Archive | July, 2008

A broken rule of thumb in Glasgow (25 July 2008)

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A broken rule of thumb in Glasgow (25 July 2008)

Posted on 25 July 2008 by admin

With a high turnout and a dramatic result, the byelection was a disaster for Labour, but what does it mean for the other parties?

Glasgow East was an astonishing result. The SNP win in this seat, however squeaky the majority, was remarkable not just for its high swing, but for the relatively good turnout, the strong Labour candidate, and the previously intractable nature of Labour support in Glasgow’s east end. It seemed a solid Labour firewall, but in east Glasgow it is far from unknown for solid-looking structures to “go on fire”.

Scottish byelections in apparently safe Labour seats have often seen large swings from Labour to the SNP – 22% in Hamilton South in 1999, 19% in John Smith’s old seat of Monklands East in 1994, and 11% in Paisley South in 1997. In each of these years, Labour had a comfortable lead in the national polls. The scale of the swing often reflects the first serious campaigning in such a seat, and this must surely be the case in a seat that was considered as safe as Glasgow East. While all of these near misses faded rapidly, so too did the victories in Hamilton and Govan.

The 42% turnout in the byelection is pretty impressive. A loss of only six points since the 2005 general election suggests that the first serious campaign for a seat in the east end of Glasgow in the last 50 years has motivated voters. The low turnout in byelections between 1997 and 2001 presaged the steep fall in 2001. Following the small drop in Crewe and Nantwich, it is clear that byelections have started to bring voters to the polls and this suggests that turnout will rise at the general election.

A previous rule of thumb in west of Scotland byelections was that the Catholic Labour vote was more solid than the party’s support in “Protestant” seats like Govan and Monklands East (ie Airdrie). But Glasgow East rather disproves this. Labour’s nightmare must be that the Catholic Labour vote is going the way of the Protestant working-class Tory vote that used to be so strong in the west of Scotland before it collapsed between about 1960 and 1980.

I never shared the view that John Mason was an unconvincing candidate – people in a large chunk of the constituency, Baillieston ward, knew him and obviously liked him as he obtained an enormous personal vote in the 2007 council elections. Glasgow East was quite blessed with some good candidates – Mason and Margaret Curran obviously, and the also-ran Conservative and Lib Dem candidates Davena Rankin and Ian Robertson were worthy of notice and perhaps something better in future.

The Conservatives’ relatively good result in Glasgow East, unlike their wins in Crewe and Henley, should not be taken too seriously. If you are a Tory in Glasgow East, you are accustomed to adversity and the vote, although small, is very solid and remained so (on the slightly lower turnout) in the byelection. But the result is mildly encouraging. The Lib Dem vote proved, in the absence of much local organisation, squeezable.

Among the effects of Glasgow East will be to achieve something scarcely possible in politics – to make Alex Salmond even more self-satisfied. He took something of a risk in predicting victory in this byelection, and while he has the admirable quality of being able to brazen out over-optimistic remarks, triumph is not good for his political style. First minister’s questions is a preening, posturing spectacle that even a hardened observer of Westminster may find difficult to take. Sooner or later, the elastic will snap, as it has in the past for confident Scottish heroes such as Ally McLeod, who found adulation turned rapidly into – equally overdone – rejection in 1978.

The obvious point is that Glasgow East was a truly shocking result for Labour, a sign that the party is very deep in the trough, like the Major government from 1992 to 1997 and the Wilson government in 1967-69. Perhaps, like severe government defeats such as Dudley (both in 1968 and 1994) and Staffordshire South East (1996) it is a sign that the some sort of realignment is happening. The Tories flirted with disaster between 1993 and 2003, in that even some of their southern English strongholds were crumbling. Now, in Glasgow East, a Labour fortress has fallen.

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Class v nationalism in Glasgow East (24 July 2008)

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Class v nationalism in Glasgow East (24 July 2008)

Posted on 24 July 2008 by admin

If turnout is up today after years of decline, it may not necessarily be good news for Labour

Unlike most of my tribe, namely the London-based commentariat, I had been to Glasgow East before the by-election. I spent an afternoon in April 2007 leafleting in Shettleston, promoting the new voting system. People took the cards politely, but when we left the supermarket the pavement outside was littered with them despite Glasgow council’s generous provision of bins. It was a small illustration of how people feel politics of any sort can do little for them.

Some visiting journalists, with more than a measure of patronising contempt for the people of his constituency, have painted a picture of unrelieved degradation, to which I do not intend to add. There is a lot of variety within Glasgow East. The inner east end area and parts of Shettleston are indeed old fashioned slums, but most of the constituency consists of different vintages of council housing. Easterhouse, on the further outskirts of the city by the M8, was a notoriously unpleasant 1950s/60s council scheme. Much of it has now been levelled and rebuilt, mostly since 1997, with people re-housed in single family homes run by housing co-operatives, and a rebirth of some measure of community spirit. There are still, however, plenty of squalid, cheaply built tower blocks and concrete jungles in Glasgow East. Rather better are some 1940s council housing areas around Shettleston, and there is a small, relatively up-market, patch around Mount Vernon.

Turnout in 2005 in Glasgow East was 48 per cent, compared to 61 per cent nationally. Not only voting, but all other types of participation and organisation, seem to be weak in Glasgow East. Community councils and local civil society institutions are hard to organise in many areas, and the Catholic Church (traditionally linked to Labour, but now being wooed by the SNP) stands nearly alone as a strong local institution.

