23 May 2015

Is Carmichael vulnerable to an election petition?

Under the Representation of the People Act 1983, electors or disappointed candidates can question the result of a parliamentary elections if a candidate or their agents engage in "corrupt or illegal practices". These practices vary from simple bribery, to paying canvassers, treating your electorate to ale and mutton, and the exercise of undue influence.  If the election court is satisfied that the elected candidate or their agents are implicated in "corrupt and illegal" practices during the campaign, the consequences are potentially severe.  If judges find that the new MP is personally guilty of any corrupt or illegal practices, their election is void.

In recent years, judges kicked Phil Woolas out of his Oldham East seat after the 2010 general election for circulating lies about the personal character of his Liberal Democratic opponent. More recently, the election of the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, was avoided by Richard Mawrey QC for a dizzying array of infractions. In the light of the findings of yesterday's Cabinet Office's enquiry, which unmasked former Secretary of State for Scotland, Alistair Carmichael, as the man behind the Sturgeon memo leaked to the Telegraph -- is there any case to question Mr Carmichael's recent election to the Commons? My immediate response was -- not on your nelly. But taking a more careful look at the legislation, I'm now not so sure.

Under s.106 of the 1983 Act, a person who "makes or publishes any false statement of fact in relation to the candidate’s personal character or conduct shall be guilty of an illegal practice, unless he can show that he had reasonable grounds for believing, and did believe, that statement to be true." These false statements must have been made (a) "before or during the election" and (b) "for the purpose of affecting the return of any candidate at the election." This provision allows robust political debate on questions of ideology and policy, but if the winning candidate secures election by blackguarding their opponents, it allows the courts to intervene. This is what happened with Phil Woolas in Oldham. 

But read the text of the statute carefully. There is nothing in it suggesting that the rules are limited to making false statements about the personal character or conduct of other candidates. I can't find any historical examples of the law being used to challenge the election of a candidate based on false statements about themselves and their conduct. But in principle, surely fibs about your own behaviour and character are just as capable of misleading the electors and stealing the election than lies and calumnies heaped on your opponents.

Which brings us to the sticky case of Alistair Carmichael, and the memo he instructed his special advisor to leak to Simon Johnson of the Telegraph. In itself, I would suggest, this behaviour doesn't engage the 1983 Act at all. Its target was not Carmichael's SNP opponent in Orkney and Shetland, but Nicola Sturgeon. He may have hoped to destabilise the SNP campaign more generally, to his own benefit. Carmichael now accepts that the contents of the memo did not accurately reflect the First Minister's views -- but the paper itself was clearly authentic, if mistaken. Publishing it did not represent any "false statement of fact in relation to the candidate’s personal character or conduct."

But can the same be said of Carmichael's decision to take to the airwaves and to lie through his teeth about the scope of his own involvement in the document finding its way from the Scotland Office to the public domain? To lie, in short, about his own conduct and character as he sought to persuade his electors to return him to parliament?

When questioned by Channel 4 News, the Liberal Democrat MP claimed that he hadn't heard tell of the document till his phone rang after the Telegraph ran with the story.  He told the media that the responsible person was a civil servant -- a half truth which misrepresented his own agency. He said "these things happen". These are clearly lies by commission and omission. Lies he had the opportunity to correct at any time before the Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood concluded that he was the man behind the curtain. And lies about his own conduct which the voters of Orkney and Shetland may well have found relevant in deciding whether or not to send him back to Westminster on their behalf.

These were, in the language of the 1983 Act, arguably false statements made "for the purpose of affecting the return of any candidate at the election." This looks dangerously close to an "illegal practice" under the 1983 Act which could justify voiding Carmichael's election.

For those hoping to pry him loose, timing is tight. The Representation of the People Act gives electors and disappointed candidates just 21 days to lodge an election petition at the Court of Session, questioning the result of a parliamentary election. Time is a'wasting. Moreover, any petitioners would have to be prepared to foot the bill and take the risk of substantial legal costs on themselves. Legal aid is not available. But if one of Carmichael's opponents, or some of his constituents, wanted to go to law -- it may be worth a punt.

