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Apex predator

trexSay what you like about the Tories from a policy perspective – like, they exist to protect the interests of the powerful, to redistribute wealth to the rich, etc – but their strategic prowess is frankly extraordinary.

Throughout the 20th century they were renowned as the “best election-winning machine in Western Europe”, and indeed after the Attlee government they were only ejected from office three times by Labour: 64, 74 & 97.

Blair’s three wins led to smug conclusions from the centre and left that the Tories had lost their magic touch. But everyone has an off decade from time to time, and besides (again, say what you like about him in policy terms) Blair was the master of his medium.

The Tories are back, though, and they appear to have developed a new art, or refined an old one: a trick which should give any party considering working with them good reason to think twice about it. They have become very adept at destroying their partners, and it is no mere coincidence. They know exactly what they’re doing as they do it.

First, the Lib Dems. It’s reported that, just after the coalition deal was inked, William Hague said “I think I’ve killed the Liberal Democrats“, and history has proved him right. Clegg’s spectacularly inept approach to the 2010 hung Parliament – and, prior to that, the supremacy within the party of the Orange Book brigade – meant they gleefully signed up to a Tory programme of government where very little was moderated and which John Major or even early Maggie might have regarded as too extreme.

In fact, sometimes I wondered whether the Tories pushed the Coalition’s agenda even to the right of where they wanted to be, primarily to destroy the Lib Dems. That’s a long-term aim I know many in other parties have had vaguely in mind. But no-one else could have carried it out so expertly.

What I hadn’t seen, which was hiding in plain sight, was the way in which this project would be used to deliver a Tory majority. My bet on them to win overall was a mere hunch, based on a lack of faith in the electoral system, not on good analysis of what they were up to. What the Tories worked out (and handed to Crosby to deliver) was that if they could hold Labour to a draw in England and crush the Lib Dems across the south, especially in the south-west, they could potentially convert a comfortable combined majority into a narrow one-party majority.

It’s a moment of strategic genius, and it worked perfectly. To sit chummily with the Lib Dems for five years, to let them hand you power, and all along to plan to take their seats off them by way of a thank-you: it’s cold, brutal, impressive. Last time, with the National Liberal Party, the Liberals would eventually come back. It’s unclear whether the Lib Dems will.

But to pull off two such manoeuvres in one electoral cycle is truly extraordinary, and that’s what they’ve done. The other victims were Labour, both in England and in Scotland. Scotland wasn’t designed as direct help, i.e. to provide any more Tory wins, more as a way of making Labour’s life more difficult in the event of an anti-Tory majority. But it was done the same way. Like a mafia don at the height of his powers, they kept their enemies closer.

In the case of Labour, the independence referendum was the perfect opportunity to do just that. It couldn’t have been a closer embrace: they effectively subsumed all three unionist parties into Better Together, and killed Labour with apparent affection. The Tories know how the left two thirds of Scotland see them, and they saw the opportunity to let that rub off on Labour. In fact, the aim was not just to drag Labour down with them, but in fact make Labour more hated in Scotland than the Tories. It worked a treat: remember the surprise when polls showed Cameron was less unpopular in Scotland than Miliband.

It’s the same trick as with the Lib Dems. Tory voters got mostly what they wanted out of coalition – and no-one else was surprised, that’s just how Tories are. Ditto with the independence referendum. Everyone expects the Tories to be in favour of the status quo, so they didn’t lose any credibility – in fact Ruth Davidson accrued more through a matey profile – but the way Labour worked hand-in-glove with the Tories immediately put the former people’s party squarely in the role of Betrayers of Scotland.

