Saturday, 16 May 2015

After the election: aligning myself with the Axis of Reasonableness

So, it's all done and dusted. Across the UK, the Tories have been returned for another five years, though not with sufficient a majority to make it easy for them. The SNP (Scottish Nationalist Party) has swept the board in Scotland. A quick reminder of the figures (bear with me, I'm not going to make a song and a dance about them!).
  • A third of the electorate did not vote. Rather more did in Scotland than elsewhere, but not at the level of the referendum vote in September September.
  • In Scotland, SNP got 50% of the vote and 95% of the seats - 56 seats in all. 
  • The remaining 50% of the votes resulted in 3 seats. 
  • Labour received 25% of the votes and 1 seat.
  • Tories received 15% of the votes and 1 seat.
  • The Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems) received 7.5% of the vote and 1 seat.
  • I don't know how many voted for the Greens and the other parties, but they did not receive enough votes to get any seats in Scotland.
First-past-the-post is not a particularly fair system, as you can see, but one which is unlikely to change, as those in power benefit from it. A referendum on proportional representation in 2011 was unsuccessful, probably because only one limited option was proposed. That's it, then. No point in getting hot under the collar about it. We are where we are.

One good thing about the aftermath of the election is that we haven't had any outbursts of vitriolic abuse of the victors by those who lost, unlike after the Referendum. Nor have we had too much in the way of conspiracy theories, apart from the usual attacks on the BBC. When will people realise that within limited time schedules broadcasters have to reflect stories from across Scotland, the UK, Europe and the world, not just those from central Glasgow? If I had a penny for every international story that the BBC has missed, I would be a millionaire. If you want challenging broadcasting, go to Channel 4!

Labour and Lib Dems have accepted the results. They are currently licking their wounds, discussing what went wrong and considering the leadership of their parties, as you would expect. 

So what do I make of it all?

Firstly Labour, the party for which, after some thought, I voted.

Some of the more interesting features of this election include the fact that:
  • in Scotland, ex-Labour voters turned to the SNP, while
  • in England, they turned to UKIP, particularly in the north of England, though not in sufficient numbers to gain MPs under first-past-the-post.
I wonder how much real difference there is at that level between the appeal of SNP and that of UKIP to particular social groupings? On the whole, Labour retained its middle class vote. It was the working classes which seem to have shifted allegiance. On the surface, this may look positive for the SNP, but remember those bullies who shouted after non-SNP voters in the street, continue to vomit their bile through the internet and accosted Jim Murphy and others during the campaign? They are largely ex-Labour supporters whose name-calling and physical threats have probably been features of campaigning in the west of Scotland over many years; people like me just haven't known about them. Now such activities are directed at their old comrades and have become the SNP's problem. One of Nicola Sturgeon's rare mistakes was to disown these people and claim that they were not members of the SNP. In fact it turned out that they were, though no longer.

There have been calls for Labour in Scotland to move to the left, appeal more to the working classes and separate completely from the party in England and Wales. I'm not sure where that leaves people like me. The idea of wedges being driven not only between the constituent people of the British Isles but also between people of different social classes is depressing. Jim Murphy, who did a remarkable job over the last few months given the constant sniping and barracking, much of it from his own people as well as the SNP, continues to be castigated. Whether or not you care for his style, he is head and shoulders above the unprepossessing Labour MSPs in the Scottish Parliament, like most of the Scottish Labour MPs in Westminster before the election.

I have never cared much for the idea that the label 'working class' is a badge to be borne with pride while being 'middle class' is something to be ashamed of. Since when did any of us ever manage to influence where we were born, the family we were born into or the education we received? These are all parental decisions or chance events. Blaming David Cameron for going to Eton is pointless. It is what he has done as an adult which is important. I get the distinct sense that people like me, who would find a place within the centre ground of the Labour party of England and Wales, are simply not wanted in the current Scottish Labour Party and will be even less so if it moves dramatically further left.