21 May 2015

Two bereavements

Towards the end of the film Conspiracy (2001), Kenneth Branagh's character - Reinhard Heydrich - relates the following story.  Sceptical Doctor Kritzinger had been strong-armed into backing the Obergruppenführer's "final solution" at the Wannsee Conference, but he leaves the SS officer with this cautionary tale.

"He told me a story about a man he had known all his life, a boyhood friend. This man hated his father. Loved his mother fiercely. His mother was devoted to him, but his father used to beat him, demeaned him, disinherited him. Anyway, this friend grew to manhood and was still in his thirties when the mother died. The mother, who had nurtured and protected him, died. The man stood at her grave as they lowered the coffin and tried to cry, but no tears came. The man’s father lived to a very extended old age and withered away and died when the son was in his fifties. At the father’s funeral, much to the son’s surprise, he could not control his tears. Wailing, sobbing… he was apparently inconsolable. Utterly lost. That was the story Kritzinger told me."

The scene came back to me this morning, as I reflected on this remarkable half decade in Scottish politics.  Devolution has, somehow, killed Scottish Labour stone dead. The autopsies of the last two weeks have seen innumerable diagnoses of the party's predicaments exchanged by friends and foes of the People's Party. Amputation, anaesthetic stupefaction, and other kill-or-cure remedies are all being offered. 

The five stages of grief have all been in evidence, from outright denial and anger, to bargaining, depression and some signs of acceptance. In the immediate aftermath of the result, even the much diminished John Reid had a catch in the voice, and a wetness in the eye. Ian Davidson took immediately to the warpath. The affable Tom Harris was a picture of sod-it resignation. Margaret Curran and Jim Murphy shook with hysterical bonhomie. Ann McKechin slumped forlornly against the drapes. Ashen faced or bilious, despair was general, devastation and bewilderment. The old gods are finally dead -- and they have been a long time in the dying. 

To the unsympathetic observer, this looks like nemesis finally catching up with unpardonable hubris, But the stunned aftermath spoke of more than just sorrow for the collapse of a party, of grief for lost jobs, foiled ambitions, fallen comrades, and wasted hours of activism ending in disappointment -- May the 7th represented the final collapse of a long-eroded world-view. Of an identity, and a sure sense of political touch, lost. 

The Better Together campaign ran on the basis that Labour "understood" Scotland. That confidence has proven remarkably misplaced. It is no accident that many Labour sorts now seem thunderstruck, seeking easy explanations which insulate their party and movement and leadership from serious introspection or self-analysis. It is only human, after all. Not admirable, perhaps, but understandable. 

"Scotland has gone mad." "The electorate has become irrational." "The rise of nationalism." "It's just a battle of the flags with you lot." "People just wouldn't listen" -- all of these now familiar diagnoses mask a more basic cri de coeur. "I haven't the foggiest clue what is going on. The immortal magic has faded. How the hell could this happen? How could the Scotland of Daisley's grandfather desert us?"

So much, so familiar. But what folk perhaps haven't fully reckoned with is that the post-election dawn brought with it a second bereavement. It represented not only the death of Scottish Labour's conceit of itself -- of Labour Scotland -- but an end to the political world and assumptions which SNP activists have operated within and against for decades. 

My father was active in the SNP in Stirling during the doldrum days of the early 1980s, when the city was a carve up between Darth Michael Forsyth, his apprentices and Jack McConnell and the recently defenestrated Labour MP for Linlithgow and Falkirk East, Michael Connarty.  They were unhappy, hopeless times to be a Nat. The disaster of 1979 was still in the air. The local campaigns were generally unpleasant -- and above all unsuccessful. 