And again, they knew what they were doing: I bumped into a Tory MSP of my acquaintance as the post-indyref surge in SNP membership was underway after Johann Lamont’s resignation. I’ve never seen him so cheery, and he declared: “we’ve managed to make Labour look like the party of Scotland in England, and to look like the party of Westminster in Scotland”. It’s a brutal vice to squeeze them in, and I admit I only really thought about the implications for Scotland, i.e. the likelihood that Labour would take a drubbing in the election just past. I’ve been sceptical of the impact the “fear of Scotland/the SNP” message had on English votes, especially given how popular Nicola was in England after the first debate, but this fits alongside it nicely. The Tories clearly had a plan. And again, Labour helped them by endlessly trying to demonise a party which broadly occupies the same space as them on the spectrum. Every time Ed tried even more desperately to distance himself from the SNP it just helped the Tories… and the SNP. It’s the old LBJ anecdote: “I wanna hear him deny it.. on TV!”

To dip back to the Lib Dem example, the poor fools thought they could “take credit” for some of the coalition’s changes in this election, such as the surprisingly regressive personal allowance changes, and for even more absurd wins, such as things that might hypothetically have happened without them restraining the evil Tories. This too has a parallel. Scottish Labour really thought they were using Tory money to support Labour when in fact they were digging their own political graves through Better Together.

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Obviously, in Scotland the Tories’ objectives were shared with the single-minded SNP, who squeezed both Labour and the Lib Dems almost off the board. None of this is to deny the skill with which the SNP have parlayed a programme quite similar to Labour’s into a generational shift in their own favour. But this stunning SNP success was essentially a full-frontal assault, aided by Labour’s indyref mistakes, and feels like a blunt instrument compared to the Tory moves.

I’m not sure what the Tories are up to with UKIP, but it seems certain it involves looking Eurosceptic and staying in the EU, possibly even getting pro-business concessions that will make the left very uncomfortable about being on the Stay In side alongside him. Alternatively (unless Farage completes their self-destruction in time) Cameron might come back from Brussels, declare he didn’t get quite enough concessions, and end up on the same (presumably losing) side as UKIP, making them seem doubly irrelevant but uniting his party in the process. “Losing” gracefully would shut up the “bastards” and UKIP and make the Tories even safer for business. To be honest, I don’t see the threats to him either way, and whatever they’re up to I wouldn’t bet against them.

This return to strategic form by the Tories is sadly not just of academic interest. Anyone who wants to beat them needs to outsmart them (which is not the same as tacking right to meet them). And anyone considering working with them should take a quick step backwards, too, so long as they’re sure they know which direction the cliff is in.

Twenty reasons why Jim Murphy should stay as Scottish Labour leader

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Yesterday my friend John wrote a frankly pretty unhelpful piece urging Jim Murphy to leave as Scottish Labour leader. I thought I’d redress the balance with this modest list of reasons why Jim Murphy should stay. I’m sure you’ll have other suggestions: please do let me know.

