Monday, October 22, 2012

Who won the phoney war of the independence referendum?

So, who won the referendum phoney war? There was an air of quiet satisfaction among senior Tories at their conference in Birmingham recently.   “Wily” Alex Salmond had been put back in his box, I was told. Forced to drop his devious plan to turn the ballot on Scottish independence into an each way bet in a two horse race that he couldn't lose.

But three hundred miles north, members of the Yes Scotland campaign were also expressing quiet satisfaction. They claim to be more than content with a single question referendum. Nationalists think that Salmond pulled the wool over the UK government's eyes and that he really wanted a single question all along. They can't both be right.

Actually, this is one of those rare occasions in politics when both sides can claim victory. David Cameron can legitimately say that he insisted on, and got, a single straight in-or-out question and that the Electoral Commission will have a say on the wording. Alex Salmond can say that he has won on the 2014 timetable , giving16 and 17 year olds to vote and on ensuring that the referendum is legally binding. The FM will say that he always favoured a single question himself, but didn't want to be accused of disenfranchising supporters of “devolution max”. Opposition politicians will say: “Aye, right..”

Perhaps the real winners are the people of Scotland, who will not only be given the legal power to secede from the UK state - a power denied only last week to the Catalonian people by the government in Madrid - but will be allowed to give a straight answer to a straight question along the lines of:. “Do you wish Scotland to become an independent country” This is infinitely preferable to the obfuscatory nightmare formulations that were put to the people of Quebec in their 'Neverendums' of the last century.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Tory Muff and Jeff routine. Caring Cameron feels their pain.

The Tories under David Cameron have become the masters of the conference Mutt and Jeff routine. All week ministerial Muttleys put the boot into big families on welfare, batter burglars, threaten referendums on Europe, kick the Liberal Democrats in the goolies by rejecting their wealth tax. This all goes down well; red meat for the conference carnivores.

Then on the last day, along comes Jeff, in the form of compassionate Dave, who is kind to animals and gays, and is talks movingly,  about his late legless Dad and by implication all disadvantaged souls. Oozing empathy. Patron of the Paralympic games. And it has to be said that David Cameron does it very well. This was a hard-headed Thatcherite speech straight from the 1980s but delivered in a 'caring' way. He really does sound like he believes in the NHS. He teared up when talking about his late son Ivan.  Not many politicians can introduce real emotion into such a stage-managed event as a leader's address without it sounding cynical.

And technically this was a much better speech than last week's modern studies lecture from Ed Miliband. Cameron can hit all the notes - poking fun at Ed's attempt to don the mantle of “one nation” Conservatism. “Labour: the party of one notion: more borrowing”. He got his lists right: “We remember who spent our golden legacy, who sold our gold, who busted our banks, who smothered our businesses, who wracked up our debts, wrecked our economy, ruined our reputation and risked our future”. (It was Labour in case you were wondering).

Mostly, the speech - like that passage - said nothing at all, but Cameron said it with real passion. He even managed to get the Tory gathering to applaud foreign aid which he said had paid for the vaccination of 130,000 children since Sunday alone. “You, the Conservative Party helped do that”, he said, daring them not to clap, “and you should be proud of what you've done.” He avoided all the difficult issues - gay marriage, the referendum on Europe, the challenge from Boris, “the zinger on the zipwire”. And he didn't mention his Coalition partners once. But he did mention Alex Salmond and Abu Hamza, who were name-checked as if they were public enemies one and two. He promised to win the Scottish independence referendum and expel radical Muslim clerics.

This was billed as a blood sweat and tears speech, and he didn't try do disguise the seriousness of the situation five years into the Great Recession.  He told us that Britain was living on borrowed time as a great commercial nation. That all those enterprising upstart countries, who were recipients of aid money only the day before yesterday, are now battering at the gates. He condemned the old world countries as “fat, sclerotic, over-regulated, spending money on unaffordable welfare systems, huge pension bills, unreformed public services”. Did he mean us?

