s the SNP’s answer for everything. Independence. We can’t do that unless we have independence. Once we have independence Scotland will be a land of milk and honey, ahem, oil and whisky…”

Oh, I’m sorry Labour, but the SNP’s competent record in government since 2007 rather puts paid to that one. Even the valid criticisms of significant policy reform – the police force, further education – still makes these not mere bagatelles popped out to make it look like the SNP have been busy. A solid opposition to Westminster cuts. A stable ministerial team with only a few hiccups along the way. In fact, I wish I could say the same for Labour’s leadership and direction since it lost power.

And of course, the SNP government in Holyrood could do more. But at least there’s a 670 page proposal for Scotland’s future under independence. Any chance you might want to let us know what life might be like under a continuing union?

3. We have as much in common with working people in Manchester as in Scotland.

Yes we do. During my twenties my friends moved from Scotland to Manchester and Leeds and Newcastle and it didn’t feel like they’d gone to a foreign country. And I have friends in Dublin and Toulouse and Stockholm and I don’t feel like they live in an exotic and faraway locale either. (And, no offence to the Greens who blog here, sometimes its a lot easier and cheaper to fly to them than to get a train halfway up the country.)

This is in contrast to all of us that moved to London (myself included), and haven’t been or thought much beyond the boundaries of the M25 since.

Solidarity doesn’t stop at the border, whether it’s old or new. It’s not good enough to not vote for independence out of a sense of obligation to (and a decent number of Labour MPs for) comrades in England. But it’s just not true to say without Scotland, England will be cast into a fiery pit, ruled by Tories and their City cronies forevermore. Labour would have won without Scotland in 1997, 2001 and 2005. There are people working hard in these green and pleasant lands for a better and more socially just England, whether that’s electing a Green MP or opposing Coalition cuts. Like an activist friend said to me: “I want Scotland to be independent. I just want you to take me with you.

4. A Labour government in Westminster working with Holyrood will deliver more for Scotland.

Debatable. My experience of working in Holyrood for Labour was that Westminster was really rather cross with us most of the time, whether about extraordinary rendition or Forth Bridge tolls. It still seems a bit frosty. And I’m not sure I favour the chances of a Labour Government being formed in 2015.

5. I didn’t get involved in politics to defend the union.

Actually, this one’s true. I didn’t. And so I won’t.

Ayes to the Right

njFew people remember Nick Johnston‘s career as a Tory MSP, which ended more than twelve years ago. But his decision to come out for a Yes vote today is still telling, not because he’s personally significant but because it demonstrates that the desire for Scotland to do better with self-governance does indeed span the conventional left-right spectrum, just as the No campaign does.

To be fair, though, his arguments aren’t exactly outside the independence-minded mainstream. Anyone from the Radical Independence Convention or the SNP or the Greens could have said that “while problems and opportunities with particular resonance in Scotland can go by the board at Westminster, it’s just not possible for that to happen in a Scottish Parliament“, or noted that “inequalities inherent in British society fester even more strongly in Scotland, leading to despair and often apathy“. Wanting a “a more dynamic economy, or measures to tackle poverty” is hardly bloodthirsty Thatcherism.

The fact is that any ambitious young centre-right politicos should be seeing the opportunity Johnston sees. It’s impossible to see a strong future for the Tories under devolution, particularly given the current positions adopted by the SNP. A party that combines a degree of social liberalism and protection for public services from privatisation with a centre-right position on tax and spend will always hoover up their votes, especially if that’s a credible alternative Scottish government to Labour.

An independent Scotland will almost certainly keep voting to the left of the rUK, on average, despite the polls showing a smaller gap than many think, but independence will open up space for everyone to get out from under Westminster’s stifling influence and for our politics to be reshaped.

The Fergus Ewing wing of the SNP and the Johnston end of the Tory party aren’t that far apart (and independence would force the Tories to cut their ties to London and adopt the Murdo Fraser plan: Murdo coincidentally succeeded Johnston), the SSP might stage a comeback, Labour might rediscover an interest in something other than the constitution, and Greens, well, I think we’re already winning mindshare from SNP supporters and others on the left who want something more radical than NATO, the Queen and the pound. And the SNP itself: some of its activists and MSPs would go home – job done – but the rest would find other things to work on, new alliances to make based on issues other than the constitution. I can’t wait to see it unfold.

Disorganised, hypocritical and pointless: Labour MPs

Labour brought a vote yesterday at Westminster on the bedroom tax, calling for its abolition. Great: let’s end this stain on British politics, this attack on the poorest and the most vulnerable, yet another personal cut especially targeted at people with disabilities.

On the night only two Lib Dems dared to back Labour – Tim Farron, their next leader, desperate to find the right amount of distance from his own party, plus Andrew George. But with some abstentions, the coalition only secured 252 votes for the bedroom tax. With 257 Labour MPs in the Commons, plus the backing in this case of the SNP, Plaid, Greens and more, this should have been a historic victory over a key bit of Coalition savagery.

Unfortunately Labour didn’t turn up. That would have been sufficient. Simply to turn up. Not even all of them, necessarily, although if the poor and vulnerable matter to them, this might take precedence over, well, anything else they might be doing (pairing would have been fine). But no, there were sufficient Labour absentees to save the Tories’ and Lib Dems’ skins.

Yesterday Labour were criticising IDS for not turning up to the vote. Oh, the irony. Oh, the hypocrisy. What, seriously, is the point of an opposition that works like this?

But it gets worse. For some reason I get Labour spam, and I received this shameless email from Rachel Reeves this morning. If she signed this dishonest missive off herself she doesn’t belong in politics.

Screen Shot 2013-11-13 at 08.27.47

Update: the full list of those voting is here (h/t). If it turns out I’m wrong and it’s all pairing, I’ll take some of it back. But I wouldn’t have let the Coalition pair on this, on reflection.