Saturday, 26 September 2015

When should we have another referendum.

2021. At the earliest.

Didn't think I'd answer it so quickly did you? Or directly? The referendum was of course now just a year ago and is still pretty recent. Not that there hasn't been a great deal of change since then of course we can now enjoy a strong SNP presence in Westminster, higher approval ratings of the party with a leader that even Alex Salmond must secretly envy in terms of popularity and now the gap between Yes and No is starting to narrow according to opinion polls. But should we really rush the second referendum?

I think we have to be patient and I believe Nicola Sturgeon will be able to work out when the time is right to include it on a manifesto. I have made this very comment recently on Facebook feeling that although I very much look forward to the day we win the campaign for Scotland to stand on its own two feet, the case for independence will need a bit more time to be won. And it appears someone picked up on my comment because soon an article appeared in Bella Caledonia reading:

"Such ideas will naturally draw critical responses and these are welcome, but too often in recent months a tiny but vocal minority have sought to silence any criticism of the SNP and its strategy, by telling many of us to ‘be patient’ and put our faith in leaders who ‘know what they’re doing’. This is a curious development considering that throughout the referendum we were actively encouraging people to think critically about power and leadership. In fact, those who were very active during the Yes campaign will readily tell you that the best strategies were not devised by ‘experts’ in Hope Street but by activists in the housing schemes and high streets across Scotland. I can think of no greater deterrent against independence than the prospect of a country where criticising politicians is frowned upon or worse, regarded as disloyal. "

I'll put my hands up and admit my guilt in response to this. I don't want to be mean to the author of this, he is of course one of many making a valuable contribution to the whole independence movement and I only wish five million people in Scotland shared his view! But unfortunately at the present moment just over two million people don't share his view and that is very unlikely to change significantly any time within the next couple of years. Which is why there is no point in staging another referendum so soon if we're unlikely to win it.

Let me set the record straight here. I am a member of the SNP not because I see it as the sole vehicle in the Yes movement but because that is what I feel is my natural political home. I am not quite as radical as others, the SNP fits with my more moderate pro-independence views. But I don't just have a follow-the-leader attitude and there is much I question in the SNP's leadership. I'm really glad I was in the SNP in 2012 when the Conference debated NATO, I was one of the delegates that voted against. Now that 100,000 new members have joined from the Yes campaign there is a much greater chance of policy being influenced in a radical direction not simply in terms of what will appeal to hardened unionists. I'm also growing to be increasingly sceptical of value of a single police force and now have my doubts about whether or not it should have been one single force or instead four large forces.

Of course I shouldn't have inferred that everyone on the Yes side, if that's what came across, is an SNP supporter or that Nicola Sturgeon was a leader for everyone in the Yes movement. And yes, it is activists who should be determining the direction of movement for the Yes side. But does my own voice count in all this? If I believed we could win the referendum convincingly were it to be held next year then I would demand it be held then. But what is the point in holding another referendum if we are unlikely to win? Truth is I trust Nicola Sturgeon to decide the suitable timing of the second referendum because it will fall to her to decide whether it is included in the SNP's next term and I know she's a cautious politician, she won't be perfect but I believe she is as canny an operator as Alex Salmond. Contrary to how it sounded my comment to 'be patient' is not submissive, it was, believe it or not, meant to be a statement of confidence. Confidence that the case for independence will only grow with time, give it a few years and we will have a consistent majority in the polls. Is the hunter lion in the Savannah crouching, hiding in wait for some time really timid just because he's not going straight in for the kill? No. He is waiting for the right moment to strike, if he is too hasty, the prey may be in a position to run away before the lion can catch him. If he waits too long the prey will also end up beyond reach. That is all I mean when I advise we take our time over the staging of a second referendum. If we hold it too soon, opinion won't have shifted much in our favour. But yes, hold it too late and our opportunity will pass.

