Bending the rules

This week a new shop opened up on the High Street. Unlike the others, though, it is actually part of a Scotland wide chain, passing itself off as a local independent. I refer, of course, to the Yes shop in Montrose High Street.

With just over 4 months to go to the referendum, the campaign is started to ratchet up. We’ve seen an increase in negative campaigning from Yes, and the polls have tightened slightly. And across Scotland, local campaigners are opening up shops to create a presence for the Yes campaign. However, there is a legal question over how this expenditure should be accounted for.

In the original legislation, passed by the Scottish Parliament, the referendum was to be policed by the impartial UK-wide body the Electoral Commission, which sets the rules for all elections and referenda in the UK. There were to be two lead campaigns (now confirmed to be Yes Scotland and Better Together) who will have expenditure limits of £1.5million while other bodies had to register if they spent over £10,000, and were limited to £150,000. The political parties had their own limits, just as in elections.

A feature of the campaign has been the creation of local groups by both sides, in order to co-ordinate activity, engage activists and promote the message. However, each campaign has taken a different approach. Better Together has required that local groups should not open their own bank account, nor incur any expense without informing HQ – all donations are to be reported as well. The No campaign is determined to play by the rules, stringently. Yes Scotland, on the other hand, seems to have laid down no guidelines and made no requirements of their local campaigns.

Why is this important? Well, it would be quite easy for these local groups to spend several thousand pounds each – and across Scotland that could total hundreds of thousands of pounds – if not millions. And all that expenditure would not be regulated, despite what the rules say.

The Electoral Commission guidance is quite clear. “Campaigners can work together if they wish to do so. Some combined spending will count towards the limits for each campaigner involved. This is to stop people getting around the spending limits by coordinating several campaigns at the same time.

“However, combined spending will not count towards the limits for campaigners working with a designated lead campaign group, other than towards the limit of the lead campaign group itself”

“There are spending rules that apply if you or a campaigner that you are working with spends money as part of a coordinated plan or arrangement. We call these the ‘working together’ rules. ‘Working together’ means spending money as a result of an agreed plan or arrangement between one or more campaigners during the referendum period…”

That seems pretty clear to me. It goes on. “…you will be very likely to be working together if: you have joint advertising campaigns, leaflets or events; you coordinate your activity with another campaigner – for example, if you agree that you should each cover particular areas, arguments or voters.” [My emphasis] Well, that seems to cover having local groups to spread the message.

So its quite clear, expenditure by these local groups, using the Yes Scotland branding, colours, logo etc and distributing material and leaflets from Yes Scotland should have their expenditure counted towards the Yes Scotland total of £1.5million. Even if the use of the shop was given for free, the campaign will need to treat this as a donation in kind – and the market value will come off that limit.

Now you might think that’s not a great deal. But add them up. The cost of a high street shop in Montrose is at least £500 a month – possibly more due to location. For say 4 months, that’s £2000. It won’t take many of these to have 100 across Scotland, and before you know it, there’s £200,000 spent on renting shops. Again, the figure may well be higher due to higher costs in other areas.

So that’s at least £200,000 spent to get around the rules designed to limit spending.

Why should it matter? It matters because it is subtle advertising that makes yes look ubiquitous. It makes it look like the winning side (its not – not a single opinion poll has shown Yes in front) and it makes it look like the side you should be backing. The rules are there to create a level playing field. Its bad enough that the Scottish Government are using taxpayers money to fund a propaganda programme, but this is just blatant cheating. The Electoral Commission needs to act now, before the regulated period starts.

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The Sunday Herald coming out too soon

Newspapers are there to make money. If they don’t do that, then they go out of business – and many have over the years. There are two ways to do that. You can either provide a balanced view, alternatively challenging and supporting your reader’s views. Educating, and informing at the same time as providing something interesting to them – attracting readers by your opinions. Papers on each side of the ideological divide do this, some more successfully than others.

Other papers pander to their reader’s views. They confirm their prejudices and attack the perceived opposition, while claiming faux neutrality. The Mail and the Sun are prime examples of this. They work on the assumption that their invective can attract more than it deters. Done well, it can be profitable (again, see the Mail and the Sun).

