Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Where now for Scottish Labour?

There is no doubting that the Holyrood election was a significant moment in Scottish history, a day when the last lingering doubts that the SNP are a fringe party and Scotland is a Labour country were put to bed.  Well actually it was more the case that they were taken out the back and unceremoniously shot, such was the devastation inflicted upon Labour by the Nats.  Sure we can try to pretend that it was all the Lib Dems’ fault for selling out and then voting for the SNP, but ultimately it was the rejection of an inane, inappropriate and ineffective campaign by the wider electorate.

The Scottish Labour campaign failed on every level.  A focus on the Conservatives was utterly out of tune with the growing understanding amongst voters that elections to Holyrood and Westminster are completely different beasts (a mistake, interestingly, that the SNP made last year).  There was an over the top attempt to out-promise the SNP on spending pledges, regardless of the looming spectre of savage cuts to the Scottish budget.  And the few policies which didn’t seem to be identical to those in the Nationalist manifesto, such as the pseudo-macho posturing on knife crime, were ill thought out and turn offs to those choosing where to cast their vote.

Ultimately, it was a monumental failure by a supposedly professional political party.  We demonstrated that we had learnt nothing from 2007; that we had failed to adapt to the Scottish political environment as it now exists; and that our presumption that we would simply be handed back power by a grateful electorate following the brief flirtation with the Nats was woefully misplaced.

Personalities definitely played their part in the debacle, with Iain Gray horrendously mismatched against the big beast of Alex Salmond.  It ironically didn’t need to be that way – Salmond’s greatest strengths (humour, confidence, vision) are also his biggest weaknesses (smugness, arrogance, undeliverable promises) and the voters could easily punish him for that if they didn’t believe he was the best man for the job (and regardless of the actual fact that voters do not directly choose the FM, the election definitely had this as a motivation).  But Scotland did believe that he was the best First Minister available, with polling consistently showing that Labour voters thought Salmond would do a better job than Gray.

However, more so than personalities, I feel that the hammering meted out at this election boiled down to two key facts – the misnomer of Scottish Labour and the geographical exclusivity that the party has allowed itself to become restricted to.

We talk of Scottish Labour and yet, in reality, there is no such thing.  As the party who prides ourselves on having delivered devolution, we have demonstrably failed to devolve our own party structures, leaving the SNP free to use the term ‘London Labour’ with such great success that our own MSPs now apply it.  Iain Gray was not my leader as an ordinary member of the Labour Party, his leadership extremely limited to the pool of MSPs.  Not the councillors across the country, not the MPs either when they were in Government or in Opposition, not the MEPs and not the membership, the supposed pool of future representatives.  This is a very important point, explored by Ross Martin and others.  I know that colleagues are wary of devolving Scottish Labour too far, of creating a body which conflicts with the UK wide party, but we are already past this stage.  For example, Labour at Holyrood firmly opposed the minimum pricing legislation of the minority SNP administration at the same time as Labour at Westminster was considering it.  The very reason we have devolution is as recognition that there are legislative, cultural and historical differences between Scotland and England which require different approaches.  If the country requires different approaches from its legislative bodies, then it definitely requires different approaches from its political parties.

The next Leader of the Scottish Labour Party should indeed be the leader of all Scottish Labour.  He or she should be seen as having the ability to take the party forward in Scotland, working closely with our colleagues in Westminster, local government and the European Parliament as a coherent but distinct team.  Councillors do not look to Westminster to drive their decisions, and our MEPs are actually members of a separate political grouping which sets its own agenda, yet we have retained an impression that our MSPs are to remain subservient to Westminster.  This does not benefit us in either context, and effectively concedes the debate to the SNP, allowing them to dismiss the party as uninterested and uncommitted to Scotland.

We are not alone in finding this a struggle – the Scottish Lib Dems had the impossible task of trying to explain that as a federal party they were not directly supportive of the Coalition Government at Westminster, whilst the Scottish Conservatives have long struggled with the fact that they are, well, Conservatives, with all the history and connotation that that brings.  However, our responsibility is to find a new approach for Scottish Labour, to create a party which remains connected to the broader UK movement but which can also demonstrate our relevance to the electorate in Scotland.  This requires distinctive policy and an ambition to use the Scottish Parliament as a vehicle for reshaping Scotland.  The SNP propose big visions of changing the country – we can argue that the vision is not correct or indeed deliverable, however it is still a vision.  It is not simple management of the status quo, but rather a belief that Scotland can achieve great things.  This motivates and inspires, particularly at a time of challenge and particularly in contrast to a negative campaign of “Vote SNP, get Armageddon”.  A positive, ambitious vision for Scotland should be the fundamental drive of Scottish Labour – if we are not dreamers then we are nothing as a political party.  The Scottish Parliament offers us opportunities for the kind of policy which is far harder to achieve at Westminster, particularly given the political arithmetic of the first past the post system, however we are not successful in explaining to voters that we understand the opportunity, and responsibility, of this resource.  We have the opportunity to be proudly Scottish, British, European and Internationalist, and should trust in the positive appeal of that message.

Tying into this challenge is the geographical exclusivity of the Labour Party in Scotland, which was shown to be a fatal flaw at this year’s election.  We talk proudly, and complacently, of our heartlands in the Central Belt and Western Scotland, the areas in which it is claimed, previously with a degree of truth, that you could stand a monkey in a red rosette and they would win.  Part of the reason that these areas are heartlands is due to their contrast with the rest of Scotland.  The Labour Party is virtually a fringe party across the expanse of the Highlands and Islands, the North East and the Borders.  We are seen as out of touch and irrelevant to rural communities, to the farming and fishing industries, to the non-Glasgow populace in Scotland.  We lack the traditional support of the Lib Dems and Conservatives amongst these constituencies and the ability of the SNP to be a very broad church, the drive of independence bringing together disparate political stances.  Furthermore, our safety in the industrial belt left us not needing to reach out to these areas, particularly in an electoral environment which was believed to make majority government virtually impossible.