Well this is the problem, because in the same breath as condemning sclerotic, “old world” countries like ours, he couldn't resist suggesting that Britain was also booming under the Conservatives. A million new private sector jobs have been created in the last 2 years, he said. Though he didn't say how many of these were full time. The PM said that the rate of new business start ups in Britain was faster than ever before in history, though he didn't say how many of these small businesses are those part timers opting to become self-employed for tax reasons. We make more cars than in the 70s, he said, though the firms are foreign owned. and we are “number one in the world for offshore wind”. Somehow these sunny uplands didn't quite hang together.

Of course, all politicians try to have it both ways – it's what they do. But there is more than a danger that this will backfire on Cameron. He knows that the economic policy isn't working; and we know that the economic policy isn't working. And he knows that we know. Take borrowing. It's going up under the Tories as fast as under Labour, in large part because of the failure of growth policies. Those millions of new business start ups aren't delivering real jobs. They are delivering frothy, here-today-gone-tomorrow jobs at the disposable end of the labour market. These aren't the kind of businesses that are going to take on the Chinese or the South Koreans. And they aren't the kind of jobs that are going to restore Britain as a great manufacturing nation.

Austerity isn't enough. This isn't the 1980s. Governments can't just curb employment rights, cut taxes and public spending and expect business to do the rest – unless you want a poundland Britain sinking into post-industrial mediocrity. 21st Century governments are condemned to be interventionist – just as they have been in those upstart nations. Does anyone seriously believe that the Chinese state banks sit back and leave it all to the market?  Is that how they built 25,000kms of motorway, an entire high speed rail network and the five longest bridges in the world all in the last four years?

I'm not suggesting we concrete over Britain, but growth doesn't happen by itself any more. If we are to exploit Britain's – Scotland's – renewable energy potential, government needs to get behind green energy. And someone needs to tell the Chancellor, George Osborne, who seems more interested in backing shale gas and nuclear power stations that are too expensive to build.   The Conservatives need to realise that Europe isn't going to go away, and that the EU remains the destination for half of Britain's exports. The abortive EADS/BAE Systems defence deal shows that you can't do business at this level without government being heavily involvedl. 

    Margaret Thatcher's vision of a Britain of self-employed Essex tradesmen, owning their homes and getting ahead, is as much a part of folk history as the Winter of Discontent and union barons. Truth is, most of them are in negative equity and struggling to afford their next white van. Cameron commiserated with 33 year old “strivers” who can't afford their first house house, but he insisted that the Tories were still the party of the aspirant middle class - the “Aspiration Nation” as he put it, in a sound-bite that sounded like it came from “The Thick Of It”.  Cameron risks being a prisoner of the past, a Little Britain Thatcherite who is a clever speaker, but without a lot to say.   

Monday, October 08, 2012

Why do the Tories think they've lost already?

  There has been an unmistakeable air of defeatism hanging over this Tory conference. “Cameron in Free Fall” declares the cover story on the conference issue of The Spectator magazine, home journal of the British Right. Inside, its editor, Fraser Nelson, does not mince his words. “By now”, he writes, “it will be clear even to David Cameron that he is on course to lose the next general election”. The economic recovery Nelson says is ”evaporating” and Labour, having discovered that it has a leader is “cruising to power”. Nelson is echoing the views of a sizeable chunk of the Tory party, including former heavyweights like the former defence secretary, Liam Fox, who will be putting the boot into Cameron this week.

The Tories give the impression right now of being, if not the Nasty Party, then the Grumpy Party – fed up with immigration, multiculturalism, homosexuals, Europe, public spending, unions, Scotland – especially Scotland, following the Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont's, admission that it is the “something for nothing” society. Above all, the they are grumpy about the coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and loathe Nick Clegg and Vince Cable. Many Tories feel there has been too much pandering to Libdem obsessions like constitutional tinkering and gay marriage. They think that their coalition partners are preventing the Tories from introducing deep cuts in public spending and deep cuts in personal taxation.