This weekend the Sunday Herald has come out for Yes in the Scottish Independence referendum. This has not come as a shock to anyone who has read the paper over the last 12 months or more. It came out for the SNP in both the 2007 and 2011 elections. Its coverage has been critical of the arguments for staying within the UK for some time, while failing to critique to the same level those for separation. It was the Sunday Herald, for example, that invented the “Project Fear” tag, and claimed that it was Better Together’s name for themselves.

This week has been the worst week for Alex Salmond since he became First Minister in 2007. In an interview with a magazine, he has praised President Putin of Russia for restoring the pride of the Russian people (presumably by locking up political opponents and beating up members of the LGBT community – even during the winter Olympics). He also called Scotland a “nation of drunks”, when talking about how difficult it was to promote Whisky around the world. And in a speech in Bruges to European audience, he threatened to block access to Scottish waters to European fishing fleets – and in contravention of international law – threatened to block their access to third parties via our seas.

So, instead of holding the First Minister to account for these views, the Sunday Herald has come out with a statement of the obvious. The cynic would argue that this has come out so early, merely in order to provide distraction and a much needed boost to the morale of the SNP. Presumably they feel it will boost their readership, but apart from a temporary boost this weekend, I doubt it. Is it a coincidence that its weekly sales of 24,000 are almost the same as the membership of the SNP? Its viewpoint will not attract readers who do not share its views, while those who share them and are willing to buy a Sunday paper are surely already readers of the Herald. There is nothing the Nationalist likes more than confirmation that their views are valid and correct, and the Sunday Herald has been able to provide that for some time.

It may very well do just that. But in politics, as in much else, there is the law of unintended consequences. What this does is remove that veneer of neutrality that most newspapers – even the most extreme – like to keep. So next week, and over the coming months, when the Sunday Herald produces another story – like so many of the ones it has done in the past – that is critical of the pro-UK campaign, it can and will be easily dismissed as another piece of propaganda from the Yes campaign.

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Mystic John and his by election crystal ball

By-elections are good fun. They get politicians out of the debating chamber and out onto the streets talking to the people who matter rather than each other. They can also give us a clue as to what people are thinking, as they involve real people voting in large numbers, rather than a thousand people responding to an opinion poll. So what can we take from the by-election in Aberdeen Donside yesterday?

Well, we can use it so extrapolate what the result of a Holyrood general election would be. Bernard Ponsonby, on the other hand, seemed determined to convince us last night that it was very wrong to do just that, though. Strange – I thought that was what journalists, pundits and politicians have been doing at every by-election for years! I bet the papers reporting after the City of London by-election in 1833 when the Tories beat the Governing Whigs did just that – and so shall I.

But just how does the result in Aberdeen translate across Scotland? While it is easy to say that there was a 9% swing to Labour from the SNP, the picture is more nuanced than that, and indicates that while we have indeed made good progress, there is still more work to do.

I think one of the big shocks on the night was the increase in the Lib Dem vote. It certainly caught me by surprise, and meant my entry in the North East Scotland Young Labour prediction competition should be considered a donation rather than an investment. UKIP did well, and will have surprised some, although I admit to having predicted a bigger surge. Our vote was bigger than it had been in this constituency since 1999, when in predecessor seat Aberdeen North it had been 37.2%.

A straight 9.1% swing from SNP to Labour would give us 56 seats against the SNP’s 51. Everyone else stay the same, except the Tories who lose a list seat in the Lothians to the SNP. But politics is complicated in Scotland, and entrance of UKIP makes it now a real 6-party system, albeit with 2 major ones and 4 minor ones. The SNP didn’t just lose votes to Labour – they went back to the Lib Dems after they were punished in 2011. They also must have gone to UKIP – a part of the SNP’s vote has always been the “none of the above” party, and since the SNP is in Government they now have found an alternative. The Conservatives lost a little – one assumes to UKIP, although their loss was less than I had thought.

Factoring in all these numbers results in a swing to Labour of only 5.8% – not great but not to be sniffed at. So a disaster for Labour? Not quite. By-elections to the Scottish Parliament are rare beasts, but there have been a few that we can compare this to, and Glasgow Cathcart is probably the best comparison. The seat had been held by Labour with a large majority and the party had been in Government for 6 years. The SNP opposition under their new leadership put in a strong challenge, but only managed a swing to them of 3.7%. Despite this, they went on to win the general election 18 months later. So a swing of 5.8% is actually rather better than the SNP were doing at this point when they were in opposition.