The idea that the party would or could go on to take the town in Holyrood and now Westminster would have seemed beyond fanciful. Thatcher sat in Downing Street. Scottish Labour were planted firmly in opposition. We were nowhere. No devolved parliament. No hope of devolution. No hope of casting off Tory rule. Nowt. It was pretty gruesome. It is all too easy to support the SNP these days. Back then, it meant lost jobs, seemingly rewardless struggle, looks askance, grief and failure.

It is no accident that even very senior Nationalists with access to good data couldn't bring themselves to believe that a 56 of 59 wipe out was possible. If Labour parliamentarians drank down this stuff, deluding themselves, Nationalist activists have long imbibed many of the same assumptions. The post-indyref newbies bring a different set of experiences with them, but the old hands will know what I mean. 

The heavy certainties and the anticipated disappointments: Nothing changes. Dyed in the wool. The siege wall around Fortress Glasgow and Lanarkshire is unbreachable. And now the old laws are dust. For Scottish Labour supporters and activists, the election result must have been devastating. But for the SNP too, it is also a bringer of change, of opportunities, but also a death of generational certainties and assumptions about how Scottish politics operates. It made John Reid croak. In me, it generates a sense both of opportunity and trepidation.

When the Tories finally ditched Ted Heath in 1975, Harold Wilson's first reaction was glee at having finally seen off his old opponent.  But his sense of triumph was blunted almost instantly by a rising sense of apprehension, as he confided in advisor Bernard Donoughue. I know this man. I've spent a decade watching him, opposing him, debating with him. I know his mind, how he thinks. I think I can anticipate how he will react. But what's coming next? What now? The defensive impulse is to cling on to the flotsam and jetsam --  to continue to read the riot act to the stricken Labour Party about its failures, its mediocrity and arrogance, and neglect. 

But eventually, even these old maps give out. The familiar boundaries and landmarks recede. And the canvas is blank. Strange times. 

17 May 2015

WANTED: Scottish Nationalism with a head as well as a heart

The 2014 referendum was a premature confrontation between Scottish Nationalism and its ambitions. In a long campaign, Yes Scotland managed to achieve something remarkable. The Yes campaign was defeated and defeated handily, but support for Scottish independence roared into the mainstream of political opinion. Even victors are by victories undone. Short term advantage is sometimes bought at the expense of a disaster tomorrow. The Better Together campaign is a case study in the perils of short term thinking. 

Last Friday, we observed the aftermath of a stricken Scottish Labour Party, sinking beneath the waves, demasted in the crosswinds of political opinion, hull bust, lifeboats swept away, leaving a sole survivor in Ian Murray. Now the ship's skipper has finally done the decent - and probably necessary - thing, leaving the battered boat directorless and directionless heading into the long campaign for Holyrood in 2016. For the partisan SNP supporter, a squirming feeling of schadenfreude may attach to Labour's immediate challenges, but we must continue to take a longer view as the People's Party are gripped by their own internecine conflicts and disputes. 

The brutal fact remains -- if we held another independence referendum today, tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year -- we would still be defeated.  Scotland is not awash with people feeling buyer's remorse. The poll wasn't fixed. The anxieties which delivered a No majority on the 19th of September have not been answered. The doubts of the folk outside the enclaves that supported independence by a majority - Clackmannanshire, Aberdeenshire, Perthshire, the Highlands - have by no means been allayed.  

Any indisciplined rush into a second referendum can lead only to disaster.  Exuberance in the wake of an exciting General Election campaign, I can understand -- but it must be checked and scrutinised cold-bloodedly. I would suggest that that scrutiny urges only one conclusion: the fundamentals are still agin us. Vital, it may have been, stimulating and new. But we must be honest with yourselves: on too many issues, the intellectual case for Scottish independence was never won in the long referendum campaign of 2013 and 2014.