Behind these moves to 'remake' Scottish Labour, is a romantic nostalgia for the Labour Party of the past, for the Labour of Keir Hardie, for instance. Scotland today is a completely different country from the Scotland of fifty, let alone 100 years ago. The pattern of employment is different. The relative importance of individual industries has changed dramatically. Some industries have almost completely disappeared, taking their union members with them. The effect on Scottish people of Labour achievements such as working time directives, laws to combat child labour and overall improvements in education and health has been transforming, despite the continued existence of serious gaps in welfare. However, despite their similarly destructive effect on families, the nature of these welfare challenges is very different from those in the thirties. Turning the clock back to a Golden Age of past union and political struggles is not going to solve any of the problems of modern-day Scotland.

Labour in the west of Scotland and other industrial or post-industrial areas certainly seems to have become too tribal, taking for granted that constituents would automatically carry on voting for the same candidates year after year, regardless of their effectiveness. Continuing sectarianism is a blot on the party. I sympathise with one of my friends who ended up in a constituency with a Labour candidate who was a member of the Orange Order! I wouldn't have voted for him either.

Over here in the east, apparently committed longstanding Labour supporters, including friends of mine who voted No in the Referendum and said they would do so again, told me that they voted SNP in this election because the SNP promised to 'lock the Tories out of Downing Street'. Well, that certainly didn't happen.

Well, what about the SNP then?

Up here, the change in political allegiances had little to do with the parties' views on the economy, unlike down south. The SNP were vague in the extreme about their plans to deal with the deficit, claiming simply that they would do away with 'austerity' and 'grow the economy', with no practical detail as to how they would do this. As they knew that they would not be in charge of the Treasury they clearly did not feel the need to expand on their assertions and few people pressed them to do so. They have been similarly vague about how they would fill the gap caused by the withdrawal of the Barnett Formula if they achieved Full Fiscal Autonomy (FFA).

SNP candidates were a mixed bunch, so it was not 'quality' of candidate which voters responded to. Voters were swept along by an emotional rather than rational tide, and those they voted in included people who have little idea about life beyond their own small patch. Some of them were not even members of the SNP at the time of their election. Foreign policy, anyone? Not if all you know of life beyond your home is the bus ride to Glasgow. I don't think we'll be asking many of the new SNP group about their views on Syria, though one of them might have done a coursework essay on the topic.

Yet, the UK Parliament is about a great deal more than 'what's best for Scotland'. To be fair, Nicola Sturgeon did start talking about 'Scotland and the rest of the UK' in the final week of campaigning, at least acknowledging that the other ten elevenths of the population matter. We are now beginning to hear recognition by Scots that there IS deprivation elsewhere (including in Cornwall which has the lowest wages in the UK and in Nottingham, the UK's poorest city).  This broadening of the SNP's usually parochial vision to the world beyond Berwick has not so far extended to all the new flock of MPs. This is despite the fact that the most serious political and social issues at the moment are European and international in scope and impact.

To be fair, some of the new tranche of SNP MPs are able articulate people, who have done a range of demanding jobs, lived in various parts of Europe and come across well on the media. You listen to them and say to yourself, 'Yes, I could vote for you.' Other new SNP MPs, however, are semi-articulate embarrassments and risk bringing their party - and their country - into disrepute.

Who was it who thought that being photographed in front of a plate of chips on their first day in Parliament was a good idea? Every Englishman's stereotype of the Scots was confirmed in one cheap shot. Where were the SNP's PR people and why were they not doing their job?

And why were the new MPs behaving like a bunch of silly school children when being taken round the Chamber?

Poor Angus Robertson will have his work cut out keeping this lot in order, educating them and smoothing off their rough edges. The problem is that many of them did not expect to win so they probably haven't been through the kind of training which all political parties provide their aspiring candidates. They are a far cry from the educated and cultivated creative minds who founded the SNP so many years ago.

So why did the SNP win then? Mostly because they did not bother arguing over the usual 'boring' list of 'issues'. Instead, they captured people's imaginations with a 'dream', a dream of a country without 'austerity'. As Arthur O'Shaughnessy's poem goes:

One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song's measure
Can trample an empire down. 

That 'dream' can easily morph into a dream of independence, when the time comes.

