Friday, May 14, 2010

Memo to Tom Harris : I'm afraid Scotland DID notice

Labour ex-minister Tom Harris is a deeply worried man. How else can we explain that he felt the need to concoct a 1000-word 'horror epic' alternative history of what might - but, let's face it, almost certainly wouldn't - have happened if the Labour-Lib Dem coalition he worked so hard to wreck had taken office?

Poor Tom. He really thought he could spend the first few days after the election actively campaigning for a Tory government to take office (because the thought of actually working with other parties was simply too ghastly for him), and honestly imagined nobody in Scotland would notice what his game was. I'm afraid people did notice, Tom, and it's far, far too late to talk yourself out of it now.

If I ever wondered what ambivalence feels like...

These have been a confusing few days. First you had the nauseating spectacle of David Cameron and George Osborne - memorably described by Paxman as two highly privileged young men with a glint in their eye - taking up residence in Nos. 10 and 11. If I thought nothing could top that, hot on its heels came the despair-inducing news that Iain Duncan Smith of all people was to be the new overlord of the welfare state. Never could I have imagined that Yvette Cooper's reign would come to seem so thoroughly enlightened within a few short hours of its end.

But then came the publication of the coalition agreement, which if we can take it literally (big if), seems to set the stage for reasonably substantial progress on both constitutional matters and civil liberties, the like of which has been desperately needed for years, but which the self-styled 'progressives' in New Labour have signally failed to deliver on in all their long years in office. So on the pivotal question of the moment, ie. will the blue/yellow pact last the intended five years or fall apart in acrimony, what is someone with my views actually supposed to wish for?

I don't think there's really an answer to that. It's a timely reminder that, while being on the left-of-centre and being a libertarian/reformer sit very easily with each other, they're not necessarily one and the same thing. So, from the point of view of wanting Britain to finally become something resembling a fully-fledged democracy, I can perhaps see some plus points to this most peculiar of governments seeing out its full five years. But then when I consider the lives that are potentially about to be wrecked by IDS at the Department of Work and Pensions, I'd heartily want it to collapse before this year is out. So I'm internally conflicted, although I strongly suspect that the latter urge will gradually gain primacy in my mind. But naturally the simplest way to resolve this conflict is independence - then we can have a reforming government that protects and expands civil liberties, without having to cruelly sacrifice social justice along the way.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

David Came, Ron (more's the pity)

International lawyer and Liberal Democrat supporter Philippe Sands spoke for millions last night when he said it had been a "gut-wrenching moment" to watch David Cameron on the steps of 10 Downing Street due to his own party's blessing. For myself, although of course there was the fascination of being able to witness a transfer of power at Westminster for only the second time, I just had an overwhelming sense of a country moving backwards. In a way it's reminiscent of George W Bush coming to power at the worst possible moment - a slightly unfair observation, perhaps, as no-one would doubt Cameron's intellect and articulateness, but all the same he does boast a bona fide neocon in his cabinet.


Ironically, one of the 'political reform' concessions wrought from the Conservatives by their new coalition partners is one that - in a way - makes Britain a less democratic country than it was before. Fixed-term parliaments are an excellent idea in principle, but five years? Given that five years is currently the absolute maximum and that many parliaments finish earlier than that, this plan simply means that the public will be consulted on who should rule them even less frequently than they are at present. How is that progress? It should have been four years at most, although Australia gets along quite happily with three - and I sometimes think the Chartists had it right all along. Annual general elections to keep them on their toes.


I may be proved wrong, but Danny Alexander seems a poor choice for Secretary of State for Scotland. Things have come to a pretty pass when the only way the Tories can find a Scottish spokesman that people will listen to is by appointing a Liberal Democrat! Alexander actually comes across as quite a hesitant communicator, and the public have every right to be somewhat baffled that Clegg has put him up for the role, in place of Alistair Carmichael who performed so well in two out of the three TV debates. It's hard to escape the conclusion Clegg is appointing people based on obsequious loyalty to him personally rather than on merit.


