Talking ‘Bout A Revolution

With Britain’s general election taking place on Thursday, the heat and noise of campaigning is now crowding out most other news stories in the media. (Which is probably just as well, as the so-called ‘news’ story of the royal birth has consequently got little more than the prominence it deserves!) But at this stage in the election, all the speeches, accusations and adverts become less important. I believe that voters aren’t listening. How could they? The sound of our politicians arguing would deafen the most earnest listener.

In the hours before polling day, the true fight moves from the national stage to the grassroots. Save for a final rallying cry or a major gaffe, the party leaders have diminishing influence on the success of their campaign. That’s my theory.

It will not surprise you to read that I am endorsing the Labour Party.

The past five years have been wearying. Injustice deeply offends me, and the Coalition Government has ensured it is in plentiful supply. Reading a newspaper has on occasion felt about as fun as a tooth extraction, as I have watched the welfare state undermined by cuts, workfare and privatisation. We’ve seen local government devastated, public assets sold off, workers’ rights threatened, legal aid slashed and our country isolated in the European Union.

Which is not to say the Coalition has not done some good for the country. Particularly in its early years, it introduced some praiseworthy measures like the electoral reform referendum and an (admittedly half-hearted) attempt to restore our eroded civil liberties. Today, nobody would argue with the ‘pupil premium’ that has shielded poorer students from the freeze on the schools budget, and universal free school meals for 4-7 year-olds.

I even have some warm words for the Prime Minister. Although I do not agree with his values, and think he is something of a bully, he is also prepared do do what he thinks is right even when it damages him to do so. For example, he made constitutional history by consulting Parliament before intervening in the Syria conflict. True, he didn’t know Ed Miliband would withdraw his support and defeat the Government, but I respect Cameron for taking the risk giving the people’s representatives a say.

Nevertheless, some constitutional tweaking here and a little education funding there is of little comfort to the thousands of homeless, the million people dependent on foodbanks and the excluded poor that shame the Coalition.

But in the age of multiparty politics, the Opposition has to work to earn its support: it can’t wait for a tide of anger with the government of the day to carry it to power. And yes, I think Labour deserves support.

Labour’s offer contains many attractive and some unappealing elements. They cannot protect the country from further austerity measures, although their failure to challenge the Conservatives’ story on the economy early enough has left Miliband unable to be upfront about his plans. His perfectly sensible plan to eliminate the structural budget deficit whilst allowing room for £30 billion annual borrowing for investment is the most prudent of those put forward. It also allows for spending cuts to be limited to £6 billion this year and just £1 billion next year, provided Labour’s plans for tax rises of the same size are implemented. Compare this with the Conservatives’ £50-70 billion worth of cuts and we see this is the difference between cutting with a butter knife and an axe.

And the difference is greater than just the scale of cuts: what happens after them is just as important. If it is a Conservative government that balances the books, do you think they are going to priorities tax cuts or regenerating collapsing public services? Austerity is not going to magically end the moment the deficit is cleared: we need a government that will choose not to make it permanent. Look at the US if you want to see what happens when a society doesn’t invest in services.

The case for Labour rests on so much more than limiting spending cuts. It’s also about values. Labour has talked a lot about the importance on being ‘on your side’ and addressing the sense that politicians don’t work for ordinary people. It could well be an empty slogan, but I think it is something deeper that Miliband has identified. New Labour, in its eagerness to look competent and please the Establishment, did nothing to stop vested interests exploiting the people of Britain. It wouldn’t have been difficult to keep house prices under control, to provide a little economic security to workers or break up the oligopolies that rip off consumers in energy, transport, banking, and so many other industries. But the Conservatives didn’t care and Labour chose not to help. I think Miliband is determined that it should never let the country down like that again.

For all the talk about Ed Miliband being weak and incompetent, he would make a better Prime Minister than any of the party leaders. Yes, he’s a nerd, but does it hurt to have an intellectual running the country? Does it hurt to have a leader with integrity and passion, like him? As we’ve seen, he is exceptionally strong when the occasion demands. Incidentally, his critics need to decide if he is the ruthless schemer who stabbed his brother in the back (because David Miliband clearly had a God-given right to the leadership) or the bumbling fool who shouldn’t be left in charge of a lemonade stall.