The SNP were also led by a fresh new leader, Nicola Sturgeon, who has - justifiably - captured the public's affections, sometimes mawkishly so (though not through any fault of hers). Nevertheless, she has not had to answer for any of the Holyrood government's failings. During the election she spoke passionately about the need to stop privatisation of public services, despite privatisation of NHS services in Scotland increasing by 60% during her oversight.

More positively, Sturgeon is also that rarity in politics: she is genuine. What you see is what you get, though that does not mean that she is naive. Far from it. She has ensured that the new MPs have been 'on message', as she should. On being interviewed, they have all trotted out the same views, using the same language and turns of phrase. Very sensible - and I am not being ironic. They said all the 'right' things such as the UK election being about 'austerity' and not Scottish independence.

John Swinney (MSP, not MP) was very good on the first Question Time panel after the election: sensible, measured and respectful of others. Sturgeon herself immediately after the election stated that she knew that the SNP majority had been won partly with Labour votes, that these voters had voted 'No' in November and that she was NOT planning a second referendum. (It works the other way round as well: fewer people voted SNP than voted 'Yes'.)

So much so reassuring. Pity her words were immediately undermined by Alex Salmond who announced that 'the Scottish lion has roared' and that the result was a 'staging post' to independence. He really does know how to wind up the English electorate! Sturgeon made sure that Alex Salmond was kept well away from the public eye and ear in Scotland during campaigning.

This meddling by Salmond was the first of a continuing series of off-the-record media briefings by SNP staff and politicians which appear to undermine Nicola Sturgeon's publicly stated position. The usual term given to them by the media is 'a senior SNP source'. Either Sturgeon is so devious that she is saying one thing in public and then instructing other party members to express her real views for her, or - as I believe - some highly ambitious (and possibly jealous) rivals are already jostling to upstage her, knowing that she will not often be in Westminster given her Scottish responsibilities. I wonder who they could be? I wonder who would give anything to be the first Prime Minister of an independent Scotland?

Sturgeon has already made a couple of astute decisions. One is to keep Angus Robertson as leader of the SNP group in Westminster. He comes across well to the wider UK audience as well as the party faithful. Another is NOT to make Alex Salmond leader of the Westminster group but to give him the shadow Foreign Policy portfolio. This is clearly intended to stop him interfering in domestic issues (some hope!) but will also provide him with some meaty challenges which require an experienced and able politician. Nobody denies that he is that.

The SNP have also been fortunate in that the first issue on which they confronted the Tory government turned out to be one over which all British non-Tory voters could agree: opposing the removal of the Human Rights Act from the statue book. Trouble is brewing, however, over the Smith Commission proposals, the Devolution Committee already demanding that they should go further than what was originally agreed by all parties.

What do I think? Implement the Smith Commission and only then consider devolution of further powers.  I have always believed that some form of federalism, Home Rule or FFA would be the best way to go, despite the potential difficulties caused by huge differences in the sizes of the constituent countries, questions as to whether Wales could support itself financially and the position of Northern Ireland which 'really' belongs with the South. At least it would stop the continual blaming, moaning and whining from north of the Border!

Well, I've spent almost all this post on the 'big' parties in Scotland which is unfortunate, for the others like the Greens and the Lib Dems are among the most reasonable and outward looking. The Greens are part of an international movement for social justice, sustainability and change. Until the electoral system is changed, however, they have little chance of making an impact. The Lib Dems have been scarred by their decision to work with the Tories - not an issue which ever bothered Alex Salmond! As the party of equality and justice, the Lib Dems' principles immediately strike a chord with a middle-of-the-road voter like me. Such principles needed to be tested by practical application. Damaged by the experience of Coalition as the Lib Dems currently are, I have little doubt that over time they will once again build themselves up into an influential political force.

My elder son recently characterised my political position as what he calls 'militant moderacy', or, as he put it, belonging to the Axis of Reasonableness. In his words, the chant would go:

What do we want? A reasoned, polite and grammatically correct discourse leading to evidence-based, consensual and sustainable policy making.

When do we want it? As soon as is reasonably practicable.

Right, that's me. I'm signing off!

You may also be interested in the following posts.

Finding the best fit: thoughts about the run up to the election

Making Scotland an inclusive nation: the aftermath of the referendum

The Scottish Referendum: how I am voting and why

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