Spontaneous grass-roots activisim is important of course. But good strategy is crucial. I don't think a second referendum should be in the 2016 manifesto because it will only play into the Unionists hands and we won't win, that is me being realistic not pessimistic. The SNP keeping the referendum off the table for a few years will tranquilise the opponents in their anti-independence tirades. Either that or we will expose their hypocrisy if they bang on about an independence referendum that isn't even part of five-year term having had the audacity to tell us to 'move-on'. Including the referendum on the 2021 manifesto will be a great idea. In the weeks after the 2014 referendum one of my work colleagues reiterated his opposition to independence being quite passionately 'British' (as if being British is somehow dependent on being part of the UK) yet was surprisingly quite generous in terms of the timing of a second referendum saying it should not be held for another ten years (others would say fifteen). So here's where it gets interesting. If every unionist was like my colleague then the inclusion of a referendum on the 2021 manifesto would really test their convictions. Would they want the referendum held straight away like they did in 2011? Or would they want it to wait three and a half years like last time so they could have their wish fulfilled that another referendum is only held after ten years. We could alternatively test unionist opinion on the timing of a second referendum to the max by pledging it in the 2026 manifesto instead, that way 15 years will have passed if again we wait three and a half years. But 2026 is way too far in the future, so the second referendum should be pledged on the 2021 manifesto and held within a few months hence. By holding it reasonably soon after the election anyone complaining about a long period of uncertainty can be reminded of the referendum's short timetable.

My advice that we should wait six years or so for the next referendum is not me telling people to cease in their general everyday activism until that time. Quite the contrary. All the good work done by activists should carry on as normal in all the years leading up to the next referendum, gaining more and more people's trust in our cause. The media won't pay much attention to it but that will largely be a good thing as the grassroots campaign can operate under the radar and not be so subject to the hostile media. With opinion polls shifting in our favour the unionist parties will have to address the inevitable sooner or later or they risk losing support. They will have to face up to the fact that accussing us of being 'nothing but vile cybernats' will serve no good whatsoever. The unionist media, especially the likes of the Daily Record, will also have to change their tune as they watch sale figures plummet. We don't ask of the mainstream media to take our side, we just ask them to be balanced.

I'm sorry if people thought my 'be patient' view was a call to lay off from campaigning, it wasn't. But my warning is clear. Whenever you hold the next referendum the likelihood is that will be it not just another six years but for a lot more than ten years. Can we wait another twenty years for the referendum that will win a Yes vote? Certainly not. Can we wait six years? Yes we can! Six years is exactly what we need to shift public opinion. So please please please folks, do not mistake my advice for partisan loyalty. I want to win the next referendum no less than you do. But we cannot afford to get the timing wrong.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Who else but Jez?

It has fast become 2015's answer to last year's Independence Referendum in terms of the 'Big Vote'. But only because of one man, Jeremy Corbyn. For too long Labour has taken the centre ground in order to win elections and in 13 of the last 18 years has been in power as New Labour, the party of big business. Granted Labour under Blair and Brown was never as callous as the current Conservative government in the way it has treated benefit claimants and Blair had his diplomatic honeymoon period in the late 90s when he oversaw the Good Friday Agreement and the birth of devolution (though that was in a large part thanks to the late Donald Dewar). But the overall direction of Labour has not been positive, sacrificing principles only to end up rejected at the ballot box by the millionaire bankrolled Tories.

At last we see someone from the left of Labour willing to challenge Labour's establishment and relieve Keir Hardie from a nauseating spin in his grave. Jeremy Corbyn is the lone baby boomer among the candidates in the Labour Leadership race the other three being from Generation X. They are all old enough to remember how horrible Margaret Thatcher was but only Jeremy is just old enough to remember the coronation and rationing. He may not have youth on his side but he has all the right ideas for running an opposition force in British politics. He wants an end to austerity. He wants to ditch Trident so the money can be better spent on frontline services like the NHS and schools. He wants to renationalise the rail network so money isn't being channelled by the greed of private franchises and large profits get spent instead on improving the service. He wants a more compassionate benefits system and an end to the bedroom tax.  And he wants to seek peaceful conflict resolution and an end to Britain's involvement in unjust and illegal wars.

But these things just scratch the surface of what Jeremy Corbyn promises as leader. What he will do is seismic for the Labour Party, it will mean a wholesale shift in how the party tackles the malice of the Tories. Opponents will talk about the 1970s, a decade when I wasn't born and even my big sister is unlikely to remember (though if she has memories of being an only child she will!). Those on Labour's centre, the Blairites as we call them, constantly warn of being 'locked out of power for a generation'. But how can they be so sure? And should the party really be seeking to win power at the cost of principles? Surely the whole point of a political party is to seek to influence the political landscape in favour of its grassroots membership not be part of its elite. Should we be worried about another Tory victory? Yes we should but we shouldn't just replace the great whites with hammerheads. It is clear the grassroots of the party are more and more in favour of Jeremy Corbyn and so this is what a real Labour Party should stand for, the ordinary members, a lot of whom will come from poor and working class backgrounds.

