Archive for category Westminster

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.

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.

The Deputy Squatter

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 11.35.14There’s a lot of feverish chat about Dave Cameron just staying on in Number 10 even if there’s an anti-Tory majority, especially if the Tories alone happen to outnumber Labour (like that matters). We are reminded of the way the Tory press hounded Brown as a squatter for (quite rightly) remaining as PM five years ago until it was clear he couldn’t command a majority.

But there’s one crucial difference between 2015 and 2010 that seems to have been completely forgotten about. Dave’s legitimacy as Prime Minister is based on the Tory coalition with the Lib Dems. If he decides to try to cling to office past any point when it’s clear the numbers don’t work for him, would Nick Clegg try to stay on with him as Deputy Prime Minister? It seems unlikely to say the least.

Clegg knows that if Tory and Lib Dem seats together don’t get them to 323 (or near enough with the DUP), it’s over: he’s a pragmatist in the way his boss isn’t. And either way it seems inevitable that the Lib Dems will have just taken a major kicking, delivered in part by the Tories in the south-west of England. This might make cooperation harder even if they could inch over the line, let alone if they’ve lost their collective majority.

If Cameron tries to cling on through some unconstitutional definition of “largest minority” as legitimate, it couldn’t be sustained  if Clegg resigned (and if the Lib Dems abandon the Coalition). If the Tories can’t assemble an absolute majority from somewhere, including with the Lib Dems, I’d say they wouldn’t even be able to cling on through a single news cycle without Clegg. And of course, there’s more than one way for Clegg not to stay as DPM to potentially help them. If I were Labour I’d have thrown absolutely everything at Sheffield Hallam with that in mind.

Party Of The North launches challenge in another Labour heartland

This struck me as an interesting story from March which literally everyone else seems to have missed. Could Labour’s heartlands be reduced still further?

Party Of The North launches challenge in another Labour heartland

TRA-SPAC-0011The Party Of The North, a party set up at short notice to boost the representation and economy of the North of England, was today launched at an enthusiastic if somewhat unpolished event in central Leeds today. Led by Samira Khan, the charismatic former Labour Mayor of Kirklees, and her deputy, Eric Jones, a former independent councillor and ex-miner from Durham, the party is aiming to stand in all 158 constituencies across the European regions of Yorkshire and the Humber, the North West, and the North East.

The new grouping explicitly draws their inspiration from the spectacular rise in SNP support north of the border, and pledged today that any Party Of The North MPs elected will sit as a group with SNP and Plaid Cymru MPs to “oppose austerity and help shift the balance of power away from London and the South-East”.

“We’re not nationalists,” said Samira Khan to the approximately 200 members present, “any more than many Yes voters in the Scottish referendum last year were. The problems Scotland faces are similar to our own, though. The UK economy is designed around the interests of London and the South-East, and the Westminster model of UK politics is failing us.”

“For generations the North of England has voted Labour in the hope that they would live up to their founding values, but instead now they are offering us just a slower and more gentle version of the failed Tory austerity model. Many in the North saw Nicola Sturgeon’s performance in the leaders’ debates and wondered why they couldn’t vote for something similar: now they can.”

“Like many in Scotland, we no longer believe Labour have the answers to the problems of the North. And like the SNP, our MPs will always vote against any Tory government. We’ll vote for a Labour PM, but we’ll vote to block any continuation of the cuts which have undermined our society and our economy. Like the SNP, we will also vote against Trident renewal and against illegal wars.”

“This region could again be as prosperous as it once was, if we only had the powers of devolution that Scotland already has, not the three weak assemblies Labour offered more than a decade ago. Almost fifteen million people live here, nearly three times the population of Scotland: the North was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and of so much of this country’s cultural heritage, and we are still hard-working, innovative, welcoming, and creative. But without a voice of our own at Westminster, determined to put the interests of the North first, we will continue to get left behind.”