2011 turned out to be the perfect storm, as the SNP made massive inroads into the Central Belt heartlands at the same time as the Lib Dem vote vanished into the abyss.  We lacked any sort of ability to mount a challenge for the falling Lib Dem seats, and would have lost the overwhelming majority of them in a ‘good’ election.  Every Lib Dem seat which they lost turned to the SNP, an instant gain for the Nats of monumental proportions.  This was further heightened by the sheer scale of their vote in the NE and other areas, where they managed to take MSPs off the list as well as in the constituencies.

At the same time they cut a bloody swathe through ‘safe’ Labour seats, removing MSPs in a raft without Labour being able to replace them elsewhere.  Every city in Scotland is now predominantly, if not wholly, SNP reflecting their success in appealing to the electorate in its widest sense.  As we had seen at previous elections, Labour’s geographic exclusivity left the party with nowhere to go when the SNP made inroads, with no fall back seats to challenge the SNP in or to gain from the other parties.  The conditions were all in place for this defeat, we just failed to address them at any stage of the process.

It is an overused cliché for political parties in the UK to look to the US for answers, however there is something that Scottish Labour should learn from – the Democratic Party’s 50 State Campaign.  This shift in approach, led by Howard Dean, moved the Democrats’ focus from simply their safe blue states of the East and West Coasts, to finding ways to connect with the forgotten voters in the Republican red states of the South and Centre.  This was a challenge and a controversial step, with some of the elite of the party worrying about the impact on policy of listening to the electorate of those states, however it also brought great success at every level of politics in the US.

Scottish Labour needs to devolve its structure and to develop a 50 State approach for Scotland, one which shows that we have relevance to the voter in Sutherland or Aberdeenshire as much as we do to those in Springburn or Dumbarton.  We need to discover a new generation of Scottish Labour representatives, those working and living with the reality of a devolved Scotland, who see Holyrood as a key means by which to change Scotland.  The beauty of the Labour movement is, and always should be, that we appeal to a broad spectrum of the electorate, particularly in Scotland.  I think that the frequent descriptions of Scotland as a centre-left country oversimplify the situation dramatically, ignoring the strong traditional small ‘c’ conservative tradition in Scotland, however it is true that the political, cultural and electoral environment offer opportunities which are hard to achieve at Westminster.  We should not simply be the party of the working class communities of the urban conurbations, who in any case are starting to reject the expectation that we are their only choice.  We should also be the party which represents our rural communities as they struggle with the challenges of employment and population dispersal; of our aspirational communities looking to harness the power of Scotland’s education system and traditional entrepreneurial spirit to break free from poverty; of ethnic minority communities as they contribute to developing new ideas of Scottishness, broad and beautiful in their multifaceted nature.

Regaining success in Scotland cannot simply be a case of winning back the Glasgow seats, Clydebank, Airdrie and other seats we consider rightfully ‘ours’, of merely patching over the cracks and waiting for the inevitable drift of voters back to their true home with us.  If we wait for that to happen, we will be finished as a party, our credibility and commitment washed away in arrogance and complacency.  We have to create a party which matters, which is optimistic yet realistic, which believes Scotland can be a better place and that we possess the abilities and resources to do so.  I believe we need to be a party which is willing to challenge the consensus, to question the unquestioned truths of how Scotland functions as a society, and yet which is willing to work with other parties for the common good, to demonstrate that our first priority is the progress of Scotland and the people we represent.

We ironically have a unique opportunity to do that now.  Our body of MSPs has been wiped out, leaving space for new candidates and ideas to put themselves forward.  The review which is taking place, alongside the election of a new Leader, is welcome but we have to ensure that we do not fall into the trap of believing that the status quo is good enough.  We have to change and we have to reconnect with the electorate – we ignored the signs in 2007 and have been punished for it.  2011 was not just a blip, it was the third national election (Holyrood 2007 and 2011 and the European Parliamentary elections in 2009) that we have lost out of four, with the UK General Election being our only success.  The pattern is now for the SNP to win – they out finance, out resource, out campaign and out think us.  We are no longer the favourites, the big players of Scottish politics – in Glasgow we face the reality that by next year we could be in opposition at every level of government.  We are now the underdogs, and we need to start fighting back with that mindset.

Scottish politics has changed forever – it is now time for the Scottish Labour Party to catch up.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Ideological Warfare

There have been many areas of note and contention in the midst of the Comprehensive Spending Review, issues for commentators to pour over and speculate upon. For me, as a non-economist looking in from the outside, it has been the politics and ideology which has struck me most, rather than the specific budgetary decisions.

From the Coalition Government’s position, I feel it has been a strong case of before and after politicking. Before, was a case study in political nuance, a demonstration of skill and media management to put Alasdair Campbell to shame. The careful management of expectations (let them think the cuts will be even higher so that they are a pleasant surprise when they arrive); the creation of a bogey-man to pin all the blame on (darn these evil benefit scroungers); the repetition of a concept until it is forced into the public psyche regardless of reality (fairness, fairness, fairness, fairness...); and the sidelining of internal opponents and contention (the negative briefings against Liam Fox and the announcement of Defence cuts at a separate strategic review) – this was political management of the highest level, made all the more remarkable by the fact that this is (however cosy and ideological compatible) a coalition government.

It was therefore surprising to see the success of this political manoeuvring, demonstrated in the broadly supportive polling figures following the CSR’s announcement, undermined by the self-indulgent cheering of the Conservative benches to the proclamation of savage job cuts, and the back slapping self-congratulation of the Quadruplets (Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and Alexander) as they delighted in the most radical gamble in the history of Britain’s economy. Suddenly “We’re all in it together” seemed a rather more empty statement.

The careful management of the CSR will carry the Coalition through the initial stages, the war on scroungers keeping everyone distracted for a wee while. However, as the job losses mount, the less obviously scrounging get hit, the research showing that this review is anything but fair piles up and, God help us, the mass recovery of the global economy and private sector doesn’t happen – suddenly these pictures and video footage will come back to haunt the coalition.