So if another group in the Labour Party, chiefly the career politicians who have for too long dominated the party, want to try and win power at whatever cost I suggest they do so in their own space. Perhaps they should set up their own political party or maybe join forces with the Liberal Democrats who have shifted further into the centre in the last five years. If that really is the way power will be won good luck to them. But most likely they will need a coalition or power sharing agreement with Jeremy Corbyn's party next time and then they will have to make concessions to the left. Labour were left with just their most working class constituencies in May but only a few more constituencies won would have prevented a Tory majority though there might still have been a pact with UKIP and the Unionist parties in Northern Ireland. Notwithstanding the support of kippers and Belfast bedfellows Mr Cameron would have struggled against an opposition of left or would-be left parties. In the case of the 'would-bes' all we need is the genuine left-leaning politicians to be representing them on the green benches.

And what about the Scottish dimension. Well Jeremy is no fan of independence I understand that. He is opposed to a second referendum anytime soon and even to the transfer of certain new powers to the Scottish parliament. But that hardly makes him a red tory when his heart is in the right place on so many other social issues. And perhaps his opposition to independence is much more in touch with the solidarity argument that the actual red tories kept cynically throwing around during the run-up to last year's referendum. For Scottish Independence would rob parliament of Corbyn's greatest ally - the SNP. If the contribution Angus Robertson's team makes to Westminster 's progressive anti-austerity lobby is the reason Jeremy Corbyn doesn't want Scotland to leave the UK then we ought to treat that as a compliment unlike those who campaigned against independence but with a hatred of the SNP.

Don't get me wrong, I still want independence for Scotland and another referendum before long so it I am somewhat disappointed with Corbyn's indifference to the cause. And we really don't need Labour up here in Scotland anymore when there is a strong alternative. But who else among Labour's leadership hopefuls is going to help England in its own journey towards better social democracy than Jeremy Corbyn? Just about everyone among the radical left down south of the border is looking at him with great hope. This is the man who, if he is successful less than a week from now, will challenge the very foundations of the establishment and will remind his party of their own founding values. But his message should also be this: No fakes. If you're truly with the party on our values you can stay, otherwise please leave.

Then the party that calls itself Labour will once again be the party that Kier Hardie, who lived until almost one century ago, dreamed of. It's not likely to be an easy ride for Corbyn if he's elected but one thing's for sure, he has inspired a new generation of political activists who will be standing firm behind him to help ensure he lives up to expectations.

Keir Hardie

Sunday, 30 August 2015

A senate with proportional representation is needed as the last line of defence

Yet again a long time has passed since my last blog update. I should first take the opportunity to express my sadness at the loss of Charles Kennedy. We ought to remember that at the end of the day politicians are human beings like us and life after the end of a remarkable career isn't always going to be easy to adjust to. Yet Charlie had a life beyond Westminster to look forward to and when it came to arguing for the UK to remain in the EU, he would have been there a formidable debater taking our country, maybe even finding more time to lead the Yes to EU campaign. We'll never know.

There was a time before I properly followed Scottish politics, when UK-wide politics was higher on my radar. That was 2006 and earlier when Charles Kennedy was leading the Liberal Democrats at the height of their popularity and when I would have voted for them in Westminster elections. Under his leadership they represented the voice of progress, the party I really wanted in Government and it was because Charlie broke ranks with his own party to argue against the Iraq War that it seems he won over so many fans. When news broke that he resigned as leader in 2006, coincidentally as I remember on the same day the Observer started to resemble a tabloid, I felt very disappointed. When I would next get to vote for the Lib Dems Kennedy would no longer be in charge. Needless to say though, it was the SNP I voted for at my next opportunity. But I continued to feel that through Charlie's warmth a sense that this was a politician who was a real people's man. During the referendum campaign, I felt sure that Charles' voice was the one that stood out from the scaremongers quietly arguing positively for Scotland to remain part of the UK. But it seemed drowned out though by cacophony of Project Fear.

He was a proud Scot but more specifically he was a proud Highlander. Charles Kennedy will be missed by everyone and Scottish and UK politics is all the poorer for him not being here. My thoughts remain with his family and friends.

On the subject of electoral reform, the Conservative majority despite being the minority of the popular vote makes the case for electoral reform unanswerable. Except from the Tories point-of-view of course. Even Nicola Sturgeon, who benefitted by 95 percent of Scottish MPs being won by only 50 percent of the popular vote for the SNP, remains committed to the case for electoral reform. However, there's another elephant in the room, the House of Lords, and it could be argued that this is what should be sorted first because the second chamber is the difference between legislation being passed and it being rejected.