One of my long lasting anxieties about the 1998 devolution settlement has been the kind of politicians it would produce. As a party which has rooted and grown in Holyrood since the turn of the century, the SNP has historically been particularly exposed to the limits of devolved thinking. A national parliament with an important range of powers, but one shorn of responsibility for economic affairs, for monetary and international affairs, defence and welfare.  For the unionist majority in the Smith Commission, the problem with this set-up is the lack of "responsibility", connecting decisions on spending with decisions on taxation. But for an independence-supporter trying to take a longer view, the issues are different. 

Devolution risks producing politicians with attitudes towards a great swathe of state policy which is at best intellectually underdeveloped and at worst empty oppositionalism and sloganising. These "big things" become someone else's problem. This attitude may cut the mustard in the forgetful ordinary run of politics. In the compressed formats of telly and radio, your spokesmen will find things to say, outraged soundbites to coin, but a slogan is not a policy. 

Slogans may work day to day, but they are bound to be seriously shown up in something as fundamental as a long referendum campaign. By no means am I suggesting that the SNP is the vacuous party of empty protest its opponents sometimes suggest -- but these reserved areas have often been our weakest suit. There is no shame, and no downside, in being frank with ourselves about that.

Take one example. You can understand the thinking behind the White Paper's currency policy. Folk wanted to keep the pound. The focus groups urged it. So the Scottish Government decided to back it. But in practice, the policy amounted to giving your deadliest enemy a loaded revolver and saying, "please don't shoot me with this". The rest is history. Osborne pulled the trigger. Salmond foundered in the first debate with Darling. Credibility was never demonstrated or gained. We lost. I could go on.

The election of the 56 is no mandate for independence, or even another referendum, but it is a remarkable opportunity to begin working quietly on these tricky fundamentals and to resist the narrow field of policy vision which devolution sometimes encourages. The Short Money is flowing in, up from a modest £187,000 to £1,200,000 a year, excluding any additional party levies on the new MPs' salaries. That is a formidable war chest which the SNP must put to work in pursuit of its short and longer term aims.

The intellectual, technical case for Scottish independence must be strengthened in the longer run if it is ever to be won. The target is moving. The issues are not static. But if -- when -- a second referendum comes along, we now have no cause and no excuse to run a campaign which is vulnerable on critical questions of reserved policy. Tough choices will, inevitably, have to be made and policy battlefields selected. But for the first time in its history, the party now has a formidable Westminster machinery and staff, scrutinising the reserved issues, with resources to think fundamentally about its approach to central issues in the economy, and choices in monetary policy and regulation, defence, welfare, international affairs.  That's an opportunity which cannot be squandered.

10 May 2015

Scotland and Human Rights Act abolition...

With tidings this morning that David Cameron has charged Michael Gove with abolishing "Labour's Human Rights Act", there is a good deal of confusion and misinformation doing the rounds online about the Scottish angle.  

Isn't the Human Rights Act written into the Scotland Act? Can Holyrood resist Tory moves to repeal the law? What about the devolved parliaments in Wales and Northern Ireland? Will Europe wear it?

The answers to these questions is a wee bit complicated. Back at the end of 2014, I took a critical look at these concerns. Professor Aileen McHarg of the University of Strathclyde has also written this more comprehensive treatment.  The short version? The Human Rights Act is not written into the Scotland Act. This is misleading, and increasingly unhelpful, shorthand. Under the devolution legislation, Acts of the Scottish Parliament and decisions of Scottish ministers must comply with European Convention rights. 

If they do not, you can take your case to the Court of Session, inviting judges to strike the offending laws or decisions down. The powers of both the legislature and executive are checked. But the Human Rights Act goes further, requiring all public authorities in the United Kingdom - prisons, police officers, councils - to respect your rights to free expression, privacy, property, liberty, and so on. We have two distinct human rights regimes in this country, and if the HRA is repealed, it will require only Holyrood and the Scottish Ministers to take these fundamental rights into account.