The current saving grace for the Coalition is that Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition have taken the decision to play the politics of Opposition rather than set out clear and realistic alternatives to the direction the Government is taking. This is understandable from a purely political stance; however I also believe it is an abdication of responsibility, a surrendering of the debate in order to retreat to the comfort of disagreement. Ed Miliband demonstrated this very clearly with the choice of Alan Johnston as Shadow Chancellor – this was a clear political decision to attack Osborne rather than to set out concrete economic alternatives. Alan Johnston is a very competent political opponent, but he will not be creating an alternative review. This is disappointing in my opinion, and perfectly reflects the fact that neither side is actually engaging in the reality of the decisions that need to be made, but rather are returning to the delights of ideology.

The Conservatives, with their pseudo-Conservative Orange Book Liberal allies, are ideologically committed to removing the state in a way that Thatcher could only dream of. They have seized upon the crisis as an opportunity to destroy, swathed under the comforting illusion of the Big Society. If the Big Society really was a commitment of the Government (and there is much to be commended in it, as I shall explore later) then they would not be ripping apart the voluntary sector. It is ridiculous to expect that charities, churches and ill-defined communities can fill a sudden void in provision at the same time as their own budgets are savaged. The Conservatives have attacked the paternalism of Labour’s approach and the damage this has done to initiative and entrepreneurism, and there is much to be explored within these criticisms; however what they are doing does not address that properly. If those skills have been undermined then it is not just naive but quite frankly irresponsible to just presume they will magically spring up to fill the abyss left by the removal of the state’s presence. A reasoned, balanced approach to this would have legitimised the Conservative’s view; this approach instead shows it for the smoke and mirrors it has become.

However, Labour’s slide into criticising without creating is equally irresponsible. Spending has to be examined, the public sector is crying out for reform and innovation, and the opportunity for bringing positive change to communities which have stagnated requires a radical departure from simply repeating what has gone before. There must be something quite comforting for Labour MPs in Opposition – after being the enemy for a decade to many traditional supporters through the realities of being in Government, they are now able to become popular again. Ed Miliband won the Leadership on the basis of a move to the left and a rejection of much of the previous Government’s legacy, and so this is chiming nicely with the rhetoric of the Unions. Yet, to merely oppose misses the point of discussion and debate, and ultimately will struggle to convince the wider public that we as a party are ready for Government again.

For me, the most worrying political statistic was the voting intentions of the Sun/YouGov poll – 41% Conservative, 40% Labour, 10% Lib Dem (their lowest since YouGov started polling). While on one hand this makes for good reading for both the Conservatives and Labour (and the stuff of nightmares for the Lib Dems) it is actually a very worrying indication of the polarisation of the political debate, with no space in the middle for exploration of what is a shared problem.

The Big Society concept has much to commend itself in the current environment, if it was backed up by legitimate support. The role of the public sector across the UK, but particularly in the devolved nations and areas such as the NE of England, is overly pervasive, often stifling innovation and filling roles that it should not be in. Unlike the approach the Conservatives are taking, it is not because the public sector in and of itself is an evil – the public sector is a vital component of our nation. However, it can also not be sustained that the public sector’s role and presence is not open to debate, review and evolution.

Part of the problem is that we are still, even in these supposedly post-ideological days, rooted in the public versus private dichotomy, regurgitating arguments which focus on the negative aspects of the opposing view rather than the positive aspects of the one we are supporting. Rather than rehashing the public sector as inefficient against a private sector which is cheap and cruel; it is possible to celebrate the public service of the public sector and the innovation of the private sector as two sides of the same coin. Neither has all of the answers, yet equally both have much to bring.

The point is that new thinking is required, dare I say it a Third Way between private and public which seeks to compensate for their shortcomings. Within the current delivery of public sector services, this would lead to a greater development of alternative delivery models, such as social enterprises and co-operatives. Ironically they represent they opportunity for both sides of the argument to claim success, introducing the innovation of the private sector whilst retaining the moral high ground of the public sector.

The Big Society could be a powerful motivator for the nation if it seriously meant creating a new citizen-led society, where Tony Blair’s mantra of rights and responsibilities could actually be implemented through new contracts between individuals and the state. However the way the Conservatives are actually using the Big Society as a poorly disguised excuse for ideological warfare is both disappointing and, in the long term, likely to be seriously damaging to the causes of reform and localism, as the entire conceptual framework risks being tarred with the same brush.

What would an alternative look like? Well, it would involve a degree of acceptance on the main parties’ behalf that we are in an extremely challenging time, where serious debate and shared solutions are required. Sadly, this is virtually impossible as the two parties gallop into ideological bunkers, fixated on the purity of their respective views rather than the potential for the nation. The Conservative coalition’s drive to destroy the state will leave co-operation with Labour impossible; while Labour’s return to the left under Ed Miliband will likewise remove the centre ground as a meeting place. Meanwhile the Lib Dems plunge into obscurity, their attempts to justify their own existence as a political entity lost in the all encompassing embrace of their new Conservative masters.

Unfortunately in the midst of all this politicking, it is the country which suffers. True we are an innovative specified, and I don’t doubt that incredible ideas will spring up from society to fill the vacuum looming ahead of us. Organisations such as the RSA, who I work for, are contributing ideas and resources, working with other organisations and individuals to try and make some of the Big Society’s ideas come to life.

It shouldn’t be left to luck though, and it shouldn’t be without the involvement and contribution of our elected representatives. In these times of austerity and challenge, where will we find true leaders, with ideas and honesty to take us forward?

Here’s hoping that those figures make themselves known to us.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Why I believe David Miliband should be the next Labour Leader

As I blogged back at the beginning of this incredibly long leadership campaign (not that the length in itself it is a problem) I wanted to be swept off my feet, caught up in the giddy rush of new love with an impressive, exciting leader. This hasn’t happened. Rather, it has been a case of a slow building relationship, starting as friends before beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, this could be something special...

