Monday, July 27, 2015

Forgetting the lessons of History

The rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the "polls" for the leadership of the Labour Party is, well, absurd. He is practically the textbook example of the unreconstructed Marxist hard left. A product of the sixties North London Poly, and a long time columnist for the Morning Star, which for younger readers is a comic inspired by Leninism. For goodness sake, even his parents met as peace campaigners during the romantic Socialist defeat of the Spanish Civil War! Yet the fact is that this totally unreconstructed dinosaur, a stalwart of mistaken and lost causes throughout his entire political career still looks better than the three overachieving Oxbridge high-flyers that he is pitted against.

The Labour Party, despite the Social Democrat interlude of Tony Blair, was founded and in important aspects remains a Socialist Party. The battle over Clause IV- which committed Labour to Communist style state ownership of the means of production- may have been won by Blair and his cohorts, but particularly amongst the Unions, the ultimate goal of state control has never truly been abandoned. The New Labour modernisers, whether "Blairite" or "Brownite" were only ever one stream- albeit the dominant one- in the Labour river. As the surge to Corbyn shows, there remains an Old Labour stream, and one that, in the face of disillusionment with the fruits of New Labour, has acquired a new impetus.

So what? All it surely means is that after flirting with disaster Labour will elect Burnham, but very probably the Tories will clean up again in 2020. Certainly that is the conventional wisdom being peddled across the Op-Ed pages of the UK press.

Except I think that is to miss the point of what actually happened in the 2015- and even the 2010 election. The electorate is more fickle and less ideologically committed that ever. Fewer than ever are voting for the old choice of Left versus Right. Although the Leftist groups rally to the Corbyn banner speak in terms of ideology, in fact it is the brand authenticity of Corbyn that has most appealed- I think temporarily- particularly to those who have no memory of the dismal failure of the Hard Left of the 1980s. For those of New Labour, steeped in the language of advertising, it must be both galling and astonishing that Corbyn has advanced on territory that they might have legitimately claimed as their own. For there is certainly enough truth in the accusation that in focusing simply on selling the message, the heart -for want of a better word- of Labour has been lost. Even if, as we may still expect, Burnham is ultimately elected, the Labour Party has exposed a point of weakness that will be mercilessly exposed by the terrifyingly well funded Conservatives.

Labour can not rebuild on the basis of the old "New Labour". Yet the fundamental truth is that Socialist ideology, as offered by Jeremy Corbyn, is a total failure: you might as well advocate Imperial Preference or go back to the Corn Laws for all the value the stale thinking that Socialist State Control offers us.   

So the surge to Corbyn truly is serious. It implies that the Socialist puritans would prefer to retreat into the failure of the past, rather than actually tackle the serious problems of the future. In the 1980s, the electoral system saved a backward looking Socialist Labour Party from oblivion, but thirty years later, it seems to me that the electorate may now simply choose not to vote Labour at all- and with FPTP, we can not exclude a Scottish style wipe-out across the country. So the rise of the Hard Left may yet do to Labour what it threatened to do in 1983: send them crashing to defeat they can never recover from.

Of course that may prove to be the seed of a massive political come back for the Liberal Democrats, and the abortive political realignment - the breaking of the mold- that was promised, and which seemed to be a possibility if Blair had led a minority government in 1997, may finally take place. One thing is clear: the Constitutional crisis of FPTP, the position of the different nations in the Union, the scandal of the unelected House of Lords- thanks for reminding us John Sewel- and all the rest of it, cannot long be ignored.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Osborne sows the political wind

They sow the wind
    and reap the whirlwind.
The stalk has no head;
    it will produce no flour.
Were it to yield grain,
    foreigners would swallow it up.


Hosea 8-6

The first Conservative budget in 19 years is an act of of political hypocrisy so astonishingly blatant that it is hard to know whether to cringe at the opportunism or applaud the cynicism.

