26 April 2015

Harnessing the 55%

While toddling through Shawlands this week, I chanced across the Labour's Glasgow South candidate, Tom Harris, campaigning outside the local Co-op. Having politely explained that I wasn't with him in this election, I took the opportunity to ask him about a letter which has been circulating in the constituency, inviting folk who voted No on the 18th of September 2014 to save his bacon on the 7th of May. 

"I thought Jim had said that Scottish Labour isn't a unionist party?" I enquired. "But I'm a unionist," he said. In his affably bluff way, Tom explained that he needed every vote going, and if that involved putting the fear of god up the Tories of Newlands, he'd make no apology for doing so.  "And I suppose you're pretty right-wing too, so - " I quipped, for villainy - "I suppose I am," he responded, with unexpected candour. I sidled on. Good luck to him. He'll need it.  

But the encounter made me think a wee bit about the assumptions lying behind Tom's letter, and being pushed nationally by Liberal Democrats in tight spots, that the Better Together alliance can be cobbled back together to save their skins."55% of people voted no, back me to stop the Nationalist juggernaut." John Curtice has been pouring buckets of icy water over the idea that tactical voting represents an effective anti-Nationalist strategy over most of the country, arguing that the sums just don't add up. As Professor Curtice points out, there aren't enough Labour, Tories or Liberal Democrat voters in the overwhelming majority of seats to make a decisive difference, even if folk were inclined to lend their vote to a Better Together ally. 

But the thinking behind this isn't just numerically problematic - it also flies in the face of what the referendum taught us about the reasons and attitudes lying behind the No vote. Tom and the Liberal Democrats seem to have forgotten who the 55% are, and why they voted against independence last September. The recent findings of the Scottish Election Study suggest that the No lead did not come down to British identities, or optimism about the Union, nor widespread pessimism about independence, but fear, risk and uncertainty. 

The study concludes that identities - Scottish and British - provided core support for both Yes and No campaigns, the outcome was decided by perceptions of economic risk. The most recent tranche of survey data from the study suggested that feelings of Britishness or attachment to the Union account for just 29.5% of the No vote. To put a more concrete number on that, just 590,568 of the 2,001,926 votes attracted by the No campaign seem to have hinged to any significant extent on British identities. 

This chimes with my own experiences. If this referendum has revealed one thing, it is that Scots allegiance to the British state is - perhaps disturbingly - provisional. A popular, winning, organic unionism has not emerged. If anything, the Conservative and Unionist Party seems hell-bent on salting the earth across the border, to ensure no sprouts grow. 

For some folk, a sense of Britishness is essential, a part of their identity, the object of passionate attachment. Some of the best pieces from pro-union writers during the dying days of the campaign spoke of these themes in a way that the cynical, anxiety-generating apparatus of the official campaign never even attempted. But like the identity ultras on the Yes side, these are minority enthusiasms. The Better Together parties looked deep into the eyes of the Scottish people, and found dealer's eyes peering back at them, unsentimental, commercial, counting the pennies, weighing the odds -- and won the game on that basis.  

A gulf of feeling separates this dicing of the economic odds from the anti-Nat ardency which this new Better Together alliance hopes to ignite. And if you voted against independence on the basis of these cool calculations, what the devil are you to make of the plaintive efforts of candidates like Christine Jardine and Tom Harris, addressing you like a union fundamentalist, a loyalist, re-running September's poll? 

This stands at odds, not just with the numbers, but what we know about the key motive forces of the No vote. It may peel off ultra montane No voters, for whom the national question has acquired new and critical salience, but seems likely to strike a dud note for those opposed to independence who do not share these intense attachments. It is a case of pro-union political leaderships, projecting their own antipathies onto a more ambivalent, less ferociously negative, public. Scotland is not a land of Effie Deans

It is a phenomenon which surprised SNP canvassers are experiencing on the doorstep. Over the weekend, I was having a blether with one of the SNP candidates in the city about what, if you read the media, you probably regard as an improbable phenomenon - the No voting SNP supporter. Why? For some, it is buyer's remorse. But for many more, they voted no on a more conditional basis: "not yet", "not ready", "not convinced by the arguments" - but none of this is proving decisive in determining which party they believe will best represent them in this parliament in Westminster.