Ok, I’m going to quit the incredibly cheesy romantic references there before we all die of forced saccharine overdose. However, I think that the analogy stands, in that my belief that David Miliband should be the next Leader of the Labour Party has been slow to build, fuelled partly by vision of the direction of the party, and partly by the approach of his main opponent.

I’ll get the negative out of the way first. I started this campaign fairly evenly split between the two brothers, not quite sure who should win. I leant towards David through policy and stature, however thought Ed could be a positive new figure, a breath of fresh air following the unending rumour and innuendo surrounding David Miliband during the Brown years. However, I think Ed Miliband has taken the wrong tack with his campaign, the impression of negativity towards any of Labour’s record not filling me with confidence or pride. Don’t get me wrong, Labour needs to own up to mistakes, particularly in regards to the disconnection that we fostered between the electorate, the membership and the party apparatus (for an interesting article about the price politicians pay for failing to apologies, check out the Post’s article about Adrian Fenty’s fall from office as Mayor of Washington DC). However, the enthusiastic dash to appear removed from anything vaguely uncontroversial during Labour’s time in office is both disappointing and uninspiring. Firstly, it is easy to criticise decisions made when you weren’t in office, and particularly when you weren’t part of the collective responsibility of the Cabinet – I don’t remember any reports of Ed Miliband joining the anti-war marchers. More crucially, I think it misses the point of what Labour needs to do. Yes, the public want some contrition – but fundamentally they have already punished us for our failings at the ballot box. What they want to see now is an energised party with a realistic, attractive vision which stands in contrast to the Highway to Hell which the Coalition Government is hurtling us along.

I believe that David Miliband offers this direction, through a sensible approach which can unify the different wings of the party in fighting back as a political entity. As I have often moaned in the empty sanctity of this blog, Obama’s focus on change has become a curse on the world’s political environment, being attached to every utterance, even when they come from right wing conservatives who find the very concept of change anathema to their entire ideology. Interestingly (and my scepticism towards the change agenda is pretty rigid) he has taken some of the better aspects of Obama’s grassroots campaign in the concept of a Movement for Change (check out an interesting article on the Huffington Post about it). This approach is looking to redesign the engagement of activists with the communities, breaking free both of the distant, unresponsive party hierarchy and the unsustainable ‘paratrooper’ approach, where activists hit an area in the run up to an election and then vanish into the aether, leaving nothing behind them of note.

This offers the potential of a fundamental redistribution of power and energy from the structure to the people, a chance for communities to rally together and produce result s which matter to them. Cameron’s Big Society campaign often seems vague and ill defined, an excuse for cuts rather than a realistic empowerment of society. It takes the approach that the State is too big – really it is the flip side, that civic society is possibly too small, that is the crucial if we really want to change power in the UK. David Miliband’s Movement for Change targets the grassroots as a resource for energy, which should complement the State rather than replacing it. Rather than ideologically (and naively) presuming that harsh cuts will automatically be replaced by an unsupported upsurge in civic activity, it acknowledges that communities need support, training and encouragement to be able to find new ways of behaving and engaging. Local leaders can stimulate this behavioural shift, alongside creating a new generation of politicians who are rooted in the real world, rather than the artificial environs of the political sphere.

I think that David Miliband’s political approach is also what the Labour Party, and the country, needs. One of the reasons that the Conservative Party took so long to recover in the public’s perception as a realistic political entity was because their reaction to the 97 election was to race to the right. Under Hague and Howard they were out of touch with public opinion, and had David Davis won the last Conservative Leadership election they would have remained there. It is therefore vital that Labour doesn’t replicate their mistakes in falling over ourselves to retreat back to some perceived left-wing utopian, enjoying the fun of ideological purity in the safe environment of opposition, but removing our chance of returning to power.

The Labour Party is a very broad movement encompassing a wide range of perspectives (as any legitimate political party should be) and I know that there will be dedicated fellow members who fall more to the left than I do, and who would welcome a return to a more traditional left wing rather than centre-left approach. I respect their commitment and ideas (and believe the times when that vital part of the party was excluded from deliberations under previous leaders was wrong) but personally I believe that we need an approach which listens to the public, which is responsive to national priorities while moving forward a progressive agenda which is open to a broad coalition of supporters, within and without the Labour Party. The Coalition Government is following an aggressive ideological agenda in power, the economic challenges the country is facing an excuse for changing the country to fit their worldview. We cannot be a party of narrow ideology but one which can create a vibrant, inclusive country.

We need to be asking the questions about the failure of the banking system without merely using it as an excuse to indulge in rhetoric. We need to be reshaping the structures in place so that the market works for us rather than us being slaves to the market. We need to build on our international alliances, particularly with the US, rather than falling into anti-American sloganeering in response to a misguided view of what we think the public want. We need to be defending the vital role of the State in creating and sustaining our country, whilst also critically examining how it can work best and most efficiently for our citizens.

David Miliband is a politician of international standing, who was a successful Foreign Secretary and will be a welcome and respected leader of the country in future years. I believe that his vision is the best one to move the country and the party forward, and I strongly hope that he is successfully announced as the next leader of the Labour Party, on my birthday on the 25th September.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Ending in Failure

I am not one to quote Enoch Powell on regular occasions (and even less likely to agree with the quote) but his much used misquote that all political careers end in failure has had me thinking recently. It has been particularly prompted by the dramatic fall from grace of the 44th President of the United States of America, Barack Obama.