When I pondered the effect on Holyrood voting patterns of a Con/Lib Dem deal, I completely overlooked the impact it might have on what happens after the 2011 election, ie. on potential coalition negotiations. My guess is that the Lib Dems will argue that a Westminster deal makes no difference at devolved level and that it's still business as usual - but things might look very different on the other side of the net. If Labour now plan to (risibly) paint themselves as the 'only remaining progressive party', it's difficult to see how they would credibly square that with a new coalition with the Lib Dems at Holyrood. It's far too early to say, but I just wonder if the Scottish electorate might next year be presented with a de facto straight choice between two potential minority governments - SNP or Labour.


A couple of posters on the previous thread suggested that the SNP had made a tactical error by not focusing on independence during the campaign. It's a point that can be argued either way - perhaps the Scottish public weren't quite ready to listen to those arguments. But with the Tories back in power, people will certainly be open to listening now, which should at least settle question marks over strategy. To (slightly) misquote Winnie Ewing - "we're all fundamentalists now".

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The feeble 41?

Before the election, the SNP pointed out the fatal hole in Labour's argument that the only way to prevent a Tory government was to vote Labour - namely that if the Conservatives won a majority across the UK as a whole, the Labour majority in Scotland would indirectly legitimise Tory rule here by virtue of its commitment to the constitutional status quo. But little could anyone have realised that hosts of Labour figures, both north and south of the border, would be queueing up to legitimise Tory rule in circumstances where there was actually no parliamentary majority. John Reid and Tom Harris in particular seem hellbent on co-ordinating a bizarre Labour effort to smooth the way for the Tories to take office, by undermining (it seems successfully) the coalition negotiations at every turn. Even more extraordinarily, they are openly admitting that a key reason for doing so is their distaste for ceding even the most minor influence to nationalist parties in Wales and Scotland.

On Newsnight Scotland last night, Ken MacDonald raised the spectre of a 'feeble 41' Scottish Labour MPs who failed to prevent Tory rule in Scotland in a rather more direct way than the 'feeble 50' failed to do in 1987, and suggested that the SNP might benefit electorally from such a scenario. Of course, it's not quite so clear-cut as that, as many Labour MPs up to and including the Prime Minister seem to have entered into coalition discussions in good faith. But it remains the case that the SNP have been moving heaven and earth to assist a progressive Labour-led coalition to take office, while the likes of John Reid and Tom Harris have been eagerly acting as Dave's little helpers, on the pathetic grounds of a grudge against nationalist parties, and an unwillingness to budge an inch on reforming our antiquated voting system. If the worst happens and a Tory-led government takes office in the next few hours or days, I think we can safely say the ghost of 1979 has been well and truly laid to rest - the people of Scotland will know who the guilty men are.

Tom Bradby is the one playing with fire

I can't have been the only person who felt their jaw drop to the floor last night as they watched Tom Bradby's contributions to ITV's news programmes. For days now he's been not-very-subtly trying to propagate a narrative that equates the idea of completely deprioritising electoral reform in coalition negotiations with 'responsibility' and 'putting the national interest first at a time of economic crisis'. There was apparently no trace of irresponsibility as far as Bradby was concerned in the Tories setting a whole host of preconditions for the negotiations on key topics - Europe, immigration, and Trident, just for starters. However, Bradby's narrative might just about have been defensible if all he'd been trying to do was explain for his viewers the Lib Dems' own thinking as they moved - seemingly - ever closer to a deal with the Tories that didn't involve PR. After his performance last night, however, I think we can safely conclude that wasn't what it was about. According to a frothing Bradby, the Lib Dems in merely considering an alternative coalition, are guilty of -

* "Playing with fire."

* Bringing about the "grubbiest day in politics" he can ever remember.

* Starting a "Dutch auction".

* Doing something "incomprehensible".

* Acting irresponsibly at a time of national crisis.

* Pursuing an alliance that "doesn't add up".

* Making a lot of people "pretty angry tonight". (Do any of those people live outside the Tory shires, Tom?)

* Breaching a clear promise not to make PR a precondition.

The latter point is particularly nonsensical. If PR really had now been made a precondition, given that the Conservatives have already definitively rejected it (their 'final offer' was a referendum on non-proportional AV), why are the Lib Dems still talking to them? In any case, Bradby really ought to consult a dictionary as to the meaning of the word 'precondition' - it's something that's not even up for negotiation. The only party that has gone down that path is the Conservative party, with its aforementioned 'untouchable' policy areas, which apparently its prospective coalition partners won't even be entitled to a say on.