For electors of this kind - the overwhelming majority of the 55% - the #indyref cannot be comprehensively "weaponised" in the way Liberal Democratic, Tory and Labour campaigners in East Dumbartonshire, Glasgow South and Gordon - increasingly desperately - hope, believe and pray. 

22 April 2015

Corroboration: a welcome U-turn...

Let's be blunt about it. Lord Carloway reported in 2011, recommending that corroboration be struck from the law of Scotland. In the months and years that followed, the case for abolishing the rule was by turns shambolic, confused, incoherent, and ad hominem. Throughout, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice cut a doubly alienating figure: in the TV studios and in the parliament, he was both jumbled and implausible in his advocacy, and high-handed, carnaptious and indicting of those who disagreed with him. 

Police officers, parliamentarians - even the Lord Advocate - conspired to give an impression of muddle and confusion around what the policy was for, and what it would and would not achieve if enacted. All of this is regrettable -- not least because there are good reasons to take another look at what has become of the old doctrine of corroboration and the injustices which it sometimes produces.

Lord Bonomy reported yesterday, identifying a series of alternative safeguards and changes to the law of evidence which might be adopted if we ditch the requirement that the essential facts of a criminal prosecution must be evidenced by two independent sources. In response, Kenny MacAskill's understated successor as justice minister, Michael Matheson, slammed on the breaks, deleting the proposals from the Criminal Justice Bill -- at least for now -- to allow a holistic examination of the whole area to take place. He has indicated that the final decision will be for the next Scottish Government, after the 2016 election. 

This is a wise move by the Scottish Government, but the fact that reverse-ferreting is now necessary is also a frustrating and unnecessary unforced error. Carloway's proposal was always going to be deadly controversial. It was clear from the get go that the Lord Justice Clerk's recommendations were not underpinned by a thoroughgoing examination of how the corroboration doctrine interacted with other safeguards for accused people. In the absence of that work, the case for abolition had to be coherent, cogent and responsibly made. It wasn't. Behind the scenes, several folk spoke up, sensing the mood, reading the fallout, counselling caution. This boorach was and is unnecessary and has been unnecessarily damaging to the government and to its credibility.

Thanks be to the Wee Man that between them, Nicola and Michael Matheson have finally got a grip on this negligently-handled, runaway reform.

21 April 2015

Cameron's "Carlisle" Principle...


I have nothing against Cumbrians, but yesterday, with just over two weeks of the campaign to go, the Prime Minister enlisted the good folk of Carlisle into his campaign to stoke up as much grinchery and hysteria as possible about the possibility of the SNP exercising any influence in the UK parliament. 

David Cameron calls this the "Carlisle principle", and in his efforts to press the Jockophobic advantage with the English electorate, Cameron announced that any Treasury under his control would go snooping to see whether Scotland was deriving unjustifiable benefit from pursuing sensible devolved policies north of the border. "This is about making sure we understand the impact that devolution is having and make sure that rest of the country never unwittingly loses out," he said.

In this morning's National, I point out that the Prime Minister's assumption that Scots are greedy public spending gannets tells only half the story. If we look at detriments, we must also look at ways in which the UK exchequer benefits from devolved choices. The UK Treasury has consistently resisted giving Holyrood its due, giving the Scottish Parliament back the windfalls of its spending decisions, and as a consequence, incentivising good decisions as opposed to those which keep the cash away from the control of the central government. The Treasury's position has, since the advent of devolution, been given to petulance, tight-fistedness, and a refusal to recognise the ups and downs of Scotland adopting distinctive ideas and policies.  An excerpt:

Holyrood has not had its troubles to seek with Chancellors and their apparatchiks when decisions of the Scottish Parliament poured cash into the UK exchequer or didn’t fit neatly into the bureaucratic categories of the British state. Even Jack McConnell had his share of quiet tiffs with Whitehall’s controlling mandarins of finance.
Why? Because the Treasury is all too happy for the Scottish Parliament to part with its cash and to fund programmes, but has been remarkably reluctant to pass the financial benefits of sound choices back to Holyrood. Want to introduce a fairer system of local income tax? In that case, we’re keeping your share of council tax relief. 
Want to introduce publicly funded childcare to liberate more people to pursue jobs, increasing economic activity and bringing in more tax receipts? Capital notion. But we’re keeping the extra cash that will generate. Your block grant will not be adjusted accordingly. What’s that? Funding free personal care for the elderly saves the exchequer a shedload? Well, bully for you. But we’re not adjusting your budget to reflect the UK gains made on the back of your sensible choices. Your block grant may go up a quid of two, but you won’t see anything like the full fiscal benefits of your spending. That has been the Treasury mantra.