But why should a socialist like me vote Labour and not for left-wing challenger with a more exciting manifesto? The wasted vote argument is important but well-worn, and doesn’t apply to Scotland where there is talk of the Scottish Nationalists ‘massacring’ Labour; parts of Wales where the Welsh nationalists have a fighting chance  and Brighton Pavilion where the Greens defending their single seat.

As far as the Greens are concerned, I am worried that their leadership seems more concerned with attacking Labour for not being ‘pure’ enough than defeating the Conservatives. I found the above clip from the BBC opposition leaders’ debate most telling, with the Green leader bellowing at Ed Miliband whilst he was attempting to expose UKIP’s desire to break up the NHS. My experience of my local Green Party is not positive either; their candidate’s opportunism and hypocrisy would make the Lib Dems blush!

It is easy for smaller parties like the Greens to be critical of the main opposition. When they have never been in power, it is fine to dodge the realities and hard truths that constrain major parties. That is not to say that the establish parties do not need challenging: the Greens have a vital role to play in demonstrating that public anger with the old politics is not exclusively of the toxic UKIP variety.

The SNP is not quite as radical is it likes to make out, as its cosy relationship with Rupert Murdoch demonstrates. However SNP gains at the expense of the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives enhance the prospect of a left-wing government. Also, while I am more confident as to the red-blooded socialism of Plaid Cymru than the SNP, it doesn’t make sense to vote against the hardworking and decent Labour MPs that represent many Welsh and Scottish constituencies.

Nobody will win this election. There is no prospect of the Tories improving on their 2010 seat total, and they are certain to lose seats to some extent. Labour will make respectable gains in England, but their net gains will be limited by the probable SNP landslide in Scotland. I believe the result will be close to this forecast produced by associates of Nate Silver.

If the prediction is correct, the Tories will fall about 45 seats short of the 323 needed to form a government. Labour will be about 10 seats behind the Tories. The SNP will multiply from 7 to 50 MPs, while the Lib Dems slump from 57 to around 25. The forecast is consistent with reports from campaigners that neither the Greens or UKIP will translate their increased support into more than one seat each.

If the Tories managed to unite all their potential supporters behind them, that is to say they could secure backing from the Lib Dems, UKIP and the right-wing Northern Ireland Unionists behind them, they would still have just around 315 MPs. A Tory government is highly unlikely unless they win no fewer than 290 seats on Thursday- just 13 losses. I wouldn’t bet on that.

It is clear Labour’s preference is for a coalition with the Liberal Democrats- it has ruled out so much as an informal deal with the SNP. Yet if, as looks likely, Labour falls short of 290 seats, only co-operation with the SNP provides a majority. At 275 seats or fewer, Labour would have to call on the SNP and other parties.

Miliband has said he would rather remain in Opposition than co-operate with the SNP. Yet if there is an anti-Conservative majority in the House of Commons, he won’t actually have a choice. Well, technically he could form a Grand Coalition with the Conservatives, but it’s more likely that UKIP will win the election!

I reckon the next election could arrive a lot sooner than 2020.

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Why ‘No Thanks’ Is Getting No Joy

The debate in the political commentariat about the weekend’s YouGov poll of Scottish voters, which found a slender majority in favour of independence for the first time, has largely missed the point. It doesn’t actually matter if the ‘Yes’ campaign’s two point lead is within the margin of error. What matters is that the referendum campaign has become so close that margins of error are even relevant.

How has the ‘Better Together’ (latterly ‘No Thanks’) campaign managed to squander a 20 point-plus lead in a matter of weeks, and allowed Scottish independence to become a serious prospect.