Now, I've been arguing for some time that the economy is going nowhere and the Coalition is doomed, but I didn't expect the Conservatives to agree so enthusiastically. I now find myself in the curious position of being somewhat less pessimistic than the Spectator about David Cameron's electoral prospects. I mean, are things really going that badly for him right now? Labour has a ten point lead in the opinion polls – but that's nothing. It's quite normal for governments to have far worse ratings at this stage in the political cycle and still win come election time.

The Tories have just had a successful Olympics, as we will hear ad nauseam this week, even though it was really Labour who did the ground work when they were in office. The Republican Mitt Romney has given Barack Obama a pasting in the first US presidential debate, showing that Conservatives can still talk a good game even in a financial crisis caused by their friends in the banks.

It's not as if Cameron is all that unpopular either. His ratings are still better than Ed Miliband's on the economy and on who makes the most convincing prime minister - even after the Labour leader 's polling bounce following his conference speech last week. The omnishambles budget, last Spring, certainly did damage to the Tory reputation for competence. The succession of u-turns on the granny tax, the pastie tax and the capping of tax relief on charitable donations was embarrassing, and this week it became the omnishambles-on-wheels as the government had to scrap West Coast rail franchise. However, British voters are well used to shambolic behaviour from governments - we kind of expect it - and they don't appear to think that Ed Miliband would do very much better.

So, again: why do the Tories seem so down in the dumps? Well, I think it has something to do with the fact that the Conservative movement as a whole is feeling  uncomfortable with itself right now. The Tory blogs are full of comments from long-standing party members who resent the “metrosexual” approach of the current leadership, and don't like David Cameron's promotion of “gay marriage”. Many Tories have felt locked out of their own party because of the leadership's determination to turn them into a touchy-feely, New Age Tory party that likes windmills, celebrates multiculturalism and hugs hoodies. Remember, the typical Conservative member is eligible for those bus passes that Johann Lamont wants to scrap.

Then there is Europe – the most divisive issue for the Tory Party since the Corn Laws. It is still causing trouble, even though the prospect of Britain adopting the euro is about as remote as Norman Tebbit entering a civil partnership with Abu Hamza. But the Tories simply cannot let the issue go. Cameron is constantly being urged to reflect this hostility to Europe in some way, perhaps through a referendum, though it is never quite clear what this referendum should be about. The Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, said last week that Cameron needs to make “symbolic statements between now and the next election” about Europe, though it's not clear what he has in mind.

This week, the former Tory Defence Secretary, Liam Fox is expected to come out and call for a referendum on Britain's continued membership of Europe. The official government line is that any significant change in Britain's relationship to Europe should be put to a referendum. But since that relationship is going nowhere, there is no need to have one. The bottom line is that many Tory eurosceptics want out of Europe, but they don't really know how to do it.

No one outside the United Kingdom Independence Party – which is now worrying Tory candidates in a number of English constitutionalities - seriously believes that Britain should withdraw from the EU, which remains the destination for half of Britain's exports.  British voters certainly don't want to leave, though they are no great enthusiasts for Brussels bureaucrats. It is not even clear HOW Britain would leave the EU, since of course, the Maastricht Treaty was supposed to be for keeps.

This is the worst kind of issue to divide a party – a problem with no obvious resolution, an itch they cannot stop scratching even though they know it makes it worse. This narrow obsession with Europe only confirms the extent to which the Conservatives are out of touch with the real issues. It prevents them addressing the struggling voters – the “suspicious strivers” identified in a huge opinion survey unveiled by the Conservative chairman, Lord Ashcroft last week – who feel that this government isn't on their side.

Cutting the top rate of tax from 50% to 45% made little economic difference, but has done serious damage to Cameron, because it confirms the suspicions of many hard pressed families he is only concerned with rewarding his rich friends. The tax issue has given Ed Miliband a lifeline – a policy that not only unites Labour, but connects with the views of the vast majority of voters, who are appalled by the behaviour of rich bankers.