Of course, as longer term readers of my blog (if such a creature really exists – I don’t exactly reward perseverance with regular writing!) will be aware, I was, and indeed remain, firmly in the Clinton camp. I did not support Obama during the Primaries, arguing that the gloss and presentation which so many people were raving over was a very shallow covering for a substantial lack of delivery. I should emphasise that I don’t actually like being proven right – as an Americanophile I want to see the country strong and successful, fulfilling its essential leadership role in the world. And god knows after the Bush years anybody was going to be an improvement in terms of the US’s standing on the global stage. I’m also aware that Obama was cursed before he began – no mere human being, let alone a politician, could hope to live up to the Messianic furore which surrounded him, the ecstatic religious outpourings which accompanied his every utterance. His election was a historical moment, one we can tell our children about in future years, but it was also a poisoned chalice which could really only lead to disappointment.

This grim foreboding has indeed turned out to be the reality. The slick, populist rhetoric which he employed in the campaign quickly became empty seeming when produced within the weighty environs of the White House. The confident assurance with which he outperformed better qualified candidates for PUSA in Hillary Clinton and John McCain in the public spotlight, has been surprisingly absent since his election, his mishandling of various challenges such as the AIG bonuses and Gulf oil spill more akin to the “rabbit-in-the-headlights” approach of his predecessor than we would have presumed possible. In a position which other Democratic Presidents would have killed for in terms of control over the full spectrum of US political power, he has found legislative priorities hard to pursue despite these majorities. Admittedly some of these have been massive and controversial (health care reform has been impossible for all Presidents) however they have demonstrated a lack of control, poor media presentation and mishandling which stands in contrast to the assured figure we were presented with, the young dynamic visionary standing opposite the aging statesman John McCain. The end result is that he appears weak and unsuccessful, despite pushing through a stimulus package of unparalleled proportions and delivering, however unconvincingly, on his election promise to pull troops out of Iraq.

At the time of the primaries, campaign and election, it was considered heresy to criticise Obama. I know that I received dismissive comments from many of the self-proclaimed Obamabots springing up on this side of the Atlantic for daring to pose the question that he might not be the best candidate to be the Commander-in-Chief of the world’s sole superpower. Tellingly this reaction, while still present from some of the more loyal supporters, has definitely become muted. Obama’s triumph, which was a massive victory for the Democratic Party and him personally, was rooted in his overwhelming control of the independent vote. This grasp has now been loosened, if not removed altogether. Polling figures for the independent voters have seen them swing against the President, as his own support has plummeted.

The problem is that the strengths of politicians can very quickly become weaknesses when the public starts to turn against or tire of them. Just ask Alex Salmond – in 2007 he was confident, funny and charismatic; now in 2010 he is arrogant, conceited and out of touch. They are actually the exact same qualities – he hasn’t changed, but the public’s view of his personality has. It is similar with Obama – he was the smooth tongued man of the people; now he is clumsy in his speaking and disconnected from the concerns of his electorate.

He is lucky in the sense that the Republicans, whilst rallying in the Gubernatorial, Senate and House races, seem to be trying to destroy their chance of regaining the White House in 2012. The Tea Party movement, with Sarah Palin as its figurehead, is a pain for the Obama Administration; but it is even more of a pain for the Republican Party. It will not capture the independent vote with the extremes of the Tea Party or by appealing to the hard right. It is true that US politics lean to the right, but I believe that there is a fundamental desire for the centre which the Tea Party quite frankly doesn’t get, let alone appeal to. However, if the GOP gets their act together and picks a serious, politically attractive candidate then Obama may struggle to achieve re-election.

First terms can be notoriously difficult for Presidents, but Obama needs to start turning his fortunes round if he is going to gain a second term and, more importantly, make the legislative changes which he wants for the US. Democratic candidates are abandoning the President in droves in term of the Midterms in November – these are almost unfailingly disastrous for the incumbent President, particularly given the Democrat’s control (and rather unsuccessful control at that) of all the levers of power. However, considering how short a time it has been since Obama was the best electoral addition in town (heck, all our politicians on this side of the Pond have been quoting him as well – if I hear the bloody word “Change” from one more politician...) it is a dramatic collapse in his personal prestige.

So do all political careers end in failure? Powell’s full quote pointed out that the failure came “unless they are cut off in midstream at some happy juncture”. I have always been wary of introducing term limits to elected office – it surely forces us to run the risk of losing good politicians when we most need them. However, I think that there is actually a lot to recommend them. I think it is impossible as a decision maker to know when it is time to go – there is always more that can be achieved, always legacies to be rescued or delivered. Term limits create the disappointing reality of lame ducks, but they also ensure that there is a turn over and fluidity to the political system. Unlike just now where we have our politicians in place for decades, and where leaders fight on long beyond when their energy and interest has been sapped, we could potentially see renewed energy, new generations of political figures.

(Damn it, the reality is that I’m wanting to use that thrice-cursed “C” word. But I will not give in, I will not boost its usage any further.)

The truth is that President Obama needs a dose of his own rhetoric if he is going to make it to his term limit. He needs to reconnect and deliver, to find a way to live up to his own image. And for all other politicians, current and future, it is important that lessons are learned from his example. Glory is fleeting in the political world, and eventually the public falls out of love with all politicians – such is the nature of the difficult choices which decision makers have to bear. When you set yourself up as the Agent of Change, you have to accept that you will also be subject to that very same process, and that your moment at the pinnacle of the world may be painfully brief.

Obama is falling, and it is going to take a change of style and direction to arrest that decline.

Anyone for VP Clinton in 2012?

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Being the Change

I go through spells with politics. Sometimes I am fired up with the enthusiasm of believing it to be a worthwhile pursuit, my idealistic, optimistic side pushing me to believe that the impossible can be achieved through common endeavour and humanity’s limitless potential. Other times, I struggle to see the point of the whole process, losing touch with its purpose and instead becoming immersed in my own lack of importance, dissatisfaction with the political world and lack of energy.
I have recently been stuck in the latter cycle. I don’t know why exactly, but my motivation to be involved in politics has been at rock bottom. I haven’t been involved in my local party activity and have allowed the Labour Leadership campaign to pass me by entirely; I haven’t blogged in months; and even my following of political developments has been disjointed and negligible. Effectively I haven’t cared, losing any motivation to be involved under a morass of sapped energy and sheer feduppedness.

