Saturday, November 14, 2009

A suitably depressing conclusion to the longest by-election

"The voters are never wrong," mused BBC Scotland's political editor Brian Taylor last night, referring to the near-breakthrough by the BNP in Glasgow North-east. Perhaps it would have been closer to the mark to say "the will of the voters must always be respected". After all, if the electorate is literally never wrong, it's a touch hard to rationalise away Adolf Hitler's elevation to the office of German Chancellor in 1933 on the back of a legitimate democratic victory. Setting off a chain of events that led directly to the most catastrophic war in human history, 60 million deaths and a genocide would appear to be something of a blunder by most standards.

Opinion seemed to be evenly split last night on whether Nick Griffin's Question Time appearance had played a pivotal role in very nearly taking the BNP to third place in the by-election. My strong feeling is that it must have done, but it does not follow from there that Griffin should not have been invited onto the programme. The issue at the time had been incorrectly framed - everyone seemed to be asking "how can the broadcasters help to defeat the BNP?". Some felt that the answer was to deny the party the oxygen of publicity, others suggested that the objective could best be achieved by subjecting Griffin's policies and fairytale assertions to open and intense scrutiny. But in truth it isn't a public service broadcaster's job to fathom a way of extinguishing the threat from a perfectly legal - if odious - political party. All that should have mattered was that the party in question had demonstrated sufficient electoral strength to justify an invitation, and therefore that invitation should have been forthcoming without any consideration of the consequences. Irresponsible? No, it's the very essence of democracy. At first glance Griffin's invitation appeared to suggest the BBC agreed with that interpretation of their role - but clearly they didn't. If they had, Griffin would simply have been asked to comment on the fairly dull issues of the day like any other panellist would have been on any other Question Time edition. Probably he would have given some fairly dull answers, while being suitably frustrated that he wasn't being given a platform to talk about race. Instead, the BBC appeared to take the schizophrenic view that Griffin's democratic mandate was legitimate enough to demand that he be included on the show, but not legitimate enough to demand that he be treated on the same basis as everyone else once he was there. Paradoxically, it was this approach that gave Griffin a platform he could scarcely have dreamed of, bestowing upon him a status that was effectively greater than his fellow panellists. It was, as others have noted, "An Audience with Nick Griffin". The complacent view of many afterwards was that the strategy had paid off handsomely with Griffin making an utter fool of himself - but the electoral evidence of Glasgow NE would appear to paint a somewhat different picture. For extremist fringe parties starting from a very low base of support, there's not really such a thing as bad publicity.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Glasgow NE : Running to stand still

There's not a lot of point in further comment on the Glasgow NE campaign while the votes are being cast (although perhaps not that many votes if the weather is proving significant) so instead I thought I'd raise a side-issue related to the by-election that hasn't attracted much attention. In a nutshell, it's this - if Labour win tonight, their majority in the House of Commons will increase, in spite of the fact that they would merely have successfully defended one of their safest seats in the whole United Kingdom. I don't simply mean that when Michael Martin resigned, the Labour majority dropped by one, and now there is a chance that parity will be restored. That, you would have assumed, would be the case, because the convention is that when the Speaker and three Deputy Speakers are elected/selected, two are drawn from each of the two largest parties. So in theory replacing a Labour Speaker with a Conservative, as happened in June of this year, should make no difference at all to the parliamentary arithmetic. But that wasn't how it turned out - the three sitting Deputy Speakers remained in place, meaning that three MPs elected as opposition members in 2005 are now barred from voting in divisions, but only one MP elected as a Labour member (Sylvia Heal). So a Labour win tonight would mean that, grotesquely, the net effect of Michael Martin's ignominious departure from office has been an increase of two seats in the overall Labour majority at Westmister - the opposition parties would tonight have to 'run just to stand still'.