You can read the whole piece here.

20 April 2015

The return of the monster

So, let me get this straight. From 2011 until the Edinburgh Agreement of 2012, senior figures in the coalition government and in the Labour opposition were as one: Holyrood did not enjoy the legal power to order an independence referendum on its own authority.

The SNP may have claimed a thumping majority in Holyrood, the party may run the Scottish Government, and they might claim a political mandate from their 2011 election victory - but in law, at least, any referendum required Westminster's consent. The referendum "related to a reserved matter" - the Union - and as such, was beyond the powers given to the Edinburgh parliament in the Scotland Act of 1998.

Advocate General and Liberal Democrat peer, Jim Wallace, gave a speech at the University of Glasgow, setting out this legal analysis "The UK government’s legal view is that the Scottish Parliament has no power to deliver a referendum on independence." The cross-party Scottish Affairs Committee, under the unabashedly partisan headship of Glasgow South West MP Ian Davidson, endorsed Wallace's analysis, claiming that it was crystal clear that the proposed referendum fell outwith Holyrood's legal competence and would almost certainly be struck down in the courts. David Cameron echoed the threats and menaces his Liberal Scottish legal advisor.  

Neither the Labour Party, nor the Liberal Democrats and Tories wanted to block the poll - they accepted that there ought to be a "legal fair and decisive" vote - but the Better Together chorus was at one on the illegality of any unilateral attempt by Holyrood to order a poll without reference to the Mother of Parliaments on the banks of the Thames.

The Edinburgh Agreement and the subsequent order under s.30 of the Scotland Act cleared up this legal uncertainty, explicitly authorising a referendum on independence, subject to the conditions that the Electoral Commission was involved, that no "devo max" question appeared on the ballot -- and that the poll was held by Hogmanay 2014.  

The constitutional hour glass having run out on the 2014 referendum, you might imagine that Labour, Tory and Liberal Democratic parliamentarians would believe that we had returned to the ante referendum status quo. At least legally. If they had any faith in their legal analysis in 2011 and 2012, they would draw comfort from the thought that no future #indyref is currently possible, without negotiated consent for the poll from Westminster. You might have thought that they would feel pretty damn pleased with themselves. The only risk of another independence referendum, in their legal analysis, if if the overwhelmingly pro-Union majority in the House of Commons voted to allow one.  So why the exaggerated air of snark and panic?

But truth, reason and fidelity to their past arguments seem to have gone out the window in these heady general election days. In a last desperate gambit, Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat candidates and ministers are blundering around the country, and blethering to their fellow travellers in the media, screeching that the perfidious Nats are plotting to inflict another separation poll upon the Scottish and British people. This, you know, despite categorical statements from senior SNP sources that none of this is on the cards. 

But on their own legal analysis, the only route, the only viable legal path to another independence referendum is if the overwhelmingly pro-union majority in the House of Commons and Lords voted to authorise one. The only danger of Jim Murphy experiencing another referendum is if he slurps too much Irn Bru, and in the grip of a sugar high, gallops through the wrong lobby in the palace of Westminster. According to his government's legal analysis, Nicola can no more force David Cameron to endure another referendum, than she can introduce a Scottish minimum wage, or unilaterally seize control over Scotland's social security net.

If there is, as senior Labour folk all argued, a crystal clear UK lock on granting or refusing an #indyref, why the manufactured panic? It couldn't be a desperate ploy, could it? A last ditch, knowing and winking nonsense designed to put the fear up credulous people who know no better? Heaven forfend.  

What's that coming over the hill? Is it a monster? Is it a monster?