Being in Belfast for the last couple of days with my Fellows has changed that. In a very stimulating debate about the impact of cuts on public services, every single point was political, every single solution was political. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, politics is the cause and solution of all life’s problems.

This was rammed home even more powerfully by taking a walk around the section dedicated to the The Troubles in the excellent Ulster Museum. Politics, in all its glory and shame, is documented across the walls of the room in unavoidable form. There is the tragedy of those killed, the bravery of those willing to make decisions unpalatable to the communities they represented, the cowardice of those who refused to listen to those selfsame communities. We take so much for granted about Northern Ireland, allowing the horror of those years to quickly slip unremembered amidst the normality of peace, yet with recent developments we must always remember the sacrifices that were made, and the progress which was secured. We in the Labour Party should be proud of the achievements of Tony Blair and his Government, a pinnacle of triumph in his premiership – yet we should also discard the veil of partisanship and recognise the achievements of John Major, for whom compromise with the IRA in particular was a painful political decision given the loss which his own party had experienced to bombs previously. Yet his decision helped to shape the environment for the Good Friday agreement, allowing for change and progress to occur.

Yet most of all, above the contributions of the British, Irish and American Governments, was the political push made in Northern Ireland itself. The movement by David Trimble and John Hume, crossing the divide to deliver for their people, restores faith in humanity. Despite differences which seem irreconcilable, peace can be delivered, eventually resulting in the surreal and previously unthinkable reality of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness sharing power, happy Chuckle Brothers working together (however limited the real impact of that work).

All of this was politics. All of this reflected political decisions, shaped by community and social pressures but delivered through the democratic process of politics. All of it is a welcome slap to the chops for the disillusioned onlooker like me, wallowing in self-pity about the impact politics can have. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to imply that I can have an impact on the world like the Good Friday agreement. However I can guarantee that I won’t if I spend my whole time moaning and contributing. Politics is the means by which humanity changes, progresses and shapes the world around it. It is the way in which society can change for better and for worse, and it continues inescapably whether I choose to participate or not. It offers us the potential to make the world a better a place, whether that be in the massive ways of Northern Ireland, South Africa or the creation of the Welfare State in post-war Britain; or the more modest (but no less important) ways of changing our local communities, helping our fellow citizens or promoting tolerance, progress and pro social thinking.

So, the moral of my trip is to get my finger out and get involved. If I believe in this process, which I do, then I need to justify this belief, I need to fight for it and deliver it. I am lucky enough to be in a position whereby I actually can participate, through my work and my personal political involvement. There is a major election coming up next year in Scotland, and I want to be a part of that. There is a Coalition Government implementing decisions for this country whilst the Opposition challenges them, and I want to be a part of that. There is a debate taking place about the future of my political party, and I want to be a part of that.

The call to action is that we need to be the change we want to see in society. It’s about time I lived up to that challenge.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

The Next Labour Leader

The Coalition is wobbling after its first high profile resignation and the Tory backbenches are revolting. They are also having a go at PM Cameron. The first stage of brutal cuts are about to swing into action, with the overly gleeful Chancellor of the Exchequer only just at the beginning of his attempt to recast the country in his, I mean his leader’s image.

Needless to say with so much going on, the question I keep getting asked is who the next leader of the Labour Party should be!

I know that this sounds like a drift into partisanship, but it is actually a crucial question. We are not in 1997 again – following Labour’s landslide victory in that election the Tories collapsed, providing no effective opposition to the Government and leaving themselves isolated in the wilderness for 13 years. It is imperative that the Labour Party does not make this mistake – both for the party and for the country as a whole, which needs Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition to be a strong and challenging force in these difficult times.

So who am I supporting for the leadership (a question that I know keeps the respective candidates awake at night, fretting with anxiety about whether they will receive my backing!)? Well, the answer is that I don’t know at this stage in time. There are some very good candidates in the race, but really I am waiting to be excited, to be swept off my feet, to become giddy as a teenager in the first throws of infatuation.

Ok, I am maybe looking for a little bit too much – this is still a political contest after all! However, there is an important logic to my jesting. One of the key reasons why Labour is no longer the party of Government in the UK is because we became tired, worn out and boring. It was the same situation as we encountered in Scotland in 2007 – we were not innovators or visionaries, we were managers, steering the country without trying to take it down new paths.

In 1997 the country bubbled with the possibilities of the brave new world under Tony Blair, the promise of a new progressive realignment of the UK tapping into the desire of the electorate for excitement and for change. After the grey uninspiring latter years of Tory rule, Tony Blair and the New Labour project tore through the British political scene, casting aside the cobwebs of boredom and complacency. We witnessed the enthusiasm of President Obama’s victory in the US, born of centuries of racial prejudice and discrimination, but it is important to remember that the reaction in 1997, although not arising from the same base, was of an unprecedented (and unBritish!) level.

It is also easy to forget, due to the decline of Tony’s popularity and the contentious decisions such as Iraq, that the first term of the Government was one of the most radical in British history, rewriting the fabric of the country. Devolution started the process of giving power to the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which they had long been denied. The minimum wage, tax credits, New Start and other economic policies started to provide the opportunities for all which had not previously existed. Civil partnerships and other social legislation changed how the country viewed its citizens, starting to demonstrate that everyone had a role to play, that everyone was welcomed and celebrated regardless of sexuality, gender, disability or race.

These were exciting and vibrant times when the Labour Party was a campaigning force for change. Of course not everyone agreed with the direction that the Government was taking, but they certainly knew that there was a direction, that the country was changing. This was lost amidst the infighting in the Party, amidst the tiredness of justifying Iraq, amidst the realisation that the oft-stated belief that boom and bust was gone forever, that growth would be never ending, was not possible to guarantee in an interconnected, globalised world.

Now, as we sit in opposition to a coalition Government united in its ideological desire to scale back the role of the state, it is crucial that the next Leader of the Labour Party has ideas, has a passion to change the world that can inspire the membership and indeed the country.