I have been in favour of a proportional system for the House of Commons through the use of the de Hondt method. But it is hard to see how such a system would work without either increasing the number of seats to accommodate additional list members or increasing the size of the constituencies so fewer constituency members are elected to allow space for the additional members. Of course we could use the PR system used for European elections but that means we could only really have regional MPs and fear with that is that a bigger constituency for members means the fear certain local issues would end being sidelined in parliament for 'more important' regional ones. And importantly people value the element of direct local accountability in a size of constituency where their voice is most likely to be heard in front of the Government in the House of Commons.

Far better in my opinion is to sort out the chamber which acts as the last line of defence against unpopular government policies, the upper house, currently the House of Lords. If you have a fully proportional composition of members in this chamber then ultimately legislation that the majority of people in the country didn't vote for doesn't get passed because that majority is properly represented.

It normally follows that the party with the largest share of the popular vote ends up with the most seats because usually the majority of constituencies each represent the country as a whole at a miniature level - the average constituency if you like. It makes sense democratically that the party with the most seats in the Commons gets the first opportunity to form a government, but it would only be able to form a government if it can get a Queen's Speech past both houses. Then it doesn't matter too much that there's not a proportional representation in the lower house if that's the price for direct local representation. The point with a revising chamber is that it is just that - a place for revising legislation. Yes the government has had more or less its own way in the lower chamber but now it's time to test that against the assumed opinion of the country as a whole. I say 'assumed opinion' because its assumed that the opinion of the party represents the opinion of the people that elect them if they are following through on their manifesto pledges.

If such a second chamber, lets call it a senate, is fully proportional and elected properly at the same interval as in the general election it would be a more respectable component of our legislature. And the members, the senators, would be more acutely aware of their responsibilities and the accountability at which they are held. When they turn up to work they actually have to get some work done and if you have them up for reelection every two years like in America then they really have no time to sit on their butts. The Government would have to regularly make sure that whatever laws they are trying to craft they have to be sure they can command the majority of the both houses.

One thing's for sure. The new intake of Peers announced in the dissolution honours list a few days ago taking the total to well over 800 makes a real mockery of democracy with these people having either stood down at the last election or been voted out by the public. And 826 is too many. Lets bring that number down to a size that can actually all fit onto the seats at the same time (without allowing any spaces for them lie down and doze!)

Monday, 30 March 2015

Why we cannot vote Labour after what they did in the referendum

I know this is my first post of the 2015 and in fact the first one since the end of September, a month we'll never forget.

I've been absent from here because I don't know what I can add that hasn't already been said by one of the many other people who campaigned for a Yes vote. In the weeks after the referendum I couldn't help feeling that a huge step had been taken backwards and now our goal was as far away as it was back before the election of 2007 when the SNP were only just seeking to enter their first term in office. A lot has changed since then but it will be just as many years if not more before the next independence referendum comes upon us.

However, there must still be a purpose for everyone who became engaged and energised by last September's campaign. There has to still be something we have worth fighting for. Well we do. There is a General Election coming up in less than forty days time and for the first time ever it is conceivable that the SNP could have a real influence on Westminster politics.


Of course the naysayers will as usual tell us that it is unthinkable that a party 'wants to run the very thing it wants to break up'. Which leads us to ask the question why did they want us to stay so badly in a 'family of 'equal' nations'? We were told Scotland brings added value to the UK that it brings something special to Westminster politics. Yet now it's looking like they don't want us to make a contribution to Westminster politics if we decide we want the SNP to represent us. It's clear there's no love lost.

But what is also clear is just how much Labour has alienated the Scottish population over the last four or five years. It seems like only yesterday that it was April 2010 when Labour could still happily claim Scotland as their own territory, that tactical voting to keep the Tories out seemed justified. Not this time though. Labour's current mantra - "vote SNP get Tory" - is no longer convincing. And it's ironic because what are Labour now but, well, the Red Tories. If Labour so badly wanted Scotland to banish the Tories we had that golden opportunity to make it so and make it permanent last September!