And, extraordinarily, this is the second time in this parliament that Labour have had an opportunity to improve their majority simply by winning a heartland seat - although they well and truly fluffed their earlier chance in Blaenau Gwent.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Populus subsample : Labour move clear

In the Scottish subsample for the latest UK-wide Populus poll, Labour's support has increased significantly, while the SNP have slipped slightly. The only constant with all recent subsamples from the various polling organisations is that the Scottish Conservatives are performing remarkably poorly for a party that is supposedly on the brink of power at UK level. Here are the full figures -

Labour 44% (+13)
SNP 26% (-3)
Conservatives 18% (-4)
Liberal Democrats 7% (-8)
Others 6% (+2)

In other news, Iain Dale seems to earnestly believe he's got a positive story to tell for the Tories by pointing out that 'only' 5.5% of Conservative MPs attended Eton, compared to 18.75% of political editors of newspapers. That's a bit like saying New Labour can't be an authoritarian regime because it contains proportionately fewer adherents of 'Juche' than the North Korean Workers' Party. I'd be rather more impressed if Dale could also honestly tell us that the bulk of those Old Etonian political hacks will not be attempting to steer their readers towards a vote for the Tories next spring. Now that really would make for a "you couldn't make it up fact of the day", but then so would mauve badgers being discovered on Saturn.

The unmentionable downsides

Sticking with the Berlin Wall theme, I've just noticed an article published on the Guardian website a couple of days ago lamenting the collapse of communist East Germany. The author takes a predictable roasting for her efforts in the comments section, which I'm not entirely comfortable about. Of course her conclusion is wrong - the upsides of German reunification far outweighed the downsides. And more pertinently, it was the East German electorate themselves who freely chose that path - right or wrong - in the election of 1990, the first time they had been given the chance to choose their own destiny in decades. But it nevertheless shouldn't become unsayable to point out that the downsides existed. Indeed, there were horrors right across the former eastern bloc countries as a result of the end of communism - economic collapse, the abrupt withdrawal of familiar social safety-nets, a nosedive in Russian male life expectancy, and perhaps worst of all, the unimaginably brutal Balkan wars of the 1990s.

The film Goodbye Lenin concludes by offering a fairytale reconciliation between the west and east - an alternative reality in which the Berlin Wall is opened to allow refugees from the west to escape the capitalist rat-race. The point being that the reality of the oppressive socialist state was a grotesque parody of the ideals it had supposedly been founded on - but that those ideals on their own merits nevertheless remained inspiring. The trouble with the 'post-ideological world' that the aftermath of 1989 has bequeathed us (in truth that simply means a world in which most politicians are camped in the same narrow ideological space) is that there appears to be no ideals left at all - our leaders believe in nothing other than competitive managerialism. It was deliciously encapsulated in that moment when Tony Blair (as recently as 1994 an avowed socialist himself) was asked by one of his own backbenchers to provide a brief summary of his political philosophy. Blair responded by wittering on about investing in new equipment for the health service.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mr Barroso, tear down this wall

Twenty years and one day after the Berlin Wall was breached, it's sobering to read this assessment from April by Belarussian journalist Maryna Rakhlei that the wall never fell, it just moved a little to the east. The paradox is that the restrictions of movement for people on the eastern side of the divide are now primarily imposed by the authorities in the west, ie. the Schengen zone. Rakhlei cites statistics showing that visits by Belarussians to neighbouring Poland are down by 90% since that country joined the EU, and visits to the Baltic states are down by nearly as much. Twenty years ago, of course, Belarussians could travel fairly freely to the Baltic states as they were part of the same country, the Soviet Union. It seems extraordinary that, in some places, the collapse in communism has actually led to a greater physical confinement.

