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.

A Provocation

A guest post this afternoon from Kieran Hurley to raise the tone somewhat. Thanks Kieran!

Screen Shot 2015-05-12 at 17.43.52On  Sunday the 10th May I was invited to give a short ‘provocation’ at a sort of conference discussion day thing called “Culture: What Next” at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. The day was about coming together to talk about Scottish culture and the arts – where we are and where we might be going – with particular acknowledgement of the experience of the referendum and where it leaves us.

This is what I had to offer. It’s pretty short. It is made up of five propositions that don’t sit easily with each other, that contradict each other quite knowingly and deliberately. It is intended, by its nature, to simply spark a conversation.

There were lots of other great speakers at the event, and lots of interesting conversations that followed. For anyone interested in reading more about it you can follow the Twitter account @For_Culture_ and the hashtag #ForCulture, or if you don’t do Twitter you can go to the website www.culturalactivism.scot. I believe they’re going to have a video of some of the day up soon.

Five Strategies For Artists Wondering What They Should Do About Scotland

1. Remember Scotland

There’s a lot that’s gone before us here that we’d do well not to forget. The questions facing us today might not be that different from the questions that were grappled with by those that went before. Writers and singers and musicians and poets from a generation ago, and one before that, and one before that, and one before that asking what is our place in the world, what are we guilty of, what blood do we have on our hands, what gifts to do we have to offer, and what do we mean when we say the word ‘us’? The most formidable artists are those who can engage with the conditions of the world around them with a deep understanding of their own roots. To know what’s gone before even if only to reject to it. To understand our place within a muckle sang.

2. Imagine Scotland

There is no Scotland of the past because Scotland does not yet exist. This is not about whether or not Scotland is a fully recognised nation state. Scotland does not yet exist because it exists only in the moment of our making. A lot has been said in Scotland about the importance of art and of artists in imaging a future we might collectively try to build. Well, if there’s any truth in that at all it surely doesn’t just apply to a time-limited political campaign. Art for art’s sake is a philosophy of the well-fed, and art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it. The job of work now and always is to imagine and build, conceive and create, work as if you live in the early days… ok enough inspirational quotes already…

3. Shut up about Scotland

Shut up about it, shut up about it, shut up. Stop going on about it. Forget it. Ignore it. It’s a distraction, it’s a waste of time. Carry on being artists and get on with the job of making art. Art that’s about all sorts of things. Art that tries to wrestle with and shed light on the complexities of being human and alive in a broken world. Not art that functions like content generated for an advertising agency given a brief for ‘visioning’ a new nation. How can we demonstrate to the world that Scotland is this, that, or something else? We don’t. It’s not our job. Which is probably just as well because, honestly, I’m not sure we’re very good at it. No more pictures of Mother Nation type women with long flowing hair clutching thistles, no more male heroic muscular topless avatars with steely warrior eyes and national flags emblazoned across their chests. No. No more. Enough. Shut up about Scotland. Shut up about it. Shut up.

4. Chronicle Scotland

There are two things we might mean when we talk about ‘Scottish culture.’ The first is the culture of officialdom; art that is formally recognised as such and given the label ‘culture’ to denote something of its important ‘cultural-ness.’ The second meaning refers to the movements and trends within a wider, bigger, people’s story. All too often when we talk about ‘Scottish culture’ we mean the first one when really we should be talking about the second. It is, now as ever, in the big people’s story of Scottish culture that something interesting is happening, not in the preoccupation of what in business-speak is sometimes termed the ‘cultural sector.’ We don’t need to try to lead Scottish culture and if we did we’d only find ourselves trampled on. Instead we need to ride it, follow it, go where it asks us. We’ll be the chroniclers, the bards, telling sad stories of the deaths of kings and writing bad jokes about the births of new ones; making sense of the shrapnel and debris as the real story unfolds before us.

5. Destroy Scotland

Aye. Tear it to the ground. Destroy Scotland even to the extent to which it means destroying ourselves, or at the very least the privileged position that this Scotland of ours has afforded us. Like any nation on the planet Scotland is just the name we give to a set of structures, institutions, and establishments within a defined geographical place. The only art of any value whatsoever is art which seeks to illuminate the dehumanising power relations within these structures with the express aim of ultimately dismantling them. Somewhere in amongst this moment of hoping and dreaming, of nostalgia and yearning, we’re in danger of losing this critical eye. Don’t ignore Scotland, no. Don’t forget about it. Fix it firmly in our sights with the intention of blowing it up. Start by recognising that the power relations that make up Scotland aren’t just something external to us, they act within and through us and we’re complicit in maintaining them for our own benefit. Be prepared to scrutinise ourselves and each other, let the scrutiny be uncompromising, and let it be, in truth, an act of care. As we set about destroying Scotland, let’s hold on tight to one another. Be prepared to stand amongst each other naked, and be prepared for it to hurt in order for it to heal. Ask ourselves who gets to be the chronicler and why? Who gets to speak? Look around and ask who is here and who is not here and ask why that is. I’m able to stand here making these so-called provocations as a direct consequence, in some ways, of the cultural privilege Scotland has afforded me as a white middle class male, and each time I speak it takes up space which could be occupied by someone else. I have no idea how to address this reality in the long term, but it’s probable that I’m not the one who has the answers to that question and the best thing I can do right now is clear some space by sitting down and belting up.

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.

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.