Honest to goodness - Bradby is an affable enough guy, but after last night's blatant attempt to shape rather than report events, how on earth can he claim any credibility as the impartial political editor of a major terrestrial broadcaster?


In a post the other night I pondered the potential ramifications for the SNP if a Lib Dem-Con deal went through. One piece of good news arising from Gordon Brown's resignation announcement is that, regardless of which coalition deal (if any) is settled, the UK Labour party will almost certainly not be led by a Scot by the time of next year's Holyrood elections. The only plausible Scottish candidate, Alistair Darling, quickly ruled himself out of contention. So that's one inbuilt advantage Labour won't be enjoying a year from now.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A little 'relevant' lesson in basic arithmetic for the Labour party

I couldn't help but raise a smile to see that even Peter Hoskin of the Spectator thought that Labour were not merely foolish in rubbishing Alex Salmond's offer of a progressive alliance to freeze out the Tories, but were also appallingly bad-mannered.

As Columbo might say - I'm a little confused here, Labour. Based on public statements from your party, two things are apparently true - a) it is still, in principle, perfectly possible to form a Labour-led coalition, and b) the SNP are utterly irrelevant to that process. Well, if we assume a long-term deal with the DUP is highly unlikely, that means the only progressive coalition available is as follows -

Labour 258
+ Liberal Democrat 57
+ SDLP 3
+ Green 1
+ Alliance 1
+ Independent (Sylvia Hermon) 1

That comes to a grand total of 321 seats. The combined opposition to that coalition government would have a total of 323 seats - and that's excluding the five abstentionist Sinn Féin MPs, plus the still-to-be-elected member for Thirsk and Malton, who is highly likely to be a Tory. But, on the other hand, if you move the nine Scottish and Welsh nationalists from the opposition column to the coalition column, you have a government total of 330 seats, and a combined opposition total of just 314.

So, just remind me again, Labour, how exactly do you work out that the SNP are 'irrelevant' to this process?

Tom Harris prefers a Tory government to a democratic vote on the electoral system

There have been many fascinating and startling moments over the last forty-eight hours, and none more so than the insight we've had into the mindset of that well-known electoral system dogmatist, Tom Harris. Essentially he's been in complete denial of reality, telling anyone who will listen that Gordon Brown's offer to the Liberal Democrats of a referendum on electoral reform is merely a restatement of the manifesto commitment - ie. the referendum would be on AV, rather than a proportional system. If the Liberal Democrats are prepared to settle for that, Harris goes on, then fair enough, a coalition can go ahead - but he doesn't think it's likely they will. Now, even the dogs on the street know that Brown is fully prepared to put PR on the ballot paper if it will entice the Liberal Democrats into a coalition, but in Harris' mind this apparently can't possibly be the case because it is somehow 'against the rules' for the PM to 'go beyond the manifesto'. Oh-kaaay. These will be the rules that prevented Labour's manifesto being breached by the introduction of top-up fees, and by the raising of the top rate of income tax to 50p, will it? More to the point, what about Scottish Labour conceding PR for local government as the price for a coalition deal with the Lib Dems in 2003?

What's extraordinary about this is that it leaves little room for doubt that this Labour MP is positively willing the Conservative party to assume office, if that's what it takes to avoid a referendum on PR. The prospect of the demise of his beloved system under which the two largest parties tacitly conspire to take turns at elective dictatorship is clearly far more of a cause for panic than the very imminent prospect of a Tory government. I've observed before that Harris is ideologically a Tory in many ways, but I didn't realise that he would literally prefer a Tory government to a Labour-led government implementing a progressive programme.

Sadly, it's unlikely to get this far, but it's fascinating to consider what on earth Harris would do if a Lib/Lab coalition was formed, and a parliamentary vote on a PR referendum came up that was essentially a vote of confidence in the government. Would he really walk through the lobbies with the Tories to enable them to take office? I'm beginning to think he just might. And remember - the focus for his boneheaded intransigence is not PR itself, but merely a referendum on PR, which would afford him every opportunity to argue for the preservation of his favoured system, if he really thinks the case is so strong. And, not only that, it's a referendum that would actually be conducted under first-past-the-post!