George Osborne has the reputation as a masterful political tactician. Certainly he has been a astute observer of the political weather and occasionally he has been something of a rainmaker himself. His first Conservative budget is certainly far stronger from a political point of view that it is from an economic one. Take the Minimum Wage, which for the purposes of politics he re-branded as the "living wage". He portrayed the large increase as a "pay rise for Britain", yet the quid pro quo has been such a sharp reduction of in-work benefits that even such a "pay increase" will leave the working poor worse off. Now don't get me wrong here: I have been and remain a sharp critic of the tax credit system which is complicated, unfair and incredibly expensive to administer. Osborne has given notice that in time he intends to scrap this subsidy to employers who will not pay fair wages. However this budget makes the system even more unfair, even more complicated and even more expensive. 

You might have thought that it would be impossible for the UK to have a more complicated and expensive tax system- it has the longest tax code in the world: over 16,000 pages long. Osborne has managed to increase the complications of the system, and with it the regulatory burden and the cost of compliance. At a time when the tax code is already an intolerable burden on small businesses, Osborne has made it worse. Neither is this pernicious over regulation confined simply to one area- the welcome reduction of subsidies to the buy-to-let sector is also simply part of an "interim solution", which again makes the tax position even more complicated.  From a political point of view it allows the Tories to keep their options open- to attack the foreigners who "buy to leave" in London, benefiting from the complicity of HM Treasury in the distortion of the UK housing market, or to gain further donations from those who have made the second home market their pension pot. Politically astute it maybe, but from an economic point of view it is horseshit.

This budget is emblematic of the whole of Cameron's Conservative approach- play the political ball rather than establish a connected strategy. This is certainly true of David Cameron's European policy. It seems self evident that the PM does not intend to be the man who takes the UK out of the EU, and thus, within the current European context he will need to accept the limitations set out by the other 27 member states: namely no major treaty changes. This of course is hardly the red meat that the anti-EU rump amongst the Conservatives are looking for. Nevertheless Cameron is nothing if not a lucky politician, and as the Labour party enters a long period of convulsive introspection and as the Liberal Democrats ponder the agony of effort to recover from the 2010 defeat, the PM may yet have sufficient political capital to cut the EU Gordian knot. As the political wind turns against UKIP it looks as though Cameron's political folly of the referendum may yet be a high wire act that he can pull off.

Nevertheless, Osborne can not pull off the Pollyanna optimism of the current incumbent of Number 10- he is more the Mandelson or the Iago of the Conservative party.  This political budget was Osborne's statement of intent: settling scores- including with his chief rival, Boris Johnson- rather than setting out a coherent long term agenda. Thus even as Osborne basks in admiration from his own side at the political slight of hand that has left Labour in chaos, the fact is that he is setting the seeds for his own destruction. When Cameron steps down, presumably after the success of an EU referendum, then Osborne will be facing quite a different political environment. As the clouds gather over Scotland, and the mess of the UK tax code becomes a crisis, I suspect he will look back on July 2015 with a sense of "never glad, confident morning again". 

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Building a Scottish Liberal Consensus

 The 2015 general election has seen a change in direction in the politics of the UK, yet in Scotland the change seems not far short of a revolution. The astonishing advance of the Scottish National Party- taking all but three seats in Scotland, despite failing to gain even a bare majority of the votes cast, still less the total electorate- was certainly one of the most eye-catching aspects of the election result. 

For the more avid nationalists, the general election result is proof that the independence movement has become unstoppable and that Scotland will- despite the hiccough of the 2014 referendum- become independent in pretty short order.

Yet the referendum result is hardly likely to be set aside so easily- not least because the total votes the SNP gained in 2015 is still a lot less even than the number of losing votes for Yes and it is still quite probable that Scotland - faced with a drastic fiscal deficit and dramatically declining North Sea revenue- would reject independence a second time should the referendum be repeated.

Scotland thus faces a deadlock: a Nationalist bloc trying to alienate Scotland from the rest of the UK, yet with increasingly ever less economic basis for a viable independent state. For the current Parliament, the concerns of Scotland seem set to be ignored, and the SNP has little voice and less power to influence the direction of the Conservative government. The SNP will play on a sense of grievance to promote a more alienated and frustrated Scottish electorate, yet in truth their ability to do more than irritate is strongly limited.