How does that translate into seats? Well, although our seat total will be down to 53, the SNP also do less well, winning 45. Slightly perversely, the Labour majority over them is increased. UKIP gain 5 list seats, all at the expense of the SNP, albeit that some of these would have fallen to other parties given the fall in the vote of the SNP. The Lib Dems also do well, gaining 3 seats overall, Edinburgh Western, North East Fife and Aberdeenshire West. Here in the North East, we will re-take Aberdeen Central, and retain 3 list seats, for a net increase of 1.

So no, Mr Salmond, we haven’t failed to make significant progress, we’re actually halfway to regaining our 1999 share of the vote, improved enough to beat you in other parts of the country and there is still 3 years to go.

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Targetting seats – and why you need more than you think

When the Labour Party came to decide the 106 target seats for the 2015 election, it was a pretty straightforward thing to see the effect of winning them all. Win those seats and Labour would have 364 MPs, an overall majority of 78 (although in practice it would be higher, given Sinn Fein’s absence and the Speaker). For the Scottish elections in 2016, it is a bit tougher – as victories in constituencies will result in fewer list seats to compensate.

Scottish Labour currently has 37 seats, while the SNP won 69 in 2011. In order to be the largest party, you might think that all Labour has to do is to win 16 seats from the SNP. Looking at the constituency results, this would only require a swing of 4.2% – reasonably achievable. The 16th seat is Airdrie & Shots, which the SNP hold with a 2001 majority. But if that was all we achieved, Labour would still be 15 seats behind the SNP.

That 4.2% swing puts us roughly back where we were in 2007 on 45 seats, for as we won constituencies, we would lose list seats. So we would have no list MSPs in Glasgow or the West of Scotland, for instance. To get our noses in front of the SNP, we would need a swing of 7.2% – winning seats right down to the likes of Clydesdale and Edinburgh Western, and targeting 26 constituencies all told. We would still have no list MSPs in 4 regions across Scotland, but at least we would have enough constituency MSPs then to give us a slender lead.

But would a slender lead be enough? Sure, we would in all likelihood then get Johann Lamont into Bute House as First Minister, but we would need support from other parties to ensure budgets were passed. Our potential coalition partners would be limited.

Barring a large swing back to the Liberal Democrats, they will only have a handful of MSPs and the Greens, likewise. The only two partners with enough MSPs to get us over the 65 MSPs needed for an overall majority would be the SNP or the Conservatives. I can’t see a coalition with an SNP as being possible. They would have just been rejected by the electorate, and the chances are they would demand a price we would be unwilling to pay (i.e. another referendum). This only leaves the Tories.

As we saw in 2007, they are willing to provide support for a minority government – they voted more with the SNP in that session than against them. But any support from them would also come at a price, and while it may be palatable to some in the Labour party, its likely to be too much for others – including many of our voters. Even now, there are many who regret our coalitions with the Liberal Democrats, and the concessions we gave them.

So, ideally we would need to win 66 seats for ourselves, and do what the SNP did and win an overall majority in a proportional parliament. However, that would need a heroic 15.8% swing from the SNP to Labour. To achieve that we would need to be winning back seats such as Dundee City West and Aberdeen Donside. Not impossible, given that we have held those seats (or their predecessors) before in the Scottish Parliament, but mountainous given the depths that we fell to in 2011 – it would require a performance better even than 1997.

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How Left Wing is Scotland – part two

How left wing is Scotland? Do we really, as the First Minister claimed, not really mind her economic policies? Well, recently, YouGov did a survey on various Thatcherite policies in the midst of her funeral. The results show that on most things, Scotland leans in the same direction as the rest of the UK, with one notable exception.

The survey gave two statements in each of a variety of policy areas, from nuclear weapons, to the right-to-buy. Respondents were asked to give the answer which mostly closely resembled their point of view – or say don’t know. In all cases, the direction of the majority in Scotland matched the direction of the majority in the rest of the UK. If the rest of UK was right wing, on for instance on supporting failing businesses, so was Scotland. If the rest of the UK was left wing, on for instance whether government should protect jobs and growth over reducing the deficit, or on whether Government should be responsible for resolving social problems – then Scotland was also Left wing.