“From Chester to Berwick-upon-Tweed, from Grimsby to Carlisle, we’re seeing new members joining every day. People determined to oppose UKIP’s racist ‘little Englander’ values, the Tories’ focus on the interests of the Home Counties, the Lib Dems’ betrayal of the young, as well as many many people disappointed that Labour won’t oppose them as they should. Across this extraordinary region let me say this to the old parties: winter is coming.”

There remains uncertainty about where the party’s proposed Parliament For The North would be based, with towns and cities across the north likely to push their own claims, although the location of the launch was cited by some activists as a signal. The party’s programme is still largely uncosted, although, as with the SNP, much is made of the savings associated with not renewing Trident.

Pressed on the party’s long-term aims after the launch, Jones refused to rule out the possibility of a referendum on independence, insisting “we have no plans for a referendum at this time”, and that pushing for devolution was the party’s constitutional aim. Others in the party are believed to support the idea of a federation with an independent Scotland, should a second referendum there overturn last September’s result.

The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon sent a video message to the launch, offering support to “our friends in the North”, and amidst enthusiastic cheers she welcomed the party’s arrival on the political scene as “the beginning of the end of the tired old politics in England”.

Labour sources, dismissing the new party as “doomed” and “a distraction”, pointed out that Labour’s offer of devolution to the English regions had been rejected, and claimed that only a Labour majority would deliver an end to Tory rule. Local Green party activists have expressed cautious sympathy for much of the Party Of The North’s agenda, but talks about how the two parties might not stand against each other have not so far proved successful. Meanwhile, Yorkshire First, founded last year, rejected the idea of working with the Party Of The North, and argued that the two parties would merely split the vote across Yorkshire.

Please note: this piece is fiction, and everyone in it apart from Nicola is fictional too – apologies to Nicola for putting words into her mouth!

SNP Tactical Voting … by Labour?


This election has become even more tiresome than most for tactical squeezes. SNP: “don’t vote Green and split the Yes vote“. Labour: “don’t vote Green or SNP and let the Tories back in“. Tories: “don’t vote UKIP or you’ll let Labour in“. Lib Dems: “Only we can stop both Labour and the Tories“. It’s predictable and it’s alienating. I admit that one reason Greens don’t do it is there’s no tactical way to support the Greens, apart from this kind of swap site that never really catches on. It’s vote Green or nothing if you want to support the party. One key reason for that is even if we keep Brighton Pavilion and add Bristol West, Norwich South, plus Holborn and St Pancras, holding the balance of power remains a long shot. I should say that I personally remain against it, for these reasons.

But if you’re a Tory Coalition fan in a Lib Dem/Labour marginal, your tactical vote is clear. If you’re a diehard Yoonyonisht Lib Dem in a Tory/SNP marginal, again, you know what to do. The same applies for junior parties, too. If you’re a residual Lib Dem in a Labour/Tory marginal, well, which party would you rather your MPs worked with?

Some of the maths is here on Political Betting. And it brings a tantalising thought. If you’re a Labour voter in a SNP/Lib Dem marginal (i.e. any of the Lib Dem-held seats, perhaps even including Orkney and Shetland), who do you back? You might think the Yoonyon, if you’re so inclined, comes first. And maybe it should. But if you really want Ed Miliband to be Prime Minister, you’re choosing between an SNP MP who will definitely vote for Ed to be PM and a Lib Dem MP who put Dave Cameron into office last time – and probably would again, given half a chance.

The naive assumption is that tactical voting in Scotland will be along partisan indyref lines, and therefore to the SNP’s detriment, given their far larger position within the Yes side. The ubiquitious John Curtice makes this mistake today. But if I lived in Argyll and Bute, or Gordon, or East Dunbartonshire, or the Northern Isles, or any other Scottish Lib Dem seat, and I wanted Ed Miliband for PM above all, I’d be voting SNP.

(apologies to Jeff for the title)salmiliband