The candidates talk well about their opposition to inequality, their desire for fairness and all the other issues like that – but as someone recently commented to me, who is it that is actually for inequality and unfairness! What is needed is practical, inspiring ways to change the country which enable everyone to be an active citizen.

The party needs to move beyond the stale, pointless New/Old dichotomy, which serves only to put off the electorate who view it as self-indulgent at a time of economic hardship. Whilst I’m sure others would be happy to place me in one of the camps, I personally consider myself to be Labour, part of a broad church of activists united by belief in working together even if how we conceptualise that covers a wonderfully broad spectrum.

In some ways I am glad that I currently don’t have a clear favourite in my head, as it leaves me free to be convinced by the debate and competition itself. Here is a chance for a group of people committed to the future of the party to demonstrate to us, the activists, why they have the ideas that will take us forward. Electoral defeat has been painful and carries the risk of much of our work being undone, but it also offers the opportunity for a fresh start. This is not a call to rush blindly away from our record in Government, falling over each other in a bid to distance ourselves from all that occurred, but it is a chance to take stock and to find the spark, the passion, the reason that we believe we need to be in Government.

Government is hard, it involves making decisions which are unpopular and challenging. But it is also the only way in which we can change the country. No matter how scunnered people feel with politics and democracy, it remains the essential means by which decisions are made, the key means in which society is influenced and changed. Sitting in Opposition is an important role, but it does not bring change. Instead we sit as bystanders, challenging but also watching as a centre-right Government takes the country down a path of their choosing.

Labour needs to reengage – party democracy (which let’s face it has never been all that democratic) must be adapted in the light of a changing level of engagement and membership. Despite the upsurge in new members since the election overall membership of our party has fallen drastically over the years, the number of activists plummeting and leaving campaigns in many areas struggling to function. Members must believe that they are part of something worthwhile – meetings must move beyond mindless bureaucracy becoming vibrant opportunities for discussion and debate. Selection processes must be opened up to encourage greater participation of all elements of society serving as Labour representatives – we have much to be proud of in our record of electing minorities to represent us, however, we can and should always be striving to do more.

The new Leader must demonstrate that they are committed to developing the Labour Party into a modern, democratic body, enthusiastically welcoming everyone into its folds and working as an active force for change in local communities. Across the country people should be aware that the Labour Party works for them, represents them, is owned by them, serving as an irreplaceable element of their communities and country. The Labour Party in Scotland and Wales should be devolved, allowing it to work as a local body responding to the specific challenges and requirements of those contexts. This is not to create a situation of needless conflict with the UK wide Party – we are committed to the integrity of the UK and should be proud of our role as a major representative force in all of its constituent parts (other than the case of Northern Ireland of course, a topic which deserves its own blog). However, we introduced devolution because we recognised the difference in policy context for Scotland and Wales – our internal structure should therefore match that recognition.

My hope for the leadership contest is that it is a vigorous but collegiate affair, which allows the candidates to engage in open debate and discussion. Gordon Brown was hamstrung from the very beginning by his unopposed election, it is vital that the next Leader does not suffer from this fate. The different wings of the party must be allowed to contribute – I personally think it would be a disappointment if either Dianne Abbott or John McDonnell did not make it onto the ballot – as recognition of the fact that we can and should contain a broad range of opinions and approaches. Recent years saw a growth in the belief that debate was bad – we must counter this by demonstrating that we can debate and disagree, yet still work together united by our belief in the shared goals we have.

That is my hope. I have touched less on policy as I don’t think this should be the primary goal of the contest – we are not looking for a President who will decide in advance what we are doing but a Leader who will work with and for the party. We need an inspiring Leader, one who believes in politics as the best way to make the world a different place and who can share this belief with us. We need a Leader who we can follow, who can bring the party back to life and who can become the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.

I am waiting to be swept off my feet. Candidates, the floor is yours – go make me giddy.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The future of the Scottish centre-right

The PM is a Conservative, they head up a majority Government (albeit with junior coalition partners) and they have wrested back control of the country from over a decade of Labour Government.

You would think this is a good time to be a Conservative.

And of course in most of the country, putting aside the bitter sting of failing to secure outright control, you would be right, Conservative activists are revelling in David Cameron’s ascent to power and the chance to bring their own ideological approach to Government, scaling back the power of the state and bringing back the all important right of the ‘countryside’ to hunt foxes.

However, one key part of the Conservative membership remains in the doldrums, the national success tainted by their own failure. This is the activists, supporters and elected representatives of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.

At a time when their party has seen gains across the UK, including the continued resurgence of the party in Wales, the Scottish aspect of the Conservative Party has remained stagnant and, under the electoral system of First Past the Post which the Tories hold so dear, effectively irrelevant in the Scottish Political scene at Westminster.

There are numerous reasons for this situation, with the spectre of Maggie “Milk-snatcher” Thatcher looming over them all, but one of the fallacies which I think is trotted out too often is that Scotland is an unchangeably left-wing country. It is true that centre-left politics have appeared to dominate Scottish national politics in recent years – all but 17 of Scotland 129 MSPs hail from self-defined parties of the centre-left after all. However, this misses out the realities that flow underneath the party definitions and which actually demonstrate that there is a vibrant centre-right tradition in Scotland which lacks the correct political outlet.

The Conservative Party used to be a dominant force in Scottish politics, with the oft quoted statistic that they are the only party to have secured over 50% of the popular vote in Scotland at a national election. Seats in Glasgow used to be safe for the Conservatives – now the city is an electoral wasteland for the party, their candidates often lucky to finish in the top three. Seats such as East Renfrewshire, which should be safe Conservative seats according to demographics, remain firmly in the Labour column, whilst the Conservatives impact in the rural constituencies (other than in the Borders) remains minimal, restrained by the Liberal Democrats and SNP.