Belarus itself is the closest we have in Europe to a continuation of the old eastern bloc ideology. It does not style itself a communist state, but it arguably more closely resembles one (in the pre-1989 understanding of the term) than, say, the People's Republic of China. It even maintains Soviet relics such as the KGB.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Angus Reid : Labour and SNP both up

The second in the new series of Angus Reid polls for shows very little change in its Scottish subsample, with Labour slightly extending its lead over the SNP from three to five points. Here are the full figures -

Labour 32% (+3)
SNP 27% (+1)
Conservatives 20% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 11% (-5)
Others 8% (-1)

These figures emerge at the same time as a TNS-BMRB poll showing commanding leads for the SNP of eight points on both the constituency and list votes for Holyrood - a story that the Herald surreally (not to say brazenly) manages to report as "Salmond blow as voters shun SNP"!

Your country needs...who?

Interesting to read on that the BBC appear to be sticking to precisely the same formula they used last year to come up with a Eurovision entry, ie. internally commission a songwriter to produce a song, and have a casting show to choose the singer by public vote. I had assumed that last year would be a one-off, as it was almost impossible to imagine which songwriter could possibly have the same international recognition factor as Andrew Lloyd-Webber. But according to the quote in Esctoday, fans can expect to be "excited" by the choice. Probably just hype, although of course Morrissey did briefly enter into negotiations a couple of years ago. It fell through at the time because the BBC couldn't agree to the artistic freedom he wanted, but with the new format, who knows? An intriguing thought, but I'm not holding my breath.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

If you can't understand why healthcare reform is evil, you really need to listen to this historical figure I've been putting words into the mouth of

After President Obama's health care bill narrowly squeaked through the House of Representatives yesterday, I thought today would be a suitably entertaining day to venture back into the right-wing American blogosphere, and I wasn't disappointed. William Teach of Right Wing News concedes that a Democratic congressman's assertion that the bill will revolutionise health care is right, but "would sound a whole lot better if you could hear it in a 1930's Russian or German accent". (I'm guessing Mr Teach might just be one of the 70% of Americans who don't own a passport.)

He also rather archly wonders what "the Founders, who shed blood to create a new country" would be thinking today. But why stop there? I bet the Three Wise Men would have been thoroughly appalled as well (after all, if the Baby Jesus had been covered by health insurance they'd never have found him in a stable). And there's little doubt Moses would have had some pretty trenchant things to say on the subject.

Is this a 'free hit' by-election for the SNP?

On the day back in May that it became clear the Glasgow North-east by-election was actually going to take place (yes, 'supremely confident' Labour have now been running from the constituency's voters for the same length of time there's left to go before the general election), I posted here to express my jitters. I was concerned at the past history of by-elections that had proved to be pivotal moments, and had changed the political weather. I was more than a touch uneasy that the SNP's fate at the next election might rest, as I put it, on a 'typical mad as a bucket of frogs by-election campaign'. But here we sit four days out from the Glasgow NE vote, and I can already say with confidence that is not the case. Why? Paradoxically, it's because of the prevailing narrative that this is going to be a routine Labour hold. I've no inside knowledge from the ground, so I don't know whether that's true or not, but the perception that it is true has one key effect - it's killed all interest in the contest, and there will therefore be very little interest in the result, unless there is a major surprise. Glasgow NE simply can't produce a momentum shift in public opinion without...well, a bit of publicity. This is not going to be another Glenrothes, with SNP activists having kittens on Thursday night pondering the consequences if they don't win. It's beginning to have the feel more of a Hamilton South-type contest, where a narrow defeat on a huge swing could potentially even produce a little momentum for the SNP. All thanks to the expectations game - one of the curious features of by-election campaigns. In the immortal words of Abba, you can feel like you win when you lose.

I saw a little of BBC2's 90-minute programme this evening to mark the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which reminded us of how the crucial factor was weekly Monday demonstrations in Leipzig that grew bigger and bigger until eventually the authorities could not cope with them. I started wondering how Tom Harris reacted as he watched those demonstrators on TV twenty years ago. Doubtless he would have been busily making snide comments about how all those "students" needed to "grow up" and embrace "mature" politics. After all, nobody ever changed the world by taking to the streets, holding placards and chanting slogans - eh, Tom?

And one other thought, Tom - doesn't an irrational hatred of inconvenient political demonstrations constitute an "emotion"?