Regular readers will know that I am firmly neutral on the referendum: I would not mind Scotland concluding that its distinctive culture and politics demand full nationhood. Whilst I acknowledge concerns that, as Scotland provides a large number of Labour MPs and just 1 Tory MP, independence would make it harder to elect progressive governments in the residual UK (rUK) dominated by a Tory-leaning England, I think rUK politics would quickly re-align. Also, as a democrat, I find the lack of a solution to the West Lothian question difficult to stomach. This is a problem that would only get worse with the guaranteed further devolution that will occur even in a ‘No’ vote. It cannot be right that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elect devolved legislatures with extensive powers, particularly over public spending in their own nations, and elect MPs who influence those decisions in England too, despite it lacking its own assembly. That unaccountability has allowed Scottish MPs to swing the votes which have inflicted tuition fees on English students. Thus independence would mitigate that anomaly, albeit in a rather drastic way.

Incidentally, I’m puzzled that the three main Westminster parties have all sung so heavily behind the ‘No’ campaign with any discussion or debate. I want to know why Labour activists like me are being pestered, using official party machinery, to donate time, money and energy to persuade Scots to vote ‘No’, when we have not been consulted on whether that should be Labour’s position. I don’t think the unionists running our parties have really thought through the case for independence and ‘staying together’.

My theory is evident when you look at the ‘No Thanks’ campaign. It’s headed by Alastair Darling. His role in saving the global financial system from collapse in 2008 is under-rated, and he strikes me as a decent and reasonable man. However, he is a technocrat, not a dreamer. In common with many former teenaged communists, he has grown into a middle-aged man with a very bland view of the world and the possibilities it offers. Is it any wonder that Darling’s constant prophesies that if Scotland votes Yes, the sky will fall in, the banks will fold and the good people of Scotland will be forced to return to the land… etc, have turned off potential supporters?

Then look at who is supporting ‘No Thanks’. Big business, particularly Big Oil. David Cameron. Tony Abbott. UKIP. If such a formidable coalition of the ‘forces of darkness’ has a common position, the natural instinct is to oppose it.

And my goodness, does the ‘No Thanks’ campaign know how to repel supporters. Like the patronising ‘Better Together’ mum…

This criticism of ‘No Thanks’ doesn’t mean I’m any keener on the Yes campaign. The difference is, the Yes campaign has had a degree of success.

Trumped!

I will freely confess to not being fond of the billionaire property tycoon Donald Trump. Ever since he started a war with Aberdeenshire residents over his plans to build his monster golf course and obscenely-expensive luxury hotel ‘resort’, I have felt angry on behalf of the humble villagers who have been displaced. Forced out of family homes that have been in their hands for generations, because an arrogant businessman wanted to rip up an entire community so that the global bourgeoisie has somewhere pretty to fritter away their wealth and time. This isn’t the kind of place you can have a casual game with some friends for a tenner. Oh, and did I mention the ecological catastrophe of transforming an ecologically significant beach and shrinking a nature reserve?

But these villagers could have relied on their government to defend their rights, couldn’t they? The issue fell under the purview of the devolved Scottish Government. Alas, the Scottish nationalist First Minister, Alex Salmond, was good friends with Trump and through the government’s weight behind Trump’s campaign to bully, bribe and browbeat the scheme’s opponents, ultimately with complete success. Today, a sprawling golf course stands, a gaping hole in rural Scotland and a symbol of the ubiquitous victory of capital over community.

So, I’m gobsmacked at the nerve of the Trump Organisation to be initiating a desperate political and legal battle to block the construction of a small windfarm within view of his hotel (the “resort” is still under construction). Trump reckons that he can blackmail his old friends in the Scottish Government into rejecting the planning application for the cluster of a dozen or so offshore wind turbines by threatening to pull the plug on his abomination development. Of course, there are no residents to echo Trump’s objections because he’s just got rid of all the residents.

That’s alright then. We have a choice: further allow a foreign businessman to dictate the actions of our elected government, or have a useful green energy project and get said businessman to pack up and leave us alone? Mmmm. Tricky.

Let’s hope that Scottish judges cannot be bought as easily as the political system.

Thoughts On The Scottish Referendum

As you will have noticed by now, there is little, at least in the political world, that I don’t have a firm opinion on. “Stand in the middle of the road and you get run over” is very much a mentality that I’ve taken to heart. But when it comes to what decision I would make, were I asked the question that the public north of the border will be asked next autumn: “Should Scotland become an independent country”, I am very much sitting on the fence.