The problem for the Conservatives is that their brand of ‘conservativism’, particularly since Thatcher’s individualistic revolution of the 80s, does appeal to the Scottish conservative tradition. Scottish culture actually lends itself well to many small ‘c’ conservative traditions – self-reliance, the value of hard work, loyalty to the church and state, moral conservativism. Yet it is also infused with a strong tradition of community loyalty and moral responsibility to the wider society. This fitted with the historic Conservative Party, but the link has been lost in the self-serving greed of the Conservatives in recent years.

This was summed up perfectly on a BBC Scotland programme screened just after the election entitled “Why didn’t Scots vote Tory”. During the programme, in which Sally Magnusson followed Conservative candidates in the Borders and East Renfrewshire, a female voter in East Renfrewshire was asked whether she would ever vote Tory. She answered negatively, explaining that although a vote for the Conservatives would like benefit her and her family financially, as they were relatively well-off, she believed that she had a moral duty to think of others who were less fortunate when she cast her vote.

This position was mocked by the Conservative candidate who felt she should think only of herself – and in doing so he clearly demonstrated the gulf between his party and the Scottish electorate. If Cameron truly believes in the Big Society concept which he has promoted throughout the campaign (albeit without much in the way of definition) then he needs to harness exactly that sort of socially responsible mindset – yet his party still doesn’t get it, still doesn’t see that they are the ones who need to change in Scotland. It is not just a case of waiting patiently until no one remembers Maggie anymore; it is a direct requirement to adapt to the desires and motivations of the people of Scotland.

The fact is that just now small ‘c’ conservative voters are tending to cast their vote for either the Lib Dems or SNP in Scotland, depending upon their geographic location. The Lib Dems of East Dunbartonshire, for example, would not look out of place in the Conservative Party in the South of England, whilst the SNP in the NE of Scotland bears very little resemblance to their party colleagues in Glasgow. Small ‘c’ conservative voters are there but many of them have abandoned the Conservative Party to cast their vote in other directions.

A common suggestion has been that the Conservative Party in Scotland needs to rebrand, to redesign itself and start afresh. This would have been possible – the Conservative resurgence in Wales has been fuelled by their active participation in devolution, reinvention of a strong and proud Welsh identity, and community led campaigning. The Scottish Conservatives had this opportunity – they opposed devolution and electoral reform but those very measures gave them the chance to rebuild from the nightmare of the 97 wipe out. However, they have failed to do this. They have reached a number which seems to be their maximum and minimum, a stagnation which allows for a pretence of success whilst hiding the fact that they are in many ways achieving the bare minimum. Their leader in Scotland, Annabel Goldie, is a popular character, however this popularity is partly rooted in the knowledge that her influence is kept minimal, unable to directly control the country. The chance of using the Scottish Parliament as the jump start that the party needed has been missed and is probably now gone forever.

The reality is that the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party is not fit for purpose as the vehicle of the centre-right in Scotland. The betrayal of the Thatcher years, the radical departure of the Conservative direction since the 80s, and the effective disdain demonstrated by the party in recent elections towards Scotland have served to sever the connection between the Scottish electorate and the Conservative Party to the point where, although they will continue to attract the support of a certain proportion of the Scottish population, they cannot realistically expect to make any electoral breakthroughs.

Scotland needs a new effective centre-right political movement, unhindered by the toxic legacy of the Conservative Party and freed from the Orange card politics of official Unionist definition. Constitutional politics in Scotland are frequently exaggerated – plenty of people voted for the SNP in 2007 who don’t support independence, and a significant proportion of Labour’s membership and support favour an independent Scotland regardless of the party’s official standing. Therefore regardless of whether the new centre-right party took an official policy of either unionism or nationalism it should avoid defining itself as such – there is little electoral benefit to doing so and, in the context of the centre-right in Scotland, a very strong chance of alienating potential supporters.

A new centre-right party in Scotland could make a valuable contribution to the political scene of the country by questioning the huge size of the public sector and its impact on economic success. It could ironically cut across party lines easier than the current Conservatives can, working with the centrist wings of Labour, the Lib Dems and SNP. If such a party could demonstrate its vibrancy in the slightly sterile environs of Scottish politics, then it could draw in the centre-right support which has drifted from the Tories to the Lib Dems and SNP, potentially finding in that a very effective core vote which could propel it into government at Holyrood.

Currently the other parties refuse to work closely with the Tories at a Scottish level (despite close relationships between all of them at local levels) even when there are natural alliances to be made. A new party could allow partners to avoid this historical baggage, appealing to common sense rather than negative name recognition.

A good example for a new movement would be the Reform Scotland think tank. A centre-right grouping, officially unaligned to any political party, it has quickly propelled itself into the forefront of the Scottish political scene through efficient self-promotion, impressive research publications, and a legitimate expression of the centre-right stream of thought in the Scottish conscious. They have benefited because they are not the Conservative Party and because they are Scottish – this has allowed them to carve a niche for themselves, unchallenged by any rivals.

A centre-right party which derived its motivation from this think tank could be a very vibrant force in Scottish politics, attracting voters unable to bring themselves to vote for the Conservatives and indeed challenging the Conservative Party, which has been shown to offer Scotland very little in recent years.

A new party would need to tie into the stream of Scottish social conscience and responsibility which is a hallmark of our country. In the same way that all US politics tends to be to the right of British politics, a successful Scottish centre-right party would probably be closer to the centre than the UK Conservatives, in some ways more akin to European Christian Democrats. It would certainly believe that there is such a thing as a society – Scotland is underpinned by this very notion – whilst at the same time encouraging and rewarding individual attainment and success.

I believe that such a party could be a success in Scotland. It wouldn’t be overnight – it is remarkably hard for new political movements to make breakthroughs, even in proportional systems – but as it would fill a gap and tie into a strong strand of Scottish culture, both current and historical, it would be of interest and relevance to a potentially large strand of Scottish society. The centre-right is alive and well in Scotland – it is just not voting for the Conservatives.