15 April 2015

Blair's last Horcrux...

Building on yesterday's thoughts on the sticky predicament which Chuka Umunna and the Eds generously dumped Jim Murphy in on Monday, I have a wee piece in this morning's National on Scottish Labour's new shapeshifter leader, several months into his agitated stewardship of his troubled party. An excerpt:

"For his critics and detractors, it is all too easy to see Mr Murphy as the undead, malevolent soul fragment of Labour’s late, unlamented wizard of spin. Having assassinated the decent but lost figure of Johann Lamont, and snatched the “branch office” from her, Jim has evolved into a divisive figure who kicks up remarkable levels of antipathy. 

Many see him as a sort of Lovecraftian monstrosity, conscienceless, centreless: all surfaces and no depth, his shifting harlequin face twisting and bending into whatever expression he imagines his audience want him to wear. 

Today, he is anti-austerity Jim, crusader against cuts and defender of the rights of the common man. Scant months ago, he was Trident Jim, a fully paid-up cheerleader for the military industrial complex, calling on his leader to accept Tory spending cuts and shun “shallow and temporary” populism to prove the party’s credentials as a “credible” opposition to Cameron’s Conservatives."

You can read the whole thing here.

13 April 2015

If the yolk sticks

If the yolk sticks. You would be hard pushed to invent a worse story for Jim Murphy and his Scottish and UK Labour colleagues, every which way you look at it. The Eds are anxious to establish their fiscal probity. They will never satisfy the baying hounds of the Tory press, but doughty little fiends that they are, they are desperate to show that they can "responsibly" hack away at the British state with the best of them. 

The usual suspects are itching for any opportunity or pretext to question Miliband's commitment to the deficit-frame of "fiscal probity". But the Labour leader held the line, with a cauld kale offering of cuts, interspersed with a few simple, positive, constructive ideas. A mean repast it may be, but compared to the ragged, personalised, unstrategic mess that is the Tory base campaign, you can rattle off a few clear and cogent Labour proposals on one hand. For voters of the left, much of this is robbed of its substance and vitality by the overarching commitment to the deficit fetish economics which Ed Balls has imbibed -- but there it is. Choices made. Lines drawn.

Mr Murphy's task is even trickier. He has deemed it expedient to tack to the left to restore Scottish Labour's ailing fortunes, keen to pin the SNP as careless cutters in contrast with his gloss on Labour economic plans as an "end to austerity". Simultaneously, Scottish Jim for Scotland has taken Scottish Henry McLeish's Scottish advice that Scottish Labour should embrace Scottish patriotism. He has also been struggling to cast off the acrylic uniform of the party's "branch manager", run up by tricoteuse and Murphy oustee, Johann Lamont, and to establish himself as the Heid Neep of Scottish Labour's warring vegetable rack of parliamentarians, divided by their jealousies, ambitions and contempts. 

Labour is onto two losing games here. If you want a chill hearted bastard to "balance the books", why vote Labour? Why go for the bloodless alternative? Why not back blue and get the real thing? Similarly, if you are the kind of voter animated by the idea of your representatives "standing up for Scotland", why back Labour over the SNP? Cram as many references to Scotland into your Twitter profile as you like, apply a patriotic gatling gun to your election literature - you are always going to be facing a Scottish National Party whose sole fealty is to the voters north of the border, without inconvenient colleagues with different and legitimate and incompatible political agendas in the rest of the country.

On austerity and the narrow Scottish interest -- it is a battle you can't win.  If Labour aspire to remain a - or the - national UK party, I'd have thought they'd be best to push back against this limited "patriotic" agenda, rather than embracing it. Which is a long-winded way of saying: both of these -- it seems to me -- are losing games for Scottish Labour to play. But poor Jim finds himself locked into, or has chosen to play, both hands. Cue broken eggs.