But there is another important technicality here. Human rights aren't reserved matters under the Scotland Act. The Human Rights Act is a protected enactment under Schedule 4 of the devolution legislation -- meaning that Holyrood cannot repeal or amend it -- but human rights are devolved. Several stormy legal and political consequences flow from these facts, more fully explored in my 2014 blog.  

So, big questions for Mr Gove: will your government attempt to eliminate the ECHR rights enshrined in the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Acts? What if Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast reject the idea? Will you crack on anyway? What if the majorities in the devolved legislatures do not approve of your British Bill of Rights? Will you respect and recognise their democratic mandates, or employ Westminster sovereignty to ram the replacement through? As human rights are not a reserved matter, will you seek the legislative consent of Holyrood to repeal devolved aspects of the Human Rights Act, and if this is not forthcoming, how will you respond?

Thus far, the Tories have had bugger all to say about the detailed devolved implications of their abolition plan -- but they are politically explosive. Thus far, by focussing on the court politics of tactics and slogans, the media have singularly failed to take Conservative ministers to task on their woolly human rights thinking. Like Cameron's pledge to "renegotiate" the European Union treaties without any real or realisable demands, abolition of the Human Rights Act is a slogan -- not a worked out policy.


9 May 2015

Jim Murphy: Labour's rubber chicken fix

Poor Jim. A victim of circumstances. Talented. Did his best. A plucky, energetic campaign. Formidable politician. Couldn't hold back the tide. A long crisis in Scottish Labour. Not his fault.

As the UK Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, and even sorry old UKIP are sitting around telling sad stories of the death of kings, Jim Murphy hopes to hold on, unsalaried, seatless, representing nowhere, as leader of the Scottish Labour Party. Murphy's friends and sympathisers in the party and in the media are busily attempting to erect a firewall around the unseated leader, insulating him from any responsibility for Thursday's calamity. 

Jim wasn't erratic, implausible, unfocussed -- he was vigorous, impressive, but stymied by Labour's structural deficiencies. Give him time, the logic runs, a second shot at it, and his undoubted talents will reshape the people's party into a fighting force once again. That's the story, anyway.

But wouldn't this all be rather more plausible if Mr Murphy -- and his crack squad of Better Together spinners -- hadn't run such a dreadful, purely tactical, unstrategic, incoherent gattling gun campaign? Jim Murphy may be forgiven for failing to work miracles -- but will his party colleagues really forgive him his many missteps and misjudgments in what was -- let's remember -- a thoroughly devolved Scottish Labour campaign. 
 
Let's consider the evidence against him. Late in April, he told the Sunday Times that his party had "fallen asleep" after the referendum. It is worth remembering that Murphy won the internal leadership contest in the middle of December last year. His appointment was met with a splendid and sympathetic press ("a formidable campaigner: he has turned his once Tory seat into a seat for life") 

But little in Murphy's subsequent choices suggested that he thought that Scottish Labour had anything more than a crisis of leadership. From the get go, the relentless focus of the Scottish Labour campaign was on his own character. He was the key spokesman for the party throughout the campaign, despite consistently ambivalent personal ratings. Like his chief of staff, complacent Murphy seemed think that all Scottish Labour needed was "a striker", and he was only too happy to pull on the boots.

Ponder this question. In the critical early days of his leadership, when the party needed to nourish its roots, jury rig its organisation, and forge ahead with a judicious focus on the critical issues -- what were Murphy's priorities? How did he forge on to reclaim the territory Labour had lost? Ah, yes. The football. Football kits. Football matches. Liquor at football. Running along the Clyde in a football shirt. To what end? Headline grabbing sideshows, the fundamentals, sidelined.

But if Murphy knew full well that the Labour Party were under the cosh in the wake of the referendum, and expecting a little local difficulties across the country, why the devil did he tell the media in December that his party wouldn't lose a single seat? If Jim fully apprehended the weakness of his organisation, why was he boasting to Buzzfeed as recently as January that his main opponents were flat footed, off pace easily outwitted? 