  1. He’s not had long at all to get stuff done, and turfing him out now would leave the reorganisation of Scottish Labour half done at best. Give him a little time.
  2. Labour did hold Edinburgh South, after all. It’s unlikely that’s to do with Ian Murray helping to save Hearts or being probably the hardest-working of their outgoing MPs. Some polls predicted a total wipeout, so this result is actually quite a striking success.
  3. He’s got exceptionally loyal media support, especially from the Tory press. They urged Labour to support him last year, and it feels like they’d support him now even if he’d lost every vote in Scotland. They’ve got Labour’s best interests at heart.
  4. It’s probably best to write off the 2016 Holyrood elections and 2017 local elections. The focus should be 2020 and thereafter. Jim’s the man to write those two off as well, based on this result.
  5. Actually, many of the Labour MPs who lost, like Ian Davidson, Michael Connarty, and Brian Donohoe, weren’t that great and it’s probably better for Labour to start again in 2020 with more appealing candidates next time round. Everyone needs a clearout once in a while. Consider it “decluttering”.
  6. A leadership election is a distraction from winning back support, and he clearly represents stability and steady-as-you-go for Labour in Scotland. It would be self-indulgent navel-gazing to have another election. Also, if you have a leadership election you might need to reveal how many proper members Scottish Labour has, and that might be a bit awkward.
  7. He’s successfully alienated the unions. And that’s good because the unions are the worst part of Labour, everyone says. They don’t represent working people, and look how badly they stuffed up by picking Ed Miliband. Perhaps him staying will force them to disaffiliate and take all their corrupting money with them. Maybe they’ll go and corrupt the SNP or the Greens with some of it.
  8. However, he’s in touch with working class people because he loves football.
  9. The members supported him over Neil Findlay by almost 2:1. So he’s got a really strong mandate and it would be disrespectful to those members for him not to stay on.
  10. Nigel Farage is staying after all, and he lost half of UKIP’s seats, which is almost as bad as Scottish Labour’s results.
  11. Jim definitely won’t suggest splitting Scottish Labour off to be an independent party, and a strong and united Labour party winning across the UK is vital for the UK’s survival.
  12. Trident’s going to be renewed, and Labour at Westminster are going to support that. It would be unseemly and disruptive for Scottish Labour to pick a leader who was opposed to that.
  13. Tony Blair won Scotland comprehensively in three consecutive elections so it makes sense that an ultra-Blairite leader is what Scottish voters are looking for: someone who backed popular moves to introduce tuition fees, the successful Iraq war, and the market reforms the NHS so urgently needed. Keeping a Blairite in the top job will also help keep the lid on any possible Tory revival in Scotland, which is probably the biggest threat Labour faces.
  14. He’s got staff nous. He hired Blair McDougall who ensured Labour and the Tories were in lock-step for the very successful Better Together campaign, and he hired John McTernan who led Julia Gillard’s eye-catching operation in Australia.
  15. He’s really irrepressibly confident. Like when he said the Nats were lazy and Labour would win new seats. He’s like Tigger, and the public like confident leaders. Even in February he sounded like he meant it when he predicted a late swing to Scottish Labour. Who else would even consider staying on after losing so many seats? Labour would never find someone so bullish if they had to replace him.
  16. He won’t have to be distracted and spend vital time representing the people of East Renfrewshire, dealing with constituency matters or being in London speaking in debates: he can be a proper full-time leader.
  17. Relatedly, he presumably doesn’t need a salary because he played his expenses nicely and has property to let out in London and his resettlement grant to live off.
  18. Similarly, if they picked a leader who was an MSP now they’d have to do FMQs and so on, and Nicola might wipe the floor with them. Better not to take the risk.
  19. Neil Findlay doesn’t want it. Perhaps none of the MSPs want it: none of them have publicly called for him to go, presumably because they recognise this was a decent result in difficult circumstances, especially in a part of the UK where Labour have historically struggled.
  20. Also, if Labour picked a new leader from their best remaining MSPs, that person would probably come under pressure to resign in May 2016, which would look bad and further reduce the talent pool for future leadership elections.
  21. The Nats really don’t like him so they must be afraid of him. He’s also really good at heckling people back with a megaphone and riling them up and then they look really bad on telly which wins votes. And they’ll waste all their time doing satirical photoshops of him rather than campaigning.
  22. He can drink a deft can of Irn Bru (pictured above), which is gradually underminining Humza Yousaf’s personal brand on a daily basis.

Wait, that’s twenty-two reasons! I’m sure there are even more out there, so please do suggest them in the comments.

How will Labour respond to a mass extinction event?

A helpful (no really) guest post from John Nicol today. Thanks John!

Hadrosaurs graze peacefully as burning meteors fall through the sky.Thursday’s earthquake may be the best thing that’s ever happened to Scottish Labour. Quite memorably during the referendum campaign, a Yes activist followed the newly-arrived Labour bigwigs through the streets of Glasgow, blasting the Imperial March from Star Wars through a speaker and crying “Our Imperial masters have arrived!” The activist’s message could have been as much for Scottish Labour as for the Scots as a whole.

Labour’s Westminster MPs have long seen themselves as the ‘real’ politicians. In their eyes, the Scottish contingent in Holyrood were the B team, the 2nd stringers – too wee, too poor and too stupid to make it in the big boy’s game in London.