Once upon a time, however, turnout in Glasgow East was not too far from the national average. In 1951 it topped 80 per cent in both predecessor constituencies (Shettleston and Camlachie), and until 1966 it remained not far below the national average. In 1987 turnout in the area was a relatively healthy 70 per cent. Since then, and particularly since 1992, it has fallen even faster than turnout in the UK as a whole. It may come as a surprise to note that huge differences in turnout between different social classes are a relatively recent phenomenon in Britain.

Much of the explanation for Glasgow East’s low turnout is simply the enormous social dislocation caused by the collapse of manufacturing industry in the 1980s. Large factories and the trade unions were the glue that bound together these communities, particularly the men, even when residential areas were demolished wholesale and rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s. Now it is all gone. Thatcherism (or inevitable industrial change, you’re your pick) destroyed what failed social engineering did not.

The change has been (literally) heart-breaking for many. In what is supposed to be a post-industrial society, what are industrial people to do? It is not surprising that there is an undercurrent of despair about the place. Back when Labour could promise “a fundamental and irreversible shift of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families” there was more to appeal to voters in Glasgow East. Voting in places like Glasgow East now seems more like a choice of care worker than a real statement of political power. There is something basically wrong about a political system that compounds inequalities of power rather than levelling them.

The by-election is unusual, in that for once the political establishment in Scotland and Westminster think that Glasgow East matters. Although constituency polls show a sizeable Labour lead, there is a highly competitive battle between Labour and SNP fought out by two strong candidates, Margaret Curran and John Mason, both of whom are proven vote-getters in the area. It is for this reason that I do not expect turnout to fall too much (although one should allow for this being a holiday week in the city). At the moment, the betting seems to be favouring a Labour hold – nationally and more importantly in Ladbroke’s in Baillieston. Certainly, the traditional wisdom is that a high turnout benefits Labour because that is the core loyalty of most Glaswegians, and while there may not be much enthusiasm there is recognition that Labour has tried and in part succeeded in improving housing, education and opportunities.

The traditional wisdom is probably right. But there is another possibility. When east Glasgow voted en masse, it was because its working class people felt a collective sense of power, and had a distant vision of a better society. If voting comes back into fashion on Thursday, it might just be that people dare to dream again of a better society, and put their faith in nationalist rather than class politics.

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Second chamber reform: total recall? (16 July 2008)

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Second chamber reform: total recall? (16 July 2008)

Posted on 16 July 2008 by admin

Like Thomas Strathclyde, I am dismayed by the proposed Lords’ reforms, but it’s the issue of recall that is truly indefensible

There are many disappointing aspects to yesterday’s government white paper on the reform of the House of Lords, as well as some useful proposals. On this, at least, I am in agreement with Lord Strathclyde, although we identify different disappointments. He valiantly defends the indefensible proposition that a new second chamber would, by virtue of being elected by a system of first past the post, be dominated by the hand-picked candidates of the two largest political parties, almost regardless of how low their vote may fall, and tend to have a government majority. This would make for a poor revising, scrutinising chamber. Postponing any action until after the general election is also disappointing, not least because it minimises the chance of anything actually happening for another few decades, as is normal in the world of Lords’ reform. But the most surprising let-down in the small print of the white paper is the suggestion that members of the new Senate (or whatever it ends up being designated) might be subject to recall votes.

Recall is the procedure whereby an elected official can be subject to a special election, triggered by a petition signed by a proportion of the electorate demanding one. If the majority (or some specified proportion of the voters or the electorate) decide to give the incumbent the boot, then out he or she goes. Recall was originally part of the progressive government reform package in United States, in the early decades of the 20th century, along with primary elections and the direct election of senators. But in effect, recall is thoroughly reactionary rather than progressive. It gives well-organised and powerful interest groups the ability to knock out public figures who oppose their agenda, as shown by the most famous recall in recent years, the overthrow of governor Gray Davis of California in 2003.

Recall has other weird properties. It is perfectly possible, particularly if the bizarre suggestion of introducing first past the post becomes reality, for the replacement candidate to have fewer votes than the recalled incumbent.

Recall of members of the UK Senate would, according to the white paper, be only for serious dereliction of duty, corruption or misconduct, and perhaps only after five years in office. Recall is in the white paper for an understandable reason – that the members of the Senate would have long terms of office, of around 12 years, and that in extreme cases there should be some sanction to get rid of members who are not doing their duty. But there is a terrible dilemma. Too broad a definition of the grounds for recall will lead to politically motivated recalls. Too narrow, and it will either not be used or end up being an excuse for the Senate not to take action itself against errant members.

The white paper tentatively proposes a tighter set of rules about standards of conduct in the Senate than the current Lords’ rules, and an attendance requirement. Instead of recall, the new chamber should have a really rigorous set of rules, enforced by proper independent scrutiny bodies. It should also – as should the Commons – be subject to the criminal laws of fraud and corruption. Where serious cases arise, the legal process – with its standards of proof and definition of terms – is a more appropriate way of coping than a heated and potentially highly politicised recall vote. For lesser evils, recall seems excessive – although it should be made as hard as possible for the chamber to avoid effective sanctions against those who commit them.

Even if recall were hardly used in the Senate, and its inclusion motivated by concern about long terms of office, its enshrinement in British constitutional law would be a dangerous precedent. Recall is not a scalpel that cuts out only the moribund and corrupt from the body politic, it is a very blunt instrument. Even more than the referendum, it is vulnerable to exploitation by demagogues, anti-politics populism and the malice of bitter defeated candidates and special interests who are losing out in the policy process. Recall is purely negative – it is about accumulating discontents, not putting forward a positive agenda. There is too much of that already in political life.

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