A measure of bullshit peddling is to be forgiven -- morale must be sustained, after all -- but these are unforced errors that reeked of hubris rather than the plucky confidence of the underdog. To risk a Bourbon strategy, evoking the very worst of a party who seems to have learned nothing and forgiven nothing since 2007, was bananas.

And then there was the referendum. Unseated Labour MP, Ian Davidson, put the central incoherence clearly on election night. Murphy chose to begin this campaign by emphasising a gentle, wooing appeal to those who voted Yes in September.  Having appointed a slate of SNP hating ultras to his private office, he disavowed a unionist approach, pledging to focus on issues of social justice and what a Labour government in London might achieve.

But cheek by jowl with polling day, democratic socialist, un-unionist Jim was launching scary poster campaigns, which were only likely to appeal to frit Tory unionists, who wanted to keep the Nats out.  This desperate last gambit only helped to entrench the referendum fight as a dividing line in this election, to Labour's obvious disadvantage. A Scottish Labour Party cannot survive on the votes of Alex Massie and Chris Deerin alone. This much should have been self evident. But Jim decided otherwise, in yet another change of tack.

He thought he had secured a wicked debating point over Nicola Sturgeon on the costs of fiscal autonomy. This is a complex issue. The merits and demerits and depth of the SNP thinking on this are for another day. But as a matter of political strategy? It looked good on paper. It appealed to the most embedded of Labour prejudices against the Nats -- "The SNP are committed to more austerity than Labour. Telt ye. Tartan Tories, etc" -- but it was wonky, technical, and relied on convincing folk that something which we know appeals to Scots at a low information level -- more powers -- would really have their shirt. Yet Murphy kept plugging away at this unpromising line for weeks. Another good call.

This was an erratic, negative campaign by trial and error, which obscured elements of Labour's more compelling policy platform by focussing on a succession of hopeless canards. You can see Jim, sitting down with Blair McDougall in front of a plain piece of paper, brainstorming, listing ideas, trying each strategy in turn, and scoring them off when they don't work, without any eye to their internal or systematic coherence or anxiety that the public may have been paying attention, and have noticed the contradictions.

Murphy is clearly a formidable political operator within the now stricken Scottish Labour party. But if the 2011 campaign is anything to go by, he is old guard, deeply implicated in the party's current malaise, and a rubber chicken when it comes to broader strategy. He reposed faith in the judgement of the wrong people and, left to his own devices, pursued the wrong priorities, pushing his comrades and allies to ruin. This is not the legacy of a man who just got unlucky, whatever Jim's remaining adherents might insist.

Like his political mentor Tony Blair, Jim Murphy was "the future once", in David Cameron's barbed phrase. And now, the lost leader, the man of straw, is trying to bounce his colleagues into permitting him to stay, saved only by the logic that there is no viable alternative in Ian Murray or in his Holyrood colleagues. They must be fuming.

Murphy may have had only five months to screw up the Scottish Labour Party, but he's made a grand fist of it. It always looked like a tough campaign, but I can't believe that the party's near wipe-out yesterday was inevitable. No busy SNP activist I met during the campaign ever thought it was inevitable. And make no mistake, accept no spin: Murphy's hands are dipped in the blood.

5 May 2015

Constructing legitimacy

The masked activists, the pickpockets, pocket-dwellers, pipers, puppet masters -- the explicit content of the Tory general election campaign has been rabidly anti-Nat, but it has been clear for some time that it's real target was always Ed Miliband and his Labour colleagues.  In a narrow sense, the ploy has been understood as a tactical opportunity for the Tories to slap UKIP back in an electoral vice, reclaiming votes in embattled marginals.