On the totemic issue of nuclear weapons – more Scots wanted Britain to keep its nuclear weapons than to get rid of them – just as a majority of the rest of the UK did.

The one issue where Scotland differed from the rest of the UK? Trade unions. More people in Scotland thought that a strong Trade Union movement was good for Britain than thought it was bad. In the rest of the UK it was the opposite. Not by much, and some regions of the UK were more evenly split than others (London and the rest of the South were strongly against Trade Unions), while 60% of Labour voters across the country supported a strong Trade Union movement – other parties’ voters had difference views.

So there we have it – polling evidence that shows that Scotland isn’t any different to the rest of the UK on the majority of issues. Doesn’t bode well for that socialist utopian paradise we’re all being promised after independence.

Posted in Conservatives, Defence, Deficit, Economy, Education, Environment, Europe, Housing, Independence, Jobs, Nationalisation, NHS, Public Sector, SNP, Trade Unions, Welfare | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Common Endeavour

By the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few.

Those are the words of clause 4 of the Labour constitution, which while many will lament the loss the previous version, the current one still highlights one of the fundamental values, not just of the Labour party, but of the whole Labour movement, especially the trade unions and the co-operative movement.

Contrast that with the fundamental tenets of Scottish Independence. We are better off without the rest of the UK. We are different to them and they do things we don’t want. We didn’t vote for this Government, and we don’t like its policies.

I can’t see anything more diametrically opposed to the fundamental values of the Labour movement than that. It’s an “I’m all right Jack” attitude that is, at best selfish, and at worst dishonest.

There’s also the misguided feeling that somehow we will have a socialist government in charge after independence. Well, not once in its history has there been a majority in Scotland for socialist or left-wing parties, and there definitely isn’t now. I’m not sure what is going to happen to change that, simply by dint of voting for independence. Are we expecting that large numbers of centrist and right-wing Scots will move south? Are we going to have a flood of refugees from the deprived cities of northern England? Of course not!

If anything, Scotland is a conservative country – with a small ‘c’, and we are equally likely – if not more likely – to become a conservative tax haven, with lower top rates of tax and low corporation tax rates than neighbouring countries. The only party to have ever achieved a majority of votes in Scotland was the Conservatives, and it is quite possible that they will recover votes after independence.

By working together, across the UK the Labour movement has made some truly great achievements. The NHS. The Welfare State. The National Minimum Wage. By splitting off, we deny people, north and south of the border the benefits of our work together as a force for good, as we fail to achieve them in our individual countries – its why we as socialists should support working together with colleagues across the EU to bring in policies such as the Working Time Directive.

I don’t like the benefit reforms that the UK Government are bringing in. I’m not convinced that Labour at a UK level has the right response. But that doesn’t mean I want to abandon friends and family living south of an imaginary line to policies that I find deeply abhorrent. Where’s the Socialist Solidarity in that?

Posted in Co-Op, Conservatives, Europe, Holyrood, Independence, Labour, Scottish Labour, SNP, Trade Unions | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Something to Celebrate

I can’t celebrate the fact that someone has died, no matter who they are. Yes, their policies were divisive and selfish, but to revel in death, is ghoulish at best, and sickening at worst. What does it serve? It is not like the death of a dictator, whose ending presages the collapse of their regime. Are people now better off today than they were on Monday?

Margaret Thatcher personalised her policies, in a way that few politicians have done since. When a pit or factory closed – it was closed by Thatcher. When someone bought their council house – it was because of Thatcher. When School Milk was ended, it was ended by Thatcher.

But what she was more than just individual policies. As Ed Miliband has said, she moved the centre ground of politics. Previously there had been the post-war consensus, but she comprehensively smashed that, and her neo-liberal views have been broadly followed since.

Ed Miliband wants to do the same. He wants to break the mould, and deliver a responsible capitalism that delivers for people. In effect, he wants to end Thatcherism.

 And the day that happens, really will be a day to celebrate.

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