I have a great fondness for the people of Scotland. As a country, it has been a hotbed of innovative thinking, invention, and political philosophy. And though it could never be an equal component of the United Kingdom, (for the benefit of my international readers, England has a population of 52 million, ten times that of Scotland) it is a highly valued one. After all, a country sensible enough to elect just 1 Conservative MP in 70-odd constituencies must be doing something right.

But this doesn’t mean that I wish for Scotland to remain in the United Kingdom. Indeed, there could be advantages to having Scotland, generally a more progressive-minded country than England, becoming a model nation that sets an example to the other nations of the British Isles. Without the occasional right-wing government in the way, Scotland would be free to develop a flexible supply of renewable energy, roll out and defend universal public services, and trailblaze an even more liberal and tolerant society.

Of course, an independent Scotland would face pressure to compete with the United Kingdom on tax rates, to strengthen links with the European Union and to further deregulate industry. Whether a small country could resist these pressures to create a better life for the Scottish people is another question. Alex Salmond, the First Minister and leader of Scottish National Party, thinks it can. As leader of a newly independent Scotland, he would seek to  create strong economic and political ties with the Scandinavian countries. If they prove to be willing, the idea is a superb one. Scandinavia has proven that it is just about possible to adopt a left-wing, public investment centric economic model that contrasts with the global neo-liberal climate. Why shouldn’t Scotland pull it off with their help?

However, such a narrative would take a dim view of the possibilities offered by a renewed British alliance. The influence of a G7 nation undoubtedly comes with advantages, as does being in a European country that is independent of the Euro.

I am one of a growing number of people who support many of the Scottish National Party’s policies, but are agnostic when it comes to independence. Whatever the country decides, it has my support.

I would be particularly interested in any opinions you hold on the matter. Try to talk me round!

Open Up A Better Democracy

English: Votes at 16 coalition logo

On Thursday afternoon, I discussed with Tom Harris MP (on Twitter) the matter of extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds, which he had argued against on Wednesday’s PM programme. Needless to say, there were strong opinions on both sides, and these opinions did not budge one inch. But freed from the straitjacket of a 140 character limit on each point, I shall briefly outline why I am in favour of votes at 16.

This whole debate has been reignited by the news that the SNP has gained Westminster’s agreement to allow 16 year olds to vote in the 2014 independence referendum. Inevitably, the point has been made that it would be somewhat contradictory to give this group of people a say in the future of their country’s status (via the referendum), but not what it does with it (via elections). Or, indeed, nobody has explained why the Westminster Government seems to value the input of Scottish youth in this way, but not the unfortunate majority of us in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Now that is absurd.

“18, 16… it’s only a two year difference”, I can hear many say. I shall explain why that gap is significant and why we should extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds:

  1. All adults in the United Kingdom (with a few exceptions, such as prisoners, those convicted of electoral fraud, bankrupts, etc.) are able to vote, and that is undisputed.16 year olds are generally regarded by the law as adults, with many of the associated rights and responsibilities, and yet are denied this equally important element.
  2. At the age of 16, people become subject to tax. If you’re expected to pay your fair share to society, it follows that you should have a fair say in how it is run. “No taxation without representation“.
  3. Extending the franchise would improve political engagement at all levels of society. Coupled with decent political education in all schools, we can instill a sense of responsibility and empowerment in future generations, that will create a healthier, more accountable political scene.
  4. Those who are not “mature enough” to vote (and there are people like that in all age groups, whatever the minimum age is) are not going to disrupt our political system. Let’s face it: those who don’t care about politics are not going to turn out in their droves to elect the Monster Raving Loonies, they’re going to stay at home.
  5. Take any large group of voters, and amongst them you will find some with a lot to contribute to our politics. Why keep such talent held back?

5.a. By the way, the delay between the two voting ages is not always a mere two years for some             people. Under the current system, some have to wait until they’re nearly 23 to vote. If the                 reforms proposed were made, it would of course fall to just under 21, which seems a lot fairer.