Today's "slapdown" by Labour's shadow business spokesman, Chuka Umunna, and Ed Balls, undermines just about everything that Jim Murphy has been agitating so antically to promote: Labour as an anti austerity alternative, his own office as robust, independent, "patriotic", in charge of the Scottish contingent in Westminster, paying the piper and calling the tune. But Chuka was having none of that, offering up this suspiciously quotable demolition of Mr Murphy's position to Andrew Neill this lunchtime. Gey generous it was of him too:

"The leader of the Scottish Labour Party will not be in charge of the UK budget. The leader of our country, our next prime minister, Ed Miliband, will be in charge of the UK budget and he has just answered the question, when that was put to him - will there be any cuts over the course of this parliament not just in the first financial year, but in the following financial years?  And he was absolutely clear - there will be the need for further consolidation and cuts throughout the rest of the parliament."

This doesn't even leave Mr Murphy the wriggle room to be a critical friend of the UK leadership, pursuing different priorities from within the UK Labour Party. If you want to give the Labour party the heart and stomach to pursue different priorities -- there is clearly no point backing Jim. Even his own senior colleagues apparently see him as an irrelevance, and do not have the good grace to conceal their indifference to his opinion from the public. 

Today's clash also helps to marginalise impressions of Mr Murphy's control over his own Westminster parliamentarians.  In principle, at least, Jim heads up the whole contingent of Scottish representatives -- but the Eds apparently regard his colleagues as their worker bees, to troop biddably through the lobbies in Westminster without reference to the manic pterodactyl (Alex Massie™). It is the old, unedited hubris. But it diminishes Jim to a cypher, to do as telt, again. Either the Scottish Labour leader a) misunderstood the nature of his UK colleagues' plans, or b) dissembled about it none too subtly, but whether a) or b) is the case, his point of view is dismissed as irrelevant. 

If Murphy cuts up rough, he gives the Tory press an enviable opportunity to chuck muck at Ed Miliband. If he doesn't, and keeps his tongue in his head, he looks craven, disingenuous, calculating, and ineffective. A fine day at the office, all around. Tonight, the frittatas are on Jim. 

The Vow+?

This morning, the Labour Party launches its 2015 manifesto in Manchester. It pledges to hold a UK wide "people-led" constitutional convention and commits any new Labour government to additional Scottish devolution. The key paragraph reads as follows:

"In September 2014, people across Scotland voted overwhelmingly for change. Labour will keep its vow and implement the Smith Agreement in full. And we will go further, with a Home Rule Bill to give extra powers to Scotland over tax, welfare and jobs. Rates of income tax will be set in Scotland. Billions of pounds of social security spending will be devolved, including benefits that support disabled people. The Work Programme will also be devolved along with a greater ability to invest in capital projects.

The new devolution settlement will recognise the strength and security offered by being part of the United Kingdom. We will maintain the Barnett formula, and Scotland will continue to benefit from pooling and sharing resources across the UK."

For all of its superficial conclusiveness, this paragraph leaves urgent questions about the contents of the "vow plus", advanced by Gordon Brown and Jim Murphy, unanswered.  Labour pledge to "go further" than Smith, but go on to list only policies which the Smith Commission agreed to devolve, and which we already find in the draft clauses of the Scotland Bill published by the Scotland Office.

There is nothing here which the Tory and Liberal Democratic coalition have not proposed. So what more are Labour proposing? What precise elaboration on the Smith heads of terms are they planning? Smith came to the conclusion that housing benefit could not be disentangled from the universal credit. No mention of housing benefit here. So what is the scheme, Jim? Ed?

Nothing in today's manifesto affords even a speck of illumination. We are left where we started with Labour: no minimum wage, no pensions, no employment law, no Equality Act, no national insurance, no housing benefit, no universal credit, no broadcasting, no corporation tax, no inheritance tax, no capital gains, no renewable energies, no oil.

The draft clauses of the Scotland Bill were clearly Treasury work: grudging, minimalist and controlling. There are a number of different ways in which the broad, airy proposals of the Smith Commission might be realised, some bolder, others more cautious and limited. The devil is, proverbially, in the legal detail. And in drafting that detail for Alastair Carmichael, UK civil servants adopted the most restrictive alternative at every turn. In the light of today's manifesto, I increasingly wonder if the Murphy/Brown "vow plus" rhetoric really amounts only to this -- a commitment to give effect to the Smith Commission in a very slightly more ambitious way than the outgoing coalition has proposed. Haud me back...