It’s a long time since James Mackenzie of this parish coined the term ‘LOLITSP’ – Leader Of Labour In The Scottish Parliament – on twitter to try and describe exactly what the relationship is between the person that most Scots see asking questions every week (and who most Scots assume runs Scottish Labour) and the rest of the party. But that person has always been hamstrung, told to stay in their box and not get too ambitious. Wendy Alexander was ousted by her own brother for having the audacity to try and set a course for Labour that hadn’t been approved by London. Johann Lamont complained of the “dinosaurs” holding her back and unable to see the reality of what was happening on the streets.

Lamont, from all accounts, was removed by a coup orchestrated by Jim Murphy and her good friend Margaret Curran. And while it was gratifying to see Creepy Jim get ousted on Friday morning – a man so odious that even Tony Blair kept him at arm’s length – it was particularly delightful to see Curran get her just desserts. She epitomised everything that is wrong with Scottish Labour. She couldn’t wait to ditch her Holyrood brethren as soon as a position in Westminster became available, to join the Big Leagues and the people who, like now former MP John Robertson admitted to the Washington Post, hardly needed to campaign at all. The self-styled elite of the party.

And now Lamont’s dinosaurs are all dead. Scottish Labour has been decapitated, and it was interesting to see Kezia Dugdale’s body language when she was standing next to Jim Murphy as he made his non-resignation head-in-the-sand speech. It reminded me of that opening scene from episode one of The Good Wife, as Julianna Margulies stood slightly off to the side and behind her politician husband as he admitted to having an affair, trying to look stoical and failing grimly.

Like the character in that show, this is the moment that Kez needs to seize, while there is a vacuum at the top. Labour’s MSPs are the only game they have in town in Scotland now, and they need to step up and reposition Scottish Labour as no longer a branch office. Scotland has muscled aside everyone else for her, and now Kezia Dugdale needs to tell Murphy some home truths and point him in the direction of the job centre.

Big day for the Scottish Greens

Less than two hours ago nominations closed for the Scottish Greens’ list candidates in 2016, and the rumour is (as you’d expect with a party that’s probably seven times as large as it was last time we selected for Holyrood) we’ve got both quality and quantity coming forward.

I’m going to run through a few of the candidates that I know about, roughly from strongest region for us to weakest – please, I don’t know you’re standing, don’t feel snubbed. I’m sure there are many more good potential top candidates I don’t know about.

Lothian: Alison is standing again, of course, and of course there’s no-one better than her to top this list. This is the only region where we’ve previously had two MSPs, so I’m also very pleased indeed to see land reform campaigner Andy Wightman standing here. The moment he joined I thought he’d make a first class MSP: rigorous, principled, awkward in a good way. (declaration: I put in for one of the lower places on the list here, i.e. a support role, but will definitely vote these two ahead of me, and probably others as well)

Glasgow: Patrick is standing again too, and the same applies with him. I don’t think anyone else could have fronted the Green Yes campaign in the way he did, and I believe his contribution there and before that to be the largest factor in the surge in membership in Scotland. I only know one other definite candidate in this region, who is Zara Kitson, our force-of-nature Dunfermline by-election candidate, who’s moved back to Glasgow and who would be a great second to Patrick – if we do as well as the polls suggest (no-one is counting chickens) we’ll pick up a second MSP here too.

Highlands and Islands: Two strong candidates here I know of, and I’d find it hard to pick between them (fortunately that’s someone else’s problem). Fabio Villani, based in Moray, is the long-standing activist: astute, warm, hardworking. And of course John Finnie, elected as an SNP MSP in 2011 before the party moved away from the anti-NATO platform he was elected on. He charmed conference last autumn when he announced he was joining – and felt like “one of us” from the start.

North-East: For me Aberdeenshire-based Debra Storr is narrowly ahead of Dundee-based Pauline Hinchion, although either would make a splendid top candidate and MSP. Debra, like John, was formerly elected for another party, but left during the Trump fiasco, when she and Martin Ford found the Liberal Democrats to be neither particularly liberal nor democratic. She’s determined, principled, and energetic. Martin himself is standing for the second spot, and his rigour and hard work would also be an excellent asset in the Chamber if we do find ourselves getting our best ever results (just polling, the only poll that matters, etc etc).