But my dislike of the Scottish Labour Party is far deeper than that. They just didn't respect the ordinary people who voted Yes. They couldn't appreciate the real concerns that motivated us to aspire to a different Scotland through a Yes vote. And whilst presenting erratic counter-arguments they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Tories and the Lib Dems to try and unfairly blacken our name. So folks don't vote Labour. Vote SNP. And do it for these reasons:

  • This is justice. Disputing our case for independence is one thing - trying to smear us quite another. Remember how all these Labour politicians tried to suggest we were all abusive cybernats? Okay maybe I'm exaggerating a bit but when a small number of abusive online activists attacked No voters it was all that was needed for Labour, Lib Dem and Tory politicians. They simply couldn't resist using the situation against the rest of us who were NOT responsible for what got said by those so called 'cybernats'. And yet they turned a blind eye to all the occasions when some of their own supporters metted out similar abuse against people who were voting Yes. I agree online abuse is wrong whichever way it comes from. But if you're going to condemn it you condemn BOTH sides and not just one side in order to try and bolster your side. The SNP went out of their way to condemn abuse on both sides but Labour tried to make it sound like a problem exclusive to Yes supporters. I am still to this day seething with fury over Labour's attitude on this matter, it was one of the biggest injustices of the whole campaign and just on that I will not forgive them! I accept the referendum result quite willingly even if it is not what I wanted as I accept people voted No in good faith. But I will struggle to come to terms with Labour tarring us all with the same brush. Of course I am equally annoyed with the Tories and Lib Dems but I reserve my biggest anger for Labour, the party who is feebly trying to win back Yes voters without so much as an apology.
  • Additionally lest we forget how Jim Murphy's predecessor, Johann Lamont, tried to call our cause 'a virus'. You're hoping to be the next first minister and you effectively call a third of your own compatriots a virus? Is this the woman we were supposed to look up to? And then Jim Murphy himself using his Irn Bru crate tour of Scotland to call us 'nosiy nationalists' - now he's trying to reach out to us. It's laughable.
  • Labour stood with the Tories to campaign in Better Together. They could easily have run the campaign without them but instead they invited them to take part. The result? A common message based on an anti-SNP theme. They may have won the referendum but the path they trod to try and maximise support will soon backfire on the party.
  • When it comes to policies Labour are little better than the Tories anyway. To have given the Tories support for the UK austerity programme means they have endorsed cuts in their desperation to overturn the deficit. The consequence will likely be more unemployment and more of our vital frontline services at risk. For what? Some sort of better economic outlook one day in the distant future? They must realise that when some of their own MPs including Dianne Abbott and Katy Clark (an Ayrshire MP) rebelled something is a miss in this programme. The SNP on the other hand voted with their conscience alongside Plaid Cymru and the Greens to join the few brave Labour souls. The bill was passed with fewer MPs voting against than years I've been alive and I'm still a young man!
  • Voting SNP means Scotland getting a far better voice fighting our corner in Westminster. Simple.
  • It may actually be a blessing in disguise for Labour if they face annihilation in Scotland to the SNP. If they are to stand any hope of getting more MPs than the Tories they will have to win in England. Which means taking more centre ground possibly more than they would prefer. And then at least they could be willing to scrap some of their more regressive policies to get the votes of the SNP and treat it as a concession they had to make. I don't think the SNP will particularly mind taking the 'blame' for scrapping Trident.
  • Contrary to Labour's arguments that the party that wins the most seats has the exclusive right to seek to form the next government, it is all dependant on whether or not the party with first priority (granted that's the party with the most seats) can get the first Queen's Speech passed. The party with the most MPs elected may feel cheated by a deal between two smaller parties but if the collected weight of their shared policies is good enough for parliament it's good enough for forming a government. There's a small chance Labour will win more seats than the Tories but if they don't they can be assured there'll be a good majority against Tory policy. Ed Miliband being Prime Minister is not a thought to savour. But if the SNP MPs we send to Westminster have enough influence then Miliband would only be occupying the floor of Number 10 while dancing to our tune! He may have ruled out a formal coalition with the SNP but if Ed Miliband is serious about gaining the keys to Britain's most coveted front-door an informal agreement with the SNP will be almost if not entirely unavoidable.
The prospect of Labour winning an outright majority repulses me. But the prospect of another Tory government fills me with horror. Fortunately we don't have to choose. We can instead elect to as many of the 59 Scottish seats as possible, an swarm of SNP MPs who will prevent Labour attempting to gain a monopoly of power in Westminster and still help them to form an anti-Tory majority.

And if unfortunately the Tories do emerge with the most seats then my message to Labour is clear:

Don't blame us, the people of Scotland, for your party's misfortunes. We only voted for the party we wanted to have fighting our corner, the party we felt represented us. If you can't win more seats than the Tories then look at yourselves not us. It can only be your fault, Labour, if you don't make enough effort to win over the hearts and minds of voters in the places where you're actually fighting the Tories. We accept no responsibility for Ed Miliband's ineptitude and if you walk away from any post-election talks of an anti-Tory alliance simply because you've lost then that is your problem. You will be the ones in the end letting the Tories in through the back door.

Game on!