So, the Tories are turning in on themselves, and losing touch with the concerns of ordinary voters. It is as if they are falling victim to the Labour disease of the 70s and 80s. This is good news certainly for Ed Miliband, who is leading a party that is more united and at ease with itself than at any time since its election victory in 1997. I don't really believe that he is “cruising to power” as the Spectator puts it, but he's certainly up and running. If the Tories continue to stumble, the Geek might actually make it to Number Ten.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Scotland: the "something for nothing" society. Johann Lamont joins the Tories.

   The "something for nothing" society.  That's how Johann Lamont characterised  Scotland under the SNP in her first serious policy speech as leader of the Scottish Labour Party last week.  A land where greedy and ignorant voters have been seduced by Alex Salmond's electoral bribes on free personal care, tuition fees, bus passes, prescriptions.  The fact that these were Labour policies as recently as last year's Holyrood election doesn't appear to trouble Ms Lamont.  It should.  I've heard this described as "courageous";  I think it's just daft politics.  

   Free personal care was introduced under the Labour First Minister, Jack McConnell, as was the abolition of upfront tuition fees in 2001. Concessionary bus passes for pensioners was also a Labour policy and their health spokeswoman, Jackie Baillie, claimed credit for the abolition of prescription charges as recently as the 2011 election campaign.  In that same campaign, Iain Gray, Lamont's predecessor as Labour leader, promised not to reintroduce university tuition fees, up front or post grad. As for the council tax freeze, Labour claimed credit for this policy in the local election campaign in Glasgow only months ago and promised to maintain the freeze for five years. 

  The Lamont List is an astonishing act of political self-harm, comparable to Gordon Brown's scrapping of the 10p tax band in 2008.  Only that was one own goal - Lamont's List represents a whole tournament of own goals delivered in one speech. You just can't do politics like this, as if you have ideological amnesia,  and don't even attempt to explain why policies that you commended to the electorate only a year ago have suddenly become unsustainable.  Perhaps if the Scottish government had plunged itself into financial crisis, but it hasn't.  The SNP has been running balanced budgets for years while paying for these "unaffordable" policies.  

  This is Nick Clegg without the apology.It is very rare for a politician to promise cuts BEFORE they reach office. Normally the name of the game is to attract voters, not alienate them by promising to axe popular policies. .  Even if you do intend to review these "freebie" policies (which of course are not free) the time to do it is when you are in government.  Promising, in opposition, to take away a whole range of universal benefits only hands ammunition to Alex Salmond, who will use this in every speech from now till the next Scottish elections.  

How many nations was that Ed?

     How many nations was that, exactly? Ed Miliband borrowed the tailcoat of Benjamin Disraeli this week to pronounce his faith in “one nation”. Constitutional pedants (like me) might have pointed out that there are actually two nations in the United Kingdom, Scotland and England. Oh, and one of them might be about to leave.

Everyone in Manchester, from the leader down, now believes that a deal will be announced in the next couple of weeks on holding a single question, 'in or out' referendum on Scottish independence in October 2014. “The dots have all been crossed”, as one insider put it.

We've been living with the technicalities of this plebiscite for so long that we've tended to forget the significance of it. In a couple years, the 300 year old United Kingdom - one of he most successful unions in history - could cease to exist. This referendum represents a huge gamble by David Cameron - one that the Spanish premier, for example, is not prepared to take by giving Catalonia a referendum on secession.

But I'm still not entirely sure Labour fully appreciate the job they've taken on. You see, David Cameron was responsible for agreeing the referendum on independence after the 2011 election, but it is Ed Miliband's Labour party that has the responsibility of winning it, because the Tories are too unpopular in Scotland. Buttonholing Labour politicians in the Manchester conference centre, I did not get the impression that this is occupying their waking thoughts. Many seem remarkably complacent about the outcome of the referendum, believing that now Alex Salmond has been “put in his box” by the denial of his “second best” second question, the job is largely done. Few seem to realise yet that this single question has long been part of Yes Scotland's game plan.