Mid-Scotland and Fife: The only candidate I know is standing here is former Green MSP Mark Ruskell: when he wasn’t re-elected in 2007 I admit I was utterly distraught. One of the real stars of the 2003 intake, and now Stirling’s first Green councillor. Having him back in the Chamber and representing this region would be almost enough in itself for me to regard this coming election as a triumph.

South: Two here where I’d again be reluctant to pick, but again don’t have to. Jason Rose is my calm and collected successor as head of media for the Green MSPs, and he’s been doing sterling work reviving the East Lothian branch. Sarah-Beattie Smith is also standing, I believe – and she’d also be a smart, hard-working candidate, and a great public speaker.

West: Great to see Ross Greer standing here – it’s a hard region for us, but one where good organisation could get a Green over the line. And that’s one of his strengths. He’s doing a vast amount of work right now supporting new local groups and branches, and if anyone can win this for us, Ross can.

Central: I believe (and apologies if I’m wrong) Kirsten Robb is standing again for Central. She’s a great long-time activist, former candidate here, and well plugged into a lot of local campaigns and groups. As with West, we’ve got a lot more members here than we ever had before, and she’s the obvious person to lead this list – and 10% nationally, which some of the polls have us on, could see her elected too.

There’ll be loads more who’ve put nominations in I don’t know about, but just from those I do know about we’ve clearly got the potential for some amazing candidates in the top slot or two across the country. The future of the party has never looked so good.


A rash prediction

There aren’t many certainties around the UK General Election due in May, so everyone says. As the proportion of voters backing Labour or the Tories, even under First Past The Post, dwindles, the maths become much more unpredictable. Sure, it seems extremely likely that the SNP will be the third largest party, eclipsing the Lib Dems, but that seems so plausible partly because so few people have any idea why anyone would still vote Lib Dem. But some continue to do so, inexplicable as it is.

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 12.49.10One thing that seems almost certain, though, is that there will be no Tory/UKIP coalition, barring a ‘kipper surge from the ~15% they’re currently polling.

The numbers and mechanics of majorities are vertiginously stacked against it. To the left are the five constituencies where the bookies think they’re going to win (h/t Kris Keane): Carswell’s Clacton plus four more that do not include Mark Reckless in Rochester and Strood.

It seems like a plausible list, although tactical voting in both directions will make it pretty unpredictable.

Let’s start with two clear rules. No sensible smaller party goes into formal coalition where the larger party already has a majority (and few larger parties offer it). And no sensible smaller party takes part in a coalition where they don’t get their larger partners over the line.

So, assuming UKIP win just those five seats, the Tories would need to be between one and nine seats short of a majority for it to be even worth considering for either party (ten short plus UKIP would see it come down to the Speaker’s casting vote). But for the Tory party, being short by just one seat would be pretty indistinguishable from being ahead by just one. The DUP would probably vote for Cameron for PM, in the “one short” scenario, and even in the “one ahead” scenario they’d be vulnerable to every single Tory backbencher with a grievance or a principle. Why give Farage a bigger national stage to swap one sort of uncertainty for another?

No, in order for UKIP to be a plausible partner for the Tories, the latter would need to have fallen significantly short, yet the two together would have to comprise a clear working majority. For example (and this feels like the bare minimum for it to be considered), if the Tories were fifteen short and UKIP won twenty seats, then coalition might be possible. Just possible. UKIP winning twenty seats is a stretch to say the least (remember when Farage got beaten by a man in a dolphin costume when Labour and the Tories weren’t standing?), and the Tories being just the right amount short is also exceptionally unlikely (they were twenty short in 2010, although none of this takes into account the Sinn Fein MPs who don’t take their seats). Combine that with the natural antipathy between two parties from the same “family”, and the whole thing becomes vanishingly unlikely.

This scenario is written about as plausible, but only because it suits various people to do so (UKIP, the sensation-hungry in the media, Labour, the SNP etc). I’d say it’s about as likely as tossing two coins and having them both land on their edge. Just this side of impossible.