This Tory campaign has been widely derided. Those Antipodean (and North American) electoral whizzes are, unsurprisingly, not worth their hire. But in this respect at least, the Conservatives have shown cunning, initiative, and an awareness that you have got to get your retaliation in first in politics. The Independent's leader, endorsing the coalition, puts this now central point of the campaign discourse clearly. 

“For all his talk of no deals with the SNP, Miliband is bound to rely on that party to get his legislative programme through. This would be a disaster for the country, unleashing justified fury in England at the decisive influence of MPs who – unlike this title – do not wish the Union to exist. If that were to be the case while Labour were the second biggest party either in terms of vote share, or seats – or both – how could Labour govern with authority? They could not. Any partnership between Labour and the SNP will harm Britain’s fragile democracy. For all its faults, another Lib-Con Coalition would both prolong recovery and give our kingdom a better chance of continued existence.”
At the risk of labouring the bleeding obvious, political legitimacy doesn't just exist out there, in the ether. That's pure superstition. Legitimacy isn't like an Act of Parliament, an authority to be appealed to, chapter and verse, section and clause. That is pure superstition. It is worked at, argued for, sometimes hard won and sometimes given away for a farthing. And if this Tory campaign has achieved one thing, it has carpet bombed the legitimacy Labour's best and surest way back into power extremely effectively. It helps to have the reactionary press on your side, I grant you. You get a finer, clearer echo from the Mail, Sun, Express and Telegraph.

The Conservatives' future may still hang by a shoogly electoral peg, deprived of sure friends, unable to secure a necessary majority for themselves, but as Alex Massie observes with characteristic clear-sightedness, they've bound and gagged Ed between the Scylla of the SNP north of the border and the Charybdis of the increasingly crotchety plain people of England, who've heard quite enough about frigging Scotland, thank you kindly.

What is remarkable, however, is that the Labour Party has, at every turn, colluded in the undermining of its own position, conceding the Tory logic and competing with their own Nat blasting. A more long-sighted politician would have recognised that allowing your opponent to truss you up like a kipper may afford some temporary respite, a bubble of breathing space in a tough campaign, but is only deferring your troubles. A more courageous politician might try to lead and shape public opinion, rather than biddably taking their opponent's bait, line and sinker. The worm isn't worth the hook.

But like a flailing man at sea, pulled beneath the suds, Ed Miliband has scorned the lifebelt and is seeking to bargain with the very waves drowning him.

3 May 2015

Nicola's Assumption

Is the SNP campaign of 2015 the mirror image of the campaign Scottish Labour wanted - and thought it was running - in 2011? Unconvinced? Appalled at the apparent illogicality of the proposition? Understandable, on the evidence -- but please bear with me. 

Over the last few days, I have been struck by the unexpected similarities in the logic of the two campaigns. The one a calamity - the other a seeming success - but both effectively rely on mobilising similar feelings and logics in the electorate. Where Scottish Labour crashed and burned, the SNP look likely to net a healthy share of Westminster constituencies. Certainly more than the six we managed to secure in 2010. 

By 2011, Scottish Labour had admittedly shed two leaders and acquired a third. This was unedifying, messy, and characterised by its awkward marches and countermarches of policy. But the polls were initially friendly. In 2010, from Gordon Brown's bloodied and defensive crouch, the electorate had handed Labour a stonking victory. The Nationalists were confounded. Our ghastly "More Nats less Cuts" slogan had all the ferocity of a butterknife. The "local champions" riff -- a dud. The punters weren't listening, and backed Broon in the face of David Cameron, and his allies in the reactionary media. 

It was a cruel misdirection on our part, appealing to the lizard brained part of the People's Party, which told them that their current predicament in Holyrood was like an April shower -- soon melted, evanescent. The sturdy old oxen logic of tribalism, loyalty, and dogged adherence to the cause would soon revive. The people would repent of their error, and return. They would, as Margaret Curran said at the time, "come home to Labour", sheepishly, prodigal, but forgiven their trespasses. The old benedictions - interrupted but not forgotten. 