What then for the non-nationalist majority of Scottish voters?

For the time being the  Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats find themselves on a surprisingly level playing field: the power of the Labour machine has been comprehensively weakened, while the Conservatives have made progress, especially against the Liberal Democrats in wealthy east cast seats. Yet despite the collapse of the Lib Dems in Edinburgh, in the North east and the Highlands there are still prospects that may allow them to make gains at the next election for the Scottish Parliament. Admittedly such any such recovery would be from the depths of the greatest nadir, but still it may be that the 2016 Scottish election will be a much brighter result than the 2011 one. Meanwhile, the SNP too thinks it can make yet further gains, presumably from Labour. The result next year, therefore, seems set to be rather "unpredictable".

For what it is worth, despite the advance of the SNP at the general election, there is some evidence that SNP support may indeed do no more than hold at the Holyrood election. This opens up some significant questions as to what might be done to advance the cause of Liberalism in Scotland.

The situation for the Scottish Liberal Democrats is rather different than it is for the rest of the party in the UK at large. Firstly, Scotland already functions under a reasonably proportional regime, so the constitutional question that has so damaged the party in the House of Commons does not apply to the Scottish Parliament. As a result, the manifesto for Holyrood will need to be a far broader discussion than the laser-like focus that is now needed on the constitution at the UK level. The question is going to be one of priorities for Scotland: economic, social, and indeed political. 

Alastair Campbell suggested, after the tragic death of Charles Kennedy, that Charles was considering the prospect for a new unified progressive party to contest the elections in Scotland and take the fight to the SNP. Although each of the non Nationalist parties: Conservative, Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats, have ended up in the same place with one MP apiece, the momentum behind each of the parties is not the same. The Conservatives have made some small but solid progress- and as the UKIP bubble deflates, they may recover a good deal further. Meanwhile Labour is facing pressure across the board, and the legacy of decades of Tammany Hall style politics which caused the wipe-out of 2015 may yet find an further echo in 2016. Nevertheless even though the fact of fairer votes in Scotland may well limit the damage in the short term, the direction of travel for Labour in Scotland does not look good. This probably explains why Alastair Campbell, historically the most tribal of Labour loyalists- was kite-flying a "new progressive party" or even a Labour-Lib Dem alliance, which he suggested was on Charles' mind before his death.

What then should the Scottish Liberal Democrats be thinking of, as we consider the options and prospects for the 2016 Holyrood elections?

The question implies setting the goals that the party wants to take forward, and the fact is that the centre of gravity of the Scottish Liberal Democrats is still quite a fair way from that of the Labour Party. The individualist, dissident mind set of Lib Dems does not sit well with the collectivist patronage that has disfigured much of Labour's way of doing business. On the other hand the Conservative Party is now an even more bitter enemy: the utter ruthlessness of the Tory campaign against the Lib Dems has left a legacy of bitterness that will take many years to overcome. Thus, when we consider where we can find more votes, it seems clear that political alliances- formal or informal- are unlikely to work. The question then for the party will be the principles and the positioning.

From the point of view of what is right for Scotland, the left wing consensus between Labour and the SNP has got to be challenged. The statist Labour years have now been made even more damaging by the centralisation and patronage distributed by the SNP: neither is the recipe for the dynamic Scottish economy that we all want to see. The delusional economic policies put forward by the SNP as a platform for independence were deservedly rebuffed by the electorate, and yet the Nats refuse to learn the lesson. Thus the Liberal agenda is both Anti Socialist and Anti Nationalist. The Community aspect of Liberalism- promoting mutual, co-operative and local ownership- is attractive, yet difficult to distill into clear messages. Even still, local control and local ownership are clearly a necessary antidote to the centralisation of the other parties.

In the end it will be the attitude of the party that will determine whether we make progress in May. I believe that, despite the hammer blows that the party has taken in the past few years, culminating in the catastrophe of May 2015, there is every prospect that the Scottish Liberal Democrats can move forward. What the party must consider is whether we should step out and attempt a political re-alignment and, whether or not we do that, what the priorities must be for us going forward.