In my experience, the best way to lie to people is to tell them something which they desperately want to be true. And Scottish Labour seemed only too delighted not to collapse into any self-reflection, and to tell itself these gentle, convenient stories about the predicament which Jack McConnell had blundered into. 

After the narrow forty-seven to forty-six face off with the SNP in 2007, Iain Gray led his party into the Holyrood election on a platform of minimal difference. If the SNP wanted to freeze council tax? So do we (only slightly less so). The abolition of tuition fees? That too is here to stay. We're on students' side. Extra polis? A national boon. We won't reduce the numbers. But just think -- just think -- how much you would prefer to hear these policies from a Labour minister for finance, under a Labour first minister? 

Your deid grandpappy would be proud. His grave would have no occasion to birl. The natural order of things would be restored. Labour's policy distinctiveness in 2007 came down to an uncosted, illiberal, irresponsible plan to introduce mandatory prison sentences for everyone caught in possession of knives. But at its core -- it was an SNP manifesto, reframed in a Labour voice. This is not interesting in itself -- but it is telling about how Labour strategists thought about the electorate they thought they were appealing to. They recognised the allure of a number of "big ticket" items in the Scottish Government's first budget, but assumed that, given a contest, people would prefer hearing these policies from a Labour First Minister, cabinet, and Scottish executive. 

The assumption was that -- by borrowing the SNP's clothes, with an admixture of old Labour tribalism and loyalty -- the electors would come flocking back to the People's Party, remember the old hymns, and vote as Donald Dewar once intended. They judged folk wanted to back them. The unholy aberration of 2007 would be upended. The hated, temporary regime would be consigned to oblivion, and the old order would be restored. Difficult questions need not be asked. Fundamental change in the organisation was unnecessary. It was a quirk of the numbers and, as Euan McColm recalls in today's Scotland on Sunday, a few iffy, wet ballots from Arran. 

It's always tempting to compare Scottish Labour to the Bourbon monarchs of France, and their ideological hangers on and adherents. As the old snake Talleyrand once said, after their decapitation and dethronement, "they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing". There is something strangely of the west of Scotland, Labour municipal cooncillor or parliamentarian about the portly, self-assured and slightly glaikit figure of King Louis XVIII.

As is so often the case, it is our unquestioned assumptions which eventually get us crucified -- and the central assumption of  Gray's 2011 campaign proved faulty. There was the sandwich shop, of course, Gray's own limitations, and a shaky statistical basis for the knife policy -- but it was the assumed allegiance and the assumed preference for a Labour government in Holyrood which proved devastating. It turned out that the Scottish electorate of 2011 had learned to disregard their fealty to the ancien régime. They looked at Gray, and at Salmond and Sturgeon, and found they preferred the SNP incumbents they had only very modestly backed in 2007. Like his campaign, Gray's assumptions imploded.

Scottish Labour's 2007 manifesto was defined by their opponents. 2015's SNP manifesto could only have been published after Labour's 2015 proposals. It calculates, with caveats, that the SNP is now regarded as better placed, and better trusted, to realise and extend these aspirations than the UK Labour party. The 2015 SNP campaign effectively reverses and pursues Iain Gray's 2011 logic. 

Of course, the parallels are not exact. The context is different. One some very big ticket items - public spending, the constitution, and Trident - the SNP is seriously at odds with Labour. The referendum has also helped to create a different, broader constituency for Nicola's message and a constituency which is justly vexed with Labour, its performance in office before 2010, and its often cautious and uninspiring performance in opposition since. But at bottom, the First Minister is now exploiting a logic of minimal different with her main opponents in precisely the same way in which Iain Gray hoped, in 2011, to lead Scottish Labour back into Bute House.  

Only Thursday night and Friday morning will tell us whether Nicola's judgement -- that the Scottish people would now prefer to take this old social democratic medicine from her lips -- will be vindicated.